He Hit Me (And It Felt Like Structural and Culturally Reinforced Violence against Women)

Maybe it’s just the bed head and the yelling, but Courtney Love sort of changed the way I thought about the 1962 cage-rattler “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” I’m a typical millennial rat in that my mind immediately goes to a “savage times” conclusion that this song was just written in a time when smacking up your old lady out of jealousy was just fine. But it really didn’t happen like that. The song was written with an irony that my era-elitism totally missed at first glance. Rather than endorsing violence, the song is actually a poignant—and quite intentional—reflection of domestic violence and the way we all just kind of accept it when it happens to us.

While the original rendition by R&B girl group The Crystals is as much an indictment of domestic, gender-based violence as the ratty, third-wave sensibility roared forth by Courtney Love and Hole decades later, the idea came home a lot more clearly to me when framed in tones marked by ’90s anger rather than trilling with all the girly charm of ’60s divahood.

After being asked to think of this song critically and to engage with it as a feminist text, I learned from the Interwebs that the song was originally released with a genuine, Courtney Loveian nod to feminism, decrying female deference to male brutality as a dangerous confusion with real love. The original song slightly predated Audre Lorde’s pro-anger branch of feminism and Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” brand of angry self-defense, so the song’s anti-violence message is couched in the script of lulling, feminine R&B. The 1960s original employs a handful of deliberately foreboding elements—heavy drum beats and a sluggish tempo reminiscent of a brainwashing chant—but the effect is largely a major-key, typical girl-group progression. In that way, the song is a dizzyingly modern art piece on how we intentionally camouflage relationship violence as romantic jealousy and conflate a desire to physically harm a straying other, with genuine love. Knowing the song’s background and authorship, it’s clear that the relatively chipper and upbeat tone is intentional. It’s meant to stand as a counterpoint between violence and the almost narcotic indifference of the abused, the way that women back then had a knack for allowing this kind of thing in a socially reinforced feminine deference. But the song’s veiled happy attitude didn’t stop people from noticing that the song sounds a lot like an anthem to abuse, released at a time when Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was just about to make mass-digestible the work of Simone de Beauvoir, and when the womanist movement had enough trouble squashing Jim Crow, let alone achieving gender parity. In that context, and without knowing that the song was written specifically to show how ludicrous it is to accept violence as love, it’s easy to see why people wanted this thing pulled from the air waves for sending a brutal message.

Jump forward a few decades and put the same words in the mouth of a punk rocker, and the message seems a little more clear. Hole’s version feels like it’s been rendered in a more depressing key (though after years of neglecting my music theory books in favor of Kate Millett, I can’t be certain) and Love’s vocal style lends the feminist reading that Lorde and X and others fought for when they said it was okay to be angry to get your point across and affect real change. In Love’s mouth, “He Hit Me” feels less like The Crystals’ numb act of putting on a good face and more like the cry of a woman who has accepted this very real violence against her. The newer version feels like a throwback to the 1960s sentiment that guys will do that when they get jealous, that it was just as “not okay” back then as it is today, yet it’s still happening. Love’s version feels tired, beaten, defeated. As such, it marks a very exhausted feminist question of why this kind of thing still needs to be said. Her portrayal of the same poetry, decades later and in the aesthetic of anger and defeat, reminds us that this isn’t a “women back then” thing, but a “women all the time” thing.

To break it down further, the 1960s version feels to me, with its happier overall tone, like a snarky nod to everything that was expected of women before the second wave really got going. It’s fairly pretty and adheres to a standard of mainstream art that requires aesthetic, beauty, and delicacy from women. When we move the same lyrics and progressions a few decades later to Hole, when it’s more acceptable for a bona fide artist to let down her beehive and be a little bit messier and angrier, the nuances of the first version snap into clear focus. Listen to the two back to back, and it’s easy to hear a mother and a daughter singing the same sad song, only with yet another generation of oppression folded into the end product. It’s an interesting study in oppression versus time. Americans talk all the time about our post-feminist utopia, where thongs grow on trees and women can get any job they want and be June Clever, Samantha Jones, and Wonder Woman all rolled into one. But is that really where we are? Have we really gotten anywhere since 1962, when we sang about taking a backhand with womanly grace and understanding? Or will this song always hit too many women, way too hard?

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Abbreviated Playlist #1

Wannabe” by Spice Girls—That’s right: Spice Girls. Strap in. This was the second recording I bought with my own money, the first being a now-worn-out tape single of “Macarena” and with some other B-side on it (who cares—Macarena!). It was the first CD I’d bought myself, and I’ll always see its iridescent shimmer when I think of the monetary freedom that comes from one’s first and poorly managed babysitting gig. As I recall, “Wannabe” was the opening track, and like it or not, it’s infectious. (So is lice, though, so…there’s that.) In all honestly, we all bought into the Girl Power messages that Spice Girls were selling. We were just happy to see another ’90s manifestation of empowerment, we little third wavers who didn’t yet know what feminism was. The producers were actually genius in branding each Spice with an adjective—as a middle school track star who happened to be a redhead, I fell somewhere between Sporty and Ginger on the Spice continuum. More than flat descriptions, the adjectives provided not just little boxes we could check to match our own interests but also performances to which we could mold ourselves. I liked to think that on a good day I was as alluring as Sexy Spice or as forthright as Scary Spice. Retrospectively, the world of Spice is a deliberate market answer to rising Title IX girlhood and at best a parody of feminist rhetoric. But for an eleven year old in small-town Illinois, that felt just right.

Paradise by the Dashboard Light” by Meat Loaf—In 1988 my mom inherited a decent sound system from her late brother. My parents went out right away to furnish their new “entertainment center” CD slots and came back with a handful of their favorites from high school. After playing The Little Mermaid soundtrack and Classical Music for Fine Dining on a loop, my mom asked me to put on something else. I found my dad’s Meat Loaf CD, Bat out of Hell. Paradise by the Dashboard Light stood as unequivocally the best composed of the entire album. I loved the crisp voices along with the countryesque female vocalist’s timbre, and I stood in awe at its complex progression between themes (although I wouldn’t be able to put words to that until I became a hopeless band nerd in middle school). Apart from the finer points of music nuance, what “Paradise” taught me was that people have sex at the wizened age of seventeen, get pregnant, and get married. Seventeen is the time for growing up, for babies, for family, for graduating from a high schooler to a grown-up. Oh, and boys don’t really want any of that. Just the sex part. Which, of course, leads to a scenario where you have to get married and be miserable forever. I had mixed feelings about my own “end of time” and who I’d be praying to be rid of at that point.

1979” by Smashing Pumpkins—The opening riff and base line take me right back to 1995 and the trip to Louis Joliet Mall with my big brother, Shaun, to buy an album that had just come out. Our cousin Doug loved Pumpkins, practically lived in the music. My brother idolized him. I idolized my brother. He was my benchmark for “cool” and in the way of big brothers, he always will be. He’s the reason I played the tomboy, discovered the glory of toy tractors and dirt hills, and explored a pirated tape labeled “Return of Jedi” in pink magic marker. When he heard Doug talking about the new Pumpkins album—two discs!—he made a mental note to pick it up the second it dropped. We went. Together, we listened. He showed me the songs he’d heard from the pre-release, and long after I thought I’d have been bored, we sat rapt as “1979” and “Galapagos” washed us to the state park and then to another world. We witnessed metal and poetry through the vessel of Billy Corgan’s forgivable nasal. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard. I’d always thought then of the Pumpkins as his band. But really, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is the one album I switch to when I’m scared that the plane I’m on will crash into a dark gorge. It’s my constant. I don’t think Shaun knows that, but maybe he should.

Total Eclipse of the Heart” cover by Nicki French—The smell of pizza wafting from the snack bar. The deodorizer they used on the roller skates—I always got the black speed skates with orange wheels and stoppers. The disinfectant they used in the bathrooms, where you had to somehow rise from peeing with wheels strapped to your feet. And that sick and glorious feeling of your best friend edging up to a boy you like, to ask him to couple skate with you. The smell of his sweat, that curls his naturally wavy hair, and the beat of your heart after he says yes. After Shania fades, Nicki French comes on and drives home that ecstasy with a cover of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Engineered for dancing, that cover had it going on in every sense of the seventh-grade experience. It was a heartfelt song about the relationships that mired us all, but it was upbeat and catchy. The quick pulse lent that old-timey “sad song” an optimistic bent that said, “Hey! Things might suck now, but they can change. Jazz Hands!” It’s interesting to think about how the girly crowd pleasers like this affected us. All the girls would get together, and even if they were tired they would skate for this song, singing along so loudly that our voices would blow past the ever-rotating disco ball and up to the dark. In song, we were a community. We were sisters. We were alive.

Thinking of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)” by N Sync—The first time I saw this video I teared up for having witnessed the most sensitive and tragic beauty of my young and theretofore philistine life. I remember writing in my journal how profound it was—these men were singing about how wrong they had been to dump the perfect girl, and had found themselves in the ultimate of teen tragedies: the mental ward. I think we all, as adolescents, went through an irritatingly dramatic period in which we liked to think that being an adult meant nothing but dire situations like relationship-induced madness. That’s where I was when this thing popped up on MTV. Back then Justin Timberlake wasn’t the bona fide silly billy he is now—cahooting, as he does, on hilarities with the likes of the genuinely wonderful Andy Samberg—and we (young girls anyway) all thought N Sync was just a group of sensitive guy friends who decided over cheese fries and cry sessions one day to form a band. If my first destruction of innocence was learning that Santa is just an off-season party clown and temporary mall employee, learning about the boy band veneer was a narrowly close second. Apart from how cartoonishly (yet unintentionally) silly this song is now, it’s interesting that I located profundity within the bounds of a boy learning how great I was, after I’d walked away. In a way, it threw shadows of empowerment at my ability to walk away from what I saw as hot boys and poetry, but at the same time, it’s interesting that the music did exactly what it was engineered to: Affect a tween girl and make her think that boys were sensitive, that middle school relationships are totally like that, and that once again, Love is the greatest story ever told.

American Patrol” by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra—A chilly day at Diamond Park. It was war, and some of our friends were shipping out to the Middle East. Kids we’d grown up with, kids my brother had played in little league and earned Webelo bages with, were going overseas to shoot people. We held a pop war rally to send them off. We didn’t have a lot of patriotic literature, so Glenn Miller’s classic World War II charts made up a reasonably fitting repertoire. I’d practiced and performed the song many times as lead alto in the high school jazz band—the highest aspiration of a sax player in Main Street, USA—but as I blew out the pick-up lick into bar one under a flurry of American flags, I teared up. Take away party lines, and it’s easy to see that something got into all of us after 9/11 that drew us close. If not blood lust, it was a sense of community that we all shared. We were American. I was sixteen. I would go on to play for ten more years and counting. But I’ll never forget that rally—the friends who left, the totally different ones who came back, our lost innocence, the reality that people will crash planes into skyscrapers on purpose, and the awakening that it’s time to start caring about things both greater and smaller than our little town in the middle of the world.