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?