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The Subversive Sensuality of Betty Davis

July 14, 2015No Comments

Betty Davis may have once been the wife of legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, but that doesn’t mean she accepted the role of mute background prop. Her seminal album, They Say I’m Different, was recently remastered and repackaged by Light in the Attic Records and inspired newfound discussion of the funk enigma. Writing for Slate, Michaelangelo Matos argues that praise of Davis’s artistic endeavours stems from short-sightedness, even blind optimism. From her singular singing style to the musical arrangements on They Say I’m Different, Matos picks apart Davis’s creative work with unapologetic ease, reducing her notoriety to her short marriage to Miles Davis. He bluntly argues, “The main problem is Davis' voice. She was, point blank, an awful singer: forced, pinched, tuneless, and—importantly for an artist so dependent upon persona— not especially convincing.” It’s true that she may not have had a voice like Chaka Khan or the Pointer Sisters (who provided background vocals for her first album), but to say that Davis’s voice was tone-deaf and unconvincing reveals the bias of a male listener that does not have a real or nuanced grasp on the subversiveness of her identity.

They Say I’m Different is certainly not an album packed with pitch-perfect track after track, but Davis’s overall aesthetics were never driven by the self-destructive need to please critics or conform to the fickle taste of the corporate masses. Davis was not trying to be a singer, at least not within the context of the vanilla demands of men like Matos. She was not aiming for the unquestioning acceptance grounded in the devotion of a popstar’s cult following, where even the weakest voice can be overlooked for a flashy persona. Her voice was an instrument to be warped and stretched; not a pretty, bird-like afterthought. This is evident on the opening track, “Shoo-B Doop and Cop Him,” where her voice takes on a steady growl, a gruffness cloaked in the sensuality of the suggestive lyrics. In the second track, “He Was a Big Freak,” the growl is intensified tenfold as she reminisces about being a “mistress” and a “geisha” for a man with an unusual and ravenous sexual appetite. She sings, “I’d tie him up with my turquoise chain/I used to tie him up/Yeah he couldn’t get enough.” The bass line settles into a mesmerizing groove, emphasizing the lasciviousness of the demands and working with her voice, rather than at odds with it.

It’s no surprise that Davis was much more concerned with the emotional delivery of her music, rather than hitting technically perfect notes. Her influences reveal a woman who looked to the stylings of the Blues and early rock-and-rollers, such as T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Bessie Smith, and Bo Diddley. None of these artists were dependent upon the accuracy of their voices. Rather, the emotion of the music revolved around the instrumentals, treating the voice as an extension of character. It was about the tonal texture of the songs, a hypnotic atmosphere created by the ability to find musicality in the gloom of grief or the ugliness of unforgiving humanity. You listened to the blues as much as you felt it. Matos later concludes that Davis may have paved the way for Lil’ Kim and Kelis, notably dehumanizing Davis’s contemporaries, lazily slipping into exoticism by calling them “latter-day tigresses.” Again, such dismissive analysis says little about Davis but reveals the bias of the male reviewer. Davis, Lil’ Kim, and Kelis may tackle similar subjects and themes, such as sexism, misogyny and female empowerment, but Davis, with her fashion-conscious, psychedelic-inspired costumes and anthems such as “Don’t Call Her No Tramp,” seems much more in-line with the Afrofuturism of a lyricist and performer like Janelle Monae or the avant garde presence of Canadian singer Peaches. The title track begins with a guitar riff that’s reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, who was notably a close friend of Davis. Her voice often dips into screechy proclamations, as though feeding off the negative criticism of her naysayers.

Davis sings of a world where women are liberated, even in control. The men on They Say I’m Different are often in the role of the submissive, as Davis indulges in her autonomy as a sexual being. In “Don’t Call Her No Tramp,” she directly addresses double standards. Instead of shaming a woman with the derogatory label of “tramp” or “dirty,” she argues for terms such as “elegant hustler.” The track “70’s Blues” showcases Davis fully giving herself to the overwhelming force of the blues, her voice nearly mimicking cries of white-hot ecstasy. Like Pam Grier in the 1974’s Foxy Brown, Davis does not believe that her womanhood is a marker of inherent weakness. There is strength and power in the acceptance of one’s sexuality, enlightenment in unrepentant femininity. In a society where the historical weight of being not only a woman but a black woman incites equal parts misogyny, fetishization, and denigration, Davis’s music serves as a blatant rejection of white supremacy, of dismissing the stereotypical roles of Mammy, Jezebel or Sapphire. The only person Davis belongs to is herself. Carlos Santana, who knew Davis, offers his assessment to The Guardian: “She was the first Madonna, but Madonna was like Donny Osmond by comparison.”

In an interview with Esquire, Davis says, “I really didn’t think that I was writing about sex or anything like that. I was just writing music, you see.” Looking back, it’s difficult to untangle such presumptions from an overall reading of her career and work. Before Miley Cyrus was “twerking” at the VMAs and long before Madonna burst onto the scene as a proud Boy Toy, Davis was “a musician in her own right . . . who wrote and arranged all her songs and turned down collaborating with Eric Clapton . . . and while she was a feminist, she frequently performed in lingerie and fishnets.” For the cover of They Say I’m Different, Davis is dressed in a form-fitting bodysuit, blue platforms with matching fur detail, and minimal jewelry. Her hair is high in a fro and, with one hand on her hip, she looks like an emperor relaxing in-between takes for a royal portrait. This is a woman who is unafraid and unperturbed, ready to conquer. The photo inside portrays Davis with the same regal authority. Her hair is covered with a headpiece that mimics the pattern of her clothing. She looks part stony-faced pharaoh, part space-age superstar.

Unfortunately, the world wasn’t ready for Davis. Disillusioned with the industry, she left the business behind sometime after completing her fourth album, which was never released. In an interview with British publication Dazed, Davis reflects on her career and confesses, “I look back on those records, not so much as if they were a reflection of myself, but more of a representation of a time period. It feels good to be getting recognition, but in the end, the only advice I have is be true to your artform. And by that, I mean do what’s in your heart more so than what’s in your head.” Thank goodness she followed her own advice.

Vanessa Willoughby is a freelance writer and full-time editor. Her work has appeared on The Toast, The Hairpin, Bookslut, The Huffington Post, Bitch (print and online), and Literally, Darling. She is the Creative Director for the literary blog Winter Tangerine. Find her on Twitter @book_nerd212.

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