PJ Harvey & objectification of women’s bodies

I found out yesterday that PJ Harvey has a new album, titled Let England Shake, that will be released on February 15, 2011 in the US. Immediately I found a first listen of the album on NPR and fell in love with it, specifically the song “The Last Living Rose.”

The music video of “The Last Living Rose,” a short film directed by Seamus Murphy, contains an eerie establishing shot of a human skeleton in a museum, and then cuts to short, fleeting images of England. The song’s lyrics are odd and unsettling paired with the scenic imagery: “Goddamned Europeans / Take me back to / beautiful England / And the gray, damp, filthiness of ages / … Let me walk through the stinking alleys / to the music of drunken beatings.” The dissonance between Harvey’s tense, yearning voice and the pointedness of the lyrics create a multilayered, complex emotional texture to the song.

What I love about PJ Harvey is how quickly the sweetness of her voice can dissolve into growling, disturbing statements about identity, bodies, and femininity, and how emotionally grueling it is to listen to some of Harvey’s earlier works like the ones on Dry (1992). The cover of Dry depicts a messy, grainy slathering of freshly-bruised lips smashed against glass, and the songs themselves consist of smart, violent lyrics paired with grungy guitars and a (sometimes) sweet, (oftentimes) strained voice.



The song “Plants and Rags” echoes the strange objectification of battered lips on the cover of Dry with repeated lyrics like “Plants and rags / squeeze myself into / a body bag” sung clear and steadily to guitar strums and the percussion of fists knocking against hollow wood. The song dissolves into an achingly unsettling off-tune violin that begins violently screeching at the climax of the song. Harvey’s voice is clear and concise over the shrieking earfuls, suspiciously unresisting to the dissonance of the music.

The song “Dress” starts with grungy guitar and a heavy-handed dance beat — the beat sounds more like the smashing of drumsticks than the stuff of dance floor exploits. The lyrics speak of female bodies being similarly smashed into unexpected containers: “Put on that dress / I’m going dancing / … Clean and sparkling he’ll see me / … Must be a way that I can dress to please him / It’s hard to walk in the dress, it’s not easy / I’m spilling over like a heavy loaded fruit tree.” The vocals carry an energetic quality to them, the music upbeat and frantic. The chorus resounds, repeating, almost mechanical, “If you put it on / if you put it on.”

And the song “Sheela-na-gig” ‘s title makes obvious reference to the 11th-to-12th century Sheela-na-Gig sculptures found on churches in Europe. These sculptures depict strangely surreal images of women with their legs spread wide, with large, exposed vulvas. Here the title of the song references the literal objectification of women’s bodies as carved in stone and placed on churches so many years ago, while the lyrics themselves depict a similar, modern objectification: “I’ve been trying to show you over and over / Look at these my child-bearing hips / Look at these my ruby red ruby lips / Look at these my work strong arms and / You’ve got to see my bottle full of charm / I lay it all at your feet.” Harvey screams these lyrics breathlessly, desperately, frantic and trapped, as if she has been cast in stone as well, while music wavers angrily between two chords à la Nirvana‘s “About a Girl.”

The dissonance that appears in Harvey’s albums is haunting, creating an unsettling mood that lingers like a moderate sunburn — not altogether painful, but mindfully reminding you it exists with a sting every so often. Many of Harvey’s songs are aching and disappointed and painful to listen to on repeated play, so when an album like Dry or Is This Desire? (1998) has been on my mind, I have to put the music away for a couple of weeks before listening again. I suppose it’s like the best sorts of things — wonderful and horrible and painful enough to come back to them.


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