Sunday, May 13, 2012

Art Analysis: "You Let Me Down" by Billie Holiday

               The song I choose for the art piece analysis is Billie Holiday’s “You Let Me Down.” In this song, Holiday expresses ideas of distrust and betrayal. Holiday’s song describes the relationship of a man and woman gone awry. She speaks about how the male made her seem like she was his number and she was “supposedly” special to him, but in the end, she note, he let her down. Holiday expresses anger and tension throughout the song, even the tempo gives off this heavy, hard-hitting beat that alludes to the tone of the song.
Billie Holiday’s song signifies resentment toward her and the male. The resentment toward her can be located in the third and fourth verse in which she reflects back and mentions how she was “looking for a cottage” and “was measured for a wedding gown” (LyricsFreak). She reflects on the reason she was so far in love was because he treated her in these ways but in the end the guy let her down and she fell hard. These two particular verses represent the themes of gender binaries and feminist ideals. In the relationship demonstrated in the song, it is apparent that the male figure dominated the relationship. He told her that she was his number one and that she was “like an angel” to him but in the end the one that is hurt the most is the female (LyricsFreak). In Angela Davis’ book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, she analyzes the Holiday’s song in which she concludes that the song reveals the “futility of masculinist notions of romantic love” (Davis 107). For example, in the song, Holiday says “you told me I was like an angel/ told me I was fit to wear a crown/ you told me I’d be wearing diamonds/I would have the smartest car in town” all of these imply a male’s materialistic view of what women idolize (LyricsFreak).
The idea of women being easily won over by materialistic, feminine items falls into female stereotypes. In Megan Seely’s, The F-Word, she mentions how women of this time receive self-empowerment through what “is sold to women and girls as packaged, magazine-cover “beauty” and when “acceptance” is defined through male attention” (Seely 4). This quote relates to the song because she the male is under the belief that woman are materialistic and males continue to provide women with that and since women live in a patriarchal society they feel obligated to feel accepted by the male since he is making her believe that he thinks so highly of her. I believe that this particular idea falls into the gender binaries because as stated in Judith Lorber’s essay, Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender, “once gender is ascribed, the social order constructs and holds individuals to strongly gendered norms and expectations…they must fit into the limited number of gender statues their society recognizes” (Lorber 39).
            In a sense, I could easily compare this song to Toni Morrison’s, Sula, because of the relationship between Nel and Jude, and Sula and Ajax. In Nel and Jude’s relationship, Jude fills that void of Nel as her husband and they have children together. Jude presents himself as a good husband and father but the moment when he has an affair with Sula he has “let Nel down.” The same applies to Sula’s relationship with Ajax. When Sula and Ajax begin sleeping together and developing some sort of relationship, Sula starts developing true attachment for Ajax. When Ajax starts noticing that sex for Sula is starting to mean something he quickly retreats and leaves Sula. Sula does not exactly love him but starts to feel like she wants to possess him, but even so Ajax essentially, let’s Sula down.
I also connected this song to Julia Alvarez’s, How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents, in terms of Yolanda. Yolanda presents herself as the tomboy amongst her three other sisters. In her relationship with John, Yolanda is treated almost like a pet, having to listen to John criticism and patronizing toward her intelligence and developing independence. When their relationship starts to go bad, John tries various ways, that he believed that Yolanda would like because she is a woman, like; giving her flowers, trying to kiss her, and trying to have sex with her. All these methods of John’s interpretation of forgiveness only further upset Yolanda and her leaving him. In this case, the literal interpretation of this would be Yolanda letting John down, but if you look deeper, the fact that Yolanda was unable to understand John anymore and that he thought she was a “typical” girl would point to John letting Yolanda down.
            Billie Holiday’s song, “You Let me Down, is an example of feminist art work because even though Holiday’s songs are usually about love and patriarchal relationships, she displays the idea of patriarchy and the female gender role as designed by society. In this particular song she shows the gender binaries by referring to how men are dominate and woman search for that acceptance to the point of probably losing their self in the process. In terms of the tone you can tell that Holiday is resentful toward this social construct. She portrays negative stereotypes of women, such as them being materialistic, naïve, and quick to fall at the hand of a man. In Adrianne Rich’s essay, Why I Refused the National Medal for the Art, she states “Art is both tough and fragile. It speaks of what we long to hear and what we dread to find…It may push through cracked macadam, by the merest means, but it needs breathing space, cultivation, protection to fulfill itself” (Rich 102-103). Rich states that art reveals things people may not want to hear and needs space to breath because there is no “one” particular way to create art, just like feminism; there is no one way to be a feminist.
            Lastly, when I first read the lyrics to this song, it did not appear to have a feminist message behind it. But when I listened to song, I automatically heard the tension and anger Holiday had toward the male. After listening to it, I was able to identify what Holiday meant in her lyrics. I liked how she recognized her faults in the song and did not look to male for sympathy but rather looked at this as a lessoned learned. I also liked how Holiday made this song relatable to many women, because I am pretty sure that there are woman who have gone through the same situation.

Works Cited

  • Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents.Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill . 1991.
  • Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. New York: Vintage, 1999. Print.
  • Lorber, Judith. “Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender.” The Paradoxes of Gender. Yale University Press. 1993.
  • LyricsFreak. “You Let Me Down - Billie Holiday.” LyricsFreak. EMI Music Publishing, 2012. Web. 12 May 2012. < holiday/you let me down_20017876.html>.
  • Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Knopf, 1974.
  • Rich, Adrienne. “Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts” in Arts of the Possible: Essays in Conversation, p. 98-103.
  • Seely , Megan. “The F-Word.” Fight like a Girl: How to Be a Fearless Feminist. New York University Press.

Shenice K.

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