"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Pharrell recently gave a head-scratching interview to BBC’s Channel 4 News where he expanded on his views on feminism, demonstrating why there’s still a long way to go in the mission for gender equality even among its allies.
The singer and producer is clearly conscious of social injustices — in fact, he endorses Hillary Clinton as a potential presidential candidate because he’d “love to see a woman run the country.” He explained to interviewer Krishnan Guru-Murthy:
“Historically this world has been run by a man, and what would a world be like if 75 percent of our world leaders and prime ministers were female? What would that world be like? We do not know because we haven’t given it a shot. We’re too busy telling them what they can or can’t do with their bodies. Or we’re too busy, you know, not allowing them to make the same amount of money that a man makes.”
Sounds pretty feminist, right?
Except that when the “f-word” came into play, Pharrell distanced himself from it:
“I’ve been asked if I’m a feminist. I don’t think it’s possible for me to be that. I’m a man. I mean… it makes sense up until a certain point, you know? But I do support feminists. I do think that there’s injustices, there’s inequalities that need to be addressed.”
It’s clear that Pharrell holds feminists — people who believe in equal social, political and economic opportunities among the genders — in high regard. Feminism isn’t a scary, politicized, dirty word to him like it is even to some women. But what does Pharrell mean when he says, “it makes sense up until a certain point” for a man? That “feminism” is “feminine”?
Although feminism is about gender equality, there is sadly still a debate over whether a man can be a feminist. One possible reason otherwise feminist men might distance themselves from fully embracing the word is that it challenges, by definition, conventional ideas of masculinity. And even the most liberal men might give pause at having to rethink their own roles within society, too. As the ever-insightful Ann Friedman wrote in the Cut last year, how we define masculinity is changing, and that has created lots of confusion among men:
What’s striking isn’t the lack of consensus on what defines masculinity now, but the utter confusion about how to go about doing so. That’s because America is finally getting around to having the conversation about what it means to be a man that, decades ago, feminism forced us to have about womanhood. Women still face social consequences when they don’t conform neatly to gender norms, but many of even the most ideologically progressive men are just now starting to talk about how to break with masculine stereotypes and still hang onto a sense of gender identity…And much of that confusion can be traced back to the fact that we’re still adapting to an expanded definition of what it means to be a woman.
So despite his best intentions, Pharrell also reinforces gender roles. When the discussion turned to “Blurred Lines,” a song that literally ignores a woman’s right to consent by assuming that all of them “want it” because a man says so, the singer failed to see why it bothered so many people. “Is it sexually suggestive when a car salesman says to a person who’s trying to buy a car, ‘I know you want it’?” he asked Guru-Murthy, presenting a tone-deaf, faulty analogy.
“Does that make it off-limits for me to use ["I know you want it"] in a song, especially when the overarching context is that there are good women who also have bad thoughts?” Pharrell asks. “If a good woman can have sexual thoughts, is it wrong for a man to have a correct guess that a woman might want something?”
Here, a “good woman” is chaste and nonsexual and her “bad thoughts” are simply thoughts of sex. But when you flip the script of the song, a “good man” is what, someone who is respectful but also a sexual being? (In the interview, Pharrell calls Guru-Murthy “a good man.”) And his “bad thoughts” are borderline violent: “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two,” is a “bad thought” that T.I. gives voice to in the song. Furthermore, that men can have a “correct guess” implies that men know what’s better for women. Pharrell’s entire explanation for the song reinforces the depressing gender stereotypes of men as sexually ravenous beasts and women as demure, helpless little things who don’t know what they want and need a dude to explain it to them.
Pharrell is articulate and informed about social inequality. But the next step — and possibly, the hardest step — in creating social change for him and other artists will be to examine how his own work falls short of making the same statements that he so ardently makes in person. Or, at the very least, own up to it in person.
Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at email@example.com.More Prachi Gupta.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)