By Amy Mulvihill / The Awl
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Stephanie Lynn “Stevie” Nicks turns 65 on Sunday. As the lead singer of Fleetwood Mac and as a solo artist she has written and sung some of the most indelible songs of the rock era.
The band has long since entered the pantheon of Rock Greatness as a “legacy act.” When your local classic-rock station plays “Go Your Own Way” and “Rhiannon” back-to-back on “Two for Tuesday,” do you drum along on your steering wheel? Of course you do! You’re only human!
And yet. While Stevie—I’m going to call her “Stevie” because, like all icons, she invites familiarity while retaining a core of mystery—has enough solo hits to avoid complete dismissal, there’s a troubling willingness among amateur and professional rock critics to explain away her success. They try to credit it to her looks, her mystical image, her boyfriends, her collaborators—anything and anyone except, you know, her.
Robert Cristagau’s “Consumer Guide” entry on 1979’s Tusk says the album reveals band mate (and one-time boyfriend) Lindsey Buckingham’s production genius—but “shows Stevie Nicks up for the mooncalf she’s always been.”
A 1997 profile of the band in Rolling Stone (a magazine that’s never interviewed a classic rocker it didn’t want to journalistically fellate) by Fred Schruers is dismissive of Nicks’ contributions:
It was Buckingham, of course, who left the gate open for the impostors with his repeated walkouts on the band, but he is also the creative linchpin of the fivesome. Nicks had her solo hits like “Edge of Seventeen” and a pair of great duets with Tom Petty… but Buckingham is the tormented genius you could lift out of ’70s rock and set down, with his fierce chops and raging vocals, anywhere you like.
Bart Bull — before he was Michelle Shocked’s husband — wrote this in Spin in 1987, while reviewing Tango in the Night:
Of course, Stevie Nicks is worse than ever in some ways, but there’s a pathetic aspect to her now that can’t help but suggest that she’s almost certainly human…. Stevie’s main distinction is that she’s a ditz, but she’s such a huge ditz that it’s impossible to parody her any more than she does herself. Lindsey Buckingham is at his least experimental here, but he never stops experimenting anyway. And Christine McVie is the exact counterbalance to Stevie, immersed in the craft of the popular song as Stevie is immersed in herself, and yet she’s just as recognizable, just as distinctive, and far harder to pin down and parody.
I don’t want to turn this into a Lindsey vs. Stevie prizefight. God knows they’ve done enough of that themselves. (Just count the number of times the word “win” and its permutations appear in their songs about each other.) It is not an either/or proposition. People can and do like both. Stevie is certainly the better lyricist, singer, and, I believe, all-around songwriter. Lindsey is a masterful guitarist and visionary producer.
But why is Lindsey forgiven his limitations, but Stevie not forgiven hers? Or perhaps the better question is: Why do Lindsey’s strengths carry more weight than Stevie’s? Why is Lindsey a genius and Stevie a ditz, a precocious naïf?
It’s not just Lindsey either. This happens with her other male collaborators, as well. Her record company insisted on the Tom Petty-Mike Campbell penned “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” as the first single from her debut solo album Bella Donna, rather than any of the record’s other 10 songs that she wrote or co-wrote herself, including “Edge of Seventeen,” “Leather & Lace,” and “After the Glitter Fades” — all of which eventually performed well as singles.
Paul Fishkin, the record executive who launched her solo career, explained it in her “Behind the Music” episode: “We really worked hard… to make sure we had a rock song or two as the first single. We knew that we had a lock on… the rock programmers from the rock stations. And we also knew that a lot of those guys, even though they liked the way she looked, didn’t quite take her seriously because of that witchy, airy-fairy image that had come out of Fleetwood Mac.”
So she needed Tom Petty to vouch for her to some fucking Member’s Only jacket-wearing DJs. Tom Petty lent legitimacy to Stevie, but not vice versa.
Why can’t the performer and writer of “Landslide,” “Sara,” “Rhiannon,” “Gypsy,” and “Stand Back,” not to mention Fleetwood Mac’s only U.S. number-one hit, “Dreams,” plus a shit-ton of other tremendous songs that are famous to her rabid “chiffon-head” fans, get the respect she deserves?
There are a lot of biases at play here, not all of which are entirely unearned. When you earnestly say things like, “My ballet teacher believes that my head was cut off in another life. I totally give with my body except for my neck,” well, you’re inviting a certain amount of eye rolling.
And it’s true she’s not an accomplished instrumentalist. As Lindsey Buckingham has correctly observed many times, her voice is her instrument. She can play piano and guitar well enough to write her songs, but she does need a producer/arranger to help turn her compositions into radio-ready records. So do lots of artists! And it’s not as if she’s uninvolved in the production. It’s not as if she doesn’t have ideas and opinions about how she wants things to sound!
And anyway, have you heard her demos? I have. They’re mysteriously good. The playing may be rudimentary and inexact, but her senses of melody, harmony, and phrasing carry them. They are no less wondrous for being simple.
But basically, the obvious answer is sexism. Sexism defines a sphere of life for women and then trivializes that sphere, or, alternatively, punishes women who don’t restrict themselves to that sphere. Because young Stevie was a pretty girl who sang about love, and Welsh witches, and crystal visions, and blue lamps, and styled herself like a glamorous-Dickensian-waif-cum-Californian-hippie, she was accepted yet trivialized. Because older Stevie had the nerve to age and gain weight and still dare to cast herself as a romantic heroine, she’s been punished: derided as a ridiculous crone stuck in a fantasy world.
What I wish these people would do is actually listen to her songs. Yes, there’s a certain amount of decoding that needs to happen to translate the “Stevieisms” into regular speak, but it’s possible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve suddenly slapped my forehead and thought, “Oh! That’s what that means! That’s so true!”
Once I understand what she’s saying, I find myself relying on her phrases again and again. When I bungle something spectacularly and need to start over I think, “In the web that is my own, I begin again.” Whenever I feel ego suffocating a relationship I think, “Rulers make bad lovers—you better put your kingdom up for sale.” If I feel myself longing for something unreasonable, I admit, “Where is the reason? Don’t blame it on me—blame it on my wild heart.” And when I find myself bewitched by someone I want to throw my arms around them and say, “Sunflowers and your face fascinate me.” Her words stick, and that must be some kind of endorsement.
If they were to really listen, what these critics would understand is that her work has never really been about mysticism. That’s the window dressing, the envelope, the exquisite spun-sugar sculpture atop the cake. The real subject of her work is powerful women: the joy of professional triumph, the limitations of one’s power, the difficulties of finding and sustaining love.
What could be less flaky of a subject? I suppose she could sing her itemized tax deductions, but that wouldn’t have quite the same ring, would it.
A lot of people do get it, and Stevie has become something of a latter-day feminist icon to a generation of dreamy, artistic teens and twentysomethings. This is funny too, considering Stevie has never really embraced the term feminism.
During a radio interview in 1979 to promote Tusk, she was asked about being a pioneer in male-dominated rock-and-roll.
“I hope that Chris and I helped a little, for women. Because, I mean, I’m not any kind of… I’m non-political; I’m not a women’s liberation person. I don’t care about any of that because I’m fun; I have great friends, money, wonderful dogs; I don’t need to be a women’s liberationist. And I don’t need a man to take care of me, so I don’t have to fight it. I hope that we have opened some doors. Because it seems that there are a lot more women singers around now than there were when Chris and I started. I mean, to me, it’s like yesterday that Christine and I were brand new. We were the ones being talked about. And now we’re the old grandmothers of rock and roll. I’m going, ‘God! I’m just 15 and a half really! What is this?! I’m the biggest punk rocker of all!’ And suddenly, me and Christine are the mother lode, you know? It’s weird, very strange. But anyway, I hope we helped.”
Not exactly Gloria Steinem, is she? And yet, I don’t think the girls who idolize her are wrong. Because despite Stevie’s aversion to the F-word, she’s lived like a feminist, by which I mean that she lived the life she wanted.
She shacked up, unmarried, with Lindsey Buckingham for five years in the early ’70s when most “good girls” wouldn’t have done that. She had a lot of love affairs because she wanted to, okay? (Sidebar: Can you imagine the slut shaming she would get from the tabloids today? Taylor Swift certainly can.) She did a lot of drugs. She wrote songs about drugs, and anger, and love. At the height of her late 80s/early 90s tranquilizer addiction, some of them were appallingly bad. She figured out that drugs were stupid and she cleaned herself up. She chose her career, again and again, over men, over babies, over domesticity. A woman can certainly be a feminist and a wife and a mother and a homemaker, but the point is she didn’t want to be. She wanted to be who she is. She wanted to be a star.
So when people scoff at Stevie as a lightweight, I want you to set them straight. Do it for Stevie. No, fuck that, Stevie’s fine. Do it for your daughter, sister, mother, aunt, friend, girlfriend, wife. Do it for all the girls who long to rule their lives like a bird in flight.
Amy Mulvihill lives in Baltimore—on purpose! She tweets here.