Bonnie Raitt as Feminist Heroine
When Bonnie Raitt comes up on my list of feminist heroines, it's for more than her conscientiousness about benefits and her occasional rhetoric. The way Raitt delivers lyrics, projects her voice, chooses material, and presents her image not only exemplifies feminist-style virtues for women--forthrightness, confidence, etc.--but also shows a respectful, compassionate, and affectionate relationship to the traditional ones to which most women aspire. This relationship has its contradictions, but Raitt's style is so thoughtful and careful that the contradictions seem to reflect her personal conclusions rather than violate them.
Take the voice. Raitt generally reserves its considerable funky potential for emphasis or virtuoso asides, working mainly from its expressive and robust but sugar-sweet--and clearly white--center, which she has the taste (and feeling) to cut with blues rasping so discreet it never strains our credulity. When she sings her (always relatively) woman-assertive numbers, the sugar helps the medicine go down, but it's inevitably part of the message, too. Raitt, an apple-pie-pretty woman, with dimples, projects her own prettiness and niceness with a dignity and deliberation suggesting that these are respectable accomplishments. She thus implies that it might ultimately be as antiwoman to dismiss such "feminine" qualities as mere marks of oppression as to underrate, say, maternal skills. And while Raitt's subjects are most the romantic concerns of an old-fashioned girl, her romanticism partakes of high seriousness: Love becomes not just a source of comfort and delight, but a test of character.
When Raitt's music works, her pro-woman line is provocative. When it doesn't work--whether due to inherent contradictions of slick production--she comes off cloying, boring, or neurotic. This was particularly true of "Streetlights, Raitt's first real money-making record. Its successor, Home Plate, is doing even better. But while it's less vibrant than Raitt's early, blues-dominated work, it is a very solid album, and it demonstrates that Raitt's feminism is still growing.
The tone is set by one of the few Raitt songs written by a contemporary woman, Nan O'Byrne's "Sweet and Shiny Eyes"; the eyes in question get compared to meat and potatoes (rhymes with Laredo). This is a corny number with an easy melody and an elusive subject, and Raitt sings it deeper and more meat-and-potatoes than ever before, like some very healthy kid of indeterminate sex singing around a campfire that's warming everybody else in the recording studio. This old International Pop Music Community gimmick sounds like genuine fun because of Raitt's credibility as a nice person, and because a lyric so intelligent is probably genuinely fun to sing.
Paul Rothchild's production has a lighter touch than Raitt got from Jerry Ragovoy on Streetlights, there is a refreshing down-to-earth trend to the themes, and some of the songs are superb, especially a pithy treatment of the mysteries of an ordinary relationship, "Good Enough," by John and Joanna Hall. Also strong are "Run Like a Thief," in which Bonnie chooses a friend over the fiend's lover (a choice that's irritating in J.D. Souther's male-bonding original), and an Allen Toussaint song that argues the case for the boy who puts up with shit not through dumbness but love.
That boy's competition is still these shadows who keep taking Bonnie's love and leaving her ("Blowing Away"). It is my personal suspicion that they are the same musician-chauvinists who have persuaded her to leave guitar to the experts. This is one contradiction with no justification, and I hope Raitt will right it; her sound suffers without her rough, rhythmic playing.
That's the trouble with being pretty and nice--it commits you to a certain vulnerability and generosity. And if you're not going to be hypocritical this leaves you particularly susceptible to stronger, shallower types who may force the delicacy and complexity of your stance into self-denial and cliché. Bonnie Raitt has an instinct for a valuable sort of female sensibility. Maybe it's just too good for the men around her.
Village Voice, Oct. 27, 1975