A friend asked us to throw down some recommendations on Betty Davis, an easy enough task. We'll load up a clip in no time.
But she's left us some devilishly difficult 2ns, and we hesitate to throw such things into anyone's field of vision without offering a few prayers of our own.
:: pours a little liquor on the ground::
In Betty's work there's the groove, the voice and the visuals. And then there's sex (as in m/f) and beauty (as in aesthetics). They pile up all over Betty, just as she wanted, but, if the record (as in public, and as opposed to rekkids, slabs, 2ns or the whathaveyous we use to refer to the work in the tradition) tells us anything, it is that we treat her work as a ball of confusion.
Light in the Attic's rediscovery of Betty Davis was not only inevitable, but long overdue. Erudite cratediggers shoulda, coulda, woulda found their way to her stuff in the Thriller era 80s, instead of waiting 'til the Lady Gaga and Shakira era* 00s if they were brave enough. There must have been business hurdles they couldn't jump, or her sh1t woulda been loose again in the market before Rick James was smoking crack.
When Betty's albums first hit the racks there was no shortage of demand for groove. For those of us lissenning so late in the game, the trick is to distinguish it from all of the lofty precursors assigned in hindsight to Betty's list of influences. She's got deepsoul in her biography: the Jimi Hendrix boo rumor, the Miles Davis husband portion of her biography, the Greg Errico connection to Sly Stone and the Larry Graham connection to Graham Central Station. But we gotta call her sh1t her own. She shakes it fast, and right in front of us. She's not hanging behind it, waiting for us to find her lurking.
Her voice has more to do w/ Gil Scott Heron or the Last Poets, than Chaka Kahn, Patti Labelle, Marva Whitney or Vicki Anderson. The listed queenz all have something to tell us, but Betty is working hard to teach us a lesson on top of it. This expressly didactic tone in her voice sometimes feels, at least after the fact of nearly four decades, like a lecture on how to get the whole sexual power thing right. The too easy thing to do today is to call her ahead of her time. There is something much more fair to her than to call her the forerunner of a sexual revolution that is now over. She's only as good a singer as James "Blood" Ulmer, but that's the point. And that is why she sounds more right to lissenners versed in hearing Ma Rainey or Missy Elliot.
Then there's her body of visual work†, prolly the biggest source of distraction for fans and detractors. It's not surprising that someone who began her career doing fashion spreads for girls magazines has an eye for her own appearance, and a strong sense of how to push people around using that media. Her visual rhetoric, a move she busted the streets 7 years before Prince delivered his Dirty Mind,‡ is an outmoving spiral of irony and sincerity. It doesn't stop being one or the other. Just like Prince, Betty uses sex to write checks she can't fully cash. Just deal and move on. There's no point in averting your eyes, even if it won't free your ass when you keep on staring.
So, like Marvin says: "Come on, get to this":
- Betty Davis, "Anti-Love Song," Betty Davis (1973).
- Betty Davis, "Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him," They Say I'm Different (1974).
- Betty Davis, "He Was a Big Freak," They Say I'm Different (1974).
- Betty Davis, "They Say I'm Different," They Say I'm Different (1974).
These bullets are more than Brechtian exercises in drawing the lissener into a trap of desire x guilt = historical consciousness. They are an articulation of a tension the harsh voice of the day today and the sweet voice that promises something better that made Phillis Wheatley make a fetish of looking to the east (as in back across the Atlantic) to a creole dawn.
About 60 years before Betty Davis invited us to meet her at these crossroads to witness her conjure a Black Madonna, Jessie Fauset, who's now a sister of Maman Brigitte, invited us to pray to another angel, Sojourner Truth:
Symbolic mother, we thy myriad sons,
Pounding our stubborn heart on Freedom's bars,
Clutching our birthright, fight with faces set
Still visioning the stars.
This is Betty's tradition. This is our tradition and we're happy to join her there. So high you can't get over it. So low you can't get under it. It goes on and on and on and on. To the break of dawn.
* We got nothing bad to say about these followers of Madonna. They are well-educated and offer a theory of action. There's just so much more things to say.