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50 Shades of Smart-Ass: the misadventures of a shameless songstress


50 Shades of Smart-Ass: the misadventures of a shameless songstress

Dim Lights Thick Smoke

 Emily Yates is a satirical songwriter and Iraq War veteran. She combines performing and activism in every tour, and is a leader with Iraq Veterans Against the War. After essentially working as an army propagandist, running internal PR for the war, she has dedicated her post-military life to truth and music... with a sense of humor. 

50 Shades of Smart-Ass: the misadventures of a shameless songstress

by Emily Yates

If I was a man, I'm pretty sure my lyrics would be unlikely to take anyone by surprise. Men are generally expected to sing about sex, drugs and things they're angry about. Women are expected to sing about love and things that make us sad. When men sing about love and sadness, they're seen as sensitive. When women sing about sex, drugs, bodily functions, etc., we're labeled as "naughty" or "offensive," or "punk rock" (if we're lucky). Remember that whole "Angry Young Women" genre that sprang up in the '90s? You won't recall the accompanying "Angry Young Men" genre, because it was just called "Music." It's a double standard that's been in place for ages, but is slowly loosening, as I've been discovering firsthand.

For whatever reason, the ability to shut the hell up is one that's always eluded me. Throughout my adult life, I've consistently encountered delicate social situations and smashed them into tiny conversation shards, simply by sharing my honest opinion. Until my sweet new musician husband taught me how to play the ukulele, I was always piquing someone's annoyance by shamelessly sharing my thoughts with them, willy-nilly. But when I learned to set my ideas to music, something shifted. I wrote my first song, "I Don't Want To Have A Baby," while absentmindedly practicing chords, and it was as though I'd just stumbled into Narnia – a magical world had opened up to me! My opinions could now be transformed into Art. As we all know, when people reject our  opinions, it can seem so personal, but when people reject our art, we can simply blame it on their taste.

When I started writing songs, I didn't think about being a woman as anything remarkably important to my art, and I didn't have any grand plans for my "music career." I just realized it was a whole lot of liberating to stand in front of a group of people and express my often-controversial self in a socially acceptable way, and I wanted to keep doing it. So without thinking too deeply about my "image," I continued writing tunes about my random thoughts and playing them for my friends, and then for my friends' friends, and for their friends' friends. The journey from "Hey, I play the ukulele now" to my first official gig was about four months long, largely because it turns out that my inhibitions were profoundly impaired. Inevitably, this lack of shame has led to some uncomfortable situations. Not only am I a woman who's not singing about  love or sadness, but I also use both sexual humor and political humor in my repertoire. As a result, I've had to learn that if I want to continue to use my music to express my opinions, I have to expect a wide spectrum of reactions – and grow a thick skin.

The first time I was heckled, it took me by surprise. There I was, at an outdoor festival, playing my set at the acoustic side stage, when a loud, baritone growl came wafting through the warm breeze toward the stage. I had just finished singing the first line of the chorus in my new ditty about menstruation, "Aunt Flo's Waltz," and the angry bellow from fifty feet away almost made me mess up my lyrics.

"YOUR SONG IS RUDE AND OFFENSIVE!" the man had shouted at me. Smiling in his general direction, I finished the song with all the women in the audience happily singing along, but before I could spot the heckler, he had disappeared into the crowd. 

Well, Emily, what were you expecting, singing a song about women's periods in broad daylight, where there were FAMILIES around? I can hear you asking. I know, I know. Normally, I'd never be so bold as to pull this particular tune out of my pocket at a daytime festival, but I'd been emboldened by the performer who'd played right before me. He was a friend and fellow songwriter, known for passionately crooning racy lyrics while suggestively strumming his guitar. His thirty-minute set had included catchy songs about falling in love with a prostitute while undercover with the FBI, hooking up with his date's roommate while the date is passed out drunk, a ballad about a woman and her inability to orgasm without a vibrator, and a fun little number about a dog who pees money (yes, you read that right). This was all before noon, mind you, and there'd been nary a heckler in sight. In other words, I figured the ice had been broken, social-appropriateness-wise. To balance out the testosterone still glistening on the microphone, I'd decided to choose some of my brightest girl-power gems and bestow them upon the audience.

Now, I'm not going to say with any certainty that I was heckled by a man because I was a woman singing about her monthly cycle, but I will say that if a person fails to be offended by songs like those my male colleague had just graced us with, but draws the line at my menstruation waltz, that person is probably a man. The offending lyric was my synopsis of men's attitude toward a woman who dares to speak freely about her time of the month – namely, "Shut up and shove some cotton up your twat." Graphic? Maybe. Gratuitous? Not intentionally. But hilariously, by interrupting the song in an attempt to shut me up, the heckler proved my point: when it comes to the beautiful, natural, procreation-enabling bodily process that causes us such exquisite pain each month, we ladies are expected to shut up about it already, even if it's in a song. If a man wants to sing about his sexual exploits, though – game on.

Prior to the heckler, I'd been met with resistance more than a few times in my relatively new journey as a publicly-performing folk songstress. I've had bookers say they'll hire me if I could just play a "clean" set – at which point I remind them that my most popular song is titled, "Try Not To Be A Dick," and then I never hear from them again. A couple different restaurant managers have told me that although the staff loved my performance, I wasn't going to be the right fit for this establishment in the future. But for every round of "You'll have to take that elsewhere," I've been met with even more appreciation for the honesty I try to bring to each of my songs. At one memorable gig, the booker hired me to play a set of my children's songs (an avenue I've recently been jogging down), and after I finished my first set, he told me to go ahead and play my other material. By the end of the show, he was singing along to the menstruation waltz, employing a lovely falsetto for the final "twaaaaat." It was a singular experience.

The thing is, I can't always predict how an audience is going to react to my lyrics or prepare them properly for what they're about to hear, because usually when they see a petite woman with an ukulele on a stage, they don't expect her to try leading them in, let's say, a curse-along, or a "Foreign Policy Folk Song" with a chorus of "just bomb their country, just bomb their fucking country." If the crowd has had a beer or three, they aren't too shocked when I ever-so-gently crack their preconceptions. If they're completely sober, chances are good that somebody is going to get their expectations in a bundle. I try to avoid this by giving my songs substantial introductions and encouraging drinking, but when someone's offended, my only defense is to smile bigger. "It's a joke, see? Fun! Please don't follow me to my car!"

All in all, I'm happy making the music I make, as challenging as it can be to find the most appreciative audiences. Not everybody wants unapologetic honesty from a woman with an ukulele, and I can't say that I blame them. I can be scary sometimes, I suppose. The bright side is that those who love what I'm doing are not shy in showing their support, probably because they know I need it in order to keep doing what I do. As society's double standard loosens and it becomes equally as common to hear women singing about our periods and politics as it is to hear men singing about the "blurred lines" of consensual sex, I imagine I'll find less and less pushback against my songs. I won't be considered controversial for much longer. And one glorious day, when Disney needs a song for its new character, Aunt Flo the Menstruation Fairy, I'll be ready.


Check out Emily's music, including her new kids album at her website: