She’s A Beauty And The Difficulties Of Satire

From time to time I ponder the difficulties of satire in the contemporary era [1].  It is worth remembering, though, that every age has presented its own barriers to satire, both in understanding that something is satirical at the time, and in understanding its satirical nature later on.  Something of this nature has happened with the satirical force of the Tubes’ only top 10 hit, “She’s A Beauty.”  Thinking about this song recently it was obvious that the lyrics deal with two topics that, although they tend to outrage different target audiences, both tend to bother me, the objectification of women and the sexual frustration of men.  It is rare when something manages to deal with both of these topics simultaneously, but this song does, manages not to sound as satirical as it is, and actually springs from an actual experience from the songwriter that both frustrated and inspired him to write the lyrics for his band’s biggest hit by far.  Given this complex stew, it is surprising that the song has not attracted a great deal of negative attention as it is not a song that time has forgotten and it remains regularly played on stations which play classic rock or the music of the 1980’s in general.

“She’s A Beauty” has an interesting origin.  Fee Waybill, the lead singer of the Tubes, lived in San Francisco and was looking to recruit some dancers for his band’s live show.  This led him into the seedier parts of the city where he came to a kiosk which provided the opportunity to pay a dollar to talk to a naked girl, which was supposed to arouse someone to going to a disreputable massage parlor.  He tried to actually talk to the girl after putting in a dollar, but she kept on repeating the spiel to entice the person to go inside the building and never actually take anything off, according to the singer [1].  Some of the rougher edges of the lyrics were softened by co-writer and producer David Foster, who also suggested the song’s title, and Steve Lukather of Toto somehow managed to get a co-writing credit on the song as well (although his contribution to the song is not clear).  Given that it was an experience of frustration that inspired the song and that the band insisted in keeping this sense of simultaneous attraction and inaccessibility in their daring and somewhat censored music video.

It is easy to see how this can go wrong.  Aside from the fact that the video seeks to present sexually alluring material for a young boy who later became a transgender activist, which would be problematic in general, the song and the music video present the Tubes’ lead singer as a huckster who is encouraging people to spend a dollar to talk to a pretty and alluring girl who appeals to their fantasies while being simultaneously unreachable when it comes to love or even touch.  The lead singer even says at one point “because you can’t touch the merchandise,” making the beautiful girl out to be a literal commodity that can be bought or sold as some sort of property.  It is clear, at least as the singer/songwriter portrays the story of the song’s origins, that he was not intending to view the woman as anything other than a beautiful girl who could have been a model or a dancer for his band but was instead in a phone-booth like kiosk having to give a spiel to the men who came buy to pay a dollar to talk to her, but the song comes off as simultaneously viewing women as property while also seeking to inflame the lust of men while preventing its satisfaction.

This can very easily go wrong.  And it should not be forgotten that while this is a problem of our times that it is not a new problem at all.  The 3,000 book of Song of Solomon continually urges its readers to not stir up or awaken love until it pleases–i.e. before one can marry and contains within it a story of a young woman beaten by a city guard while searching for her beloved (Song of Solomon 5:6-8), as if she was some kind of prostitute.  The combination of attractive and unavailable women and men who have been incited to intense desire, which is not a terribly difficult thing to do, is one that can greatly harm both men and women.  The fact that the songwriter himself felt this sense of frustration and futility and then was inspired to write a song about it suggests that he was aware of the negative aspects of the situation, but he framed the song in such a way as to be a promoter of the behavior rather than someone who was lamenting it, and the song’s driving pulse (which ended up helping to make the song a top 10 hit on the pop charts and a #1 mainstream rock chart) paints the singer as part of the problem rather than someone seeking to resolve the problem.

This song demonstrates very clearly the challenges of satire.  It is not always clear that the evils that are being satirized are in fact being viewed by the people making satires as evils to begin with.  Most satires depend on their bite on having a literal meaning that is both compelling and horrible at the same time, such as the suggestion in Swift’s A Modest Proposal to fatten Irish children for cannibalism so that they would be fed rather than starve.  When the satire is less obvious, though, it is not always clear that the person is making a satire at all.  And when someone’s satirical mood is so dominant that everything seems to be approached with a tone of cynical mockery, it can be hard for people listening to a satirical song to think of the people making the song as anything more than corrupt exploiters themselves, especially when their lyrics tend to mock the romantic sentiments of men while viewing women as properly and inflaming desire that is made impossible to satisfy, thus making frustration and dissatisfaction inevitable.  This is not the sort of situation one should want to create, but it is not easy to recognize and portray this situation without seeming to celebrate it rather than condemn it as one ought to.

[1] Prato, Greg. “Fee Waybill of the Tubes: Songwriter Interviews”SongFacts. Retrieved 3 February 2020.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Music History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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