Her mouth, like her eyes, is a little too large for her face. When she leans into the video camera, it looks like she could swallow the screen. When she wears red lipstick, she reminds me of when I told my little sister to stop wearing red lipstick because it was too much for her naturally full lips. (My sister quit for a few years, then picked a redder shade.)
I first saw PJ Harvey’s video for “50 Foot Queenie,” off her 1993 album Rid of Me on the late-night MTV program 120 minutes. A low-budget affair, or made to appear as such, the video is shot on a camera seemingly wielded by a jittery eight-year-old child, as Harvey, the royalty in question in a cherry-red dress, red sunglasses, and a leopard-print coat, stomps in front of a plain white screen scrawled with the words “Hey I’m One Big Queen.” She cocks her head back to sing the words:
Tell you my name
Fifty foot queenie
Force ten hurricane
I could have ten sons
Ten gods ten queens
Ten foot and rising
The humor is that Harvey is 5’4” and probably little more than 100 pounds. The red dress hangs on her; at one point she hikes it up like a plumber. In the oversize coat that swallows up her frame, she looks like she is playing dress-up in her mommy’s clothing—a reminder of how fantastic playing dress-up can feel, how oddly empowering. Those who think makeup or heels obscure the real woman would be well served to see Harvey in this video, standing with her legs apart like a traffic cop, arms outstretched, the tiny woman who would cheerfully crush you with her gold purse.
A raw video of a diminutive woman howling “I’m the king of the world!” and nearly eating the camera was a welcome assault on late-night TV. It’s why I stayed up on a school night. PJ Harvey’s albums Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love were released when I was in high school and college, when I was trying to understand my own femininity. In the small Texas town where I grew up, I had a hard time identifying with the reigning ideal of the polished, sweet-as-sugar debutante. My own development felt distinctly unpolished, from learning how to walk in heels and pulling up tights to fumbling with tampons and bras that I never quite filled out. High school didn’t turn me sweet as sugar; it was awful and I remember wanting to smack someone down daily.
I was drawn to women like Harvey who displayed a more natural aggression and awkwardness, and fascinated by women who didn’t add up like they should—like my high school friend Amanda, who fought for new uniforms for the girls’ basketball team. Amanda called herself a feminist in our town where feminist felt like a dirty word, ecstatically waved her debutante invite in front of my face as soon as it arrived, and wanted to become a mortician. (Women who don’t quite add up—aren’t they all our favorite type of woman, really?)
I was enamored of Harvey and how she similarly cofounded expectations, whether it was her voice that could move from a whisper into a guttural growl, or her demeanor that vacillated between shy and aggressive. The lyrics and videos from her albums Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love offered up alternative images of femininity, from “50 Foot Queenie” and “Down by the Water,” in which she plays with the definition of womanly allure, to “Man-Size,” where she toys with gender roles.
I’m coming up man-sized
I want to fit
I’ve got to get
I’m heading on
Got my leather boots on
In college, singing along to “Man-Size” felt like a way of embracing my masculine side, which I was just starting to become aware of. Wearing pants and sneakers instead of a dress, I would notice how my whole way of carrying myself changed: I raced along, I slumped more, I stretched out, I unbuttoned my belt after a big meal. I had a belt to unbutton.
The song itself feels like a marriage of masculine and feminine, with Harvey’s deep-voiced repetition of “man-size” that escalates a few octaves at the end. I don’t know if I saw the video for it until years later—or if I did, it sadly didn’t register as strongly as it does now. Filmed in black and white by her friend Maria Mochnacz who also directed “50 Foot Queenie” and “Down by the Water,” it features Harvey alone in a half-lit hotel room, sitting on the bed wearing baggy white panties and a top without a bra. It has all the makings of a sexy music video, yet the video doesn’t aim for that brand of titillation. Instead of coquettishly revealing herself or writhing on the bed in well-directed ecstasy, Harvey seems more like a teenage girl at her least self-conscious—alone in her room, lip-syncing to her favorite album in front of the mirror. (I only wish I had been this uninhibited as a teenager; I think I even lip-synced with the male gaze in the mind.)
Harvey wears no makeup in the video, and her bushy eyebrows are her God-given own. If anything, she comes off as a bit macho. A macho teenage girl: Picture that unlikely image in a music video. Like the song lyrics, the video strikes a balance between enveloping one’s masculine side and mocking a more domineering machismo. Harvey spreads her legs apart, sitting like a guy on the subway who takes up two seats instead of one to let his balls breathe. She thrashes her head to the beat when the drums kick in; she over-enunciates lyrics, contorting her face like Mike Patton in Faith No More. When she shakes her breasts at the camera, it is a bit half-assed, as if to say, “Wow, here they are. Breasts. Whoopee.”
Unnervingly, she taps her chin with the back of her hand. As the camera freezes on her at the end, her mouth widens into a jack-o-lantern grin as she sings, “Douse hair with gasoline / Set it light and set it free.” That grin haunts me every time I see it, disturbing like David Byrne’s ghostly, hollow-eyed stare in those early Talking Heads videos.
Male musicians can be creepy, but there is a sad dearth of creepy female musicians. It is too risky; there is too much attached to it as a woman—the nuance is lost and swallowed up by the stereotype of the crazy female. Creepy rarely translates to beautiful, at least within pop culture’s confines of female beauty—and women must always be beautiful.
While Harvey’s image in these early videos may be disconcerting, there is never a violent outburst, a ripping up of furniture or even the trashing of a guitar. What you come away with is just a hint of the unnerving, again, like David Byrne’s open-mouthed face projected onto yellow-dotted roads at the end of the video for “Burning Down the House,” an indelible image made all the more unsettling in its restraint.
The video for her breakthrough single “Down By the Water” is almost as discomforting as the lyrics, relaying an eerie story of a woman drowning her little girl. Playing the seductress in a crimson silk dress, her hair softly curled and flowing to the middle of her back with what looks like a pound of hair extensions, Harvey dances slowly, rhythmically for the camera, gesturing with blood-red talons. But something is a little off. At the time Harvey was pushing what she later called her “Joan Crawford on acid” look: oversized false eyelashes, blood-red lips, lids thickly coated with garish shades of blue or purple. There’s an exaggerated, cartoonish quality about her; she is a female in female drag, and seems aware that she is not the full-bodied vamp, an Elizabeth Taylor-type filling out a silk slip in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Though cut on the bias, the dress Harvey wears in the “Down by the Water” video bags a bit. She wears bright red lipstick, which makes her mouth huge. A few seconds into her dance of seduction, Harvey starts to blink her left false eyelash rapidly, like it’s bothering her or she has something in her eye.
I love how intentionally awkward these images are: femininity in all its ungainliness, a breaking down of the fourth wall. In “Down by the Water,” Harvey is the false eyelash that bothers our eye, the silk dress that does not fit. In “Man-Size,” she is the eyebrow we forgot to tweeze or don’t care to, the underwear that goes up too high and bags too much.
Harvey’s self-consciousness reminds me of when I first grew hips and didn’t know how to walk with them. Her self-awareness about image makes me contemplate, even more today, how I can alter my mannerisms and the personality I project as a woman. Sometimes I’ll notice myself swaying my hips or flicking my hair—a la “Down by the Water.” Other times, I’ll feel a little more masculine, a little Man-Size. I can be alluring or creepy. None of these roles are the real me—they all are.