PJ Harvey Tuesday #8: “Who the Fuck?”


In 2004, after a few years spent road-tripping through industrial, electronic, and pop-rock influences, PJ Harvey made a U-turn back toward the stripped-down simplicity of her early career. The result was Uh Huh Her, an album on which Harvey played all the instruments herself, recording four- and eight-track versions at home before completing production at a studio (where her longtime drummer Rob Ellis also added final drum tracks). The songs, Harvey said, “basically sound like my demos do, which is sparse, homespun, raw, and sort of messed up.”

For many of the songs on Uh Huh Her, that simplicity meant a redefinition of “stripped down,” a softer, more acoustic version, buoyed along by melodica and autoharp. For other songs, it meant a reunion with Harvey’s old friends distortion and shrieking.

“Who the Fuck?” is one of the latter, an old-school Polly Jean temper tantrum with an acerbic guitar riff choked through cheap amps. Plus cussing. Occasionally the cussing is in an exaggerated Cockney-esque accent: ’oo the fock instead of who the fuck. The lyrics adhere to that ethos of simplicity; they aren’t complicated because they just don’t need to be. “Who the fuck do you think you are, coming round here?” No one needs an elaborate footnote to understand that. “I’m not like other girls, you can’t straighten my curls”? We know what she means, viscerally. As a Spin critic put it, “‘Who the Fuck?’ still took every New York rock band to school—not bad for an album that’s basically a self-recorded demo.”

In the song’s suitably lo-fi video, PJ frolicks around a small-kitchened LA apartment under the gaze of a cheap (or at least faux-cheap) camcorder.

Microbudget as it looks, it’s actually kind of the best video ever, for three reasons.

1. It uses the shitty camera effects of its era rather than reproducing fake versions of earlier ones. Instagram has us all simulating old-fashioned Polaroids, but with very new-fashioned technology. Nostalgic for an age we didn’t even live through, we run our photos through filters to make them look like they’re of worse quality than they actually are. But we have our own low-quality visual signatures to remember with inexplicable fondness! Where’s the “disposable camera from the ’90s” filter? Where’s the “first generation of affordable digital cameras where you still had to look through the viewfinder” filter? Here they are, in this video, whiting Harvey out but illuminating some incidental patio furniture on the balcony behind her.

2. The dancing makes no sense. I think it’s good by English standards. But it’s delightful. And if you’re judging, well, you know—who the fuck do you think you are?

3. Look at her wardrobe. First outfit: long-sleeved black dress, stripey knee socks with heels, and—what fashionable girl leaves home without them?—dishwashing gloves. Sublime. Second outfit: pastel pink shirt with the song’s title on the back and light-blue underoos with a guitar logo. Rocker-chick chic personified. Third outfit: What is that pattern on the front of the black low-cut tank dress? Look closer: it’s a Spice Girls poster. A Spice Girls poster! Maybe PJ is like other girls after all.

If you think she couldn’t possibly top those sartorial choices, you clearly haven’t seen the outfits she wore onstage while touring on the record in 2004. I’ll leave you with these live versions of “Who the Fuck?” in which her dresses feature two different prints not of bubblegum girl groups but of herself.

Lauren O'Neal is an MFA student at San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in publications like Slate, The New Inquiry, and The Hairpin. You can follow her on Twitter at @laureneoneal. More from this author →