PJ Harvey Tuesday #10: “Satisfaction”


There was this thing that happened in the ’90s: a lot of women were making rock music. It seems simple to most of us here in the twenty-first century, but back then, it was apparently an extremely difficult concept to grasp, because every music magazine and radio station treated “rock music by women” as its own genre. Liz Phair, Kim Gordon, Alanis Morissette—what’s the difference, really? They’re all women, and they sure are women.

Case in point: In 1994, Q magazine published a three-way interview with PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, and Björk. The headline: “Hips. Lips. Tits. Power.” An excerpt: “Polly Harvey, Björk, and Tori Amos have rogered the charts with their special brew of spooky, left-field weirdness and estrogen-marinated musings. Q invites the gleesome threesome over for a Tupperware party with attitude.” Thanks, Q. Just make sure not to store the estrogen marinade in the Tupperware—it really ruins the flavor.

Though the three women seem genuinely fond of each other and identify strongly with each other’s experiences of sexism in the music industry, they reiterate over and over that they’re sick of journalists grouping them together. “If you think about Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton, they were all much more similar to each other than we are,” says Amos. “We don’t even play the same instruments.”

So it is with Harvey and Björk’s performance of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” at the 1994 Brit Awards, when Harvey was riding high on Rid of Me’s success and Björk on Debut’s.

What I want to know is who the hell booked this gig! These are two musicians whose styles could not be more unalike. They both have incredible and distinctive vocal styles, but not ones which complement each other particularly well. Plus a Rolling Stones cover isn’t exactly in Björk’s wheelhouse; she stumbles over the words more than once. They almost even look like two different species up there—PJ’s mouth alone seems bigger than Björk’s whole face. But, you see, they’re both women, so really it makes all the sense in the world. Just give them some matching sparkly heart-shaped hairclips. Chicks are into that shit. No one will know the difference.

A Turkish interviewer once had the same question I did about the performance’s provenance. Björk explained that she chose a duet with Harvey to avoid doing one with Meat Loaf; Harvey, for her part, was allegedly escaping a number with Jamiroquai. Joke or not, this explanation only seems to shroud the organizers’ thought process in more mystery—if there’s a pair of musicians even less compatible than Björk and PJ Harvey, it’s Björk and a man twenty years her senior, revving his motorcycle and belting out ballads.

Of course the real question isn’t “Who booked this gig?” but “Is the song any good?” So. Is the song any good? Well, it goes without saying that it’s not even on the same plane of existence as Britney Spears’s boardroom-fembot version from 2000, but how does it stack up against, e.g., the unsyncopated glory of Devo’s rendition? I think it’s weird and interesting and challenging, but I don’t think I’d call it good.

But really, they’re not going for “good.” What they’re going for is a total deconstruction of one of rock’s most canonical classics. Is it still “Satisfaction” if you subtract the drums, the guitar riff, and most of the vocal melody? Maybe not. But it’s a crafty idea to sing a song about nonconformity by defying all conventions, including the song’s own conventions for itself. And if there’s anything Björk and PJ Harvey do have in common as female solo artists, it’s that they’ve both unflaggingly flipped the bird to rules written by men, musical or otherwise.

It’s as if, after laughing about their sparkly heart clippies over a pint, they signed their contracts with their fingers crossed behind their backs. Oh, you want us to sing the official second-favorite song of white maledom? About how upset a man is that women won’t sleep with him? Well, all right. But you may not like what you hear.

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 →