What PJ Harvey Taught Me About Sex

Her first three albums, which I first heard as a teen, are an exhaustive chart of what it can mean to be both sexual and a girl. posted on

When I was 13, I learned how to move my hips. This is a delicate moment for a girl, the moment she realizes she has hips; the whole aching machine of puberty, the perpetual stretch marks and aches and rapidly changing ratio of limbs to torso seems to crystallize. You look at the mirror, you think, I don’t look like a kid. It’s not about the blood thing, although there is a grim certainty that the hips mean blood is coming. It’s just recognition; there is a new body at hand, and it will be used in very different ways.

So I went into my room, where torn-out pages of Vogue had been papered over the girly lavender walls I’d insisted on a year prior, and turned the lights out, and stood in the glow of the Christmas lights I’d strung to the ceiling, and put my headphones on. And I danced. Learning what the new body felt like; how it moved, what it could do.

There were tapes you bought to fit in, like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. The boy albums. Then, there were tapes girls passed around like secrets: Tori Amos, Juliana Hatfield. But none of these were right. Boys had no place in it; not yet. And somehow, girls didn’t either. Juliana, Tori, they were too delicate; they sounded too much like who you were. You wanted the voice of what you would become: A woman, who had crossed to the other side, and knew whatever secrets were kept there.

That summer, I listened and danced, over and over, to one woman: Draped in red satin, red lipstick, her black hair floating like a veil, so frighteningly, entirely female that she didn’t look real. Her dark-chocolate, boy-girl voice rising out over that one, low, aching bass riff, that riff that I was sure was telling me everything, sideways and in code: “I’ve lain with the Devil / Cursed God above / Forsaken heaven / To bring you my love.”

I thought PJ Harvey knew everything about sex. I wasn’t wrong. Her first three albums, especially – the ones I had to work with – are an exhaustive chart of what it can mean to be both sexual and a girl.

The story goes that Polly grew up happily boyish; hated dresses, made people call her “Paul.” Until she was 14, at which point she figured out that she also wanted to sleep with boys, and that this would require a whole mess of role-playing and contortion. But the ambivalence stuck. From Dry on, her persona was amorphous, androgynous, a slideshow of assumed roles. Achingly, flamboyantly femme in one song and a tough kid with a guitar in the next, singing to Stella Marie and to Joe. Her voice can switch registers and genders and ages in a second. And the first single is entirely about the humiliation of wearing a dress.

“If you put it on, if you put it on,” she chides herself, and never completes the sentence. It’s an important if. After it comes the pathetic insistence that “he’ll see me,” the hoping you’ll “dress to please him,” the physical discomfort and shame and loneliness, sad to see, of a fallen woman in dancing costume. If you put it on, you put on the whole unfortunate gender that comes with it. Hence, the underlying question: Do I really have to? She performed in leather and t-shirts, with scraped-back hair and no makeup, thrillingly butch.

But Dry is fetal and unformed. It’s a first album, and no matter how good it is, she still sounds like some girl with a band. There are hints of what she would become – the not-so-subtle castration metaphor of “Hair,” the operatic abjection of “O My Lover” – but they’re not fully realized.

Several things happened to spur that realization. Harvey, who was paralyzingly shy and considered music her side project, became famous. She went on a tour that drove her to the point of exhaustion. She was kicked out of college. She stopped eating. She wound up in a state that she described as “nearly psychotic,” and was taken to her parents’ home for care. Oh, and at some point in this tour of hell, there was a bad break-up.

We still don’t know who that man was. And after hearing Harvey’s reaction, it’s hard not to conclude that this is because he’s spent the last 20 years in some kind of underground bunker, fearing for his life and/or junk.

“I’ll make you lick my injuries,” PJ Harvey purrs on the title track of Rid of Me. The album is about erotic injury, bondage – not the fun kind with safe-words, but the sadomasochism of bad love, where the lovers can choose only to be wounded or wounding, degraded or the degrader, and usually end up both. It relentlessly literalizes emotional damage; the characters on Rid of Me are bound, gagged, burned, skinned, impaled, abraded, and, in one memorable instance, dismembered to prevent their leaving the apartment. Steve Albini’s production punishes you for listening, careening between inaudible and deafening, with a flat, glaring texture that makes the whole thing sound like a guitar being tortured to death in a metal cell.

All told, Rid of Me is the grimmest critique of heterosexuality since Dworkin’s. What is the history of women falling in love with men, really, but a long experiment in the erotics of domination? Harvey breaks all her relationships down to power: Are you letting your love make you gag, call him Daddy? Or are you commanding Casanova to bend ovah? There’s no middle ground, just the choice between subjugation or monstrosity. And when she’s monstrous – in “50 ft Queenie,” in “Man-Size,” perhaps in “Yuri-G” – Harvey has an alarming tendency to grow a cock. A penis is not equivalent to power. But it is how our culture envisions power. So PJ’s coming up man-size, letting it all hang out, 50 inches long. If it takes a dick to put her in charge, a dick is what she’s got.

Which made her next move all the more striking.

To Bring You My Love was the album I danced to. And after all the blood-spattered noise of Rid of Me, it’s alarmingly pretty. Lush string sections swoop in, wind chimes and pianos twinkle in the distance, fuzz bass lines the songs in velvet. It’s ornate, gorgeous, in a way that’s unmistakably encoded feminine. A little too feminine, in fact. Most of its characters, like the knocked-up girl on “C’Mon Billy” or the stranded lover in “Send His Love To Me,” are devoid of even anger, so stereotypically helpless that all they can do is beg men to save them.

Which makes sense. As a kid, I thought Harvey didn’t look real. And she doesn’t; what she looks like, with all the ironic Joan Crawford poses and batted false eyelashes, sharp angles and fake nails, is something I wouldn’t recognize until I’d seen a few dude friends put on a show. About a decade after she gave up Paul, Polly Harvey is a girl in drag as a girl.

It’s an act, because being female is always some kind of act. But after balking at the dress, and getting into a bloody fight with the fucked power dynamics of penetration, she’s finally in on the joke. She can afford the lavish desolation, the poor-me poses and the boy-worship. Because that’s the answer to the question of that first single – the answer I was looking for all summer as I tried to take ownership of my new body, my thrilling and entirely frightening future of having to be female. If you put it on, the girl thing and its compromises, you can take it off again. Any time you please.

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