“My next project is to make Linda Ronstadt a feminist icon for Millennials,” I posted late one night on Twitter. I’d just discovered Linda Ronstadt. Again.
Everyone is familiar with the concept of comfort food. For me, it’s the bowl of spaghetti my mother made when I was home sick from school. She’s long gone, but I still make it for myself when I’m feeling existentially home sick. We don’t attribute the same magical healing powers to songs, but comfort music exists. When my brother was a baby, someone, perhaps a grandparent, observed that he stopped crying when he heard a Linda Ronstadt song. It was the 1970’s, and her music was ubiquitous. We adopted the Ronstadt Method. Fussy baby? Temper tantrum? Place Heart Like a Wheel on the turntable. Dinner guests? It was a party trick. Lyrics like “I’ve been cheated, been mistreated…” crooned in a lashing twang were hardly lullaby material. It raised eyebrows. We didn’t even listen to country music. But the baby did. When he grew into a raging punk tween, we’d tease, “Do we need to put on Linda Ronstadt?” and have a good laugh at his embarrassingly off-brand infancy. This is my first memory of her music.
My second memory is of childhood summer afternoons when my cousin watched us at her house. She was a bartender and a nurse. A badass. And her husband was No Good. Fortunately, he was not around a lot. But that song was. I remember her long hair feathered on the sides, floral camisoles, bell-bottom jeans, and wooden clog sandals. The exquisitely 1970’s haze of late afternoon sunlight diffused through cheap cotton curtains into the cool dark kitchen where she stood at the counter smoking a cigarette. The mood subtly tensed as the sun fell lower, the room grew dimmer, and the hour neared when she’d be returned to her no good marriage and us to our no good father. She didn’t need to play that song. Maybe she was just trying to calm my brother. A film auteur would have killed for that scene.
My third childhood memory of Linda Ronstadt’s music took me decades to learn it was hers. It was a jingle-jangle tune by the Stone Poneys my mother declared her theme song every time she heard it, which, if you’ve ever been in a store, you know is a lot. I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty, all I’m saying is I’m not ready for any person, place, or thing to try and pull the reins in on me. SO-OOOOO (we’d melodramatically belt it out in the cereal aisle) GOODBYYYYYE… It was pretty twee for a feminist anthem, and frankly a little unconvincing coming from my mother who was married. But the point was to celebrate women’s liberation, in safe way, while grocery shopping for a family of four.
Q: What about non-musical topics? Feminism?
A: I’m grateful to the feminist movement and think it was very important. It helped us to find where we stand on things like abortion and birth control, and job opportunities for women.
Q: So, did you really ever want to be First Lady?
A: Oh, my God. Who on earth would want to be first lady?
Q: How do you think Hillary Clinton is doing?
A: I’m impressed with President Clinton, but I’m really impressed with her. They should run her for president next time.
After Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I made a playlist of cheesy music: Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, yacht rock. I don’t remember creating it because of Donald Trump. I do remember being terrified about the precarity of adulthood in the current political climate. All my life I’d wanted to be an adult. When I became an adult, an infant was put in charge of the country. And everyone blamed adult women. The adult women who voted for him, sure. But also the adult women who championed his opponent. And particularly the adult woman who was his opponent. It was maddening. I plotted my revenge by seeking employment with an adult woman Democratic candidate for Congress and by listening to Barbra Streisand, the quintessential Democratic Adult Woman. I also fantasized about living on a remote island, untethered to this dystopia. Hence the yacht rock. The playlist was filled in by memories of other songs of that era which coincided with my childhood. Childhood. When there is an adult in the room, innocence prevents you from going mad, and older cousins protect you from no good men.
I got the gig and listened to the playlist while I sat at my desk typing up policy positions and content for trifold glossy mailers. I was right where I wanted to be, a political operative overthrowing the patriarchy to the saxophone riff of “Baker Street.” But when Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time” came on, I’d play it again, clench my chest and belt it out as ridiculously as my mother and I had done when “A Different Drum” played in shops.
It’s a song about unrequited love. I’ve experienced it, but not recently. Old flames? The past two years have aimed a fire hose at them. Maybe it was the gubernatorial candidate who charmed me then blew me off. I’ll never keep a man’s house, but if he’s attractive and running for office and into civil rights, I will knock all the doors in his town. I answer the call to serve my country. Maybe that’s my unrequited love: America. The song begins in coy reflection on the universal truths that eluded her and hurls into guttural, visceral frustration. But when she sings ‘Cause I’ve done everything I know to try and make you mine, And I think it’s gonna hurt me for a long long time, it’s not a caricature of a woman scorned. She doesn’t cash in on performative resilience, but neither does it sound whining or self-pitying. It sounds like human anguish, exhaustion, and defeat. Well, we are all feeling that right now, aren’t we? Maybe this is my adult woman version of America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
Maybe. I still didn’t know why I was listening to country music. She was a country singer, right? I couldn’t tell from these songs. Who was Linda Ronstadt? What happened to her? I looked up her Wikipedia page. Jesus. Incredible. No one had told me any of this. I followed link after link, fell down a rabbit hole, emerged evangelized, and announced it on social media. The Congressional campaign is over. And a new one begins.
An incomplete list of things no one ever told me about Linda Ronstadt (a more complete list can be found by typing “Linda Ronstadt” into Google):
She sang that Stone Poneys song about women’s liberation.
Her grandfather invented your household appliances.
She called Donald Trump a “national emergency.” She’s championed gay rights and same-sex marriage, been evicted from playing a Las Vegas venue for speaking out against the Iraq war, is really into sustainable agriculture (there are whole articles about her views on topsoil) and anti-overdevelopment, marched against Sherriff Joe Arpaio’s discriminatory immigration enforcement measures and filed a lawsuit against Arizona’s SB1070. She’s from Tucson and is of Mexican descent. The song on Paul Simon’s Graceland that references “this child born in Tucson, Arizona” is about her.
She identifies as a spiritual atheist and serial monogamist.
She has Parkinson’s Disease.
When asked about the rock and roll party scene of the 70’s, she described her nightlife as cuddling up with a stuffed animal and a Russian novel. She did drugs, but her addiction “was to reading.”
She is a country singer. And a rock singer. And a folk, latin, jazz, broadway, opera, and pretty much anything else you can sing singer.
She was in relationship with California Governor Jerry Brown when he was a Democratic presidential candidate. (!) She adopted kids. She never got married. (!) When asked why, she neither sugarcoats it nor resorts to misandry. She just sums up the human condition:
“… he’s real kind but isn’t inspired musically, and then you meet somebody else that’s just so inspired musically that he just takes your breath away, but he’s such a moron, such a maniac that you can’t get along with him. And then after that it’s the problem of finding someone that can stand you!”
She may not talk about her personal life, but her memoirs included a laundry list of #MeToo experiences long before that hashtag was invented. And she’s had a lot to say about being an adult woman in a man’s world, about being treated like a “girl singer,” having male peers or band-mates either resent her for headlining or expect to sleep with her, being sexually objectified to sell records, made to dress and pose in ways that were degrading or just dishonest.
She’s sold over 100 million records. She was the highest paid woman in rock. She was awarded the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and has been awarded the National Medal of Arts and Humanities.
If she weren’t already an actual rock star I would declare, “This woman is a fucking rock star!”
And I never drew one response from you, All the while you fell all over girls you never knew…
I may never understand what spell she cast on my baby brother. But I do seek an answer to why Linda Ronstadt isn’t readily found in the canon of female musical icons (or any gender musical icons) people my age and younger are encouraged to admire. Ignoring all other criteria, her vocal genius alone is an artistic contribution to civilization. She sang a lot of pop songs, but so did Ella. She sang a lot of country music, but so did Dolly. She sang a lot of folk songs, but so did Janis. She sang a lot of sad songs, but so did Nina. Her image was glaringly sexualized at the peak of her career, but look at Beyonce. And Dolly. And Madonna. She had some flops, but so did Babs. She’s a little flaky, but so was Judy. She gained weight, but so did Aretha. Damn it. She sang a feminist anthem and doesn’t even get a one-word name.
To my surprise, it was not her politics or countrified milieu that alienated her from our coastal standard bearers or problematized her legacy. And why did I know the Dixie Chicks hated Bush, but not Linda “I literally sold 100 million records” Ronstadt? I didn’t even know who the Dixie Chicks were until they hated Bush. Like they invented politically progressive female country music. They didn’t. Linda Ronstadt did. I think. She is a country music singer, right?
Maybe she defies attention because she bucks both genres and archetypes. When Streisand sings, I am a woman in love, and I’ll do anything, you can see her going full Fatal Attraction. Dolly works 9-5, fulfilling the working man’s administrative assistant dreams and airing the working girl’s grievances. When Ella wants someone to watch over her, she’s a poor little lamb. When Nina wants some sugar in her bowl, she ain’t lyin’. Madonna literally had a song called, “Like a Virgin.” Bey, pregnant, veiled, married, wearing a bustier, and smashing car windows with a baseball bat, is the everything bagel of female archetypes. Linda Ronstadt’s music and life resist easy classification in our limited taxonomy of women: neither virgin nor slut, demure nor self-destructive, wife material nor party girl, naïve nor vengeful. She was attractive, but in a conventional brunette way. She was famous, but for her voice not her outfits. She was a stern perfectionist but not a notorious diva. She wasn’t selling an image or a brand or fantasy or a persona. She was just singing. That’s difficult for culture to caricature, co-opt, replicate, or exploit. If you can’t be imitated, are you really famous?
It would be unforgivably trite to say she traveled to the beat of her own drum, if it were not literally the most defining thing about her. I get it now mom.
Go listen to her music already! Sure, it’s off-brand, but it’s on point. Or fleek. 1970’s Linda will give you life. And if you’ve been reading the news and are terrified about the life you’ve been given, it may even help you stop crying for a while!
… No Millennials are reading this, are they?
… Ok. I’m going to go fall in love with Governor Jerry Brown now. For America.