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The Women of “Rubber Soul”

Beatles Rubber Soul

While Abbey Road will always hold a special place in my heart in part because I fell in love with George Harrison’s songwriting during my music theory classes in college, there’s actually something about Rubber Soul that keeps me coming back for repeated listens. Sure, the album is full of catchy, pop-rock and folk tunes, but it’s the female subjects at the heart of these tunes that make them among the most interesting the band ever penned. John Lennon may have nicknamed it “The Pot Album,” but Rubber Soul is preoccupied with cool women. And while the album marked a musical shift for the Beatles, it also represented their shifting attitudes toward women not just from song to song but Beatle to Beatle.

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Gone are the sweet girls of earlier recordings like “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Instead, we’ve now got independent women with jobs and sexual agency. Consider the album opener “Drive My Car” which centers on a beautiful, flirtatious woman telling the man he can be her chauffeur and then maybe she’ll love him. Like all good pop songs, it’s obviously a euphemism for sex, but by making the woman the pursuer rather than the pursued, the song feels shockingly progressive for 1965 (when the Pill was still illegal for unmarried women in the U.K.). This particular woman knows what she wants and goes after it. She’s a free-spirit.

The subject at the heart of Lennon’s Dylan-inspired track “Norwegian Wood” is free-spirited, too — an idea perhaps emphasized by George’s use of sitar, a first for the Beatles and maybe Western pop. “I once had a girl,” John sings, “or should I say, she once had me.” Again the woman is the one doing the pursuing, inviting the man over. They talk and drink until 2 a.m., and she goes to bed without him, dashing his hopes. In the morning, she’s gone to work, leaving the man to set fire to her home likely out of revenge. This surprisingly dark ending highlights Lennon’s own conflicting feelings about alluring women; a theme carried out throughout the rest of his songs on the album. For example, on the marijuana-friendly “Girl,” he sings about a femme fatale who “you want so much it makes you sorry.” He both desires and resents her, because she makes him feel foolish around his friends. John’s first wife Cynthia believed the song was about her and the couple’s rocky relationship, but he always maintained it was simply about a “dream girl.”

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The other three in the Fab Four all wrestled with relationship issues with women on their tracks as well. On “What Goes On,” Ringo Starr wonders about the inner thoughts of a woman who broke his heart. Paul McCartney’s “You Won’t See Me” and “I’m Looking Through You” express his frustration with then-girlfriend Jane Asher — pushing his writing in a far more personal direction than on previous albums. Meanwhile George’s cheeky “If I Needed Someone” assures yet another female pursuer that he’s happily committed, but if he wasn’t, she’d be first on his list. Even on “Michelle,” Paul conjures images of a sexy French woman who keeps escaping him. In all of these songs, it’s independent women who dominate; they’re active, not passive subjects.

And though Rubber Soul could be read as pro-feminist in many ways, it also contains one of the Beatles most misogynistic songs. Penned by John, the album closer “Run For Your Life” borrows a line directly from Elvis Presley, “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” By 1965 standards, singing about killing a woman out of possessive jealousy is questionable at best, but when viewed through the lens of 2018 and the #MeToo Movement, it’s disturbing, especially given the song’s catchiness. To his credit, Lennon later denounced this tune in a 1971 Rolling Stone interview, and towards the end of his life, expressed deep remorse for his past abusive behavior. Still, it highlights that however seemingly progressive their music was as a group, individually, the Beatles’ views and treatment of women wasn’t always open-minded and idealistic.

 

However, I imagine hearing the biggest band in the world sing about sexually-liberated women during a period of changing social mores, especially if you were one of their millions of dedicated young female fans (always the main arbiters of good pop music), must have been both shocking and thrilling. Whether the Beatles meant to or not, these songs send a message that female desire and independence are cool, acceptable (even if the Fab Four themselves had trouble accepting female rejection), and given the frequency with which they occur on Rubber Soul, just a normal part of life. It’s yet another way the Beatles were ahead of their peers.

Emmy Potter

Photo: John Lennon passes his driving test in Weybridge Paul McCartney Ringo Starr and George Harrison are there to congratulate him 15 February 1965 (Photo by Eyles/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

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Emmy Potter is a Midwestern-born, New York City-based actor, writer, producer, Anglophile, guacamole-enthusiast, and devoted Kansas City Royals fan. She owns two sonic screwdrivers, has read Harry Potter more times than she can count, and can quote Jaws and Jurassic Park with 100% accuracy. When she’s not flexing her nerd muscles, she’s most likely writing about film, TV, comedy, and/or theatre for a number of online publications/websites or riding her bicycle around the tri-state area like the Spielberg film child-protagonist she always aspired to be. Twitter: @emmylanepotter

23 comments on “The Women of “Rubber Soul”

  1. Avatar
    Jay Kenigsberg

    Great insight from a modern perspective. The other day I was introducing my 26 and 21 years old sons to the James Bond classic, Goldfinger. It paints an interesting (some would rightly say deplorable) picture of how women were viewed in the early 1960s. Placing the Beatles in this context, it’s striking how they put into words in music a more progressive view, albeit not without its faults. Even more to their credit, they recognized those faults, something Hollywood is only now confronting.

    • Avatar

      Yes! I am a big James Bond fan (and Goldfinger is one of my favorites), and it is definitely tricky to watch a lot of the older ones especially with 2018 eyesight, but it also provides helpful perspective on cultural attitudes both then and now. That’s why I’m not a big proponent of simply discarding art that challenges our current perspectives; if we don’t acknowledge where we came from, we won’t be able to keep moving forward.

      Thank you for reading!

  2. Avatar

    This is an interesting take, and it makes sense on many levels. The Beatles were ahead of their time in so many ways, even in their choice of women. Of course, I’m speaking about Yoko and Linda primarily. Strong, independent, and seekers in their own way.

    • Avatar

      Definitely. I think it would be fascinating to do an even deeper dive into each Beatle, their relationships with women, and how they wrote about them throughout the years. I really do think Yoko and her vocal feminism were a major part of John’s growth and maturity.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Avatar
    Adrian Martin

    I’ve never seen Rubber Soul reviewed in such a way, and it’s an insightfully accurate take. It’s my third favorite Beatles album, just behind Revolver and Abbey Road, but it’s arguably the most cohesive record in their catalogue. It’ll be the next thing spinning on my turntable now. Thank you!!

  4. Avatar

    Over and over I’ve heard people pondering the “dark ending” of Norwegian Wood, believing that the singer has set fire to the furniture or even to the girl’s home. My understanding of “I lit the fire” in 1960s British terminology is to light a fire in the stove to put the kettle on. To my mind, the singer woke up, saw he was alone, and decided to make himself at home, since “this bird” was out at her job, having left him asleep “in the bath.” Not so dark to this Beatle aficionado.

    • Avatar

      I thought he lit a fire in the fireplace. I never thought he burned her house down, and I was just now feeling like a complete naif or worse because for 53 years I didn’t realize he burned her house down. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who didn’t think this song had a dark ending.

  5. Avatar
    Coleman Gregory

    I’ve spent a lifetime listening to, and playing and singing, Norwegian Wood, and it never once occurred to me that the narrator was doing anything other than lighting a fire in the fireplace. The suggestion (certainty?) that it is otherwise is a revelation.

  6. Avatar
    Tony Petrillo

    I too took it to mean that it was a laid back evening, woke up , lit a fire in the fireplace and just admired his surroundings

  7. Avatar
    Donald Roine

    I don’t believe Lennon set her Norwegian Wood house on fire. He simply lit a fire.

  8. Avatar
    Amanda LaRosa

    Agree!

  9. Avatar
    Greg Oropeza

    I never interpreted Norwiegian Wood as him being rejected, rather that “isn’t it good knowing she would?”
    Meaning he did have an affair with her, and he had lit her fire meaning turned her on.
    If we were to ask John he’d say we were all correct, that the song means whatever we think it does!

  10. Avatar
    David Porter

    George Oropeza, I agree with you that John would be completely open to personal interpretation of the song. However, you may wish to re-listen to the line you have quoted. It isn’t, “isn’t it good knowing she would”, it is actually, “Isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood.” That might alter your interpretation a bit. Peace.

  11. Avatar
    penniless

    Good grief…

  12. Avatar
    Michael Reichert

    Thank you for this unique perspective. ‘Rubber Soul’ is my favorite, the last of what I call their ‘Four-Man Band’ albums that could be reproduced live. But I have been aware of the darkness in ‘Run for Your Life’.

  13. Avatar
    Nancy Perry

    en pointe…

  14. Avatar

    Didn’t he just light a fire in the fireplace-not burn down the house?

  15. Avatar
    Egbert Souse

    That darn Yoko !

  16. Avatar

    Sure, the female subjects have more free agency than a few years earlier. But it’s the male singers who are describing them as social-climbers, teases and heartbreakers. I find most tracks on the album are more proto-feminist than pro-feminist.

  17. Avatar
    Sofia Ståhl

    I actually think that all these songs on this album are very misogynistic and pathetic. I mean they can’t be serious about Drive my car, ridiculous.. Don’t be fooled by the “free spirited” woman of the 60s these dudes only wrote what they wished women would do which was offering themselves to them without a second though.. (I know all about their fans but yeah, still..) yuck. Girl is another pathetic song were they wanted to make the song more intimate by adding John’s “sighs” which sounds more like him taking a puff of joint.. ridiculous. That can’t-really-stand-to-hear-it song Michelle, I mean no comments there. That Norwegian wood song and Paul happily explains that the dude didn’t got his way so he burned down her house, I mean, entiitled douchebag much?! And the notorious Run for your life.. I mean come on, come on! It’s on the same level as that God awful Maxwell’s Silver hammer of awfulness. I thought that despite their earlier misogynistic songs, Rubber Soul was the album that almost every song was bad and explicitly misogynistic. Totally overrated album with the ugliest cover in beatles discography history.. no no no. Can’t stand this overpraisal of this extremely problematic album. I rest my case.

  18. Avatar

    Wow. Respectfully disagree on just about every point. Hope you find your happy place quickly and re-center. A two-scoop ice cream cone might also work.

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