In the early-1970s, my parents split up and my mom quickly reinvented herself as an Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore-style feminist. No longer satisfied with the limitations of 1950s-era definitions of women’s sex roles, my mother pushed back: cooking and cleaning were out and the full-time pursuit of her dream of become a psychologist were in (along with a subscription to Ms. and a National Organization of Woman t-shirt). To memorialize her commitment mom adapted a now-iconic women’s lib poster illustrated by “Virtue Hathaway” (real name: Shirley Boccaccio) into a needlepoint. The poster depicted an ethereal-looking woman with a broken broomstick below the words “Fuck Housework” in a bold, Old English font. Though she simplified the design by eliminating the woman and retaining the broom and the text, mom still made her statement effectively, especially when she hung the finished piece in the seldom-used dining room, the erstwhile location of our family dinners from when we used to have a family.
This special 1970s edition of the “Best Songs to Listen to While Dusting” immediately suggested the memory of my mother’s feminist needlework period. Although her original creation disappeared at some point, I was thrilled to learn that the original poster is still available through the mail from the artist herself. Upon this discovery, I dispatched a check immediately and was rewarded a few weeks later with my own “Fuck Housework” poster, a vivid reminder of my childhood bewilderment. It is only now, from the vantage point of maturity, that I can fully appreciate the irony of expressing intolerance of 1950’s-era sex roles via the most traditional of women’s past times: needlework.
Here then is Stargayzing’s Gay Man’s Guide to the 11 Best Songs to Listen to While Dusting: 1970s Feminist Edition. Hopefully it will gently discourage you, dear readers, from ever saying, “Fuck Housework!”
The Lieber/Stoller standard is most closely associated with Peggy Lee, who originally recorded it in 1962. Muldaur included the song on her wonderful second solo album Waitress in a Donut Shop. It was the follow-up to her top-10 smash “Midnight at the Oasis” and peaked at a respectable number twelve. Other notable recordings of the venerable proto-feminist blues song include versions by Bette Midler (on her Peggy Lee tribute record), Reba McEntire, and Vonda Shepard. From the human/bovine duet department, the song was also performed by Raquel Welch and Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.
New York-native Muldaur was a staple of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 196os where she performed regularly with several groups, before becoming a solo artist in the early-1970s. She is closely associated with the Grateful Dead, with whom she toured in 1974 and sang back up for later in the decade. Muldaur is still actively touring and recording forty years after her first two albums made her a star.
44 years later, I still can’t wrap my head around this song. “For the Love of Him” was completely old-fashioned the very day it was shipped to radio in 1970, which didn’t stop it from becoming a major hit. Listening today, one simply cannot fail to be moved by its horn chart and soaring melody, which are sure to put an extra bit of muscle in your dusting. The song peaked at #13 on the pop chart and went all the way to #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. It was Bobbi’s biggest hit and the complete antithesis of feminism: it was anti-feminist. To wit, the chorus’ lyrics: For the love of him/Make him your reason for living/Give all the love you can give him/All the love you can.
Today the song scans more like a dated drag queen number than anything that could have been a hit after, say, 1963. Even more curiously, Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion revisited some of the same lyrical concepts in their treacly 1997 duet “Tell Him,” which was itself so out-of-date that it makes “For the Love of Him” seem hip by comparison.
In November 1972, Marlo Thomas released the groundbreaking Free to Be You and Me, an all-star multi-media project that included a TV special, soundtrack, and book that celebrated Thomas’ progressive political agenda, encompassing everything from feminism to a boy feeling free to play with dolls (“William Wants a Doll.”) Needless to say, the album was a big deal in my house and among my mother’s circle of girlfriends, who seemed to have reached a collective tipping point of separating from their husbands just as this album became a hit. It must have been in the air.
Being a gay kid, I was actually already familiar with Carol Channing from her frequent variety show TV appearances long before I heard her wonderful contribution to Miss Thomas’ project. Though her interpretation of lyricist Sheldon Harnick’s “Housework” (best known for writing the lyrics to Fiddler on the Roof), is the first time I remember completely getting the gestalt of “Carol Channing.” This is something I did with the same enthusiasm other boys felt when introduced to baseball cards, skateboards, and toy guns.
Though technically not really a song as much as a monologue, Carol’s “Housework” will ease your own housework blues as few other recordings can both because it deals with the subject directly, and because…well, because it is Carol Channing!
If you were nine-years-old in 1973 like I was and heard this wonderful Burt Bacharach/Hal David song, you wouldn’t have known or cared that the film it came from, the musical remake of the 1937 classic Lost Horizon, was a complete bomb. Instead you would have wanted to sing the song immediately, which is exactly what I did. In fact, it was the first song that I ever sang in public and I loved its circular, soaring melody immediately. I belted it out in a children’s talent show for East Brunswick’s summer theater season that year, accompanied on the piano by a young woman named Amy Sunshine. I will never forget any of these things, primarily because I still have my xerox of the sheet music, still stapled to the same piece of oak tag since 1973, with this shades-of-Mama-Rose inscription on front: “‘The World is a Circle,’ for Amy Sunshine to play for me!”
Though I am a huge Burt Bacharach/Hal David fan I have never seen the film, which starred that giant of musical theater Liv Ullman. Here is the sequence from the film, which also features Bobby Van and John Gielgud. Even though I still think the song is fantastic, you can tell just from this scene that the film didn’t work. But where, I wonder, is Amy Sunshine?
5. “I Am Woman,” Helen Reddy (1973)
If Carole King’s Tapestry is the album that defined a generation of women, then Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” was their anthem. The song expressed the zeitgeist with startling precision and, despite lyrics that were considered strident, even militant, by many, became a ubiquitous call to action in 1973. For young women like my mother and her friends, the empowering mid-tempo “I Am Woman” was a thrilling pop music repudiation of sex roles that felt as constricting as the girdles they wore to their proms. Helen’s song was the musical equivalent of the contemporaneous Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress: freeing; empowering; and incredibly new.
The song holds up quite well both as a symbol of its era and as a very well-constructed, pleasant pop song. Ironically, it is also quite excellent for dusting, suggesting broad, powerful strokes.
As I do consider myself somewhat of a connoisseur of popular music, I felt strongly it was important to include at least one song in 3/4 time; a waltz always suggests a powerful inclination toward the grand gesture. In other words: it is perfect for housework, particularly dusting.
“Sam” was included on Olivia Newton-John’s 1977 Don’t Stop Believin’ LP (no connection to the song by Journey) and went to #20 on the pop chart and #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. It was produced and co-written by John Farrar, who was behind most of Olivia’s hit songs and co-written by Hank Marvin (lead guitarist for The Shadows), and Don Black (lyricist of “Ben,” “Born Free,” and “Diamonds Are Forever,” among many others). I still love its neo-Liberace piano arrangement. It is a song I try to listen to at least once a month and now that I have a new roommate named Sam, perhaps even more than that.
One year after its initial release, “Sam” was included on Livvy’s first collection of greatest hits, which is where I first heard it. Listening to it today brings me right back to 7th grade and to the importance of maintaining a tidy home.
Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments was the singer’s high-concept CBS TV-special. Though Streisand’s voice was at or near its peak, the special was so gimmicky (endless medleys featuring fragments of previously recorded songs but with exotic, sometimes unpleasant instrumentation) that it often made the singing hard to appreciate. Case in point: “The World is a Concerto,” (with two lines of “Make Your Own Kind of Music” thrown in at the end), was created as concerto for voice and household appliances. Veteran writers Ken and Mitzi Welch, who had long contributed special material for Babs (dating all the way back to their ironic arrangement of “Happy Days Are Here Again” in 1963), wrote the first song to illustrate how there is music all around us, while a phalanx of extras, including Streisand’s manager Marty Ehrlichman, accompanied the star on all manner of household appliances. For his contribution, I am certain that Mr. Ehrlichman is the first artist’s manager to get an album credit for “playing” the washing machine.
“Make Your Own Kind of Music,” was written by my old friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and was, of course, a hit for Cass Elliot in 1968. Streisand had included it the year before on her Live Concert at the Forum LP. Though the medley is overwhelming—imagine Barbra Streisand singing in your home with a sixty-piece orchestra while every single appliance is simultaneously in the “on” position—there is something impressive about her preternatural ability to actually be heard against the musical equivalent of an explosion in an appliance store.
How could I not include a paean to appliances in a survey of great songs to dust to?
It is impossible, even today, for me to hear this instrumental from Saturday Night Fever without feeling like a Vegas showgirl. Like Phantom Limb Syndrome, the phenomenon people get after an amputation when they still feel the arm or the leg, “Manhattan Skyline” gives me “Phantom Headdress Syndrome,” wherein I still feel the heavy plumage of a chorines’s sparkling head gear. Once I’ve heard even the first measure of “Manhattan Skyline,” I reflexively begin to sashay about the room imagining that I am part of large ensemble of statuesque hoofers supporting, say, a Mitzi Gaynor or an Ann-Margret. In this fantasy, I can actually feel my lucite mules as my toes clutch to keep the entire enterprise aloft. Just put a feather duster in my hand and I can live out this fantasy and still clean.
There is absolutely no reason this medley should work and yet, confound it all, I believe on some fundamental level it does. I bought this album of standards around 1975 in the cut out bin at Harmony Hut in Brunswick Square Mall and played it all the time. Produced by “Sonny Bono for Cher Bono,” their approach is rather broad, to say the least. As usual, they got good session musicians (including several members of Toto) and recorded at the legendary Larrabee Sound in Los Angeles.
Bittersweet White Light, in general, and the Jolson Medley in particular, prove what is not credible artistically is very good for dusting. Whether or not one thinks Cher is any good with this material is completely irrelevant to the ability to enjoy the fruits of her labor. She is fully committed and by the end of the medley there is a very good chance she will have worn you down. At the very least you will have gotten four minutes of housework done without noticing as you will have been completely distracted by Cher singing a five minute Jolson Medley.
As a kid, my favorite thing about Bittersweet White Light (other than the photos, of course), were Sonny’s completely awful liner notes. Even as a nine-year-old I knew the copy was shit, which is part of the reason I’m so excited to reprint them here verbatim:
“I was asked to describe this album in words. I don’t know if I can, I’ll try. A singer should make you feel. Every time I listen to Chér sing on this album I feel sad, I feel happy, I feel lonesome, I feel love but most of all I feel. For the ten years I’ve known Chér she’s always wanted to make people feel. She did it this time. SHE DID IT ALL THIS TIME.
As it turned out, Cher hadn’t actually done it all, because within two years Chér tried something completely new: ending their marriage and, with the help of “boyfriend” David Geffen, leaving Sonny in the bittersweet white light of their Bel Air mansion. I suspect that act of betrayal made him feel all kinds of things he forgot to list in the liner notes, like “litigeous” and “lost.”
10. “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” Carpenters, (1977)
We all know and love Karen and Richard Carpenter, who musically defined a generation with their ubiquitous AM radio hits like “Close To You,” “For All We Know,” and “Sing”. By 1977, pop radio was in the midst of major changes, which may explain the sibling’s openness to recording of what is, essentially, a seven minute pop opera about aliens contacting our planet via the DJ of a Top-40 station. The song was recorded with an orchestra the size of a space ship and some early synthesizers. It could also be described as the answer to the question: “What do you get when you mix Karen Carpenter, a hit of acid and Close Encounters of the Third Kind?” While the single version was cut to a still-long 4:00, I’ve included the whole seven plus minutes—the better to finish whatever you’re dusting.
Though it went to number one in Ireland and Top-10 in the UK, back in the states Karen and Richard’s song was somewhat of an intergalactic failure, peaking at a wan #32 on the Billboard pop chart and #18 Adult Contemporary. This is ironic, as the aliens chosen form of contact was via an “all-hit radio” station, exactly the format that chose not to answer the phone. The album Passages that included it, was their first LP not to go gold (and, incidentally, their first not to include any songs by written by John Bettis and Richard Carpenter). The recording did, however, inspire their 1978 TV special The Carpenters…Space Encounters, which certainly deserves its own entry at some point.
Still, the song is so gonzo that it has endured. It was featured in the 2011 BBC series Wonders of the Solar System and 2013 film The Wolverine. What is less well-known is that it is an excellent sound bed for housework. If you have never heard this song, prepare to be amazed (and have your cleaning supplies handy).
11. “The Greatest Performance Of My Life,” Shirley Bassey, (1972)
From its opening fanfare that permits her to begin at an emotional (and vocal) level of ten before dialing it back (briefly), “The Greatest Performance of My Life” announces itself as “big drama”—even by Shirley Bassey standards. The song tells the simple story of a woman who gives a party though she is still heartbroken, a highly relatable paradox for any sociable person, regardless of sexual orientation. Sometimes the evites have gone already; the party simply must go on!
And what a party it is: Dame Shirley dances like a gypsy, drinks like a fish (though she seldom drinks) and laughs like Pagliacci and all her guests believe her mirth is real. What’a a girl to do? Beyond the song’s not-so-subtle singer-as-actress-as-housewife metaphor, “The Greatest Performance of My Life” gives Shirl three and a half minutes to sob, gasp, and belt at the top of her voice. In short: it is essential.
The fact that the ballad’s narrative is entirely set in the home and revolves around the emotional necessities of being a good hostess, only makes “The Greatest Performance of My Life” that much better suited to housework. For that reason, any dusting playlist from the 1970s would be incomplete without it.