Song Review – Joy Williams’ “Woman (Oh Mama)”

joy-williams-woman-oh-mamaIt appeared nearly preordained that The Civil Wars weren’t built to last for the long term when you really pondered how bright they burned each time they took the stage. The singing duo had a kismet that was other-worldly, but that was their fatal flaw as much as their paramount asset.

Two years removed from the dissolving of The Civil Wars, and Joy Williams has decided it’s time to re-emerge as a solo artist. But don’t let anyone tell you this is uncharted territory for the singer. She spent the entire decade of the oughts putting together a solo Christian music career before fellow Civil War John Paul White came into the picture. Now Joy has released a new single called “Woman (Oh Mama)” ahead of a solo project named Venus, and as you may be able to surmise from the titles, it is a very woman-centric foray into the power of the female identity.

“Woman (Oh Mama)” is everything people hated about The Lilith Fair rolled up into one outdated serving. Songs like this are what typecast a lot of great music from the Lilith era as expressions of gender protest. Similarly, “Woman (Oh Mama)” is like audio catnip for the upper crust NPR crowd. A stridently feminist song with undercurrents of African chant beats mixed with reggae overtones? Yeah, that sigh you just heard was the 100,000 orgasms let out after NPR affiliates added this song to their playlists. It’s the perfect solution for over-educated white guilt emanating from elitists in segregated upper class white communities who like to fool themselves into believing they imbibe in “multiculturalism” through songs like this (and this is coming from someone who is a staunch NPR supporter).

We already knew Joy Williams had an affection for Afropop when The Civil Wars brought Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” to the set list, but “Woman (Oh Mama)” takes this passion to an entirely new level. The chants, the beats, the way the subject-verb agreement is ignored in the singing to attempt to portray this song as coming from an African bushmen (or bushwomen) is the stuff the misunderstandings about the term “World Music” are made of. World Music is a blanket term that is insulting to the unique and diverse forms of musical expression from around the globe.

It probably isn’t fair to broach the whole discussion on if this song is country or not. The Civil Wars always were a duo that straddled lines, but did it in a manner where nobody could be too offended because the music was heady and accentuated the talent of the twosome. But one of the reasons you always felt reluctant to totally buy into The Civil Wars was because you knew a track like “Woman (Oh Mama)” was possible, looming out there in the offing, and would make you hang your head as a professed fan once you heard it. I think “Woman (Oh Mama)” gives some insight of why John Paul White’s differences with Joy Williams were irreconcilable.

At the same time, it’s not as much about what is wrong with “Woman (Oh Mama)” as how it fits into the mindset of the listener. Joy isn’t attempting to launch a super hit here, she is engaging in what she feels is raw expression. Joy set out to create an uplifting moment, and for a lot of women, she will undoubtedly succeeded. Williams is wanting to be empowering, and there’s no evidence cite the intentions of “Woman (Oh Mama)” as anything but pure. But lacking any subtly, and sliding into the worst stereotypical vein of “I’m a woman, hear me roar” Lilith Fair/Ani DeFranco gender music, the song comes across as blaringly one sided as Bro-Country, but with this elitist-ness and sort of hokey gender rallying that should know better in 2015.

I’m all for raising the ceiling for women in not just music, but in life, and celebrating the beautiful and powerful force of nature that is the feminine spirit. But going about it in such a direct manner seems more about drawing lines around our differences as opposed to erasing them.

1 1/2 of 2 Guns Down. (from a male reviewer)

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