Helen Reddy was lying in bed, her career going nowhere special, when something remarkable happened.
The lines: ‘I am woman/hear me roar’ popped into her subconscious, words she was convinced were ‘delivered’ to her by a higher force.
Fortunately, she had a notepad handy. The rest is history.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of ‘I Am Woman’, a song that became the anthem of a powerful and vibrant social force — the so-called ‘women’s movement’ — that scared the pants off those who still believed women belonged in the bedroom.
Strong willed and outspoken, Reddy was quite the force herself, the perfect spokeswoman.
‘I Am Woman’ came with a complicated bloodline. Originally recorded in 1971 for Reddy’s second solo album, it was then tapped for a long forgotten film named Stand Up and Be Counted, a Hollywood quickie designed to cash in what the (male) producers dismissed as some passing fad: women’s lib.
Reddy duly re-recorded ‘I Am Woman’ and with the help of some 20 appearances on US daytime TV — Reddy virtually reserved a spot on Dinah Shore’s couch — the song slowly worked its way onto radio playlists. Reddy, however, was a little preoccupied when it finally hit number one; she was giving birth to son Jordan, her second child, at the time.
But Reddy did seize the moment soon after with her famous Grammy speech. ‘I would like to thank God,’ Reddy declared, barely suppressing a grin, ‘because she makes everything possible.’
So what anthems of sisterhood have followed in the wake of ‘I Am Woman’? Did the revolution end in 1972?
Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’ may have lacked the emotional wallop of ‘I Am Woman’, but it did capture the early 80s zeitgeist, wherein the modern woman strived to juggle a career and kids. And, in Dolly’s case, what to do once you’ve kidnapped the boss.
Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls just want to have fun’ could best be described as the Me-generation answer to ‘I Am Woman’. Cyndi and her good-time crew weren’t so much burning their bras as burning holes in their Macy’s store cards while shopping for fancy new bras.
The Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin’s ‘Sisters Are Doing it for Themselves’ was more like it, a punchy, catchy and strong-willed celebration of solidarity. Bonus points for bringing together Franklin, the legendary queen of soul, and Annie Lennox, the high priestess of 1980s pop.
Destiny’s Child ‘Independent Woman’. Now, I can’t help but see Beyonce Knowles in action and imagine a lioness stalking its pray (sorry, it just happens, must be her hair), but trace elements of ‘I Am Woman’ can be found just beneath the shiny surface of this R&B smash.
So what of Helen Reddy? She’s about to return to the stage after a self-imposed silence and forgo her monk-like existence in Sydney for a new life in LA. She’s spent the past 10 years as a practicing hypnotherapist, specialising in helping clients gain a glimpse of ‘the other side’. (Reddy had her own out-of-body experienced at the age of 11.)
Helen Reddy earlier this year after a cataract operation. Image via news.com.au.
And while Reddy has discarded many of the hits that followed in the wake of ‘I Am Woman’ – ‘I have no desire to sing “leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone” over and over again,’ she admits — Reddy still performs her signature song, but strictly as a spoken word piece.
“I found it had more impact; it was more dramatic, being recited. The woman are on their feet; they go nuts.”
Even at 71, Reddy continues to go her own way.
Got any great women’s anthems to add to the list?
MORE ARTICLES BY JEFF APTER