It’s Still Not Betty Davis Time, But We’re Getting There

The release of a new documentary warrants reappraisal of the singer who was much more than Miles' wife

Betty Davis

Above: Betty Davis in the early 1970s. Courtesy of Robert Brenner.

To be ahead of one’s time requires that one’s time eventually arrives. Despite the current, belated critical appreciation for Betty Davis’ work, her music remains jarring to the contemporary listener. Its aggressive, stripped-down, abstract funk is certainly much different from the glossy, R&B-driven version of that music currently peddled by artists like Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak. But the aesthetic shock is nothing compared to what’s in the lyrics: sex, and a lot of it—especially coming from a woman at a time when the peak of the Sexual Revolution was barely in the rearview mirror.

The lyrics, still a fixation (though now a positive one) for critics, are only saved from a parental advisory label by their lack of anatomical specificity. Perhaps most notorious is 1974’s “He Was a Big Freak,” a composition rumored to be either about her husband Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix, a friend and source of musical inspiration. “I used to tie him up/He couldn’t get enough,” she yowls through the speaker over a relentless, scattered groove. “I’d get him off with my turquoise chain/I used to whip him/I used to beat him/He used to dig it.”

“Big Freak” is hardly an anomaly; the vast majority of her catalog is dedicated to her life between the sheets. Davis begs, preens, touts her sexual prowess, and proclaims over and over again her emotional nonchalance towards the whole affair: “It ain’t really no big thing—bye bye,” she sings on “You Won’t See Me In the Morning,” off her self-titled 1973 debut.

Davis drove home the sentiment with steamy live shows, strutting around the stage in clothes that exposed much of her lithe frame—back when she still went by her maiden name, Mabry, she worked as a model. On the covers for her albums Nasty Gal and They Say I’m Different, she’s pictured in Beyoncé-esque leotards with her legs splayed wide open. “It’s not that I’m trying to be sexy,” she told Baltimore’s Afro-American in 1974. “I just can’t wear a lot of clothes when I work. I like to be comfortable.”

That self-effacing attitude extended to her politics. It doesn’t seem like Davis’ provocations—which could essentially be summed up as claiming her body and sexuality as her own, rather than accepting them as mere canvases for men’s expression—were intended as feminist or as a vehicle for that dreaded cliché, “women’s empowerment.”

In fact, in a 1974 interview with Essence she explicitly repudiated both the idea that her songs were autobiographical and the assumption they had an intentionally progressive bent. “I don’t think the average Black woman can really relate to women’s lib,” she told the magazine. “The Black man and woman—our whole culture is different from whites’.” Davis was still reluctant to claim the feminist label in an interview with the New York Times from earlier this year. “How could I think about feminism with the songs I was writing?” she told the paper. “I never thought women had power. We had power in the bedroom, but we didn’t have political power.”

Instead, her profane subject matter of choice drew from an already-established tradition of lusty blues from legendary singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Big Mama Thornton. In director/writer Phil Cox’s new documentary, Betty: They Say I’m Different, Davis explains how her grandmother played those artists’ music for her when she was growing up, and how she was drawn to their willingness to talk about a woman’s life as it was, rather than via romantic clichés. Strip away enough layers of propriety and eventually you’ll find common ground—if Davis’ music doesn’t strike a chord on some level, that probably says more about you than it does about her. “Some people call me vulgar, like when I sing about getting picked up,” she explained to the Washington Post in 1974. “But that’s no different than what goes on at any rich cocktail party.”

Betty Davis
Betty Davis. Photo courtesy of Robert Brenner.

Whether it was her intent or not, that level playing field of desire upon which Davis’ oeuvre builds its foundation was subversive. Beyond reclaiming public ownership of her more licentious urges, Davis wrote songs about reclaiming the words that get used to describe women who have more than the socially acceptable amount of sex (that is, any amount that might make them less appealing to men). “When she leaves you because she don’t need you no more and you feel like a fool, don’t you call her no tramp,” Davis sings on “Don’t Call Her No Tramp” before dissolving into a series of cathartic groans.

If she didn’t have enormous popular success, she did earn wide critical acclaim for what was even then viewed as a pioneering moment for women in funk. The exceptions to that rule were those who dismissed her sensuality as a superficial shtick, and Robert Christgau, who described Davis’ debut album as “the best comic book sex since Angelfood McSpade [a controversial 1960s comic by Robert Crumb drawn to mimic and, in reality, replicate racist caricatures of black women as sexually deviant].”

It is Christgau’s description that sticks—if not word for word—in the critical imagination as it examines the mostly black, mostly hip-hop and funk women artists who kept clearing the way down Davis’ boundary-pushing path. Artists like Missy Elliott, Eve, and Lil Kim get their due in some critical and academic circles, but most still view them as lewd, though pleasant, novelties. We’re still collectively dissolving the barriers that keep men’s sexuality center stage while pushing women’s and non-binary people’s underground, so if Davis was ahead of her time, all the artists listed above are too.

Their time—the time when women don’t have to apologize for having bodies and expressing their wants and needs—may not have yet arrived, but in the meantime at least there’s the music, prescient and unrepentant, to enjoy.