When Betty Davis passed away last week, the word ‘radical’ featured in just about every obituary. Usually, that word, unfortunately, comes with one slight drawback: a lack of commercial success. The reason I say ‘slight’ on this occasion, is because it never seemed to bother the bold Betty Davis much, she was preoccupied with her own self-expression and as she went along, she extolled truths very rarely voiced.
In 1974, two years before Davis essentially resigned from the industry, the New York Times likened her progressive spirit to the blues legend Bessie Smith—the publication presumed that Davis would follow in her footsteps and become a trailblazer so ahead of her times that her illuminating ways were only realised after the fact. They wrote: “Miss Davis is trying to tell us something real and basic about our irrational needs, and western civilisation puts its highest premiums on conformity and rationality and rarely recognises the Bessies or the Bettys until they’re gone.”
In other words, Davis’ open sexuality and explicit lyrics were too glaring for their own good in a commercial sense, but nowadays her influence is ubiquitous in pop culture. However, Davis wasn’t merely a raunchy figure, she was expressing human urges that aren’t often mentioned in song. One of these was the need for sexual gratification and with ‘Anti Love Song’ she screamed this message home in typically unflinching style.
“Not I don’t want to love you,” Davis sings in a fashion that is almost akin to Jane Birkin’s groans in her famous Serge Gainsbourg duet, as an uber sultry bassline rattles around and leaves you checking that your headphones are definitely plugged in as you listen along on the bus. “I know you could have me shaking,” she continues in a style that proved radically daring amid what was still essentially a fairly conservative mainstream despite how it is retrospectively viewed.
As her friend Connie Portis opined when the late star passed: “Betty opened up the way for others to be brazen and brash and to say what they wanted to say.” When it comes to ‘Anti Love Song’ that brazen method was to do away with usual smitten tales that women had to propagate in the era and say, ‘thanks but no thanks, I’m only in this for one thing’, and to say that in an entirely resolute manner too.
The song is a sonic aphrodisiac and boldly puts forth an alternative take on love that is often silent in the sound of music. She paired this bold approach with a melody that no doubt stiff-upper-lipped folks tried to ban and in the process, she delivered the ultimate anti-Valentine’s Day track. Don’t worry folks, as Davis says in the most sumptuous style, being single isn’t all that bad.