(September 11, 2020). On Friday, Sept 11, the biopic “I Am Woman” opens in select theaters and on other platforms across the U.S. It’s the dramatized retelling of how popular, Australian-born singer Helen Reddy rose to fame after co-writing and recording the female empowerment anthem bearing the movie’s title and turning it into a million-selling, No. 1 pop smash in late 1972.
Based on the movie’s trailer and previews (the film was previously released abroad in 2019), the story is centered on how Reddy was inspired by the women’s liberation movement of the early 1970s to not only write the lyrics to “I Am Woman,” but also use her growing leverage to get Capital Records – her label at the time – to update the song from its original version on her 1971 debut album with a modified re-recording for the hit single release the following year.
With the movie’s release, DJROBBLOG is taking this opportunity to compare and contrast “I Am Woman” and its soul music counterpart from later in the decade, “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan. Clearly, Khan’s hit has nothing to do with a Helen Reddy movie, but the two similarly titled songs had more than a few things in common, and they also had some unique distinctions that we thought would be fun to explore as the Helen Reddy tune re-enters America’s collective consciousness.
Plus, dubious connection aside, the movie’s release is an excuse for me to write an article about two songs I’ve always loved and whose importance in the feminist movement has always intrigued me.
Reddy had only seen modest chart success before “I Am Woman,” but label execs saw potential in the song as the “women’s lib” movement (as it was called then) was gaining steam. Unhappy with the original song, which had been included on her first album, I Don’t Know How To Love Him, Reddy felt an improvement was needed before “Woman” would see the light of day as her next single.
She was right, and not only did the revised version of “I Am Woman” become her first of three No. 1 singles – all with female-centered themes (“Delta Dawn” and “Angie Baby” being the other two) – it also became the anthem of the women’s equal rights movement, a song that was as polarizing as the movement itself and one that has forever notched its place as one of the most important, culture-shifting tunes in American pop music history.
Now fast-forward six years to 1978 and the release of another career-defining female anthem, this one from a woman whose hitmaking success was blooming in the decade’s second half just as Helen Reddy’s was starting to fade.
Soul singer Chaka Khan, whose stellar track record with the group Rufus was still at its peak in ‘78, released what would become the soulful equivalent of “I Am Woman.” Khan’s all-encompassing smash “I’m Every Woman” was a tune that would yield her the first of three No. 1 solo hits on the soul chart (“What ‘Cha Gonna Do For Me” and “I Feel For You” being the other two) to go with five No. 1 hits with Rufus.
Khan’s “Woman” was different from Reddy’s on many levels, not the least of which was genre, yet they were also similar in key aspects…particularly the male-dominated world in which they were conceived and later thrived.
First the distinctions. While Reddy’s song was triumphant and defiant in its tale of self-realization and feminist pride, Khan’s was sassy and brash with an air of sexuality, and with the singer not ashamed to celebrate all the things she was capable of doing for her mate.
The “roar” Helen wanted us to hear in her “Woman” was a collective one stemming from years of oppression in a male-dominated society. Khan’s actual yells in the “I got it” ad libs of her “Woman” were seemingly intended for an audience of one.
Whereas Reddy’s “I Am Woman” drew power from unity in numbers “too great to ignore,” Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” was more singularly focused on all the things that she alone could accomplish. She could “sense your needs,” “make a rhyme of confusion in your mind” and “give you some good old-fashioned love” to boot.
Both songs were similar in that they refused to take on the victim role of the much more successful – and even more enduring – female anthem from 1979, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” which closed out the decade as one of the biggest-selling singles of all time and has also endured as a signature anthem for women (and men) ever since. Helen and Chaka also eschewed the “sisterly love” message that provided the foundation for that same year’s “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. Interestingly, both “Survive” and “Family” were written solely by pairs of men.
Instead, “I Am Woman” and “I’m Every Woman” both exuded power and strength, the kind that inherently emanates from within, without needing to have experienced the pain and suffering of a bad relationship before realizing that power was there all along.
What is also interesting about the two songs is the similar male influence that surrounded them, both in their creation and in their historical contexts.
Ironically, both songs were co-written by men. In the case of “I Am Woman,” Helen Reddy was credited with the lyrics, while Ray Burton composed the music and (reportedly) altered the lyrics to allow Reddy’s more poem-like prose to fit the song’s structure.
In the case of Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” the song was written by the husband-and-wife team of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, with Nick surprisingly writing the lyrics (Valerie was the musician of the team).
Was there any wonder then that Khan’s male-defined “Woman” derived her satisfaction from the many ways in which she could please her man, while Reddy’s “Woman” was emboldened by her wisdom and invincibility in a world where her only goal was to “make her brother understand”?
Those differences become more understandable when considering the different eras in which the two songs were released – yes they were both in the ‘70s, but things were very different, especially musically, between 1972 and 1978.
For starters, the fight for women’s equality had dominated the first half of the decade and the timing of Reddy’s “Woman” couldn’t have been more appropriate. It was released in the same year that Shirley Chisholm became the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination (and, incidentally, the first black candidate for any major party’s nomination).
The year 1972 was also the same year that the Equal Rights Amendment, designed to provide equal protections for all Americans regardless of sex, was passed by the U.S. Senate (after the House of Representatives approved it the year before). However, to this day the ERA hasn’t been ratified by the states as called for by the Constitution.
By 1978, while socio-economic conditions hadn’t improved much for women, the term “women’s lib” had fallen out of vogue. Instead, perhaps emboldened by the famous Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, which protected women’s rights to choose to have abortions, women were becoming more expressive and assertive in other ways, particularly in their relationships and how they expressed themselves sexually.
Between 1972 and ‘78, the pop music world had experienced the smash hit “Pillow Talk,” the self-explanatory, million-selling 1973 title by Sylvia, a soul singer who, incidentally, was one of the first women to own her own record label and whose later venture, Sugar Hill Records, launched hip-hop into the commercial mainstream in 1979.
There had also been the orgasmic “Love To Love You Baby” by disco queen Donna Summer in 1975. It was a song so filled with Donna’s moans that people actually kept count of the number of orgasms the record contained. Months later in 1976, Motown queen Diana Ross gave a toned-down – but still provocative – rendering of sexual assertion in the No. 1 pop and soul hit “Love Hangover.”
All of this occurred while Queen of Raunch soul singer Millie Jackson, long considered the “mother of rapping,” broke down barriers with her unique brand of bluesy female anthems like “If You’re Not Back In Love By Monday” and “It Hurts So Good.”
It was only natural then that, by 1978, Chaka Khan would kick off her solo career with an empowering anthem that had moved past self-realization and more specifically towards self-actualization than Helen Reddy’s had been.
Despite their eras’ differences, there were still more ties that bonded the two songs together in their historical contexts.
When Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” reached No. 1 pop in 1972, it was the first No. 1 by a woman on Capital Records in five years (Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” was the label’s previous chart topper by a solo woman in 1967).
When Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” topped the Billboard Soul chart in November 1978, it became the first No. 1 soul song on the Warner Brothers label by a solo female in nearly two-and-a-half years (after Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free” topped the list in June 1976).
Read more: Chaka Khan’s signature anthem turns 40!
Helen Reddy’s No. 1 placement on the Hot 100 was sandwiched between the chart-topping runs of two philandering male songs: the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” preceded “I Am Woman” and Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” followed it at the top. With all that cheatin’ going on around it, Helen’s hit appeared even more noble in its historical context.
Chaka Khan’s No. 1 run on the soul chart was squeezed between the chart-topping ranks of songs by Funkadelic (“One Nation Under A Groove”) and Chic (“Le Freak”). Neither of those two classics are notable for any sexist elements, but their creators – George Clinton of Funkadelic and Nile Rodgers & Bernard Edwards of Chic – were known for being Svengali-like, even patriarchal in the recording studio back in the day.
In 2020, times have certainly changed. While equal rights issues – like equal pay for equal work – still draw headlines and are just as relevant today as they were in 1972, the #MeToo movement has shifted the spotlight to focus more on anti-harassment advocacy. Entertainment wise, songs like “WAP,” the No. 1 tune by rappers Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, make Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” feel like a Sesame Street theme.
And – just like in 1972 when “I Am Woman” thrived – there is a black woman, Sen. Kamala Harris – making waves in the U.S. presidential race. Except, this time, she’s actually made it onto the Democratic Party’s ticket as the presidential nominee’s running mate, instantly making the November election not only a referendum on the current incumbent’s performance but also one on whether the country is ready for a black woman being first in line as successor to the president should the need arise.
So what a better time than now to resurface Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” for a whole new generation of moviegoers and music fans around the country.
And, as we prepare for Chaka Khan’s perennial nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame again this fall – either solo or with her group Rufus – we’re reminded that the heroine in her “I’m Every Woman” can do anything you want done – naturally – and with no validation needed.
DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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