People often dress up as witches for Halloween. It’s a convenient, easily recognized costume. Yet there was a time when being a witch resulted in death by hanging.
These witches were often women who were different from their neighbors and murdered for being themselves. Today an untraditional, “weird” woman isn’t killed for being different, but there are consequences to standing out.
In music, one such trailblazer who refused to blend in is Stevie Nicks. As a part of Fleetwood Mac, Nicks is a classic rock icon whose influence can be found anywhere you look. Her prominence began when she wrote the song “Rhiannon” for the band in 1975.
Nicks found the name “Rhiannon” in a book and decided it would sound pretty in a song. Not long after, she discovered it was also the name of a Celtic deity and ran with it.
On the surface, the song is a portrait of a mysterious woman who captivates the hearts of men. However, the lyrics took on a more magical connotation after she started introducing its connection to the witch-goddess at shows.
“She is like a cat in the dark and then she is the darkness,” Nicks sings, painting a picture of the powerful and mystical Rhiannon.
The song is one of Fleetwood Mac’s biggest hits, and a signature of Nicks’ discography.
When I first heard the band’s self-titled album, the song instantly became one of my favorites. Nicks is irrepressible as she unleashes her voice on the track with unrestrained conviction. The hazy production swirling around her voice adds to the spooky atmosphere. Today, it’s still a haunting track that no one else could have pulled off, one that immediately turned me into a Stevie Nicks fan.
Historically, rock has been a male-dominated genre. When Fleetwood Mac was at the height of its power, many fans and critics had a hard time reconciling Nicks’ talent with the perceptions propagated by the patriarchal music sphere she belonged to. As a result, the blowback against her gained traction. When her debut solo album “Bella Donna” came out, rock critic Lester Bangs wrote a review titled “Stevie Nicks: Lilith or Bimbo,” in which he points out that two different hair stylists were each credited for the front and back covers “and it damn sure looks like the same haircut.”
If Nicks was a man, would he have spent an entire paragraph dissecting her “narcissistic” album cover in a piece supposedly about her music? In a review of “Rumors” for Rolling Stone, John Swenson notes that Nicks gives the only lacking vocal performance on “Dreams,” which he describes as “lightweight.” It’s also the only number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 that Fleetwood Mac has ever produced.
Some went further than simply diminishing her artistic talent by attacking Nicks herself. A rumor spread in the ’80s that Nicks was a witch because of her lyrics and flowy black dresses. In reality, Nicks was a woman who fully embraced her femininity.
To some in the music world, being unabashedly feminine counted as criminal offense, and a woman who could not be stifled or controlled by the rules her male peers created was dangerous.
The only way to bring her down was to launch a literal witch hunt.
Unfortunately, much of the pressure Nicks went through to establish herself as a legitimate star haven’t vanished. We see it in the workplace, where men still outearn women for equal work. We see it in politics, where female voices are stifled in favor of the careers of male counterparts. In music, it’s found in the disparity of mainstream female rappers and country singers or in the way we hone in on female performers’ appearances.
To be seen as someone worthy of commercial attention, a woman has to be both talented and infallible. Any signs of imperfection can be used to erase her accomplishments in the blink of an eye.
However, we rise to the challenge over and over. It is a daunting one that can feel impossible, but we do it anyway.
Women like Nicks who refuse to give in to the cruelty of a rigged system make it possible for more like her to follow in suit. She’s paved the way for artists like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey, Florence Welch and countless others who look to her for inspiration.
By refusing to compromise, she gave future generations of women permission to be themselves and showed them how it’s done. While the world has a long way to go before female artists escape the scrutiny not afforded to their male peers, the path forward is that much easier because of Nicks’ actions.
In 2013, Nicks guest starred on an episode of “American Horror Story: Coven,” playing herself as a witch. Decades after the “witch” rumor was thrown around as a way to discredit her, Nicks took that label and made it her own. Being a witch means exuding power.
Being a witch means being uncontained. And being a witch means having control over one’s own image no matter what.
Baylee Shlichtman is junior majoring in journalism. Her column, “F Sharp,” runs every other Monday.