What Should Be The 'Game Of Thrones' Soundtrack : The Record Women in rock from Stevie Nicks to Joanna Newsom find witchy power in fantasies seen in HBO's show.
NPR logo What Should Be The 'Game Of Thrones' Soundtrack: Ripped-Bodice Rock

What Should Be The 'Game Of Thrones' Soundtrack: Ripped-Bodice Rock

The critical debate that broke out last week over whether women would be interested in HBO's Game of Thrones resembles a border battle that a fantasy author might write: engagingly bloody but depressingly predictable.

Ginia Bellafante threw down her jewel-encrusted gauntlet with a New York Times pan that labeled the gritty Ren Faire revisionism of the world created by writer George R.R. Martin "boy fiction" that HBO has spruced up with some sex and romance for the ladies. Hers wasn't the only review to call Game of Thrones sexist, but it hit the hardest.

Fantasy-loving female smarties quickly took her to task for condescending to fantasy fans in general and girl geeks in particular. Such arguments are perennial within gender-focused liberation movements. The fight to be included (in the military, say, or contact sports, or subcultural realms like fantasy) is always haunted by the possibility that the club you're trying to crash is actually lame.

It seems obvious to me that some women (like some men) adore sinking into fantasy worlds like Martin's, while others remain disinterested or repulsed. I myself dig guys in furs and ladies who sneakily outwit their oppressors, so I'll be watching the events unfolding in Westeros.

Maybe my tolerance for trips to ye olde country like this one stems partly from the fact that I grew up in the kingdom of rock. Women who run with the rockers have been dipping into Guinevere's trunk for decades, trying on costumes and artistic identities that help them express what it's like to fight for feminine power within a seriously patriarchal milieu. What follows is a guide to what should be the soundtrack for Game of Thrones: the fiercely femme-tastical world of ripped-bodice rock.

The World Of Ripped-Bodice Rock

  • Sandy Denny

    Sandy Denny. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images hide caption

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    Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

    Remember Sandy Denny's voice cutting across Robert Plant's in Led Zeppelin's "Battle of Evermore," like the wind that shakes the barley? Back when cock rock was taking over from the more female-friendly scene the Beatles dominated, some women found their place by tapping into folk traditions. Janis Joplin turned to female blues heroines like Bessie Smith to guide her forays into American rock boys' clubs; artists like Denny, Linda Thompson and Maddy Prior found similar authority in the often anonymous but eternally haunting voices of women in traditional folk ballads.

  • Stevie Nicks' "Rhiannon"

    No song has carried forth the spirit of rock-star women's witchy independence as powerfully as "Rhiannon" by Stevie Nicks. The scarf-swathed great lady of mystical pop embodies folk-rockish Los Angeles as much as she does any imagined Middle Earth, but her songwriterly creation so perfectly melds the mythic and the contemporary that it made Nicks the high priestess of her own pop cult. Why do we all love "Rhiannon"? Because at the heart of this freaky tale is a woman mastering the biggest challenge we all face in the so-called post-feminist age: to escape the bonds of fate (and, ahem, patriarchy), Rhiannon possesses herself.

  • Heart On The Cover Of 'Little Queen'

    Cover of Heart's Little Queen.
    Courtesy of Portrait Records

    Then there was Heart. I remember picking up this album cover in a Seattle record store in 1977 and just being slayed by the looks on the Wilson sisters' faces. Those beauty implements they held sure seemed like potential weapons. This forever underappreciated band was influenced in equal parts by the Beatles and Led Zep, and their hits – "Magic Man," "Dreamboat Annie" – explored how female desire and wanderlust could take shape within the the aptly named hard rock subgenre.

  • Kate Bush

    The great Kate Bush is mother of post-punk art rock, a synth-pop pioneer, and the first female pop star I ever heard consistently addressing issues beyond sex and romance. Bush's music time-travels from Wuthering Heights to the battlefields of WWI, as the singer shape-shifts into a bank robber, a rocket, an enlightened being or Houdini's wife – whatever she wants to be. Her magic transcends any one era, yet somehow we still often dream her in a tunic dress and a peaked cap – perhaps because, like a latter-day Morgan le Fay, she is such a singular sorceress.

  • Queens Of The New Age

    Classic rock isn't the only musical territory long ruled by knights in shining tight jeans. "New Age" music may appeal to sensitive types, but its titans – whether charismatic world music hybridizers like Yanni and Kitaro or the science nerds who've followed in Brian Eno's footsteps – tend to be male. So it's no surprise that the women who've conquered this scene, most notably Enya and Loreena McKennitt, often do so under the camouflage of lace and velvet. Connecting with the sagas of the Celts or the Silk Road lends these artists credibility, though like the historical fiction writers who are their sisters in spirit, these ladies definitely take liberties.

  • Crossover Classical

    It isn't easy to jump from conservatory-style music to pop and retain credibility on either side of the fence. Some resourceful women have done so by turning their classical backgrounds into something that could be called corseted burlesque. Groups like the cello-centric New York band Rasputina and Miranda Sex Garden, an English trio that began life singing madrigals in the street, created a place where proper young ladies could unleash their inner punks. Miranda Sex Garden founder Katharine Blake went on to found Medieaval Baebes, a crossover-classical group that, like Martin's books, has been making the Dark Ages sexy since 1996.

  • Joanna Newsom

    Cover of Joanna Newsom's Ys.
    Courtesy of Drag City Records

    It's possible (for a besotted fan like me) to see the entire trajectory of ripped-bodice pop as setting the stage for Joanna Newsom. This remarkably gifted singer, harpist and art song writer isn't the only 21st-century gal to harken back to partially imagined days of yore – Faun Fables and Espers feature women's voices doing something similar. But Newsom transforms and transcends the references she cultivates. Trained in both classical harp and techniques also used by African kora players, Newsom is a postmodern hybridizer who's also just a great writer; if she wanted to, I'm sure she could write her own fantasy epic. We're lucky that she sticks with songs. She truly shows us how everything old is new again.