Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ is Still Teaching Me How to Be Free

Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ is Still Teaching Me How to Be Free

On her iconic debut album, her refusal to fit into the cookie cutter version of womanhood legitimised my own sense of self.
December 15, 2016, 2:48pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

According to strange, societal laws, there are certain things boys and girls are "supposed" to do based on their gender. When you're young, it can be easy to internalize these ideas, as though law has decreed that all interests must fall neatly into one gender defined box. But the older you get, the more you realize this is bullshit. Men can enjoy glitter and lipstick; women can become race car drivers, or you can choose to opt out of either. We're all made from oxygen, bones, muscle tissue—and everything in this world should be open to any human who possesses these elements.

Before that bullshit detector shifts into gear though, there has to be a catalyst. For me, that was Patti Smith. I was born in the early 90s in Britain, an entire two decades after she released her first album, so for me to discuss her legacy within the context of 1970s New York is akin to my nan writing a thinkpiece on Lil Yachty. But what I can say, is that being exposed to her glorious web of weirdness as a teenager informed the way I thought about gender, freedom and certain tenants I'd like to apply to my own existence. And since then, I've found the necessity of those tenants refreshing themselves all over again.

Like a lot of people, my first brush with Patti Smith came via her iconic debut album Horses - the one in which she stares out from the monochrome artwork, wearing a crisp white shirt, clutching her braces, a black blazer slung over one shoulder. Unlike the music she released a couple of years later on Easter, where she embraced a more accessible sound, Horses is an unearthly and bewildering creation that feels as though it's been wrenched from the most shadowy crevices of her mind. Her voice is jarring, tuneless almost. As a hormonal fifteen year old whose favourite hobbies were popping pills and writing awful poems, her erratic sense of rhythm and surreal wordplay embedded itself like a seed inside my brain. At that age, Patti Smith made me feel as though I wasn't the only one whose mind felt like it was being dragged in all directions by a chaotic yet invisible force.

The song I always return to is "Land", the album's 9-minute closer, which contains so many wild shapes and rhythms it feels like Smith is painting a piece of abstract art with her voice. She spends the first two minutes alone reciting a poem. Her voice begins as barely a murmur, but as the poem builds, her voice becomes faster and louder, as if she's on the brink of satanic possession. "Started crashing his head against the locker, started crashing his head against the locker, started laughing hysterically," she spits, her voice dipping and diving like an aeroplane crash, a steady guitar line building beneath her words. By the time she's chanting "Horses! Horses! Horses!" you feel as if you're the one crashing your head against a locker. By the end, the track evens out into a melodic guitar riff, and all is well again. Patti Smith always does this: pushes you into chaos, then draws you back in so you're left feeling breathless.

I didn't immediately love "Land". Improvisational poetry is hard to dance to. The chorus isn't exactly Spice Girls levels of infectious. It's double the length of most songs. But it's a harsh and freaky and uncompromising song. By the time I'd cranked it out the speakers for the seventh time in a row, she began to finally make sense to me. Patti Smith didn't give a fuck about sounding pretty, making herself easier to swallow, or trying to suppress the wildness that emanated from her every time she put her mouth to a mic. She sounded like nothing that came before her, or after.

As a teenage girl who hated wearing dresses, had a short homemade haircut, and wanted to be a skateboarder, Smith's refusal to fit into the cookie cutter version of womanhood legitimised my own sense of self. I always looked awkward in heels. Too much make up sat on my face weirdly, as if it wasn't supposed to be there. I didn't like the way some boys stared at me, like a piece of cake to be eaten. But when you're young and impressionable, you think you must be wrong; if you just tried harder to fit in, everything would work out for the better. But on the cold mornings when I'd be walking to school, smoking wonky roll ups down Hackney Road and listening to Horses on my iPod, I'd tell myself that my best years were yet to come. Patti Smith made me realise that societal, gender defined rules were nonsensical. I could just opt out.

Unlike David Bowie or Grace Jones or Prince, the way Patti toys with gender and freedom on Horses never feels like an overt statement. Instead, her music is simply an authentic expression of her identity that acts as though gendered expectations don't exist. By embracing herself entirely, as an uncompromisingly androgynous, loud and complex human being, Patti rejects labels in a way that feels effortless. She invites you to do the same thing, too. Whether she's singing from the perspective of a man in "Kimberly" ("The babe in my arms, in her swaddling clothes"), or drawling about all her sins in "Gloria" ("My sins are my own, they belong to me, me"), the greatest pleasure of Horses exists in her ability to think outside of where she's "supposed" to be, and closer to where she actually is. In a world that tries to teach us that women are there to be looked at, that the most "important" art is made by men, Patti Smith's existence says no, you're wrong.

Ultimately, the best thing about Horses is the way Smith uses the combination of spoken word and music to create a feeling; one that drives straight into your heart and flows into your soul. Even in "Free Money", a track that could almost be described as melodic, her words take on a deranged life of their own. What starts as a romantic fantasy to spoil her lover soon twists into something altogether more painful and feverish. By the time the track reaches its midpoint, her words have jumbled into a string of nonsensical rhythms. "Deep where it's hot, hot in Arabia, babia, then cool, cold fields of snow, and we'll roll, dream, roll, dream, roll, roll, dream, dream" she yowls, as if her ability to speak has been taken over by an untameable beast that lurks inside her.

To hear a woman bare none of the self-consciousness that comes with the male gaze, to fearlessly embrace the chaos of her own emotions, is both powerful and inspiring. Even though I'm 24 now, well past that very specific awkwardness of being a teenage girl, society's pressures haven't been entirely wiped away from my psyche. There are still moments when I find myself trying to make myself more quiet and palatable, or trying to suppress my emotions so I don't appear deranged, or trying to make myself appear more heterosexual so as not to make people uncomfortable. In those moments I return to Horses, reminding myself to reject those outside influences, and it still makes me feel the same way as when I was fifteen.

This month, Horses reaches its 41st anniversary and Patti Smith celebrates her 70th birthday. But these numbers aren't really relevant, because the album has always felt like an everlasting musical testimony. "I did Horses as a bridge, a touchstone, for the future," Patti Smith said last year. "I understood where we were at, what we'd been given and where we should go, and if I could voice it, perhaps it could inspire the next generation." Until we live in a queer, genderless utopia, there will always be people who feel uncomfortable in their own skin, who need reminding that it's not their fault. This album will continue to break barriers for anyone who hears it today.

Last year, I watched Patti Smith perform the entirety of Horses at Glastonbury. As she growled through "Kimberly", dressed in black jeans and boots with wiry grey hair sticking out in all directions like drunk spider's legs, she gave me a new dose of power. Women are made to feel as though our worth has a time limit, as though we will transform into dry old flesh sacks whose only purpose is to rear children, or disappear from view without making too much noise or doing something that might embarrass the more fertile humans. But here Patti Smith was, 69 years old and shrieking, swearing and spitting on stage. Halfway through, she fell flat on her face. When she got up, she screamed, "Yeah I just fell on my ass at Glastonbury, and you know why? Because I'm a fucking animal!" Watching Patti Smith refuse to conform to expectations of how women should act – on stage or otherwise – made me feel like doing exactly the same thing. Even when I'm old and my hair resembles a steel wire brush, and I'm shouting at passing children about why they need to hear Horses, this album will always be with me.

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