Illustrations by Ralph Damman
"I always wanted to be a witch," Stevie Nicks gushed to MTV in 1987, cloaked in as much black then as ever, reflecting on her childhood love of Halloween. "The dripping black sleeves… this was a style I thought was just absolutely great, and that continued right into my life." It was an image of power within femininity that stuck. As budding songwriter in the 70s, Nicks gravitated toward the name Rhiannon in a supernatural novel, inspiring her to conjure a new backstory for Rhiannon as a Welsh witch in command of nature. Nicks brought her tale to Fleetwood Mac upon joining the band for their eponymous self-titled debut album in 1975, taking authorship of the first bona-fide hit of Fleetwood's classic lineup and her image as a witch – not within the very real religion of Wicca, but symbolically.
To embrace the label of being a witch is to reclaim pride in being an independent woman, defying gender conventions, asserting control of your agency, and telling the patriarchy to shove it. Embodying witch imagery was as practical for Nicks as it was emotional, a means of accentuating her movements on arena stages. Swaying in the moment became twirls of grandeur, her sleeves, veils and skirts casting sparkles and shadows onto faces below. Nicks even winked to her legacy with a cameo on American Horror Story: Coven in 2014, playing piano so tenderly it moves one of the coven members to twirl under Nicks' strictly-musical spell. It's no wonder that women in music, past and present, identify with witch imagery to assert their own confidence in life, subversion, and romance.
Yoko Ono recorded the funky "Yes, I'm A Witch" in 1974 during her brief separation from John Lennon to affirm her independence: "Yes, I'm a witch / I'm a bitch / I don't care what you say / My voice is real / My voice speaks truth / I don't fit in your ways," Ono coolly sings. Grace Jones proudly belts "Rather be a bitch, just look at me / Being a witch is what I'd rather be" on the opening of her 1979 album Muse "Sinning," touting how irresistible she is to a lover while asserting herself as the sensual alpha: "It's no fantasy / You're trapped with me / Just don't get tired and I won't bring you down." Siouxsie and The Banshees riddled songs and videos such as "Spellbound" with references to witches including black cats, voodoo, and crescent moons throughout the 80s and beyond, inspiring more women in the goth rock movement to replicate Siouxsie Sioux all while critics hailed Sioux's presence as a commanding, confident force. Witches as a thematic and aesthetic influence in music continues today, with many women influenced by Nicks especially.
Florence Welch went from writing spells in notebooks as a child to performing in bellowing robes and nearly doing a witch-trial concept album with Florence and The Machine. Haim wear matching crescent-moon necklaces to mark their sisterhood, a gift from Nicks herself. Lorde's self-described "goth-witch vibe" includes an endless supply of black gowns and cascading dark hair. Witch house had its moment where bands like Salem combined references to witchcraft with dark electronic music, and its most prominent graduate Grimes has even worn the word WITCH in proud all-caps across her chest. Nicki Minaj went through a period of using a dark arts alter-ego Roman to deliver her most seething verses including on Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy standout "Monster" in 2010, at the Grammys in 2012, and on Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded that same year. Courtney Love has sung of witches as women of power throughout her work with Hole, even covering Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman" and Donovan's "Season of the Witch." "They want to burn the witches inside us," she sings of riot grrrl haters on the 1993 Hole B-side "20 Years in The Dakota."
With all the mythos surrounding witch imagery, it's easy to forget that hundreds of thousands of real-life women were burned at the stake, accused, tortured and murdered because of literal witch-hunts in the Middle Ages. The "golden age" of witch-hunts ran in Europe from the late 15th Century into the 18th Century. The powder keg here was the fear-mongering Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of [the] Witches, a text written by monks in the 1480s to argue witches were a) in service of Satan, b) largely women as they were the weaker sex (Men calling women weaker? Shocker!), and c) only witch hunts could stop their rampage of death and male tears.
As noted feminist Lisa Simpson once mused, "Why is it that when a women is confident and powerful, they call her a witch?" It's coded sexism. The victims of the witch-hunt boom and its echoes including the Salem Witch Trials were rarely spiritually witches. In colonial North America, women who were accused of being witches often defied gender roles and ideals prescribed to them, including not having children, being elderly, associating with independent women, or being "overly" argumentative and stubborn. While the bulk of witch hunts largely ended after Britain's Witchcraft Act of 1735, their toxic cocktail of sexism and spirituality proved to be lasting: women in tribal communities in India who owned land or found economic success on their own have been targeted and murdered by men under the excuse that they were witches as late as the 2000s. Come on.
Even today, men in music continue to hound women who threaten their strength through witch imagery. The esteemed ranks of Chris Brown, Imagine Dragons and Tech N9ne are just some of the men who've put out a song called "Curse(d)" in which they detail women with an emotional or sexual hold over them. Women who weaken men are also transmogrified into the inhuman on songs including Nine Inch Nails' "Reptile," a scornful description of an ex-lover. Relentless rumors that Stevie Nicks was a "real" witch in the vein of Middle Ages caricature even frightened Nicks away from wearing her signature black dresses briefly in the 80s, a strain of gossip that persists today in the form of outlandish conspiracy theory videos claiming that independent women in music from Nicki Minaj to Lorde are demon-possessed satanic witches.
"A lot of people scared me," Nicks told Entertainment Tonight in 1983. "And that's really unfair to me, I think, for people – other people – to conjure up their ideas of what I am or what I believe in." Gossip quick hits often knock women like Rihanna by saying they've put men "under her spell." As writer Kimberly Ballard points out on Unrecorded, writers especially bullied Courtney Love by characterizing her as a witch to attack her relationship with Kurt Cobain, "saying Love had 'bewitched' Cobain and 'put a spell on him'…As a woman who fought stereotypes and consistently shrugged off expectations, it's fitting that Love became the main suspect in the witch-hunt following Cobain's death." Love uses witch and bitch interchangeably as Grace Jones, Yoko Ono, and others did before her, a nod to the coded sexism the label of witch was intended to enforce.
Jones lives comfortably in her androgyny and assertiveness even when she's up against sexist interviewers. As she shares in the 2013 doc In Your Dreams, Nicks ultimately chose to not have children to put music first. Grimes is her own producer, owning her weirdness while brushing off patronizing requests from men to help with her music. Florence Welch and Lorde have spoken of their childhood or adulthood female friendships as covens, signifying strong bonds between strong women. When men are still reaching to prescribe the success of women in music to a man and patronizing or doubtful of women who've made it on their own, we need these women promoting independence, defiance, and sisterhood as virtues to inspire other girls to come together and claim their rightful space in music. Symbolically, if being a witch means belonging to that kind of community of women, then Jones is right to sing "Being a witch is what I'd rather be."
Jill Krajewski is a witchy Scorpio. Follow her on Twitter.