This week, Frank Turner announced his new record, and conceptually, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. According to the announcement, ‘No Man’s Land’ is “an album dedicated to telling the fascinating stories of women whose incredible lives have all too often been overlooked by dint of their gender.”
Someone who plays in a band called Möngöl Hörde – and who also refused to change the offensive name because “it’s not really possible to change it, having been a band for seven years” – now attempting to alter the course of history is a weird flex, but ok.
‘No Man’s Land’ purports to be an album focused on telling the lesser-known stories of women from across history, while simultaneously positioning a male artist centre stage. Despite being produced by Catherine Marks (The Big Moon, Wolf Alice) and being backed by an all-female band, the lack of prominent guest spots from female musicians feel like strange omission; instead, the record is more like story-time with Frank Turner.
His right, as a male musician, to tell these stories is something that Frank Turner does try to acknowledge in his album announcement; albeit clumsily. “Yes, I’m a man,” he says in the trailer, “and yes that… is important, because I’ve written a new album all about women.” It’s a start, except Turner doesn’t seem to understand why this is important. By positioning himself at the centre of proceedings, he’s inadvertently fishing for a pat on the back.
The idea of the male gaze – male artists depicting women in their work, often in ways that feel sexualising, exploitative, or both – is long-established. From the nude portraits of the Renaissance period to songs like The Rolling Stones ‘Brown Sugar’ reducing women to objects for male consumption is an art trope as old as history.
As a self-confessed history fan Frank Turner will be well aware of this – and it’s also immediately clear that ‘No Man’s Land’ comes from a place of respect. The goal is a well-intentioned one; here is a musician attempting to use his platform to amplify the stories of women. However it is curious that, so far, Turner is yet to interrogate the issues with this particular moment being helmed by a man, and further to that, his voice being the only one on the record.
Across its track-listing, ‘No Man’s Land’ references numerous historical figures including the hugely influential guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, serial killer Nannie Doss, Jinny Bigham (who was accused of witchcraft in 17th Century Camden) and the Egyptian feminist leader Huda Sha’arawi. The record also dedicates a song to Resusci Anne, the name given to the generic CPR training mannequin used in first aid training around the world to the present.
The mannequin’s face is based on a cast taken from an unidentified woman who drowned in Paris in the 1800s; a pathologist at the city morgue was apparently taken by her beauty, and – not creepy at all – made a death mask of the deceased woman’s face. The cast continued to do the rounds, and this anonymous woman became something of an artistic muse for countless men who gushed over her serene facial expression. Hopefully Turner’s ‘Rescue Annie’ – which is yet to be released – will have a few interesting observations to make about the ways in which women are commodified by male artists.
The problem is, even Turner can’t help romanticising Annie to a degree. Interestingly, she’s portrayed as a drowned virgin in the press release for ‘No Man’s Land’, a questionable detail which can’t be factually verified.
“You can’t not write a song about a woman who died never having been kissed and then became the most kissed face in history,” Turner says of the track in question – and isn’t that just another obvious example of a male musician warping a narrative in order to better serve his own art? PS: somebody clearly wasn’t paying attention in first aid training: delivering mouth to mouth resuscitation in order to save somebody’s life bears absolutely no resemblance to a kiss.
See, this is the problem with men – yes, even feminist men who support equality wholeheartedly – taking women’s stories, and telling them instead. Often, they make a hash of it. Art does not always have to come from a place of personal experience, and music would be a very boring place indeed, if that were the case. But it’s also worth wondering what new understanding or insight Turner can bring to these stories.
Judging by the first single ‘Sister Rosetta’, which unfortunately bears a passing melodic resemblance to ‘Stacey’s Mom’ by Fountains of Wayne: very little. “Rosetta rolled her eyes when she played/She knew that strange things happen every day/And that the white boy hype would eventually fade/And the way that she played would remain.”
What Turner appears to be presenting here isn’t a no man’s land at all. It’s a land where no men are allowed – apart from Frank Turner. Because, in case you didn’t get the memo, he’s a good man. He reads lots of books about women. He’s humble enough to admit that Sister Rosetta Tharpe is “a way better guitar player than me” – no kidding, pal. He’s nice to his mum. He’s not like other men!
Let’s be real, this record looks like it’ll be set in #NotAllMen’s Land instead.