Fierce Ruling Diva

Once too hot to handle, Betty Davis freaky funk is ripe for rediscovery

In retrospect, it's baffling why Davis didn't become a big star. Do you think it was a matter of her being too far ahead of her time, too sexually aggressive for the male-dominated music industry's idea of how a female artist should be?

Yes, I guess she was ahead of her time. Had she an organization behind her to support what she was trying to do, she most likely could have realized her persona in a bigger audience and a sustained career.

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Taking care of libidinous
Taking care of libidinous

Following her father's death in the late '70s, Davis descended into a depressive state that derailed her music career. She's mostly lived a quiet life in Pennsylvania, dropping so far off the radar that even ASCAP couldn't locate her to pay royalties. The personality revealed in the interviews conducted by Oliver Wang and published in the reissues' booklets is that of a traumatized individual who's shut off most of her brain in order to dull a chronic ache. Davis refuses or is unable to explicate pertinent details about her music career, as well as discuss why she lost her creative drive. It's strange that someone who'd previously blazed with such ambition has faded into obscurity with no desire to flex those once supple artistic muscles.

The music industry never hesitates to stress female artists' sexuality in order to prime the financial pump (among other pumps), but only on its own terms. When someone like Betty Davis arises, a figure whose outsized abilities and ambitions matched her outrageously freaky persona, then execs start to fret about crossing some absurdly prudish line of decorum. The equal of more popular peers Tina Turner and Chaka Khan in terms of charisma and expressiveness, if not technique, Davis laid the groundwork for later dirty divas such as Macy Gray, Kelis and Peaches.

Fear of unfettered female sexuality and artistic autonomy has tainted the record biz for decades, though the reins have loosened somewhat since Davis' mid-'70s heyday. It's sad that these forces stifled Davis, but through hip-hop producers sampling her songs and Light in the Attic reissuing her best work, she is finally getting her due (and royalties). Oddly, she seems to be the one least excited about her own revival. Still (in)different after all these years. . . .


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