In 1996, Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson of Lush appeared on MTV’s 120 Minutes answering a question about the themes behind their album, Lovelife. “A lot of people have accused us of being man-haters,” said Anderson, before countering that “a lot of it is quite light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek.”
Berenyi added, “As light-hearted as you can be when you’re telling someone to get lost forever.”
In its time, Lovelife, released 25 years ago on March 5, was considered a departure for Lush. With previous albums, the British quartet gained a reputation for a dense sound. On Lovelife, as Anderson in that 120 minutes interview explained, the band had wanted to make something that was closer to their live performances. They peeled off the studio layers and recorded an album with the immediacy of a concert. Lyrically on that album, they often unraveled the complicated mess of emotions that are balled up into dating and relationships with songs like “Single Girl” and “Ciao!” But it’s the album’s opening cut, “Ladykillers,” written by Berenyi, that likely drew the “man-hater” comments back then.
Last May, on Twitter, Berenyi noted the feedback she’s received for “Ladykillers.” She commented, “Men (and ONLY men) complain I’ve been unfair.” A few weeks later, when she guided fans through the album for Tim’s Twitter Listening Party, she expanded on that, posting a review that referred to the song as a “cynical put-down of flash blokes.”
With sarcasm dripping from its title, “Ladykillers” presents three separate scenarios, each of which features a distinct, cringe-y male character. There’s the guy trying to spark some animosity between two women in a bar. There’s the dude with the muscles and long hair who feigns sensitivity and uses feminism as bait. Finally, we hear about the one who keeps chasing after a girl who isn’t interested in him.
Over the years, these lyrics would spark questions over the identity of the men whose behavior is immortalized in the song. In the Tim’s Twitter Listening Party thread, Berenyi commented, “I’m always asked to name the men in Ladykillers but nope, not gonna because it honestly could’ve been written about any number of people (loads of ’em out there!) – and it’s not about the blokes but how it feels to be on the receiving end.”
With that statement, Berenyi crystalized why “Ladykillers” is such a powerful song. The history of pop music is overwhelmed by songs where women are objects. Even songs named after women are often more about the men singing them than the women in the lyrics. “Ladykillers” flips the script, because it’s a song about a woman’s reaction to men. Specifically, it’s about a woman’s reaction to men who treat women like conquests.
As vivid as these characters are in “Ladykillers,” there’s a universality to them. Their true identity doesn’t matter because many listeners the world over could easily insert their own characters into the same scenes. It’s not about individuals, but about patterns of behavior and the impact that those patterns of behavior have. Twisting “Ladykillers” into a song about the guys is roughly equivalent to countering #metoo with #notallmen.
When I first heard “Ladykillers,” I was old enough to go to clubs, but not old enough to drink at them, so I was just starting to amass my own collection of run-ins with guys like those described in the song. Today, that collection is massive and I’m guessing that a lot of readers can say the same thing. Even back when I first heard the song, though, I felt an instant sense of solidarity with it. As I hit my 20s, that would grow stronger.
However, what resonated with me most about the song then, and still does today, wasn’t any specific situation in the verses, nor was it the smart response in the chorus. It’s the little line that connects verse to chorus, “I want to tell him.”
The reality of encounters like these is that, no matter how unwanted the attention is, it can be hard to respond. Maybe you’re assessing the situation, wondering if you can say anything without jeopardizing your safety. Maybe you aren’t afraid, but you’re so stunned by someone’s brazenness that you can’t craft a coherent retort. Maybe you’re simply tired of dealing with this kind of crap and don’t want to bother with even acknowledging the guy’s existence. The thing you want to say isn’t always the thing you have the opportunity to say.
In the 120 Minutes interview, Berenyi mentions, in regard to the album’s lyrics, “If you have an argument with someone, you walk around with it in your head until you win it.” Similarly, there were plenty of times when I fumed over a “Ladykillers” situation with the song playing over and over in my head, imagining that the chorus had been my comeback. For those moments, “Ladykillers” has been a gift, a message for anyone who needs to hear it that you aren’t the only one fed up with that dude. It all comes together in the song’s final line: “Hey girls, he’s such a ladykiller, but we know where he’s coming from and we know the score.”