ONLY NOISE: How Tainted Love Became My Feminist Jam

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Liz Ohanesian hits replay on the unlikely track that gave her strength on dance floors and in traffic alike.

Stuck in the perennial gridlock that crisscrosses Los Angeles, blasting the same oldie over and over again, I must have seemed ridiculous. But, that’s what happens when your jam is less than two-and-a-half minutes long. Right at the moment when I felt like I would become one with the song, it ended; I had no choice but to hit that little button on the CD player and repeat it.

“Sometimes I feel I’ve got to run away,” it began, every time.

Yes, I’m talking about “Tainted Love,” but not the ’80s synthpop sensation. That would have made more sense, since Soft Cell’s big hit single had never really left L.A. radio. This was the original, a concise soul number recorded by Gloria Jones in the mid-1960s that was a far more anachronistic choice during the years bridging the 20th and 21st centuries.

I played that song loud enough to drown out any of my pathetic attempts to sing along to it, all the while wishing that I could belt out lines like “Once I ran to you/Now I’ll run from you” with all of Jones’ confidence. I had no desire to be a singer; I just wanted to be able to stand up for myself. With “Tainted Love,” I could or, at least, I could in the relative privacy of my car stuck in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway.

Jones was a young singer from Los Angeles when she recorded “Tainted Love,” penned by Ed Cobb, which was released on the flipside of the single “My Bad Boy’s Comin’ Home” in 1965. Since the single didn’t chart, “Tainted Love” became something of an obscurity. That changed to an extent in the 1970s, when the B-side attained cult popularity within the rarity-fueled Northern Soul scene in the U.K. Jones, who had gone on to perform in Hair, sing backup for T. Rex, and have a child with the band’s frontman Marc Bolan, re-recorded the song for her 1976 solo album, Vixen. Still, that wasn’t the version that became a mainstream earworm.

In 1981, then-up-and-coming synthpop duo Soft Cell put their own spin on “Tainted Love.” Their cover would go on to become legendary. It was a number one single in the U.K. and hit the top 10 in the U.S., while turning up on charts in numerous countries. So popular was Soft Cell’s rendition of the ’60s soul song that it became the reference point for subsequent versions. In 1984, the experimental electronic group Coil covered “Tainted Love.”  Theirs was a slow, haunting reflection upon the AIDS crisis, but one where the influence of Soft Cell is still present in its structure (plus, Soft Cell singer Marc Almond makes an appearance in the video). Many years later, in 2001, Marilyn Manson had a bit of success with a cover that was very clearly derived from Soft Cell’s take on the song.

I grew up with Soft Cell’s 1981 version of “Tainted Love,” which was a radio staple in Los Angeles that hung around long after the ’80s ended, and became quite a fan of the band too. Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, their debut album and the one that contains “Tainted Love,” remains one of my all-time favorite records. But hearing the original version of the song I thought I knew so well was nearly life-changing.

It happened sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s when I was a college student, going to parties where kids rolled up to the venue on Vespas and DJs dropped vintage soul tracks into their sets. I can’t remember exactly where I heard it, but I remember it being a song played with enough frequency to become part of the sonic fabric of my life at that time.  Every time I danced to “Tainted Love,” my connection to it grew stronger.

“I give you all a girl can give you,” Jones sang.

Hearing “Tainted Love” from the perspective of a woman was eye-opening. Jones was on the cusp of her teens and twenties when the song was recorded and released, around the same age I was while dancing to it a few decades later. Her voice, though, sounded older. It was deep, raw and powerful, resonating on those dance floors with authority.

I had always thought of “Tainted Love” as a song about romance-gone-wrong or a relationship at its bitter end. Maybe it is, but when Jones sang it, there was always another layer. Any sadness in the lyrics, “Take my tears and that’s not nearly all,” gave way to liberation, of knowing that you’re worth more than whatever crap someone else throws your way. It was the voice of wisdom set against a high energy bounce of a beat that reminded me to take care of myself. Now, I heard “Tainted Love” as a song about empowerment. It became my feminist jam.

I wasn’t necessarily feeding a broken heart all those times I blasted “Tainted Love.” Sure, sometimes that was the case, but the song came to mean so much more to me. It was the middle finger that I couldn’t bring myself to flip, the “fuck you” that I often left unsaid. It was the anthem for every life or work situation where I wasn’t valued, an expression of the anger and frustration that I tried to contain and a reminder that I had to assert myself.

In the early years of my own adulthood, that (still sorely under-appreciated) recording of “Tainted Love” became a sort of surrogate voice as I was trying to find my own. With age, I’ve relied on it less, but it’s still there for me to turn up loudly whenever I need it.

PLAYLIST: A Spooky Scary Halloween Playlist

So you’re throwing your annual Halloween party but you shot your wad on all the holiday classics ( the Monster Mash, the Time Warpthe Purple People Eater, etc, etc) on last year’s mix. So you’re going as Will Smith circa “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and you’re looking for something seasonal to blast from the boom box slung over your shoulder. So you’re psyching yourself up to wear your Sexy Einstein costume complete with the 3-inch hair (go for it, Miss/Mister Thang!!). So you’re hosting a seance and you need some tunes to help you commune with the spirit.

WE GOT YOU. Behold AudioFemme’s spookiest, scariest, most rockin’ and rollin’ Halloween playlist, guaranteed to thrill, chill, and catch the eye of that babealicious witch doctor in the apartment down the hall. Onward!!


1. Walk Like A Zombie – HorrorPops

This Danish psychobilly act shares its guitarist Kim Nekroman with the thrashier but stylistically related Nekromantix, for which Nekroman plays a recognizable coffin-shaped bass. HorrorPops formed in the late 90s, when Nekroman met Patricia Day at a music festival in Germany. Day now fronts the group, which draws aspects of ska, rockabilly, and punk that both she and Nekroman found lacking in their other projects. The two eventually married, and fittingly, “Walk Like A Zombie” is doo-woppy and more than a little romantic. Perfect for that un-dead high school prom you’re DJing. Just make sure to keep the glassy look of death in your eyes.


2. Chainsaw Gutsfuck – Mayhem

Off the seminal Norweigian black metal album Deathcrush, released in 1987, “Chainsaw Gutsfuck” won the prestigious title of having the Blender award for “Most Gruesome Lyrics Ever” in 2006. Fifteen years beforehand, it was inspiring black metal bands in Scandinavia and beyond to delve deeper into lyrical bleakness, to glorify extremity in violence and misery, and to distort their music into the grainiest, harshest possible sounds. “Chainsaw Gutsfuck” is one of the doomier songs on a very doomy album, with lyrics that sexualize death and corporeal decay. But, if you can handle the black metal sludge, it’s totally catchy, too. Want to dress the part? Christ, you could go as any of Mayhem’s members or black metal contemporaries and stand a solid chance at being the scariest monster at the party. The group’s most recognizable figure is perhaps Euronymous, its founder and guitarist, who held some nasty political views and achieved infamy when, upon discovering the body of his band’s singer Dead after the latter committed suicide, allegedly made necklaces out of his skull fragments and possibly (though it’s unlikely) cannibalized him by stirring flecks of his brain into a stew. Euronymous himself was murdered by another bandmate, Varg Vikernes, the following year. Halloween is the time to be tasteless, so wear corpsepaint, long hair, black and leather.


3. I Put A Spell On You – Nina Simone

Originally performed by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Nina Simone’s “I Put A Spell On You” is seething, brooding and betrayed, like she’s looking into a crystal ball to discover a lover’s duplicitous carryings-on. Especially towards the end of her career, Simone had a reputation for fire and fury on stage, too. A life in the music business left her weary and long-embattled, bitter alike to the people who loved and exploited her. Released decades before her death, “I Put A Spell On You” foreshadows the betrayal she seemed to come to see in the people around her. But, no matter her demons, Simone’s genius is present here–as everywhere–glowing like an ember, dying down when it’s still, and firing up again in a slight breeze, even after you think it’s gone out.


4. Tainted Love – Gloria Jones

And speaking of women scorned, “Tainted Love” is practically an anthem for love gone frighteningly awry. Gloria Jones recorded “Tainted Love,” which later became an electronic single for the band Soft Cell, in 1964. The original fell somewhere short of Motown, akin to demonic bubble gum pop that had been steeped in the sultry blues. Five years after recording “Tainted Love,” Jones began singing backup for the British rock band T. Rex and met her future husband, Marc Bolan. It was Jones who was driving the car when, one night in September of 1977, Bolan died in a car accident. Jones–who nearly faced charges for impaired driving after drinking wine on the night of the accident–lost the couple’s house and moved back to L.A. “Tainted Love” remains her longest-lasting hit, with covers aplenty and appearances in current film and TV soundtracks.


5.  Somebody’s Watching Me – Rockwell (featuring Michael Jackson)

It’s not just those Jackson hee-hees in the chorus that bring to mind the campy spook of “Thriller.” This track is pop-culture paranoid, stocked with references to television and the everyday horrors of being spied on. “Somebody’s Watching Me” dropped in 1984, and its theme of a dystopian state, in which even “normal people” fall under invisible scrutiny, feels ever more prescient today in light of Internet freedom issues and heightened technological development. Plus, “Someone’s Watching Me” has a spooky synth line that sounds like it’s played on a xylophone made of a cartoon rib cage!


6. Walkin’ Through A Cemetery – Claudine Clark

Claudine Clark, whose early single “Party Lights” proved her only song to score high on the charts, experimented with the spooky side of pop in “Walking Through A Cemetery.” Hindsight’s 20/20, but I’m not surprised that after “Party Lights”–which is about trying to convince your mom to let you go to a party–“Walking Through A Cemetery” flatlined. The lyrics took a serious turn in the for-whom-the-bell-tolls direction, after all: “If you’re walking through a cemetery one dark night/ Up jumps a creature and he gives you a fright/ Ain’t no use to turn around and walk the other way/ ‘Cause if he’s for you, baby, he’s gonna get you anyway.” Geez. Pretty serious stuff, for someone whose most popular work to date dealt with the injustice of not being allowed to do the twist, the fish, the watusi, and the mashed potatoes. But no one said Halloween was all fun and games. We’re all destined for the grave, but in this danceable number, Clark sings om bop bop, om bop bop sha doo dee doo dee all the way there.


7. Spooky – Dusty Springfield

Dusty Springfield’s gender-switched cover of the classic “Spooky,” a song that tells the story of a “spooky little girl” who compels and mystifies, and, like a ghost, only seems to show up when no one else is around, is further “spookified” by Springfield’s sly and porcelain-pretty vocals. The performance is ghostly–the woman herself was more complex. Springfield–a lesbian performing at a time when gayness was professional suicide–made a second career of cloaking her identity. The flip side of the doll-like vocals was a person who raged, drank too much, had a problem with pills. And its restraint makes Springfield’s spooky all the eerier.


8. The Whistler – The White Buffalo

Singer/songwriter Jake Smith is a big man, with a big, big voice. Nowhere more so than on “The Whistler,” off the 2013 album Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways. His stage name is apt, and like a large herd animal, Smith’s performances are often remarkable for the gentle giant-ishness. When he roars, though, the earth quakes. “The Whistler” marks the interior battle of a man who knows what the right thing is but chooses its opposite, and revels in his own destruction. The scariest demon of all is the demon inside, kids!


9. God Alone – Altar of Plagues

Out of a host of powerful metal records to come out of 2013, Teethed Glory and Injury–from Altar of Plagues, AKA Irish musician James Kelly–stands out as one of the most precocious and innovative within a genre wreathed with tradition and homage to be paid. “God Alone” stands out as the record’s most violent track, but that violence is achieved through skill and technical manipulation, not blunt force. The rhythms tilt and hang off-kilter; the beats deploy sudden, booming jolts that make you jump out of your seat.

10. Little Fang -Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks

I wouldn’t call “Little Fang”–or the group behind it–scary, but damned if Welcome To The Slasher House, this year’s debut release from Slasher Flicks, isn’t Halloween-ishly kitschy. The group plays shrouded in  a backdrop of glowing skulls, leering in neon green, and plays on dissonance and surreal lyrics. “Little Fang” is less Fright Night, more sticky fingers and sugar rush.

And there you have ’em, folks. Consider this list your musical Trick Or Treat offerings from your friendly neighborhood Femmes. Don’t egg our house, please, but do tell us what we missed! What are your favorite Halloween tunes? Let us know in the comments below!