Like Yoko Ono, Betty Davis is another woman who married a well-known musician and had a profound effect on his music, although she was married to Miles Davis for only a year. Betty appeared on the album artwork for Miles’ 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, and 1970’s Bitches Brew would not have been possible without her having introduced him to the music of both Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix.
But Betty Davis’ own musical career neither began nor ended with her marriage to Miles. She began writing songs as a child and, after moving to New York when she was 16, began rubbing elbows with artists and musicians in Greenwich Village. This is where she met both Hendrix and Stone. Around this time, she began releasing her own music, as well as writing a song (“Uptown”) for the Chambers Brothers. Then, between 1973 and 1975, Betty Davis released some of the most astonishingly funky and uncompromisingly feminine music that, to this day, has no competitors. She was raw, honest, and aggressively sexy. So, it should come as no surprise that she suffered from low radio play, had her shows boycotted (by the NAACP, no less,) and continues to be a critically underrated singer, songwriter, and performer.
This is why “Stars Starve, You Know” is the perfect song for our Women’s History Month playlist. The song, from Davis’ planned fourth studio album Is It Love or Desire, is both a deeply personal account of her record label trouble and a universal embodiment of the frustrations all female artists face. And she doesn’t mince words, either: blatantly calling out her label (“uh, hey hey Island”) and pointing out the double standard of a society that finds female sexuality inappropriate while male sexuality is glorified (“you should have been born a man”). It’s a rant, set to a funky clavinet, that is at once exhausting and exhilarating: the anthem for any woman (read: all women), artist or otherwise, who has been told that she must tone herself down in order to be socially or commercially acceptable.
Sadly, Is It Love or Desire was shelved for over thirty years, as it contains hands down the best and most vicious work of Davis’ career. Yet, as with most art that was ahead of its time, it continues to be both socially and musically relevant to this day, while also sounding wholly of its time. We need Betty Davis as much today as we did in 1976.
Women’s History Month continues tomorrow–in the meantime, check out the growing playlists below.