Nasty Gal aches with unfulfilled potential.
When Betty Davis released Nasty Gal, her 1975 major-label debut for Island Records, the world wasn’t ready—not for her musical approach, which blended Black funk and “white” hard rock in an increasingly conservative, segregated recording industry; and certainly not for her hypersexual image, which managed to simultaneously run afoul of the moral majority and women’s lib, the NAACP’s respectability politics and Black Power’s prim militancy. By the end of 1976, Davis had dropped from Island’s roster, and out of the public eye altogether.
It’s only now, over 40 years later, that the rest of us are catching up. 2018 will see the U.S. theatrical release of Betty: They Say I’m Different, a documentary produced with the reclusive Ms. Davis’ cooperation. And just last week, Light in the Attic reissued Nasty Gal on vinyl for the first time in decades: introducing Davis to an audience (hopefully) better-prepared for her brand of unruly womanhood.
From today’s perspective, Nasty Gal sounds at once of its time and radically ahead of it. Davis’ backing band, Funkhouse, certainly lives up to its name, but with a delivery that is almost punk in its aggression. Similarly, her vocals bear a resemblance to prime Tina Turner—albeit a Tina Turner who has been possessed by the spirit of a wildcat in heat. What really electrifies, however, is her raw, unapologetic carnality: a sexual self-determination that had some cultural precedent in the Blaxploitation roles of Pam Grier, but remarkably few peers in popular music. From the first notes of the opening title track, Davis prowls and seethes with unrestrained erotic menace; no wonder she had so much of her mid-‘70s audience quaking in their boots.
Indeed, to listeners in 2018, Nasty Gal is perhaps most relevant as a woman’s brazen—and contested—declaration of sexual and artistic independence. Davis, of course, got her surname from jazz legend Miles, her husband for just one year in the late 1960s; like her contemporary, Yoko Ono, her marriage to an iconic male artist opened doors in the industry, while also limiting perceptions of her agency. Nasty Gal concerns itself thematically with these perceptions in a strikingly contemporary way. On “Dedicated to the Press,” Davis laments her “vulgar” reputation, moments after the funky phone sex of “Talkin’ Trash” gleefully lived up to it. On the title track, she sends up the chauvinistic double-standard that frames “nasty gals” as sexually desirable, only to discard and denigrate them post-coitus: “You said I was a witch,” Davis snarls, but “you used to love…to ride my broom”; “You said I was an alley cat,” but “you used to love it when I’d scratch your back.” Perhaps most poignantly, on “F.U.N.K.” she boldly stakes out her claim in a musical lineage alongside the likes of Sly, Chaka and Jimi.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the cards for Davis to join these hallowed ranks—at least, not while she was an active recording artist. Nasty Gal thus aches with unfulfilled potential, particularly when Davis abandons her customary hellion’s rasp for surprisingly melodic vocal performances on “You and I”—a wispy ballad co-written by Miles—and the sultry, slow-burning “Gettin’ Kicked Off, Havin Fun.” While not as immediate as her grittier material, these moments offer a glimpse of possible new directions for Davis, had her career not come to such a premature end.
As it is, however, Betty Davis’ legacy has been left for other artists to mine. Rick James was clearly taking notes, both musically and sartorially; Prince almost certainly had “Nasty Gal” on the brain when he wrote the almost identically-titled hit for Vanity 6. Today, whether consciously or not, generations of sexually forthright woman artists—notably, though not exclusively, including Beyoncé—are steppin’ in Davis’ proverbial I. Miller shoes. As inhospitable as 1975’s musical landscape was for Davis, 2018’s is in many ways molded in her image; here’s hoping she finally gets the recognition she always deserved.