In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. To make my site more interactive, if you like what I’m doing comment and let me know what random hit song you want me to review.
Helen Reddy- “I Am Woman”
PEAK: #1 on December 9, 1972 (1 week)
Is it possible for a feminist anthem to be both remembered and forgotten at the same time?
“I am woman, hear me roar,” the opening line of “I Am Woman,” the breakout hit for the recently deceased Australian pop singer Helen Reddy, has in the nearly 50 years since the song’s popularity become a sort of catchphrase for the entire idea of feminism. You still hear it used every now and then at feminist rallies and demonstrations. A parody of the phrase was even used as the title of a 2000 Family Guy episode where Peter Griffin becomes a feminist after going through sensitivity training.
Yet the song that birthed the famous phrase hasn’t enjoyed the same level of ubiquity. It certainly captured the zeitgeist of second-wave feminism that had reached its peak in the early ‘70s with “I Am Woman” being highly remembered in that regard as shown by the numerous article headlines that reference the song in their tributes to Reddy. But “I Am Woman” also captured another zeitgeist of the early ‘70s: sunny and cheesy sounding AM radio pop, an unlikely sound for such a defiant anthem which might explain why you don’t hear it much today. Even more unlikely is the artist who made the song such a cultural landmark, an old school entertainer from a family of old school entertainers who specialized in inoffensive sounding easy-listening pop that hardly made a roar.
Helen Reddy had struggled for a long time to get her career going. Born in Melbourne, Australia to a family of vaudeville performers, Reddy got her start in entertainment very young performing with her family and on various radio and TV programs. Initially wanting to be a dancer, Reddy shifted her focus toward singing after having her kidney removed at 17. She got her break at 24 when she sang on the Australian TV talent show Bandstand and won the competition which offered her a trip to New York City and make a record for Mercury Records. Mercury rejected Reddy based on her performance from Bandstand but decided to stay in the US to launch her singing career all while raising a daughter and performing in low paying singing gigs.
During a party, Reddy ran into a young secretary Jeff Wald quickly falling in love and getting married almost immediately. Reddy and Wald soon moved to Los Angeles where Wald started managing big-name acts like Deep Purple and the Turtles. Through Wald’s connections, Reddy got a record deal with Capitol Records in 1971 leading to the release of her first single, a cover of Yvonne Elliman’s “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar, and it hit peaking at #13 the same time Elliman’s version charted peaking at #28. Thanks to that success, Capitol ordered a full album from Reddy of ten songs consisting largely of covers and songs written by others. Reddy, who had been growing more passionate in her support of the feminist movement, felt there wasn’t a song on the album that expressed what being a woman is like so she took it upon herself to write one.
Reddy wasn’t a songwriter but felt inspired by the strong women in her family that lived through the Great Depression and the World Wars and how she felt that there wasn’t much pop music that reflected women’s experiences saying in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits, “At that point, I was looking for songs that reflected the positive sense of self that I felt I’d gained from the women’s movement. I couldn’t find any. All I could find were these awful songs like “I am woman and you are man. I am weak so you can be stronger than” so I realized the song I was looking for didn’t exist, and I was going to have to write it myself.”
Years later, Reddy recalled being in bed one night with the lyrics “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman” running over and over in her head. She wrote the rest of the song the next day before bringing it to her musical collaborator and guitarist Ray Burton who finished the song. Burton has a different story of the song’s origins saying he suggested the idea to Reddy from various feminist group meetings which led to her scribbling the lyrics down and Burton spending that night working out the rest of the song.
No matter the origin, “I Am Woman” took a long while to reach its big moment of success after many struggles. The song was initially recorded for her 1971 debut album I Don’t Know How To Love Him and it’s a much different take than what we know now. The original “I Am Woman” was a brassier and Vegas-style version that ran a little over two minutes. It doesn’t sound all that different from the version that hit but you can definitely tell something’s missing.
In its original form, “I Am Woman” wasn’t considered prime material for a single release and many Capitol executives didn’t like the feminist lyrics. Talking to NPR in 2018, Wald recalled one Capitol executive calling the song a piece of shit and that it would end Reddy’s career leading Wald to jump onto his desk and pee on the record which is fun to think about. “I Am Woman” would finally get its big break when Hollywood came calling.
Columbia Pictures used “I Am Woman” for the 1972 feminist comedy Stand Up and Be Counted, a movie that’s become so forgotten that I can’t find clips online but it’s apparently about a feminist writer who moves back to her hometown and spreads her ideals to the community. I don’t know how well the film performed in 1972 but considering the lack of information, I’m assuming it didn’t perform very well.
In any case, the song’s film placement led Capitol wanting to release “I Am Woman” as a single. To make the song suitable for radio, Reddy wrote a third verse and added another chorus at the end to make it longer. A new version was recorded with various session musicians including Wrecking Crew guitarist Mike Deasy, veteran session bassist Leland Sklar, and Derek and the Dominos drummer Jim Gordon. (Derek and the Dominos’ highest-charting single, 1970’s “Layla,” peaked at #10. It’s a 9.) What came out was slower and more in line with what pop music sounded like in 1972.
With “I Am Woman” officially released as a song, Reddy and team did everything they could to assure its chart success. Wald took the song to a radio station outside Washington D.C. whose workplace was mostly women and it worked with the station getting calls for the song spreading from there along with Reddy making appearances on various TV programs which also fueled airplay and sales. This grassroots effort didn’t work at first. The song entered the Hot 100 in June 1972 peaking only at #97 before falling off. It came back in September where it did marginally better peaking at #87 and from there slowly inched its way to its single week at #1 during 1972’s holiday season.
Even if “I Am Woman” didn’t catch on with listeners at first, it certainly represented where the feminist movement was in 1972, the year that saw the passage of Title IX, the Senate passing the Equal Rights Movement, Shirley Chisholm running for President, Gloria Steinem launching Ms. Magazine. And a month after the song’s peak, the Supreme Court would rule on Roe v. Wade which guaranteed federal abortion rights. Helen Reddy obviously didn’t help feminism achieve its goal and it’s still not fully achieved today but a soaring anthem-like Reddy’s certainly gave the movement much needed momentum and many involved at the time viewed it as such.
Lyrically, “I Am Woman” presents itself as an anthem of struggle and defiance. Reddy sings in vague lines about the struggles she’s endured from being a woman but that it only serves to make her stronger presenting an optimistic vision of the future. Like her other hits, Reddy sings the song in a lounge-style twang that doesn’t give you much in the way of her personality but does come across like she means every word she sings. She sounds defiant and proud of her struggle in making her a stronger woman. It’s no surprise that “I Am Woman” resonated the way that it has.
As a message, “I Am Woman” is an effective one at that. As a song though, “I Am Woman” is just OK. The session players here all do their part and some aspects of the music I like such as Deasy’s electric guitar adding a nice country flavor and how the horns and strings on the chorus add to the triumphant feeling of Reddy’s performance. But I mentioned this version sounds more like what pop music was in 1972 and it’s a sound that I’m not that interested in or that hold itself up to timelessness. You could hear this song play a bunch of times and not think too much about the lyrics or feminist message. As Stereogum’s Tom Breihan pointed out in his review, this is ‘70s adult contemporary radio cheese and some elements like the flute on the intro haven’t aged the song that well. Compared to later feminist anthems, “I Am Woman” sounds quaint by comparison. For a song whose opening line is “I am woman hear me roar,” it sure doesn’t roar a whole lot.
Due to its social importance, “I Am Woman” wound up overshadowing everything else Helen Reddy did and is arguably her lasting legacy despite having hits throughout the ‘70s including two other #1s that didn’t go into political issues. When “I Am Woman” won the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1973, Reddy used her acceptance speech to say this, “And I would like to thank God because She makes everything possible.” Referring to God as a female is the kind of remark that can get you in trouble especially among religious people but I can’t find any backlash towards Reddy for it and considering the time that’s impressive though it’s not like people give much of a shit about the Grammys anyway.
Since then, “I Am Woman” has continued to resonate. The song is the title of a recent biopic centering on Reddy’s early career and rise within the feminist movement which going from the trailer seems to center fully around the making of “I Am Woman.” I haven’t seen the movie yet but it’s available on streaming and from the look of the trailer looks like every other music biopic out there.
Reddy herself cited the song as the main reason for her retirement from public life when she saw her name and song lyrics in an American history textbook telling the Associated Press in 2012, “And I thought, “Well, I’m part of history now. And how do I top that? I can’t top that.′ So, it was an easy withdrawal.” But Reddy did return in 2017 for her final public appearances performing “I Am Woman” at the Women’s March with actress Jamie Lee Curtis in Los Angeles and at the Concert for America later that year.
By this point, Reddy had been diagnosed with dementia and spent her final years in an assisted living facility until this past September 29th when she died less than a month before her 79th birthday. Through one sunny optimistic song, Reddy made a roar in pop music that in many ways is still being felt today.
BONUS BEATS: On a 1995 episode of the Late Show with David Letterman, Helen Reddy appeared in a recurring joke where she’d interrupt Letterman throughout the show to sing “I Am Woman.” Here’s the funny video for it:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a lyrically adjusted version of “I Am Woman” that was used in a 2006 Burger King commercial:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2006 How I Met Your Mother episode where a radio DJ dedicates “I Am Woman” to Neil Patrick Harris’ character with the song playing throughout the scene:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from 2010’s Sex and the City 2 where the main characters (including future New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon) sing “I Am Woman” during karaoke: