Brow Beat

When “Under My Thumb” Gets Under Your Skin

Jules Indelicato on repeatedly performing the Rolling Stones classic as part of an art performance piece, Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy.

Jules Indelicato with an acoustic guitar.
Jules Indelicato.
Courtesy of Magnolia McKay

“Every Breath You Take” by The Police sounds like a romantic ballad about devotion, which is why it’s been played at countless weddings.

But listen to the lyrics a bit more closely and it’s hard to imagine a worse song for walking down the aisle. The song is a pretty nasty piece of business about stalking. Which is why, while it’s actually a terrible wedding song, it was a perfect song for a site-specific art project in San Francisco in the fall.

The project was called Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy, and it took place in the Mission District of San Francisco in the Women’s Building, a provider of health, social, and legal services to women.

It was by an Icelandic artist named Ragnar Kjartansson and it worked like this: Female musicians were positioned throughout the building on three consecutive days, and each one of them was assigned to sing one song that might sound romantic but which actually is pretty misogynistic.

Like this bit of lechery from Rod Stewart:

And this from the Beatles:

And this particularly astonishing one from the Crystals:

The singers who took part in the project didn’t cover their song just once. They performed the same song over and over and over again for three days, basically on a loop. So visitors to the building would climb a set of stairs, or round a corner, and hear another song. About 20 female and nonbinary singers took part in the marathon performance.

One of those singers was a Bay Area musician named Jules Indelicato. And they are featured on Studio 360, the public radio show and Slate podcast. You can hear them singing their cover in the segment, which was produced by Magnolia McKay, in the link below.

Jules Indelicato: We were each given songs. The songs were not our choice. I got “Under My Thumb” by the Rolling Stones.

My whole demeanor when performing this song was very full of myself and suave and proud that I had tamed this wild beast.

“The difference in the clothes she wears, it’s down to me. The change has come. She’s under my thumb.”

And at the end of the song there’s this gigantic release that becomes greater and greater with every repetition. And then a breath and you start again. You stop seeing it in the lens of time, and it becomes more of a sculpture, or a painting.

In the first minute, people would come in and they’d realize what song I’m singing. And excitement would come over their face like, “Oh, honey, she’s doing the Rolling Stones! Listen.” By the end of the first chorus I’d see the smile kind of leave. And I’d see them start to fidget and I’d see their eyes kind of searching to lock onto mine.

There was this one very emotional turn where I had really, really gotten into it and really started to feel like I was that person in the song. That toxic, powerful, snide man with no shame. And I was singing my heart out very subdued, but very intense.

And I look up and this woman is crouched in the corner, clutching her heart and clutching her mouth with her other hand and just shaking her head and sobbing. And I look up with a sneer and a smile on my face right as I say, “She’s under my thumb.”

And at that moment, I—my throat caught up in my chest, and my eyes started welling up, and I look at her and she looks at me, and I realize that some of this is kind of seeping into my body. Some of this pride, and some of this, like, snarky toxicity. I just felt so gross.

And I look at her on the ground and I see how much she’s going through. And then I look up and I realize that there’s a little girl in the room and she’s watching this whole interaction, and she’s been there for the whole song. I don’t see her parents around anywhere. And then I think about her, and I think about all of the songs that she’s heard today.

And how she’s growing up being shaped by the same stuff. And it kind of just made me really overwhelmed at how deeply hurt we are by pop culture.

And so I wanted to stand up right there and just leave. But I sat back down and I took a breath. And I started the song again, and again, and again.

To hear a full audio version, listen to this episode of Studio 360 below, where host Kurt Andersen introduces the story at 39:00. And subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts.

Studio 360 is a Peabody Award–winning show from Public Radio International.

This story was adapted from a segment originally on Crosscurrents from KALW in San Francisco.