(this was originally a twitter thread, which explains the slightly “and another thing…and another thing…” structure)
As this morning’s earworm is Portishead’s Glory Box, I’ve been thinking about the song in its mid-90s context. Is the title meant to be, well, a pussy joke? Glory as in hole, box as slang for vagina? Apparently not: “Australian term for a piece of furniture where women store clothes and other items in preparation for marriage”. But the double entendre hangs over it.
The Australian meaning tallies well with the first verse, which is about ceasing one’s dalliances (“playing with this bow and arrow”, i.e. Cupid’s) and surrendering oneself (“gonna give my heart away” - yes, but to matrimony?). The song’s general pitch - I’m ready to settle, here’s how to be worthy of me - resembles that of the Spice Girls’ Wannabe, with its list of stipulations, particularly pertaining to emotional openness. (Wannabe is later though - 1996. Glory Box is ‘94).
Wannabe is ostensibly about hooking up - really, really, really wanting a zigazig-ah - rather than surrendering the ways of the tempturess, but the blunt sexual demand is tempered by the wish for conviviality - “friendship” perhaps overriding “romance” as the desired context. But the common theme is tenderness, decentring the male ego - “just take a little look / from outsids, if you can” - and making space for empathy.
Portishead frame all of this in a very stylised, noirish aesthetic - “temptress” belongs entirely to that register - making it seem heightened rather than commonplace. Is it camp? It’s played entirely poker-faced. But also, the song pushes onwards into cosmic stoner-earnestness, which I think banishes camp, treating it as a kind of costume to be set aside: “a thousand flowers could bloom…this is the beginning of forever…”. Wannabe’s “make it last forever/ friendship never ends” is talking about the relative stability of friendship in comparison to the transitoriness of desire; it’s about everyday reliability, not a declaration of a new epoch.
Glory Box desires a “new man” who retains a masculine identity - “don’t you stop / being a man” - but has modified his outlook (“looking at a different picture / through this new frame of mind”) so that loving self-surrender to him will not feel futile: one must have a reason to “be a woman”, and this can only come from the voluntary donation of the other. (Wannabe has “you have got to give”, which implies suppleness as well as generosity: this isn’t “venmo me, paypig!”). However, Wannabe is not articulated from a position of pessimism or incompleteness: “don’t go wasting / my precious time” implies a fundamental independence, having shit of one’s own to he getting on with.
Glory Box says, in effect, “you have it in your power to enable me to realize myself and inaugurate a new shared cosmos, and you can do this without compromising yourself but simply by giving up the illusion of sovereign self-sufficiency”. It turned out, as the decade progressed, that persuading men to exhibit a bit of sensitivity was not in itself adequate to repair heterosexuality. Wannabe represents a shift towards an ethos of self-sufficiency, and being fairly up-front about desired attitude and behaviour, which also has tended over time to shade into exasperation: precious time still being wasted. But it also turns away somewhat, I think, from the sublime and cosmic vision of love as giving one another a new world, which for Glory Box links eros and kairos: “it’s time to move on!”
Another dimension to consider is the way Glory Box explicitly counterposes “girl” (“leave it to the other girls to play”) and “woman” (“give me a reason to be a woman” / “I just wanna be a woman”). Whereas Wannabe is, famously, posed as an articulation of “girl power”: it’s rooted in the values of girlhood, in particular the (somewhat idealised, lets be honest) solidarity of adolescent and pre-teen female friendship. So “it’s time to move on” reads as a call to take an initiatory leap into maturity: from “play” to seriousness, from the game of temptation to commitment, from exhaustion (“so tired / of playing”) to fruition.
There is no corresponding juxtaposition of “boy”/“man”, although John Martyn’s cover version attempts to provide one, notably modifying the lyric to “leave it to the other boys out there to play / been tempted for too long”. (It’s interesting to consider that the early-90s comedy series which centred on the spectacle of protracted, incorrigible puerility was titled “Men behaving badly”). So, I think this is a nagging concern of 90s gender politics: protracted male adolescence, the absence of an initiatory passage into manhood (however construed), the “commitment-phobe” especially as a type of failed or failing male person. In 1998 (when The Church With One Bell came out, the covers album featuring the Glory Box cover), Martyn is framing immature maleness, boyhood as opposed to manhood, as susceptibility to temptation: being readily distracted from one love-object by another. Both versions of Glory Box concur on a vision of the game of bow-and-arrow as being about temptation as distraction (insert distracted boyfriend meme here): girls distract, boys are distracted. Whereas we could perhaps describe the game of mature sexuality as a game of giving and asking for reasons (for raisons d’etre).
Whereas Wannabe, I think, articulates a position from which there is simply no more desirable state to be in than self-possessed, confident, socially integrated permanent adolescence: there is no lack there. (This is probably a healthy way for actual adolescent girls to view themselves, rather than being menaced by a spectre of maturity that is tied to preparing for marriage, for giving oneself away: stuffing a glory box).
The line of Glory Box I haven’t considered yet is “move over, and give us some room - yeah!”, which seems more assertive than beseeching, more in line with a sort of equality-feminism. Except: who is “us” here? Is it “me”, as in “give us a chip, I’m starving”? Is it “us” as in women, generally (“men, it’s time to move on: make space for a more equal world!“)? Or is it the “us” of the couple: move over, so that there can be room for a genuine “us” to exist? I think it’s actually the third, and once again what’s being sought is a phase-change in attitude: move over/move on/move on up (a common 90s theme - cf M People etc. Things, can only get better…).
Here there’s a verrry general, handwavey analogy to be drawn between the “it’s time to move on into a more serious relationship” genre, and the ideology of a sort of global moving-on post-1989: the 90s had a big “waking up from history” (right here, right now) vibe. Which, lol. Whereas I suppose you might read Wannabe as taking the end of history as a given: it’s more of a “get with the program” sort of song. Certainly “from this time / unchained / we’re all looking at a different picture” is very post-‘89. One kairos ghosting another: social change figured through personal readiness for romantic commitment, attended by an anxiety over whether the other is ready to close the deal.