"Sheela-Na-Gig" is a song by English alternative rock singer-songwriter PJ Harvey, written solely by Harvey. The song was released as the second single from her debut studio album, Dry, in February 1992. The single was the second, and final, single from Dry and only single from the album to enter the charts in both the United Kingdom and United States. An accompanying music video, directed by Maria Mochnacz, was released alongside the single.
"Sheela-Na-Gig" was written in 1990. The song's title is a reference to the eponymous Sheela na gig statues; figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva found throughout Britain and Ireland. The album version of the song, as featured on Dry, was recorded at Yeovil's Icehouse Studio—a local studio also used by Jay Diggins and Automatic Dlamini, a band she was previously in with John Parish—as part of the album's recording sessions. This version was produced and engineered by drummer Rob Ellis. A version, recorded for John Peel and produced and engineered by Mike Robinson and James Birwistle, was included on the compilation album The Peel Sessions 1991-2004, released in 2006.
The song's title is a reference to the eponymous sheela na gig statues. The lyrics to "Sheela-Na-Gig" make several allusions to the statues in lyrics such as "look at these, my child-bearing hips," "you exhibitionist," and "put money in your idle hole." However, the lyrics narrate "imperious male demands and female self-loathing" and "a leather jacket-wearing rocker, black-humouring the boys with her twangy moan." The male character conveyed in the lyrics is uninterested in the female due to her exhibitionism and him not wanting to be "unclean." The lyric "dirty pillows" is a reference to the Stephen King novel Carrie, in which Margaret White uses the term to describe breasts. The repeated lyric, "I'm gonna wash that man right outa my hair" is the title of a song from the 1949 musical, South Pacific.
Musically, the song was composed in standard tuning. A capo is present on the first fret of Harvey's guitar in all versions of the song. The opening consists of four notes alternately played. The verse and the chorus feature the same two chords (Emaj-Gmaj) throughout, simplifying the structure. The change in structure is during the bridge ("put money in your idle hole") when the chords change (A5-F#5-A5-B5). The use of power chords is consistent with the alternative rock scene of the 1990s when other bands, such as Nirvana, were known for their use of power chords.
Three versions of the "Sheela-Na-Gig" single were released. The single was released in February 1992, four months prior to the release of its parent album, Dry, on Too Pure Records. The single was pressed on CD, 7" vinyl, and 12" vinyl with the CD and 12" vinyl singles featuring two Dry songs, "Hair" and "Joe", as b-sides. The 7" vinyl version omitted "Hair" and only 400 copies of it were pressed. The single was extremely successful in the United States, where it entered and peaked Billboard''s Alternative Songs at number 9, however, was less successful in the United Kingdom, where it managed to enter the UK Singles Chart at number 69, leaving the charts the following week.
The song, like the Dry album, generated an overwhelmingly strong critical response. Z Magazine referred to the song as "most electrifying" and "constructs a sarcastic, aggressive sexual advance." In Entertainment Weekly, a review said that the song "redeems [Harvey's] disturbing subject matter with cathartic vocals and her own caustic guitar." Allmusic has praised the song highly, describing the dynamics of the song-writing as "outstanding, veering from a tensely whispered verse to a full-throttle chorus topped by a middle eight that explodes (twice) in righteous fury." The lyrical content of the song was also praised, describing them as "still startling; in the guise of a Celtic fertility symbol, Harvey recounts presenting her nude self to a potential lover only to be rebuffed in a brutally cruel manner" and referred to the final verse "as if a careless razor cut ended the song prematurely", summarizing that "Sheela-Na-Gig" is "a stunning three minutes, probably still her finest performance." In the September 1999 issue of Spin, it was listed at number two on The Top 20 Singles of the 1990s list.
The music video for "Sheela-Na-Gig" was directed by Maria Mochnacz and T. Farthling in early 1992. The video opens with images of a handbag and women's shoes revolving in an orange-glowing picture frame. These images are repeated twice throughout the video; once during the middle, and again towards the end. The following scene uses religious imagery with a statue of Jesus Christ being shown alongside polaroid prints. Abstract-shot footage of Harvey and her band performing the song live also incorporate large segments of the video, one video is shot in colour, the other in black and white. The live footage, at times, is overlaid with vivid images of lights and more polaroids. Various other footage of close-up faces and sheela-na-gig's vulva are also shown.
All songs written by PJ Harvey unless otherwise noted.
|Billboard Alternative Songs||9|
|UK Singles Chart||69|