“I’m just all about ladies” are the words of Este Haim, oldest of the Haim sister trio, in an interview with The Daily Beast last month. This interview took its title from another of Este’s comments: “We’re a band. Not a ‘Girl Band.’” Not only are these statements far from contradictory – they were simply two parts of Este’s “verbage,” to use her own hipster coinage, on women in music – they illustrate effectively the paradox of sisterhood.
Why should being sisters (or brothers, for the sake of argument, but this article is going to be unashamedly sororal in focus – because to casually drop words like ‘sororal’ you have to let go of shame) be so different from being a sister and a brother? And if you are a woman in a family which is innately “all about the ladies,” what does it mean to look at someone who is not your biological opposite or jigsaw fit in the way a man is, and yet love them fiercely, jealously, protectively, passionately, to miss them, desire their approval and their company, judge them and hope for them in many ways as you do for yourself? It’s fraught, is what it is, when looked at in these terms, but surely it also has the potential to be completely amazing.
From The Shangri-Las and The Dixie Chicks to The Corrs and All Saints to The Breeders and The Cheeky Girls, sisters in music don’t just bring us songs both wonderful and terrible; their work becomes an interesting allegory. In an interview last year Emily of The Staves, another sibling trio, responded to a question about the similarities between their three voices:
“Yeah, that’s a really strange one because when we sing together, they’re so similar, like when we’re recording I find it difficult to tell who’s singing what…when we do sing on our own, like you say, I do think we have really different voices. We tend to sit in the same place, like Milly and Jess tend to do the higher harmonies and I do the lowest…but then when we swap that around…it seems to bring a different quality to it, somehow…”
There’s a sense in which all three sisters sound the same, a sense in which they have distinct and characterful tones they tend towards and then the possibility of exchanging those roles to create a new sound, which Emily emphasizes is not necessarily “better” but allows for novelty and experimentation. This is a perfect analogy for sisterhood and explains why it exists on such a knife-edge of potential closeness and cattiness; harmony and discord. Feeling too similar to your sister can be a nightmare but taking on opposite roles, or trying to keep these roles in rotation, can equally be a cause of harrowing clashes or comparisons.
In the same way that Este Haim can be ‘all about’ girls without wanting to be only a Girl Band, sisterhood can mean both a powerful shared experience and the threat of what Dorothy Rowe, a psychologist writing about sibling bonds, calls the annihilation of the self. She describes how our greatest human fear, beyond even the fear of death, is that the ‘I’ we have created for ourselves will disappear. Our relationships with other people play an integral role in maintaining this personhood, so: “Our parents validate and invalidate us, but even more so do our siblings. No wonder we create an attachment to them of both love and hate.”
In the festive 1950s film White Christmas Betty and Judy Haynes perform the frankly genius duet ‘Sisters’ as part of their double act. The lyrics encompass the power struggle, loyalty and competition that Rowe writes about within sisterhood. The maternal strain of, “I’m there to keep my eye on her” is followed by “Caring, Sharing” and sticking together, then rounded off with the final comic flourish: “Lord help the mister / who comes between me and my sister / And Lord help the sister / who comes between me and my man.”
If sisterhood is internally ‘all about ladies’ and about being, as the Haynes sisters sing it, “Two diff’rent faces” that often “act as one,” this might mean the best way to find solace in our sameness is to relish our shared role as counterpoint to the male ‘outside.’ The lyrics across The Staves’ debut album Dead & Born & Grown reflect how heavily gendered a sisterly girl gang can feel.
In ‘Pay Us No Mind’ the collective sense of “Leave the worry to the women; That’s our game to play…” and “we’re ready now to give
them all hell” seem to stand up against the isolating machismo of “every man for himself”. In ‘The Motherlode’ all three voices kick in with a melodious but ambivalent-sounding harmony on the line, “All men have left here.”
For Haim it is about not being limited or defined by their femininity, for the Haynes sisters it is about each getting their share of male attention, for ‘androgynous’ twins and pop singers Tegan and Sara it is about the experience of being together as sisters and yet still feeling isolated by the struggle of growing up gay. (I wonder if the title lyrics of their track ‘Walking With A Ghost’ are indicative of this dissonance in being inextricably linked but also existing as selves apart.) Just as being similar to your sister can pique the instinct to cherish your differences, being part of a female tribe can mean defining yourself in terms of what is other.
Littlest Haim Alana says that while there is “no hierarchy” in the band, she still finds herself doing her big sisters’ bidding in some idiosyncratic circumstances. In the same way that being all female doesn’t make them just a girl band, being a little sister doesn’t make you nothing else. The trick, which I can vouch for as a someone who hails from a predominantly – in every sense of the word – female family, is to balance the somewhat disparate experiences of authentically being a woman, a daughter, a sister and yourself.
The general assumption is that women and men should get along better, or at least be safer, in the company of their own sex because of the age-old fear that men and women’s sexuality will always get in the way of platonic connections. But sometimes sex can provide us with a bulwark, or a buoy. Generally, sexuality can have no place in our relationships with our sister, not even subconsciously or through substitution, so we can’t place them in terms of a heteronormative love. Sticking with the nautical-psychobabble theme: sex is like a sea that both contains and frees you, an infinite, inescapable space in which to dive to unknown depths or anxiously tread water.
For the inept, doggy-paddling human, then, sisterhood is like an island. Both confining, surrounded, personal: you can know every inch and subsist on it for years with its safe, solid rocks as a foundation beneath your feet. Living on it, you view a shared world from different angles and can dive off only to return to its familiar nooks and crannies. Or you can yearn to escape, abuse and destroy its fragile ecosystem, divide it into patches, fight over lines, create settlements and compete over their productivity, settle down and live in a separate but contented peace. I like this metaphor. The Staves, in my favourite track ‘Facing West,’ seek: “the path down to the shoreline” – maybe to escape the cloying choir of sisterhood, or maybe to swim back again.
Psychotherapist Rowe talks about the striking exactitude with which a bond between group members correlates to the danger posed by those excluded from the group. Yet as I suspected from the earliest days of militant all-girls hymn practice – no surer way of ironically undercutting the lyrics of All Things Bright And Beautiful exists to my knowledge – a flawless harmony between girls is not a basic fact of life. Neither is the male and the female an inevitable harmony of opposites. Life isn’t a single song, it’s a whole opera: long, sometimes tedious, rousing, beautiful and sad.
Before I try and achieve the impossible by expounding the fabulousness of my own sister relationship, I’ll round things off with the strains of someone else’s sentiment. The minimalist strumming of Dead & Born & Grown leaves space to chart the necessary, timeless – and yet never pastless – affinity shared by siblings: “Colours fade away / And things that were aren’t here today / But time, it doesn’t matter anymore / I’ll meet you where we were before…We’re safe in one another’s company / I need you just as much as you need me.”