Horses

Music review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
Horses Music Poster Image
Complex punk poetry from influential artist.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this music.

Positive Messages

Patti Smith's debut album Horses showed rock 'n' roll listeners that the punk music coming out of New York City in the 1970s could be as poetic and eloquent as a great work of literature. This album inspired other artists to take rock 'n' roll conventions to new artistic heights.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Patti Smith holds a singular position as one of the pillars of early punk: She successfully fused a poetic, true literary sensibility with punk shock and attitude. A powerful personality, a great writer -- and a 2010 National Book Award winner for her memoir Just Kids -- and mesmerizing performer, she defied every preconceived notion of what a female singer should be. Over the years, she has become politically outspoken as well, writing and performing songs expressing her opposition to the Iraq War and to U.S.-Israeli foreign policy, among other causes; and she has used her status as a performing artist as a platform to encourage a love of great poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and William Blake.

Violence

The most violent track on Horses is the song "Land," which includes a homosexual rape in a high school corridor, and subsequent disturbing sexual imagery interwoven with references to early rock 'n' roll dances (the Watusi, the Twist, etc.). Switchblades and pen knives are also mentioned in that song, and images of stabbing intersect with sexual images: "He picked up the blade and he pressed it against his smooth throat (the spoon) / And let it deep in (the veins) / Dip in to the sea, to the sea of possibilities / It started hardening / Dip in to the sea, to the sea of possibilities / It started hardening in my hand / And I felt the arrows of desire." Other lyrics on Horses are written poetically and are less direct, but there are a few violent-seeming images, such as a boy who breaks "out of his skin" or the line "I ripped my skin open and then I broke through" in the song "Break It Up." In "Redondo Beach," we learn that a girl committed suicide, but the event is not described. "Birdland" includes the line: "Like the shape of a tortured woman, the true shape of a tortured woman." "Kimberley" has the image: "So I ran through the fields as the bats with their baby vein faces / Burst from the barn and flames in a violent violet sky."

Sex

The song "Land" includes disturbing sexual images interwoven with references to early rock 'n' roll dances from the song "Land of a Thousand Dances": "And you twist the twister like your baby sister / I want your baby sister, give me your baby sister, dig your baby sister" and "Then you're rolled down on your back and you like it like that." The opening track on the album, Smith's reworked version of Van Morrison's "Gloria" describes a sexual encounter ("my baby is walkin' through the door / leanin' on my couch she whispers to me and I take the big plunge and oh, she was so good and oh, she was so fine") though not graphically. "Kimberly" blurs the images of someone holding a swaddled baby with lovers holding each other. The narrator tears off her clothes in "Break It Up."

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

There are a number of cryptic images that could be considered hallucinatory, but there are no overt references to drugs, alcohol, or smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Patti Smith was, and is, considered the consummate punk poet. The lyrics on her 1975 debut album, Horses, are by turns -- or all at once -- dreamy, powerful, and disturbing. Specifically, the largely spoken-word song "Land" describes a homosexual rape in a high school hallway, and continually blurs the lines between innocent romance, violence, power, and sexual desire. Other tracks on the album include sexual and violent images, and "Redondo Beach" includes a suicide. Religious individuals may be put off by the opening line to Smith's reworked version of Van Morrison's song "Gloria"; the first line on the album is "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." Horses is a complex, poetic work of punk art that is best appreciated by teens and adults.

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What's the story?

Patti Smith is a writer and performer who fused poetry with DIY punk music. HORSES, Smith's debut album, was made with her frequent collaborators: producer John Cale, guitarist/writer Lenny Kaye, keyboard player Richard Sohl, bassist/guitarist Ivan Kral, and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. The album includes some spoken-word, poetry-set-to-music tracks, as well as more straightforward singing and playing. In the mid-1970s, when the album released, Smith created a new form of poetic art-rock, and inspired numerous performers and lyricists who came after. Subsequent albums such as Radio Ethiopia and Easter further perfected her style and approach. Patti Smith married Fred \"Sonic\" Smith of Detroit punk band The MC5 in 1980, and settled down for about 15 years to focus on family life with her husband and children; she made only one album (Dream of Life) between 1980 and 1995, the year her husband passed away. She has carried on to make more albums, tour, and work for political and artistic movements she cares about.

Is it any good?

Horses is raw as can be; with so much spoken-word poetry on the record, there are few tracks that realize Smith's great talent as a singer. "Gloria" is one that showcases her deep, throaty voice. However, Horses is a hugely important and successful record on other levels: the eloquence of the lyrics, the unique punk-meets-poetry point of view, the powerful deconstruction of familiar music ("Gloria," "My Generation," "Land" with "Land of a Thousand Dances"). Smith established herself in a big way with Horses, and this album -- as well as all of those that followed -- includes brilliant moments.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the intersection of poetry and song lyrics. How is Patti Smith's approach to song different from other artists'?

  • What do the two different voices singing in "Land" represent? And what do the two different images of "land" and "sea" represent?

  • What makes this album punk?

Music details

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