Here she comes / You better watch your step / She’s going to break your heart in two / It’s true … This the first verse of vocals in the song “Femme Fatale” by The Velvet Underground and Nico. Listening to this song for the first time without context is confusing to say the least. The lyrics, clearly written from a man’s point of view, are eerily crooned in a woman’s voice. This voice belongs to model, actress, and singer Nico. As she sings, her vocals are shaky, almost as if Nico was on the verge of tears. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was. Here is the next verse: It’s not hard to realize / Just look into her false colored eyes / She builds you up to just put you down / What a clown. Ouch.
The Velvet Underground, an up-and-coming rock band in the 1960’s led by singer-songwriter and guitarist Lou Reed, was picked up by Andy Warhol in his efforts to expand his art repertoire into the music scene. Warhol, fearing that The Velvet Underground lacked A-list looks, quickly required the addition of model Nico to the band, much to Reed’s dismay. Previous to her feature on The Velvet Underground’s Warhol album, Nico had no substantial singing experience. When listening to her lead vocals on “Femme Fatale,” this inexperience is blatantly obvious: her voice is pitchy, off-key and inconsistent. In retaliation to Warhol’s requirement, Reed wrote the song “Femme Fatale” specifically for Nico to sing, knowing it would ridicule and humiliate her. Take a look at the chorus: ‘Cause everybody knows (she’s a femme fatale) / The thing she does to please (she’s a femme fatale) / She’s just a little tease (she’s a femme fatale) / See the way she walks / Hear the way she talks …
After her stint with The Velvet Underground, Nico went into solo work, recording her debut album, “Chelsea Girl,” with songs written by rock icons such as Bob Dylan and Tim Hardin. You may recognize her most famous song from the album, “These Days,” from its inclusion in Wes Anderson’s film “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Unfortunately, this song is a gross misrepresentation of Nico and her artistic viewpoint: Nico had just about no say in the production of “Chelsea Girl”. In the place of her requests for drums and guitars, the songs on her album were overproduced with dramatic string accompaniments.
Sadly, Nico’s singing career was never defined by her own musical desires. Not only was she ridiculed by Reed in her time with The Velvet Underground, but he imposed a band-wide ban in which no members could accompany Nico in her solo performances, and she was regularly ridiculed on stage. Nico, recruited by Warhol as a pretty face, was treated as nothing more than that for her entire professional career. Her looks inspired lust and hate in many men, but, as her narrative was controlled by the men that managed her, very little is known about who she really was and what kind of music she really wanted to produce. Accounts of her character range from descriptions of a vapid blonde to an egotistical maniac. Famously, Nico became so fed up with her lack of agency that she became determined to destroy her appearance in an effort to force people to take her seriously. (She was unsuccessful.) Throughout the remainder of her life, Nico struggled with drug addiction, periodically went on tour, had a son, and lived in Berlin and Manchester along with New York City. Tragically, she died in a cycling accident on vacation in Ibiza at the age of 49.
Ultimately, Nico’s story (or lack thereof) exposes societal issues exacerbated through the lens of the art world. From the start, Warhol’s treatment of Nico as a pretty pawn was problematic, causing drama within The Velvet Underground and ultimately setting Nico up to be treated as voiceless and insubstantial for the remainder of her career. Furthermore, Warhol’s purely aesthetic decision for the band brings into question the intentionality behind his own art: if his expansion into the music scene is purely based on aesthetics, then is this also the case for his work? If so, then his art is less a commentary on American consumerism but a part of it. After all, his soup cans did make a great profit …
Secondly, Nico’s harrowing tale sheds light on the lack of agency many female artists feel to this day. Her inability to escape the management of self-advantageous men is reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s most recent management debacle, though with a much sadder ending.
And lastly, it cannot be denied that Nico just may not have been meant to be a singer. Warhol chose her based on looks, not talent, and besides that fact, her voice is objectively bad. Many B-list celebrities these days try to break into the music industry (think Kim K, Dixie D’Amelio, Lil Huddy) as a way to increase their fame, and it cheapens the work that real musicians do. This phenomenon begs the question: what constitutes a “real” artist? Is there or should there be a limit to art’s subjective lens?
Nevertheless, there is a lovely haunting quality about Nico’s voice that draws in the listener. Now, do I like “These Days” and “Femme Fatale” because I subjectively enjoy Nico’s erratic vocals or because I know of the intriguingly tragic story they entail? Honestly, I don’t know. Give them a listen and decide for yourself.
“These Days”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52ZdwZ7Ig-8
To find out more about Nico, read: https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/the-misunderstood-voice-of-nico
Maybe it’s something that hasn’t lasted. That you had to be there to get. I couldn’t tell because I was there and it’s still there for me. Nico’s wild mystique and attitude that cuts really deep and made something new and indispensable. Her voice was an essential part and Ive always thought it was great. She was one of the hippest people around and one of those who prefigured all the changes that would come later when the sixties turned into the seventies.
I have a different take on Nico’s career. The majority of it (the last 20 years, when she made several self-written albums) were defined by her own musical desires.
She wrote all the tracks on her album The Marble Index. Today, it’s considered a classic by many. Why not mention it in your piece – did it not suit your narrative? It was released in 1968, just a year after her time in the Velvets ended and her own Chelsea Girl debut. Who arranged it, co-produced it, and worked with her for many years after? John Cale of The Velvet Underground. This idea of a band-wide ban of working with Nico is misleading because the Velvets were so short-lived. Cale always did what he wanted anyway. Another of her primarily self-written albums, Drama of Exile (1981), contains a cover of the Velvets’ I’m Waiting For The Man, written by Lou Reed. So she wasn’t above using the advantageous start her young looks gave her music career to try and garner extra sales later in life.
James Young’s excellent book Songs They Never Play on the Radio, documenting when he played in Nico’s backing band in the 1980s, details how Nico was no longer a pretty face. Her years of heroin addiction made sure of that. But she was very much in control of her own musical decisions, with her wheezy harmonium and disconcerting voice always front and centre. And she had a cast of younger men in her backing band taking orders from her. She was the boss.
I find your take disrespectful to Nico. I suspect you started writing the piece wanting to portray her as a male plaything, but that wasn’t really true after 1967. You don’t mention her self-written masterwork. You want to deny her of her agency, yet she exercised it hugely for the vast majority of her musical career (when she could temper her drug use sufficiently to allow it.) You portray her as being defined by men and their desires, but she had male backing bands for years who she dominated and were incredibly wary of her unpredictability.
You criticise her voice as ‘objectively bad’. That’s a subjective opinion – I like it! Her voice portrays hurt, sadness and loss in a way that confident perfect pitch never could. And does that matter much anyway? Many people say Bob Dylan has a bad singing voice. John Lydon admits he can’t sing. But musical history would be far, far the poorer without their voices having being heard. And that goes for Nico too.
I think you should give her more respect. Nico’s life is a very interesting story if you choose to learn about it.