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Music

“I’m Not a Lady”: Loredana Bertè’s Music

“[…] women, you can be anything you want.”

“You are what you are, I breathe more …” In the first verse, the scene is already scandalous. Not for her words, but how she says them: in a skimpy leather dress, fake baby bump and feline dance moves. It is the 1986 of yuppie indifference, and Loredana Bertè debuts at the Sanremo Festival with the song Re, written for her by Italian singer-songwriter, Mango. She gained immediate notoriety.

The performance was harshly criticized by the press, Columbia Records canceled her contract and a new album project dissolved. However, her performance was not just a gratuitous provocation; who said a pregnant woman cannot be herself, singing and dancing on stage? To the woman’s role of mother and nothing else, Bertè offers a contemporary alternative, genuine and respectful of the female persona. For her first appearance at Italy’s most popular music event, she takes the stage simulating pregnancy, a disgrace for the conservative public. In a year when artists are back to performing live, she sings without lip-syncing and dances to choreography by Franco Miseria, rehearsed months in advance. The concept is bold, so much so that Lady Gaga appropriated it in 2015, paying homage with the fake baby bump and black wedding dress similar to the Versace Bertè wore to Sanremo following her unfavorable debut. In two nights, she desecrates all Italian women, first mothers and then wives. In those years of excess, of provocation as an end in itself, Loredana Bertè points the finger at the female condition: a figure frozen in time, still relegated to domestic roles. Her advice is simple and powerful. Women can be anything they want. It is not trivial, and the controversies that rain down on her because of it are proof.

Nothing else could have been expected by someone who posed completely naked for the inside cover of her first album in 1974. The title Streaking said it all, and it was immediately taken off the market by censors of that time. An independent artist, yes, but above all a liberated woman who gave voice to women’s issues never before discussed. Her first big success was in 1975 with You’re Beautiful, her desperate cry over love lost, a story of her toxic relationship, denigrated by her man, of enormous pain. 

In addition to her technical skills and great charisma, Loredana Bertè proved to have the courage to stand apart from the crowd, a requirement for distinguishing artists from just singers. She wrote many of her songs, but her biggest hits were tailored to her by other songwriters. In each piece she put her soul, scratched like her voice, and all her pride.

1982 was the year when Italy was the World Champion, when a President and a footballer represented a mood, and when I’m Not a Lady enjoyed enormous success. The grit with which Loredana Bertè distances herself from the status quo of the “Italian lady” is unstoppable and contagious. The song, written for her by Ivano Fossati, becomes her manifesto.

“I’m not a lady

One with all stars in her life

I’m not a lady

But one for which the war is never over

I’m not a lady

One with few marks in her life”

It is her best-selling single in Italy, successful also abroad, one of the best sellers that year. It held the charts for 22 weeks and won Festivalbar, the annual summer singing competition. This time Bertè takes the stage in a white wedding dress complete with bouquet, highlighting the contrast of her song to a common experience. But why doesn’t she consider herself a lady? It’s not just because she’s a rock artist in a traditionalist country or posed nude for Playboy in the mid-seventies. She sings of a war far from over and the marks left by life. Through her words she gives Italian women the courage to say no, to be able to choose who to be, even when it does not agree with societal and familial expectations. The song is a hymn to diversity.

In following years, Loredana Bertè will experience two marriages, one worse than the other, an attempted suicide, and a break with her sister, singer Mia Martini, until her sudden and tragic death.

During these years there was the dance and fake pregnancy performance, followed by a turn at songwriting. She began to write songs regularly, her words, stripping herself of superficialities. After a break that lasted years, she dueted with her sister in 1993, with the songs We Are as We Are, and I Have No Friends, an illustration of her life and career. When she debuted the latter at the Sanremo Festival in 1994, the overtly autobiographical note was immediately evident. She sang of her attempted suicide, her loneliness, exposed like scars impossible to hide. And just like her criticized performance, revisited by Lady Gaga thirty years later, this message too is received loud and clear even if some time later. To mark her forty-year career, her colleague Fiorella Mannoia produces the album I Have No Friends…But Girl Friends Yes, a collection of rearranged Bertè hits performed as duets with former and current female colleagues. These are some of the tangible proofs that show how her pioneering work, as an artist and as a woman, got right to the point. The girls who grew up with her songs, of her tormented soul but with head always held high, are the modern day singers who pay homage to her on stage and off; women free to express themselves thanks to the battles she led.

It was only following the death of her beloved Mimì in 1995 that Loredana spoke to the press for the first time about her family and her childhood, and in that moment, her scars, the earliest and deepest, came to the surface. Those marks she sang about in I’m Not a Lady: a violent father, an absent mother, too weak to oppose him, a rigid and close-minded upbringing, and sexual violence suffered at eighteen. She talks about how much she struggled to establish herself since her early years, having to learn to defend herself and gain respect in the difficult world of show business. It is because of these experiences that certain issues have always been close to her heart. She is not a lady, and she says so forcefully, without envy of those born under a lucky star, because she always got up after every fall.

“At the first slap, we must report”, is the simple but brutal message that Loredana Bertè shouts from Italy’s most popular stage at the beginning of 2021. Today, as we talk more, but perhaps not enough, about violence against women, the artist who has always been so committed to awaking consciences with her songs, never misses an opportunity to embrace social initiatives during public appearances. She, who had men aim loaded guns at her and who suffered psychological and physical abuse from a very young age, knows well what it means to stay afloat alone. These experiences have driven her to ensure that is not the case for women today.

Loredana Bertè tried to live her life, to be happy, to ignore people’s judgments. As a provocative artist, she was steadfast in her mission, rattling the souls of Italian women. She tried to show a different way through difficult and uncomfortable means, paving the road for many female artists. To change cultural mores takes much effort and time, but she brought about significant cultural shifts. In her efforts to awaken people from the apathy of social and gender conventions – through a career spanning almost half a century- she has been unquestionably successful.