Humans have always had a fascination with magic. In the world’s current chaotic climate, many cultural channels have had to switch to a more “new age” approach, satisfying a rising populace solving their disillusionment with witchery. Nowadays, you can find charged rose quartz chips swirling in perfume (to attract love) sold by en vogue shops. Online publications like Broadly and Refinery29 frequently release content spotlighting the best tarot spreads and crystal grids. You can even scroll through social media and browse the growing collection of Twitter astrologists, meticulously picking apart Beyonce’s birth chart in a bid to discover what exactly makes her Virgo-sun, Scorpio-moon and Libra-ascendant dominants tick.
But this sudden mass-exodus toward the use of tarot, spellcasting and dried sage isn’t new for one faction: music. Witchy women have always been a staple archetype in that world.
Now, this archetype isn’t necessarily a “one-size-fits-all” deal, as the term suggests. Lyrics don’t have to conjure up images of toad tongues or blood sacrifice, but instead infer the themes that ended up getting women stuck with the label “witch” back in the good ol’ days: We’re looking at free-thinking, liberated ladies whose ideals probably look pretty feminist by modern standards. A lot of songs that give us that mystical energy also tend to focus on themes of supernatural naturalism, life and death and the complexities of the human condition.
In this modern mystical renaissance you can find Florence Welch dancing barefoot on-stage, the sound of her funeral-song vocals swirling around lyrics that speak of demons and the power of nature. Lorde could easily pass for an urban sorceress, all curling fingers and glittering eyes (armed with the prodigal power of star-man David Bowie) and Joanna Newsom conjures up images of unburied bones fleshed out with sinewy notes from her pedal-harp. And let’s not forget dark and syrupy songstress Lana Del Ray, who prompted fans to join her in hexing President Donald Trump last year — an iconic moment of literal witchery. Hell, there’s even an entire genre built around the movement called Witch House, featuring acts such as Zola Jesus electing to create a darker, more electronic sound.
Of course, the element of magic in music isn’t an entirely new concept. There is a strong history of this theme being used time and time again to great success, although a number of stand-outs have always been sung by men. It’s also notable that the witch in question is always the subject, portrayed as the object of misery whose black magic has caused these beleaguered gents to fall inescapably in love with them.
Frank Sinatra’s 1957 hit “Witchcraft” croons about the titular sorceress as a naughty-but-nice seductress. Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac penned “Black Magic Woman” (which became famous with Santana’s 1970 version) that sings of a tricksy and heart-stealing lady using spells to ensnare his favour. Then came The Eagle’s with “Witchy Woman” in 1972. This particular enchantress has arguably topped the exploits of her predecessors, namely because she’s been sleeping around in the actual Devil’s bed — but would still gladly rock you in the nighttime.
Now, there was an attempt to burst the bubble surrounding this incredibly niche boys club. It came in the form of the fabulous Eartha Kitt, who completely turned the trope on itself. She became a welcome exception to the rule by releasing the fabulously titled “I’d Rather Be Burned as a Witch” in 1959. In the song Kitt completely takes ownership of her magical sensuality, letting her fantastic purring voice entice the audience: “I use my charms to undo you, my arms to unglue you. And all of the hex, of the weaker sex, to voodoo you…”
This is the sound of a witch who is unashamed to play on the perceived weaknesses of her gender, before going on to proudly trill that being a woman is the source of all the wicked voodoo she has. Magic, indeed.
Unfortunately, Eartha Kitt had to wait for almost 20 years before a coven could form. But when it did, it came with all the force of a divine landslide. The mid-’70s brought forth a tilt-shift in terms of the perceived witch-archetype, pulling away from the male gaze and allowing the women who actually tapped into that energy when performing to shape their own vision of what made their music magical.
This came predominantly in the form of Stevie Nicks. Decked in chiffon and swaying around a microphone stand fastened with crystals, her recognisable falsetto now the stuff of vocal fairy tales. But Nicks’ true talent came in songwriting. She has the uncanny ability to pin an emotion or a story to a tune and make you feel it deep in your gut — one of the greats when it comes to lyrical spellcasting.
A whole class of witchy women began to follow in Nicks’ ballet-slippered footsteps. Kate Bush cartwheeled onto the scene with songs that told uncomfortable stories of Government agents, experiments and nuclear wars. Her voice slips around some of the more difficult subjects and handles them with operatic reverence; “This Woman’s Work” has become somewhat of a coaxing anthem, having most recently been used in The Handmaid’s Tale series soundtrack.
Just a handful of exemplary musical mages that followed include dark and unsettling Souxsie and The Banshees, then Tori Amos with songs exploring themes of feminism, religion and politics (some laced with Pagan symbolism) and even Bjork, especially with 2001’s Vespertine.
Witchy women, from Eartha Kitt to Florence Welch, have (certainly from a feminist perspective) been able to freely and unapologetically explore darker themes such as sex, death and the supernatural. They’ve weaved them into their music for years. But the current state of worldly affairs has driven a huge number of people to actively escape their upset, and tap into the experimental and crafted landscapes of crystal visions, cosmic love and (this) woman’s work. When you listen to this strange, shifting sort-of-genre, you can’t help but feel connected to the good things on the Earth, plug into the uncertainty of the Great Beyond — maybe even question if there’s a Great Big Something Else.
Either way, it’s pretty clear: There’s never been a better time for a little bit of witchcraft.