As Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) draws toward its climax, Harley and her newfound gang of girlfriends find themselves surrounded by mercenaries (all men), cornered but resolutely Not Going Out Without a Fight. Harley passes out a bevy of weapons, while the familiar guitar riff of Heart’s “Barracuda” starts to echo in the funhouse of mirrors where they’re trapped. Within a chord, it’s clear what’s coming: a badass fight in which this group of women—heretofore all solo actors with varied goals, who were at odds with one another in the past—will band together and likely come out on top.
“Barracuda” has become one of the choice songs to signify a moment of female badassery (often involving a fight or confrontation) is about to hit your screen. It scored the strut of a leather-clad Lucy Liu 20 years ago, accompanied the princesses of Duloc in a knight fight, and revved up a rivalry between Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis. Its chugging riff and wailing vocals have become synonymous with Hollywood’s vision of female empowerment, to the point of max exposure—it really feels like you can’t watch a scene featuring a woman on a mission without hearing Ann Wilson croon, “Ooh, barracuda.”
To be fair, the song itself has a pretty badass history. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Ann and Nancy Wilson explained that “Barracuda” was a response to Mushroom Records pushing out an ad designed to look like a tabloid cover that insinuated the sisters were incestuous lovers. Mushroom’s lack of tour support and funds also contributed to their overall anger. The Wilson sisters felt violated and furious, and their anger increased when a record supplier at a show asked Ann where “her lover” was, clarifying he meant her sister. Later that night, Ann channeled her feelings about the whole situation into words, and that poem became the lyrics to “Barracuda.” “No matter where Heart toured in the ’70s, we came across our share of sleazeballs. ‘Barracuda’ is me coming unglued … I just got deeply disturbed and angry, and channeled it into my songwriting and vocals,” Ann said. The song’s lyrics talk to and about a barracuda, a predatory fish that seems to represent the slimy record execs responsible for the ad, and perhaps others who objectified the Wilson sisters. You can hear the anger in the track’s music and vocals, and it adds up to create an iconically defiant, important song.
Throughout the years, that anger expressed by Heart has made “Barracuda” an enticing song for music directors: The song has memorably appeared in Charlie’s Angels; in the Season 2 trailer for Marvel’s Jessica Jones, well-known badass and avenging superhero/detective; in Shrek the Third, as the princesses, led by Fiona, fight some knights (this version is a Fergie cover); in You Again, when Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis prepare to street race; in Chuck, when Anna fights Michael Strahan; and even during the 2008 Republican National Convention, in reference to Sarah Palin, vice presidential candidate. One of these things is not quite like the others, but the 2008 RNC was a significant cultural moment, and the usage of “Barracuda’’ in that context does track with the others in intent, even if you don’t agree with the association (as the Wilson sisters reportedly did not). In all of these instances, the song soundtracks a moment meant to convey a woman or women’s toughness, moments that fall in line with the song’s origin story. It’s possible—likely, even—that the song shows up in so many of these pop culture moments because of its background and message, its contagious, full-of-rage and strength-inspiring sound, or both. “Barracuda” has become the soundtrack to women’s ferocity and strength.
The level of reliance on the song, though, might lessen the oomph of deploying it in a given scene or moment. “Barracuda,” the song itself, can never lose its meaning as a stand against the sexist and exploitative record industry, of course, and Heart deserves to keep on collecting their royalties. But if we know it’s coming, the needle drop on that familiar, crunchy guitar riff can elicit eye rolls instead of fist pumps, as the use of “Barracuda” runs the risk of becoming less meaningful. And as “Barracuda” becomes a trope in and of itself, its use could unintentionally reduce female characters into a monolith, not necessarily signifying anything about the specific character(s) at hand. Does a movie even have to put forth a genuinely empowering or inspiring moment if the music cue is doing the auto-associating? Is this link hardwired into our brains for the worse? The only way to break the cycle is to add some other songs into the mix and see what happens.
There are tons of songs that could be used when a film, TV show, or political campaign needs to soundtrack an empowering scene for a woman or women, ones that may be less expected or more surprising, and therefore more impactful. How about Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run” or “Girls! Girls! Girls!”? Nicki Minaj’s “Here I Am”? Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” (as suggested by one Andrew Gruttadaro)? Veruca Salt’s “Seether”? SZA’s “Normal Girl”? Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Let’s Be Friends”? Rihanna’s “Breakin’ Dishes” or “What’s My Name?” or “Man Down” or “Cockiness (Love It)” or “Consideration” (With SZA) or … any Rihanna song ever written?
Heart’s “Barracuda” rightfully ascended to its throne as the song that plays when a woman is kicking ass, but this sort of thing needs term limits. Whatever comes next, I’m all ears.
Jessica MacLeish is a pop culture writer and freelance book editor based in Brooklyn (but also on the World Wide Web, tweeting sporadically @jessmacleish).