TRANSFORMED WHITNEY WOLANIN
Sanibel songwriter's painful story; her allegory for sexual assault
No one prepares for random violence. For Sanibel singer Whitney Wolanin, her “Never Said No” released in December is her allegory in softening the pain and helping others in similar situations.
No one prepares for random violence. Until it happens, there’s no telling which way our injured hearts will turn.
For Sanibel’s Whitney Wolanin, obscene catcalls, then running in panic from the men, bystanders afraid to intervene, each was a call to action. Choosing to endure some controversy—risking her silky image as a teen prodigy performing Christmas shows—the 26-year-old singer wrote and produced “Never Said No,” the song and accompanying music video released in December by TopNotch Records, the label owned by Wolanin and her sister, Victoria. The lyrics and Whitney Wolanin’s visual performance in the four-minute video symbolize her experiences and views on sexual harassment and assault against people from all walks of life. The work is a sharp turn from performing pop songs in a superb contralto, a move driven by her surviving a band of thugs in a London park.
Her new music video’s fictionalized story of a woman’s encounter in a parking garage with a sexual aggressor and the deliverance of his punishment, she says, isn’t to alarm or to sensationalize a near tragedy. Rather, it’s more about speaking out in the public forum she commands as a Grammy-listed artist, she says, to confront sexual crimes before others get hurt. I’m not usually scared of much,” Wolanin says of the incident prompting her outrage. In the video, a sexual predator is lured to a woman’s home where she turns the tables on him, which Wolanin says victims contemplate but rarely execute. “But I felt so powerless, so upset.”
Words and performances should entertain, Wolanin says, but should sometimes ignite action, should help young people to understand issues such as gender bullying, which often is handled with a disciplinary wink that astonishes and alienates young girls, Wolanin says.
And research, in fact, depicts homophobic and sexual teasing and taunting or bullying of both genders as childhood behaviors that slip under the radar, dangerously materializing in universities, where date rape is alarmingly common. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, for instance, reports that up to 20 percent of university women report an attempted or completed sexual assault, most knowing the alleged attacker. Since less than 5 percent of those report to police, the numbers could be much higher, advocates concede. Whitney Wolanin believes early and serious messaging at school and from celebrities would reduce sexualized threats such as she endured in 2015.
This bright, sunny morning on Sanibel, however, Whitney and Victoria are visiting their parents, Illona and Vincent, the sisters just returning to Florida. They’ve spent three months promoting Whitney and
Risking her SILKY IMAGE as a teen prodigy performing Christmas shows, the 26-YEAR-OLD singer in December released "NEVER SAID NO."
“Never Said No” at media stopovers. Life on the road in a rental car is not easy, Victoria concedes. Back on the island where they were raised, the two talk about the music video they’ll post to social media and on the video-hosting service Vevo. The sisters appear close, one finishing the other’s sentences. They are also well-educated (Victoria a Cornell grad, Whitney a Vanderbilt alum).
But the easy banter of an interview turns dark as Whitney begins describing the genesis of “Never Said No.” It was crossing park grounds in London that she was at first verbally assaulted by sexual aggressors, she says, and when that didn’t get the reaction from her the men pictured, they came at her full throttle with further obscenities. She bolted. But in
those few moments and its aftermath, her faith in others was diminished. She’d experienced catcalls, but this was much harsher and the kind of frightening that sticks.
Perhaps as difficult, those witnessing the harassment wouldn’t intervene, at least seek help. She was alone among diverted eyes. “You don’t have to walk away,” she says, adding that she wrote “Never Said No” to vent, to release the anger and panic, to share her message and to invite feedback.
Her lyrics and the music video “are not about committing violence whatsoever," she says. “It’s about [sexual] consent being very easy to understand. I want people to talk about it, to reach out, to not be afraid;” to which Victoria Wolanin adds, “If we can do a tiny bit of good in helping [others] understand and change the world in some way, then we did our job.”
The video was filmed in The Adelicia, a popular luxury high-rise in Nashville, Tennessee.
Wolanin’s dramatic choice of lighting was inspired by the work of director Bouha Kazmi.
“Never Said No" is a cautionary tale that highlights society’s often warped notion of consent.
“Never Said No” is currently available to stream or download on all major platforms.