Tagged: ESG

Riding the Wheels of Steel with the Queens: 8/18, the Alchemy

Last Saturday, I finally delivered the DJ set I knew I had in me. I was disappointed by the show I gave on the eve of my 29th birthday–a set beleaguered with technical difficulties, disjointed transitions, and frayed nerves. By my assessment, the seams showed big time. But last weekend at the Alchemy, I was in the zone. I attribute my success to:

1. Setting up my first four songs ahead of time. Some day soon, I’ll incorporate a laptop into my setup. Later, when I have disposable income again, I’ll invest in more up-to-date equipment. But for now, my current setup consists of two turntables and a two-disc mixer I inherited from a friend. This setup leaves me vulnerable to skipping. A way to avoid this problem is to give yourself enough time to cue every track. This can be hard to do in a live setting where the venue, its sound system, and its patrons are variables. DJs have to keep the party going. This can be difficult when someone comes up to the booth to start a conversation about your equipment, Lil Wayne, or his/her burgeoning hip-hop career. Factor in a few missed cues and skipping problems and it’s that much harder to recover. The key to a successful evening is to always be ahead of the mix instead of running behind it or flailing underneath it. This requires a cool head and quick instincts. So making sure my first four songs were on point before I started gave me ample time to prepare the rest of the set, as well as field requests and chat with folks throughout the night.

2. Working with a mix. Some DJs who use laptops work exclusively from a pre-constituted mix. Ugh, why book a DJ if s/he’s just going to push play on an iTunes mix? That said, it’s nice to have an anchor. So I burned three mix CDs and kept one of them in the mixer at all times. When I played all the songs I wanted off one mix, I switched it out with another. Now, I integrated these mixes with other records and played off the crowd, the venue, and whatever I wanted to hear at any given moment. I also shuffled the order I played the songs on each mix CD. But I always had a batch of songs at the ready and this kept me from running around and constantly switching out material.

3. Practicing with the equipment. I’m just starting out as a DJ, so I’m still getting used to working with two turntables and a mixer at once. But I’m more confident each time I do it. This goes for playing music as well as setting up my gear. My partner and I share our equipment. He’s deejayed quite a bit more than me. I had him coach me in our kitchen, but I break out the equipment and practice alone. He still helps me cart the equipment–not because it’s too heavy or intimidating, but because he’s a supportive partner. And I ask him to stand in the audience while I check my levels. But I’m really conscious about gender stereotyping around technology, so I learned what every plugin connects to and why and am learning how to cue, cut, mix, and fade between each song on my own.

4. Believing in myself. I had a good time on Saturday. I loved what I was playing. I had conviction, which I hadn’t really found during my first two sets. The audience responded by cheering, dancing, and making out (!) to my set. They got into what I was playing, in large part because I was enjoying myself so much. You get what you give. Part of this had to do with demonstrating greater fluency with the material. I’m working with the genres of soul, R&B, and hip hop in part as a challenge. I’m invested in breaking down rockist traditions of taste hierarchies and white privilege, especially those circulating (unintentionally or not) within punk, post-punk, and riot grrrl, which are genres I know a bit better. I do research as an instructor and scholar, largely so that I can learn or unlearn about things beyond my intellectual comfort zone. I listen and learn to destabilize. Why not turn that skill set toward deejaying?

Also, this is the music I need to hear and share right now.

In the future, I’d like to post my set lists here. I’m taking a class on digital production this fall, and have set this as a goal for myself. I will probably use SoundCloud or 8Tracks, but am open to suggestions. For now, fans can access last Saturday’s set list through Feminist Music Geek’s Facebook page. I’ll leave you now with a few songs that I especially loved playing. Don’t hesitate to put in your requests.

Applying the spirit of the Bechdel Test to dance songs

I wonder what Mo and Sydney think about dance songs; image courtesy of 1979semifinalist.wordpress.com

So, I was having a breakroom chat on Friday with my co-worker friend Rebekah. She was asking my thoughts on the cause-and-effect relationship between Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” and “Monster.” We were discussing what we made of the idea of Gaga directly addressing the threat of sexual assault for women being flirty and getting trashed at a club, in effect providing social commentary for her breakout hit.

I spent a significant part of my week listening to Katy Perry and Ke$ha’s debut albums. In doing so, I thought about how pervasive drunkeness and/or hookups are in dance songs (sexual violence is not as prevalent, though Kiely Williams troubled the waters with “Spectacular”). Another friend is putting together a mix for her birthday party and helping her come up with a track list exacerbated the point. Though I don’t eschew getting drunk or hooking up, Rebekah and I struggled to come up with a song that didn’t focus on these things either with direct language or through euphemism. She mentioned that applying something like the Bechdel Test to dance songs might be interesting, though difficult.

I find a lot of value in the Bechdel Test. It originates from Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic series, wherein a character named Mo vows to only watch movies with 1) at least two women in them who 2) talk to each other about 3) something besides men. It’s a simple set of criteria to use on film that is actually difficult for most texts to abide by (in addition to the clip above, read Rachel McCarthy James‘s recent TelevIsm’s post about applying the test to television shows).

So I hope to draft a list where drunk behavior and hookups aren’t mentioned. I haven’t come up with a snazzy handle, but the idea is there. I came up with Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music,” ESG’s “Get Funky,” Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s Alright,” Out Hud’s “One Life to Leave,” and Hot Chip’s “Over and Over,” among others.

Prince – “1999”

Pylon – “Dub”

Le Tigre – “My Metrocard”

Gossip – “Pop Goes the World”

Janelle Monáe – “Tightrope”

Assuredly, there are others. Feel free to offer yours in the comments section, this blog’s Facebook page, or on Twitter (via @ms_vz).

SXSW Day 2 and 3 recap

So, after recovering from the pleasurebomb that was SXSW 2k10, I’m finally able to recap the rest of the week. Tonight, I’ll post my thoughts on Thursday and Friday. Tomorrow, I will summarize Saturday’s festivities and highlight a few of the events I attended on Sunday.

With that, Thursday.

Left work around 4. I had a staff meeting earlier that morning and very much did not want to galivant around in biz-caj attire. I went home to change and of course, by 4:30, traffic was at a stand-still. Parking was harder to come by, so I ended up leaving my car on east 12th in front of my friends’ house. Got to Club Deville around 5.

Liars – If you’ve seen them before, you’d imagine how this went down. Loud, intense, sweaty, and their new album, Sisterworld, sounds good. Not as awesome as when I saw them at the Pitchfork Festival back in 2006 when they were supporting Drum’s Not Dead, but that was one of the best, most exhausting performances I’ve ever seen. Plus, there was some cigarette and pot smoke billowing around the tent outside the venue, but not enough to compare with what was floating around on that muggy Chicago summer day nearly four years ago.

After that, my partner and I ate some Hoboken Pie on the curb out front and plotted out our itinerary. We went to the Ghost Room to catch General Elektrik at 8 p.m., running into our friend Jacqueline along the way. When we got there some pseudo-house band called Scorpio Rising came on. Ugh. The obvious wah-wah bass was surpassed by the outfit’s hippie feel-goodisms. We promptly went to the porch and I read Tracy Morgan’s interview with BUST, his first magazine cover. The upcoming issue also has a feature on sissy bounce, which is a queer hip hop movement based out of New Orleans. Check it out when it hits newsstands.

General Elektriks – White boy French funk outfit. Good energy. Reminded me a little bit of Mellow and Beck circa Midnite Vultures, an era I wouldn’t mind if he returned to at some point.

Mountain Man – Heard about this almost exclusively a capella Vermont-based trio thanks to my friend Will. These women sang in three part harmony only occassionally accompanied by an acoustic guitar, which members Molly Erin Sarle and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig shared at various points during their set at Buffalo Billiards. They’re still new and a bit green, as evidenced when member Amelia Meath intimated that they had never sung with microphones before. Sometimes they weren’t completely together as a group. But when they were, which they were for much of the time, they emphasized the power unaccompanied vocal ensembles have in creating symphonies of sound. I also liked the Sapphic subtext to many of their songs, one of which was about living on a female commune, and the support they gave one another. A lot of hand-holding and hugging on that stage. They’re on my radar.

Explode Into Colors – Their show at Wave was on my must-see list, especially since I missed them at the festival last year. This Portland trio were really great. As I already wrote about them, I’ll say two more things: 1) More bands should have multiple drummers and 2) if you can’t get down with a bassless ESG scoring a post-apocalyptic Western, I can’t help you like things.

After this, we kind of hit a low point. We went to Aces Lounge to check out Jean Grae and Talib Kweli, who were amazing. Unfortunately, 88-Keys and Strong Arm Steady opened for them and they were derivative and making the bill run behind schedule. 88-Keys has worked with Kanye and I could see becoming a bit of a draw, particularly on the college tour circuits like 40 Acres Fest. Unfortunately, he’s also the type of rapper to dedicate songs about his sexual prowess to the laydees and say “no homo” when introducing songs about men (specifically one-minute men, which he assured us he wasn’t). Strong Arm Steady were a West Coast crew who worked with Madlib but were not themselves particularly remarkable and actually pretty messy in terms of delivery. The only highlight of their set was when Fashawn spat a couple verses on some song whose title I didn’t catch. I was getting super-annoyed, but then . . .

Jean Grae – Ya’ll, she’s the king as far as I’m concerned. Smart, challenging, confrontational, ingenuous, and the possessor of a killer flow, she’s one of the best in the game. And I don’t mean “good for a girl.” I mean on equal footing with or better than Mr. Lif, El-P, Brother Ali, Busdriver, Mos Def, Dead Prez, Jay-Z in his prime. She’s my favorite, and a grown-ass woman to boot. And I hadn’t actually seen her in concert since she did the Okay Player tour with The Roots back in 2004. So when she sashayed down a spiral staircase to Nancy Sinatra’s version of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” in a flared cocktail dress and cardigan (somewhat atypical for her to me, as I’ve usually seen her in jeans and t-shirts), I got amped. And when she demanded that the audience “act right” and participate by dancing and singing along, I obviously complied. She’s Jean fucking Grae.

Talib Kweli – Obviously amazing and great, as well as the reason for the showcase, as he is the owner of Blacksmith Records. He and Jean also had a lot of rapport, cracking each other up as they performed together.

After that, I snuck a peak at Phantogram at Red 7 and saw The Very Best begin to play Beauty Bar‘s backyard, where our friend Barrett was working security and had met JD Samson of MEN a few hours earlier. Then home, because Friday was going to be hella busy.

I took Friday off from work so I could help out at the GRCA day show at the relocating Cafe Mundi. Totally worth it. OMG, are there ever so many women and girls ruling it out there. After set-up, Kristen at Act Your Age and I got to watch Charlie Bell and Darling New Neighbors perform. After that, we interviewed several acts who were on the bill, including some long-time heroines of mine. I’m happy to report that Exene Cervenka, Jessica Hopper, and Viv Albertine are very nice in person. Hopefully all of the footage (much of which was shot by Kristen as well as Zoe from Schmillion and I’m the Fox) will be up on the Web in the immediate future. We got a lot of interesting opinions from these ladies.

Jessica Hopper – Did a reading from her book, The Girl’s Guide to Rocking, which she also signed for people.

Exene Cervenka – Still great, still political, still rockin’ a spare set-up with acoustic guitar and back-up singer. I also appreciated that she mentioned during her set how important it is to have spaces like GRC for girls’ self-empowerment.

Akina Adderly & the Vintage Playboys – Straight-ahead funk with great vocals, fronted by GRCA vocal coach Adderly.

Chatmonchy – All-female Japanese rock band that aren’t as well-known in the states but are royalty overseas.

BO-PEEP – In my opinion, the best show of the day. Loud, theatrical, high-energy all-female punk band from Japan. They were also very nice when I interviewed them, particularly since I couldn’t speak any Japanese and they weren’t proficient with English. However, I did discover that they love The Smashing Pumpkins and that they design and make all of their costumes. If they’re playing near you, go see them.

White Mystery – A close second to BO-PEEP for best set. A brother-sister guitar-drum duo from Chicago, currently on up-and-comer indie label HoZac. Please don’t dismiss them as the next iteration of The White Stripes and please don’t reduce them to their big red manes. These kids ruled it classic rock style. Also, the Whites are super-nice people. In our interview, we discovered that their mother makes a lot of their wearable goods (including underwear), singer-guitarist Alex runs merchandise workshops for Chicago’s chapter of GRC, drummer Francis was born on Keith Moon’s birthday, and so much about gear and the importance of bands running their merch booths.

Girl in a Coma – Really excited to see this San Antonio-based power trio, who I’ve somehow missed for the past year despite the fact that members are themselves involved with GRCA. Their songs were great and they really got the crowd rockin’ with their timely cover of The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.”

Viv Albertine – A cheeky, stylish lady with a dry sense of humor and a romanceless attitude toward love. Really enjoyed her new material and got to chat with her a little bit about acts she’s into, like Talk Normal and Grass Widow. Also has the coolest business card I’ve ever seen, though hopefully I convinced her to make them scratch and sniff.

Rosie Flores – Legendary punkabilly. Didn’t get to interview her, but enjoyed her set.

And with that, Kristen made her way home and my partner and I met up with our friend George at TerrorBird and some really nice deejays from Berkeley’s KALX. Frank was closed for a private party, so we decided to head over to El Chilito to catch our second wind.

Zs – Something tells me these guys are familiar with Big Black, Glenn Branca, and The Flying Luttenbachers. Profoundly loud, crushing, guitar-based free jazz. I can dig it. They were playing at Beauty Bar’s backyard at one of Panache’s many showcases. I hung out there for a few other bands.

The Carrots – Hadn’t seen this local indie pop outfit since SXSW 2006 and they’ve only gotten tighter. Cute, fun, and coordinated — this is the band you want playing your prom. Also, a nice sonic contrast to frontwoman Veronica Ortuño’s other band, Finally Punk.

Julianna Barwick – Man, I really like her music. Some people might find a girl singing into a loop station boring, but fuck them. Barwick’s approach to song formation is to improvise parts and feed them through her loop station until she’s built an entire choir out of her own voice. I was riveted.

Met back up with my partner, who tried to catch She & Him and John Doe to no avail. Caught the last few songs of Uffie’s set at Mohawk, which were whatever. Some people are excited about her, and I’m not sure why. Sure, she’s young and French and there’s the connection with Justice. But she endorses this “I’m young and bratty and materialistic” ethos that I wish certain feminists weren’t so quick to champion (see also the Married to the Mob clothing line, though I do want MTTM’s Lady Kier t-shirt). I think we’re better than that. And I think this shit is boring, and I bet it gets hella played at American Apparel.

Fashawn – I think this Fresno kid has star quality. Put him on your mix tapes, boys and girls.

The Entrance Band – I’m not so into psychedelic hard rock, but they’re fucking great. Caught them at Red 7, the third time I’ve seen them in as many SXSWs. Nothing really to say other than bassist Paz Lenchantin rules the planet. Melissa Auf Der Maur, who was two people to my left during their set, seems to think so too.

After that, there were a few shut-outs. I couldn’t get back in to the Mohawk to see Grass Widow, perhaps because all the people with badges were watching Mayer Hawthorne and the County. We couldn’t find the Independent to see Anti-Pop Consortium. The xx show at Central Presbyterian Church was badges only. So we ended things with Dengue Fever at Encore. Fun retro pop outfit from Los Angeles and Cambodia.

Phew! That’s enough for now. I’ll wrap up my thoughts tomorrow. Thanks for reading.

Why I’m taking guitar lessons

I'm makin' it with a Mako; image courtesy of gamespot.com

When I attended the recent screening of Radical Harmonies, someone asked if I was a musician. I instinctively said “no.” Then I immediately remembered my roughly fifteen years in various choral ensembles and countered aloud, “actually, yes I am. I’m a singer.” Duh, Alyx. You only argue the singer as musician on this blog all the time.

Indeed I am a singer. I started singing in my church choir when I was around ten. In the seventh grade, I worked up the nerve to audition for the junior high treble choir. I got in on the merit of my performance of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” which I swiped from the Forrest Gump soundtrack. Introduce him to the Monterrey Pop Festival crowd, Mama Cass.

By the end of the school year, the girl in the back of the alto section auditioned for the fall musical, The King And I. I was cast as Lady Thiang, an icky instance of yellow-facing. I got to sing “Something Wonderful,” one of musical theater’s many paeans to patriarchy. Things fared better at the end of eighth grade, when I played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz and had secured a spot in the varsity treble ensemble for fresh(wo)man year.

Throughout my teens, choir and musical theater were my life. I was in chamber choir from sophomore year on, and also served as an officer. I loved singing, but it didn’t mean success came easily to me. Basic music theory was hard to process, as was sight-reading. I lacked proper breath support and often went instinctively into my chest voice or put my voice in my nose. I never starred in the school musical, though I did garner two supporting roles. I bombed my Region Choir audition junior year, which broke my heart but also gave me a goal.

I started taking voice lessons with a family friend during the summer before senior year. I practiced scales, sight-reading, and built my repertoire. I logged about three hours of practice every day outside my duties as section leader during school rehearsal. You see, I was going to make All-State Choir my senior year. And I ended up being first chair to the Alto I section of the Treble Choir, who killed it at the concert performance. I had a wonderful choir director and voice coach, but there’s really no mystery to how it happened: I worked for it.

That said, these accolades don’t really matter. What counts is that I finally figured out how to read music and locked into my voice. It’s a full-bodied mezzo-soprano when I get it going, and I love how it feels when I do. I also love hearing my voice blend with an ensemble, bolstering chords and enriching my section’s tone, disappearing and reappearing when it needs to. It’s a strong thing, and it lives in my throat. I own it, though sometimes it owns me.

But I never seriously considered being a professional singer. I had fantasies of becoming a Broadway actress or a music journalist, but went to college with no real grasp on who I wanted to be when I grew up. People, I’m still working on it.

Being a singer seemed like a risky, unstable endeavor. Most people don’t get the chance and either train or compromise into becoming a voice teacher or choir director. And there’s nothing wrong with that. My mother decided to become a middle school choir director during my junior year of high school after decades of avoiding a professional career in music. She was happy to funnel her training in piano into being the church organist. I’ve dabbled with choir directing myself, conducting the odd sight-reading clinic for my mom when I’m back home. And I like teaching, but prefer getting up in front of a room or in a circle and breaking down hegemony.

I sang intermittently in college in UT’s Concert Chorale, conducted by the formidable Dr. Susan Pence. I had to quit during my junior year because I didn’t have the time for six hours of rehearsal each week with school, KVRX, and my emerging interests in feminist organizing. I got into Choral Arts Society some time during my senior year and kept that up until I started graduate school, as my screenings always seemed to conflict with Thursday rehearsal. In addition to that, I worked full-time until a month before I got my MA, so it’s not like I had the time anyway. Man, did I miss it.

I finally got back in an ensemble earlier this year as a member of the Austin Civic Chorus. Much to my surprise, my voice held up after years of neglect. But not to my surprise, I find that traditional choruses don’t possess the excitement they once did. I like singing in an ensemble, but my ambivalence toward the canonization of sacred music, the preponderance of male composers in that canon, the ingrained idea of needing to balance an ensemble’s sound so that the bass section is most audible, and the classed nature of concert attire and ticket prices has evolved into full-on discomfort.

So, I decided to pick up a guitar. It seemed overdue, you know? My partner’s father’s Mako was propped against a wall in its case, so I figured it should get some use. Plus it’s only fair that if I teach girls who are brave enough to learn how to play instruments and start bands, I could learn from them too. It’s time to practice what I preach.

Though I’m a singer, I’m embarrassed to not be proficient in any instruments. My dad forced me to take piano lessons one summer against my mother’s wishes, as she didn’t want me to feel that I had to follow in her footsteps. Thus the vast, boxy instrument became a burden, resulting in my rudimentary ability to poke melodies and fetch chords.

In addition, I never liked how a piano tends to disengage a musician from its audience. As Michel Chion points out in “Mute Music: Polanski’s The Pianist and Campion’s The Piano“, there are some interesting filmic elements in this removal and the artist’s inward focus in his assessment of The Pianist and The Piano. But I always liked singing to and at someone. This isn’t to say that a piano can’t be a performative instrument. We just haven’t found a rapport. I feel like I’m talking to a wall. Its physical heft only exacerbates matters.

Tori Amos making the case for the piano as performative instrument; image courtesy of mtv.com

But the Omnichord is a friend. It’s portable, light, and user-friendly. I’ve been playing with it and singing chords at it since my partner bought it for me two Christmases ago. But it has limitations too. It only has so many programmable functions and it’s too easy to play. Hence the guitar, which brings in tension. Like the voice, the sounds made on a guitar come from the player. Specifically, they come from their fingers, arms, shoulders, back, torso, and pelvis. Actually, it makes complete sense why singers often accompany themselves on guitar. With the two in tandem, you can embody your music. Once I acquire a theremin, I’ll be a continuous loop of sound.

Yet I never really considered the guitar until well into my 26th year. I sing. My mom’s a pianist. My stepbrother plays the bass, trumpet, guitar, and drums, but somehow I never thought about it. I know as a teen I was singing and rehearsing stage plays, but picking up a guitar never occurred to me. In fairness, I never really went through a guitar god phase. I never fell in love with the Jims (Page and Hendrix). I didn’t even notice Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s contributions to the instrument until I was well into college, after which point I fell in love with the conversational approach and harsh angularity of the post-punk guitar sound.

Since that time, I’ve grown to love electric guitar and listen for it exclusively. Recent offerings from The Dirty Projectors, Marnie Stern, and Noveller really opened me up to the possibilities of the guitar’s dexterity and tone.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve only completed three lessons with my neighbor, David (of DFI, RATKING, and Moonmen on the Moon, Man). In that time, I’ve learned the open A, C, D, E, and F chords. I’m starting to get chromatics and the C scale down. A and E barre chords are starting to make sense in my hands. I’m learning chord changes and alternate picking. Surprisingly, my hands and ears understand one another pretty well.

But let’s get ahead of ourselves again, because that’s how progress occurs. While I don’t want to be a professional musician, I want to play. I’m planning my summer project and it’s a musical one. I’d like to do it with someone, but may have to get things started on my own. I won’t reveal the name, but basically it’s going to be scary dance music. In my head, it would sound somewhere in between John Carpenter’s film scores and Erase Errata, with the space of Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” and the minimalist dread of Suicide’s “Johnny” and ESG’s “UFO.” Ever the choirgirl, there would be room for cacophonous spurts of female voices. Ultimately, I’d like to record and make some music videos and play some shows.

But in the present, I’m still figuring out my guitar. I’m not sold on the sound of my Mako yet. But I’m not discouraged by this process of becoming. Indeed, all of life is that process. I remember that when I feel my age and realize that I’ll be 30 before I’m really good at playing. In truth, a large part of why I’m involved with GRCA and Cinemakids is to heal the psychic wounds of not engaging with media-making as an adolescent and thus spending my adulthood writing criticism upon others’ artistic endeavors.

That doesn’t mean I can’t make music and write about it as both evolve. Strumming a guitar, syncing it to my voice, and typing it out is a start.

Dammit, Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift, America's sweetheart; image courtesy of villagevoice.com

At the risk of sounding aloof, I’ve been ignoring Taylor Swift for some time. Readers might notice that I haven’t said a peep about her beyond an observation about how she might be a continuation of the girl group tradition after she hosted SNL. When the VMA debacle happened, I didn’t care. I thought Beyoncé was classy about it, and I thought Kanye was right in his opinion, if wrong in execution (seriously, “Single Ladies” is one of the best videos of all time, and perhaps the most iconic of its decade). I thought Swift seemed a little unnecessarily entitled when she was gave her acceptance speech later in the broadcast, but other than that I thought very little about it. 

For a while, I actually didn’t know who this Taylor Swift person was. First I thought she was on The Hills. I work under the assumption that any famous white person on MTV is a Hill. 

Just so we're clear, none of the girls in this heterocentric male gaze imagining of a slumber party are Taylor Swift; image courtesy of nydailynews.com

Then I saw her take some Southern kid to the prom on MTV. Then I found out she was a country singer from Pennsylvania who loved Def Leppard and covered Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” which didn’t help her cause. Then I heard the pop version of “You Belong With Me,” promptly motivating me to listen to the slightly twangier original. From here, I reduced her to “country Avril” and went about my business. 

Cover to the "You Belong With Me" single (Big Machine/Universal Music Group, 2008); image courtesy of buzzworthy.mtv.com

Swift, not unlike Depeche Mode in their own way, may be a good gateway artist into more interesting and challenging music. Being a pre-teen Depeche Mode devotee led me to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, and Nick Cave’s various incarnations (admit it, DM fans: your band is at best a singles act; only Violator and maybe Black Celebration are essential in an otherwise mediocre catalog). Likewise, Swift might lead fans to The Dixie Chicks, Neko Case, Rosie Flores, Janis Martin, and Wanda Jackson. But my opinion of Swift is, “fine, she’s young and plays a guitar and writes her own songs (with Liz Rose) . . . but I’m totally bored by her.” 

Kristen at Act Your Age and my friend Asha forwarded this Autostraddle article to me. Asha asked me what I thought about it, and an outpouring of opinions bubbled up. Apparently I can get my screed on over a musician I have no personal investment in. But as I watched her wide, ordinary Grammy performance with Stevie Nicks (who sounded ridiculous singing “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” BTW) and yelled at my television when she gave her folksy “we’ll tell our grandchildren about this” Album of the Year speech, I discovered that I do have a personal investment in her fame. So here we go. 

I’m pretty much in line with the writer and have brought up Swift’s privileged upbringing, pedantic songwriting, normative femininity, her handling of the VMA debacle, and inauthentic authenticity when talking to other people about her. 

I agree with the writer about how there wasn’t really anything to hate about Taylor Swift until she started racking up important awards. I get her appeal, but I have no personal investment in her career. She writes inoffensive love songs you’d hear on the CW or romantic comedies women are supposed to love (like Valentine’s Day, which stars Swift and features her music). 

Above all, Swift’s music is inoffensive to the point of offense when you factor in its success. When I think about Swift’s age alongside the teenage output of acts like Schmillion, Roxanne Shanté, ESG, Mika Miko, Björk’s work in KUKL, and some girl in her bedroom whose music I have yet to hear, I’m far more interested in that music. It’s weird and flawed and brave and inspiring. It’s really easy to forget about Swift when this music is also available. I wish more people would take the time to find it.

I’d like to point out that the Album of the Year Grammy isn’t as important as the writer suggests, nor should it be to you. In the grand tradition of award ceremonies and canons, the Grammys have long esteemed mediocrity and blandness. Sure, some cool people have won. But lots of boring and past-their-prime people have also won. And some great artists haven’t won Album of the Year but continue to make enduring music, as a Jezebel writer pointed out at the end of a recent article. 

I can also counter the writer’s closing paragraphs, which are pretty hyperbolic. I’m not sure how much of a punk Lady Gaga is, or what, for that matter, the value of the word “punk” means when you can apply it to Vivian Westwood couture, coffee table books, and Hot Topic. That said, I too am inspired by mainstream female pop stars who explore and own the complex dimensions of their sexuality, particularly P!nk, Janet Jackson, and Christina Aguilera. I only wish there were more of them, or that Gossip’s Beth Ditto or M.I.A. sold enough records to qualify. 

Beth Ditto: my kind of pop star; image courtesy of brooklynvegan.com

I don’t really take issue with Swift being a weak singer, in that I don’t think evaluating singers in terms of their technical abilities is always a fruitful exercise. I’d be happier with her being a weak singer if she did something interesting with her voice, but I basically feel like she’s doing karaoke when she sings. This could have a charm to it if her phrasing and sense of dynamics weren’t also really obvious. And she often acts out lyrics in a way that I find insulting to the audience. Sure it’s a continuation of the girl group tradition. But do you really need to mime picking up a phone to let listeners know that you’re talking on the phone with some boy? Is it your way of helping out your international fan base? Or is just so you can remember the exact words that comprise the trite rhetoric you’re selling? 

Thus, if we have to make problematic either/or value judgments, I think it’s better to evaluate singing not as good or bad, but as present or absent. Lots of artists lack technically proficient or “pretty” voices, but get you with their commitment to creating sound and the feelings behind it. Likewise, lots of singers have pleasant voices, but sound like they’re thinking about checking their e-mail or getting on a plane. So, I actually take issue with how removed Swift sounds from her music. And then I really take issue with how she sings about romance with a disingenuous approximation of sustained wonder. For me, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard does something similar and it drives me up a tree. Add some faux-authentic lyrics about ripped jeans, pick-up trucks, sneakers, and faded t-shirts and I don’t think you’re emoting so much as lying

That said, I think this quote is a little insulting: “Swift simply hasn’t had the life experience and doesn’t inherently possess the emotional maturity to create great art.” It smacks a bit of “she’s just a girl; she hasn’t experienced life yet.” As women who work with girls, Kristen and I include Swift in our music history workshops. We don’t do this as fans, but because we know she means a lot to many girls, some of whom are just learning how to play music or are picking up instruments for the first time. Some of you might be reading this now, and I totally respect your preferences and value your opinions. You may be die-hard fans, or you may grow out of her music and find something else. You may believe in the kinds of fairy tales Swift trades in, though hopefully you’ll come to them with a revisionist bent like Lady Gaga, Bat for Lashes, or St. Vincent

Whatever you choose, all I hope for as an older, cranky lady who doesn’t like Swift’s music is that you never stop discovering new sounds as you develop your own. And I promise never to bore you with stories about how awesome and progressive my pop idols were in comparison to your music, because no text is ever above inquiry. Swift is problematic, but so is Björk. As I have faith in your awesomeness, I have no doubt that you’ll come up with something that’ll blow me away. And if you wanna bitch about Swift and turn that rage into something completely new and original, I’ll be here to listen.

“I’d much rather be with the girls” – Girl groups endure

Summer is a party-time kind of season. It’s also a road-trip kind of season. Recently, I lent an item for both a party and a road trip to some friends that will be the subject of this post. It’s Rhino Records’ girl group anthology One Kiss Can Lead to Another. 120 classic and obscure girl group tracks from the 1960s. These songs are timeless and go with everything. Not a morning person? Throw this on for your morning commute. Having a party? This is sure to please. Doing chores around the house and want to wink knowingly at your own domestication? Here’s your soundtrack.

Image of One Kiss Can Lead to Another

Image of One Kiss Can Lead to Another

Yes, this collection has been around for a long time (summer 2005). It’s even been around my house for a long time — my partner got it for me Christmas 2007. It’s a little pricey — retail value is around $70 — but in my estimation, it’s worth it. It is at once a fun party favor guaranteed to get people dancing, a site of feminist discourse, an incredibly well-preserved piece of musical history, and a tasty pop culture artifact. And for all you commodity fetishists who like your semiology, I have to point out that the collection comes in a hat box, each volume is packaged to look like a compact mirror with a reflective panel inside, and each disc is designed to look like a powder puff. You even get a diary that goes with it that contains multiple critical essays and key information on each song.

I admit that when I originally received this collection, I was a little disheartened by what I originally perceived as a very limited notion of gender in popular music. Ironically enough, I was cooking when I listened to the first disc and was like “all these songs are about girls being subservient to men.” Later, when Vivian Girls appropriated the girl group sound to make garage rock and shoegaze’s indebtedness to the Spector Sound more pronounced (and I had a good two years of post-structuralist theory under my belt), I revisited this collection and was pleasantly surprised at just how much was going on.

The first thing that immediately hit me about the collection is how good it sounded. The folks at Rhino took great pains to make sure these songs, some of which were all but lost because the last few out-of-print copies and master tapes were damaged, destroyed, or missing, sound brand new. These songs were originally recorded, arranged, produced, and mastered with the car stereo in mind, and damn if they don’t sound as shiny and clean as the lines on a 1961 mint-condition Corvette.

The other thing that struck me about the collection is how the term “girl group” is less a catch-all term for female pop and pop-informed R&B acts primarily active during the first half of the 1960s and actually a pretty diverse, borderless signifier. All kinds of interesting influences and sounds are in this collection — songs informed by pop, R&B, country, blues, rockabilly, folk, bossa nova, jazz and songs that would help to inform dub, reggae, hip hop, and electronic music.

While I have yet only confirmed that two pieces on this collection were actually sampled in other songs (Daedelus lifted the vocal, hand clap, and drum tracks of The Pin-Ups’ “Lookin’ for Boys” for “Fair-Weather Friends,” Saint Etienne borrowed from Dusty Springfield’s “I Can’t Wait to See My Baby’s Face” for “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”), I am also struck by how sample-friendly a lot of these songs are. The Flirtations’ “Nothing But a Heartache” and The Jewels’ “Opportunity,” among many others, could easily be incorporated into any hip hop track (specifically one that 9th Wonder is producing).

Which also lets you in on how weird and ground-breaking a lot of these songs are. Listen to the reverb-laden a capella opener for The Chiffons’ “Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On (In My Mind But Me)” and you get a sense for how ESG and Luscious Jackson came to their sound. Keep your ears open for the eerie theramin arrangement in Julie Driscoll’s stately break-up anthem “I Know You Love Me Not.” A song like The Bitter Sweets’ “What a Lonely Way to Start the Summertime” has a hollowed-out, haunted psychedelic sound that may have left quite an impression on Broadcast. Songs like “Nightmare” by The Whyte Boots easily draw a line from girl groups to L7. Some dance songs, like The Goodies’ “Sophisticated Boom Boom” and Marsha Gee’s “Peanut Duck” have an effortless quirky cool to them that no hipster can fake. And that doesn’t even get into The Tammys admittedly un-PC rave-up “Egyptian Shumba” that The Black Kids covered, but couldn’t match the original’s manic glee.

In addition to obscure songs by minor recording artists once left to dust in storage vaults, you get little-heard songs by bigger names. Behold the woozy drum syncopation with Cher’s deep alto in “Dream Baby.” Behold the sugary urgency of Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Drop Out.” Behold the cinematic majesty of The Shangri-Las’ “The Train to Kansas City.” Listen for The Supremes’ “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” and The Ronettes’ “He Did It” (one of the few early cuts Rhino could get a hold of without having to involve producer Phil Spector). Get dirty with Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” and Lulu’s “I’ll Come Running” (which features future Zeppelin ax-man Jimmy Page on guitar). Even folks like mod it-girl Twiggy got a shot at the pop charts with the proper little ditty “When I Think of You.”

There are also songs that were obscure and later became popular when other people (perhaps unsurprisingly, primarily white artists) covered them. P.P. Arnold got to Cat Stevens’s “The First Cut is the Deepest” first. Former Cookies member Earl-Jean scored a minor hit with Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “I’m Into Somethin’ Good” a year before Herman’s Hermits rode it the top of the pop charts in 1965. Dee Dee Warwick made minimal commotion with “You’re No Good” before Betty Everett and Linda Ronstadt got ahold of it.

Also, not all of these songs are about boys who treat girls bad. Yes, that’s a component and the folks at Rhino would be ignoring a huge lyrical motif and its pre-second wave context by omitting the tracks about fellas who “lie sly, slick, and shy,” as The Velvelettes sing in “Needle in a Haystack.” And by putting these songs in a larger context, lyrics like “I know he’s cheating on me, but I don’t care” in The Angels’ “I Adore Him” play both dated and baldly disturbing. 

I also think by acknowledging the racial aspects of girl group may also help confront the fact that many of these groups were comprised of African American girls, many of whom had to deal with the ingrained lack of social or economic value placed on the romantic love and family units built by people of color in white society. A song like The Fabulettes’ “Try the Worrying Way,” which is about how a heavy-set woman becomes skinny as a result of her partner’s infidelity, cannot be read without this context and becomes profoundly sad with it.

The raced component, alongside issues of age, is crucial to understanding what girl groups contributed — a space for young women and young women of color, many of whom were working class and had minimal opportunities in the job market, to be a part of the work force. This isn’t to absent that many of these groups were designed, produced, and controlled by men. But some were not, or found ways out of it.

But there’s much more going on in these songs than waiting for boys to shape up. For one, there are a lot of break-up anthems. There are elegant songs like “Walking In Different Circles” from Goldie and the Gingerbreads. There are poignant odes to post-break-up autonomy like Reparata and the Delrons’ “I’m Nobody’s Baby Now.” There are also almost-love songs like Sandie Shaw’s “Girl Don’t Come” (which was written and arranged by Burt Bacharach). There are maternal warnings of men’s true nature in Cathy Saint’s “Big Bad World.” There are humorous rejections in The Hollywood Jills’ “He Makes Me So Mad.” And, importantly, there are sneering kiss-offs and odes to female bonding like Donna Lynn’s “I’d Much Rather Be With the Girls” (originally written by and for The Rolling Stones).

For me, it’s not hard to read all of these break-up songs and anthems to being single and out with girlfriends as having a queer element to them. The renouncement of stupid boys, or heterosexual courtship altogether, is heightened by girls singing to, for, and most importantly, with one another. In close proximity. In intimate spaces. In matching outfits.

You also get lots of songs about death, many, like The Goodees’ “Condition Red,” that recount dark, grisly tales of parental disapproval, juvenile delinquency, and racing accidents gone horribly wrong. This was the era where boys beefed it on motorcycles, after all. Indeed, this teen angst bullshit has a body count.

You even get critiques about the fleetingness of youth, the plastic lies of feminine consumerism, and the urgency of action in songs like Toni Basil’s anthem “I’m 28,” which I fully intend to sing drunk at my birthday party in two years.

Oddly enough, she was 23 when she recorded it. She’s 65 now and still working. I think she did okay for herself.

But there are also celebratory songs about love (many explicitly heterosexual, some more ambiguous). These songs are important too, particularly because most of these songs were sung (and, in some cases, written) by unmarried teenagers. Though marriage was the stated goal in many of these songs, it hadn’t happened yet. Thus, it was pretty easy to dismiss these songs, performed by teenage girls, as frivilous. But they aren’t. The feelings, regardless of how artfully or artlessly worded, are real and amplified by mammoth orchestration and pop-song immediacy. Take a song like The Girlfriends’ “My One and Only Jimmy Boy.” A giddy, up-tempo ode to love on the surface, its hook, soaring vocals, and wall-of-sound production takes teen love to “Hulk smash” levels of power and might.

And, of course, a lot of these songs were written by women. Carole King, in addition to singing two songs included in the anthology, wrote many of these hits, along with fellow Brill Building dwellers Ellie Greenwich and Cynthia Weil and many other independent female songwriters.

Thus, this collection has the best that any feminist music geek could hope for — sites of discourse that have, to borrow from American Bandstand, “a good beat and you can dance to it.”