Tara Rodgers’s book Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound collects interviews from a variety of female musicians who work with electronic instruments, either as deejays, composers, sound artists, or sometimes a composite of all three. Anticipation was high for this book, which began as a Web site Rodgers started while in graduate school at Mills College. I began reading over the interviews available online when preparing an encyclopedia entry on female DJs and found it an invaluable resource. When I finally picked up a copy and began pouring over the cover — which features Jessica Rylan playing a self-fashioned synthesizer — I was sold.
The project takes its name from both femininity’s associations with pink and a technical term which refers to variations of white noise that contain low frequencies, resulting in an equal distribution of energy per octave. I was especially inspired by Rodgers’s work, as she launched the Web site while in graduate school. She used the site as an opportunity to pursue personal and scholarly interests by interviewing musicians (many of whom were professors or colleagues). She also provided a resource for female instrumentalists who had technical or musical questions, thus also creating a safe space from women who didn’t want to be condescended to or demeaned by (male) “experts.”
Female musicians engaging with technology is the book’s main theme. One thing that is especially productive about the book is that, by focusing on software and electronic instrumentation, it acknowledges that instruments are fundamentally technological. This helps dispel the myth that music has to made with string, brass, or woodwind instruments. Also, despite the lack of guitars, many of these women are influenced by punk’s DIY ethos. They also challenge the music-making process. For some, this rebellion comes in opposition to their professional position as members of the academy, particularly at institutions like Mills College and the University of Illinois-Champaign. Pauline Oliveros made a name for herself for pioneering the concept of Deep Listening. Christina Kubitsch incorporates electromagnatic induction and light panels into her compositions, which are meant to be experienced rather than just heard. Annea Lockwood finds music in rivers, devoting much of her career to archiving the sounds of bodies of water from around the world. Others have little to do with the academy and use their work to challenge electronic music’s cerebral tendencies. Maria Chavez is a turntablist who often uses broken records.
Furthermore, I was particularly heartened by Rodgers’s interviews with women who create their own instruments and their reading about their relationships with them. Laetitia Sonami created the Lady Glove, an electronic instrument she had grafted onto her hand. Rylan’s developed the Personal Synth, and other systems, as a direct response against sweatshop labor and electronic waste. Many of these women are engaged with political activist groups dedicated to social justice, most notably DJ Rehka and Mutamassik.
A final point that the book contributes, and Alley Hector astutely pointed out in her review for AfterEllen, is queer women’s contributions to electronic music. This is evident with the inclusion of Le Tigre, Pauline Oliveros, Susan Morabito, and Bev Stanton (aka Arthur Loves Plastic), who has some interesting comments to make regarding lesbians’ actual musical preferences which she notes tend to be more cutting edge than bars and clubs suggest them to be. As many of these women champion subversive and unconventional approaches to composition — and work extensively with their hands — it follows a logic that many of them, not unlike guitarists Kaki King and Marissa Paternoster, identify as lesbian and bisexual, as well as encompass a broad spectrum of representations and expressions from within those categories.
One minor quibble I had with the book is that it (intentionally) gets a bit technical, gear-heavy, and theoretical, which is also one of the book’s main contributions to complicating the gendered notions of musicians’ technological interactions. While there’s a glossary to guide folks through the terminology, I would recommend reading the book an interview at a time and giving yourself a moment to process the information. Finding performance footage may help make concrete some of the artists’ more abstract assertions.
However, those willing to wade through a little bit of jargon will be rewarded by a good book that champions the musical output of a variety of female electronic instrumentalists who continue to challenge how we conceptualize popular music.
I put a brief hold on my mad dash to finish The Gilmore Girls and finally got around to watching Grosse Pointe Blank, a movie I’ve surprisingly not seen in full. I caught the last 20 minutes shortly after it started running on cable following its theatrical release. And I fell asleep to the beginning after a night out some time in my early 20s. But for a movie that features black suits, skinny ties, a new wave soundtrack, John Cusack as a hitman trying to make good at his high school reunion, and the overlooked Minnie Driver playing a deejay, it’s weird that I haven’t gotten to it yet.
I’ll admit that it was a bit of a leap for me to believe that two high school sweethearts could still have feelings for each other after a decade apart. Also, I was more than a little disconcerted to realize that my own ten-year reunion is around the corner (Alvin High School, class of 2001 — w00t). But, overall I enjoyed this movie. I was particularly interested in Driver’s character Debi Newberry, Grosse Pointe-based deejay and protagonist Martin Blank’s once and future paramour. Obviously, she’s tough, smart, mouthy, and unconventionally attractive (re: a white lady with dark curly hair, according to Hollywood’s ridiculous casting standards). And she listens to The Specials.
And as evidenced by the all-vinyl weekend she’s programming at the radio station to commemorate her high school reunion, she certainly knows her way around the hits and would-be classics of her teenage years. You know I like a girl who minds her records. And with her show, she’s committing to the waning but still culturally accepted technology of that era, and showing mastery over it. Let’s also not forget that this is her profession, the technology and location of which she employs interestingly to her advantage. In the deejay booth, armed with a microphone, she gets her withholding ex to come clean. At work. On the air. With callers weighing in.
Let me also point out that both Blank and Newberry are outsiders. While a few characters comment on how cool they seemed in high school, it’s clear that they don’t run with any pack. Furthermore, while their peers may hide their own familial shortcomings, both recognize that neither comes from a stable family — Newberry has a single father (who Blank is contracted to kill on this trip) and Blank has a dead father and a convalescent mother. This is in stark contrast to the idyllic setting of their adolescence. Grosse Pointe, as I’m to understand, is a set of posh hamlets outside of Detroit. In other words, we’re in the ‘burbs, far removed from the unrest associated with Motor City. And while suburban areas purport to cultivate well-adjusted families, they never do so at the risk of profit. This is a point the movie makes clear in one of its most memorable scenes. Blank comes home to discover that his childhood home is now a convenience store.
(Note: Jeff Smith wrote a piece on this scene in Pop fiction: the song in cinema that’s deserves mention. In “From Bond to Blank,” Smith highlights the use of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” originally written for the James Bond movie of same name. Drawing a commonality between both men’s line of work, Smith then points out how the movie’s narrative goes about domesticating Blank in his once-abandoned, altered suburban environment, which is in stark contrast to Bond’s jet set lifestyle. Song selection and editing are crucial to what Smith reads as an indictment of consumer capitalism. In Grosse, Guns N’ Roses’ cover of the song is used extradiegetically when Blank comes upon the Ultimart. When Blank goes into the store, a seamless edit is made between the GNR version and a Muzak rendition of the song in the diegesis, further suggesting Blank’s displaced sense of loss and nostalgia.)
I’d also like to posit, in a way not dissimilar from my thoughts on Jackie Brown, that Newberry also locates the movie’s nostalgic tone and often narrates the movie’s action through her radio show. Granted, there are limits to this reading. Clash frontman Joe Strummer wrote the score and his former band’s music is certainly all over the soundtrack. And music supervisor Kathy Nelson and editor Angie Rubin (and potentially the staff they oversaw) have more actual authority in the compositional and legal architecture of song selection than Dewberry. But within the narrative, much of the action, particularly when Blank returns home to Grosse Pointe and in events leading up to the reunion. Unfortunately she does not deejay the reunion itself — if only she was responsible for the movie’s expert use of The English Beat’s nervy masterpiece “Mirror In the Bathroom,” though she receives compliments about her show from former classmates. I have a hunch she’s got a copy of I Just Can’t Stop It. On vinyl, of course.
That much of her show is heard in cars driven by men is interesting. Two of her listeners are police officers (played by Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman) following Blank. And of course, Blank finds Newberry by seeing her through a window and tuning in. Thus rather than Blank, Newberry, vis-à-vis her show, functions as the movie’s true narrator. This is further bolstered by her delivering the last line, in voice-over, explaining that sometimes you have to accept the past and move on, which in her and Blank’s case means moving away from Grosse Pointe together. Hopefully, she gets to take her show with her. Some things from your past should carry into your future.
If the 90s will be what this decade of popular music revisits, then isn’t it time we pay our respects to Lady Kier and Deee-Lite? They were more than one-hit wonders, ya’ll.
Lady Kier has long been an idol of mine, starting at around the age of 10 when I bought Dewdrops in the Garden on cassette and incorporated it into my bedroom dance party rotation. And judging by my appreciation of all but the last ten minutes of Party Girl, you can imagine how I feel about Nylon‘s recent celebration of the movie’s celebration of 90s New York dance culture and Lady Kier’s influence on its fashion. Prada even anticipated a revival of sorts in its spring 2008 collection when the house featured platforms very reminiscent of John Fluevog, one of Lady Kier’s favorite shoemakers. And as I mentioned earlier, Married to the Mob paid tribute to the diva with this t-shirt.
Now, people in the know are probably thinking “Revival? But Lady Kier never left us.” Which is true. After Deee-Lite broke up in 1996, Kier struck out on her own as an internationally renowned deejay. Her mixes were a cram session staple of mine in college.
Kier also courted legal controversy in 2006 by claiming that Sega plagiarized her likeness for a video game character. She lost the case, but Ulala in Space Channel 5 certainly looks familiar.
She’s also been very much alive in the hearts of the LGBT community, playing various events and aligning herself as an ally. I’m not sure if Kier is aware of sissy bounce, but in my dreams she links up with Big Freedia or Katey Red.
This is very much in keeping with the group’s public support of LGBT rights, safe sex, and AIDS awareness, along with other interests like protecting the environment, racial equality, reproductive choice, and ending animal cruelty.
Thus I think that if Deee-Lite are due for a revival, hopefully we can revisit Infinity Within, the group’s sophomore release that was maligned at the time for being too “political.” Long before I heard Au Pairs and Gang of Four, Deee-Lite (along with The Pet Shop Boys) were one of the first acts that let me know you can dance and be conscious at the same time. This is to say nothing of the fact that I found out about Bootsy Collins — and by extension P-Funk — because of them.
In short, let’s break out the platforms. Perhaps I’ll pay tribute this Halloween by pairing them with a catsuit.