Tagged: Patti Smith

Towering Infernos: EMA’s Erika M. Anderson and YACHT’s Claire L. Evans

In the film adaptation of High Fidelity, one of the protagonist’s ex-girlfriends talks about how tall KISS bassist Gene Simmons always looks onstage. Charlie Nicholson’s point is that height—or at least the illusion of it—is central to a rock star’s iconicity. The Demon is a magnetic figure who demands our attention. The raised platforms and his stacked-heel boots force our gaze forward and upward. Height equals power over who possesses and manipulates our gaze. You’ll never see him less than 300 feet tall.

Within the context of the film, this is a throwaway line. We’re not really meant to pay attention to Charlie’s opinion. The point is made in voice-over and montage that she was always the center of attention, even if Rob Gordon was then more interested in watching her mouth than listening to her opinions. But Charlie has a point. Even if Simmons is already a tall man, he’ll always tower over his audience. That’s why he’s a rock star. But the visual parallel is not lost on Gordon. In Rob’s memory, the person articulating this opinion towers over him. He knows she’s way out of his league and dreads the day when someone sunnier and sparkier catches her eye. His name is Marco.

The Demon; image courtesy of loudwire.com

A tall musician is much appreciated when you’re at a show and barely clear five feet. It is often taken for granted that a venue is a site of constant negotiation, if not outright hostility, for many people. Getting there provides its own obstacles. If you don’t have a car, you have to take a bus or catch a cab or coordinate with friends who we can only assume want to see the same band you do. If you do have a car, you might have to drive alone. This could involve circling around several times to find a closer place to park, arming yourself with mace, and being on your guard to and from the gig. This routine disproportionately burdens women and girls.

Then there’s the show itself. Once you get to a concert, you usually have to stand for hours at a time. This alone can exclude potential concert-goers who live with physical disabilities. Furthermore, it is often assumed that everyone attends a concert for the same reason: the music. Let’s challenge the myth that a concert is this utopian gesture of communal good will. Even if you know all five people at some friend’s basement gig, you can’t assume that everyone’s there to see the band. Usually, you’re watching a band with strangers. The larger the venue, the likelier this is to be the case. Thus you might have to endure people spilling beer or stepping on your feet too. In some instances, folks get predatory and grabby. In my experience, it’s more common for some six-foot tower of a person—usually a guy, though not always—to take root directly in front of you. If these people have no sense of others’ personal space, they might clobber you while swaying to the music. This can be even more of a hassle if they’ve been drinking. When you tally this up, obstructed vision can be the least of your problems at a concert.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go to shows. If anything, this should motivate people to say “Oh fuck this—Wild Flag is coming to my town and I WILL BE THERE.” We shouldn’t have to hope that our friends or partners will join us for protection. While it’s fun to go to shows with people, everyone should feel safe enough to attend a concert alone. We should claim our space, insist that venues accommodate everyone and be sensitive to their individual needs, and demand safe transport for each attendee.

But height is a feminist issue, and not just because we need monitors flanking an amphitheater stage to catch a glimpse of Rihanna. It’s why the riot grrrl movement was on to something when individual bands insisted that girls stand in front of the crowd at shows. This gesture called out rock’s unspoken misogyny and influenced acts like the Beastie Boys to stop performances if they saw female concert-goers getting mistreated or swallowed up by the pit. Of course, there are plenty of short dudes who go to concerts. But more often, girls and short women are made invisible.

This extends well past the venue space. Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, a three-and-a-half-hour film about the invisible drudgery of feminine domestic labor, is brilliant for a whole host of reasons. But there are at least two meanings behind the shots where the main character’s head is cropped in the frame. One is that Dielman’s subjectivity—which we might register through facial cues—doesn’t matter to those around her. The other is that the shot illustrates the director’s point of view. This is what a short person sees. It’s why at some point I want to write a book about concert spectatorship just so the cover can be an image of what I often see at a rock show: lots of people’s heads and shoulders and maybe the band. Rejecting this perspective is how rock concerts taught me to use my elbows as a feminist.

Dielman, from Akerman’s perspective; image courtesy of criterion.com

Off stage, you’ll never see EMA’s Erika M. Anderson or YACHT’s Claire L. Evans less than six feet tall. But what they do with their height on stage is interesting. At a recent show at the Sett, Evans channeled Robyn or mid-80s Nick Rhodes with her white suit, leotard, wedge heels, and matching platinum coif. At around the same time, I also caught EMA at the Frequency. Anderson was quietly holding court in grungy clothes and reddish-brown hair—a departure from the dark-rooted blonde dye job I saw her sporting at previous concerts and in promotional photos.

The shows were very different from one another, both in terms of the music itself and in how the audiences responded to each band. In many ways, YACHT is a successor to conceptual new wave bands like DEVO and the B-52s. They’re art nerds with a chick lead singer who use cult imagery and capitalist symbols to keep the dance party going. Some of the audience got this while others wrapped their arms around amplifiers to steady themselves through a drug trip. A fair number of audience members hooted at Evans, and it was interesting to see her at once play with her sexuality and openly disdain others’ objectification.

Evans with YACHT; image courtesy of bitchmagazine.org

EMA is no less interested in symbolic imagery. Like Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch, Michael Gira, and Kim Gordon before her, there’s something very Catholic about Anderson’s free-associative lyrics, particularly her emphasis on ritual, sacrifice, and erotic pain. God (or Leadbelly, or Leadbelly interpreted by Kurt Cobain) may have also taught her to negotiate, because she had the audience’s rapt attention while rarely propelling her voice above a whisper.

Anderson of EMA; image courtesy of consequenceofsound.net

Granted, an intimate venue disguised as a dive bar is not the same as a state college’s multipurpose venue space. WUD booked YACHT’s show and has a partnership deal with Best Buy. I doubt 100 people were at the EMA show, but all of them seemed to focus their energies on the band and only unfolded their arms to quietly clap after each song. If the two bands swapped venues—and both bands have experience with many kinds of performance spaces—we’d have seen two different shows. Yet I was able to see Evans and Anderson very clearly. With Evans, I pushed myself to the front and craned my neck. With Anderson, I got a clear view of the stage between two sets of shoulders. Both women took ownership of their space, using their bodies to demonstrate choreographed dance moves and filling the air with their distinct voices. I couldn’t take my eyes off either of them.

Put Just Kids on your bookshelf

So, I’ve been sick all weekend and it’s trickled into today. The cedar fever really is no joke in Austin. This has derailed me from a lot of things, among them practicing David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and making a coherent pass at a post of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (a three-star movie in need of elaboration). I’ll try again after I wave a white flag and get some drugs. Basically, I’ve been able to do three things. One is some light editing for my partner’s e-zine and an abstract a friend and I are pitching. The second is re-watch The L Word. I discovered that Dana is kind of an idiot and the sex scenes can run together in a dispiriting fashion, though my love for Alice Pieszecki endures. Finally, I completed Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, which I started yesterday.

Just Kids cover (HarperCollins, 2010); image courtesy of statesman.com

Despite some initial reservations about Smith’s gender politics, I’ve warmed up to her music and was especially motivated to read Just Kids after she won the National Book Award for Memoir last November. I endorse it. As writing, Smith’s lovely prose recommends itself, as she honors her profound relationship to a man who grew up and grew into his talents with her in a New York wiped away by AIDS and gentrification.

I also feel I have a better understanding of Smith’s rejection of femaleness. Her stance against feminism always bristled against my convictions, and interpreted her reverence toward male cultural icons as misogynistic. As I elaborated upon these feelings in a previous post, my friend Curran challenged my position and noted that Smith’s fandom was largely reserved for queer and/or queerable men and that she herself might identify as trans. While Smith never states as much in Just Kids, she mentions her disgust toward the hyper-feminine beauty ideals she grew up around in the 50s and makes specific reference to having little regard for the female body as culturally proscribed.

What I may have previously believed to be categorical hatred might actually be personal disregard. While I reject the idea of femaleness or femininity as singular–indeed, it’s a discursive, contradictory interplay of a variety of identities–I think I have a deeper understanding of where and when she came from and how that informs her art. This regard for autonomy seems especially clear when Smith discusses her disavowal of the decadence surrounding in New York during the later half of the 1960s and into the 70s. She believed drugs and sexuality were sacred, and thus only engaged with them for sacred purposes. Unlike many of her generation, Smith didn’t believe in copping or hooking up as means to an end.

But what’s special about Just Kids is the love she shared with Mapplethorpe. Once her lover and always her friend, the story is actually about the evolution of friendship and the cosmic connections forged between a masculine woman and a homosexual man who existed within the binaries of male and female and black and white that they played with. As someone whose first boyfriend was her oldest friend before he came out, I could certainly relate to the trajectory of their relationship, though Smith and Mapplethorpe shared something far deeper and queerer than most intimacies I’ve experienced.

The book courses their chance meeting to their affair to the development of their twin language to their artistic collaborations and years of silences. He champions her poetry and music. She strains to understand his fascination with sadomasochism. He photographs Horses. She cradles his urn, as a dream she had of him turning into dust foretold. It might be one of the best love stories I’ve read in ages. A few weeks before Valentine’s Day, reserve Just Kids for the person who understands you past language and memory.

Why I requested and performed Grinderman’s “No Pussy Blues” at Karaoke Underground

Nick Cave (seated far left), with his fellow Grindermen; image courtesy of pitchfork.com

Last night, I fulfilled a small dream of mine three years in the making. I performed Grinderman’s “No Pussy Blues” in public. For those unfamiliar with the second single off the debut album of the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds side project, listen in. If you like what you hear, maybe you’ll be compelled to check out Grinderman 2, which comes out in the states on September 14th and boasts a sweet cover.

Um, so some middle-aged dude has a tantrum about blues balls because some twentysomething won’t sleep with him? Zzzz. Whatever, Alyx.

This is a fair point, and something I instantly recognized when I first heard the song. However, I always have difficulty reconciling the song’s sentiment with Martyn Casey’s ominous bass riff. By the time Jim Sclavunos hammers triplets against Cave’s attempts to woo his muse by reading her Eliot and Yeats, I always face an impossible decision. Don’t call it a surrender, because it’s always plays out like a tussle.

I’m quite aware of Cave’s flagrant macho posturing in “No Pussy Blues,” as well as the singer’s entitled frustrations that his attempts to pose as a chivalrous romantic go unrewarded and get him further away from what he’s really after. I’m also onto how these ovations reveal chivalry’s dependencies on sexism. I think Cave is too. Now, I don’t think he’s raising a solidarity fist toward post-structuralist feminists with “No Pussy Blues.” But I do think the Australian post-punk loverman’s performance of aging impotent masculinity and the use of deception in sexual conquest is at once unsympathetic and hilarious. This is evident in Cave’s theatrical vocal delivery. You can also hear it in his messy spurts of feedback, simultaneously a manifestation of his unsatisfied desire as well as an indication that the guitarist lacks virtuosity toward his axe. How deliciously shameful to lose hold of the phallus twice.

I may get some detractors for this comment, but I think of Cave’s performance as camp in ways that recall Al Pacino’s performance in The Devil’s Advocate and Tom Cruise’s turn as misogynistic motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia. Much can be read into Cave’s appearance, particularly the tailored suits, his unfortunate haircut, and that ridiculous handlebar mustache, which perhaps rivals the goatee as the most performative and fetishized formation of facial hair, at least in drag king culture (note: Cave isn’t sporting it in recent promotional photos or in the music video for “Heathen Child,” but it so defines “No Pussy Blues” for me. Also, it might make recurring appearances like the mustache Kevin Kline sports for comedies). Cave’s always been interested in exploring heterosexual masculinity’s preoccupation with menace. These are interests he shares with primary influence Iggy Pop and their shared mentor Jim Morrison, the comparisons for which I’m swiping from Simon Reynolds. I also sense commonalities between Cave’s and Bill Callahan’s displays of old-style romantic chauvinism. But Cave’s arch seriousness and severe dandyism seem to mock these impulses as well.

Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey; image courtesy of seattleweekly.com

But this argument has only so much traction. So I thought the best thing for me to do — apart from the times I’ve sung it to myself — would be to request the song and then perform it before a crowd. Hence where Karaoke Underground comes in.

First, a brief explanation of what Karaoke Underground means to me. Every first Saturday and third Thursday of each month, my friends Hannah and Kaleb host the event. During their Saturday shows at the Nomad, my neighborhood bar, my partner’s amplification equipment is up on stage. Friends are usually present. It’s a good time. I go every first Saturday, except next month. But if Hannah and Kaleb weren’t fortunate enough to have their services requested for Matador’s 21st anniversary celebration in Las Vegas the first weekend in October, I’d grab as many fellow Flow Conference panelists as would accompany me.

As a singer and music geek who’s never been in a band, selections from their catalog allow me to try out some of my favorite songs before a cluster of friends, some regulars, and a lot of strangers. I understand if singing college radio playlist fodder isn’t your thing, but it’s pretty exhilarating to me. It’s also a challenge at times. Some songs, like Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s shattering “I See a Darkness,” don’t lend themselves easily to karaoke performance. Others, like Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is a Move,” are deceptively simple. Occasionally, crowds are unimpressed and in a few instances I’ve had to guage what some of the men sitting close to the stage were responding to in my performance. Many of the songs in the KU catalogue are sung by dudes and thus require me to negotiate my register, which of course makes me think on how I demonstrate my gender. I request and perform a lot of songs by female artists, but I always like playing around with the guys’ songs too because of the difficulties and tensions they pose.

So “No Pussy Blues” seemed like a song I had to perform. And I had a great time doing it. I regret that it didn’t allow me to transcend gender or sex categories, even as I kept the pronouns pure. I originally anticipated that this song could be an interesting piece for a drag king’s repertoire, but felt personally limited to cisgender feminine modes of expression in my performance. I think I could potentially touch on, say, what Patti Smith gets at it when she performs “Gloria.” I haven’t yet. But I know I have enough estrogen and testosterone within me to obliterate heterosexual masculine camp, with or without a handlebar moustache.

My thoughts on Chloe Angyal’s Miley Cyrus post for Tiger Beatdown, or why I fight

Betty Friedan; image courtesy of windycitymediagroup.com

Five days ago, Chloe Angyal wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown entitled “Miley Cyrus < Betty Friedan: On the Search for a Feminist Pop Star.” Springboarding off The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman’s assessment that Miley Cyrus’s new single and accompanying music video for “Can’t Me Tamed” is empowering for girls, Angyal chided some critics’ need to claim female celebrities who project even the slightest sense of self-empowerment as feminist. She also called into question whether or not feminism and pop culture can ever really go together. As a fan of the site (it’s on my blogroll), I of course read it and RTed (follow me @ms_vz).

I’m right with Angyal on most of this. I had just read Rachel Fudge’s essay “Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power is Bad for Feminism” that a Girls Rock Camp Austin volunteer forwarded, so I was certainly in the right headspace. The line “It’s tempting, but ultimately misguided, to try to make feminist mountains out of girl power molehills” particularly spoke to me. Also, I was also frustrated by Wakeman’s piece, as it assumed that pop music and MTV were the portals through which all girls take their cues, thus absenting girls who don’t have access, reject these offerings, or perhaps find some middle ground. Also, I thought the clip was a blatant attempt to reinvent a girl pop star into an “adult” artist who equates edge with wearing lingerie and smudged eyeliner.

However, I took issue with some of Angyal’s argument. Kristen at Act Your Age left a great comment outlining the lack of actual girls’ perspectives in feminist criticism. She also pointed out that pop music is still often assumed as the bad object against which punk and riot grrrl fought and superceded, a bias we confront in our work with GRCA by trying to dialog musical genres with one another in our music history workshops. But I thought I’d add a few additional concerns. Originally, I was going to post them as a comment to the article. However, it’s been nearly a week since the article was published — a lifetime in the blogosphere. Plus, I figured I could work through some of these issues here and reassert this blog as a communal space for feminist exchanges about music culture.

1. Angyal’s major critique seems to be less about who gets labeled a feminist role model and more toward who does the labeling. To me, she was lobbing her complaint at writers who want to argue the progressive powers of pop music with minimal consideration for enlightened sexism, capitalism, division of labor, corporate enterprising, branding, media saturation, and taste engineering cultivation. I say “here here.” But then I also do this sort of analysis myself. What’s more, I’d like to think I do it on both sides of the mainstream/underground divide, where the lines continue to blur. I know I don’t have the clout or name recognition of more prominent feminist bloggers, and perhaps I’ll cultivate it with time. But I’m here, and so is this blog.

I think Angyal might also be frustrated with how quick writers are to jump on Tweeting trends and topics that guarantee high SEOs. I may be projecting, as this is something that bothers me and I rebel against. Often, I find myself recalling and revisiting bygone or obscure texts to argue their historical merit or dialog them with the present. If I do write about current popular texts, I don’t have much interest in covering them quickly at the expense of evaluation time. I’m not sold on the idea that trends = cultural relevance any more than I am that Sleater-Kinney is inherently better than Nicki Minaj. While I have upon occasion covered a person or topic that was popular and got me some hits, I only did it when I felt I had critical insights to lend. Thus, it can be frustrating when I get traffic because a bunch of people were Googling Megan Fox, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Taylor Momsen, or Miley Cyrus, as has happened to Kristen. On the one hand, hits are great. But those figures are bloated and misleading and may misrepresent my work, because this blog has only sporadic concern with what’s of the moment. But when it does, I hope I treat it with a consistent critical rigor. After all, there truly is no perfect text.

2. Since there is contention between mainstream and indie culture, I’d like to point out that the matter of identifying as a feminist is just as much a concern in the underground and on the fringes of music culture as it is under the mainstream’s spotlight. As a feminist music geek who tends to root for the underdog, I’m often faced with the reality that many of the artists I love — indeed, many of the artists who pointed me toward feminism — don’t identify as feminists. Björk and PJ Harvey don’t, nor does Patti Smith. Rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and many others don’t either, though for reasons that perhaps speak more to racial exclusion, as feminism tends to be a white women’s domain. There are many artists I like whose feminist politics I don’t have a grasp on, including forward-thinking women like Kate Bush, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, and Janelle Monáe.

There are also artists who do identify as feminist who give me pause. Courtney Love has used feminism to validate her outspoken persona and rail against industry sexism. She has also used it to justify getting plastic surgery, an argument that I take issue with because it obscures class privilege, ingrained beauty standards, and weakens the political potential of choice. Lily Allen has employed the term at times, though her actions and behavior at times suggest that she extols the supposedly feminist virtues of being a brat. Lady Gaga is only starting to claim any identification with feminism. Even confirmed feminists like Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Le Tigre, Gossip, and Yoko Ono — who I admire a great deal for their musical contributions and political convictions — should be subject to scrutiny and considered as individual feminists rather than as a monolithic representation of who a “good” feminist is.

Also, rather than considering pop music as an endpoint or part of a binary, it should be dialoged with other genres and mediums. Recently, Anna at Girls Rock Camp Houston dropped me a line asking about my thoughts on new criticism against Lady Gaga from Mark Dery and Joanna Newsom. As their criticisms questioned her supposed edginess, called out her obvious indebtedness to Madonna, and argued over a lack of musical songcraft, it immediately recalled recent sound bites from Michel Gondry, M.I.A., and Grace Jones deflating the pop star’s artistic inclinations.

I’m of two minds about these detractors’ comments. On the one hand, I still agree. In the year since I first posted about Gaga, I’ve essentially gathered greater nuance for the pop star while still arriving to the same conclusions. Save for a few hits (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Bad Romance,” “Monster”), I still think her music is fairly boring and could have much more political bite than it actually does. I thought her American Idol performance of “Alejandro” was overblown. It’s also a fair point to bring up how Gaga lifts from other cultural texts, just as Madonna has throughout her career. And like Amanda Marcotte, I think there are lots of other interesting female musicians doing work we should be following. I mean, is it really a crime not to find Gaga interesting? Does Gaga have to be the female savior of pop music? Can we not look elsewhere? Also, in the cases of Newsom, M.I.A., and Jones, do we have to assume that their criticisms are just examples of female cattiness?

Yet something about these comments smacks of the idealized notion of art vs. commerce, with Gaga imitating one while supposedly embodying the latter. So, I call bullshit, because it’s not like these musicians and this video director don’t also dabble with both. Also, how would they speak of, say, Karen O, another female musician who makes femininity Marilyn Manson grotesque. Would they simply sniff that she did it before Gaga? Would they give her the point because she’s mocked art stars while also being one?

In short, feminism is tricky from all sides. It’s not one thing and it’s never perfect.

3. Finally, I follow commenter Tasha Fierce and take issue with Angyal’s supposition that Betty Friedan is an exemplar of feminism. She penned The Feminine Mystique and founded NOW. She also helped position feminism as a middle-class, college-education, white ladies’ game. She also referred to lesbian separatists as “the lavender menace,” though later recanted. Thus, just as I don’t want Miley Cyrus to be the ambassador for girl power, I don’t believe we should have one (straight, white, middle-class, adult, cisgender, able-bodied) female represent feminism. Let’s encourage discourse, even at the expense of comfort. Consider me a willing participant.

Check out “Times Square”

Promo for Times Square; image courtesy of theauteurs.com

A few years back, I became interested in Allan Moyle’s 1980 feature debut. Times Square stars Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado as two teenage girls who escape from a mental institution, live on the streets, form a punk band called The Sleez Sisters, drop televisions off buildings, occasionally rule local station WJAD, and creates some underground infamy that anticipates the groundswell Corrine Burns and The Stains would cause two years later.  While Moyle was fired by producer Robert Stigwood fired so he could remove explicit lesbian content and include more musical sequences in the film, the director later went on to make music geek teen pics like Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records. But his first movie was praised by Kathleen Hanna. While Hanna and I disagree on the quality of Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways, I’m always willing to give the riot grrrl pioneer the benefit of the doubt. Plus, that soundtrack is a beast.

I saw Times Square two summers ago with a bunch of friends, including Caitlin at Dark Room and Kristen at Act Your Age. I remember a few things surprised me upon initial viewing.

1) Despite cuts, this movie is still explicitly queer. It centers on a female friendship that is romantic and liberating for both parties. And drifter Nicky Marotta, wonderfully rendered by Johnson, is assuredly a young lesbian who is starting to formulate how her sexuality shapes her identity. She often does this alone and with Patti Smith’s “Pissing in the River” rumbling in her broken heart, but sometimes with enough room to let in Pamela Pearl (Alvarado), the daughter of a politician she meets in a mental institution and creates a life with on the mean streets.

2) Girls like Johnson don’t star in movies much anymore, which is a shame. Little Darlings came out the same year. Kristy McNichol’s Angel Bright may have been looking to get laid by a boy in the movie, but she reads to me as a baby butch.

3) New York City doesn’t look like this anymore, and I’d love to read a history of how the city and mediated representations of it changed from the 1960s to the 2000s. In the 1980s, the city continued to endure escalating crime and drug rates from the decade before, as the area had not yet been gentrified and “cleaned up” to attract tourists. This is something Taxi Driver made central to Travis Bickle’s mental decline and that I hope Mad Men incorporates into the series.

By the time Sex and the City became part of the lexicon, it had. Now teenage characters in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and New York Minute gallivant around the Big Apple. When at the time of Times Square‘s location shoot and subsequent release, the city was far from being the tween amusement park it would later seem to be. As a matter of fact, Pearl’s father is running on a platform to clean up New York City. Thus, you really get a feel for the danger, vastness, and anonymity of the big city that informs the girls’ existence.

But you also get a sense of solidarity amongst them and other street denizens. While the movie could perpetuate racist stereotypes of predatory people of color serving as crack addicts, pimps, and whores, most of the folks the girls encounter are nice. When Pearl applies for a dancing job at a dive cabaret and refuses to perform topless, the owner (who appears to be Hispanic) praises her on being classy and holding on to some mystery.

However, I don’t want to overemphasize the treatment of race in the movie. For the most part, people of color are depicted as supportive, but they are usually without names and relegated to the background. In the rare instances that they aren’t, they can sometimes be viewed as siding with the establishment. Hence how I read Anna Maria Horsford’s Rosie Washington, who is Marotta’s case worker. While Washington understands that Marotta, whose parents are M.I.A., has been failed by the system, she’s still in cahoots with Pearl’s father and writes a letter to his daughter urging her to part ways with her “unstable” new friend.

The girls also have a troubling relationship with people of color. At the beginning of the movie, Marotta rehearses guitar. She sets her amp on the hood of a night club owner’s car. When a Latina matron complains of the noise Marotta’s making, she responds by smashing in the owner’s headlights. She’s also rude to Washington. And perhaps most disconcerting, Marotta and Pearl associate Washington with voodoo and proclaim themselves to align with various homophobic and racial epithets in their song “Your Daughter Is One.” Good that they’re pushing back against the systemic oppression they’ve endured. Bad how they’re using language to express it.

I also find Tim Curry’s role as DJ Johnny LaGuardia, who documents the girls’ story and later becomes something of an ally to them. Both girls are fans of his radio program on WJAD. Pearl actually wrote to him about her unhappy home life prior to being institutionalized, signing the letter as “Zombie Girl.” Pointedly, he insinuates himself as their ally. At first, I thought I was projecting those feelings onto LaGuardia because Curry has one of the most sinister voices I’ve ever heard. But when LaGuardia shows up at the girls’ flat with a bottle of vodka for Pearl and an interest in how “wild” Marotta is, his cover’s blown.

Upon review, I’m basically of the same opinion of it as I was before. This movie is poignant, though I do wish the original footage that documented the girls’ romance was kept intact. I also wish Marotta wasn’t depicted as crazy and escorted off at the end, while Pearl watches the mob disperse with her father. But I also have no doubt Marotta will escape once more, perhaps with Pearl by her side. She may prompt dozens of other girls to follow in her path and pen their own rock anthems.

Covered: Joanna Newsom’s “Have One on Me”

Cover to Have One on Me (Drag City, 2010); image courtesy of seajellyexhibit.blogspot.com

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve long been on the fence about Joanna Newsom. I remember playing “Bridges and Balloons” from The Milk-Eyed Mender once when I was still at KVRX. Her name had been bandied about in hushed, reverent tones by fellow deejays and I had to find out who was causing this kind of fuss. Upon first listen, I promptly thought to myself, “what is this art school pixie nattering on about? Is this some Nell shit? More like Joanna Nuisance.” Immediately after the song finished, a female listener called to thank me for playing the song, espousing its beauty with complete sincerity. Yeesh. Point taken, sister. I took a little more time with Ys, but wasn’t converted.

My flippancy might seem unjustified given my professed adoration for Björk, and I recognize that. Bottom line: I respected that Newsom was a rare talent, but I didn’t get her appeal. In theory, I’m down with Lisa Simpson playing a harp, but actual listening didn’t beget actual enjoyment.

So when I found out Newsom’s long-awaited follow-up would be a triple album, I was like “ho boy, that’s going to be a lot of obscure words and ululating.”

It is, but in a great way.

I’ve since spent the last week listening to her new album, Have One on Me and feel like I need to check back in with Ys. For smart criticism on Have One on Me, I’ll gladly refer you to reviews from Ann Powers, Jonah Weiner, and Mark Richardson. Oscillating almost exclusively between it and Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code, that’s a lot of time with two smart women’s words. It was a week well spent and has carried over into this one. I’m certain that these two albums are the ones I’ll treasure from this year.

One reason I was able to warm up to Have One on Me is because it’s “accessible,” at least comparatively speaking. Some might interpret this as a taming of Newsom’s sound. Her voice is more controlled. Her arrangements, though spare in a way that recalls The Milk-Eyed Mender, are approachable and gorgeous. They even suggest a pop sensibility that gestures toward a potential connection between her and Carole King and Joni Mitchell’s work in the early 70s. I think all of this does a service to what are ultimately straightforward songs about the complexities of adult relationships. She’s not accessible so much as she is direct.

In addition, I think my attitudes toward pretension have changed since I last considered Newsom. I’ve spent some quality time with Kate Bush and Elizabeth Fraser, post-punk’s grand-mères of affectation. Song cycles about drowning? Lyrics pieced together out of gibberish, abstruse terminology, random words, and antiquated names? Hello.

These considerations have prompted me to stretch back toward Mitchell. They’ve led me to reconsider favorites like Björk, PJ Harvey, and Neko Case. I celebrate contemporary artists like Bat For Lashes, Fever Ray, Antony Hegarty, and Julianna Barwick with renewed vigor. I even volley contradictory opinions about Lady Gaga. In fact, after Newsom I should revisit Patti Smith and Tori Amos to see if my opinions of them have changed. I might want to see who this Amanda Palmer person is all about too.

I’m interested in how these artists use pretension for two reasons. For one, I like the effrontery of female musicians whose work seems to bellow, “I’m an artist with a capital A. My music is really important and great. If I need my work to be excessively florid, doggedly conceptual, or sonically challenging, then you can deal. If there was room for prog rock, there’s room for me too. In fact, I am prog rock. No, I have eaten prog rock, along with the book Roan Press published that exalts my genius.”

More to the point, when pretension is used in the service of songs about female experiences, it seems as though there’s potential for the mundane yet particular realities of being female to contain artistry, fantasy, and perhaps even transcendence. In Newsom’s case, as the record is teeming with reflections on motherhood, the pressures of couplehood between creative people, and the struggle for women to maintain autonomy as they mature, the pretensions feel earned.

That said, my threshold for pretension is slanted by my gendered purview. Newsom stretches odes to break-ups, possible abortions, empty rooms, and the West Coast well past the three-minute mark here and I listen. When it’s Decemberists’ leader Colin Meloy, I want to stab him so he’ll quit singing or reaching for his thesaurus. “Forty-winking in the belfry,” indeed.

Of course, while I may approve of female pretension, I also have to check it. Here’s where Annabel Mehran’s album cover seems necessary to consider. Newsom is draped across a chaise, suggesting an archetype in portraiture known as the Odalisque. Strewn about her are knickknacks from a decadent bohemian lifestyle — shawls, rugs, lamps, pelts, stuffed animals, antiques, a peacock.

To me, the image composition most clearly brings to mind Henri Rousseau‘s “The Dream.” Erté may also be an influence, as Newsom is fashioned a bit like his “Scandinavian Queen.” The political implications of these artists’ styles, and their respective involvement with Post-Impressionism and Art Deco should not be overlooked, particularly with regard to race. The former was notorious for its problematic, first-world fetishization of its own notions of primitivism. The latter poached quite a bit from Japanese woodcuts, thus perpetuating Orientalism. Indeed, when you juxtapose Newsom’s alabaster complexion against her exotic surroundings, the racial implications of female pretense become troubling. Who is afforded the time to ruminate? Who gets to lie in repose?

Henri Rousseau's "The Dream"; image courtesy of wikimedia.org

With that said, the cover, like the contents of the album, are beautiful, troubling, and revealing. They demand considerable examination and they’re getting it from at least one listener.

A pregnant seahorse and a chanteuse with a penis: I rethink Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley with the help of Gillian Gaar and Daphne Brooks

I read two books from the 33 1/3 book series last weekend, in an on-going effort to think about its approach to canon formation. Since reading the two titles in question, I’ve been sitting on my hands thinking about how to write a post about them. They were two interesting, disparate pieces written by Gillian Gaar and Daphne Brooks on albums that somehow seem linked. Gaar documents the recording process of a band’s follow-up to an album that resulted in their meteoric rise. Brooks weaves her personal history as an African American woman growing up as a member of Generation X, who was a graduate student when another artist’s only proper full-length was released.

Cover of Gillian G. Gaar's "In Utero" (Continuum Books, 2006); image courtesy of infibeam.com

Cover for Daphne Brooks's "Grace" (Continuum Books, 2005); image courtesy of funboring.com

Too bad dudes made ’em, right? Dudes who died young and didn’t release any more albums. Dudes who were dreamy, sensitive alternative pin-ups. They probably showed up on some teenage bedroom walls. I never harbored a crush on Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, but I get the appeal. However, in the 7th grade I taped a picture of Jeff Buckley in my notebook. The crush continues.

Jeff Buckley may have hated this photo in People's 1995 Most Beautiful People issue, but it stayed in my notebook during junior high; image courtesy of people.com

The heartthrob factor has been what has kept me from writing a post. I consider this blog to be a space where issues of gender, among a multitude of oft-intersecting identity categories, are critical to how we understand music culture. As a feminist, I wanted that space to focus on female contributions. I made this decision not because I’m a misandrist but because, so often, our work is denounced or ignored. Plus, I find the efforts some feminist publications take toward acknowledging the good guys is really a way to affirm that “feminism” isn’t a euphemism for “She-Woman Man-Haters Club.” This perception is misinformed and antiquated, and I feel like we enervate feminism when magazines like Bust run a cisgender “Men We Love” issue. Do we really need to give guys the focus in our own feminist projects just to prove that we aren’t all man-haters, lesbians, or man-hating lesbians? Can’t we have anything to ourselves?

That said, I wondered if by thinking about how women view these particular male artists and considering how these men complicated issues of gender and sexuality in their own work, I could write a thoughtful entry.

I’ll address Gaar’s book first. Though her entry came out a year after Brooks’s, she’s discussing an album that predates Grace‘s arrival in the market by several months, and a band who effectively dissolved a few months after its release. We know why Nirvana disbanded, though opinion differs as to how Cobain died at 27 (most abide by his death being a suicide; there’s a faction of people, Kim Gordon among them, who believe he was murdered). Refreshingly, Gaar takes all of this as a given and decides not to dwell on the band’s superstardom or the lead singer’s untimely end. She also doesn’t comb In Utero for clues as to the lead singer’s mental state, acknowledging that a number of fans and critics have already done the forensic work to determine for themselves whether or not Nirvana’s last album is its lead singer’s suicide note.

Instead, Gaar primarily focuses on the recording and mixing of the album, and a bit of the aftermath. I really appreciate this approach. She walks the reader through the players, the jargon, and the studio process with a journalist’s eye for detail and uncluttered prose. She also weaves first-person accounts from bassist Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl, recording engineer Steve Albini, and others. In doing so, she stresses Albini’s reticence toward working with a band of such commercial stature, his dismissal of the credit “producer,” Cobain’s deliberate pace as a lyric writer, how quickly the band worked in the studio, the struggle the band faced in attempting to distance themselves from the radio-ready slickness of the Butch Vig-produced Nevermind, song selection, album art, video production, and how much of the album ended up being remixed so as to be more commercially palatable.

BTW, Albini also recorded PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me and Electrelane’s Axes. The latter will get further consideration in a future “Records That Made Me a Feminist” entry. Albini will probably record your band for a nominal fee. I looked into it when I thought I was going to Northwestern. All you need is a way to Chicago, a little bit of money, and a thick skin.

But Gaar doesn’t just talk about gear. One of In Utero‘s major themes is gestation, and Cobain’s preoccupation with pregnancy, abortion, umbilical cords, and the abject pleasures and terrors of motherhood and womanhood is of critical importance to both Gaar and myself. This was the man who wished he could be a seahorse because its the only species where male members can carry its progeny to term, even as he mocked the co-dependent relationship he had with his wife.

A young father to Frances Bean, Cobain often dressed in women’s clothing, was a supporter of riot grrrl, counted Gordon and Kathleen Hanna as close friends, believed in his wife Courtney Love’s artistic capabilities, felt empathy for troubled women like Frances Farmer, and was responsible for DGC reissuing The Raincoats’ first two albums. He also identified as bisexual at a time when grunge proved to be just another guise for rock’s machismo. If only he had lived to see his daughter grow up. I think they could have learned a lot from each other. But at least he never saw Fred Durst’s chest tattoo. In tribute, my ass. I’ll leave you to Google. I can’t in good conscience put up so grody an image. Instead, let’s look at the cover photo Cobain and Love took for Sassy.

Cobain and Love in happier times; image courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

I’ll admit that save for In Utero, Unplugged In New York, and portions of Incesticide, I was never a Nirvana devotee. Nirvana’s sound was just a bit too of its time for me: sludgy guitar, shredded vocals, marked dynamics. It also sounded too traditionally masculine to me, though songs like “Very Ape” and music videos like “In Bloom” call this reading into question.

I enjoyed Nirvana more when they alienated people with noise. Give me “Scentless Apprentice” or “tourette’s” any day. The band also worked for me when they went acoustic, as on “Something In the Way,” “All Apologies,” and the Unplugged performance of “Pennyroyal Tea.” That said, I know what the band meant and continues to mean for people. I hope Cobain’s belief in gender and sexual fluidity is an essential component to some folks’ fandom.

As Cobain left behind a wife and child, Buckley probably understood his father’s legacy from a vantage point akin to Frances Bean’s. Raised by a single mother after his singer-songwriter father Tim ran out and later died of an overdose, Buckley stressed throughout his brief career that he had no real connection to the man whose familial and musical lineage he inherited. I get what he meant, but always questioned the argument. While Tim had more of a conventionally masculine vocal register, both dudes had an affinity for atonal blends of jazz, folk, and rock music and shared a spectral falsetto. And high cheekbones.

You might gather that I have a deeper investment for one artist over the other. Cobain died before I turned 11, so I was just slightly behind the curve with Nirvana. But somehow I was right with Buckley. It helped that I had cable at the time. MTV started playing the music video for “Last Goodbye” as Houston’s alternative station put the single in rotation. The hours I spent thinking about sucking his bottom lip red and raw must have been considerable.

But imagine my surprise when I spent my allowance on Grace and discovered that instead of eight other versions of “Last Goodbye,” the album was far more complex. I devoted hours to understanding the elliptical song structures, the ornate production quality, and the vocalist’s operatic singing style. I was particularly struck by how similar our vocal ranges were.

After a little research, I noticed that Buckley covered many female artists. People can and should continue to talk about his readings of Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. But Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” and Janet Baker’s interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol” are my favorite covers on Grace. In addition, Mahalia Jackson’s “A Satisfied Mind” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” were in his repertoire. I also found out about Édith Piaf after reading somewhere that he covered “Je n’en connais pas la fin,” whereupon I asked my mother who this French lady was. He had a deep admiration for women like Björk and Elizabeth Fraser from The Cocteau Twins. The latter recorded a duet with him called “All Flowers In Time Bend Towards the Sun” and wrote “Rilkean Heart” for him and their relationship.

Buckley also valued the work of women like Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, and Penny Arcade. He carried these feelings into his relationships with his mother Mary Guibert and partners like musicians Rebecca Moore and Joan Wasser. And while a lot of white boys, mysterious or otherwise, appropriate the work of other artists, I never felt like I was listening to someone trying something on, whether it be another person’s race, gender, or both. With Buckley, it always sounded like his voice was guiding him into a process, however brief, of personal transformation because of his musical heroes, many of whom were heroines. It never felt like thievery so much as tribute.

Many have singled Buckley out as a diva. He wanted to be considered as a chanteuse. Shana Goldin-Perschbacher scribed an argument for his transgendered vocal quality in her essay for the anthology Oh Boy!: Masculinities and Popular Music. And while he has since been lauded by rocker dudes like Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, many people were put off by the musician’s histrionics and how they offended traditional notions of rock’s paradigmatic heterosexual masculinity. I’ve even heard an acquaintance unfavorably compare him to Mariah Carey. But upon reflection, I’m faced with a startling realization: I might celebrate Buckley’s alignment with the feminine for reasons similar to why I’ve dismissed Patti Smith’s kinship with the masculine.

Too much?; image courtesy of last.fm

Thus with Buckley, there’s a lot of contradictions. This is something that Brooks confronts in understanding her fandom and what it might suggest of her status as a black woman in the academy, growing up during the 70s and 80s and completing her graduate studies during the first half of the 1990s — a time marked by hybridization, multiculturalism, political correctness, and third-wave feminism’s embrace of conflicting gender, sexual, and racial politics. Brooks constantly dialogues her own interest with Buckley around an exhaustively researched narrative of the artist’s trajectory, spending most of her time unpacking the one album he completed before drowning at the age of 30 in the Wolf River while working on his follow-up in Memphis.

Of course, we’d do well not to overpraise musicians like Cobain and Buckley, who were imperfect and mortal despite their musical legacies. Cobain constantly had to battle stomach ailments, heroin addiction, and record executives. Buckley may have sung many women’s songs, but the argument could be made that he did it to fuck women through their own music. Of course, doing so risks presumption that women are passive and dominated in the act of fucking, which I take issue with. But unlike Patti Smith, Buckley made sure his pronouns suggested he was the man in a heterosexual relationship. Buckley may sound a bit like fellow Simone fan (and Wasser colleague) Antony Hegarty, but Hegarty kept the pronouns pure when covering “Be My Husband.” Also, Buckley’s heterosexual masculinity allowed him to hover betwixt gender’s poles in song. Hegarty lives there.

But both Cobain and Buckley also suffered loss, confusion, and mental duress. Sometimes, they put those feelings, and many others, into their music. That they identified with women is important, though in greater need of complication. It doesn’t always make them men we love, but it does make their contention with gender and sexuality worthy of feminist inquiry.