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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If I had to pick one rock band to invite over for dinner, it’d be the B-52’s without question. I’d even drink sweet tea if it was spiked. They formed after getting drunk in a Chinese restaurant, so I know good things can happen with them while they’re eating. Maybe they’d bring over the plastic fruit Keith Haring gifted them. I hope Kate Pierson brings her girlfriend too.
I love the B-52’s without any trace of irony. I requested a cassette copy of Cosmic Thing for my tenth birthday because I saw Stephanie Tanner do a dance routine to “Love Shack” on Full House and heard the Mickey Mouse Club cover “Roam” and was sold, only to find that “Dry County” was my favorite track on the album.
What actually endeared the B-52’s to me was the video to “Love Shack,” which looked like the most fun shoot ever–way more fun than Sinéad O’Connor’s devastating “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The club in that video was what I wanted the parties in Dirty Dancing to be, though as an adult, I’ve come to love it, appreciate its distinctly Jewish purview, and recognize its feminist potential. But no one was risking back-alley abortions after getting knocked up by slumming waiters at the Love Shack, perhaps because of all the same-sex hook-ups going on.
I didn’t recognize it as such at the time but, with RuPaul in tow, “Love Shack” one of the queerest clips I’d seen at that age. Along with the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Freddie Mercury, and family friends Ken and Dennis, the B-52’s were a big part of my LGBT sensitivity training growing up. Later, I found out that Cosmic Thing was released after an extended hiatus. It was their first record after guitarist Ricky Wilson died of AIDS. Frankly, I still marvel that Cindy was able to record after losing her brother so tragically. Perhaps taking cues from kindred spirit Pee-Wee Herman, the B-52’s recognized children’s need for queer visibility and ingratiated themselves into kids’ programming, with members providing the theme song to Rocko’s Modern Life and the group coming together as the BC-52’s for The Flintstones. Actually, I’ll count Rosie O’Donnell as part of my education too. Even though she wasn’t out yet, she pinged my ‘dar big time.
I’m thinking about queer visibility and alliance because Wisconsin Capitol Pride is going on this weekend. But the B-52’s expanded my mind in other ways. Of their peers, Devo and the Talking Heads get branded as the eggheads. I’m not disputing that they made esoteric pop music that legitimized “graduate student” as a cool vocation. But the brains behind Blondie and the B-52’s are often discredited because they made fun records and trafficked in thrift-store kitsch. Yet, as the documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out makes clear, the B-52’s avant-garde pop was just as intellectually rigorous as R.E.M.’s mumblecore and at home with Pylon and the Bar-B-Que Killers. And David Byrne identified with the B-52’s enough to produce Mesopotamia. Maybe they’re dismissed because Fred Schneider professes cultural ignorance on “Mesopotamia” by stating “I ain’t no student of ancient culture–before I talk, I should read a book!” Frankly, I wish more people were that honest. I’m sure a lot of people can’t abide the group because Schneider’s defiantly gay vocal mannerisms trigger latent homophobia. That or “Rock Lobster.”
I’ve always loved “Rock Lobster”–so much so that a college friend gave me a 45 copy for Christmas one year. I’m not alone, either. Apparently Haring used to paint to it for hours, to the ire of his flat mate and neighbors. But it’s terrible for karaoke because it’s seven minutes long and most people can’t commit to Schneider’s campy narration and the ladies’ Ono-esque sea creature noises. That’s why I suggested Karaoke Underground replace “Rock Lobster” with “52 Girls,” because drunk people enjoy screaming people’s names and pointing to their friends.
Somewhere I read that the B-52’s’ read on paper like an American Studies thesis but sounded like a dance party. That’s pretty right on. Like artist Kenny Scharf and filmmaker John Waters, the group was obsessed with queering retro futurism and Cold War Americana. Their name references the bomber that streamlined modern warfare and the bee-hive hairdos preferred by teenyboppers and girl groups. During the Reagan Administration, the threat of Soviet revolution and nuclear fallout held relevance. The easy solution was to retreat to a time when xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia (all synonyms for “paranoia”) seethed under shiny, vinyl surfaces. Folks like the B-52’s thought this was a punchline with horrifying ramifications, and responded by regressing. I almost wrote on this for my Cold War Media Culture class but wrote about West Side Story instead for some reason. When Ruth La Ferla’s considered the economic ramifications of retro-futurism’s escapist pleasures for the New York Times, I kicked myself.
For me, it’s easy to pore over any B-52’s album cover. What are they wearing? Where can I find those wigs? But the one that captured my imagination was Whammy! Though obviously on a set, the composition of William Wegman’s shot suggests that the group is in an abyss, staring above at an uncertain future. Vikki Warren’s costuming is amazing. Kate and Cindy’s outfits are vivid bursts of red and yellow against the men’s black-and-white ensembles. I especially love the silhouette of Kate’s dress, bringing to mind Judy Jetson and the hula hoop. Released a year before Reagan was re-elected and thus fulfilled an Orwellian prophesy, Whammy! was the group’s most forward-looking record to date. As a result, it was underappreciated. But songs like “Legal Tender,” “Song for a Future Generation,” and a cover version of Yoko Ono’s “Don’t Worry” (later replaced by “Moon 83” for legal reasons) were and remain relevant.
Ya’ll, I’m beyond over fielding comments for my Odd Future post.
Feminist Music Geek will enjoy its second anniversary this Wednesday. It’s a bummer that the blog entry with the most traction in the site’s brief history is about a group whose most ardent fans seem to demonstrate little interest in feminism (or respecting feminists). As a result, I’ve had to wade through a lot of condescending rape equivocation and toxic snark, exclusively from first-time commenters who don’t care about what I’m trying to accomplish here. Occasionally someone will provide thoughtful commentary. More often folks will dash off diatribes about how Odd Future are misunderstood artistic geniuses and that I don’t “get it”. Then there are the comments that roughly equal in number what has been published that you will never see. Since this blog’s inception, I’ve deliberately chosen not to give audience to hateful trolling. If you have something insightful to say, you have my attention. If you just want to vomit opinions to affirm your own supremacy, your trash gets trashed.
Before I published the Odd Future post, I couldn’t count on all ten fingers the instances when I chose not to post a comment. I assumed that the name of my blog was an immediate deterrent. Who’s going to write some misogynistic bullshit on a relatively obscure feminist blog when they don’t know me and probably think I’m on my period? Isn’t there a wash cloth to relieve oneself into instead?
Apparently a lot of people feel compelled to comment. By comment, I mean I’ve been invited to tend to various members or instructed to return to the kitchen or informed that I was a twat like all feminists or that feminists and gays just like to bitch about things. At least once a day since it went live, I’ve had to decide whether to reply to a comment in order to defend my turf and drop much-needed feminist science or just roll my eyes and press delete, knowing that this rage dump is the only time I’ll receive a message from some stranger who probably stumbled onto my blog while Googling images of Tyler, the Creator. It’s gotten really old. While I don’t like shutting down conversation, I am so sick of seeing unread messages containing the subject header “[Feminist Music Geek] Please moderate: “Assessing an Odd Future with Syd tha Kyd” in my inbox and wondering what misspelled invective awaits me.
Perhaps most disheartening is how few people want to talk about Syd. Despite her inclusion in the entry’s title, I dropped her in rather clumsily at the end of the post. I wanted to discuss her role more thoroughly in the comments section. A couple of people want to talk about her. Considerably more are set on telling me that I need to listen to this Earlwolf track and STFU.
Actually, no. What’s most dispiriting is that I know that these squabbles don’t actually matter. This world has considerably larger problems than this.
Also, I published the thing nearly two months ago. I haven’t given Odd Future’s music much thought. If I’m proven wrong and the group unseats Kanye in two years time, I’ll continue to focus on artists who are exciting me at the moment. At present, there are a lot of good things happening in my life and, frankly, I’d rather be dancing instead of knitting my brow and firing off a rebuttal.
I recently revisited the Le Tigre remix EP, which includes Analog Tara‘s take on “Très Bien.” I also read Ruth Nicole Brown’s great Black Girlhood Celebration. Brown evaluates the success of SOLHOT, an after-school program for black girls she founded in Champaign, Illinois that is informed by hip hop feminism and takes seriously the significance of dance and corporeal expression. I missed Lady Kier when she came to Austin last week, but I did enjoy my friend Erik’s recent set at Chain Drive and look forward to catching Scratched Vinyl founder Chi Chi spin at Cherrywood next month. I can’t stop listening to Odyssey’s “Native New Yorker” after I heard it sampled in Von Pea’s “The Yorker.” And I keep imagining strapping on some platform shoes with the Chances crew up in Chicago. In honor of Electro Feminisms, Emily Manuel’s current blog series for Bitch Magazine, I thought I’d post some songs that get this life-long disco fan moving. Why don’t you dance with me? I’m not no limburger.
Recently a grad school acquaintance referred to Showtime’s The L Word as the worst show that she followed in its entirety. I can almost relate. I watched all but the last two seasons, and just watched the fifth season. Soon I’ll finish the soap about ladies living and loving in Los Angeles, even though I know how it ends and that Showtime didn’t buy The Farm.
I watched the first season alongside the final season of HBO’s Sex and the City with a college feminist group I was starting to hang out with. The L Word promised to be a groundbreaking melodrama, the network’s attempt at applying the success of Queer as Folk to queer women. You’ll note that the original tag line for the series was “Same Sex, Different City.” Evidence of network rivalry. I missed the fifth season during it’s original run for thesis-related reasons, and gave up on the sixth season. As someone who went to watch parties for four seasons, I can break down any episode in three segments: 1) socially relevant drama, 2) wacky or glamorous group scenes, and 3) bat-shit craziness. This isn’t a 3 Glees situation either. It’s moment to moment, regardless of whether L Word creator Ilene Chaiken wrote the script or an episode was credited to someone else.
Along with many of the fans, I had five problems with the show.
1. It used cheating as a means of advancing story lines, which was really evidence of lazy writing that often resulted in interchangeable sexual encounters that ultimately lowered the stakes for most of the characters involved.
2. Actresses of Asian descent were often cast to play Latina characters, which I certainly don’t think had anything to do with a shortage of Latin American actresses in Los Angeles.
3. It was wildly inconsistent with characterization. Why does blogger/deejay Alice Pieszecki date a trans woman in the first season only to be totally awful to her Web admin Max Sweeney, a trans man, in the fifth season? British heiress Helena Peabody is drawn as a viper when she enters into orbit in season two but is a generous person to a fault from the third season on. Only three cast members stay on script throughout the show’s run: art aficionado Bette Porter is wonderfully alpha and conflicted, hack writer (and Chaiken avatar) Jenny Schecter gets progressively more unhinged, and Lothario hairdresser Shane McKutcheon slouches toward another doomed conquest. Many of the characters have little to do, most woefully Kit, Bette’s half-sister played by the incomparable Pam Grier. Sometimes if Chaiken didn’t know what to do with someone, she’d kill them off. Hence why the cast and fans still mourn the loss of Dana Fairbanks, who died of cancer in the third season. Lazy. And mean.
4. The show really missed an opportunity with Max. They could have created a complex, interesting FTM character who was fully integrated into the show’s principle ensemble. They could have handled his transition with sensitivity and kindness. Instead, they tended to other him and treat him like a freak. I wasn’t previously aware of his ripped-from-the-headlines arc in the sixth season, but Autostraddle already laid out how poorly it was handled in an open letter to Chaiken.
But uncharacteristic bouts of transphobia aside, Alice Pieszecki is the bisexual femme of my dreams. Leisha Hailey, you were perfection. If the writing rose to meet you, you might have had a lock on an Emmy nomination for season three. Jennifer Beals, you were pretty great as Bette too. You could have gotten a nod for season five.
As I alluded to in an earlier post, I loved how the show prioritized lesbian visibility and queer identification on a cable television show. The show dealt with major issues like transitioning, same-sex partnerships, and the closeted military. The show also employed directors like Lisa Cholodenko, Jamie Babbit, Allison Anders, Rose Troche, Karyn Kusama, and Angela Robinson. Folks like Ariel Schrag and Guinevere Turner wrote some of the episodes, but you shouldn’t hold that against them. I wonder if Alison Bechdel was ever offered to write for the show. Can you ask the creator of Dykes to Watch Out For to work on the Sapphic version of Melrose Place?
Often identification was done through music. Alice, Kit, and deejay Carmen de la Pica Morales engaged with it in their professional lives. Acts like Sleater-Kinney and The B-52s would perform at the Planet, a local hotspot the ensemble frequented and Kit owned. Toshi Reagon, the Ditty Bops, and Teagan and Sara made cameos. Each episode contained extradiegetic music from Gossip, Joan Armatrading, and Uh Huh Her and rarely featured a male voice.
But this wasn’t always a positive, which leads me to my fifth issue. The show was scored by Elizabeth Ziff (credited as ezgirl), who, as a member of BETTY, was also responsible for the show’s infamous theme song. It made it’s debut in the second season and was loathed by even the most die-hard fans. The production is slick. The vocals are shrill. The lyrics display no subtlety, especially during the bridge. “Fighting, fucking, crying, drinking”? More like “Kicking, screaming, cringing, heaving.”
But I think The L Word‘s title sequence is notable for a few reasons. For one, it actually does establish the show’s tone, cast, and sense of place. For another, title sequences have become something of an anomaly in both television and film, getting increasingly shorter with time. Many shows use pre-existent material while others, most notably Glee, dispense with a theme song altogether. Some shows try to elevate the title sequence to art. Network identification is important here, as many of these programs are on HBO and have hired design companies like a52 and Digital Kitchen. Showtime didn’t or couldn’t go that route with The L Word, which speaks to how gender and production values impact perceptual differences between quality programming and pop trash. Hate it or really hate it, The L Word title sequence and theme song are integral parts of the show.
It’s my hope that today’s future ax-slingers who are currently spending hours in their bedrooms learning to play the guitar are regarding Kaki King, Marnie Stern, and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox with the godhead status previously designated to Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eddie Van Halen. It’s also of course my hope that these instrumentalists are transgender and cisgender boys and girls.
I’ve been meaning to focus on Cox for a while and felt that the late September release of Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest was just the opportunity. I don’t have much to say on the album itself, other than it’s consistent with the band and its leader’s beautiful, unsettling output. The influence of girl group pop, Roy Orbison, psych rock, shoegaze, drone, Stereolab and other abstruse curios fetishized by music nerds are still present, culminating in hazy indie pop bolstered by formidable guitar chops. The music isn’t as twinged with the vaguely Lynchian erotic tension of the group’s earlier efforts, particularly Cryptograms, which recalls my experiences driving through the densely wooded areas of their native Atlanta. Steep inclines and tortuous roads determine your course and thickets of pine trees spear the sky. The austerity is breathtaking and ominous.
The proceedings here are deceptively breezy and once again, Cox’s fandom is foregrounded. Neither of these developments are especially new, as Cox worked with Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier on Logos, an album from his solo project Atlas Sound. Both tracks are indicative of his thematic investment with childhood and struggle. His collaboration with Sadier on “Quick Canal,” Logos‘ centerpiece, is particularly compelling as Cox convincingly approximates the late Mary Hansen’s vocal style to imagine a version of one of his favorite bands where a deceased member remains alive by using himself as her vessel. Paired with a profound lyric about trading the assumption of inheriting wisdom by providence for the reality learned with age of enlightenment coming from a balance of success and failure and it remains one of his more redoubtable artistic statements.
However, there remains a productive sadness to Cox’s sound in both projects’ understanding of nostalgia. There is also often a poignant connectedness to Cox’s idols. This album came about in part because of Cox’s fandom of B-52s guitarist and fellow Georgian Ricky Wilson, an innovative and overlooked instrumentalist who was a casualty of AIDS when Cox was three and it was cruelly dismissed as gay cancer.
I invoke all of this then to situate Cox’s particular relationship to indie rock. In tandem with emulating his instrumental mastery, I hope younger musicians are also picking up on his queer, complicated corporeality and making connections to how it informs his work.
First, his body. Much discussion has been made of Cox’s stretched frame that indicates an earlier diagnosis of Marfan syndrome. Some critics, like Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan, have noted thematic connections. Frankly, you don’t even have to go that far to find it. Many of Cox’s songs deal directly with the summer in his youth where he was stuck in a hospital undergoing multiple corrective surgeries.
I appreciate how confrontational Cox is about his body on stage, in song, and through his blog. At times, he’s provoked ableist discomfort from critics and concert-goers who wish the skinny white guy would obscure his form with baggy clothes. Recently I had a conversation with my friend Curran about homophobic panic toward male hipsters, which may manifest itself in people seeking confirmation with questions like “hipster or gay?” or more menacing circumstances. Curran is himself a slender out man and prefers skinny jeans primarily because they best fit his body. However, he is also keenly aware that his wardrobe confirms his orientation and thus makes as mundane an activity as walking around his neighborhood a politically charged act. While we may live in a sartorial moment where huskier men can wear v-neck tees and tight pants, slight men remain under scrutiny for not abiding by normative ideas around masculine virility.
I cannot confirm if Cox is gay. I read that he identifies as asexual alongside journalism that labels him as either gay or bisexual. The ambiguity and fluidity of his identification may actually be productive. What I can aver is that a) Cox is not straight, b) he is gender queer, and c) he isn’t interested in making anyone comfortable about it.
Perhaps we can read Atlas Sound and Deerhunter’s efforts alongside the more assimilable contributions from peer indie act Grizzly Bear. I’m pleased we live in a moment where a band like Grizzly Bear can move units by invoking men’s chorus and not shy away from its queer implications. I’m thrilled that the band’s founder, Ed Droste, writes and sings from a homosexual male perspective. Naturally, I’m ecstatic that both bands’ compositional emphasis on the electric guitar may distance past associations with it as the manifestation of heterosexual male desire. But Grizzly Bear’s efforts are pretty and I’m energized by figures like Cox and his band who like to warp those exteriors.
At the risk of making a tenuous connection, I’d like to close with potentially connecting Cox to recent discourse around the “It Gets Better” campaign. I believe it to be a noble effort in response to recent reports of four gay teen suicides last month. However, I have major problems with it that are best distilled in Everett Maroon’s trenchant blog post on the subject, as well as Tasha Fierce’s tweet that “it doesn’t always get better.” I don’t know if Cox has any interest in commenting, but would imagine that his life as a queer Southern teenager with Marfan syndrome informs the resistive artist he is today.
I’ve yet to visit Portland but know it by reputation. Many friends call it home, even if none of them currently claim it as residency. I’ve often taken the opportunity to razz them about their Pacific Northwestern biases, but I understand the affinity. As an Austin transplant, I’ve imagined Portland as this city’s wetter, more overcast fraternal twin. It’s the home to Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls and Bitch and boasts establishments like Powell’s Books, Food Fight!, and Voodoo Donut. Like Austin, it’s got an independent music scene nurtured by DIY enthusiasts. Pass me one of your microbrew dogs and I’ll twist open a Shiner for you. Let’s hang.
One Portland band that’s been on my radar since early last year is Explode Into Colors. I missed them during the last SXSW but am fully prepared to catch them this time.
As if their sound wasn’t enough, word circulated that they’ll be accepting mixtapes as cover for their upcoming Holocene gig. When they come to Austin for SXSW, I hope they’ll be taking other fans’ mixes as a good will gesture.
I’m an ardent supporter and maker of mix CDs. I value them as an aural marker of someone’s history and treasure them as homemade gifts made and traded by friends. Each tracklist tells a story, as does the presence or absence of liner notes and album art. I believe my friend Kaleb of Karaoke Underground proposed the idea of a mix CD swap. I fully support this and would be happy to participate. Expect lots of cuts from Vince B.’s A Reference Of Female-Fronted Punk Rock: 1977-89 anthology, pulled directly from Kängnäve.
Tapes have been on people’s minds lately. Rob Sheffield used mixtapes to shape his autobiographical Love Is A Mix Tape. On 3o Rock, TGS star Tracy Jordan offered to make General Electric executive Jack Donaghy a Phil Collins mixtape as a token of their burgeoning friendship (Donaghy accepted because he has “two ears and a heart”). More recently, Simon Reynolds and Marc Hogan wrote some interesting essays outlining the wave of acts associated with glo-fi (or “chillwave” or “hypnagogic pop“) and the surge of upstart tape distros. With nostalgic fondness for “failed” technology and a desire to re-experience music as something less immediate and more holistic than an mp3 file, many people are returning (regressing?) to tapes. Perhaps Dennis Duffy was right. Technology is cyclical, at least for some.
I’m certainly intrigued by this deliberate move toward difficult and faulty antiquated technology. I’m also a bit of a cassette enthusiast. As a deejay, I recorded several of my shows on tape. It was around this time that I inherited my grandmother’s Mercury Grand Marquis, which I drove until it had to be traded in. As installing a CD player proved too costly, I often played my broadcasts in the car, along with holdovers from my youth, like The Pet Shop Boys’ Discography and The B-52s’ Cosmic Thing. I like that tapes forced me to listen to sequences rather than tracks. The tapes from my show are still in the glove compartment of my Mazda 626, waiting to be lodged into a tape deck.
I love most when a tape warps, changing the speed and sound of the recordings and making tracks at once familiar and foreign. Tapes may document a moment in time, but their vulnerability toward degradation makes them unreliable historians. To bend another 30 Rock character’s words, tapes (like Donaghy’s ceramic cookie jar collection) are alive. They change shape as they age. I hope Explode Into Colors keep the stacks of mixtapes they may be inheriting from their show at Holocene. Who knows what they’ll sound like or conjure up over time.
When I originally started thinking about artists who might expand the definition of what a diva is, the first person who came to mind was the subject of this post. Who else but a diva could be seen in concert halls and magazines as well as museum exhibits, obscure sitcoms, and cultish b-movies? Campy, profane, versed in popular culture, obsessed with the fragmented nature of female personae, and tailed by a devoted audience, Magnuson definitely seems to meet the requirements of being diva.
Like Wynne Greenwood (aka Tracy + the Plastics), Magnuson made a name for herself through the available art scene, specifically by managing Club 57 in the East Village during the early 1980s. At the time, Club 57 — which originally claimed its residence in a church basement — was a burgeoning scene comprised of folks like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, the B-52s, Klaus Nomi, and Fab Five Freddy. Magnuson and her patrons were obsessed with the radioactive kitsch of their Cold War-era adolescence and she would often arrange theme nights like day-glo erotic art show and Elvis Presley hootenannies or turn the venue into a putt-putt golf or a tiki lounge. During this time, she also became a part of Pulsallama, a percussion-based girl group that Magnuson thought of as an anti-band rebelling against the “fashionable primitivism” Malcolm McLaren was espousing with Bow Wow Wow, who he was managing (re: manipulating) at the time. Magnuson had left the group by the time they made “The Devil Lives in My Husband’s Body,” but you can get a good sense of what they were about by listening to this.
A key trait for any diva to me seems to be the ability to inhabit various roles, sometimes in opposition to one another, through performance. Folks might be quick to offer up a better-known pop icons like Madonna, Christina Aguilera, and Beyoncé, but let’s not forget Magnuson who often differed from these women by using her chameleon-like ability to create characters that poked fun at female stereotypes, materialism, confessionalism, and the hollowness of fame. Pairing up with Tom Rubnitz, she put together “Made for Television” in 1981 for PBS’s Alive From Off Center. The 15-minute piece, which simulates late-night channel surfing, features believeable send-ups of televangelism, soap operas, and game shows with Magnuson playing all the parts. Particularly with regard to how hollow and alienating our collective fixation of fame can be, it reminds me of Eileen Maxson’s “Lost Broadcasts,” which depicts the artist as a reality show hopeful whose staggeringly candid audition tape is being fast-forwarded and talked over by a disinterested casting agent fielding a phone call.
I cannot locate “Made For Television” online, but I have seen it in exhibition. If you hear about it coming to your town, I suggest you see it. If you find it on the Interwebz, share with the group.
In the mid-1980s, Magnuson got together with Mark Kramer to form Bongwater, a band where this kind of performance was all too common.
Ever the actress, she would off-set duties with Bongwater with turns in the ABC Jamie Lee Curtis/Richard Lewis sitcom Anything But Love, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, and The Hunger as well as Susan Seidelman’s beloved Desperately Seeking Susan and Making Mr. Right (which totally looks like a movie I should see).
In 1995, Magnuson released her first solo album, The Luv Show, which was apparently inspired by the mad-cap narratives, sex-crazed vixens, and pop-art shine of Russ Meyer movies. It certainly explains the cover, though no explanation needs to be given for songs like “Miss Pussy Pants.”
While Magnuson was never going to be a mainstream talent, it’s heartening to know that our media culture had room for a smart, cheeky lady all too willing to represent in the margins. Actually, they still seem to have the room for her, as Magnuson released her second solo album Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories in 2006, embarks on cabaret tours, and does occasional film work. More importantly, Magnuson seems all too willing to deconstruct the very idea of the diva, who she is, who she pretends to be, who she represents, and where her markers of identity blur and splinter. She might be Cindy Sherman‘s kind of diva. She’s definitely my kind of diva.