I celebrate the body spastic: Why I’m all about Molly Siegel

Siegel at CMJ 2008; photo originally taken by Michael Falco for The New York Times

Siegel at CMJ 2008; photo originally taken by Michael Falco for the New York Times

So, Molly Siegel has been on my mind for a while now. When I was conceptualizing this blog, I knew I wanted to talk about her. For those who don’t know, she’s the lead singer of Ponytail, a Baltimore-based experimental pop band. In terms of sound and composition, they aren’t that far off from Deerhoof, a musically adventurous band I got into during my salad days ias a deejay at UT Austin’s KVRX (aka, fall 2002). I’d listened to Ice Cream Spiritual, Ponytail’s first full-length a bit last summer when it first came out. It was okay, but kinda all-over-the-place and I just don’t think I was ready to listen to it. Then I looked on Pitchfork’s year-end lists and the album was selected by Sarah Lipstate of Parts & Labor (who also worked at KVRX) as one of her favorite albums of the year. And, you know, Sarah was always a cool kid, so I thought, hmmm, okay, let’s try this again.

And then shit blew my mind. I went from thinking the single “Celebrate the Body Electric” was kinda okay to a magical place in which I wanted to inhabit. So I played the album and Kamehameha, their first EP, on a loop in anticipation of their attendance at SXSW 2k9. Long story short, their performance at Club de Ville the Saturday that I saw them was one of the best shows I saw during the festival. So great. Damn can they play. And they’re really fun live — they smashed a giraffe piñata and threw candy at the audience. I ripped off a leg for my desk.

But I didn’t just see Siegel on stage. I saw her at the Mirah show (wearing a Ray Lewis Ravens jersey, no less) and also PJ Harvey‘s set as Stubb’s. (Aside: Michael Azerrad, who I saw at both the St. Vincent show at Central Presbyterian and the PJ’s show at Stubbs’ was also at Ponytail’s show. He stood right next to me and took pictures of the piñata. I’m pretty sure my shoes are in some of those shots. If you see a pair of blue Reeboks on the Interwebz, they’re mine). So, I guess I have Siegel’s (and Azerrad’s) taste in music. I’m okay with that. I at least think we could be music geek friends.

But the more I kept thinking about the show, the more entranced I became with Siegel’s performance and style. Anyone who’s listened to Ponytail knows that Siegel’s not one for words, instead usually preferring to coo, grunt, or scream in a sort of automatic language, foregrounded all the more by her spastic, confrontational stage presence. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson asserted in his review of their first full-length that the stream-of-conscious, pre-verbal stages of childhood was a potential influence on both Siegel’s vocal approach and the band’s musical sensibilities (an approach he aligns with the work of fellow Baltimorean Dan Deacon). While there’s definitely merit to that argument, I think there’s something else going on, perhaps a site through which queer, non-normative girlishness can be accessed.

No, I don’t think we can wrench Siegel’s lesbian identity from her persona or performance style. Nor should we. Nor do I think she’d want to, if her casual references to the Indigo Girls (who were playing the same time as Ponytail when I saw them) are any indication.

I can’t speak for Siegel, but I can’t help but wonder if her sexuality is central to how she views her place in music culture. For one, she’s the only woman in the band, no less a band with a noisy, chaotic approach to music. For another, she is not an instrumentalist in that band and is thus in what many folks conceptualize as an objectified, often feminized position for a band member to occupy. To add to that, she doesn’t fit the standard female body type long adhered to within hipster culture. While short, she is far from gamine — a bit stocky, by no means dainty. Also, she doesn’t outfit herself in youthful, fashionable, traditionally female attire (think Jenny Lewis). Instead, she clomps around in Timberland boots and football jerseys, garments traditionally aligned with masculine dress made frumpy and destabilized by her petite figure.

In short, Siegel’s presence is unquestionably queer, a fact which informs her vocal style. Rather than infantile, as others may suggest, I’d argue that Siegel’s voice is actually quite complex — at times angry, giddy, abuzz with sexual delight, flip, petulant, seething with contempt, or uncertain of either herself or the world around her. In short, she seems to occupy a more complex matrices in which women (masculine women, no less) can claim space for themselves.

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5 comments

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    • Alyx Vesey

      Oh, that’s horrible. For one, why do her looks have to matter at all? Do we need Molly to look good to be a good singer? Would you single out other members of the band as sucking because they don’t look good? For another, why are you pairing her looks with her vocal ability? Third, why privilege Dustin Wong’s formidable efforts over and apart from the rest of the band?

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