A few weeks back, Sabrina Chap (born Chapadijiev) contacted me to see if I wanted to review her new album, Oompa! Never one to turn down a free meal from female musicians, I obliged and she mailed me a copy (with a hand-written letter, no less — thanks, Sabrina!). While the item was in transit, Kjerstin Johnson at Bitch reviewed it for B-Sides.
Having not heard Chap before, the article gave me a good idea of what I’d be listening to. The cabaret sensibility of “Never Been a Bad Girl” suggested Dresden Dolls (though not Evelyn Evelyn’s super-problematic crip drag) on first listen, as well as Inara George and Jolie Holland in louder moments. The emphasis on classical and ragtime instrumentation also recalled Squirrel Nut Zippers’ dedication to jump blues, jazz, polka, and swing. Both the Zippers and beloved Austin mainstay White Ghost Shivers have cultivated antiquated aural aesthetics to undermine nostalgia with biting observations, sly asides, and at times bawdy lyrics about the realities of modern life. Finally, Chap also seems to share similar feminist camp sensibilities with fellow New York-based retro revisionists Menage à Twang. I haven’t heard Chap on KOOP’s “What’s a Girl to Do” program, but I think she’d be a perfect fit.
I don’t offer these artists up to slight Chap as derivative, but rather to put her in a larger context of artists. I believe Chap’s talents stand up on their own. I’m also interested in pursuing her written work. She’s penned some plays and edited a ‘zine called Cliterature. She also edited Live Through This, an anthology about women who use art to work through self-destructive tendencies. The book contains interviews from Nan Goldin, bell hooks, Inga Muscio, Kate Bornstein, Eileen Myles, and Annie Sprinkle. That’s a helluva dinner party.
Most of Oompa! charmed me. The songwriting is sharp, the melodies are catchy, and Chap’s band possess the sort of musical precision that allows them to really swing. I especially liked the self-effacing opening track “Blueprint for Destruction,” idyllic “Carolina,” reflective “Illinois,” spunky “Never Been a Bad Girl,” and the uncertain but defiantly optimistic “Boat Song,” which closes the album. “Failed Waitress/Failed Astronaut” may rank as my favorite track, as it turns the all-too-relateable subject matter of being college educated yet maligned by limited career prospects into a fun little jig. The slinky “Idiom,” which documents a clandestine hook-up with a sexy female stranger, is a close second.
Unfortunately, there are two songs on Oompa! that I can do without. “Little White House” brings to mind the nuclear family idyll espoused in Little Shop of Horrors‘ “Somewhere That’s Green,” which feminist-minded pop stars like Paula Cole critiqued in “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” I’m of the mind that Chap is doing similar work here, as the minor key and stately pace suggest compromised expectations. However, much like I felt with “Cowboys,” it’s hard for me to not hear this song as being condescending to its subject. I also cringe when I hear “Ze Paris Song,” a song about a tourist trying to fit in with her surroundings while eating baguettes and brie as she reflects on the tragic men who love her and eschews the Eiffel Tower. That Chap delivers it in a put-on accent doesn’t help matters. Much like “House,” I believe Chap is being critical here. The results just rub me the wrong way.
Yet despite those minor grievances, I’d still recommend Oompa! Give it a spin on the ol’ Victrola.
Earlier this week, I went to Music Monday at the Drafthouse. This week’s offering was David Bowie’s 1973 concert feature, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which shows the legendary conclusion of the artist’s breakout tour which went out with a bang at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was directed by D.A. Pennebaker who Dylanologists (snicker) might revere for shooting Don’t Look Back and synth-pop enthusiasts the world over can credit for capturing Depeche Mode’s 1988 Rose Bowl performance in 101. Stardust is a valueable historical document of the artist, his band (particularly guitarist Mick Ronson), and the last days of glam rock, a subgenre that would capture the imaginations of a generation of boys and girls on both sides of the pond.
While I think Pennebaker and his film crew constructed a few minor but unfortunate heterosexist images here (i.e.: showing teenage female fans in a clear state of religious/sexual ecstacy but not pointing the camera at any of the boys that assuredly were in attendance; downplaying the sexual dynamic between Bowie and Ronson’s on-stage interplay by framing Ronson’s extensive solos as a chance for Bowie to change costumes with the help of several female personnel), it cannot be denied that Bowie is a helluva entertainer and an assured diva candidate.
His interest in cultural provocation and reinvention impacted Madonna, who inducted the purposely absent icon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. His androgynous look and campy performance style paved the way for like-minded male artists like Prince and Adam Lambert, the latter of whom is apparently too hot for prime time because his orientation has turned queer subtext into text. And finally, his theatrically nasal voice and lyrical wordplay have influenced indie rock singer-songwriters like Dan Bejar of Destroyer to turn odes to girls and books into labrynthine pop.
Oh, and let’s not forget Bowie’s fantastic turn on Extras. I know Andy Millman won’t.
But all of this means nothing, as I’m going to be focusing on Lydia Lunch, a woman who probably has no use for Bowie or any of his accolades. Fitting in a way, as she’d probably have even less use for being called a diva. While I have no problem declaring her one anyway, I’m also pretty sure she’d tell me to fuck off.
For those unfamiliar, Lunch made her mark fronting no wave group Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Like many of that scene (who’d probably even hate to be referred to as such), this band constantly deconstructed what bands were, what songs were, what music was. Nonetheless, they made an upsetting, exciting scrawl.
And Lunch became imfamous for her confrontational vocal and performance style, something she also brings into her art and written work. Lunch doesn’t sing songs, create installations, make paintings, and write essays and poems so much as disembowel salf-fashioned, sometimes hilarious psychodramas about sex, abuse, death, drugs, and the grotesque implications of image construction. And filth. Always filth.
Acerbic and frequently bored, she’s a delightful addition to any music documentary. In fact, she practically saves 2004’s Kill Your Idols, Scott Crary’s otherwise messy attempt to outline the New York downtown scene from the proto-punk offerings of The Velvet Underground and Suicide to the ascendance of then-up-and-coming acts like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars. Here, she tells her version of the unhistoricizable subgenre that is no wave and strongly endorses against band formation and traditional instrumentation, suggesting kids pick up tubas instead of guitars.
Unfortunately, Crary feels the need to frame his subject in such a way that her heaving bosom is in nearly every shot, which contrasts sharply with the interview footage of Swans’ Michael Gira, which is almost entirely comprised of low-angle head shots. To further pronounce the Citizen Kane indebtedness, Gira’s shot in black and white. Lunch’s breasts apparently required color.
That said, I struggle with Lunch in ways akin to how I struggle with Patti Smith.
On the surface, they’re very similar. They’re both northeastern female underground music-art world figures who made their names blurring filth with art with persona. They also got their start working and aligning with men, sometimes causing me to wonder if they find a particular kinship with men over women, if music historians have overemphasized their work with men, or if they want to absence gender from any discussion of their work, except when they’re making the argument themselves.
Of course, Lunch has worked with a number of women, including Exene Cervenka, Kim Gordon, and Annie Sprinkle. And both women occupy interesting cultural positions that challenge gender roles that line up perfectly with divas. While both women actually employ collaborative processes in their work, the heavy lifting of their male instrumental counterparts is often relegated to the background to emphasize their singularity.
Of course, that I’m doing much of the emphasizing along with generations of like-minded commentators should not be ignored. Instead it should be challenged in terms of how we’re perpetuating the idea that women are better suited to the iconographic role of the solo artist and not toward a further understanding of art- and media-making’s inherently collaborative process and what roles women have, or choose not to have, in it.
Of course, both women seem to like being perceived as cults of personality, which tends to be the realm of the solo artist. Many women have followed, and continue to follow, in this path. We need to keep asking why. I’d like to start by offering up this question: could there ever be a collective of divas working together on a musical project?
Perhaps Lunch and Smith’s configuration as solo artists has something to do with their iffy relationships to feminism (the former instead aligning herself with humanism when she feels its necessary to align with any isms; the latter out-right dismissing feminism).
But one thing I respect about Lunch is her stubborn resolve not to be considered a historical figure. Or an artist. Or a musician. Or a poet. Or a writer. Or a woman sometimes and a human almost never. Because to her, the categorization that inevitably comes from creating or complying with the instation of identity markers create limits on people. Thus, she also resists the entire process of canonization. So I know she’d reject the impetus behind this blog’s assessment of the cultural import behind her personae and body of work.
But canonize I will because, as a feminist, I feel like we have to create a space where we value these sorts of contributions from women and girls. We should also contend the complexities of our art and its political implications. Feminism is tricky and slippery, and most exciting to me when it kind of hurts my head. So is the work of valueable, smart women who will wrestle free from any categorization. Even if I think they’re divas. Even if they think the entire construct (or any construct) is bullshit.