Destroyer’s Kaputt came out last Tuesday. As a longtime fan of Dan Bejar’s main project, I’ve been pretty taken with it since tracks started filtering out late last year. My line about Destroyer is that it’s what English majors should be listening to instead of the Decemberists. That’s as much a glib comparison as it is a cheap shot against a band I actively dislike, especially since they have very little in common besides being led by a nasal-voiced front man with a love for big words. I will allow, however, that I’ve never understood the point of Colin Meloy’s lyrics. To my ears, it exists for its own sake and since I maintain that Meloy rivals Jay Leno as the public figure in possession of the most punchable jaw, I’ll interpret that sake as personal edification. Bejar could be accused of similar things, though his elliptical lyrics and prismatic compositions transfix me. Notice how vast “Rubies” is in its first half, only to drop into disarming intimacy. A symphony folds into a four-track recording. Staggering.
I’m interested in Bejar’s artistic evolution, particularly after Your Blues. Derided in some circles as “the MIDI album”–a reference to the antiquated musical interface used to provide much of the album’s background music–many found this stylistic departure from his guitar-based compositions disconcerting. The rockist panic informing such aversion is pretty funny to me. Your Blues ranks among my favorite Destroyer records and warrants rediscovery. It’s clear with subsequent releases that while he may not have been using successive albums to respond to previous ones, he was building on certain ideas. Your Blues hardly sounds like a departure in context. The most reductive connection between Your Blues and Kaputt is that he’s channeling another outdated era of pop music production–one Mark Richardson places between 1977 and 1984, at the height of soft rock, smooth jazz, and new romantic pop. But Bejar’s always been interested in toying with outre musical ideas. Destroyer’s shimmering guitar lines recall 70s AOR staples like Bread and America, so his attempts at something we might call ambient yacht rock shouldn’t come as any surprise. Also, as an Electronic fan, I’m tickled that the New Order/Pet Shop Boys/Smiths’ side project is one of the album’s main musical reference points.
But what does come as something of a (pleasant) surprise to me is artist Kara Walker‘s presence on Kaputt. I had the privilege of seeing her My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love exhibit in 2008 at the Modern in Fort Worth. It remains my most disquieting spectatorial experience. Walker is best known for recasting Antebellum-era silhouette cutouts in cinematic tableaux to reinterpret America’s ongoing racist history (she also gets a shout-out in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic”). Nightmarish visions of sexual violence and abjection twine with surrealist and sensual imagery that sneak up on you once you look past cultural associations with silhouette portraiture’s feminized gentility. That I saw this after looking at an Impressionist exhibit–and walking through the gift shop–at the nearby Kimbell Museum only put the vitality of the exhibit in sharper relief. There’s no way one of her murals could make it onto an umbrella.
Perhaps related to serving as a curator for Merge Records’ retrospective, Walker contributed lyrics to “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” so named as a reference to the proto-punk duo. She wrote several charged phrases onto cue cards and Bejar sang them, rearranging and embellishing some passages. It’s easily my favorite song on the record, though I’m disquieted as to why. Ann Powers recently offered some insights into their collaborative effort, noting their shared interest in appropriation. Bejar has been compared to Leonard Cohen, particularly his detached narration of hedonistic tales. Soft rock’s seductive qualities–the backlit production, the reliance on 7th chords–disquiet in their efforts to soothe and drip sophistication, especially when Bejar whispers lines like “New York City just wants to see you naked and they will,” “wise, old, black, and dead in the snow,” “All that slender-wristed, white, translucent business passes for love these days,” and “Don’t talk about the South, she said.” Kaputt also prominently features vocalist Sibel Thrasher. In the context of this song, her presence calls into question the role many black female vocalists held as background singers for artists like Simply Red.
Cohen also comes to mind when we talk about reinterpretation. Many folks who’ve heard “Hallelujah” might attribute Jeff Buckley, but the song originated with Cohen (actually, Buckley’s version is a cover of a cover, as he cribbed John Cale’s reading of it). So what happens when lyrics are drafted by an African American woman whose words are then reinterpreted by a white Canadian man frolicking in the studio? Who does it belong to? Frankly, I’m not sure. I’m inclined to rule that it belongs to both of them and to the listener. What I know for certain is that this song is stuck on repeat.
Welcome to a new decade, readers. I was wracking my brain for what the first post of the teens should be yesterday. It should be something substantial and prescient in big capital letters. But that puts a lot of pressure on a person. As a result, I backed away from my laptop and got a little bit of much-needed post-New Year’s Eve napping. I also burrowed deeper in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which I felt I needed to finish before I could think about anything else anyway.
But now that I finished the book and am heart-broken over tragic Laura Chase, let’s ease into my first entry of the new decade by writing about an album that came out in 1999.
This album came out my sophomore year of high school, but I didn’t listen to it until I was in college. I knew of Sleater-Kinney because magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin paid lip service to them. Later in high school, I heard some of their earlier hits on KTRU (you know, “Words and Guitar,” “Little Babies,” “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”). But I never really had my adolescent Sleater-Kinney feminist music geek phase like a lot of my contemporaries, probably because I was listening to Björk, Liz Phair, Cibo Matto, Erykah Badu, and PJ Harvey instead.
I would’ve made a little more room on my CD shelves, but I don’t actually remember seeing a Sleater-Kinney album in a record store until I was in college. The first cover I saw was All Hands on the Bad One. But the second one I saw was this one, and I’ve stared at it a lot more.
The Hot Rock is also my favorite Sleater-Kinney record, though The Woods and One Beat nudge for top ranking. Part of the reason might be that I felt like I discovered it. While I obviously hadn’t, I’d never heard any songs off this album until I was doing my own radio show. I wonder if this has anything to do with it being poorly received upon initial reception, as many bristled at the band smoothing over its once rawer sound (though I know at least one person who would disagree with that opinion). I also seem to remember some folks derisively referring to it as their “dance” record. But its dancability was a huge part of the record’s appeal for me.
It also let me know that they must be Joy Division and New Order fans. Listen to Brownstein and Tucker’s guitars on ”End of You” or “Get Up” and tell me that they’re not doing their version of guitarist Bernard Sumner and bassist’s Peter Hook interplay.
This was really important for me. New Order ruled much of my adolescence, along with Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Erasure, The Pet Shop Boys, and Electronic (Sumner’s side project with Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant and Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr). Before I heard The Hot Rock, I liked Sleater-Kinney fine but felt that their interests in classic rock like The Who and Led Zeppelin, while interesting in terms of gender, gave me little to relate to musically. But this album made me think, sing at the top of my lungs, and dance my ass off.
Speaking of dancing your ass off, feel free to listen to one of their last shows, courtesy of NPR.
Also, I gotta give the ladies credit for setting the stage for what was to come. By 2004, people wanted to give credit to bands like The Rapture for creating dance-punk. I think Sleater-Kinney beat them to it, and managed to sound less dated in the process. They also gestured toward a band that I think had a continued impact on the music of this decade. At the beginning of the decade, a lot of people thought the key indie rock influence was going to be Gang of Four, but every third band I hear these days swipes from either Joy Division or New Order. How’s that for prescient?
Okay, I think there’s some of Gang of Four’s clangy electric guitar on this album too. “Memorize Your Lines” is one example I’ll offer.
But I can’t think of this album without poring over Marina Chavez’s cover photo, studying these three tough, professional ladies. Brownstein’s hailing a taxi to drive them to some unforeseen destination that I always imagine is the gig. Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss haul their gear and glance furtively at something outside the frame, ready to protect the unit from any unseemly element that doesn’t recognize that they’re not with the band but rather, they are the band. Wherever they’re going, they’re getting there together and splitting the cab fare. It’s as strong a feminist message of band solidarity and as hopeful a symbol of the untraveled road as I can find, and a gift I hope to share with you readers as we all embark on a new year together.
As a means to enrich my interest in girl groups, I’ve been looking for literature on the subject. One book my thesis adviser recommended was English writer Charlotte Greig’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?: Girl Groups from the 50s on . . ., which covers the girl group era (roughly 1960-1964) from both sides of the Atlantic, as well as girl groups that predated the era and formed (and continue to form) in the wake of its legacy.
I liked this book fine. It’s a good primer for folks just getting into girl groups (I’d certainly assign the chapters on the Brill Building or Motown to an undergrad class on gender and music culture). It’s smart and celebratory yet critical of the gender politics of girl groups without alienating a reader not hip to, say, Judith Butler’s thoughts on gender performativity. Greig also employs her trade skills as a journalist, so there’s lots of neat and valuable first-person accounts from folks like Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich and members of the Marvelettes and the Velvelettes. And there’s lots of fascinating tidbits Greig throws in that could be spun into their own books. For example:
Did you know that American Bandstand started as a radio show on WFIL in Philadelphia, on the outskirts of town? Did you know that it became a television show because bored Italian American teenage girls from the neighboring West Catholic High School would hang out after school and start dancing to the records? Did you also know that existing within this group were class tensions that were easily reflected in girls’ particular clothes and hairdos? I certainly didn’t.
Perhaps unsurprising, but did you know that Brill Building songwriter/producer Ellie Greenwich worked with her husband Jeff Barry, who elbowed her out of songwriting and production credits because he assumed he’d be the breadwinner while she had the babies? They divorced.
Did you know that almost all of the girl groups Greig discusses (and/or interviews) failed to be compensated for their services? Perhaps unsurprising when you consider the larger context of the early days of rock music and its shady legal dealings with publishing and recording rights, but pretty important when considering the supposed “disposability” of girl groups.
Did you know that Reparata from Reparata and the Delrons (one of the best-named girl groups of the golden era) got her name from a saint? Kinda fascinating. I’d read an entire book on girl groups and Catholicism!
Did you know about that the role the British Invasion had in dismantling the girl group era was largely a myth? Many believe that English rock groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and their brethren were responsible for the demise of the girl group era (which is poor history, as you can see American acts like The Beach Boys, The Temptations, and The Supremes right up there with The Fab Four on the pop charts). Greig does well to remind her audience that groups like The Beatles were actually inspired by girl groups and covered many girl group songs. Instead, Greig attributes pre-mature folds of girl group songwriting factories like the Brill Building out of fear that the British Invasion would spell their demise.
Did you know that there were class differences between the girl groups at Motown? I certainly didn’t but, again, it makes sense. According to other groups like The Marvelettes, The Supremes were given unequal treatment at the record label because they were savvy, culturally-aware city girls. Other groups were comprised of country girls who didn’t grow up in Detroit and, thus, were not as hip or poised.
But these gems, which are often dropped without too much comment, speaks to my biggest problem with the book: it is simply too broad. And at just over 200 pages with a scant bibliography, the fact that she covers so much ground without digging deeper really left me wanting.
That said, I think this book does a noble job broadening the definition of what a girl group is. Greig’s principle mission, as she defines from the outset, is to dispense with the myth that girl groups were born in 1960 and died in 1964. She maintains that girl groups started forming post-World War II and are still forming and recording today (“today” meaning the late 1980s at the time of her writing).
She also argues that girl groups are not adherent to a particular genre, which, read alongside the Rhino girl group box set, seems very true. The girl group sound was actually not one singular generic entity but incorporated R&B, pop, soul, folk, and the blues. Thus, after the 1960s, when the girl group legacy endured, groups would revisit it while folding in reggae, disco, punk, funk, electronic music, and many other styles. And, as girl groups evolved, Greig argues that sometimes they became more politically minded. Particularly in the 70s, funk-based girl groups like Honey Cone tended to endorse a “black is beautiful” agenda.
And acts like LaBelle expanded how black could be beautiful by incorporating the (traditionally white, male) glam- and art-rock stylings of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. However, my partner is quick (and right) to point out that Funkadelic adopted a similar performance style at around the same time, so let’s view LaBelle and Funkadelic alongside one another.
Punk bands like Blondie and The Slits became more makeshift in their look and self-reflexive and parodic in their approach to addressing femininity and consumer culture in their songs. But I feel like Greig gives more focus toward Blondie, so lets look at The Slits more closely.
I do find it a little disconcerting that The Runaways, The Bangles, and The Go-Gos are largely broadsided in this discussion. If two of Greig’s principle concerns with girl groups are: 1) they tend not to have female instrumentalists and 2) they tend to be controlled by male managers and producers, it would have been nice to see her discuss girl bands who encountered and had (varying degrees of) success breaking free from male control.
This omission makes Greig’s inclusion of Vanity 6 and Mary Jane Girls a bit of a hard sell for me. Despite being multi-racial and (often celebratory and raunchy) advocates for sexual agency and pleasure, both groups were also formed and almost completely controlled by men (Prince and Rick James, respectively). As Greig points this out, I would have appreciated a broader context that I feel dicussing girl bands could have provided.
That said, I do think the inclusion of Bananarama is interesting, as they had a punkish, thrift-store edge and often linked themselves to the girl group era by covering song like The Velvelettes’ “He Was Really Saying Something.” I suppose this gets us into the dangerous territory of “wearing” and “trying on” race, but I’ll let you decide.
I also appreciate that Greig included hip hop in the discussion of girl groups, vis-à-vis Salt-N-Pepa, though fear that past lesser-known acts like Northern State, hip hop has historically favored solo artists to groups and has provided scarce resources for women, whether on their own or rhyming with friends.
I’d also be curious as to what Greig would say about groups from my youth like TLC, En Vogue, SWV, The Spice Girls and, during my high school years, Destiny’s Child, 3LW, and Dream. And of course, if we’re expanding girl groups to include punkier acts, I wonder what Greig thinks of Vivian Girls and Mika Miko alongside neo-retro acts like The Pipettes, as well as acts like The Pussycat Dolls who are, for better or for worse, one of the few integrated, multi-racial girl groups to achieve mainstream success since The Ronettes.
Again, all worthwhile endeavors; each in need of their own book for further inquiry.