Tagged: England

Scene It: Elisabeth Welch and The Tempest

Torch singer Elisabeth Welch captured a wide fan base in the UK and stole the show in Derek Jarman's "The Tempest"; image courtesy of npg.org.uk

Following a screening of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark at my friend Karin’s house, I plopped down on my couch, strummed on my Mako, and watched Derek Jarman’s The Tempest. I’d been meaning to watch it for some time, as an acquaintance Tweeted about the scene that captured my interest and will comprise the focus of this post.

Before getting into my thoughts on Elisabeth Welch’s scene-stealing performance, I should preface by saying that I have a tentative grasp on Shakespeare. Like many of my generation, I was certainly aware of various contemporary adaptations following the commercial success of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which moved Jane Austen’s Emma down Rodeo Drive. Unlike many of my peers in media studies, I was not an English major at any point during my college career. I was a jourstory student (a portmanteau in circulation when I was an undergrad that refers to folks who double major in journalism and history). I never had to take any classes on Shakespeare, which I believe is a requirement for English students at UT. As an outsider, I think this is ridiculous, as contemporary literature has been responsible for numerous innovations as well.

But I have no problem with the Bard himself (or Christopher Marlowe, depending on what story we’re telling). In high school, I read Romeo and Juliet, horrifying my English major-Shakespeare enthusiast mother by highlighting passages in her hard-bound, gold-leafed complete works anthology. I read the regressive The Taming of the Shrew, own 10 Things I Hate About You, and played showgirl Lois Lane, who portrays Bianca, in a high school production of Cole Porter’s backstage musical Kiss Me Kate. We read Hamlet aloud junior year in English class. I later saw a woman play Hamlet in an Austin-based production early on in college, but decided against seeing Ethan Hawke’s slacker take on the doomed prince of Denmark.

I did my senior term paper on Titus Andronicus to the chagrin of my teacher, who deemed the play inappropriate and of lesser quality. I read the part of Celia As You Like It for theater class. I played Adriana in a high school production of The Comedy of Errors, which our director regrettably set as a tacky mash-up of 60s kitsch (Laugh-In meets Beach Blanket Bingo!). I liked Emma Thompson and hated Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing. I vaguely recall Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, as well as Shakespeare in Love (which time also forgot). I read Othello during college for, you guessed it, an English class. And I didn’t find the Henry V portions of My Own Private Idaho completely distracting.

I also have a tentative grasp on Jarman, having only seen Jubilee. I’m totally willing to get to know his filmography better, as I like how he juxtaposed classical imagery with punk elements. For me, his movies evince the work of a mutual friend at a party who’s charming, smart, arch yet cheeky, and has awesome taste. I’m determined to become besties.

The late, great Derek Jarman; image courtesy of vertigomagazine.co.uk

But Jarman is tricky, as I noted upon my screening of Jubilee. His work recalls a conversation I had with my friend Curran about Todd Haynes’s early work, and not for icky “hey, gay filmmakers!” reasons. Apparently, Haynes set out to queer his films in a number of ways. The most obvious of these was through foregrounding gay or queerable characters or putting ostensibly straight women in camp environments, configuring them as allies, or having them cede from the heterosexual marital unit. But Haynes’s key contribution to queer cinema was in challenging audience expectations, experimenting with both the formal and narrative elements of cinema to leave folks unsure of what they’ve seen. To that end, Haynes and fellow Queer New Wave director Gregg Araki are clearly indebted to Gus Van Sant and Jarman.

Todd Haynes; image courtesy of brown.edu

This brings us to The Tempest , a 95-minute adaptation of the classic play. I’ve never seen or read it, and frankly the movie didn’t help me gather much information. It’s about a magician named Prospero, who was to be Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda who are stuck on an island after his brother Alonso set them adrift for several years and became the King of Naples. The pacing and commitment to location — in this case, Stoneleigh Abbey — suggests a stagnant insularity from a life in exile. Prospero, the protagonist, is served by a spirit named Ariel, who helps to set right all of the familial discord.

Many old wounds seem healed, as the group set out to return to Naples, and Miranda marries her cousin Ferdinand. But the ending is evasive. In the final scene, Prospero takes it upon the audience to applaud for them in order to determine if they can leave. This makes it one of Shakespeare’s more ambiguous plays, which may have attracted Jarman to the material. At the wedding reception, a goddess appears. Here, she’s played by torch singer Elisabeth Welch in her final screen performance. Somewhat obscure in the states where she was born, England adopted her and she replied in kind by becoming a citizen. Like many chanteuses, she had a significant gay male following. Here she serenades the young couple with a peculiar song.

Yes, Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s 1933 standard “Stormy Weather” is strange in its anachronism. It’s also cryptic in its message, thus subverting the role weddings traditionally provide in Shakespearean comedies as a means of tidy resolution. This scene also reminded me of a wedding reception I attended where the band played inappropriate songs like The Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You.” Delivered in a clear, bright tone, Welch conjures up relevant imagery of turbulence while reflecting on lost love. Notably, she’s doing this in front a young, straight couple. Jarman plumbs wedding receptions’ camp potential and indicates the singer’s fan base by surrounding Welch with a chorus line of sailors, masculine figures long integrated into gay culture and iconography. For this perplexed viewer, it’s the stuff that dreams are made on.

GAGGLE: punk choirgirls

GAGGLE; image courtesy of emergingtalentawards.com

Last month, I mentioned that I started taking guitar lessons and hoped to incorporate my experience in chorus into a project that better reflected my interests in dance and post-punk. The Knife have recently expanded how I hear opera. But imagine my surprise when I was perusing this piece from The Guardian about the supposed lack of angry female music stars and read about an all-female British punk choir named GAGGLE. And I thought discovering post-punk female percussion ensemble like Pulsallama was exciting.

Amazing! I don’t know if this 22-piece ensemble has any inclinations to cross the pond, but I hope they make a stop in Austin.

Records that made me a feminist: Electrelane’s “Axes”

Cover to Electrelane's Axes (Too Pure, 2005); image courtesy of betterpropaganda.com

Recently, my friend Ivan posted a clip on Facebook of the late, great Electrelane playing “Bells” off their penultimate Axes at a Portuguese music festival in 2007. Since I’ve been mentioning the album’s influence on my feminist development for a while, let’s get into it.

"Don't let our British dandyism fool you -- we are Electrelane and we will melt your face off" (top row, clockwise from left: vocalist/guitarist/pianist Verity Susman, guitarist Mia Clarke, bassist Ros Murray, drummer Emma Gaze); image courtesy of blogs.villagevoice.com

I was already a fan of the group when Axes came out. I reviewed The Power Out for KVRX, perhaps helping in some small way to make “On Parade” a college radio hit.

I only had the pleasure of seeing Electrelane in concert once, but I really couldn’t ask for a better experience. They opened for erstwhile Mr. Lady labelmates Le Tigre at Emo’s right after my birthday in 2005. Le Tigre were fine, but Electrelane were a lightning bolt into my being. Simply put, it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a band so much in control of the chaos they were making.

One thing Electrelane demonstrated for me was the power that emanates from women playing music together. I’m not referring to the novelty of it, as I wish all-female bands and female instrumentalists in mixed-gender bands were more commonplace. I’m talking about women coming together collaborate on a creative project. I believe it to be a decidedly feminist act.

Collaboration is important and should not be devalued. Often women are singled out in music culture and are expected to work alone if they choose not to work with men. I’d argue that this is true in other professions as well. In their seminal book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards mention that several women discouraged them from writing the book together, as it would not be taken seriously. I think much of this is to do with the privilege given to sole (male) authorship, and having women abide by it — if we are to follow liberal feminist principles — ensures professional advancement. I also think it’s bullshit. There is nothing weak or compromised about working with someone on a project. In my experience, it only adds depth and nuance to whatever I’m working on. I also think it helps prove that women and girls can, in fact, be civil and work together rather than tear each other apart for individual advancement. Thus, female collaborations can be politicized acts. Modeling these working strategies in public is a politicized act too. It’s why Kristen at Act Your Age and I do it whenever we can.

Cover to Manifesta (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000); image courtesy of brooklynmuseum.org

Though I do think there’s something distinctively female about Electrelane, I don’t think it’s their sound so much as their approach to creating that sound. There’s muscularity to it, which is bolstered by precision. Being precise may not seem a rock ideal, but it’s how they work together as a unit, even when it sounds like they are in discord or riding musical tangents. It’s the sound of work. To my ears, it’s the coiled fist and dexterous fingers of women proving they can rock even harder and tighter than the men.

And there’s just something so empowering about seeing women work together so well. And while I love Sleater-Kinney and have seen and heard some of their remarkable concert footage, their shadow may be cast over bands like Electrelane who I feel don’t get as much credit for being such a tight musical unit. Lead singer Verity Susman doesn’t have Corin Tucker’s golden wail. Neither Susman nor Mia Clarke channeled Pete Townsend’s showmanship the way Carrie Brownstein did on stage. But that doesn’t mean that these women aren’t their peers. I mean, Emma Gaze is just as mighty a drummer as Janet Weiss. As far as I’m concerned, we should link these bands together more. Maybe put them on a bill together. That’d be a hell of a reunion.

Reunite, Sleater-Kinney! Share a bill with Electrelane!; image courtesy of pitchfork.com

At the time of its release, many critics noted that Axes was largely instrumental. This only seemed exceptional against The Power Out, which offered lyrics written in English, French, German, and Spanish. Indeed, their debut album Rock It to the Moon was scant on lyrics as well. Apparently Susman told the NME that this was much to do with lyrics making their compositions sound predictable and too resolved. While band members considered themselves feminists, they tended not to address their politics through lyrics (though “On Parade” is absolutely about same-sex desire, and their cover of “The Partisan” is meant to be read as a protest against the Iraq War). By creating the songs as instrumentals actually gave the band more room for sonic exploration. I’d concur and often think about how dispensing with lyrics can be used toward political ends.

Sure, lyrics convey information. They also give listeners easy, sometimes profound points of identification with artists. Lyrics can be mounted as evidence. They can also be ignored, though they shouldn’t be. But as valuable as words are, they can also be limiting. They can demystify. They can be too exacting, and therefore obvious. They can fall short of delivering the message they’re attached to as well. And sometimes putting them into verses and choruses and bridges can take away the words’ charm. Instead of telling the joke, they explain it.

Some vocalists have bypassed proper lyrics, opting for gibberish, lists, scat, sloganeering, or free association. Some musicians, like Electrelane, forgo words altogether at times, and I don’t think the decision to do so should be conceptualized as a devaluation of their verbalized ideas. Rather, I think we might be able to argue that systems of language can fail women and girls, both in their musical compositions and in the larger world of cultural interaction.

Also, sometimes talking about being feminists isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to lead by example. Show, don’t tell.

Electrelane showing, but not so much telling; image courtesy of myspace.com

Thus, they turned toward their instruments — which abide by the conventional, masculinized rock set-up, particularly channeling bands like Neu!, Can, and The Velvet Underground — to make loud, abrasive, abstract music that evolves and builds but never tends to arrive at full resolution (or “climax,” to use a masculinist term). Their compositions, and the deliberate stylistic choices they made toward repetition and dischord bring to mind Susan McClary’s seminal Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, which argues against the traditionally masculinized values of structure and resolution in canonical classical music and champions the hypnotic, dissonant, unresolved tonal quality of many female composers’ work.

In Axes, there are no proper choruses or verses. Some songs don’t even reach a proper theme. Others do, either to repeat it at length or vary it slightly with each refrain. A song will stumble upon a melody as if by accident, and then deny the listener a chance to re-engage with a familiar tune. The band has already moved on and will not be returning unless they feel like it. Nothing is fixed. It’s not taking the master’s tools to dismantle his house, but it feels pretty close to me at times. Re-enlisting veteran engineer Steve Albini after his work on The Power Out and recording together in one room domesticates their sound in surprising ways, and roughs up staid notions of female domesticity. Having Susman stab at her piano — once a symbol of proper female socialization — probably helps too.

This lack of emphasis on lyrics and hummable melodies can be really frustrating for casual listeners, especially those looking for the one single to latch onto. Electrelane doesn’t really provide it on Axes, requiring that you listen — and feel — the entire album as a total experience. This is a pretty audacious thing to ask a listener to do, particularly when an album can get cut up into mp3 files. It’s also music that doesn’t make for easy participation. There’s no place to shout “words and guitar, I got ‘em!” and thus no easy site of identification either alone with your headphones or with the crowd at the gig. The band doesn’t give many nods of recognition. But I think if you spend time with the album, you’ll find it. Maybe start with “Two for Joy” and work your way through “Gone Darker.” After that, stretch past to the end and let it play to the beginning. That way, you can listen to “Bells” over and over again.

However, I do propose a listening tactic for people struggling to get into this album: play along. If you have a guitar, pile it on top. If you have a flat surface to bang on, tap out a rhythm. And if you have a voice, sing along. Just because the songs are instrumental doesn’t mean they have to remain that way. Remember the feminist possibilities in collaboration and join in.

“What about a tuba?”: Lora Logic and the saxophone

One thing I like to stress when I’m co-teaching music history workshops to girls is that anything can be an instrument. Furthermore, anyone can be in a band. I think band geeks in particular should be in bands. After all, your friends probably need your musical expertise. So don’t be discouraged if you can’t shred on guitar, especially if you can wail on a saxophone. And before you throw Kenny G. in my face, let’s remember that Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen clearly believe that the sax is a rock instrument.

But few people made the saxophone as punk as Lora Logic (born Susan Whitby). Have you ever listened to X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”? Can’t call that easy listening.

When people talk about X-Ray Spex, they tend to focus on Poly Styrene, the band’s lead singer. And, to be fair, there’s a lot to talk about. Marian Said is of Somalian descent, the daughter of a diplomat, and later became a Krishna. When she fronted this band, she was a girl who still had baby fat, wore braces, and screeched songs about environmentalism, consumerism, conformity, and turning plastic and day-glo. Believe the hype.

But Logic deserves praise too. Though she wasn’t in the band for very long — she was out of the group before their debut, Germ Free Adolescents was released — she helped define their sound. Rather than shaping her instrument’s tone into lite jazz’s smooth lines, she squealed and skronked with it, breaking melodies apart with destructive glee. In my book, you can’t get more punk than turning unexpected instrumentation into something seemingly unmusical, then turning that into music.

Lora Logic and Poly Styrene; image courtesy of freewebs.com

Of course, other musicians of this period were approaching the saxophone in this manner — no wave pioneer James Chance of The Contortions chief among them. Many of these musicians were also influenced by free jazz legend Ornette Coleman, who began revolutionizing the genre during the 1950s. But there’s something distinct about Logic’s sound — reckless, bright, unpredictable, and pleasantly surprised by and content with the mess she’s making. This sensibility is evident in the work she did with Essential Logic, the group she formed with Phil Legg after leaving X-Ray Spex. It’s a sensibility I hope gets passed on to future generations of girls hoping to make a horrible, beautiful noise.   

Love love love Linda Linda Linda

The girls of Paran Maum

The girls of Paran Maum

I finally got around to rewatching Linda Linda Linda last week, a Japanese movie released in 2005 I saw for the first time last summer after several people told me “you gotta check it out, you’ll love it, it’s totally your kind of movie.” And it really is. In fact, it might be your kind of movie too (especially if you’re my friend Caitlin, and I’ve been meaning to watch this movie with you for over a year). A touching, feel-good movie about a group of teenage girls putting a band together for a school festival? It’s pretty much a crowd-pleaser, especially for feminist music geeks who like movies.

The plot is as follows: guitarist Kei Tachibana (Yuu Kashii), drummer Kyoko Yamada (Aki Maeda), and bassist Nozomi Shirakawa (Shiori Sekine of Base Ball Bear) have a band and are playing Hiiragi-sai, their school’s annual festival. They’ve got a great set list of covers from The Blue Hearts, a popular Japanese rock band. Problem is, their singer-guitarist has quit the band, leaving them down a frontwoman days before their gig. They need a replacement and are adamant about it being a girl. They decide on Son (Bae Doona), a shy exchange student from South Korea whose Japanese is shaky and has never sung in front of an audience before. They rise to the occasion, with a little bit of struggle and growing along the way. Might sound like familiar territory, but it’s totally delightful.

One thing I really enjoy about this movie is how rehearsal is central to the girls’ interactions. For one, the time and effort they spend in practive, is critical in any band learning how to play together and key to their homosocial interactions. While some movies might document a band’s progression in one “rockin'” montage, this movie devotes several scenes to the band’s improvement, as well as the frustrations and tensions that result from feeling like they’re not getting their sound right. In their first rehearsal, they muddle their way through The Blue Heart’s hit “Linda Linda,” only to giggle at how horrible it was before trying again. Later, we find the girls forced to practice quietly at Kei’s ex-boyfriend’s studio space well into the night.

I also enjoy their commitment to the band. While the girls do have ex-boyfriends and crushes, they choose to balance boys with other issues their band usually comes first. In a key scene, Son is asked out by a male classmate named Mackey at school. The rest of the girls look through the window of an abandoned classroom, watching their lead singer choose the band, and her friends, over some guy who happens to like her but that she doesn’t know.

Sometimes the band wears on the girls, and the movie reaches a climax when the girls have worked so hard that they collapse after an all-night practice that makes them late to their gig. Their ambitions sometimes eclipse reality, as is clearly evident with Kei dreams about opening for The Ramones while sleeping through much of the festival. Yet, their drive still gets them to the gig, with their talent ultimately ensuring a rousing success at the festival and the promise of this new band.

Kei Tachibana, future seasoned professional; image courtesy of cinemastrikesback.com

Kei Tachibana, future seasoned professional; image courtesy of cinemastrikesback.com

I do find the girls’ fandom of The Blue Hearts, whose songs they cover, to be quite interesting. For one, girls identifying with a fast, hard-rocking all-male rock band, while at no time talking about how cute certain members are, seems to suggest a wider range of possibilities for who can influence a girl. The band even goes so far as to call themselves Paran Maum, which is “blue hearts” in Korean (an indication of Son’s importance to the band). There’s a lot of talk on this blog about the importance of women and girls influencing one another in popular music. However, we shouldn’t short shrift what it means for girls finding their sound and voice through boys and men or ignore the progressive and possibly queer potential in girls identifying with boys. Like Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, and Sleater-Kinney before them, these girls don’t plug in and rock out to be with the band — they are the band and want to thrash just as hard as the boys.

Nozomi, Kyoko, and Kei help Son learn The Blue Hearts; image courtesy of cinemastrikesback.com

Nozomi, Kyoko, and Kei help Son learn The Blue Hearts; image courtesy of cinemastrikesback.com

And, of course, we cannot ignore the obvious queerness of an all-girl band who work closely together to perform a song clearly written for a girl from a boy and maintaining the boy’s words and intent. It’s where the movie gets its name and the band gets its purpose, after all.

As there are queer dimensions to the girls’ fandom, they also have an interesting relationship with fashion, ethnic identity, and music history, perhaps in some ways analogous to Mitsuko’s relationship to Elvis Presley and rockabilly fashion in Mystery Train. Kyoko rocks a Joan Jett-style mullet and weave punk fashion into their school wardrobe. She also shorten the length of her skirts, sport funky sneakers, and plays with accessories. Son and Nozomi opt out of fashion-plate status, feeling more comfortable in frumpy attire, while Kei prefers a more athletic, clean-cut look. In short, while they’re all required to abide by standardized dress, like many girls, they figure out a way to create and play with looks that better reflect their personality, and some are clearly influenced by rock music in constructing their identity.

Just as Paran Maum are influenced by The Blue Hearts, The Blue Hearts are clearly influenced by The Ramones. I don’t want to suggest that the Japanese cherrypick through relics and artifacts of bygone western pop culture because they are uniformly obsessed with American culture. For one, The Blue Hearts were active and popular in Japan during the late 80s and early 90s, in large part because they were heavily informed by classic British and American punk.

For another, The Ramones themselves had a similar relationship with their own American past, turning to surf rock and girl groups from the 50s and 60s. For them, while most 70s rock bands were trying to set a record for the longest organ solo, rock music needed the return of the three-minute pop song.

In addition, it’s worth pointing out that the movie itself has an interesting relationship with Japanese and American music culture via the presence of former Smashing Pumpkins’ guitarist James Iha, who is Japanese American and composed the movie’s instrumental tracks.

As this movie depicts a band’s need to improvise, make quick decisions, and embrace makeshift situations, encouraging girls to be independent thinkers, so to does it showcase ingenuity. A tremendous example of this for me is Son’s ability to find surprising rehearsal spaces like empty karaoke rooms in order to become more comfortable with her voice and the microphone. In a lesser movie, Son’s scene in the karaoke bar would come off as oppressively quirky. Here, I find it touching. We see a girl negotiating with a male employee over the room and witness her becoming increasingly comfortable, if not still a bit awkward, with her voice, an unfamiliar language, and a developing stage presence. That she’s doing it on her own, in a space she’s found for herself, seems as good an example as any of how girls have to be creative and free-thinking for the assurance of their own maturity.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen too many Japanese movies and have nothing more than a cursory, Criterion-approved understanding of Asian cinema, along with its influence and heterogenity. One thing that struck me is how much like a Wes Anderson movie Linda Linda Linda felt in terms of its reliance on long tracking shots, wide angles, deadpan humor, panoramic framing, and meditative pacing. That said, I hasten to add that Anderson has stated an indebtedness to the French New Wave and American directors like Hal Ashby, I’m assuming Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu left an impression as well. Having never seen an Ozu movie at the writing of this post (though I do have Good Morning at home), I can’t help but wonder if Linda Linda Linda is actually continuing its nation’s film tradition and that the only folks who’d argue an Andersonian influence are just Western viewers with a shallow scene of cinephilia.

I’m also not entirely clear about the nature of Japanese schools. I came through an underfunded, less-than-superlative Texas public school system. Thus, Paran Maum’s school seems like a tony liberal arts magnate where teenagers are given considerable support and resources for their artistic inclinations, thus implying that the students come from respectable middle- to upper-middle-class families. But I’m not sure if this high school is exceptional in Japan or an indication of the country’s to education and their status as an economic superpower. So while I initially feel the need to mention the classed dimensions of privilege that allow the girls the fine arts education and leisure time to form a band (instead of, say, take jobs or quit school to support their families), I don’t want to suggest that what I see as an American viewer is in accord with Japan’s classed realities.

That said, despite my unfamiliarity with Japanese culture and my clearly raced position as an American white woman, I felt the band’s ambition and spunk tremendously inspiring and universal for anyone wants to see girls tear it up. I rooted for them through their hard times and had a smile on my face when they plugged in and finally let it rip.

Like Kei, Im really glad Son is in the band; image courtesy of bateszi.animeuknews.net

Like Kei, I'm really glad Son is in the band; image courtesy of bateszi.animeuknews.net