Back in April, the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, KISS, Hall & Oates, the E Street Band, Cat Stevens, and Peter Gabriel at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In addition, managers Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham won the Ahmet Ertegun Award, a prize for music industry intermediaries that was renamed in 1987 when the Atlantic Records founder received the honor. The ceremony aired on HBO, a broadcasting decision that allowed musicians’ blue language and sprawling performances to remain intact and gave the channel an opportunity to implicitly remind viewers about their forthcoming Foo Fighters documentary series.
Musicians are eligible for induction 25 years after their first recording. This makes Nirvana the lone first-ballot selection of the 2014 class. Such developments are, at first blush, unremarkable. Industrial institutions—which are often conservative and populist by design—frequently play catch-up when they distribute awards. It’s widely understood that Al Pacino won Best Actor in 1992 less for his scenery-chewing turn in Scent of a Woman than for the body of work that preceded it. This is also often true for institutions that commemorate those efforts from a historical remove. Often, the Rock Hall will recognize one to three recording artists as soon as they reach that 25-year mark. A few peer acts may receive nominations before being filtered out and recycled for consideration on the next year’s ballot.
The remaining inductees suggest the slow evolution of the Rock Hall and raise a few questions for the institution and popular music history moving forward. First, what music is “worthy” of the mantle of cultural significance? In a recent conversation with Alex Pappademas and Wesley Morris about Saul Austerlitz’s indictment of poptimism in the New York Times, Grantland music critic Steven Hyden argued that the decision to induct hard rock enterprise KISS and blue-eyed soul duo Hall & Oates demonstrates criticism’s influence upon the music industry to revise and reappraise the merit of history’s bad objects, corporate artifacts, and hybrid outfits. Such sentiments were reflected in guitarist Tom Morello’s induction of KISS. He identified their status as critical poison while simultaneously claiming that their “real” position were as schoolyard heroes for generations of disaffected youth, many of whom went on (like Morello) to pick up guitars and form bands. The quartet reinforced these points in their acceptance speech.
Questions of worth reveal a lot about systems of power. Who bestows worth onto another? When is the beneficiary’s moment decided? These questions continue to plague the Rock Hall, which has a notoriously opaque nomination and voting process that is often legible as “whatever Jann Wenner likes.” A few inductees challenged the effectiveness of such deliberations. Daryl Hall noted that his group was the only “homegrown Philadelphia band” in the Rock Hall. “Now, I’m not saying that because I’m proud of that. I’m saying that ‘cuz that’s fucked up,” he continued before rattling off a list of artists that included Todd Rundgren, the Stylistics, the Delphonics, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and Chubby Checker (!). Later in the ceremony, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic would offer a similar, albeit less polemical statement when he introduced Joan Jett during their finale as an artist who should be in the Rock Hall. I would add Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon before and after I saw her sing “Aneurysm” with the band, a moment which Courtney Love deemed “the punkest performance, the one that Kurt would’ve approved of the most” in a Pitchfork interview with Jenn Pelly.
Here’s a more basic question: what is rock music? This is a concern the Rock Hall has been struggling with for several years. It’s the question at the heart of rock’s existence as a genre. During our viewing, my mother-in-law asked if Linda Ronstadt qualified as rock. I don’t know. Where do the blues, R&B, and country end? How is a genre distinct and how is it reassembled to create “rock”? White privilege is one answer. The hegemony of electric guitar is another. But, as Hyden pointed out, the Rock Hall is one of the few institutions that stills treats “rock” as a catch-all term for “popular music,” an antiquated notion held over from its founding in 1983. Hyden predicts that less rock acts will get inducted in the future. First, there are now no longer as many rock bands that have the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and U2’s mass appeal. Second, the Rock Hall historically ignores more obscure rock bands like Sonic Youth and the Minutemen, despite their influence. Third, since the 90s, rock stars’ industrial and cultural significance shifted to hip-hop, R&B, and pop artists. Kanye West is this generation’s Axl Rose.
What generic hybridity and historical revision suggest is that essentialist definitions of identity don’t hold and, for many, never did. In my more cynical moments, I often reduce Rock Hall inductions to “a lotta blonde wives.” But feminism requires us to care about blonde wives, regardless of whether one of them is Courtney Love. This raises another question: how does identity shape our historical understanding of popular music? At the very least, it makes us think about how rock music is a product of male vanity (Gene Simmons’ hair!). But when Michael Stipe gave a touching speech about Nirvana’s disidentification with the mainstream and their negotiated outsider status among “the fags, the fat girls, the broken toys, the shy nerds, and the goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky” in and beyond the historical context of a citizenry “practically dismantled by Iran-Contra, by AIDS, by the Reagan/Bush Sr. administrations,” it put Art Garfunkel’s bloviation at Cat Stevens and the condescending sexism of “Wild World” into stark relief.
I’m creating a binary I don’t entirely agree with. Rock Hall ceremonies are studies in pomposity, in overlong jam sessions and acceptance speeches, in hagiographies, in hot-air meditations on popular music as capital-a “Art” instead of sweaty traces of lowercase-f “fun.” But they also serve as evidence of industrial and interpersonal conflict. What does music do to workers? Bands like Blondie, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Led Zeppelin used the podium as a space to unearth past grievances around authorship and attribution. Members of groups like the Clash, the Beastie Boys, and Nirvana accepted their awards amid absence. Musicians like Peter Gabriel reinforced that “In Your Eyes” is an example of profound songwriting and an important collaboration, even though the singer lost his falsetto to age and work.
Since the Rock Hall represents music as labor, Bruce Springsteen inducting the E Street Band was especially poignant. In his speech, Springsteen reflected on negotiating his recording contract as a solo artist with his professional autonomy to hire “side men” who were collaborators with distinct skills, contributions, and artistic perspectives. He spoke with deep regret that organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons were not in attendance. Guitarist Patti Scialfa navigated being the musician who broke through the boy’s club, the subject of “Red-Headed Woman,” and a member of another family with Springsteen. He also recalled a tense conversation with guitarist Steven Van Zandt on the eve of his induction as a solo artist in 1999. Van Zandt wanted Springsteen to stand up for the band, claiming that Springsteen with E Street was the legend. But this issue remains unresolved, as the broadcast edited down the band’s acceptance speeches and played it as background noise during breaks in their “Kitty’s Back” performance. Side men and women still struggle for legibility, even as they’re being recognized by their industry.
This is my favorite question to ask of the Rock Hall: what artists are put in conversation with each other? I watch the ceremony for the pairings and the performances. Who gets to induct these musicians into the Rock Hall? Who gets to share the stage with them? I remember being disappointed when Anthony Kiedis inducted the Talking Heads in 2002. First, the Red Hot Chili Peppers front man couldn’t hang up his butt rock Lothario image for one night; he had to emphasize bassist Tina Weymouth’s hipster sex appeal over her contributions to the band’s omnivorous sound. Second, I’m not sure what the two groups share except for their (wildly divergent) relationships to funk. But even such facile connections interest me, because they allow us to consider popular music as an exchange, as well as what relationships the music industry values and what heritage really means. Who matters to music’s past and future?
The 2014 ceremony had several interesting pairings. Questlove’s Hall & Oates induction speech highlighted the duo’s regional influence on Philadelphia’s musical identity, the feedback loop between the white soul group and their predominantly black early fan base, and the Roots’ drummer’s amusing childhood associations with “She’s Gone” and its various musical and paratextual elements. Carrie Underwood sang alongside Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, and Stevie Nicks during a Linda Ronstadt medley that begged the question: “is this a VH1 Divas concert?” Underwood’s performance of “Different Drum” also underlined a productive tension between her “Country Barbie” image and the song’s commercial flirtation with Sexual Revolution-era proclamations like “It’s just that I am not in the market for a boy who wants to love only me.”
Much of the press coverage surrounding the ceremony focused on Nirvana’s grrrl germs performance. A friend made a perceptive comparison between it and the 2010 BET Awards’ all-female Prince tribute medley. In addition to opening up opportunities for female artists to reinterpret men’s musical contributions, both performances make tribute an intergenerational concern. Also, would Cobain have clung to Gordon’s silver wedges like Prince did after Patti LaBelle kicked off her heels while taking “Purple Rain” to church? Would he have a hand in the selection process, as Prince did when he requested that Janelle Monáe perform “Let’s Go Crazy”? Would he bristle at homage’s patriarchal implications?
It was great to see Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and Pat Smear share the stage with Jett, Gordon, St. Vincent, and Lorde. I wish that there was more of interaction between the women during the medley, but I liked that Jett, Gordon, and Annie Clark accompanied Lorde on “All Apologies.” I was also moved by Love’s engagement with them as a spectator. On “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Jett nailed the ellipses, vague mumbling, and weird cadences of the song’s self-conscious teen-speak. Originally, I thought Gordon should’ve done “Polly” or “Rape Me,” but “Aneurysm” allowed the group to acknowledge Incesticide’s legacy and avoid misrepresenting Gordon’s erotic menace as a vocalist. St. Vincent’s take on “Lithium” was strong, but it also demonstrated that Nirvana’s deceptively primitive songwriting can limit a musician as accomplished as Clark. The cryptic imagery and discordant bridge on “Heart-Shaped Box” would have given her more to play. Lorde—whose presence I anticipated after Ann Powers argued that Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s mainstream elaboration on “young female voices finding themselves within a forest of electronically generated sounds” made her “the Nirvana of now”—may be the only pop star of her generation who can convincingly sing “I wish I was like you/easily amused.” Lorde approached it as a put-down, but she may connect more with it later as an expression of need. It’s both.
Such collaborations allow us to consider what the Rock Hall has become and what it could still be. It was exciting to see four women reinterpret men’s work. But we still have yet to fully challenge rock’s hegemonic whiteness. What if Tamar-Kali was there to perform “On a Plain”? I thought about Mariah Carey’s Hole fandom and imagined how the organization could break down boundaries of gender and race by providing space for artists to celebrate each other across musical genres. It raises one last question: who will share the stage with Lorde if she gets inducted in 2038?
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.
I’ve been at a conference all day, listening to media scholars volley and bandy about ideas and concerns, as well as research and methodological questions related to television comedy. Though fascinating conversations were forming around me all day (I fumbled through a well-intended but unformed question too, because I make myself participate in these conversations), I was distracted by some sad news my partner imparted to me as I was waking up: Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore are separating.
As someone who has no personal investment in marriage, it might be odd that I would react to news about the split in this way. Though I disavow the wedding industry and the societal privileging of married couples, nor treat monogamy as a sacrament, I do like to see couples make it. I was sad when the Gores announced their divorce and am pulling for Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith to work it out.
Part of why this news hit me so hard has to do with projection. The move to Madison and transitioning into a life in the academy presents its own challenges. But my stepbrother was killed in a car accident this past summer, sloughing his mortal coil just shy of his 30th birthday and leaving behind a wife and baby daughter. I am still processing my grief over the loss, and keep returning to Avey Tare’s Down There for catharsis (a musical selection he would have hated). My mom’s best friend’s ex-husband passed away this month as well. In addition several friends back in Texas are planning weddings, returning to school, having children, and throwing birthday parties. I’m not lonely in Madison. I’m making friends. And between course work, class prep, administrative meetings, and writing and editing responsibilities, I don’t have time to be lonely. But while I love the work I’m doing, it’s hard to not have the time to reinvest in old friendships.
Recently, a few marriages dissolved within my friend group and, given the circumstances, I especially ache for the women in these partnerships. This causes me to reflect on my own partnership. My partner and I celebrate our eight-year anniversary next January. He is incredibly supportive of me and my professional aspirations. He also has his own projects, and I am incredibly proud of his contributions. But it’s hard to work through twelve-hour days and then come home and reconnect when you’re exhausted. It’s also challenging to expand our friend group beyond people in my program, which I hope doesn’t create any strain. But partnerships of any sort require tremendous attention and investment. Folks also change over time within them. In a 27-year marriage, both spouses evolve into different people. The challenge then becomes evolving with one another and not turning into enemies or more often strangers, which is precious and rare.
Gordon and Moore were married a year shy of my entire life. I will not speculate foul play, though I reserve the right to be disappointed in Moore if he takes up with Peaches Geldof. What most resonated with me about their union was that it was a demonstrably feminist marriage. Both partners voiced the importance of consensus, mutual respect, shared parenting responsibilities, equality, and balance. They also work together in a band, and thus constantly reconcile the band’s needs and their individual artistic inclinations. Gordon also had to deal with sexist assumptions about her husband’s instrumental prowess and routine dismissal of her musical contributions, even though she possesses one of rock’s most evocative voices. A few of my friends sustain romantic partnerships with professional colleagues. Such relationships are possible, but require compromise, attention, and negotiation.
Sonic Youth plan to finish their tour. For selfish reasons, I hope the band stays together. If they continue to create interesting, vital music, I want them to push on. There is some precedence for Gordon and Moore’s current position. The White Stripes, Quasi, Smashing Pumpkins, and Fleetwood Mac continued making music despite members’ romantic dissolution, though none of those groups had a high-profile couple with Gordon and Moore’s marital longevity. But I would be just as happy if the pair moved on to other endeavors. In 1988, artists Marina Abramović and Uwe Laysiepen ended their long-term relationship by meeting each other in front of the Great Wall of China after walking great distances. Once they saw each other, they said goodbye and continued their long journeys walking in opposite directions. Perhaps Gordon and Moore will do something similar in South America next month. If they do, it’s been a good run.
Greetings, everyone. I wish I could have attended tonight’s Girls Rock Camp Houston showcase, but Act Your Age‘s Kristen and I were fortunate enough to teach our music history workshop to the campers last Friday. We also got to meet the organization’s director and volunteer base, as well as see some of the girls rock in rehearsal. Here’s what I took from the experience.
1. Always trust your co-facilitator. Even if she’s going through some potentially major changes in her life, trust that it doesn’t mean your friendship or professional relationship is over. A door may close, but it doesn’t mean a window won’t open. Give her space. Believe in her. Believe in what you’ve accomplished together. Remember that you’re both invested in the radical potential of female friendships.
2. I know how to change a tire and put on a spare, even though it never came up on the trip. I’m a 27-year-old feminist. C’mon.
3. I learned how to navigate parts of Houston I’ve never been to before. I had a great co-pilot of course, but I’m incredibly proud of this as I never drove around in Houston growing up because I didn’t have a car and it’s a difficult city to navigate.
4. Always take your hostess up on the offer to meet the director and some of the volunteers at the local bar (in this case, Grand Prize). Do this even when you’re tired and nervous and a little smelly from the road. Bonding time with GRC ladies is always important. Doing it over shots while debating the merits of feminism and Kim Gordon’s musicianship, chatting about body hair, and discussing M*A*S*H‘s depictions of race relations make you forget the stink of a long drive.
5. Never underestimate moms. They may volunteer for the organization and, in your case, sit in on your workshop and provide feedback. They should be as much a part of this as the cranky third wave generation putting this together.
6. Holding the camp at a university has its advantages. Technology was not a problem, though a temporary blackout threatened to derail our plans.
7. Sometimes the girls can be a handful. This was actually our first workshop where we had problems keeping the girls focused and talking out of turn. Thus, don’t underestimate the value of having counselors interspersed within the aggregate and always request it if they don’t do it automatically, as younger girls may need another adult to monitor them. But don’t let minor disruptive behavior distract or discourage you. Take a deep breath, remain calm, and never ask to be taken seriously. Demand respect by embodying it, and hope that the girls are learning by your example. You rock.
8. Observe what other workshop facilitators do and how they conduct themselves around the girls. Pay particular attention to the ones who make their living as teachers, as you lack certification. Listen to what the girls say during those workshops as well. Always be receptive toward what you can learn.
9. Never let taste determine what you think a girl musician will do, as you will always be suprised. The girls may say declare unequivocal love for a variety of pop female vocalists, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be bands with two keyboardists and no guitarist that make spooky music that blows your mind. At each showcase I’ve been to in Austin, I’m reminded that the bands who perform have more ideas than about 95% of the local bands I’ve seen. This creativity amongst girls is without a geography. It exists everywhere.
Congrats, Girls Rock Houston. Thanks for letting us share your first session with you, good luck in the summers ahead, and feel free to call if you want us to rock out with you again.
Let’s start this post with a bit of name-dropping, since the subject of this entry is a master of the form. When I interviewed Jessica Hopper during GRCA’s SXSW day show, I asked her who she wanted to see. The answer that stuck in my mind was Hole.
For one, her sentiments echoed other folks I spoke with during the festival, including members of Girl in a Coma and Jessalyn at Brazen Beauties, who identified front woman Courtney Love as a musical influence and feminist role model. For another, Hopper’s reason was interesting. She talked about how Love remains one of the few women in rock who is as challenging and uncompromising as some of our dynamic male rock icons. Given the performer’s age and resilience, her trademark queasy combination of feminine excess and supposedly unladylike rage still enthralls many fans. It’s why many of us watched her recent episode of Behind the Music.
I’ll admit that Hole was not on my must-see list during last spring’s festival. This is largely to do with the fact that I tend to avoid most band reunions. I didn’t see The Stooges or My Bloody Valentine when they came through Austin, and I’m not especially interested in seeing Pavement this fall. It’s not that I don’t like these bands. It’s more to do with the disappointment I feel in trying to capture something from the past that can’t be replicated. I missed these acts during their heyday, and I’m not interested in watching them trundle out their hits to an oversized crowd who may have also missed them the first time and now have the luxury of downloading their back catalog. That Love wasn’t playing with any of Hole’s former members — especially co-founder/guitarist Eric Erlandson — seemed to exacerbate matters.
However, the flaw in my argument is the presumption that the act in question doesn’t have new or relevant material to perform. Regardless of what people think of Nobody’s Daughter, it is a new album with a sweet cover that’s consistent with Love’s preoccupation with the dehumanizing aspects of conventional femininity. I’m not certain of the album’s immediate relevance, as the tracks I’ve heard are slightly better than the ones offered on Love’s disastrous solo foray America’s Sweetheart. I also wonder if her following stretches from Gen Xers to younger fans who are as enthusiastic to hear new music from her as they are to discover Hole’s first three albums. I’d imagine that this sort of activity is taking place.
But the real triumph of Love continuing the band seems to rest in the affirmation that maturing female members associated with Generation X still hold cultural relevance and refuse to leave. Love and fans in her peer group have carved a space for themselves in cheap red lipstick. This seems evident in VH1’s decision to use her story to relaunch its pioneering series, which premiered last Sunday. Clocking in at two hours, the episode is itself unremarkable. It hits on familiar plot points and ultimately flatters the subject by glossing over more controversial matters. What was noteworthy about the episode was the suggestion that VH1 was embraced its network status as MTV’s older sibling, acknowledged its target audience, and assumed that Love’s story would speak to its viewers despite many detractors who are appalled that the musician would have the audacity to continue making music.
I should acknowledge that I owe Love some things. Live Through This, an album that got a few of my friends through their awkward teen years, came out the spring before I started middle school and I adored it.
In my post on 120 Minutes, I explained how that program offered me a site of identification at a time when I felt like a complete outcast. Love helped me embrace my fringe status. Her tattered dresses, smeared make-up, visible acne, and barbaric female yawp were a revelation to me. I remember the first time I heard her voice crack when she screamed “what do you do with a revolution?” in “Olympia.” I would later learn that the song was against the homogeneity of the riot grrrl scene.
Like many of my peers, when I was ten, chubby, shy, and unpopular, I really needed to see and hear another strange female music geek with brilliant comedic timing own and confront people with her outsider identity. I needed to see someone else assert themselves successfully in such a public arena to know that I could do it for myself. It’s still pretty incredible to me that she was a pop star at any point, but I’d be fine with more pop icons making out with their female band mates on Saturday Night Live and throwing compacts at Madonna on live television. These antics really puts the scandal of Disney hellcat Miley Cyrus’s ear tattoo in perspective. It almost makes me forget that I was disappointed by how conscious and pedestrian her performance as Althea Flynt is in Miloš Forman’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt upon review, though I feel biopic sprawl is just as much at fault for my dissatisfaction.
In college, I’d get deeper into riot grrrl and take women’s studies courses, seminars, and self-defense workshops. But Love was the catalyst for how I would later define and practice feminism. In fact, on my way home from watching the Behind the Music episode at a friend’s house, a strange guy waiting for a bus tried to get in my car when I was at a stop light. I’d like to think that the poised, decisive manner in which I protected myself and the strength I found to drive home without freaking the fuck out has much to do with Love’s example. Because while Love has contradicted herself many times in her career, she’s always been a survivor.
Much emphasis is placed on Love’s scrappiness in the episode. The majority of the first hour delves into her nomadic childhood, her turbulent relationship with her mother, her delinquency, her stints in group homes, her lack of familial stability, and her need for fame, which manifested itself in the formation of various bands, appearances in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and Straight To Hell, and multiple stints working at strip clubs. This transitions into the formation of Hole, her marriage to Kurt Cobain, the couple’s drug abuse, the birth of their only daughter Frances Bean, the trauma the couple experienced when the child was taken away from them following Lynn Hirschberg’s Vanity Fair profile on Love which alleged the subject used heroin while pregnant, Cobain’s thwarted battles with depression and addiction, her reaction to his death, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff’s fatal heroin overdose, and the ill-timed release of her band’s breakthrough album.
I was pleasantly surprised that the documentary evinced candor on Love’s clear insecurities with her body and in her relationships with men. Despite her proclaimed assurance, Love is clearly obsessed with patriarchal approval. Her obsession with plastic surgery and dieting is evident, though only explicitly discussed by the subject. She’s particularly hung up on her nose, now winnowed down to a fine point that gives her voice a high nasal timbre. Given her recent comments that she’s good in bed because she’s ugly made poignant these insecuritie, along with Melissa Silverstein’s recent podcast about plastic surgery in Hollywood. Love’s desire to fit in with conventional glamour was always evident, suffusing her kinderwhore look with tension. I was pretty bummed when she let the red carpet dictate her look.
Love also has a long-standing habit of latching onto men for a sense of self-worth, though I did appreciate her left-field admission that she ended her relationship with actor Ed Norton because she couldn’t bear the thought of losing her identity as “Courtney Love” in order to become the wife of an A-list celebrity. In addition, I liked that Celebrity Skin‘s softer accessibility was born out of Love’s refusal to do a widow record. Of course, she wouldn’t have formed the band without discovering Patti Smith and Pretenders’ Chrissy Hynde, two artists who instilled in her the power of rock music.
I was curious as to how Love’s notions of celebrity may be antiquated in the wake of a collapsed music industry and fragmented market. While she’s still notorious on Twitter and occasionally gets in the tabloids, I’m of the mind that her ideations of the superstar died with Michael Jackson, which also contributed to his demise.
Finally, I’m interested in what or whom the episode chose to omit, as it primarily features interviews from friends. Hole drummer Patty Schemel is the only member who speaks on the band’s behalf, and nobody talks from Love’s ill-fated Bastard side project. None of Nirvana’s surviving members are present, undoubtedly because of their ongoing fued with Love over publishing rights. I found including footage of Love hanging out with Sonic Youth noteworthy, as there were no interviews with band members. Kim Gordon’s insights would be especially useful, as she co-produced Hole’s caustic debut Pretty On the Inside. However, Gordon believes Cobain was murdered, and veiled references to Love’s potentially amoral quest for celebrity in songs like “Becuz” suggest that no love is lost. I remember hearing in the commentary track for The Simpsons‘ “Homerpalooza” episode that Love was originally cast in the episode, but one unnamed act who was in the episode refused to participate if she was involved. I can’t help but think it’s them.
I’m also curious where Frances Bean is in this episode. After the events surrounding her birth are recounted, she’s largely kept to the periphery and never speaks on her own behalf. It could be an attempt to protect the girl’s privacy. Yet at the risk of pathologizing her mother, I’m of the impression that she’s often eclipsed by Love’s actions and behavior. Mirroring Love’s childhood, Frances was also shuffled among family members, left to her own devices, has a strained relationship with her mother, and wants to pursue music. So I’m fascinated by the cult of Courtney. I value some of her musical contributions and applaud her continued efforts. But let’s root for Frances too.
Five days ago, Chloe Angyal wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown entitled “Miley Cyrus < Betty Friedan: On the Search for a Feminist Pop Star.” Springboarding off The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman’s assessment that Miley Cyrus’s new single and accompanying music video for “Can’t Me Tamed” is empowering for girls, Angyal chided some critics’ need to claim female celebrities who project even the slightest sense of self-empowerment as feminist. She also called into question whether or not feminism and pop culture can ever really go together. As a fan of the site (it’s on my blogroll), I of course read it and RTed (follow me @ms_vz).
I’m right with Angyal on most of this. I had just read Rachel Fudge’s essay “Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power is Bad for Feminism” that a Girls Rock Camp Austin volunteer forwarded, so I was certainly in the right headspace. The line “It’s tempting, but ultimately misguided, to try to make feminist mountains out of girl power molehills” particularly spoke to me. Also, I was also frustrated by Wakeman’s piece, as it assumed that pop music and MTV were the portals through which all girls take their cues, thus absenting girls who don’t have access, reject these offerings, or perhaps find some middle ground. Also, I thought the clip was a blatant attempt to reinvent a girl pop star into an “adult” artist who equates edge with wearing lingerie and smudged eyeliner.
However, I took issue with some of Angyal’s argument. Kristen at Act Your Age left a great comment outlining the lack of actual girls’ perspectives in feminist criticism. She also pointed out that pop music is still often assumed as the bad object against which punk and riot grrrl fought and superceded, a bias we confront in our work with GRCA by trying to dialog musical genres with one another in our music history workshops. But I thought I’d add a few additional concerns. Originally, I was going to post them as a comment to the article. However, it’s been nearly a week since the article was published — a lifetime in the blogosphere. Plus, I figured I could work through some of these issues here and reassert this blog as a communal space for feminist exchanges about music culture.
1. Angyal’s major critique seems to be less about who gets labeled a feminist role model and more toward who does the labeling. To me, she was lobbing her complaint at writers who want to argue the progressive powers of pop music with minimal consideration for enlightened sexism, capitalism, division of labor, corporate enterprising, branding, media saturation, and taste engineering cultivation. I say “here here.” But then I also do this sort of analysis myself. What’s more, I’d like to think I do it on both sides of the mainstream/underground divide, where the lines continue to blur. I know I don’t have the clout or name recognition of more prominent feminist bloggers, and perhaps I’ll cultivate it with time. But I’m here, and so is this blog.
I think Angyal might also be frustrated with how quick writers are to jump on Tweeting trends and topics that guarantee high SEOs. I may be projecting, as this is something that bothers me and I rebel against. Often, I find myself recalling and revisiting bygone or obscure texts to argue their historical merit or dialog them with the present. If I do write about current popular texts, I don’t have much interest in covering them quickly at the expense of evaluation time. I’m not sold on the idea that trends = cultural relevance any more than I am that Sleater-Kinney is inherently better than Nicki Minaj. While I have upon occasion covered a person or topic that was popular and got me some hits, I only did it when I felt I had critical insights to lend. Thus, it can be frustrating when I get traffic because a bunch of people were Googling Megan Fox, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Taylor Momsen, or Miley Cyrus, as has happened to Kristen. On the one hand, hits are great. But those figures are bloated and misleading and may misrepresent my work, because this blog has only sporadic concern with what’s of the moment. But when it does, I hope I treat it with a consistent critical rigor. After all, there truly is no perfect text.
2. Since there is contention between mainstream and indie culture, I’d like to point out that the matter of identifying as a feminist is just as much a concern in the underground and on the fringes of music culture as it is under the mainstream’s spotlight. As a feminist music geek who tends to root for the underdog, I’m often faced with the reality that many of the artists I love — indeed, many of the artists who pointed me toward feminism — don’t identify as feminists. Björk and PJ Harvey don’t, nor does Patti Smith. Rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and many others don’t either, though for reasons that perhaps speak more to racial exclusion, as feminism tends to be a white women’s domain. There are many artists I like whose feminist politics I don’t have a grasp on, including forward-thinking women like Kate Bush, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, and Janelle Monáe.
There are also artists who do identify as feminist who give me pause. Courtney Love has used feminism to validate her outspoken persona and rail against industry sexism. She has also used it to justify getting plastic surgery, an argument that I take issue with because it obscures class privilege, ingrained beauty standards, and weakens the political potential of choice. Lily Allen has employed the term at times, though her actions and behavior at times suggest that she extols the supposedly feminist virtues of being a brat. Lady Gaga is only starting to claim any identification with feminism. Even confirmed feminists like Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Le Tigre, Gossip, and Yoko Ono — who I admire a great deal for their musical contributions and political convictions — should be subject to scrutiny and considered as individual feminists rather than as a monolithic representation of who a “good” feminist is.
Also, rather than considering pop music as an endpoint or part of a binary, it should be dialoged with other genres and mediums. Recently, Anna at Girls Rock Camp Houston dropped me a line asking about my thoughts on new criticism against Lady Gaga from Mark Dery and Joanna Newsom. As their criticisms questioned her supposed edginess, called out her obvious indebtedness to Madonna, and argued over a lack of musical songcraft, it immediately recalled recent sound bites from Michel Gondry, M.I.A., and Grace Jones deflating the pop star’s artistic inclinations.
I’m of two minds about these detractors’ comments. On the one hand, I still agree. In the year since I first posted about Gaga, I’ve essentially gathered greater nuance for the pop star while still arriving to the same conclusions. Save for a few hits (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Bad Romance,” “Monster”), I still think her music is fairly boring and could have much more political bite than it actually does. I thought her American Idol performance of “Alejandro” was overblown. It’s also a fair point to bring up how Gaga lifts from other cultural texts, just as Madonna has throughout her career. And like Amanda Marcotte, I think there are lots of other interesting female musicians doing work we should be following. I mean, is it really a crime not to find Gaga interesting? Does Gaga have to be the female savior of pop music? Can we not look elsewhere? Also, in the cases of Newsom, M.I.A., and Jones, do we have to assume that their criticisms are just examples of female cattiness?
Yet something about these comments smacks of the idealized notion of art vs. commerce, with Gaga imitating one while supposedly embodying the latter. So, I call bullshit, because it’s not like these musicians and this video director don’t also dabble with both. Also, how would they speak of, say, Karen O, another female musician who makes femininity Marilyn Manson grotesque. Would they simply sniff that she did it before Gaga? Would they give her the point because she’s mocked art stars while also being one?
In short, feminism is tricky from all sides. It’s not one thing and it’s never perfect.
3. Finally, I follow commenter Tasha Fierce and take issue with Angyal’s supposition that Betty Friedan is an exemplar of feminism. She penned The Feminine Mystique and founded NOW. She also helped position feminism as a middle-class, college-education, white ladies’ game. She also referred to lesbian separatists as “the lavender menace,” though later recanted. Thus, just as I don’t want Miley Cyrus to be the ambassador for girl power, I don’t believe we should have one (straight, white, middle-class, adult, cisgender, able-bodied) female represent feminism. Let’s encourage discourse, even at the expense of comfort. Consider me a willing participant.
Before I went on vacation, Kristen at Act Your Age told me that PBS was going to show Dream of Life, a 2008 documentary by Steven Sebring about Patti Smith. Then yesterday, as I was sorting out my house, my friends Jacob and Melissa reminded me that it was going to be on later that night. It should be noted that I received reminder messages from them within the span of five minutes. I’m fine with being the music geek friends send these sorts of notices to. Thanks, everyone.
First, a disclaimer. I’m not a Patti Smith fan. What I mean by that is, I don’t know Smith’s music very well. Several of my friends got to know her through her music, perhaps developing their feminist and/or queer identities as a result. I’m sure the same could be said for readers of this blog I don’t know personally. This isn’t to say I’m not open to listening to her work. I’m just not very familiar with it. If there is interest in subsequent posts wherein I listen to her albums in chronological order and document my thoughts about it like Carrie Brownstein did with Phish earlier this year, show me the way.
Next, a confession. I haven’t until recently been interested in listening to Patti Smith’s music. While I haven’t listened to Horses in its entirety, I am familiar with her, and the ways in which I’m familiar with her give me pause. Here is why.
1. Each time I see a documentary where she is discussed, the opening chords to “Gloria” fade in and a bunch of musicians wax pretentious about how her music melded the sacred with the profane, or that she was not a musician but a poet and I get pissy. Not because of the song, but because of the purple prose being recited over it. I actually hadn’t heard the song in full until I was well into college.
2. With some exception, these superlatives tend to come from men: Glenn Branca, Thurston Moore, Legs McNeil, Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and Michael Stipe are but a few names. I remember Alice Bag talks about her influence in the supplemental feature about women in punk in Don Letts’s Punk: Attitude and I know riot grrrl pioneers like Kathleen Hanna were inspired by her, but the praise mainly comes from the men. Established or well-regarded rock and roll dudes. Legends, if you will.
3. In some of the things I have read on Smith, she wasn’t very kind to the women and girls around her. Blondie’s Debbie Harry talks about how dismissive and unfriendly she was during their CBGB’s days in Please Kill Me, an oral history on New York punk collected by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. It was also reported in Mark Spitz and the late Brendan Mullen’s L.A. punk oral history We Got the Neutron Bomb that Smith was nasty to The Runaways after they tried to visit her backstage after a concert, leaving a baby Joan Jett particularly crushed. Now, oral histories are tenuous at best and Smith is not asked to comment about any of this. Also, Bebe Buell speaks favorably of Smith in Please Kill Me. Kim Gordon has a prolonged friendship with her as well. But this, coupled with the fact that she doesn’t identify as a feminist makes me feel weird about her status as a feminist rock icon.
4. Add to this the very apparent sense of malecentric hero worship Smith evinces and I feel really weird about her. While I like that she likes Maria Callas, The Ronettes, and Christina Aguilera, I don’t get the sense that she had much use for women. She cut her hair to look like Keith Richards. She learned to hail a cab by watching Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back, a man who would later tune her guitar. That same guitar was a gift from Sam Shepard. Tom Verlaine apparently has the most beautiful neck in rock music, though her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5 possessed something altogether else. Pablo Picasso made inimitable art until Jackson Pollack created paintings out of the drippings from Picasso’s Guernica. Willem de Kooning’s paintings made her want to touch the art in museums, an “offense” she gleefully committed on more than one occasion.
In addition, Smith’s most well-known for covering songs by men, reclaiming Them’s “Gloria,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” and Nirvana’s “About A Girl.” Of course, she redefined those songs by singing them as a man without changing the male-female pronouns or amending them to be about Patty Hearst or Kurt Cobain. And, as I’m sure my friend Curran would be quick to point out, Smith often aligns herself with queer men like Arthur Rimbaud, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Michael Stipe. Curran may also posit that this makes Smith more closely as a transgendered person, which makes sense given Smith’s commitment to androgyny and sexual ambiguity.
However, I’ve always felt that Smith’s indebtedness to men has aligned herself at with a more liberal feminist, at times heterosexist view of how women play the game of rock (i.e., play the man’s game). While I get how others believe that she’s expanded how women can look and sound in rock, to me it still feels more like she’s abiding by male definitions of performance and sound rather than redefining it for female artists, a group she may not in fact feel that she is a part of.
To be clear, I don’t need her to be feminine. I’d like it if she were a feminist, but I’d be happier if it just seemed like femaleness wasn’t so burdensome or powerless or safe to her. However, this is how it’s often seemed to me that Smith views or once viewed my sex category, and with it my gender, and this has always been our wedge. I’ll let her state her case.
Of course, this outlook may evince some potential transphobia on my part. I also might be privileging binaristic norms around gender and sexuality instead of championing fluidity. This nagging feeling keeps me coming back to Smith as an idea. But maybe I should get to know her better. And with that, the documentary.
I’ll be blunt again. For the most part, I found this documentary to be indulgent yet slight. Smith of course is the subject, but I was disheartened by how much she seemed to dictate the narrative (I find it just as frustrating when men do this, though I did like when Smith ordered filming to cease backstage before a performance). I would have liked more context.
I also would’ve liked to have been surprised by it more. I didn’t learn much about the artist or the person behind her mythology. I also didn’t get much of a sense of time and place. I could deduce the passing of time by watching her children mature. I understood when we were watching her tour the Trampin’ album because she was speaking out against the Iraq War and the Bush administration. I gather that dancing on the beach in Coney Island with Lenny Kaye was fun, but don’t know why it needed to be shown in slow motion. I know that losing her husband and her friend and long-time collaborator was traumatic because she said so. I don’t know how she felt about the loss of her parents during the 2000s. I saw that she loved playing with her guitarist son Jackson, who toured with her, but I know very little about her daughter Jesse past a gender-bending pubescent trip to the bathroom and, later, a carriage ride with her mother. And past some previously captured interview footage of Smith, I don’t know why she left mundane New Jersey to become a punk poet in New York, though I think I can imagine why.
That said, there were little snatches of Patti Smith the daughter and the artsy gender rebel that I enjoyed and did help me get to know her better. Seeing her eat hamburgers at her parents’ time-warp home. Seeming both proud and embarrassed when her father admits that he can’t go to his daughter’s concerts anymore because he lost his hearing at the earlier gigs he did attend while wearing one of her concert t-shirts. Trading chords with Shepard. Reminiscing about eating hot dogs in Coney Island with Maplethorpe. Holding up her children’s baby clothes and proudly declaring their cleanliness and her refusal to use bleach. Talking about how wanting to touch original paintings in museums is easily satisfied by making your own art. Playing woodwinds with Flea on the beach and swapping stories about how expertly both musicians can pee into bottles while traveling. And seeing her performances and hearing her words, her songs. I wish I was given a timeline to find out when all of these works were created, but I’m content to find out for myself. Let’s start by revisiting “Redondo Beach.”