Tagged: Michelle Obama

Add Girls to the Front to your shelves

Riot grrrl artifact from Experience Music Project's Riot Grrrl Retrospective; image courtesy of grrrlsounds.blogspot.com

First, an admission: like several feminist friends in my age group, riot grrrl didn’t make a profound impact of me until college. I was 10 in 1993, the year Sara Marcus claims as pivotal for the movement in her book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. I was moving away from Mariah Carey and getting into the Pet Shop Boys. Riot grrrl was first on my radar through mainstream distortion in the pages of Spin and in the Spice Girls’ defanged “girl power” message. In high school, I started listening to post-riot grrrl bands like Sleater-Kinney, who were in rotation on the local university radio station. But it wasn’t until hearing about bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear in women’s studies courses, reading essays that connected riot grrrl with queercore, and programming a weekly show as a college deejay that I came to have any relationship with the movement. Marcus’s book is a great reintroduction and a valuable entry point for folks who have only a cursory knowledge of riot grrrl.

Author Sara Marcus; image courtesy of riotgrrrlbook.com

I especially appreciate that, despite the book’s monolithic title, Marcus incorporates the shared experiences of many girl participants. Riot grrrl tends to be defined by its adult-aged bands, with Bikini Kill and Bratmobile representing the movement. But many teenage girls were inspired by these bands. Some formed ‘zines and bands of their own, like Girl Friend founder Christina Woolner and Heavens to Betsy’s Tracy Sawyer and Corrin Tucker. Not all of their contributions were preserved or recorded, so the book’s intervention is all the more important. Some of these girls also came from working class or single-parent households or did not attend college. Furthermore, while much is made of the movement’s Pacific Northwest origins and identification with liberal arts colleges like Evergreen, Marcus is quick to refute essentializing class assumptions. Riot grrrl’s class heterogeneity becomes more pronounced when Bikini Kill and Bratmobile relocate in Washington D.C. and contend with the hardcore scene, which was primarily peopled by diplomats’ children.

Bikini Kill, sisters (and brother) in the struggle; image courtesy of jessalynnkeller.squarespace.com

Cover of Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman's Girl Germs 'zine -- the duo would also found Bratmobile; image courtesy of wikimedia.org

By dialoging band members’ and movement participants’ shared experiences, Marcus challenges the notion that riot grrrl was sustained exclusively by white, middle-class, college-educated women. She also points out the movement’s aspirations toward queer inclusiveness were complicated by the efforts of predominantly straight or bi-curious cisgender females. Previous interpretations of riot grrrl represent it as a celebration of white girls challenging gender politics in a vacuum. Marcus points out how some girls created ‘zines, formed organizations, chaired panels, and created conferences challenging feminism’s inherent white privilege, racism, heteronormativity, and class politics, often causing contention and defensiveness from within.

Thus, I also liked reading that riot grrrl was an imperfect, discursive movement comprised of many conflicting opinions, belief systems, and identities. Despite third wave feminism’s investment in the fragmented female self, so often riot grrrl is depicted as a halcyon period for a then-nascent third wave. While it’s sad to read about in-fighting and rivalries, it’s refreshing to read differing opinions on philosophies and movement imperatives. As someone who’s participated in collective and politically-minded non-profit organizations, it seems a more honest representation.

Furthermore, the presence of male oppression from within informs riot grrrl in interesting ways. Riot grrrl formed in response to the right wing’s attack on feminism’s political gains as well as the cultural silencing of incest, sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, poor body image, and low self-esteem. It also opposed punk and hardcore’s exclusionary, homophobic, and misogynistic tendencies, best symbolized by the mosh pit, and implemented “girls in front” or “girls only” policies at shows. So it was really interesting to read about how bands like Fugazi aligned with riot grrrl, but were less willing to cede control over their audience. In 1992, Fugazi and Bikini Kill played a Supreme Court protest. Frontman Ian MacKaye bristled at the idea of sharing the bill out of concern that the event would be misunderstood as a concert. He was also unable to reign in the aggressive inclinations of his predominantly white male fan base, and blamed the women in the audience who defended their space in the pit.

Marcus also does a good job addressing controversial figures like Jessica Hopper. Now an established music journalist who penned The Girls’ Guide to Rocking, Hopper was associated with the St. Paul/Minneapolis scene and came to notoriety as the girl who sold out riot grrrl by speaking out of turn to Newsweek, which hit newsstands in November 1992. Many riot grrrls, who already witnessed message dilution in other mainstream publications, interpreted her interview with Farai Chideya as an attempt to further her own media career. By her mid-teens, Hopper launched a successful ‘zine, Hit It And Quit It, interviewed Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, and corresponded with Courtney Love. Marcus honors the opinions of girls who knew and felt betrayed by Hopper, but also tries to represent the writer’s viewpoint as well.

Girls to the Front suffers a sad ending, as many believed fell riot grrrl. Like Hanna, some riot grrrls were strippers but had difficulty negotiating theoretical rebellion against capitalism and conventional sexual politics with adult entertainment’s regressive market imperatives. More of them disbanded local chapters after internal struggle and lagging membership. Bratmobile disbanded after a major blowout on stage. Girl love is revolutionary, but it can be hard to sustain.

Marcus concludes by outlining riot grrrl’s cultural contributions and documenting the late-90s trend of commodifying girlhood and the mainstreaming of post-feminism. She mentions riot grrrl-influenced bands like Gossip, as well as the influence figures like First Lady Michelle Obama hold. I would like more of a discussion about the cultural significance of Girls Rock Camp, as well as Ladies Rock Camp. The many-armed non-profit is carving space in several cities in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, and is catching on in countries like Argentina. Founded in Portland, Girls Rock Camp counts Hanna, Bratmobile’s Erin Smith, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, and Gossip’s Beth Ditto as champions. The organization is perhaps the clearest indication of riot grrrl’s influence. It certainly borrows from riot grrrl’s reliance on regionalism to spread its larger message. More importantly, it provides space for girls’ actualization and self-empowerment through music and DIY media production, which were riot grrrl’s main imperatives. As both organizations are still quite young, I understand wanting to wait and see what these organizations will become. Also, they should get their own books.

Splash!, a band formed at the Bay Area Girls Rock Camp and a part of riot grrrl's legacy; image courtesy of alwaysmoretohear.com

However, Marcus does something valuable with Girls to the Front. In representing riot grrrl’s imperfections and contradictions, as well as its relevance, she argues at once for its historical significance while challenging how we understand it. Make sure to check it out when it hits stores in October. Maybe it’ll convince you form a band with your best girlfriend and kick off a new revolution.

Joanna Newsom and Rodarte

Joanna Newsom in Armani; image courtesy of wmagazine.com

So W just dropped news that Joanna Newsom has a proper follow-up to Ys and the subsequent Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band EP, the particulars to which twentyfourbit.com elaborated, all of which I know about thanks to GRCA’s Emily Marks.

Now, I’m not sure why it’s taking her so long to make another full-length, which I’m assuming Drag City is releasing. Some might speculate that her hiatus might be due to her relationship with SNL‘s Andy Samberg. And while I have no problem with giving Samberg a good feminist hard time, I’m not entirely sure if her absence can be attributed to playing house. With recent appearances in trendy fashion magazines like W, much as she did earlier in her career with publications like PAPER, I think it might have something to do with playing dress-up.

The boys of Lonely Island with their dates at the 61st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards; image courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Yikes! I realize those last two sentences might have infantilized the singer, something choruses of music critics do any time they call her voice “child-like.” What I mean is that Newsom has been mingling in the fashion world. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a long-haired, full-lipped, leggy white lady recording artist can get designers to take notice. However, I find it particularly interesting who she’s syncing up with, how this might help construct her image, and what all this might suggest about the commodification of indie. Because she’s not just putting on Armani. She’s friends with Rodarte, waxing pretentious about the collaborative process and wearing their designs to in-the-know, downtown fêtes. 

Joanna Newsom representing Rodarte's Fall 2008 collection; image courtesy of obsoleteantics.blogspot.com

Sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who created a label honoring their mother’s maiden name, Rodarte, have made quite a splash in the fashion world and on the red carpet over the past few years. They seem like cool ladies with whom I’d definitely want to watch some movies. Yet I’m still on the fence about their decidely avant-garde design aesthetic. I almost like a lot of it, but it gets way too drapey and twee at times — particularly when factoring in the cost.

Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon‘s dresses for the 2009 Oscars were vivid shades of pink and blue, but the knotty bodice patterns and woozy detailing made me a bit nauseous. Similar situation with the dress Tilda Swinton wore for a premiere of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – loved the color palette, wanted to rip off the sleeves. And in theory, I like the Rodarte sweater Kristen Stewart wore in last January’s Teen Vogue, but in actual practice, I have a hunch that I could find some moth-eaten angora free of charge if I just brave the family attic. 

Cute sweater or is Kristen Stewart just wearing the empress's new cardigan?; image courtesy of flickr.com

That said, I like that Rodarte work with retailers like the Gap and Target to make their clothes more accessible and affordable. And they have made some killer, coveted items that I’d snap up if I had the money.

Reese Witherspoon's minty fresh Rodarte minidress; image courtesy of girladvantage.com

Michelle Obama wore a 2007 Rodarte dress to meet with Queen Rania in April 2009; image courtesy of paulrfrost.blogspot.com

But Newsom and Rodarte seems an interesting match. Though musicians pairing up with designers is nothing new (see also: Cher and Bob Mackie, Madonna and Jean-Paul Gaultier, Courtney Love and Christina Aguilera representing Versace, M.I.A. representing Marc Jacobs), something seems pretty perfect with the alignment here. Perhaps with the three ladies’ talk about collaborative processes, we’ll get to see a Newsom-designed collection, as we did with Chloë Sevigny’s 2008 collection for Opening Ceremony.

Chloë Sevigny models her own designs for Opening Ceremony, convincing this blogger that t-shirts can be successfully paired with strapless dresses; image courtesy of stylefrizz.com

This pairing might be read alongside what commercial ventures Newsom has entertained. In an era that has seen many independent artists rely upon advertising and television shows to get their music heard, Newsom’s music has been featured in several places. Often she has elected that her music be used in documentary work. However, The Milk-Eyed Mender‘s “Sprout and the Bean” was featured in Victoria’s Secret’s Dream Angels ad campaign. Note that her voice is not heard in this spot.

Or it could be that a dress is just a dress. Which is fine too. But while I’m excited about hearing Newsom’s new album, I’ll have two labels on my mind when it comes out: Drag City and Rodarte.

Fashion convergence, xoxo: Anna Sui, Target, and Gossip Girl

So, before I go into my post about Anna Sui’s Gossip Girl-inspired Target collection that launched last summer, I’d like to first announce something totally superfluous but strangely encapsulating. I am down to the dregs of my Anna Sui Dolly Girl perfume. My mom bought it for me several birthdays ago and it is a delightfully flirty fragrance that I only wear when I need to feel publically sexy. If I went to your birthday party, going-away party, theme party, house-warming, wedding, or any other BIG EVENT, this is what I smelled like before I got sweaty and/or drunk. Priced at $35 and lasting over several years, it has definitely served me well.

Anna Suis Dolly Girl; image courtesy of fragrancex.com

Anna Sui's Dolly Girl; image courtesy of fragrancex.com

Delightfully flirty and publically sexy seems to be Gossip Girl‘s chief M.O. The CW teen drama, created by O.C. mastermind Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, is now in its third season and based on the popular tween book series of same name by Cecily von Ziegesar. It focuses on the soapy, bitchy, frothy excesses of a gaggle of teenaged haves and (to a lesser extent) have-nots and their parents in New York City. Importantly, its wardrobe is in essence a principal character, largely due to costume designer Eric Daman’s keen eye for established and emergent talent in contemporary fashion. The show has launched once-fledging talent like Blake Lively, who has appeared in pictorials for Vanity Fair and on the cover of Vogue. It has also scored previously unknown actresses like Leighton Meester into a spokeswoman deal with Reebok

Vogue cover girl Blake Lively, February 2009; image courtesy of bryanboy.com

Vogue cover girl Blake Lively, February 2009; image courtesy of bryanboy.com

The show has proven itself bit of a taste-maker. How else to explain why this “silly” teen soap (with a considerable hip twentysomething following) got the coop of having Christian Dior’s Miss Dior Chérie advertisement air for the first time during the “Bonfire of the Vanity” episode? Oh, and let’s not overlook who directed the spot — Ms. Sofia Coppola, herself a hipster icon, fashionistaerstwhile clothing designer, sometimes design collaborator, and friend to folks like Marc Jacobs and, yes, Anna Sui.

BTW, I remember this really interesting feature Seventeen did back in 1993 with Sui, Coppola, and friends Zoe Cassavettes and Donovan Leitch, but cannot find it on the Interwebz. If curious, please contact your local library. When you find it, note the crocheted shawls, chokers, matte lipstick, and other hallmarks of early-90s fashion they’re wearing that are now making a comeback. 

Bringing publications like Seventeen into the discussion make inevitable the show’s fanbase and target audience, who tend to be pre-teen and tween girls. Thus, there’s probably a fair amount of aspiration that can be marketed toward (a euphemistic term for “exploited”). And while I feel kinda icky about the proceedings, especially since Sui’s Gossip Girl-inspired togs tend to be mid-range ($30-$70), I at least can recognize that these clothes are more affordable than, say, Louis Vuitton, or even some of the garments sold at mall retailers like Express, Banana Republic, and The Limited. 

The market-driven desire to dress like a gossip girl suggests a particular cultural power, perhaps one not since seen since Carrie Bradshaw became a game-charging sartorialist (and Sarah Jessica Parker became her). The Gossip Girl cast’s on- and off-screen wardrobe (and, in Taylor Momsen’s case, the merging of the two) has also provided fodder for fashion blogs like Go Fug Yourself, much in the same way that producer Josh Schwartz’s name-making franchise The O.C. Gossip Girl has even taken its fashion-plate status toward self-reflexive ends. In the season two episode, “The Serena Also Rises,” a fashion show seating chart appears on screen, with Fug Girls Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks’s names on it

Thus, the show, like other Schwartz-helmed programs, is known for its intertextuality. So it seems fitting that a television show — particularly one as creative as marketing and distributing itself in an increasingly digitized and convergent media climate that young women have been especially adept at traversing, would try marketing its show through clothes. It’s a move with a bit of recent history (Grey’s Anatomy for New York & Company) and a bit of current cross-promotional play (Mad Men for Banana Republic, which Jonathan Gray has critiqued).

But having Sui team up with Target to design for Gossip Girl it is interesting, and smart in terms of the show’s investment in fashion, both as an industry and as a bridging cultural practice. Like Gossip Girl, Sui’s work has been characterized by her ongoing interests in popular music. Gossip Girl‘s music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas defines the show by its of-the-moment “indie” sound, which in turn gets referenced, idolized, and critiqued at length by the show’s characters in much the same way it was on The O.C.. Likewise, Sui is often inspired by popular music — particularly 60s garage rock, 90s Britpop, riot grrrl, and mod culture — and incorporates the attitude and aesthetic into her designs. 

Actress Emma Stone wearing Suis mod babydoll dress, designed with Blair Waldorf in mind; image courtesy of thestarnews.info

Actress Emma Stone wearing Sui's mod babydoll dress, designed with Blair Waldorf in mind; image courtesy of thestarnews.info

Both the show and designer have a preoccupation with the 90s — for the show, it is an era that commercialized alternative rock and, for hip dad and former rocker Rufus Humphrey, it is an albatross. Sui might feel similarly about the era, which was her zenith period and was not repeated in the 2000s when peer designers like Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and Stella McCartney made the career move to be house designers for Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, and Chloé, respectively. Sui instead followed in the footsteps of designers like Betsey Johnson and continued to cultivate her brand from a slightly lower tier, opening boutiques around the world and continuing to create new collections, but largely outside of the elite world of haute couture. Likewise, Gossip Girl is not a big player on television with colossal ratings. It’s not on a big-four network or on a prestige cable channel like HBO.

(Note: Obviously, if one wants to read into Sui’s professional position her marginalized status as one of the few Asian American female clothing designers, there is ample room for this. Admittedly, I have not done so here, but would be very interested and encouraged by what others might have to say on the matter.) 

But both designer and show have cultivated their kitschy, hip brands toward less-travelled though no-less-populist ends. Thus, it makes sense that Sui would link up with Gossip Girl (apparently, her favorite television show), and that they would link up with Target, a big box chain with affordable prices, a cooler and more ethical socioeconomic reputation than Wal-Mart, and a relationship with designers like Isaac Mizrahi, as well as M.I.A.’s former roommate Luella Bartley and Michelle Obama’s go-to guy Thakoon Panichgul who, like Sui, have created limited edition collections for the retailer.

Now, having already discussed the problematic nature of fixing a price range and marketing a clothing line toward an intended audience in such a blatant way, I’d like to close by casting a critical eye toward the clothes themselves.        

A dress for Blair, Jenny, Serena, and Vanessa; image courtesy of mahoganyglam.com

A dress for Blair, Jenny, Serena, and Vanessa; image courtesy of mahoganyglam.com

One issue I have with the collection is how focused it is on dresses and skirts. While supposedly each outfit is designed with a particular gossip girl style in mind (specifically Serena’s boho chic, Blair’s classic glamour, Jenny’s runway punk, and clearly cast-aside Vanessa’s vaguely ethnic intellectual look), all of these items can easily be paired together because of their overt, unproblematized femininity.

Another issue, and one that Target faces with all limited collections, is whether big-name designers cater toward in-between or fat body types. The clothes’ sizes range from extra-small to extra-large, leaving out women and girls who are bigger. What is more, while these clothes appear to be well-made, many of the designs in Sui’s collection seems to principally flatter a long, lean body type. As a short, curvy girl who wears a size four (which, if we recall The Devil Wears Prada, is the new size six), I would have to belt pretty much all of these dresses so they wouldn’t look like gunnysacks on me (that is, the ones that aren’t so short that they would fail to flatter my thickly proportioned thighs). And don’t even get me started on how stumpy I’d look in a pair of checkered, bowed pedal pushers. NEXT!

I reject the pedal pushers on the right; image courtesy of fashionlooks.onsugar.com

I reject the pedal pushers on the right; image courtesy of fashionlooks.onsugar.com

So, while interesting in many other ways, I feel like Sui’s collection suggests that only certain shapes and classes get to be gossip girls when it comes to fashion. I don’t think we needed Target to tell us that, but I hope it inspires other women and girls to either make the styles their own or, better yet, start picking up the needle and thread and putting their own outfits together.

“Jammin’ on the one”: The Huxtables’ musical contributions

All together now with the Huxtables; image courtesy of brixpicks.com

All together now with the Huxtables; image courtesy of brixpicks.com

So, The Root is covering The Cosby Show and its cultural influence to celebrate the NBC series’ 25th anniversary, in a manner similar to how they reflected on Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Now, once again aware of the problematics of my identity with regard to fandom, I will admit that growing up a white girl in the rural suburbs of Houston, I totes wanted to be in the Huxtable family. I would have been fine being one of Rudy’s friends (I was probably closest to the shy, chubby white boy). Specifically though, I aspired to be like Clair. Admittedly a glib comparison, but maybe young women and girls of many different racial and ethnic identities have ascribed a similar aspirational status to our first lady.

Many folks have rightly critiqued the show for its idyllic, comforting, and unrealistic depiction of the charmed Huxtable clan against the racially charged climate informed the social dimensions of AIDS, drug addiction, incarceration, wage gaps, single-family incomes, education, and other major issues that many believe were ignored, if not outright caused, by the Reagan administration. And these are, for the most part, valid critiques. Indeed, Kanye West spoke and continues to speak for many people when he says “I ain’t one of the Cosbys, I didn’t go to Hillman” in “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’.” I’d even go so far as to point out that this was true for many prime time families by the end 0f the 1980s: there’s not a college degree between the Connors, the Bundys, and the Simpsons. Assuredly, the classed dimensions of racial inequality were in Bill Cosby’s mind, even going so far as to originally conceptualize Clair as being a plumber of Dominican descent and later, pairing up again with Phylicia Rashād on Cosby, making their characters decidedly more working class. 

And I don’t think we can talk about The Cosby Show‘s influence without mentioning how no other show with an African American principle cast has since followed its legacy. Fledgling networks like FOX and, later, the WB and UPN, would incorporate a wide range of prime time programming featuring African Americans, though often met with middling to low ratings, short life cycles, and diminished corporate interests in representational politics as networks began to flourish.  

And of course, we can’t discuss The Cosby Show without mentioning Dr. Cosby’s troubling history with partiarchy and sometimes limited view of what is considered respectable mediated representations from/of African Americans. That said, while I empathize with Lisa Bonet’s reported run-ins with Cosby, I’ll hedge that Angel Heart does look fucking terrible.

That said, The Cosby Show was a considerable cultural milestone and a damn entertaining sitcom that did an admirable job widening the scope and depth of representation for African Americans on prime time network television. And they were really funny.

I’d also like to add, echoing Erin Evans’s piece on the show’s theme song, that The Cosby Show broadened the scope and depth of African Americans’ contribution to music. Jazz, blues, rock and roll, hip hop, gospel, classical, Afrocuban, Broadway. It’s all there. “Kiss Me” was discursive and malleable, changing arrangements, historical moments, and generic arrangements from season to season.

Sometimes these contributions were peripheral, much like many of the paintings that hung on the home’s walls — Vanessa’s Michael Jackson poster most immediately comes to mind.

In the Huxtable home, Ellis Wilsons Funeral Procession co-existed with posters of Michael Jackson; image courtesy of stylecourt.blogspot.com

In the Huxtable home, Ellis Wilson's "Funeral Procession" co-existed with posters of Michael Jackson; image courtesy of stylecourt.blogspot.com

Sometimes these contributions dialoged with other musical forms associated with traditionally coded “white” culture (my mother would always giggle when opera tenor Placido Domingo sang to Clair; I’m always reminded of my mother in episodes involving Rudy’s teacher, played by Broadway’s salty Elaine Stritch, now recognizeable to many as Mother Donaghy on 30 Rock).

And sometimes music’s shifting racial dynamics back-and-forthed within one body, a point I’d argue is evident in Olivia’s Village coffeehouse performance of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” This is a noteworthy song selection, as punk legend Legs McNeil argues in Don Letts‘s documentary Punk: Attitude that it is one of rock’s most political songs and an influence to punk’s stripped-down, anti-hippie, confrontation style, as it’s a song about personal freedom (to single in on McNeil’s comment, start the clip at 7:33). That said, I’d like for none of to step on Olivia’s face. Thanks.

Let’s close with Olivia, and extend this discussion of musical moments to focus on the ladies, both within the Huxtable family and within music culture writ large. In addition to Olivia’s performance, let’s remember Vanessa’s struggle with the clarinet, enforcing that not all black people are inherently musical. Let’s remember Clair singing with Stevie Wonder. Let’s remember Lena Horne and Miriam Makeba. Let’s remember Rudy jubilant lip-synced performance of Margie Hendricks’s part in Ray Charles’s version of “Night Time Is the Right Time” for her grandparents anniversary. And let’s not forget: don’t step on their blue suede shoes.

Musicians that made me a feminist, by Caitlin

If Michelle Obama’s arms deserve the names “thunder” and “lightening,” than Janet Weiss’ should be called “nuclear” and “atomic.” The drummer for Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Quasi, and the now defunct all-woman power trio Sleater-Kinney, has long been admired as one of the top female percussionists in the rock world for the sheer power and complexity of her beats, and nowhere is that clearer than during her live performances.

My first encounter with Janet Weiss appropriately coincided with my inaugural indie rock show in Portland, Oregon. At this point, I’d never heard a single Quasi track, nor had I learned much about Sleater-Kinney. At the age of fourteen, my younger brother’s tastes belied his years and rural upbringing, and I at sixteen benefitted from his interests. Still too young for our protective parents to release us into the wilds of downtown Portland, my dad and another relative accompanied us to the legendary Crystal Ballroom for a show headlined by Quasi. Overzealously, we arrived at the time shown on our tickets and planted ourselves on the floor next to the stage. We sat through noisy opening acts before Janet finally emerged with Sam Coomes, Quasi’s other half and Janet’s former husband.

Janet Weiss doing double-duty with drums and vocals

Janet Weiss doing double-duty with drums and vocals

While part of the power of this Quasi show derived from its status as a “first” experience, Janet’s role as the band’s drummer made this concert particularly significant for me as a budding feminist. Even ten years later, female drummers are an exception rather than a rule in mainstream bands, and it is even rarer for female drummers to play in a heterogeneously sexed band. Sure, there’s Meg White, Karen Carpenter, Sheila E., and Moe Tucker, but these drummers deploy a deliberately feminine and/or simplistic style, in effect reinforcing assumptions about women and drumming. Granted, it would be masculinist to say that the styles and skills of these women made them any less legitimate as artists, but on a gut-level, they fail to challenge the stereotypes aligning certain sexes with particular instruments.

As a girl, these alignments between sex and gender and rock performance impacted my options for self-expression; I remember asking my mother if I could play drums in the sixth-grade band, and she responded that it wouldn’t be “lady-like.” I even remember her describing women drummers as “butch,” in effect confirming a fear that drumming might turn me into an aggressive lesbian (like that would be a bad thing anyway). To be fair, my mother later back-peddled on her stance, saying that she really discouraged me from drumming out of fear of the noise it would bring into our home, but regardless, my mother’s statement still reinforced what I already felt and knew from experience—rock bands were boys’ clubs that only the bravest women could infiltrate. My feelings of exclusion certainly weren’t unique, since several of my female friends confessed to having similar feelings, and Carol Jennings’ research on girls’ identity formation and rock bands finds similar trends of sexism in local music scenes. (If interested, please check out “Girls Make Music: Polyphony and Identity in Teenage Rock Bands” in Growing Up Girls: Popular Culture and the Construction of Identity. Eds. Sharon R. Mazzarella and Norma Odom Pecora. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. 175-192.) In short, there are barriers to participation in rock performance for girls that do not exist for boys.

For these reasons, I gravitated toward the mainstream female singer-songwriters so en vogue in the mid to late-nineties. I accumulated a massive collection of Tori Amos memorabilia, attended not one but two Lilith Fairs, and watched VH1’s 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll with rapt attention. Still, none of this shattered my perceptions the way seeing Janet live did.

I emphasize the “live” element of the experience because Quasi’s composition resulted in a unique spatial arrangement on stage; with only two instrumentalists, Janet’s kit occupied half the stage, allowing fans closer proximity to the drummer than usual. (Note: Quasi added a third member, bassist Joanna Bolme, to the line-up in 2006.) And while Janet herself puts on a stoic game face most of the time, her drumming itself is dynamic, athletic, and unrelenting. I could throw more adjectives out there, but I will just let the drumming speak for itself.

Seeing Janet play did not change my life over night—I never joined a band, and I never bought a drum kit—but as the years passed, I gravitated toward bands like Sleater-Kinney, The Gossip, and Le Tigre. These bands not only had roots in the Northwest but also placed women musicians in the forefront, addressed queer issues, and kicked ass musically. In other words, they raised my consciousness and helped me grow as a feminist.

Caption: Janet Weiss (center) with Sleater-Kinney bandmates Corrin Tucker (left) and Carrie Brownstein (right).

Caption: Janet Weiss (center) with Sleater-Kinney bandmates Corrin Tucker (left) and Carrie Brownstein (right).

These days, I’m seeing more incredible women drummers, both locally and nationally. My 17-year-old cousin took up the instrument, and one of my brother’s bands featured a friend of ours beating the skins named Keely. Hannah Blilie of the Gossip has also knocked me on my ass during several live performances.

Best of all, organizations like Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls are encouraging girls to drum, and social-networking websites like Drummergirl create a sense of community for female percussionists who might otherwise feel isolated in their respective music scenes. While there remains a disparity between the sexes with respect to drumming, these resources (limited as they may be) are a move in the right direction toward correcting it.

But for many women and girls, just seeing a female confidently and skillfully hit the drums is the first step toward breaking through a mind-set in which men are inevitably physical and aggressive as performers, while women must be soulful and subdued. For me, Janet was one of those icons that shifted my paradigms, and for that, I will forever thank her.

Other interesting articles: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2004/jan/30/gender.popandrock

Make sure to check out Dark Room, Caitlin’s rad blog.