Yesterday, Kristen at Act Your Age and I did our music history workshop for Girls Rock Camp Austin. This is our second year to do it, and we’re proud to be facilitating the workshop for Girls Rock Camp Houston later this summer. This time, we slightly updated the version of the workshop we did for the Girls Now! conference last fall and organized it by genre. Happily, the girls respond well to images, clips, and mix CDs. I always like to recount what I learned (as you can read here and here), so here we go.
1. Be willing to improvise. Kristen and I had some interactive projects planned, but the technology required for such activities wasn’t available, so we had to adapt accordingly. This involved taking deep breaths and telling each other that the workshops were going to be fine and that we’re awesome.
2. Never underestimate the power of pooling together resources. Right before our first workshop, nothing was set up. But thanks to some awesome ladies pitching in and thinking on their feet, we got everything put together and put on two great workshops.
3. Some girls wonder if the female musicians we highlighted are alive. A few girls kept asking if each person was dead. Thus, it was a pleasure to tell them that folks like Wanda Jackson are very much alive.
4. Some girls are obsessed with wigs. I’m okay with this.
5. Allow room for girls to come back to a question you posed earlier when they have an answer. For example, our icebreaker for the older girls we taught was about the first album they remember really liking. One girl didn’t have an answer until we started talking about En Vogue. Her eyes lit up and remembered that she loved “Free Your Mind.” This is a very exciting moment.
6. Some girls know who the 5678s are, which is awesome.
7. Allow room to include the counselors sitting in. In addition to the personal insights they can offer, they may also be able to explain why Dolly Parton plays her guitar in open tuning.
8. There’s always at least one girl who knows almost every artist you’re talking about. She may get a little embarrassed that she’s monopolizing conversation. Let her know you appreciate her enthusiasm and encourage her to keep talking.
9. With little effort, girls can make astute connections between artists like Lady Gaga, Elton John, Janet Jackson, and David Bowie.
10. They also seem to respond if you tell them that some musicians change instruments, as Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon did when she switched from bass to guitar.
11. We should combine genres a bit more in terms of racial diversity. The first half of the workshop had greater emphasis on genres associated with women of color (blues, pop, jazz) than the second half (punk, riot grrrl). We could offset this by pairing seemingly dissimilar genres, like hip hop and country music.
12. It’s okay if the girls don’t like an artist or group or aren’t sure about what to do with them. They may find Mika Miko abrasive or aren’t sure what Lady Sovereign is saying. But by opening the door, they may walk through it.
At the risk of sounding aloof, I’ve been ignoring Taylor Swift for some time. Readers might notice that I haven’t said a peep about her beyond an observation about how she might be a continuation of the girl group tradition after she hosted SNL. When the VMA debacle happened, I didn’t care. I thought Beyoncé was classy about it, and I thought Kanye was right in his opinion, if wrong in execution (seriously, “Single Ladies” is one of the best videos of all time, and perhaps the most iconic of its decade). I thought Swift seemed a little unnecessarily entitled when she was gave her acceptance speech later in the broadcast, but other than that I thought very little about it.
For a while, I actually didn’t know who this Taylor Swift person was. First I thought she was on The Hills. I work under the assumption that any famous white person on MTV is a Hill.
Then I saw her take some Southern kid to the prom on MTV. Then I found out she was a country singer from Pennsylvania who loved Def Leppard and covered Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” which didn’t help her cause. Then I heard the pop version of “You Belong With Me,” promptly motivating me to listen to the slightly twangier original. From here, I reduced her to “country Avril” and went about my business.
Swift, not unlike Depeche Mode in their own way, may be a good gateway artist into more interesting and challenging music. Being a pre-teen Depeche Mode devotee led me to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, and Nick Cave’s various incarnations (admit it, DM fans: your band is at best a singles act; only Violator and maybe Black Celebration are essential in an otherwise mediocre catalog). Likewise, Swift might lead fans to The Dixie Chicks, Neko Case, Rosie Flores, Janis Martin, and Wanda Jackson. But my opinion of Swift is, “fine, she’s young and plays a guitar and writes her own songs (with Liz Rose) . . . but I’m totally bored by her.”
Kristen at Act Your Age and my friend Asha forwarded this Autostraddle article to me. Asha asked me what I thought about it, and an outpouring of opinions bubbled up. Apparently I can get my screed on over a musician I have no personal investment in. But as I watched her wide, ordinary Grammy performance with Stevie Nicks (who sounded ridiculous singing “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” BTW) and yelled at my television when she gave her folksy “we’ll tell our grandchildren about this” Album of the Year speech, I discovered that I do have a personal investment in her fame. So here we go.
I’m pretty much in line with the writer and have brought up Swift’s privileged upbringing, pedantic songwriting, normative femininity, her handling of the VMA debacle, and inauthentic authenticity when talking to other people about her.
I agree with the writer about how there wasn’t really anything to hate about Taylor Swift until she started racking up important awards. I get her appeal, but I have no personal investment in her career. She writes inoffensive love songs you’d hear on the CW or romantic comedies women are supposed to love (like Valentine’s Day, which stars Swift and features her music).
Above all, Swift’s music is inoffensive to the point of offense when you factor in its success. When I think about Swift’s age alongside the teenage output of acts like Schmillion, Roxanne Shanté, ESG, Mika Miko, Björk’s work in KUKL, and some girl in her bedroom whose music I have yet to hear, I’m far more interested in that music. It’s weird and flawed and brave and inspiring. It’s really easy to forget about Swift when this music is also available. I wish more people would take the time to find it.
I’d like to point out that the Album of the Year Grammy isn’t as important as the writer suggests, nor should it be to you. In the grand tradition of award ceremonies and canons, the Grammys have long esteemed mediocrity and blandness. Sure, some cool people have won. But lots of boring and past-their-prime people have also won. And some great artists haven’t won Album of the Year but continue to make enduring music, as a Jezebel writer pointed out at the end of a recent article.
I can also counter the writer’s closing paragraphs, which are pretty hyperbolic. I’m not sure how much of a punk Lady Gaga is, or what, for that matter, the value of the word “punk” means when you can apply it to Vivian Westwood couture, coffee table books, and Hot Topic. That said, I too am inspired by mainstream female pop stars who explore and own the complex dimensions of their sexuality, particularly P!nk, Janet Jackson, and Christina Aguilera. I only wish there were more of them, or that Gossip’s Beth Ditto or M.I.A. sold enough records to qualify.
I don’t really take issue with Swift being a weak singer, in that I don’t think evaluating singers in terms of their technical abilities is always a fruitful exercise. I’d be happier with her being a weak singer if she did something interesting with her voice, but I basically feel like she’s doing karaoke when she sings. This could have a charm to it if her phrasing and sense of dynamics weren’t also really obvious. And she often acts out lyrics in a way that I find insulting to the audience. Sure it’s a continuation of the girl group tradition. But do you really need to mime picking up a phone to let listeners know that you’re talking on the phone with some boy? Is it your way of helping out your international fan base? Or is just so you can remember the exact words that comprise the trite rhetoric you’re selling?
Thus, if we have to make problematic either/or value judgments, I think it’s better to evaluate singing not as good or bad, but as present or absent. Lots of artists lack technically proficient or “pretty” voices, but get you with their commitment to creating sound and the feelings behind it. Likewise, lots of singers have pleasant voices, but sound like they’re thinking about checking their e-mail or getting on a plane. So, I actually take issue with how removed Swift sounds from her music. And then I really take issue with how she sings about romance with a disingenuous approximation of sustained wonder. For me, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard does something similar and it drives me up a tree. Add some faux-authentic lyrics about ripped jeans, pick-up trucks, sneakers, and faded t-shirts and I don’t think you’re emoting so much as lying.
That said, I think this quote is a little insulting: “Swift simply hasn’t had the life experience and doesn’t inherently possess the emotional maturity to create great art.” It smacks a bit of “she’s just a girl; she hasn’t experienced life yet.” As women who work with girls, Kristen and I include Swift in our music history workshops. We don’t do this as fans, but because we know she means a lot to many girls, some of whom are just learning how to play music or are picking up instruments for the first time. Some of you might be reading this now, and I totally respect your preferences and value your opinions. You may be die-hard fans, or you may grow out of her music and find something else. You may believe in the kinds of fairy tales Swift trades in, though hopefully you’ll come to them with a revisionist bent like Lady Gaga, Bat for Lashes, or St. Vincent.
Whatever you choose, all I hope for as an older, cranky lady who doesn’t like Swift’s music is that you never stop discovering new sounds as you develop your own. And I promise never to bore you with stories about how awesome and progressive my pop idols were in comparison to your music, because no text is ever above inquiry. Swift is problematic, but so is Björk. As I have faith in your awesomeness, I have no doubt that you’ll come up with something that’ll blow me away. And if you wanna bitch about Swift and turn that rage into something completely new and original, I’ll be here to listen.
It’s crazy that the movie that is the subject of this post only came out on DVD in 2008. Director Lou Adler and screenwriter Nancy Dowd‘s modest feature made its cinematic debut in 1982 (note: Dowd was credited as Rob Morton, a pseudonym the Oscar winner used from time to time — I wonder if having the illusion of a man write the script got the project off the ground). It starred Diane Lane, Ray Winstone, Laura Dern, and Christine Lahti. It featured The Clash’s Paul Simenon and Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones. It went on to influence riot grrrl and has been referenced by other musicians (see the music video for Mika Miko’s “Business Cats“).
And yet the first time I saw this movie was in a class screening. It was during the final days of grad school before the DVD’s summer release. The version I saw was a laserdisc transfer, and included 15 seconds of static from when the person recording the movie flipped the disc. Nutty, right? Kinda informs why I’m a feminist and have an ambivalent relationship with having to dig for representative media texts that I like. I’m proud of it but irritated by it at the same time. If it gets translated into snobbishness, it’s really righteous indignation.
The plot is as follows. Lane plays Corinne Burns, a teenage orphan who has to figure out how she and her sister Tracy (Marin Kanter) can support themselves after being fired from her jill job. While staying with her aunt Linda (Lahti), she starts scheming ways to start a pirate radio station that will broadcast “rock and roll and the truth.” She ends up convincing her sister and cousin Jessica (Dern, whose character prefers to be called Peg) to start a band called The Stains. After catching British punk band The Looters, a fictitious rock band fronted by Billy (Ray Winstone) and manned by bassist Simenon, drummer Cook, and guitarist Jones, Burns’s purpose is clear. She can’t just be in the audience, some chick in the crowd among pregnant teens with nicotine habits and folks squandering their youth at the piss factory. She’s gotta get The Stains on the bill. Like so many rock legends before her, she’s gotta get outta this place if it’s the last thing she ever does.
At first, Corrine tries to appeal to Billy as a fan, who is otherwise occupied with a groupie. She is then approached by The Looters’ road manager, a Rastafarian named Lawnboy (Barry Nichols) and gets The Stains booked as the opening act. It seems as though Lawnboy needs his own insurance, as the top-billed act are a has-been dinosaur rock outfit appropriately called The Metal Corpses. They’ve got a heroin addict guitar player in tow. They’re also fronted by a real charmer named Lou (played by Tubes frontman Fee Waybill). You can tell what kind of guy he is when he recounts a tryst with an older groupie acquaintance — apparently she’s as good as she ever was, but that damn kid of her’s would not stop crying and interrupting their “time” together. Class act.
Anyway, The Stains become huge and cultivate a legion of die-hard girl fans. Corpses’ guitarist Jerry Jervey (Tubes’ keyboardist Vince Welnick) inevitably dies of an overdose. This gives Burns an opportunity to spin the story and create her own mythology. Apparently Jervey loved her. She couldn’t reciprocate and he took his own life. This lie turns Burns’s band into a full-blown media sensation. Which is good, because their first gig doesn’t go so well.
But this clip, which features “Waste of Time” (penned by Barry Ford), explains why The Stains garner both an on- and off-screen feminist following (note: to preserve this image, don’t see Streets on Fire as it features Lane playing a rock star damsel in distress). The music suggests post-punk and indie’s lo-fi sensibilities and politicized amateurism. The message is blatantly feminist, and delivered through a girl’s plain-spoken sneer. This girl has as much use for pants as Lady Gaga, but her visible panties don’t mean that she puts out. She’s also equipped a replicable look and quotable opinions about how she doesn’t give a fuck about patriarchy. A star is born, and she’s after your daughters. They call themselves Skunks.
By the way, if either of the dude-friends who run the Lab want to create a Stains t-shirt, I reckon you’d have a sell-out item on your hands. I think the design should include the caption, “They’ve got such big plans for the world but they don’t include us.”
Also, make sure to add YACHT’s cover of “Waste of Time” to your next mix.
Once The Stains break, The Looters bristle at just how much they’re being overshadowed by the opening act, especially since they’re just a bunch of girls (or “birds,” since they’re British). But Billy also seems impressed with Burns. He eventually seduces her, though I doubt the genuineness of his attraction as it seems more like a power grab. He wins her over by teaching her his band’s song “Be A Professional,” a song about refusing to join the army. But their romance is promptly ended by Burns when up-and-coming act Black Randy and the Metro Squad threaten to knock The Stains off the bill. The romance is over, but she takes his song as a souvenir.
Jilted Billy nearly ruins the band by revealing Burns to be a fraud after she becomes too big for him (she becomes a superstar in a little over a week). However, her fans come through for her in the end, making The Stains a tremendously successful pop band just in time for the advent of MTV. But something tells me they’d be pressured to change the name. Some label exec would try to convince them that “The Stains” wouldn’t look good on a poster with “The Go-Gos” and “The Bangles.”
The ending is as good a place as any to address that while I like this movie, it’s far from perfect. There’s the rushed storyline that also requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. There’s the unfortunate romantic coupling between the two leads that feels completely unnecessary and without much motivation. Some of the dialogue doesn’t work and the young cast’s performances tend to be mannered. And the ending casts a dark pall on the rest of the movie. It confirms that the girls totally sold out. More essentializing sorts might read this ending as a self-fulfilling prophecy, that The Stains became what Burns pegged one disinterested female concertgoer as: just girls waiting to die.
However, I read the ending more as an indictment on how punk became new wave and how bands like The Talking Heads, The Go-Gos, and Blondie were recast by major label record executives in the process. “Be a professional, join the professionals” on MTV, as “you’re gonna be one anyway.” And when you consider that the movie was made at new wave’s zenith and the cable network’s infancy, it’s a pretty damning ending that I think is in keeping with punk’s cynical, incredulous take on human nature.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that many riot grrrls and their contemporaries who may have been inspired by this movie became professionals too. Queercore legacies Kaia Wilson and Tammy Rae Carland ran Mr. Lady for many years. Miranda July makes movies. Carrie Brownstein works for NPR. Beth Ditto has a clothing line. Kathleen Hanna is an archival subject. Johanna Fateman runs a hair salon. Of course, these are enviable jobs and social positions that work toward resisting patriarchal culture. Professionalism doesn’t have to mean compromise, but it does insure a constant process of negotiation.
But just as this movie is about young women trying to negotiate when to hold on to integrity in the working world, it is also about how they interact and influence one another. Thus, female mentorship informs much of the movie’s narrative.
The Stains are considered role models for their audience. Some commentators believe this be to their fans’ detriment, as the skunk hairdos, extreme make-up, pantsless get-ups, and disinterest toward marriage and babies assuredly will lead to wickedness (thus predicting the moral panic later waged against Madonna and her fans). Most folks who hold this opinion are male. Billy clearly espouses this opinion because he’s jealous of The Stains’ success, feels taken advantage of by Burns after she steals his song, and thinks very little of this emergent aggregate”s collective intelligence. News anchor and affirmed sexist Stu McGrath (John Lehne) thinks The Stains, and Burns in particular, are bad influences. He also seems of the opinion that they sure are sexy and naughty, which echoes how British television personality and first-rate drunk Bill Grundy seemed to feel about Siouxsie Sioux when she sat with The Sex Pistols during their infamous interview.
However, journalist Alicia Meeker (Cynthia Sikes) loves The Stains. She’s excited and inspired by their story. She also plays a part in their success by providing them coverage on local television as well as sticking up for them on the air. She’s quick to point out that these girls aren’t delinquents or degenerates. Instead, she sees them as self-sufficient individuals. She makes no bones about her partiality, and does little to hide her seething contempt for McGrath, with whom she shares a news desk.
Jessica’s Aunt Linda is interesting as well, though misses an opportunity to be a mentor. At first, she seems resistant to her daughter and nieces’ rebellion, and later dismissive of their success. But in a devastating scene that unfolds for both the band and the viewer on a television screen in the display window of an appliance store, it’s revealed in an interview that Linda is proud of them and wishes she was more encouraging. Worse yet, Linda knows all too well what it’s like to grow up in a household peopled with family members who didn’t believe she could amount to anything.
This admission makes an early scene when Linda is first introduced particularly poignant. We meet Linda in her front room, giving herself an at-home manicure with a girlfriend. The ladies break out in an a capella rendition of Carole King’s anthemic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” Linda nails the song’s high harmonies, but no one hears it. Even the girls ignored it at the time. I wonder if they reflect on it later. I hope they carry on in her memory.
For financial reasons, I was only able to swing one day of Fun Fun Fun Fest so I’m blogging while many in this fair city are catching some good music in Waterloo Park. Although, admittedly, if you’re gonna do one day of the festival, I think yesterday was the way to go. I got to check several bands I’ve never seen before off my list: No Age (who I’ve missed by a marrow margin at least three times), Jesus Lizard, Pharcyde, Les Savy Fav, and Death.
But if you have the scratch, please make sure everyone sees one of Mika Miko’s last shows ever on the black stage at 2:55. I might try to get down there later just to hear it from the other side of the fence.
Mika Miko’s exceptional presence on this year’s bill seems as good a place as any to remember that, as Melissa at GRCA astutely pointed out in her recent post, this year boasts a very dudecentric line-up. So I’ll review Jacqueline Warwick’s book Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s book in the hopes that at least one historically significant girl group or all-female band will reunite for next year’s FFFF like Death did this year. And like the Shangri-Las did at CBGB’s in 1977.
As much as I hate comparing women’s work so as to pit them in opposition, Warwick’s book is a tremendous example of how effective it can be to narrow the scope of the cultural moment being covered, something I wish Charlotte Greig would have considered when penning her book on girl groups. While Greig truncates the history of the girl group era in order to broaden the definition of what a girl group is, Warwick focuses primarily on this brief but important moment in history (roughly between 1958 and 1965), considering its ongoing influence as an epilogue.
By taking this approach, Warwick considers the girl group era and its participants from several different, often surprising, areas of inquiry. As a result, she proves the cultural signficance of a popular form dismissed by many as superficial, polished, and phony who instead tend to favor rock music’s supposed transcendent raw authenticity, and argues strongly that this binary construction is inherently gendered. Duh, and amen.
Warwick posits that one of the most important things about the girl group era was its insistence on putting girls and young women in the spotlight, introducing a complex, celebratoryn and at times contradictory performance of what the author calls “girlness”. Often, these ladies were working class, and of African American or mixed racial and ethnic heritage. They had few options for financial mobility and minimal career prospects being marriage, motherhood, clerical jobs, and day labor. Forming vocal groups together and cutting records gave them access to other opportuntities toward professional advancement and personal growth, expanding the idea of girlhood as an identity across race and class lines.
Sometimes these groupings resulted in the cultivation of considerable, devoted fan bases that, in The Supremes and The Ronnettes’ cases, were comparable to Beatlemania. Some of those fans were even other male-only rock bands, like The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and later, The Ramones. Take that, pop-rock, girl-boy binaries!
In other words, I’m telling you to read this book.
One thing I appreciate about Warwick’s book from the outset is the celebration of the female voice. As I’ve long believed and argued extensively in this blog, we cannot give short-shrift to singers. While they can assuredly be tokenized and objectified, but they can also be empowered, embodied, and forge their own agency. Heartenly, she finds much going on with the voice, a distinct instrument no matter how it may have been manipulated or homogenized by label owners like Motown’s Barry Gordy and producers like Phil Spector and his overwhelming wall of sound. She hears the genteel precision of Diana Ross’s soprano, the urgent purr of Ronnie Spector’s husky alto, the untrained wavering of Shirelle Shirley Owens’s pitch, the gutteral inflections on Supreme Florence Ballard’s tone, the put-on nasal affectations of Broadway-trained groups like The Angels, the racial dimensions of Dusty Springfield’s blue-eyed soul, and the teenaged monotone of Shangri-La Mary Weiss.
She also hears these girls singing to one another, often in their own forms of feminine dialect and for the purposes of providing support and advice. On record, acts like The Dixie Cups, The Crystals, Betty Everett, and The Velvelettes would pepper their songs with seemingly nonsensical words and phrases like “iko iko,” “da doo ron ron,” “shoop,” and “doo lang doo lang,” often provided by backing vocalists as a means of support for the lead vocalist, who might be intimating her feelings about burgeoning romance or her conflicted feelings in the aftermath of a break-up.
Often, these girls were providing one another moral support and providing advice as well. While Warwick notes that advice songs tended to be the domain of girl groups with African American members like The Velvelettes, The Shirelles, The Chiffons, and The Marvelettes, they often imparted wisdom to their audiences that they learned from their mothers or their sisters, as well as sharing what they’ve learned from their own experiences. In doing so, these songs provided a counterargument to the assertion that girl groups only sang about boys and also expanded female discourse in popular music by including the words and experiences of generations of women into then present-day pop songs by girls.
It cannot be ignored that while many girl group songs were written by men, not all of them were. As mentioned elsewhere, Brill Building stalwarts like Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich, and Carole King were of paramount importance to the era. Many of these women, like Greenwich, wrote about seemingly teenage issues like young love and treated it as legitimate, at times giving it life-and-death importance, as she did on The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack.”
King is a particularly interesting case as well. Before striking out on her own as a solo artist, she wrote many important songs for girl groups. Some songs, like The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” address the troubling and dangerous aspects of patriarchy and oppression, and have been covered to harrowing effect by bands like Hole and Grizzly Bear.
Other songs King penned gesture toward the era’s prescience regarding shifting cultural attitudes toward feminism, female agency, and sexual autonomy, as on The Shirelles’ anthemic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”
Girl groups were also clearly singing with one another, as girl groups often were comprised of siblings and relatives who wore matching outfits and performed intricate choreography to suggest that these girls were a unit, despite at times having clearly defined lead singers and stars who (especially in Diana Ross’s case) were thin and had a more conventional look and sound.
It was this image coordination that made The Ronnettes able to ingratiate night clubs when they were underaged, gave them the confidence to perform at those night clubs, and provided them with a sense of belonging that made them tough enough to brave any New York City street. It also makes this sense of actual or engineered sisterhood and camderadie seem especially fragile when success encroaches on it, as the tragic dimensions of Estelle Bennett and Florence Ballard‘s post-girl group lives remind.
Warwick shies from making any explicitly queer connections to girl groups beyond passing references to Springfield and Lesley Gore’s orientations and their relationships with the closet. I would have liked a bit more discussion of the queer dynamics of the groups’ homosocial bonding both on- and off-record. A brief appraisal of queer fandom (seemingly most pronounced among certain circles of gay men, though not exclusively) would also have been appreciated.
That said, I do appreciate Warwick reminding her readers of girl groups’ continued impact. As this is the section of the book that gets less focus, it would be worthwhile to read Warwick’s and Greig’s books together to get a larger sense of how punk, hip hop, and contemporary pop music were influenced by girl groups.
I would hasten to add country music to the list of genres that were shaped by this era. Given last night’s Saturday Night Live, which featured crossover star Taylor Swift as both host and musical guest (a rare opportunity for most pop stars, unless they are Justin or Britney). Watching her play a brace-faced teenager in a skit about parents who are worse drivers than their kids and her performance of “You Belong To Me” complete with careful, song-appropriate gestures, it was clear to me that the girl group era continues. As Mika Miko performs one of their last shows later today, I’ll wonder where it’ll permeate next.
Today’s post is in memory of Mika Miko, who announced yesterday that they would be splitting up to pursue school, relationships, and other projects. Here’s hoping that what could have been their side projects will be warmly received as former members’ main vehicles. My only hope is for something as awesome as I.U.D. or New Age Steppers. If you’re in Austin, try to catch ‘em at Fun Fun Fun Fest.
Thought I’d shine a light on side projects today, those illusive creatures of popular music. The post is inspired by Butter 08, a side project between Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda, Russell Simins of The John Spencer Blues Explosion, Rick Lee of Skeleton Key, and director/graphic artist Mike Mills. They made one album, and it was awesome. So awesome that Grand Royal owner Mike D signed them without hearing a note.
“Butter of ’69”
Directed by Evan Bernard
The New Pornographers are another great side project, though they”ve had more staying power than Butter 08. Boasting such powerhouses as Carl Newman and Dan Bejar (justly praised for his work in Destroyer), it also counts Kathryn Calder and Neko Case amongst its ranks, making their work all the richer for it.
The New Pornographers
Directed by Darren Pasemko
These two groups are a bit dude-heavy and rely on fairly traditional instrumentation and line-up configurations. If you’ve got some side projects you wanna celebrate, let’s talk about ‘em in the comments section.
So, I’m still a little brain-drained from working on Cinemakids this weekend. I helped a group of nine-year-olds make a short movie about skatin’ dudes and pie fights (or, more accurately, walked them through the basics of making their own movie, tried to keep them positive and focused, sometimes mediated arguments, and sometimes provided them with Oreos). It was fun and if you want to see the movie “Team I Want Some Pie” made, along with the other participants, the screening is on November 7th.
And sometimes being a little brain-drained is good. It’s inspiring. And because today is Monday and we might all be a little slow getting back into our weekly routine, I thought I’d make a quick list of rad stuff I’m stoked about or inspired by. Feel free to share your rad lists as well.
Sadie Benning. Thanks to grad school and Kill Rock Stars, I know who this is. Benning is my go-to “girl filmmaker,” however essentializing that term may be. But I kept thinking about her work all weekend and how, if you have a vision and a Fisher-Price camera, you can start making movies at any age (an experimental filmmaker parent may also help, but not necessarily guarantee inspiration). If you don’t know her work, I highly recommend looking at some of her shorts. You can also watch her work in Julie Ruin’s “Aerobicide” music video.
On that tip, Molly Schiot has made some great videos too. Might I point you in the direction of Mika Miko’s “Business Cats” and Sleater-Kinney’s “Entertain”? Also watch the interview footage Schiot put together of Pat Place and Cynthia Sley of Bush Tetras talking about being tuff feminists on the lower East Side in the early 80s. This interview plus a recent screening of Downtown ’81 convinces me that I’m not tough enough to have lived in New York and the early 80s, and neither are most people of my generation. These women lived “Too Many Creeps.”
Oh hai Jane Campion. I’m looking forward to seeing Bright Star. Additional points of interest for apparently configuring Fanny Brawne as a proto-punk fashion icon.
Karen O, music supervisor of Where The Wild Things Are. How is Spike Jonze’s new movie not going to be awesome? Regardless, I know the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman’s musical contributions to the movie will necessitate its own post. Can’t wait for it to come out!
The Gossip are coming to ATX next month, two days after Parton’s box set is released. Yet another reason why October is for winners. We can only hope that Beth will pull out the wig and cover some Dolly.
I missed Mad Men last night because I was cheering on the KOOP Kilowatts. I suspect others may have missed last night’s episode too due to the Emmys (or at least had to back-and-forth it). Regardless, apparently Betty and Don’s angsty eldest daughter Sally discards a Barbie doll her mom gives her in last night’s episode. Ugh, you totally don’t get my ten-year-old girl needs, mom. Season three has been Sally’s season, in my mind.
Oh, on that tack, I need to rewatch season two and see the documentary on women’s liberation that was included in the DVD set. For more on the subject, Mary Kearney just wrote a great Flow column on it. I wonder how Sally will be impacted by these changes.
I recently bought Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love at Cheapo. Yes, that does mean that I listened to “The Big Sky” on my drive to work.
I have been pairing this with Julie Ruin’s “Valley Girl Intelligensia,” bringing us back full circle to grrrl germs.
As a means to enrich my interest in girl groups, I’ve been looking for literature on the subject. One book my thesis adviser recommended was English writer Charlotte Greig’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?: Girl Groups from the 50s on . . ., which covers the girl group era (roughly 1960-1964) from both sides of the Atlantic, as well as girl groups that predated the era and formed (and continue to form) in the wake of its legacy.
I liked this book fine. It’s a good primer for folks just getting into girl groups (I’d certainly assign the chapters on the Brill Building or Motown to an undergrad class on gender and music culture). It’s smart and celebratory yet critical of the gender politics of girl groups without alienating a reader not hip to, say, Judith Butler’s thoughts on gender performativity. Greig also employs her trade skills as a journalist, so there’s lots of neat and valuable first-person accounts from folks like Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich and members of the Marvelettes and the Velvelettes. And there’s lots of fascinating tidbits Greig throws in that could be spun into their own books. For example:
Did you know that American Bandstand started as a radio show on WFIL in Philadelphia, on the outskirts of town? Did you know that it became a television show because bored Italian American teenage girls from the neighboring West Catholic High School would hang out after school and start dancing to the records? Did you also know that existing within this group were class tensions that were easily reflected in girls’ particular clothes and hairdos? I certainly didn’t.
Perhaps unsurprising, but did you know that Brill Building songwriter/producer Ellie Greenwich worked with her husband Jeff Barry, who elbowed her out of songwriting and production credits because he assumed he’d be the breadwinner while she had the babies? They divorced. :(
Did you know that almost all of the girl groups Greig discusses (and/or interviews) failed to be compensated for their services? Perhaps unsurprising when you consider the larger context of the early days of rock music and its shady legal dealings with publishing and recording rights, but pretty important when considering the supposed “disposability” of girl groups.
Did you know that Reparata from Reparata and the Delrons (one of the best-named girl groups of the golden era) got her name from a saint? Kinda fascinating. I’d read an entire book on girl groups and Catholicism!
Did you know about that the role the British Invasion had in dismantling the girl group era was largely a myth? Many believe that English rock groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and their brethren were responsible for the demise of the girl group era (which is poor history, as you can see American acts like The Beach Boys, The Temptations, and The Supremes right up there with The Fab Four on the pop charts). Greig does well to remind her audience that groups like The Beatles were actually inspired by girl groups and covered many girl group songs. Instead, Greig attributes pre-mature folds of girl group songwriting factories like the Brill Building out of fear that the British Invasion would spell their demise.
Did you know that there were class differences between the girl groups at Motown? I certainly didn’t but, again, it makes sense. According to other groups like The Marvelettes, The Supremes were given unequal treatment at the record label because they were savvy, culturally-aware city girls. Other groups were comprised of country girls who didn’t grow up in Detroit and, thus, were not as hip or poised.
But these gems, which are often dropped without too much comment, speaks to my biggest problem with the book: it is simply too broad. And at just over 200 pages with a scant bibliography, the fact that she covers so much ground without digging deeper really left me wanting.
That said, I think this book does a noble job broadening the definition of what a girl group is. Greig’s principle mission, as she defines from the outset, is to dispense with the myth that girl groups were born in 1960 and died in 1964. She maintains that girl groups started forming post-World War II and are still forming and recording today (“today” meaning the late 1980s at the time of her writing).
She also argues that girl groups are not adherent to a particular genre, which, read alongside the Rhino girl group box set, seems very true. The girl group sound was actually not one singular generic entity but incorporated R&B, pop, soul, folk, and the blues. Thus, after the 1960s, when the girl group legacy endured, groups would revisit it while folding in reggae, disco, punk, funk, electronic music, and many other styles. And, as girl groups evolved, Greig argues that sometimes they became more politically minded. Particularly in the 70s, funk-based girl groups like Honey Cone tended to endorse a “black is beautiful” agenda.
And acts like LaBelle expanded how black could be beautiful by incorporating the (traditionally white, male) glam- and art-rock stylings of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. However, my partner is quick (and right) to point out that Funkadelic adopted a similar performance style at around the same time, so let’s view LaBelle and Funkadelic alongside one another.
Punk bands like Blondie and The Slits became more makeshift in their look and self-reflexive and parodic in their approach to addressing femininity and consumer culture in their songs. But I feel like Greig gives more focus toward Blondie, so lets look at The Slits more closely.
I do find it a little disconcerting that The Runaways, The Bangles, and The Go-Gos are largely broadsided in this discussion. If two of Greig’s principle concerns with girl groups are: 1) they tend not to have female instrumentalists and 2) they tend to be controlled by male managers and producers, it would have been nice to see her discuss girl bands who encountered and had (varying degrees of) success breaking free from male control.
This omission makes Greig’s inclusion of Vanity 6 and Mary Jane Girls a bit of a hard sell for me. Despite being multi-racial and (often celebratory and raunchy) advocates for sexual agency and pleasure, both groups were also formed and almost completely controlled by men (Prince and Rick James, respectively). As Greig points this out, I would have appreciated a broader context that I feel dicussing girl bands could have provided.
That said, I do think the inclusion of Bananarama is interesting, as they had a punkish, thrift-store edge and often linked themselves to the girl group era by covering song like The Velvelettes’ “He Was Really Saying Something.” I suppose this gets us into the dangerous territory of “wearing” and “trying on” race, but I’ll let you decide.
I also appreciate that Greig included hip hop in the discussion of girl groups, vis-à-vis Salt-N-Pepa, though fear that past lesser-known acts like Northern State, hip hop has historically favored solo artists to groups and has provided scarce resources for women, whether on their own or rhyming with friends.
I’d also be curious as to what Greig would say about groups from my youth like TLC, En Vogue, SWV, The Spice Girls and, during my high school years, Destiny’s Child, 3LW, and Dream. And of course, if we’re expanding girl groups to include punkier acts, I wonder what Greig thinks of Vivian Girls and Mika Miko alongside neo-retro acts like The Pipettes, as well as acts like The Pussycat Dolls who are, for better or for worse, one of the few integrated, multi-racial girl groups to achieve mainstream success since The Ronettes.
Again, all worthwhile endeavors; each in need of their own book for further inquiry.