Today’s entry focuses on author Maria Raha’s book Cinderella’s Big Score which focuses on female contributions to American and British punk, alternative, and independent music from the mid-1970s to, at its 2005 release, the present. It is to be the first title read by the rock n’ roll book club some Girls Rock Camp Austin peeps have put together. As we haven’t yet met to discuss the book, I’m using my blog to formulate my thoughts on it.
I picked up Raha’s book back in early 2006 (local business plug: I bought it at MonkeyWrench Books). I read it in between getting my wisdom teeth pulled and taking time off work to engage in a battle with my sinuses. In short, I devoured it while bed-ridden and pissy. This didn’t bode well for the reading process, as I did not like the book. But I wanted to give it another chance, so this was an opportunity to re-read it.
At the time, my problems were two-fold.
1. The scope is too broad. 30-plus years of rock history, broken down into tiny chapters about 38 different female artists? Yikes! It felt like I was reading overviews with little more insight than All Music Guide entries. Either narrow it down or write a bigger book! And I already knew most of these artists before I picked up the book, so I didn’t feel like I was getting any new information.
2. Raha is very much of the “indie rock, good; pop, bad” persuasion and does little to challenge her biases or problematize the book’s subjects. As many of the rock artists she holds in high esteem are white women and many of the pop artists she dislikes are women of color, this creates an unintentional yet unfortunate gendered racial tension.
I think about this a lot. When I co-teach music history workshops with Kristen at Act Your Age, we notice that the reception of certain musical subgenres is divided along racial lines. Participants of color tend to get excited about hip hop, R&B, and pop and check out during discussions of punk and riot grrrl. It might be that riot grrrl means a great deal to white girls and white women, but doesn’t speak to many girls and women of color.
(Note: This isn’t to say girls and women of color can’t relate to or be inspired by riot grrrl; I just wonder how many do.)
In addition to the dicey racial implications of the “indie rock, good; pop, bad” binary, I found — and still find — Raha’s reading of pop music to be shallow and essentializing. While I too find The Spice Girls’ (soda) watered-down brand of girl power feminism troubling, along with the advent of millennial teen-pop jailbait like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, I think there’s much more going on here than Raha does. For one, there’s no discussion of fans’ complex relationships with their teen idols (for a closer reading on the subject, I’d recommend scholar Dafna Lemish’s article “Spice Girls’ talk: A case study in the development of gendered identity”). There’s also scant consideration of how image-making is a complex process for female stars — save for Madonna, a person Raha seems to approve of save for her headline grabbing VMA kiss with Spears — and how this is true for both underground and mainstream female artists.
As people forget that Aguilera was in on “the kiss” or that her vocals were live, Raha puts little value in mainstream vocalists’ singing ability, which can involve considerable musical technique and craft. This also absents girl groups like En Vogue and Destiny’s Child or solo artists like Beyoncé from discussion. I also find it insulting that she assumes all of these women are pop dollies Svengalied by men.
This doesn’t even get into how hip hop, both mainstream and independent, is all but ignored in this book.
Oh, and please don’t hate on Janet Jackson.
It may be easy to configure her as a dancer who let Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis create her career for her, or crack wise about plastic surgery, weight fluctuations, and wardrobe malfunctions. But let’s not forget that her songs tackle complex issues like racial injustice, AIDS, homophobia, domestic violence, masturbation, sexual agency, and female autonomy. She’s the woman behind “The Pleasure Principle,” “Nasty,” “Control,” “Together Again,” “What About?,” “Free Zone,” “What Have You Done For Me Lately?,” “Rhythm Nation,” and the black feminist anthem “New Agenda.” She may be the artist responsible for many fans’ entrance into feminism.
These feelings still spike up, though I liked this book more the second time. I took for granted that Raha contextualizes each section of her book with an overview of what was going on in popular music at the time. I do bristle at her open, unchecked animosity for pop’s artificiality (as if indie rock is an exemplar of authenticity; it’s a myth that still gets perpetuated and results in many backlashes against bands like Vampire Weekend, a band I’d be happy to argue on behalf of elsewhere). But I also appreciate how Raha takes hardcore, grunge, nu metal, and the male output of much punk and indie rock to task for practicing misogyny and abiding by patriarchy. And I like that she does champion some female pop stars, particularly Cyndi Lauper and Tina Turner. I also like her efforts to discuss female musicians like Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon in mixed-gender bands, and bring up issues women had working with one another.
Raha also discusses bands and artists I didn’t know much about. Thanks for shining a light on Lunachicks, Crass’ Joy De Vivre and Eve Libertine, Avengers’ Penelope Houston, Fastbacks’ Lulu Gargiulo and Kim Warnick. Thanks for bringing Germs’ manager Nicole Panter, Tsunami’s Jenny Toomey and queercore legends Tribe 8 and Team Dretsch into the discussion, as they often get overlooked.
There are of course some artists I wish were discussed, but know Raha had limited space to cover the artists she did, which was already a considerable aggregate. Because this is my blog, I’ll list some ladies, most of whom I’ve discussed here: Delta 5, Au Pairs, Bush Tetras, Y Pants, Pylon, Cibo Matto, Jean Grae, Joanna Newsom, Ponytail, Explode Into Colors, M.I.A., Karen O, Santigold, Yo Majesty, St. Vincent, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Bat for Lashes, Fever Ray, Finally Punk, and Follow That Bird. As some of the artists she discusses are or were on major labels, I will also include Kate Bush, Björk, Liz Phair, Tori Amos, and Erykah Badu.
As Raha’s book came out just as indie and mainstream were melding in ways similar yet far more pervasive than the alternative rock boom of a pre-bust American music industry, I wonder what she makes of Solange covering Dirty Projectors or joining Of Montreal on stage. What does she make of M.I.A. or Santigold, two indie artists who court mainstream success? She wrote her book just as download culture forever altered listeners’ exposure to music and their resulting consumer habits.
When I first read this book, I questioned the usefulness of it. A noble effort, to be sure. But how valuable is an overview on obscure or underground female artists when the majority of its potential readers can probably follow blogs and download tracks? While I know the book is geared toward younger women — and I certainly would have valued the book at this age — most of the girls I’ve met or worked with at Girls Rock Camp Austin already knew just about everyone mentioned here.
That said, I do think the book is a good primer for young girls and women just starting to navigate the indie rock’s craggy terrain. But if you’re gifting it, make sure to include a mix CD and a set of discussion questions. Maybe it’ll start a book club.
Ya’ll, the Lilith Fair is getting a reboot this summer. I missed the festival during its original run in the late-90s. Honestly, I wasn’t too invested in it. I was happy that founder Sarah McLachlan was putting it together, but the majority of the bill offerings were pretty nice white lady adult contemporary at the time.
But co-founder Terry McBride has resurrected the festival and it’s coming to Austin some time next summer. I gotta say that this summer’s roster looks good: Loretta Lynn, Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, Cat Power, Gossip, Metric, Norah Jones, Jill Scott, Beth Orton, Emmylou Harris, Janelle Monáe, Teagan and Sara, Corrine Bailey Ray, fuckin’ Heart. Of course, we’ve still got plenty of nice white lady music, but it seems as if there was some effort to mix up the genres a little bit so it isn’t only about ladies strumming acoustic guitars (ex: Mary fuckin’ J!). On that tack, I’m pretty uninterested in Sheryl Crow, Miranda Lambert, Sara Bareilles, and Colbie Caillat’s involvement, but I understand that the festival’s gotta draw in some big MOR names. That said, I like that there’s some rad queer ladies and women of color on the bill.
As I don’t think the bill is 100% finalized, I’m hoping Thao and the Get Down Stay Down gets a spot on the bill. I’d also support additions like Jean Grae, Bat for Lashes, Neko Case, Marnie Stern, Shunda K, and Ponytail. I think it’d be cool if a stage was set up for local acts so folks like Follow That Bird, Yellow Fever, and Schmillion could get some more exposure — or even cooler if said bands formed their own counterfestival. Oooh, and if only they could get Sleater-Kinney to reunite. Can’t wait to see how this shapes up. For more up-to-date information, keep an eye on the festival’s Web site.
I feel like we should be thinking about black girlishness (note: I’m not talking about black girlhood here, though I believe we should be thinking about that too. Rather, I’m referring to the idea that adult black female femininity can encompass admittedly normative girlish qualities). I think it’s necessary to consider black femininity beyond the racist presuppositions that perpetuate ideas of black hypersexuality (or if we turn to Judith Halberstam’s chapter on drag kings in Female Masculinity, the racial and performative dimensions of African American masculinity). Furthermore, both girlishness and girlhood often get associated with white femininity.
That said, I’m not sure if I’m the one who should be doing this. I want to engage out of my comfort zone (in this case, priviledging issues of gender), but I’m white. After Kristen at Act Your Age forwarded a piece from Racialicious on Lady Gaga and whiteness and a repost of AlienatiOn‘s essay “What If Black Women Were White Women?” I’m feeling oogier than usual about my racial identity and how it informs my feminist beliefs. Who am I to suggest that we should think about black girlishness? And might black girlishness be infantilizing to black women, perhaps taking away their agency out of a cultural fear around the sexual prowess racist people assume they have? You see where this gets complicated. Let’s get uncomfortable.
I don’t think black girlishness has to ignore sexuality. Instead, sexuality can be but one aspect of a particular black woman’s performative girlishness. So I’ll offer up Ella Fitzgerald, an iconic jazz singer I love whose music I was listening to in my car last Sunday.
Her voice makes me happy, but I started listening closely to her song “Chewing Gum” again and it gave me pause. Then I listened to “A-Tisket A-Tasket” and started to sense a pattern. What’s up with a grown black woman singing as if she were a child?
The above clip is a scene from 1942′s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, an Abbott and Costello vehicle. “A-Tisket A-Tasket” is a nursery rhyme that became one of Fitzgerald’s standards in the late 1930s. Please note that the original song is told from a man about a woman he loves. Fitzgerald’s version comes from a young girl’s perspective, and she’s singing about her mother and a mean girl who stole her basket. Not sure how I feel about this song anymore.
Now, I haven’t seen the movie beyond this clip so I don’t know it depicts race relations, if it addresses them at all. I do think it’s interesting that Fitzgerald’s character Ruby, an entertainer who works on a ranch, appears to be integrated. But perhaps “integrated” is the wrong word, as she seems to be the only black person in this scene and maybe even in the entire cast.
Also, she’s clearly performing for white people. I feel real weird about this too. There’s something about their demeanor around Fitzgerald that’s a bit too “we don’t mind black people when they are amusing us.”
Yet, I wonder how Fitzgerald, who was perhaps best-known for scatting, might open up girlishness to include pre-verbal or automatic language. While I know the dimensions are different between her and, say, Ponytail’s Molly Siegel, I do think there’s a connection. Also, Fitzgerald’s singing here, wherein she basically turns herself into an instrument, is pretty virtuosic.
But then Fitzgerald conjures up girlishness in her marvelous version of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” from the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey and I have to retrace my steps.
Of course, girlishness is brought up in the lyrics. At the same time, the lyrics suggest a more mature understanding and ownership of sexuality. Fitzgerald’s rendition supports this reading. This isn’t to say that girls don’t possess a complex sexual maturity. But so do black women, regardless of what age to which they’re relating.
So, Molly Siegel has been on my mind for a while now. When I was conceptualizing this blog, I knew I wanted to talk about her. For those who don’t know, she’s the lead singer of Ponytail, a Baltimore-based experimental pop band. In terms of sound and composition, they aren’t that far off from Deerhoof, a musically adventurous band I got into during my salad days ias a deejay at UT Austin’s KVRX (aka, fall 2002). I’d listened to Ice Cream Spiritual, Ponytail’s first full-length a bit last summer when it first came out. It was okay, but kinda all-over-the-place and I just don’t think I was ready to listen to it. Then I looked on Pitchfork’s year-end lists and the album was selected by Sarah Lipstate of Parts & Labor (who also worked at KVRX) as one of her favorite albums of the year. And, you know, Sarah was always a cool kid, so I thought, hmmm, okay, let’s try this again.
And then shit blew my mind. I went from thinking the single “Celebrate the Body Electric” was kinda okay to a magical place in which I wanted to inhabit. So I played the album and Kamehameha, their first EP, on a loop in anticipation of their attendance at SXSW 2k9. Long story short, their performance at Club de Ville the Saturday that I saw them was one of the best shows I saw during the festival. So great. Damn can they play. And they’re really fun live — they smashed a giraffe piñata and threw candy at the audience. I ripped off a leg for my desk.
But I didn’t just see Siegel on stage. I saw her at the Mirah show (wearing a Ray Lewis Ravens jersey, no less) and also PJ Harvey‘s set as Stubb’s. (Aside: Michael Azerrad, who I saw at both the St. Vincent show at Central Presbyterian and the PJ’s show at Stubbs’ was also at Ponytail’s show. He stood right next to me and took pictures of the piñata. I’m pretty sure my shoes are in some of those shots. If you see a pair of blue Reeboks on the Interwebz, they’re mine). So, I guess I have Siegel’s (and Azerrad’s) taste in music. I’m okay with that. I at least think we could be music geek friends.
But the more I kept thinking about the show, the more entranced I became with Siegel’s performance and style. Anyone who’s listened to Ponytail knows that Siegel’s not one for words, instead usually preferring to coo, grunt, or scream in a sort of automatic language, foregrounded all the more by her spastic, confrontational stage presence. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson asserted in his review of their first full-length that the stream-of-conscious, pre-verbal stages of childhood was a potential influence on both Siegel’s vocal approach and the band’s musical sensibilities (an approach he aligns with the work of fellow Baltimorean Dan Deacon). While there’s definitely merit to that argument, I think there’s something else going on, perhaps a site through which queer, non-normative girlishness can be accessed.
No, I don’t think we can wrench Siegel’s lesbian identity from her persona or performance style. Nor should we. Nor do I think she’d want to, if her casual references to the Indigo Girls (who were playing the same time as Ponytail when I saw them) are any indication.
I can’t speak for Siegel, but I can’t help but wonder if her sexuality is central to how she views her place in music culture. For one, she’s the only woman in the band, no less a band with a noisy, chaotic approach to music. For another, she is not an instrumentalist in that band and is thus in what many folks conceptualize as an objectified, often feminized position for a band member to occupy. To add to that, she doesn’t fit the standard female body type long adhered to within hipster culture. While short, she is far from gamine — a bit stocky, by no means dainty. Also, she doesn’t outfit herself in youthful, fashionable, traditionally female attire (think Jenny Lewis). Instead, she clomps around in Timberland boots and football jerseys, garments traditionally aligned with masculine dress made frumpy and destabilized by her petite figure.
In short, Siegel’s presence is unquestionably queer, a fact which informs her vocal style. Rather than infantile, as others may suggest, I’d argue that Siegel’s voice is actually quite complex — at times angry, giddy, abuzz with sexual delight, flip, petulant, seething with contempt, or uncertain of either herself or the world around her. In short, she seems to occupy a more complex matrices in which women (masculine women, no less) can claim space for themselves.