Today’s post is dedicated to Caitlin, a friend of mine from graduate school who runs the blog Dark Room. After living in College Station for a couple of years, she and her husband are moving back to the Pacific Northwest. Caitlin taught me quite a few things as a friend and colleague. Perhaps her largest contribution is my appreciation of horror film, which I didn’t have when we first met. Going into our master’s program, I was strongly of the mind that horror is resistant, if not entirely antithetical, toward feminism. But Caitlin, who is both a feminist and horror aficionado, taught me the power of looking and interpreting the genre from a feminist perspective. Like me, she’s a huge music fan and champions the work of independent female musicians. Thus, it seems fitting that the last time we’ll see each other for the immediate future is at the Girls Rock Camp Austin showcase (tomorrow at the HighBall — doors open at noon). In tribute, I thought I’d do a brief write-up on The 126.96.36.199s’ cameo in Kill Bill, Volume One. Grrrl rock and Quentin Tarantino? I can’t think of a better pairing to honor her.
The story goes that director Tarantino was introduced to the band while frequenting a Japanese clothing store and had to track them down. Eventually, he put them in the first installment of his two-part revenge epic about a bride (Uma Thurman) wronged by her groom (David Carradine), with whom she used to work for as a member of his crime syndicate, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. In order to seek justice, the bride must slaughter the entire organization. While the second volume is more meditative in its focus on the couple’s final showdown, the first half depicts her picking off her former work associates, employing a myriad of genres for each vignette. It culminates in a battle between the Bride and former DIVA O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), who runs a criminal organization in Tokyo. But in order to battle O-Ren, the Bride must first take out her crew in a bar where The 188.8.131.52s are playing.
As you can tell from the band’s sound, cultural references, and performance of The Ikettes’ “I’m Blue,” the Japanese outfit is heavily influenced by 60s Americana, particularly girl groups and surf rock. As I’ve discussed in previous entries, similar interests are shared with Japanese characters in movies like Mystery Train and Linda Linda Linda. But I wonder about the feedback loop between Japan’s cultural fascination with American rock music and 20th century youth culture and Americans’ interest in some of their pop culture being appropriated and reinterpreted by members of an Eastern nation.
Obviously, this exchange can sometimes perpetuate Western assumptions of a cutesy, monolithic Japanese culture heavily rooted in American narcissism. So I feel a bit uneasy when interpreting the band’s appearance in the movie. It could easily be argued that they’re window-dressing, as well as means of authenticating an outsider’s conceptualization of what a “real” izakaya must be like. Yet I still feel that their sound is interpreting American rock music in a way analogous to Tarantino’s celebration of Japanese popular culture, particularly martial arts movies and anime. It may not be an easy pairing, but The 184.108.40.206s rock it out.
Following a screening of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark at my friend Karin’s house, I plopped down on my couch, strummed on my Mako, and watched Derek Jarman’s The Tempest. I’d been meaning to watch it for some time, as an acquaintance Tweeted about the scene that captured my interest and will comprise the focus of this post.
Before getting into my thoughts on Elisabeth Welch’s scene-stealing performance, I should preface by saying that I have a tentative grasp on Shakespeare. Like many of my generation, I was certainly aware of various contemporary adaptations following the commercial success of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which moved Jane Austen’s Emma down Rodeo Drive. Unlike many of my peers in media studies, I was not an English major at any point during my college career. I was a jourstory student (a portmanteau in circulation when I was an undergrad that refers to folks who double major in journalism and history). I never had to take any classes on Shakespeare, which I believe is a requirement for English students at UT. As an outsider, I think this is ridiculous, as contemporary literature has been responsible for numerous innovations as well.
But I have no problem with the Bard himself (or Christopher Marlowe, depending on what story we’re telling). In high school, I read Romeo and Juliet, horrifying my English major-Shakespeare enthusiast mother by highlighting passages in her hard-bound, gold-leafed complete works anthology. I read the regressive The Taming of the Shrew, own 10 Things I Hate About You, and played showgirl Lois Lane, who portrays Bianca, in a high school production of Cole Porter’s backstage musical Kiss Me Kate. We read Hamlet aloud junior year in English class. I later saw a woman play Hamlet in an Austin-based production early on in college, but decided against seeing Ethan Hawke’s slacker take on the doomed prince of Denmark.
I did my senior term paper on Titus Andronicus to the chagrin of my teacher, who deemed the play inappropriate and of lesser quality. I read the part of Celia As You Like It for theater class. I played Adriana in a high school production of The Comedy of Errors, which our director regrettably set as a tacky mash-up of 60s kitsch (Laugh-In meets Beach Blanket Bingo!). I liked Emma Thompson and hated Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing. I vaguely recall Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, as well as Shakespeare in Love (which time also forgot). I read Othello during college for, you guessed it, an English class. And I didn’t find the Henry V portions of My Own Private Idaho completely distracting.
I also have a tentative grasp on Jarman, having only seen Jubilee. I’m totally willing to get to know his filmography better, as I like how he juxtaposed classical imagery with punk elements. For me, his movies evince the work of a mutual friend at a party who’s charming, smart, arch yet cheeky, and has awesome taste. I’m determined to become besties.
But Jarman is tricky, as I noted upon my screening of Jubilee. His work recalls a conversation I had with my friend Curran about Todd Haynes’s early work, and not for icky “hey, gay filmmakers!” reasons. Apparently, Haynes set out to queer his films in a number of ways. The most obvious of these was through foregrounding gay or queerable characters or putting ostensibly straight women in camp environments, configuring them as allies, or having them cede from the heterosexual marital unit. But Haynes’s key contribution to queer cinema was in challenging audience expectations, experimenting with both the formal and narrative elements of cinema to leave folks unsure of what they’ve seen. To that end, Haynes and fellow Queer New Wave director Gregg Araki are clearly indebted to Gus Van Sant and Jarman.
This brings us to The Tempest , a 95-minute adaptation of the classic play. I’ve never seen or read it, and frankly the movie didn’t help me gather much information. It’s about a magician named Prospero, who was to be Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda who are stuck on an island after his brother Alonso set them adrift for several years and became the King of Naples. The pacing and commitment to location — in this case, Stoneleigh Abbey — suggests a stagnant insularity from a life in exile. Prospero, the protagonist, is served by a spirit named Ariel, who helps to set right all of the familial discord.
Many old wounds seem healed, as the group set out to return to Naples, and Miranda marries her cousin Ferdinand. But the ending is evasive. In the final scene, Prospero takes it upon the audience to applaud for them in order to determine if they can leave. This makes it one of Shakespeare’s more ambiguous plays, which may have attracted Jarman to the material. At the wedding reception, a goddess appears. Here, she’s played by torch singer Elisabeth Welch in her final screen performance. Somewhat obscure in the states where she was born, England adopted her and she replied in kind by becoming a citizen. Like many chanteuses, she had a significant gay male following. Here she serenades the young couple with a peculiar song.
Yes, Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s 1933 standard “Stormy Weather” is strange in its anachronism. It’s also cryptic in its message, thus subverting the role weddings traditionally provide in Shakespearean comedies as a means of tidy resolution. This scene also reminded me of a wedding reception I attended where the band played inappropriate songs like The Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You.” Delivered in a clear, bright tone, Welch conjures up relevant imagery of turbulence while reflecting on lost love. Notably, she’s doing this in front a young, straight couple. Jarman plumbs wedding receptions’ camp potential and indicates the singer’s fan base by surrounding Welch with a chorus line of sailors, masculine figures long integrated into gay culture and iconography. For this perplexed viewer, it’s the stuff that dreams are made on.
Tara Rodgers’s book Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound collects interviews from a variety of female musicians who work with electronic instruments, either as deejays, composers, sound artists, or sometimes a composite of all three. Anticipation was high for this book, which began as a Web site Rodgers started while in graduate school at Mills College. I began reading over the interviews available online when preparing an encyclopedia entry on female DJs and found it an invaluable resource. When I finally picked up a copy and began pouring over the cover — which features Jessica Rylan playing a self-fashioned synthesizer — I was sold.
The project takes its name from both femininity’s associations with pink and a technical term which refers to variations of white noise that contain low frequencies, resulting in an equal distribution of energy per octave. I was especially inspired by Rodgers’s work, as she launched the Web site while in graduate school. She used the site as an opportunity to pursue personal and scholarly interests by interviewing musicians (many of whom were professors or colleagues). She also provided a resource for female instrumentalists who had technical or musical questions, thus also creating a safe space from women who didn’t want to be condescended to or demeaned by (male) “experts.”
Female musicians engaging with technology is the book’s main theme. One thing that is especially productive about the book is that, by focusing on software and electronic instrumentation, it acknowledges that instruments are fundamentally technological. This helps dispel the myth that music has to made with string, brass, or woodwind instruments. Also, despite the lack of guitars, many of these women are influenced by punk’s DIY ethos. They also challenge the music-making process. For some, this rebellion comes in opposition to their professional position as members of the academy, particularly at institutions like Mills College and the University of Illinois-Champaign. Pauline Oliveros made a name for herself for pioneering the concept of Deep Listening. Christina Kubitsch incorporates electromagnatic induction and light panels into her compositions, which are meant to be experienced rather than just heard. Annea Lockwood finds music in rivers, devoting much of her career to archiving the sounds of bodies of water from around the world. Others have little to do with the academy and use their work to challenge electronic music’s cerebral tendencies. Maria Chavez is a turntablist who often uses broken records.
Furthermore, I was particularly heartened by Rodgers’s interviews with women who create their own instruments and their reading about their relationships with them. Laetitia Sonami created the Lady Glove, an electronic instrument she had grafted onto her hand. Rylan’s developed the Personal Synth, and other systems, as a direct response against sweatshop labor and electronic waste. Many of these women are engaged with political activist groups dedicated to social justice, most notably DJ Rehka and Mutamassik.
A final point that the book contributes, and Alley Hector astutely pointed out in her review for AfterEllen, is queer women’s contributions to electronic music. This is evident with the inclusion of Le Tigre, Pauline Oliveros, Susan Morabito, and Bev Stanton (aka Arthur Loves Plastic), who has some interesting comments to make regarding lesbians’ actual musical preferences which she notes tend to be more cutting edge than bars and clubs suggest them to be. As many of these women champion subversive and unconventional approaches to composition — and work extensively with their hands — it follows a logic that many of them, not unlike guitarists Kaki King and Marissa Paternoster, identify as lesbian and bisexual, as well as encompass a broad spectrum of representations and expressions from within those categories.
One minor quibble I had with the book is that it (intentionally) gets a bit technical, gear-heavy, and theoretical, which is also one of the book’s main contributions to complicating the gendered notions of musicians’ technological interactions. While there’s a glossary to guide folks through the terminology, I would recommend reading the book an interview at a time and giving yourself a moment to process the information. Finding performance footage may help make concrete some of the artists’ more abstract assertions.
However, those willing to wade through a little bit of jargon will be rewarded by a good book that champions the musical output of a variety of female electronic instrumentalists who continue to challenge how we conceptualize popular music.
I just got back from the American Sabor exhibit at the Bob Bullock Museum, which I took my partner, mother, stepfather, and stepbrother to see. I specifically wanted to take my mom, a choir director, in honor of Mother’s Day. This wonderful collection focuses on Latino and Latinas contributions to popular music. Having heard guest curator/University of Washington professor Michelle Habell-Pallán’s plenary presentation on the collection at Console-ing Passions, I was itching to go. As a music history educator for Girls Rock Camp Austin, I couldn’t wait to start incorporating these artists into our curriculum.
Three days after Cinco de Mayo, it’s particularly relevant given the racism and xenophobia informing policies like Arizona’s SB 1o70, which my former professor Jennifer Fuller rightly dubbed as wrong-headed at a recent protest in town. If you live in the Austin area, make it a priority to see the exhibit this weekend, as tomorrow is its last day at Bob Bullock.
The bilingual exhibit doesn’t divide the work of these musicians so much by genre, as it’s clearly making the case that Latino and Latina contributions have been varied, ingratiating itself in rock, hip hop, country, dance, soul, jazz, and a myriad of other musical styles. Instead, the exhibit is organized by geographical locations. The emphasized cities are San Antonio, East Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and New York City, though contributions from folks in Tuscon, Houston, Chicago, and Detroit are also acknowledged. I particularly appreciated the care given toward providing a sociohistoric context toward migration patterns, cultural history, and the evolution of cityspaces in relation to the musical offerings and innovation of its populations.
There were many significant artifacts on display. I was particularly struck by outfits worn by Selena, Celia Cruz, Freddy Fender, and SB 1070 protestor Linda Ronstadt. I also enjoyed seeing Doug Sahm’s guitar, Eva Ybarra’s accordion, and Isidro Lopez’s speaker. I loved the wall of album covers and the displays of vintage posters, some of which were created by Los Angeles-based graphic designers Sister Karen Boccalero and Walter Nelez. I found the collected interview footage, oral history kiosks, and historical timelines for topics like lowrider cars, pachucos, Radio Jalepeno, the United Farm Workers strike, and the Chicano Rights Movement (which informed me of 1954′s sickeningly prescient Operation Wetback) most useful. I loved all the walk-in jukeboxes that represented each area and some of the more noteworthy songs or musical movements that emanated therein. I was energized by how many of these artists were politically active, including Los Illegals and Tijuana No!
I was also pleasantly surprised by how interactive the exhibit is. A dance floor is included for guests who want to learn salsa, mambo, cha cha, and a variety of disciplines these artists and their fans popularized. A mixing board is also available for folks who want to put together their own versions of “Song for Cesar” and “La Murga de Panamá.” I got a kick out of the Play That Hook station, which includes a piano with light-up keys to teach people how to play the hooks to songs like War’s “Low Rider.”
I especially loved how Latina musicians were incorporated throughout the exhibit rather than relegated to one section of it. I was delighted to see East L.A. punks Alice Armandariz of The Bags and Teresa Covarrubias of The Brat alongside San Diego’s Rosie Hamlin of Rosie and the Originals, whose teen pop classic “Angel Baby” (which Hamlin wrote) should be included with the One Kiss Can Lead To Another box set, along with singles from The Arvisu Sisters. I also delighted in discovering Martha Gonzalez of East L.A.-based Quetzal, who plays a tarima, which is a platform onto which the performer stomps rhythms.
I also enjoyed seeing and hearing the influence of Cuban musicians like La Lupe and Celia Cruz and the impact they had on future generations of Cuban American artists, most notably Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine.
As a Texan, I was so proud of Texas Latinas’ contributions to Tejano. Eva Ybarra, Lydia Mendoza, and Laura Canales broke barriers as some of the first women in Tejano’s myriad of subgenres, forging a path Selena would later bring closer to the mainstream. Bands like Girl in a Coma make clear that a variety of influences from multiple cultural origins can be brought together and positively rock in the process.
Thus, American Sabor proves that Latino and Latina contributions to popular music have been intrinsic and influential. By emphasizing the diversity of participants within this large aggregate, it makes the point even clearer that they themselves are ubiquitous in music culture.
Last month, I mentioned that I started taking guitar lessons and hoped to incorporate my experience in chorus into a project that better reflected my interests in dance and post-punk. The Knife have recently expanded how I hear opera. But imagine my surprise when I was perusing this piece from The Guardian about the supposed lack of angry female music stars and read about an all-female British punk choir named GAGGLE. And I thought discovering post-punk female percussion ensemble like Pulsallama was exciting.
Amazing! I don’t know if this 22-piece ensemble has any inclinations to cross the pond, but I hope they make a stop in Austin.