A recent email from the Girls Rock Camp Austin listserv (I wish I could quit you but I can’t bring myself to unsubscribe) reignited my interest in writing another post in an ongoing series about unusual instruments and the women who play them. So far, I’ve focused on Dorothy Ashby and the autoharp, Cocorosie and Y Pants’ use of toy instruments, and Little Boots and the Tenori-On (an instrument I’ve also seen Yuka Honda play in concert). Today, I thought I’d focus on the theremin.
I’ve actually mentioned this instrument before on the blog, once in a post when I explained why I was learning how to play the guitar and another where I gave a shout-out to Nouveller, Sarah Lipstate’s solo project.
I’m fascinated by this instrument. I first saw it in action when Lipstate took hers out and one of her house parties I attended when we were in college. The theremin is an electronic instrument cloaked in mystery, perhaps in part because its inventor’s ties with Soviet espionage during the Cold War and also because of its use of antennae to manipulate pitch and volume. During the post-war era, composers like Miklós Rózsa and Bernard Herrmann showcased the instrument in their work in part as a way to break from the constraints of traditional orchestral instrumentation and Romantic classical music’s almost dogmatic influence over Hollywood film score at the time.
In time, the theremin would become associated with science fiction because of its technological origins and otherworldly sound–in other words, its ability to signify the modernist tensions between man and machine. Rózsa harnessed the instrument’s emotional range, relying upon its eeriness to convey an alcoholic’s deteriorating mental state in the music he wrote for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend and suggesting its ability to aurally represent the emotional longing of a damaged man in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
What especially interests me about the theremin is how it is played. I suppose there is a connotative detachment associated with an instrument that cannot be touched. But I also think there’s something progressive and potentially even queer about an object that relies upon the musician’s body–particularly his or her masterful, dexterous hands–to make sound. While hands tend to be used to guide pitch and frequency, punk brats like Jon Spencer prove that you can use other body parts to play the theremin and, in the process, possibly extend its queer potential. I’d also be interested in seeing how instrumentalists with physical impairments play it, as the instrument serves as truly an extension of the performer and thus suggest any number of ways the body can be used to make sounds.
But I think what I love most about the theremin it is its complex emotional range. The damn thing sounds like the human psyche made material. Observe Clara Rockmore’s performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan.”
I’m floored by her poise and the aching beauty her graceful hands are able to divine out of the theremin. Her performance seems to at once bring to mind an aria’s technical virtuosity and a prayer’s quiet humanity. Rockmore also reminds us that the music produced by a theremin exists in the spaces between the body and the instrument. Some may argue that this unique to the theremin, but usually we can see what actions cause the sound produced from a plucked harp or a brushed snare. Physical contact provides confirmation. With the theremin we must imagine the aural space in between music and musician, and thus can never be sure where the instrument ends and the instrumentalist begins.
If I had to pick one rock band to invite over for dinner, it’d be the B-52′s without question. I’d even drink sweet tea if it was spiked. They formed after getting drunk in a Chinese restaurant, so I know good things can happen with them while they’re eating. Maybe they’d bring over the plastic fruit Keith Haring gifted them. I hope Kate Pierson brings her girlfriend too.
I love the B-52′s without any trace of irony. I requested a cassette copy of Cosmic Thing for my tenth birthday because I saw Stephanie Tanner do a dance routine to “Love Shack” on Full House and heard the Mickey Mouse Club cover “Roam” and was sold, only to find that “Dry County” was my favorite track on the album.
What actually endeared the B-52′s to me was the video to “Love Shack,” which looked like the most fun shoot ever–way more fun than Sinéad O’Connor’s devastating “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The club in that video was what I wanted the parties in Dirty Dancing to be, though as an adult, I’ve come to love it, appreciate its distinctly Jewish purview, and recognize its feminist potential. But no one was risking back-alley abortions after getting knocked up by slumming waiters at the Love Shack, perhaps because of all the same-sex hook-ups going on.
I didn’t recognize it as such at the time but, with RuPaul in tow, “Love Shack” one of the queerest clips I’d seen at that age. Along with the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Freddie Mercury, and family friends Ken and Dennis, the B-52′s were a big part of my LGBT sensitivity training growing up. Later, I found out that Cosmic Thing was released after an extended hiatus. It was their first record after guitarist Ricky Wilson died of AIDS. Frankly, I still marvel that Cindy was able to record after losing her brother so tragically. Perhaps taking cues from kindred spirit Pee-Wee Herman, the B-52′s recognized children’s need for queer visibility and ingratiated themselves into kids’ programming, with members providing the theme song to Rocko’s Modern Life and the group coming together as the BC-52′s for The Flintstones. Actually, I’ll count Rosie O’Donnell as part of my education too. Even though she wasn’t out yet, she pinged my ‘dar big time.
I’m thinking about queer visibility and alliance because Wisconsin Capitol Pride is going on this weekend. But the B-52′s expanded my mind in other ways. Of their peers, Devo and the Talking Heads get branded as the eggheads. I’m not disputing that they made esoteric pop music that legitimized “graduate student” as a cool vocation. But the brains behind Blondie and the B-52′s are often discredited because they made fun records and trafficked in thrift-store kitsch. Yet, as the documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out makes clear, the B-52′s avant-garde pop was just as intellectually rigorous as R.E.M.’s mumblecore and at home with Pylon and the Bar-B-Que Killers. And David Byrne identified with the B-52′s enough to produce Mesopotamia. Maybe they’re dismissed because Fred Schneider professes cultural ignorance on “Mesopotamia” by stating “I ain’t no student of ancient culture–before I talk, I should read a book!” Frankly, I wish more people were that honest. I’m sure a lot of people can’t abide the group because Schneider’s defiantly gay vocal mannerisms trigger latent homophobia. That or “Rock Lobster.”
I’ve always loved “Rock Lobster”–so much so that a college friend gave me a 45 copy for Christmas one year. I’m not alone, either. Apparently Haring used to paint to it for hours, to the ire of his flat mate and neighbors. But it’s terrible for karaoke because it’s seven minutes long and most people can’t commit to Schneider’s campy narration and the ladies’ Ono-esque sea creature noises. That’s why I suggested Karaoke Underground replace “Rock Lobster” with “52 Girls,” because drunk people enjoy screaming people’s names and pointing to their friends.
Somewhere I read that the B-52′s’ read on paper like an American Studies thesis but sounded like a dance party. That’s pretty right on. Like artist Kenny Scharf and filmmaker John Waters, the group was obsessed with queering retro futurism and Cold War Americana. Their name references the bomber that streamlined modern warfare and the bee-hive hairdos preferred by teenyboppers and girl groups. During the Reagan Administration, the threat of Soviet revolution and nuclear fallout held relevance. The easy solution was to retreat to a time when xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia (all synonyms for “paranoia”) seethed under shiny, vinyl surfaces. Folks like the B-52′s thought this was a punchline with horrifying ramifications, and responded by regressing. I almost wrote on this for my Cold War Media Culture class but wrote about West Side Story instead for some reason. When Ruth La Ferla’s considered the economic ramifications of retro-futurism’s escapist pleasures for the New York Times, I kicked myself.
For me, it’s easy to pore over any B-52′s album cover. What are they wearing? Where can I find those wigs? But the one that captured my imagination was Whammy! Though obviously on a set, the composition of William Wegman’s shot suggests that the group is in an abyss, staring above at an uncertain future. Vikki Warren’s costuming is amazing. Kate and Cindy’s outfits are vivid bursts of red and yellow against the men’s black-and-white ensembles. I especially love the silhouette of Kate’s dress, bringing to mind Judy Jetson and the hula hoop. Released a year before Reagan was re-elected and thus fulfilled an Orwellian prophesy, Whammy! was the group’s most forward-looking record to date. As a result, it was underappreciated. But songs like “Legal Tender,” “Song for a Future Generation,” and a cover version of Yoko Ono’s “Don’t Worry” (later replaced by “Moon 83″ for legal reasons) were and remain relevant.
I fell in love with a girl for the first time in the sixth grade. I didn’t conceptualize it as a crush at the time, because I was supposed to be having those on some white boy in Tiger Beat. My taste in men was influenced by Spin and Rolling Stone—Dave Gahan, Jeff Buckley, Damon Albarn, Beck. I got it up for Christian Slater and an androgynous Leonardo DiCaprio, couldn’t get it up for Tom Cruise, and had an alarming (and mercifully brief) infatuation with Robin Williams.
My affections turned toward Darlene Conner, Roseanne‘s jaded middle child. In high school, I would more likely have palled around with her honor student older sister Becky (or at least until she started dating Mark, because Becky’s totally the kind of girl who has girlfriends when she’s single and his friends when she’s in a relationship). But through junior high, I was enamored. She was unimpressed and angry and also had a mischievous smile and killer delivery. I didn’t know Bikini Kill existed until Roseanne and Jackie picked up Jenna Elfman’s riot grrrl hitch-hiker in season seven. But I wanted to take Darlene home, try on her clothes, dye her hair black, and play her Daisy Chainsaw tapes. Ughn!
Darlene and I met some time in Roseanne‘s second season when my parents started watching it. No doubt the Conners’ doomed entrepreneurial spirit spoke to my parents, who ran a fledgling print shop. Roseanne became a site of multi-generational female bonding, as did many feminists and like-minded women on prime-time network television at the time, including Dorothy Zbornak, Khadijah James, Murphy Brown, Clair Huxtable, and life partners Mary Jo Shively and Julia Sugarbaker. All these women, including my mother, contributed to my insistence that I bellow the 19th Amendment at my fifth grade open house. But Darlene was the first girl character on television who really resonated with me. I had intermittent cable access, so Clarissa Darling and Alex Mac weren’t always around. Plus they were plucky and blonde. I was not, and neither was Darlene.
I began to relate to Darlene when I caught season two’s “Brain-Dead Poet’s Society” in syndication. This is the episode where she begrudgingly read “To Whom It May Concern” at her school’s culture night. It’s a major turning point. Prior to that, Darlene was a gifted athlete who was quick to defend herself against the world with a joke, usually at Becky’s expense. Season one hints at Darlene’s interiority when she gets her period and has her appendix removed. It was clear that Darlene was far brighter than her below-average grades indicated, much to the bemusement of her parents and sister. I was famously useless in athletics, so we couldn’t play horse together. Instead, I was my room drawing or writing something for myself. So I felt this moment in my bones. I wanted to give her a hug and my diary.
Once Darlene started high school, she stopped playing sports and returning her friends’ calls. She started wearing black, writing comics, and refusing meat. Luckily she found someone who pulls her out of her existential crisis. No, it wasn’t David Healy. It was Karen, a local bookstore owner, with whom the Conners have misgivings.
I forgot that Karen isn’t a lesbian. I sublimated that Darlene’s parents don’t like their daughter hanging out with her because of what it might suggest about their daughter’s sexuality. They just think it’s weird that their daughter would spend so much time with an adult. Still, I think there’s queer anxiety embedded into Roseanne and Karen’s meeting in season four’s “Santa Claus.” Roseanne is hurt that Darlene found another mother figure in whom to confide. But she’s also uncertain about who her daughter is. So Karen and Darlene could still scan as mentor and baby dyke to me.
I might be assuming network imperative here. It’s been reported that actress Sara Gilbert, who came out privately during the show’s run, wanted Darlene to be a lesbian. ABC was reticent. To Roseanne‘s credit, alongside its consideration of working-class angst, the show forged a space for queer visibility before Ellen DeGeneres came out on the network and Will and Grace skyrocketed on NBC. It could have done a lot more for people of color, though I’d attribute the success of Friends and Seinfeld on NBC’s Must See Thursday line-up, a marketing construct that rose to popularity with The Cosby Show, to the whitewashing of the sitcom in the second half of the 90s rather than blame Roseanne exclusively. But for a show that featured a bisexual female character, a lesbian character, and a gay male character in the supporting cast (along with the reveal of a gay principal character in the series’ finale), it’s vexing that the one queer person in the main cast played straight. At least we had Sandra Bernhard.
A friend made a convincing argument for why it’s okay that Darlene was straight. She pointed out that there aren’t many heterosexual masculine women on television. Fair point. She may have pointed out that queer actors shouldn’t be relegated to playing queer characters, which is also true. But if Darlene had to be straight, couldn’t she have had some female bonding? Her mom and aunt were tight and had several lady friends. They started a restaurant with Nancy. They hung out with childhood pal Crystal. They reconnected with high school friend Anne-Marie (one of the few women of color on the show). When Roseanne waited tables at a diner, she brought coworker Bonnie over for girls’ nights. And in a regrettably truncated season two narrative arc, Roseanne befriended young newlywed Debbie, refugee Iris, and haunted widow Marsha when she briefly works at a hair salon. Seriously, Pedro Almodóvar could have turned those few episodes into a feature.
I knew I loved Darlene when she started dating David in season four. Yes, I was jealous. No, this isn’t why I haven’t watched Gilbert reunite with Johnny Galecki on The Big Bang Theory (credit creator Chuck Lorre, who was on Roseanne’s writing staff for a few seasons). At first, I thought it was cool that they made comics. But as their relationship developed, it was apparent that he was manipulative and insecure over Darlene’s talent. David was a textbook emosogynist. As the series focused on Darlene and Becky’s relationships and growing resentment, it never recovered.
Season five is when the show falters. After Becky elopes with Mark (an Amy Sherman-Palladino masterstroke that so totally informs Rory’s romantic trajectory on Gilmore Girls that it’s pretty surprising Roseanne didn’t hail her in her New York Magazine essay), sexpot neighbor Molly Tilden (Danielle Harris) is the token good girl gone bad. Darlene is threatened by her boyfriend’s attraction to her. When Molly strands her at the Daisy Chainsaw concert, any possible good will between the two is gone. Then Darlene goes to art school in Chicago. We hear some talk of friends, but never see them. Ultimately, she marries David and has a daughter. I watched all of this, and rooted for Darlene to complete school and help her mother live through her dad’s heart attack. It’s revealed in the finale that Darlene paired up with Mark, but this seemed incongruous with Roseanne’s vision for her daughter, so she fictionalized a romance between her and David. Sadly, this felt disingenuous to me too. I hoped she kept in touch with Karen.
Last Saturday, I made the trek many fellow Austinites forged (including some folks I know, including my dear friend Curran, who came with local queer royalty). Some folks (including a work friend) were staying warm at Central Presbyterian watching Shearwater perform. I went to the Mohawk to see Kool Keith, who was recording the performance for a forthcoming release. And frankly, people, he was boring. The sound quality was a little muffled, but the overall performance was lacking. Very “do you accept the charges?” Now, he was only 15 minutes late, which seems pretty reasonable given the emcee’s characteristic disregard for punctuality (one friend saw him in the late 90s and he was over an hour late, but he did pass out individual baggies that contained chicken wings and juice boxes, which I think is a fair trade). But the Mohawk is an outdoor venue and, due to noise ordinances, the concert had to be over by midnight. And while I think people who live in apartment complexes across from venues on Red River need to accept concert noise as part of the neighborhood charm, it also meant Keith did a 45-minute medley cherry-picking cuts from his prolific, personality-traversing career.
More to the point, I had to confront something I knew I’d have to deal with at a Kool Keith show: feminist discomfort. As a hip hop fan, I’ve had to do a lot of negotiating. I like Kanye pointing out social injustice, but I cock my head and raise my eyebrows when he says he’d do anything for a blonde dyke (or when he festoons his videos with model corpses). I like it when Murs empathizes with young women who have to reconcile their blended heritages in a racist world but cross my arms and scowl when he brags about inserting a glow stick inside a rave attendee. I’ve liked Keith since Black Elvis (and then went back for Dr. Octagonocologist) largely for the same reasons I maintain that Tracy Morgan is in many ways the strongest player on 30 Rock: his surreal, destabilizing flow possesses a stunningly elliptical rhythm and wordplay that seems to bump into ugly truths about how black men are perceived and misunderstood in white society. And they’re both funny as hell. After all, Keith penned “You Live At Home With Your Mom” and, in doing so, probably influenced every writing staff currently employed by Adult Swim.
But as the self-professed originator of pornocore, Keith often trades in graphic depictions of sexuality which tend to be unsettling, bizarre, and hyper-focused on the abject. In other words, Keith doesn’t use the long-form player to conduct quiet storms. And even with smoother efforts like Sex Style and portions of Black Elvis, he isn’t so much embodying a loverman persona so much as exaggerating its inherent ridiculousness from the inside (well, he might be embodying it too). However, intent is always vulnerable to interpretation and, in a crowd where an audience heavy in straight-reading white dudes were cheering on dancers shimmying to “Girl Let Me Touch You There,” the weirdness of the message may have gotten lost.
Though I’m glad that I finally saw hir, I didn’t think Big Freedia was that great either. To echo my friend Curran, Freedia is very one-note and the live performance really demonstrated this. I know Freedia was the toast of Fun Fun Fun Fest and it’s great that ze’s getting a larger audience. Again, sound may have been an issue. And I’m not one to complain about seeing ladies shake it and don’t want to be the politically correct police but for a black, queer artist, there was a lot of skinny white girl ass up on stage. But maybe that’s how Freedia likes it. As a petite white woman who attended the show with her male partner, I have no room to play culture police. After all, a fat black woman I can guarantee is queer dropping it on stage assures a whole other set of problems with reception and representation.
What you might be gathering from the proceedings is that its sexual and racial politics were . . . complicated. This is where the opening act stole the show in my estimation. Shane Shane is based in Madison, Wisconsin and recalls Gravy Train!!!! instead of Brother Ali. Shane hurled his burly frame (bedecked in a sailor suit) across the stage. He bellowed, crooned, and minced his way through a set that swiped from MC Luscious’ “Boom! I Got Your Boyfriend” and boasted a posterboard headdress for each song in his set (except the ballad, of course). He was novel, irritating, and pretty damn thrilling. Not a lot of Midwestern bears would have the courage to perform such a confrontational, anarchic, unquestionably gay set for this Southern crowd. It may have been too much for some people (a deejay friend headed for the bar during the set because he didn’t like Shane’s voice). And frankly, I’m not sure if Shane Shane’s limited charms can be distilled on record or will outlive this particular moment. Based on this interview with the A.V. Club, I hope he does. If he’s playing in your town, you should see him. Whether you’re annoyed, elated, or a giddy combination of the two, Shane Shane will deliver. Last Saturday, he gave the headliners a lesson in spectacle, stage presence, and subversion.
It’s my hope that today’s future ax-slingers who are currently spending hours in their bedrooms learning to play the guitar are regarding Kaki King, Marnie Stern, and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox with the godhead status previously designated to Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eddie Van Halen. It’s also of course my hope that these instrumentalists are transgender and cisgender boys and girls.
I’ve been meaning to focus on Cox for a while and felt that the late September release of Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest was just the opportunity. I don’t have much to say on the album itself, other than it’s consistent with the band and its leader’s beautiful, unsettling output. The influence of girl group pop, Roy Orbison, psych rock, shoegaze, drone, Stereolab and other abstruse curios fetishized by music nerds are still present, culminating in hazy indie pop bolstered by formidable guitar chops. The music isn’t as twinged with the vaguely Lynchian erotic tension of the group’s earlier efforts, particularly Cryptograms, which recalls my experiences driving through the densely wooded areas of their native Atlanta. Steep inclines and tortuous roads determine your course and thickets of pine trees spear the sky. The austerity is breathtaking and ominous.
The proceedings here are deceptively breezy and once again, Cox’s fandom is foregrounded. Neither of these developments are especially new, as Cox worked with Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier on Logos, an album from his solo project Atlas Sound. Both tracks are indicative of his thematic investment with childhood and struggle. His collaboration with Sadier on “Quick Canal,” Logos‘ centerpiece, is particularly compelling as Cox convincingly approximates the late Mary Hansen’s vocal style to imagine a version of one of his favorite bands where a deceased member remains alive by using himself as her vessel. Paired with a profound lyric about trading the assumption of inheriting wisdom by providence for the reality learned with age of enlightenment coming from a balance of success and failure and it remains one of his more redoubtable artistic statements.
However, there remains a productive sadness to Cox’s sound in both projects’ understanding of nostalgia. There is also often a poignant connectedness to Cox’s idols. This album came about in part because of Cox’s fandom of B-52s guitarist and fellow Georgian Ricky Wilson, an innovative and overlooked instrumentalist who was a casualty of AIDS when Cox was three and it was cruelly dismissed as gay cancer.
I invoke all of this then to situate Cox’s particular relationship to indie rock. In tandem with emulating his instrumental mastery, I hope younger musicians are also picking up on his queer, complicated corporeality and making connections to how it informs his work.
First, his body. Much discussion has been made of Cox’s stretched frame that indicates an earlier diagnosis of Marfan syndrome. Some critics, like Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan, have noted thematic connections. Frankly, you don’t even have to go that far to find it. Many of Cox’s songs deal directly with the summer in his youth where he was stuck in a hospital undergoing multiple corrective surgeries.
I appreciate how confrontational Cox is about his body on stage, in song, and through his blog. At times, he’s provoked ableist discomfort from critics and concert-goers who wish the skinny white guy would obscure his form with baggy clothes. Recently I had a conversation with my friend Curran about homophobic panic toward male hipsters, which may manifest itself in people seeking confirmation with questions like “hipster or gay?” or more menacing circumstances. Curran is himself a slender out man and prefers skinny jeans primarily because they best fit his body. However, he is also keenly aware that his wardrobe confirms his orientation and thus makes as mundane an activity as walking around his neighborhood a politically charged act. While we may live in a sartorial moment where huskier men can wear v-neck tees and tight pants, slight men remain under scrutiny for not abiding by normative ideas around masculine virility.
I cannot confirm if Cox is gay. I read that he identifies as asexual alongside journalism that labels him as either gay or bisexual. The ambiguity and fluidity of his identification may actually be productive. What I can aver is that a) Cox is not straight, b) he is gender queer, and c) he isn’t interested in making anyone comfortable about it.
Perhaps we can read Atlas Sound and Deerhunter’s efforts alongside the more assimilable contributions from peer indie act Grizzly Bear. I’m pleased we live in a moment where a band like Grizzly Bear can move units by invoking men’s chorus and not shy away from its queer implications. I’m thrilled that the band’s founder, Ed Droste, writes and sings from a homosexual male perspective. Naturally, I’m ecstatic that both bands’ compositional emphasis on the electric guitar may distance past associations with it as the manifestation of heterosexual male desire. But Grizzly Bear’s efforts are pretty and I’m energized by figures like Cox and his band who like to warp those exteriors.
At the risk of making a tenuous connection, I’d like to close with potentially connecting Cox to recent discourse around the “It Gets Better” campaign. I believe it to be a noble effort in response to recent reports of four gay teen suicides last month. However, I have major problems with it that are best distilled in Everett Maroon’s trenchant blog post on the subject, as well as Tasha Fierce’s tweet that “it doesn’t always get better.” I don’t know if Cox has any interest in commenting, but would imagine that his life as a queer Southern teenager with Marfan syndrome informs the resistive artist he is today.