Last week, I did a quick round-up of some new releases I’ve enjoyed. In that post, I mentioned that upon occasion friends and acquaintances familiar with my blog will ask what I’m listening to. When they ask this question, the tacit assumption I make is that they want to discuss current recording artists. There’s always a few up-and-comers I champion, but any time someone asks “who are you listening to” it’s usually an older act I’m investigating. This year, if you asked “what are you listening to” my answer is “the Cocteau Twins.”
At this point, it’s hardly incendiary to proclaim oneself a fan of the long-defunct Scottish dream pop act. For one, there’s not much to hate. It seems detractors profess indifference rather than contempt, deeming their music pleasant but inconsequential. The worst insult I’ve heard was that there’s little difference between their sound and the pan-global efforts of 4AD labelmates Dead Can Dance and new age artists like Enya and Enigma. These artists sound good as background noise at a bougie dinner party. Pass the quinoa.
Though their releases always clutter discount bins — no doubt jewels from the reject piles of former high school goth kids’ CD collections — contemporary acts like M83, Warpaint, Phantogram, School of Seven Bells, Sleep Over, and even Linkin Park cite their influence. While folks like Madonna and David Lynch noted their interest in the band early on, it’s only recently become “fashionable” to like them. In 2005, there was unsubstantiated talk of a reunion at Coachella. In 2008, the band received a Q Award for their contributions to popular music, a rare accolade Fraser noted for an otherwise undecorated band.
In the past few years, I’ve entered into more conversations with people who like them, along with the work band members vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, guitarist-producer Robin Guthrie, and bassist Simon Raymonde did with This Mortal Coil, especially Fraser and Guthrie’s contributions on It’ll End in Tears. Like M83′s Anthony Gonzalez, a lot of us are in are 20s and too young to directly experience the group’s 80s heyday. So I’m going to guess many of us came to our fandom through other portals, perhaps exploring the reference Patton Oswalt makes in his bit about KFC bowls in Werewolves in Lollipops or listening to the haunting score Guthrie and composer Harold Budd created for Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin.
I first remember hearing Cocteau Twins on the radio in 1994. The song I heard was “Bluebeard,” the lead single to their penultimate album Four Calendar Café. I liked it fine and noticed they already enjoyed a long career. I suspected Sarah McLachlan might be a fan based on songs like “Fear” and “Vox,” the latter of which was originally released on her 1988 debut Touch but received some airplay following the success of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I seem to recall that she opened for the band at some point during this time, but can’t confirm this.
In 1998, I remember hearing Fraser on Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” which may be where many fans in my peer group first heard her. The song is still mesmerizing to me and continues to appeal to others. House incorporated the song as its theme, though regrettably without Fraser’s vocals. Friday Night Lights used José González’s cover this season to underscore a heartbreaking scene where Matt Saracen learns of an unexpected death in his family. I later found out that Fraser was recording the song when she heard that her one-time confidant Jeff Buckley drowned. Fraser considered the song as something of a tribute.
During graduate school, I read Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’s nebulous The Sex Revolts, wherein Fraser’s opaque vocals were linked the womb and the abject. As with much of that book, I wished the authors limited their focus to something less amoebic than gender fuckery in popular music and didn’t crutch so heavily on Gilles Deleuze to support their claims.
I highlight these points to emphasize that the Cocteau Twins were in my periphery for some time, but only recently a band I claimed for my own. I knew of them, but felt their catalog and devoted fan base to be rather intimidating. I started actively listening to them in winter 2008, primarily because Bat for Lashes, Gang Gang Dance, and M83′s “80s album” garnered comparisons. I liked what I heard (I went with 1984′s Treasure as a starting point), but then went about my business. But earlier this year, I reinvigorated a long-dormant obsession with Jeff Buckley. Out of feminist disdain for having a male musician occupy my mind, I turned toward the female musicians in his life. I listened a bit to Rebecca Moore and Joan Wasser’s work, but the Cocteau Twins left a more immediate impression. I dove back into Treasure and went deeper into Blue Bell Knoll, Head Over Heels, Aikea-Guinea, Love’s Easy Tears, Victorialand, and Heaven or Las Vegas. I’m still “in it” and see no reason why you shouldn’t be plunging the leagues with me.
Like many, I was taken by Fraser’s voice. A lover of Björk, Kate Bush, and Siouxsie Sioux, who Fraser recalls in her lower register, I champion beautifully strange female voices. Fraser’s dramatic style is often dialogued with her lyrics, which are usually inscrutable and laced with references to obscure words, gibberish, and slang endemic to the band’s origins (i.e.: “aikea-guinea” is a Scottish term for “seashell”). Though seemingly nonsensical, many fans embue meaning in their attempts to decode what Fraser is singing. But I concur with Jason Ankeny that what makes Fraser’s mouth music resonate with listeners is her emphasis on “the subjective sounds and textures of verbalized emotions.”
This speaks to Fraser’s ability to subvert language, project strength, and demonstrate control, qualities for which I don’t think she gets enough credit. Critics pay particular attention toward her voice’s beauty. Indeed, Fraser possesses an opera singer’s virtuosity, chewing on words’ dexterity, skipping through complex rhythms, and leaping octaves and strange intervals. But her work tends to be described as “ephemeral,” “ethereal”, or “gossamer” to ultimately argue its frillery as being conventionally feminine. But I think there’s something to be said for a woman who writes indeciferable lyrics to songs with names like “Cico Buff,” “Sugar Hiccup,” and “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” and taps wells of emotion using these words. It could be profoundly embarrassing for both the singer and the listener, but Fraser finds the pith surrounding emotions’ ultimate intangibility.
But as this year for me is also defined by picking up a guitar, Guthrie’s contributions cannot be overstated. Fraser created a vocal style a host of UK female artists would come to emulate. Similarly, Guthrie rivals few beyond The Smiths’ Johnny Marr in the cultivation of a distinct guitar sound for its time that many would later attempt to replicate. This is evident in how younger artists on 4AD like Lush called upon Guthrie to produce their albums, no doubt aware of and indebted to the Twins’ involvement in forging a distinct pop sensibility for the label. I think it’s also noticable in Kevin Shields’ work. While some like to suggest My Bloody Valentine’s blissful, feedback-laden guitar drone and androgynous vocals were created in a vacuum, I suspect the band took notes on the Twins composing and recording processes.
Guthrie’s guitar sound also speaks to me directly. As a guitar player, I have little interest in the monster riff foolwangery many nurture when they pick up a Fender Stratocaster in the hopes of becoming Stevie Ray Vaughn. Instead, I like how the guitar can be used to conjure atmosphere and mood, however fleeting or mutable. Like Guthrie, I’m also a fan of seventh chords, which destabilize the triad and create a sense of irresolution. Thus this music tends to shift expectations of how it’s supposed to sound, requiring listeners to pay attention in order to process superficially beautiful but compositionally complex music. I suppose this sense of mastery ultimately puts Guthrie in the position of guitar god, though his indifference toward conventional melody and reliance on Fraser’s voice, Raymonde’s sleepy bass, and an omnipresent Roland 808 potentially shift expectations of the band’s sound and his role in helping create it.
We could dwell on Fraser and Guthrie’s former relationship, the daughter they share, his former dependence on heroin and alcohol, the couple’s estrangement, and the band’s disintegration. I’m not especially interested in it, however. But like many UK post-punk acts, I am fascinated in how the band developed such a dreamy sound out of their surroundings. In the documentary Made in Sheffield, Human League frontman Phil Oakey talked about his band’s desire to break away from the tedium of work with the hope of maybe making it onto the Top of the Pops.
I’ve never been to Grangemouth, but I’d anticipate its distinction of housing a large petrochemical plant speaks to post-war industrialism and the assumption that its citizenry would work at the factories and refineries. A trio of spotty kids opting to spin gorgeous, incoherent post-punk inside a basement with their eyes toward heaven? I think it’s worth remembering.
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.
So, Beth Ditto is a style icon. No two ways about it. If you know this, then you probably also know that Beth Ditto just launched a clothing line for Evans in the UK. You may have already read SparkleBliss’s rad, insightful post about it on her blog (which, if you haven’t, you should — go here). And, if you follow SparkleBliss on Twitter, you may already know that she just bought herself a cute outfit from the collection.
Now, women in music dabbling in fashion is nothing new. Indeed, women in popular culture writ large dabbling in fashion is almost de rigueur — another way to circulate your brand, add more hyphenates after your name, and give your fan base more tactile, tangible access to “you”. Everyone seems to be have at least attempted at designing a clothing line (Gwen Stefani, Victoria Beckham, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Lopez, Eve, Kate Moss, Rachel Bilson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Chloë Sevigny, an assortment of women on The Hills . . .) or work as a spokesmodel (M.I.A. for Marc Jacobs most immediately comes to mind).
But you’ll notice that a lot of the women I mentioned are presumably straight and all of them slender. Thus, the majority of female celebrity clothing lines align with normative identities of what women and girls should be. This indeed makes Ditto’s entrance into the world of fashion and retail (which she intimated in Bust as “dancing with the devil”) “a queer, fat cultural moment” as Charlotte Cooper at Obesity Timebomb purports it to be (and that SparkleBliss reprinted and linked in her post — seriously, go read it). It’s too bad that Margaret Cho’s High Class Cho line didn’t take off (complete with non-numerical sizes named for bombshells like Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe) — if so, we could add “woman of color” to the list of signifiers.
Also, looking at Ditto’s body and orientation is important when contextualizing her within pop music’s landscape. Slender pop stars like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are also interested in fashion and with putting together their own clothing lines, but while Perry and Gaga flirt with queerness, Ditto is out. And while Perry’s look most clearly aligns with vintage, pin-up Hollywood glamor (albeit to a heightened, campy degree) and Gaga’s look is definitely severe couture (perhaps even a bit fascistic in ways reminiscent of Siouxsie Sioux, but let’s give this issue its own entry), Ditto’s collection is at once hip, wearable, distinctively Ditto, and specifically for plus-sized women and girls, perhaps more closely aligning Ditto with her fan base than Perry or Gaga could.
But we’d be doing a disservice to sing the praises of Ditto’s collection without (as SparkleBliss and Obesity Timebomb point out) a) acknowledging the inherent adherence to capitalism and b) being conscious of the (often cheap, exploitative) modes of production and labor responsible for putting this collection out into the market along with potential class issues and limitations among various consumer groups. Even the ways in which the unnatural, weird, non-human look of the mannequins wearing her clothes suggest we have a ways to go as a culture before a large female body becomes a natural body.
Alongside this, we can’t extol the virtues of Ditto’s collection without acknowledging that Ditto launched her line in the UK, where she is actually popular, instead of in the United States, where she’s slightly less than obscure.
I still feel like there’s something really important in having a space in the market for full-figured women and girls to have a cool clothing made explicitly for them, just like I thought it was rad for there to be Tracy Turnblad dolls to coincide with the release of the remake of Hairspray. Of course, I can’t exalt these instances without acknowledging the ickiness of capital, using niche groups supposedly under the guise of serving them while in actuality creating greater gains for the corporations and retail chains that create and disseminate the brand, and clogging our homes with stuff . . .
Yet, I do think these cultural moments are not to be overlooked, even if these moments are dependent on consumerism. It’s important for women and girls to have access to clothes that include them in the world of fashion that look good and make them feel good. Likewise, it is important that queer women and girls (perhaps more pointedly femme women and girls) have a spokeswoman creating an inclusive space for them in popular culture. Because there’s a lot of joy to be had in finding an item that was made for you.
One reason it’s really exciting to teach history is to let people know that it’s evolving and ongoing. One reason I was excited to teach music history to the campers at GRCA today is because it’s important to let girls know that, as musicians, (or fans or critics or label executives or deejays or producers or . . .) they are a continuation, a contribution to a female presence in popular music and, more broadly, public life.
And it’s nice to teach the class with a close girlfriend, so that you can show girls that it’s possible for women to work with one another and collaborate. That’s good too. Especially since the closest I’ve come to teaching pre-/pubescent girls was conducting sight-reading clinics for my mom’s junior high choirs. I was definitely out of my comfort zone teaching two music history classes (one ages 9-11, another 11-13).
But, as with education more broadly, it’s not really about the teachers. It’s about the students and it’s about creating a space to dialogue and learn from one another. So here now are the things I learned at GRCA today.
1. Don’t instinctively apologize. Women and girls say they’re sorry all the time, usually for things that are not their fault. Instead, say “you rock” or “I rock.”
2. Don’t compliment a student on their hair/dress/gear. It could be a class marker and not every girl is born of privilege. Not every girl can afford a mint-condition vintage Clash t-shirt and not every girl can afford a new Gibson guitar. Plus, we shouldn’t use things as markers of our societal worth anyway.
3. Ask what they think, what they know, what they like. Don’t lecture to them. Don’t make it feel like school. But some girls like lectures, as long as they can participate, so they can handle some science being dropped.
4. The older girls love Siouxsie Sioux.
5. Some of the younger girls like country. Some don’t. All opinions are valid. Let’s try and bring both sides together.
6. Some of the older girls didn’t know who Cibo Matto were, but wanted to know more.
7. Many of these girls remember and have a fan relationship with Selena.
8. Many girls want the Reactable shown in Björk’s performance “Declare Independence” on Jools Holland. It shows them that you can use any instrument to make the sound you want.
9. Some of the girls didn’t know who Marnie Stern was, but were excited to hear her name associated with “shredding.”
10. The older girls totes know about riot grrrl.
11. Everyone loves Beth Ditto and M.I.A.
12. Despite the ubiquity of mp3 players, everyone loves a mix CD. A pleasant surprise.
13. Girls wanna talk. It helps them learn. Thank you young ladies for letting me listen.
Today you’re 52 and you’re still rockin’, which you’ve been doing since around 1976. That’s roughly 33 years of rockin’ — over half of your lifetime. Born Susan Ballion, you got your start as part of the Bromley Contingent, the famous Sex Pistols fan group. You snarled at icky Bill Grundy on the day the air turned blue.
You created a distinct look for yourself — militaristic, caustic, cold, tough, unimpressed, aggressively sexual, fetishistic. There was nothing light or cute about you. You also created a space for British women in punk — not the only one, as folks like The Slits, The Raincoats, Delta 5, and Poly Styrene and Lora Logic of X-Ray Spex were also forging their own creative territories — but a distinct space. A space made of steel and barbed wire that cautioned anyone who dare fuck with you.
You also played with the boys, which is important. Of course, it’s not necessary to play with the boys, but you spent the majority of your career (including your formative years) with The Banshees, a coterie of goth-punk boys, including long-time friend (and fellow member of the Bromley Contingent) Steve Severin and ex-husband Budgie. Yet, you always seem capable to work with them and not be directed by them. You’ve also worked with guys as disparate as Morrissey, Basement Jaxx, John Cale, and film composer Angelo Badalamenti on interesting projects. In short, you’ve proven yourself a vital collaborative partner.
Oh, and you can totally pulverize a song. Let’s listen to your rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Now, there are things that are troublesome about your career. While I like the song “Hong Kong Garden,” I do in spite of how racially problematic it is. While I love “Cities in Dust,” I still feel weird about the pseudo-Eastern instrumentation. In fact, you have a thorny relationship with race, consistently toying with Orientalism.
Plus, you know, your original look was pretty fascistic. You certainly weren’t alone among your colleagues to play with Nazi references and imagery. But yeah, it’s problematic.
And some people may have a problem with how you glammed up when you got older in an attempt to make your image and music more accessible. I personally don’t have much of a problem with it, because I still think your songs were beautiful and atmospheric and you were always kind of a pop star (you know, like The Cure). Plus you always wore theatrical make-up — you just broadened your color palette. And it may be easy to say that your look became more normative, but I also think there’s room to consider you as a female drag queen.
And, of course, you’re still with us. After a decade or so making albums with other people, you released your first solo album MantaRay in 2007. I hope you have some more music in you.
Oh, and also, you’re the person who wrote “Suburban Relapse.” So, I’ll always love you for that.
So, in honor of you still being alive and still touring and recording, I refuse to the dishes or the laundry tonight, as I know you’d ask “what for?”