I’m okay with Katy Perry and Rihanna being buddies. I’m just gonna let it go like Andrea Plaid allowed Rihanna’s “S&M” video to circulate without clutching her pearls.
While I bristle at the idea that Perry allegedly wanted Ms. Fenty to serve as adult entertainment at her bachelorette party, I liked their connection ever since I saw those photos of the pair vacationing after Rihanna split with Chris Brown. I’m happy when any two female celebrities have a long-standing friendship. It’s why I like that Ellen Page and Alia Shawkat found each other, even if I reserve the right to hate on that TV series they pitched about crafty hipsters who relocate to Los Angeles. Female professionals should stick together. Work, both within and outside of the celebrity fishbowl, is a boys’ club. Solidarity is better than, you know, laughing at Britney while she snorts your cocaine or fighting over Wilmer Valderrama. Remember those dark days? Lohan forever.
I’ve made my feelings known about Perry. I’ve also been a die-hard Rihanna fan since “Pon de Replay” entered into heavy rotation. Hipster cred aside, Rihanna has had a phenomenal five-year run. Britney Spears released her first greatest hits compilation at that point in her career and Greatest Hits: My Prerogative and there’s some definite padding after “Toxic” and “I’m a Slave 4 U”. If Rihanna were to follow suit, there’d hardly be a slouch in the bunch. I only hope some Rated R cuts make it in.
By the way, I don’t mean any disrespect toward Britney’s inaugural best-of, especially since it includes “Do Somethin'”. I also believe that Britney released her best album to date in 2007. Blackout would be noteworthy for Robyn’s vocal work alone. But I’m with Rob Sheffield–it may be the most influential pop record of recent memory.
However, Perry and Rihanna’s friendship makes me think about my preferences. The majority of white feminists roundly dismissed Perry. Yet many of us praise Rihanna. Some of this might be weird hair envy, but a lot of our admiration stems from knowing she’s a survivor. We may read that into her music. But on the surface, Perry and Rihanna have a bit in common. Both are limited singers who have smartly aligned themselves with skillful producers who can craft a mean dance-pop gem. They also foreground their sexuality in somewhat conventional ways.
For me, the two diverge by how they construct their sexuality. Perry’s femme camp feels disingenuous, like she’ll only dance at the gay bars long enough to project footage from her wedding onto the train of her dress. Her conceptualization of female sexuality is ultimately passive, heteronormative, and shot through with regressive double standards. But Rihanna seems to draw strength from her sexuality, usually making demands and taking action instead of batting her eyelashes and letting the boys call the shots. Maybe they’ll come together on some future project. Here’s hoping they remember to recruit Britney and Nicki Minaj.
Some super-smart feminist friends have been talking about records and musicians that made them feminists lately and it makes me wanna wax nostalgic too. I’m really excited to be talking about Viva! La Woman, one of many albums that made me a feminist but the first that left quite an indelible impression. I basically put this blog together so that I could, at some point, thank Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda for blowing my mind. Thanks, ladies.
Right before I turned 13, I saw the video for “Know Your Chicken” on 120 Minutes, which was the pinnacle of my pre-teen Sunday nights. This video, with the two amazingly cool ladies bolted me upright. I’d get to the clip’s deliberately cheap aesthetic style and its parodying of both the sitcom and the genre’s gendered relational dynamics later. In junior high, I just needed to find out who the ladies were.
Sunday, the day of ritual for many, was also one for me. At 7 p.m., Houston’s alternative station (then Rocket 107.5 the Buzz, now 94.5 the Buzz) would broadcast “Lunar Rotation,” where director David Sadoff would play new stuff and oldies that didn’t make into heavy rotation. At 10, the station would broadcast “Modern Rock Live,” KROQ’s syndicated call-in program. Finally, at midnight, the station would have an hour of “whatever” programming. Usually, some guest would play whatever they wanted. The one that most immediately comes to mind was Self’s Matt Mahaffey serving as guest deejay, playing album cuts from Portishead’s Dummy. It never mattered, because it was always white noise for 120 Minutes, which ran the coolest, newest videos that never aired on MTV during the day.
In terms of feminist reflections on my girlhood, Sunday was this fantastical time where I could hang out in my room (usually playing Nintendo, sometimes reading, sometimes making wall collages out of clippings from Seventeen) and wrap my head around some new music. This was a bit hard to do as my hometown is a bit removed from much of anything new.
But Fridays on MTV gave me another place to access this beguiling song, via their short run of Squirt TV, originally a New York-based public access show that my boyfriend, Jake Fogelnest, would record in his bedroom. Liz Phair also came onto Fogelnest during the show’s MTV run, but Liz will get her own post when I write about my 17th birthday. For now, let’s watch Cibo Matto perform live.
And then they were on House of Style, eating dessert. Then the video for “Sugar Water” came out, which left such an impression that I wrote an entire section of my thesis on it. A short time after that, they were getting a write-up in Rolling Stone, with their album’s genre-melding, cut-and-paste sound being favorably compared (however problematically) to fugu. I would later come to call my college radio show “Cheesecake or Fugu” in tribute. And there they were on my stepbrother’s Tibetan Freedom Concert CD, a bit later, when I was a freshman, yelling “shut up so we can eat, too bad no bon appétit!”
So, even though they were on a major label and being promoted on MTV and Rolling Stone, Cibo Matto seemed like they were from Japan based in New York transmitted from the moon. And yet, they’ve followed me everywhere since, making themselves familiar, like a home.
All this hype, but I didn’t get the album until Christmas sophomore year, when I was 15. I wanted the purchase of this album to be special. When I finally got it, I spent hours ignoring the paperback of Wuthering Heights I had to read for school (which also made me a feminist, in opposition) so I could study the album’s packaging. Mike Mills’s cover alone was empowering — the curvy, muscular, perhaps multi-ethnic superwoman standing proudly in her gold bikini and sandals. And the curvilinear sketches that accompanied the lyric sheet was elegant and beguiling. But for me, it was all about the inlay image underneath the disc.
While this image was shot in New York, it looked like another world to me alone in my bedroom in Alvin, Texas. I wanted to know everyone in this scene and be their friends. I wanted to know where Yuka and Miho got those bikes and dresses. I wanted to listen to all of the records people were pouring over. And I actually did pull my stepbrother’s skateboard out of the garage, busting my ass as I attempted to use it. But more than that, I wanted the confident cool that these two women possessed.
The older I get, the more comfortable I feel with myself, and I feel much of this is indebted to Cibo Matto, especially this first album, as to me its basically a declaration for the powers, pleasures, and peculiarities of femaleness. One need only look to the title.
The concept of the album is important. “Concept album” as a construct tends to make me shudder, thinking about bearded dudes noodling with guitars and piles of synthesizers and writing tiresome odes to alienation, but, indeed, Viva! La Woman is a concept album. About food. Eating food. Each track, with the exception of “Theme,” is named after food and all of the songs mention eating or being consumed as if they were food. More times than not, it’s about eating instead of being eaten.
And OMG, they did something totally dirty with their cover of “Candyman,” turning the original, which I always found oppressively, creepily cheerful, and turning into some kind of porn soundtrack/trip hop/bossa nova thing, complete with sampled moaning (*blush*).
On that tack, this album is super-sexy, in ways both obvious and difficult to process. Perhaps it suggests that Asian and Asian American women don’t reflect the limited, servile, infantalized depictions others have circulated at their expense. With “White Pepper Ice Cream,” a slow, rollicking bass line accompanies lines like “black and white, Bonnie and Clyde” suggesting that women and girls can occupy both within themselves at once. And with “Theme,” the album’s centerpiece, what begins as a short story about a chance encounter with a handsome stranger while vacationing in Milan becomes a blind-folded S&M session that collapses into muffled, breathy coos; the music reflects the narrative changes at every turn. I didn’t know what to do with this as a teenager, and am still trying to figure it out as an adult.
Thinking about the constant stylistic shifting that goes on in the album’s instrumentation, I guess the duo’s sample-happy approach brings us to another feminist awakening: everything is connected. Beck gets a lot of credit, via Odelay, for helping set to tone for popular music’s comfort with hybridity the 90s (of course borrowing from The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, bringing on The Dust Brothers as producers). I won’t dispute that. But I’d like to add this album (along with Pavement’s Wowee Zowee and Björk’s Post) into the discussion. If mention wants to be made of the group’s gender, ethnicity, and their relationship with hip hop, so much the better.
Cibo Matto’s use of quotation and musical association was crucial to defining the era, but also bespoke the duo’s attitudes toward femaleness. Because connectedness doesn’t just apply to how they built tracks, but also in how they wrote lyrics. Once again, everything is connected. In “Sugar Water,” black cats crossing one’s path is cosmically linked to a woman in the moon singing to the Earth. Extrapolating further, everything is connected and everything is informative. The personal is not only political, but educational.
And finally, I really enjoy the album’s weirdness. I say this not as a way to other the Japanese American women responsible for its creation or to announce my whiteness alongside it. Literally, the album is packed with memorable, weird, sometimes shouted non sequitors that serve as the songs’ hooks. For example, in “Beef Jerky,” the chorus is “Who cares? I don’t care? A horse’s ass is better than your’s.” In “Know Your Chicken” the bridge is “spare the rod and spoil the chick before you go and shit a brick.” And of course, “Birthday Cake” contains the much-quoted line “extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil and the MSG — shut up so we can eat, too bad no bon appétit!” I like to think moments like this suggest the possibilities to rupture, critique, and find humor in living life female.
And sometimes songs don’t end. A song like “Beef Jerky” concludes with the elliptical phrase “let’s eat carrots together until . . .” Indeed, life doesn’t end. It simply builds on itself, layer by layer, line by line, sample by sample. I can’t wait to discover what I find in this record when I’m 35.