As summer winds down, I thought I’d throw up a few videos by artists I can always rely on. Two of them–Björk and St. Vincent–have albums coming out next month. Jill Scott is the third artist featured here, and The Light of the Sun has been in personal rotation this summer. I’d include Rihanna’s Avril-sampling “Cheers (Drink to That),” but Rihanna slants her eyes at the 3:11 mark, bringing to mind Miley’s racial insensitivity incident, so I can’t endorse it without a lot more context.
Directed by Terri Timely
“Hear My Call”
The Light of the Sun
Co-directed by Jill Scott
Directed by Michel Gondry
The other night, I met up with Carla DeSantis Black, creator of ROCKRGRL Magazine, who moved to Austin late last year. We share some mutual friends and some obvious interests, so it was a natural meeting. I talked about the blog, school, and other things I’m working on. She talked about some projects she’s getting off the ground. We talked about facilitating workshops for Girls Rock Camp and the current state of women in music.
One thing that she brought up that I found especially interesting was the recent crop of female artists using pseudonyms instead of their given names. I hadn’t really thought about it much, but indeed it’s a phenomenon–Glasser, tUnE-yArDs, Bat for Lashes, St. Vincent, Noveller, Circuit des Yeux. Many of these women either started out or continue to write, record, and tour as solo artists. Black is encouraging female artists who record under aliases and do much/all of their act’s writing, recording, and performing to use their given names in order to claim ownership of their work.
Of course, adopting a nom de plume is standard practice in popular music. Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara. Erica Wright renamed herself Erykah Badu to honor her African roots. In the grand tradition of drag artists, Christeene Vale was born Paul Soileau. The Donnas and the Ramones created a group identity by sticking to one name. David Bowie was born David Jones, but didn’t want to be confused with the Monkees’ front man. Given hip hop’s inclination toward nicknames, Kanye West’s decision to record under his given name is damn near revolutionary and certainly political. My presence is a present, kiss my ass.
The process of renaming is as old as the entertainment industry. A-list aspirants continue to lop “ethnic” surnames, use middle names, or invent stage names. Reinvention is intrinsic to constructing a persona. Often, a performer’s decision to adopt a stage name says a great deal about racial and ethnic identity and the politics of assimilation. In music, which is tied to fantasy and the imagination, it may also say something about artistic creativity, the desire for metamorphosis, and a need for creative release shared between performer and fan. Actors often use stage names to seem more relateable to an audience. Musicians often use them to trouble relatability, if not transcend human existence entirely.
But what does it mean when female musicians use a moniker instead of their given names, especially white women associated with indie music? Is it a defense against being reduced to a chick musician or singer-songwriter? Do aliases subvert expectations and provide artists more space for play? Is it particular to female artists already prone to musical abstraction who eschew traditional instrumentation, or are we seeing it elsewhere? Can we apply these concerns to female MCs, deejays, and electronic artists, who usually go by nicknames and aliases as well? Does it obscure their individual efforts? Is it political? Is it anti-feminist? What do you think?
At the risk of sounding aloof, I’ve been ignoring Taylor Swift for some time. Readers might notice that I haven’t said a peep about her beyond an observation about how she might be a continuation of the girl group tradition after she hosted SNL. When the VMA debacle happened, I didn’t care. I thought Beyoncé was classy about it, and I thought Kanye was right in his opinion, if wrong in execution (seriously, “Single Ladies” is one of the best videos of all time, and perhaps the most iconic of its decade). I thought Swift seemed a little unnecessarily entitled when she was gave her acceptance speech later in the broadcast, but other than that I thought very little about it.
For a while, I actually didn’t know who this Taylor Swift person was. First I thought she was on The Hills. I work under the assumption that any famous white person on MTV is a Hill.
Then I saw her take some Southern kid to the prom on MTV. Then I found out she was a country singer from Pennsylvania who loved Def Leppard and covered Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” which didn’t help her cause. Then I heard the pop version of “You Belong With Me,” promptly motivating me to listen to the slightly twangier original. From here, I reduced her to “country Avril” and went about my business.
Swift, not unlike Depeche Mode in their own way, may be a good gateway artist into more interesting and challenging music. Being a pre-teen Depeche Mode devotee led me to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, and Nick Cave’s various incarnations (admit it, DM fans: your band is at best a singles act; only Violator and maybe Black Celebration are essential in an otherwise mediocre catalog). Likewise, Swift might lead fans to The Dixie Chicks, Neko Case, Rosie Flores, Janis Martin, and Wanda Jackson. But my opinion of Swift is, “fine, she’s young and plays a guitar and writes her own songs (with Liz Rose) . . . but I’m totally bored by her.”
Kristen at Act Your Age and my friend Asha forwarded this Autostraddle article to me. Asha asked me what I thought about it, and an outpouring of opinions bubbled up. Apparently I can get my screed on over a musician I have no personal investment in. But as I watched her wide, ordinary Grammy performance with Stevie Nicks (who sounded ridiculous singing “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” BTW) and yelled at my television when she gave her folksy “we’ll tell our grandchildren about this” Album of the Year speech, I discovered that I do have a personal investment in her fame. So here we go.
I’m pretty much in line with the writer and have brought up Swift’s privileged upbringing, pedantic songwriting, normative femininity, her handling of the VMA debacle, and inauthentic authenticity when talking to other people about her.
I agree with the writer about how there wasn’t really anything to hate about Taylor Swift until she started racking up important awards. I get her appeal, but I have no personal investment in her career. She writes inoffensive love songs you’d hear on the CW or romantic comedies women are supposed to love (like Valentine’s Day, which stars Swift and features her music).
Above all, Swift’s music is inoffensive to the point of offense when you factor in its success. When I think about Swift’s age alongside the teenage output of acts like Schmillion, Roxanne Shanté, ESG, Mika Miko, Björk’s work in KUKL, and some girl in her bedroom whose music I have yet to hear, I’m far more interested in that music. It’s weird and flawed and brave and inspiring. It’s really easy to forget about Swift when this music is also available. I wish more people would take the time to find it.
I’d like to point out that the Album of the Year Grammy isn’t as important as the writer suggests, nor should it be to you. In the grand tradition of award ceremonies and canons, the Grammys have long esteemed mediocrity and blandness. Sure, some cool people have won. But lots of boring and past-their-prime people have also won. And some great artists haven’t won Album of the Year but continue to make enduring music, as a Jezebel writer pointed out at the end of a recent article.
I can also counter the writer’s closing paragraphs, which are pretty hyperbolic. I’m not sure how much of a punk Lady Gaga is, or what, for that matter, the value of the word “punk” means when you can apply it to Vivian Westwood couture, coffee table books, and Hot Topic. That said, I too am inspired by mainstream female pop stars who explore and own the complex dimensions of their sexuality, particularly P!nk, Janet Jackson, and Christina Aguilera. I only wish there were more of them, or that Gossip’s Beth Ditto or M.I.A. sold enough records to qualify.
I don’t really take issue with Swift being a weak singer, in that I don’t think evaluating singers in terms of their technical abilities is always a fruitful exercise. I’d be happier with her being a weak singer if she did something interesting with her voice, but I basically feel like she’s doing karaoke when she sings. This could have a charm to it if her phrasing and sense of dynamics weren’t also really obvious. And she often acts out lyrics in a way that I find insulting to the audience. Sure it’s a continuation of the girl group tradition. But do you really need to mime picking up a phone to let listeners know that you’re talking on the phone with some boy? Is it your way of helping out your international fan base? Or is just so you can remember the exact words that comprise the trite rhetoric you’re selling?
Thus, if we have to make problematic either/or value judgments, I think it’s better to evaluate singing not as good or bad, but as present or absent. Lots of artists lack technically proficient or “pretty” voices, but get you with their commitment to creating sound and the feelings behind it. Likewise, lots of singers have pleasant voices, but sound like they’re thinking about checking their e-mail or getting on a plane. So, I actually take issue with how removed Swift sounds from her music. And then I really take issue with how she sings about romance with a disingenuous approximation of sustained wonder. For me, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard does something similar and it drives me up a tree. Add some faux-authentic lyrics about ripped jeans, pick-up trucks, sneakers, and faded t-shirts and I don’t think you’re emoting so much as lying.
That said, I think this quote is a little insulting: “Swift simply hasn’t had the life experience and doesn’t inherently possess the emotional maturity to create great art.” It smacks a bit of “she’s just a girl; she hasn’t experienced life yet.” As women who work with girls, Kristen and I include Swift in our music history workshops. We don’t do this as fans, but because we know she means a lot to many girls, some of whom are just learning how to play music or are picking up instruments for the first time. Some of you might be reading this now, and I totally respect your preferences and value your opinions. You may be die-hard fans, or you may grow out of her music and find something else. You may believe in the kinds of fairy tales Swift trades in, though hopefully you’ll come to them with a revisionist bent like Lady Gaga, Bat for Lashes, or St. Vincent.
Whatever you choose, all I hope for as an older, cranky lady who doesn’t like Swift’s music is that you never stop discovering new sounds as you develop your own. And I promise never to bore you with stories about how awesome and progressive my pop idols were in comparison to your music, because no text is ever above inquiry. Swift is problematic, but so is Björk. As I have faith in your awesomeness, I have no doubt that you’ll come up with something that’ll blow me away. And if you wanna bitch about Swift and turn that rage into something completely new and original, I’ll be here to listen.
ThunderAnt’s long-awaited St. Vincent/Feminist Bookstore skit is finally up on the Web. You can watch it here.
While it’d be nice if the ladies at Women For Women First could do a better job at event planning and publicity, I really like how this clip makes light of how awkward it must be for musicians to tour and play for strangers. Also, I love that Annie Clark approached Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen about doing the sketch and that the finished product ended up being the music video for “Laughing With a Mouth Of Blood.”
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.