Readers of this blog may notice a metal deficit. At present, Kristen at Act Your Age and I don’t have a metal section in our Girls Rock Camp music history workshop presentation. In all candor, I don’t know much about the genre, much less female contributors. It was never my thing. Having gotten to guitar late, I didn’t spend my adolescence poring over Guitar World and learning face-melting riffs. Old-school Metallica was never my shit, though I giggled mirthfully at their self-indulgent therapy sessions in Some Kind of Monster. New-school Mastadon isn’t either, though I do like their song for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Movie.
Of course, I also got the sense that metal was teeming with queer tension well before I found out Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford was gay or Patton Oswalt turned hair metal’s homoeroticism into a bit.
I’m not even really sure what metal is, as vanguard bands believed to influence the genre consider themselves hard rock. Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin don’t identify with the term, so I’m not sure what to make of it either. While I think the emergence of all-female cover bands like AC/DShe and Lez Zeppelin are interesting, I’m not sure if we can call them metal.
Now, I’ve been around metal in some capacity for quite some time. My older stepbrother was pretty into Guns N’ Roses growing up in the 80s. As they didn’t embrace the label, I wonder if Paradise Titty do. He later came around to Anthrax, who I will always associate with their appearance on Married With Children. The image of lead guitarist Dan Spitz’s Violator t-shirt is forever in my mind, along with other Depeche Mode fans who formed metal bands.
From other male friends, I’ve developed an appreciation for bands like Slayer, who South Park taught me are especially useful in breaking up a hippie jam festival. Contemporary slowcore acts like Boris have been brought to my attention for their work in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. I’ve also read Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City and Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt. One left me with a sense of amused detachment. The other gave me nausea. I’ll let you guess which title did what.
I know there’s a lot of subgenres, but I can only really tell them apart by RPM. I can’t tell you much about them beyond speed metal and thrash are fast and doom and stoner metal are slow.
So, you could say that my biggest problem with metal is that I don’t know what it is. Thus, how am I supposed to reclaim the marginalized contributions of women and girls if I’m pretty sure Marnie Stern isn’t metal so much as hard rock for indie fans? Therein lies the rub. But I know that there are female metal fans like Laina Dawes, who wrote about the controversy surrounding Burzum frontman and staunch anti-Semite Varg Vikernes’s recent cover for Decibel Magazine on her blog Writing is Fighting. I’ll continue to follow blogs like Feminist Headbanger and The Black Girl Into Heavy Metal and see if I can come to any further conclusions. For now, I’ll briefly outline in videos who I know.
As a child in the late 1980s, I saw these videos from Vixen and former Runaways guitarist Lita Ford.
During my teen years, Kittie developed a following. This was their big hit, and I really liked the vocals on it.
I’m familiar with Jada Pinkett-Smith’s band Wicked Wisdom, who sound like a metal band to me. However, some folks discredit the band’s efforts because of the front woman’s celebrity status and that the group didn’t “pay their dues” on the touring circuit. Seems like racist sniveling to me.
Who are you listening to? Who should I be listening to?
A few years back, I became interested in Allan Moyle’s 1980 feature debut. Times Square stars Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado as two teenage girls who escape from a mental institution, live on the streets, form a punk band called The Sleez Sisters, drop televisions off buildings, occasionally rule local station WJAD, and creates some underground infamy that anticipates the groundswell Corrine Burns and The Stains would cause two years later. While Moyle was fired by producer Robert Stigwood fired so he could remove explicit lesbian content and include more musical sequences in the film, the director later went on to make music geek teen pics like Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records. But his first movie was praised by Kathleen Hanna. While Hanna and I disagree on the quality of Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways, I’m always willing to give the riot grrrl pioneer the benefit of the doubt. Plus, that soundtrack is a beast.
1) Despite cuts, this movie is still explicitly queer. It centers on a female friendship that is romantic and liberating for both parties. And drifter Nicky Marotta, wonderfully rendered by Johnson, is assuredly a young lesbian who is starting to formulate how her sexuality shapes her identity. She often does this alone and with Patti Smith’s “Pissing in the River” rumbling in her broken heart, but sometimes with enough room to let in Pamela Pearl (Alvarado), the daughter of a politician she meets in a mental institution and creates a life with on the mean streets.
2) Girls like Johnson don’t star in movies much anymore, which is a shame. Little Darlings came out the same year. Kristy McNichol’s Angel Bright may have been looking to get laid by a boy in the movie, but she reads to me as a baby butch.
3) New York City doesn’t look like this anymore, and I’d love to read a history of how the city and mediated representations of it changed from the 1960s to the 2000s. In the 1980s, the city continued to endure escalating crime and drug rates from the decade before, as the area had not yet been gentrified and “cleaned up” to attract tourists. This is something Taxi Driver made central to Travis Bickle’s mental decline and that I hope Mad Men incorporates into the series.
By the time Sex and the City became part of the lexicon, it had. Now teenage characters in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and New York Minute gallivant around the Big Apple. When at the time of Times Square‘s location shoot and subsequent release, the city was far from being the tween amusement park it would later seem to be. As a matter of fact, Pearl’s father is running on a platform to clean up New York City. Thus, you really get a feel for the danger, vastness, and anonymity of the big city that informs the girls’ existence.
But you also get a sense of solidarity amongst them and other street denizens. While the movie could perpetuate racist stereotypes of predatory people of color serving as crack addicts, pimps, and whores, most of the folks the girls encounter are nice. When Pearl applies for a dancing job at a dive cabaret and refuses to perform topless, the owner (who appears to be Hispanic) praises her on being classy and holding on to some mystery.
However, I don’t want to overemphasize the treatment of race in the movie. For the most part, people of color are depicted as supportive, but they are usually without names and relegated to the background. In the rare instances that they aren’t, they can sometimes be viewed as siding with the establishment. Hence how I read Anna Maria Horsford’s Rosie Washington, who is Marotta’s case worker. While Washington understands that Marotta, whose parents are M.I.A., has been failed by the system, she’s still in cahoots with Pearl’s father and writes a letter to his daughter urging her to part ways with her “unstable” new friend.
The girls also have a troubling relationship with people of color. At the beginning of the movie, Marotta rehearses guitar. She sets her amp on the hood of a night club owner’s car. When a Latina matron complains of the noise Marotta’s making, she responds by smashing in the owner’s headlights. She’s also rude to Washington. And perhaps most disconcerting, Marotta and Pearl associate Washington with voodoo and proclaim themselves to align with various homophobic and racial epithets in their song “Your Daughter Is One.” Good that they’re pushing back against the systemic oppression they’ve endured. Bad how they’re using language to express it.
I also find Tim Curry’s role as DJ Johnny LaGuardia, who documents the girls’ story and later becomes something of an ally to them. Both girls are fans of his radio program on WJAD. Pearl actually wrote to him about her unhappy home life prior to being institutionalized, signing the letter as “Zombie Girl.” Pointedly, he insinuates himself as their ally. At first, I thought I was projecting those feelings onto LaGuardia because Curry has one of the most sinister voices I’ve ever heard. But when LaGuardia shows up at the girls’ flat with a bottle of vodka for Pearl and an interest in how “wild” Marotta is, his cover’s blown.
Upon review, I’m basically of the same opinion of it as I was before. This movie is poignant, though I do wish the original footage that documented the girls’ romance was kept intact. I also wish Marotta wasn’t depicted as crazy and escorted off at the end, while Pearl watches the mob disperse with her father. But I also have no doubt Marotta will escape once more, perhaps with Pearl by her side. She may prompt dozens of other girls to follow in her path and pen their own rock anthems.
I caught a screening of The Runaways with my dear friends Curran, Masashi, and Kristen at Act Your Age. How do I put this? . . . It was terrible.
It was off to a promising start with the movie’s first image: a drop of menstrual blood. It did a good job establishing the sunny malaise of 70s Southern California, but a hackneyed and incoherent script, weak characterization, and wooden acting were evident early on. Once the band went on their first tour, the movie ran off the rails and never recovered. As a casual fan of the group in question who hasn’t read lead singer Cherie Currie’s Neon Angel (the screenplay’s source material), I didn’t leave the theater with any gained insight. And as someone who teaches rock history to girls, I have no idea what they would get out off this movie. The band’s relevance as musical pioneers is assumed and thus given no context. Furthermore, the actresses are not often shown playing instruments or working as a unit. In fact, the movie mainly focuses on founder and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and lead singer Currie (Dakota Fanning), giving a little time to co-founder and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve), but obscuring Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Robin Blakemore (Alia Shawkat), an amalgam of the group’s many bassists.
In short, I am at a loss as to the function of this movie. Who is this movie for? Why did it get made? Why is this story worth telling? As a feminist music geek, these questions are usually rhetorical. But as a jilted moviegoer two hours later, these were the questions I was left with.
I’ll elaborate more on my criticisms with the movie later in this post, but first I’d like to get in to the limits of the music biopic but why I still like watching them. Curran asked Kristen and me before the movie started what our expectations were. We said we thought there’d be some salvageable moments and maybe some good performances.
To be fair, that’s really all most music biopics deliver (I’m specifically talking about feature films here, but we could easily extend this to made-for-TV movies too). I’m not sure if any film genre scholars have written on music biopics (feel free to share any relevant texts in the comments section — I love a reading list). It seems like a genre worth evaluating, particularly since they’re often disappointing. As with all biopics, there’s always the matter of historical accuracy, warped by legends, differing accounts, flexible realities, and negotiated subjectivities. When these issues are compromised in music biopics, they often result in fans saying the filmmakers got it wrong.
Since music is such a personal thing to people — perhaps more personal than the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, although not for my mother — fandom, with or without its itinerant hero worship, identification, queerable desire, and morbid curiosity, is a critical component of music biopic reception. It’s why I saw Ray, Bird, Walk the Line, Coal Miner’s Daughter, La Vie en rose, Lady Sings the Blue, Impromptu, Sid and Nancy, Amadeus, I’m Not There, and 24-Hour Party People. It’s why I’ll see Control, The Rose, Notorious, Cadillac Records, De-Lovely, Grace of My Heart, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Last Days, Sweet Dreams, What We Do Is Secret, Bound for Glory and a myriad of others regardless of what reviews they garnered. It’s why I’ll see Elijah Wood’s turn as Iggy Pop in The Passenger if it ever gets released. Ditto for the Jeff Buckley biopic, (preferably) with or without James Franco, should it ever get off the ground.
What music fans hope to get out of a music biopic varies. Perhaps there’s hope of being faithful to the subject and source material. As someone who doesn’t mind when biopics play with history, I’m usually more interested in what aspects of their stories get highlighted and how the surrounding era is evoked, because music biopics are also period pieces. Above all, I’m interested in casting. Who is playing the musician in question?
As a film genre, music biopics are foremost star vehicles. The same can be said of biopics in general, as they can guarantee a lock for an Oscar win in the acting categories. Unlike traditional historical biographies though, music biopics tend not be the domain of directors looking to flex authorial muscle. Perhaps this has to do with value judgments placed upon rock music as being less culturally significant than, say, the life of Malcolm X, Lenny Bruce, or Jesus Christ. This doesn’t necessarily extend to concert features, as directors like Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch have them on their résumés. But the majority of music biopics are driven by the star, not the director. Regularly, Oscar nominations are given to actors who play musicians, some of whom have even won the coveted prize. Marion Cotillard won most recently for her turn as Édith Piaf in La vie en rose. It was earned, in my opinion. Her devastating performance saved a movie marred by too many tracking shots of the subject suffering in private, pacing backstage, and then taking that pain with her in performance.
Tangentially related, but opinion varies as to whether the actor should sing. My take is that if the actor can pull off the singer’s style, okay. But in general, I actually prefer hearing the original source material. There’s much to be said for an actor who can do a convincing lip sync.
But music biopics tend to be unsatisfying in execution, even if the actors do a good job. The main reason for this, I think, has to do with the genre abiding by staid storytelling conventions and taking on too much of the subject’s biography. Some music biopics have defied expectations, playing with formal convention and myth as well as pursuing alternate perspectives from folks involved with other aspects of the music industry and fans. I’d credit Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People and Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There with achieving this.
I also think there’s a lot of value in focusing on a key period in a musical act’s life or career and allow this time to give the subject his or her larger sociohistoric context. I liked Stephen Frears’s The Queen in large part because it narrows its sights on the brief period of time between the election of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the death of Princess Diana and resultant grief of her loss and let those events shape the character of Queen Elizabeth II. While I haven’t seen all of Gus Van Zant’s Last Days, I wonder if dwelling on Kurt Cobain’s final moments might say more about his distress than a retelling of the events that led to Nirvana’s meteoric rise.
After the musical act in question starts touring and usually begins tasting some fame, music biopics become boring and predictable. As a result, music biopics take out the electricity from the people who wrote songs to the soundtrack of our memories. They turn their lives into plodding accounts of what become crappy day jobs as routinized and dehumanizing as cubicle-dwelling but with less relateable struggles Behind the Music already exhausted. You can play? I can play too. Hey, we got a record deal! Our song is on the radio! Look, groupies and available drugs! Ugh, touring is boring. All the cities look the same. Oh wait, here come the struggles with fame and the weight of expectations. The fame has driven a wedge between me and my fans. More drugs and probably some questionable vanity purchases. Oh no, the band isn’t getting along. Factions! We can’t replicate the magic anymore. Vices! Overdoses, which result in two outcomes. There is death, and then a celebration of legacy. There is also rehab, which is usually followed by half-hearted reunions or anonymity, often accompanied by middle-aged paunch. YAWN.
And when you focus on boys who deal with these pressures through self-medication and illicit sex with women who aren’t their partners, only to seek redemption in a mistress, a second wife, or Jesus, I really have no sympathy. I will laugh at them however, which is why I’ll get around to seeing Walk Hard, a movie that pokes fun at these conventions.
But Floria Sigismondi’s movie proves that an all-girl proto-punk band can be just as boring as any man in rock music. And now, let’s launch into my problems with The Runaways.
1. The script. This is the movie’s biggest problem. Given that this is director Sigismondi’s first feature, it is also her first screenwriter credit. Early into the movie, I had flashes of Mark Romanek’s One-Hour Photo. Like Sigismondi, Romanek proved his mettle as an innovative music video director before he made directorial debut. And while that helped both directors establish an aesthetic style, it didn’t help develop their writing skills. Because . . . oh boy, is Sigismondi’s script marred with clunky dialogue, incoherent tonal shifts, and unfounded character motivation. So often, the movie launches into important developments with little explanation or context. How did the girls discover rock and roll for themselves? Why were there homelives unsatisfying? Why did the girls form a band? How they function as a unit? How did they handle detractors? How did they interact with other bands? What was their relationship with label employees, road crews, journalists, fans, and the number of folks they encountered? How popular were they in the United States? How popular were they abroad? Why were they so beloved in Japan? Perhaps this has to do with a reliance on the movie’s audience to know the band’s backstory. Perhaps this has to do with legal intervention as well, which might explain how little screen time Sandy West, Lita Ford, and the bassists get.
And sometimes Sigismondi’s career as a director encroaches too much on her work in this feature. Bathtubs becoming lagoons? Jett writing a song in a milk bath? Currie calling her sister at an abandoned phone booth in some random abandoned parking lot? It looks cool, but doesn’t really convey any information.
2. The movie isn’t gay enough. Now, to be fair, I was surprised at how gay it was — just like I was happy about Currie’s menstrual blood and Jett urinating on a sexist musician’s guitar. And while I think that Stewart is basically playing Jett as Shane McKutcheon from The L-Word, I believe her baby butch swagger. But a lot is hinted at and insinuated where fan and pro-sex feminist Susie Bright knew there were explicitly gay or queer things were happening at the time. And when Sigismondi pervades Jett and Currie’s sex scene with red lights, slow motion, close-ups on open mouths, off-kilter camera angles, and soft focus, it enforces Currie’s wastedness, thus perpetuating the notion that women and girls have to be inebriated to be intimate with one another. FAIL.
3. The matter of the leads. I don’t want to play the game of pitting one actress against another, as each part has its own demands. And both actresses are at a tenuous point at their career, transitioning from child stars to leading ladies. Interestingly, they’ve also been a part of the Twilight series and seem to be using the money they’ve earned from the franchise to subsidize less commercial fare like this movie.
In truth, I wasn’t wowed by either actress. To their credit, it’s hard to make lines like “I’m thinking with my cock” and “I thought we were your fucked-up family” beat the page. Furthermore, they’re given little motivation for their characters. What possesses Jett to pick up a guitar, much less link up with Svengali Kim Fowley? Why does Currie spiral into addiction and despair? For Currie, a negligent family with a history of substance abuse might be the reason, as might intimations that she was raped while on tour. But the actresses aren’t given much to work with. Jett scowls. Currie rolls her eyes like a Valley Girl. And neither of them convey for me the dynamism their characters possessed onstage.
4. Sexism and misogyny. Again, I was amazed that these issues were acknowledged at all, though they are crucial to the telling of this band’s story. Furthermore, it was interesting to see how the movie dealt with the public and the band’s conflicting feelings about their sexuality and agency over their own objectification as jailbait hellcat rebels. But the script puts too fine a point on how icky and regressive and threatening men were to young girls trying to break into the music industry. At the same time, it provides little context as to why these attitudes were prevalent and if The Runaways changed them at all and how. And why would these girls put up with Fowley’s abuse? Do age and gender have anything to do with it? Assuredly, but the movie doesn’t develop these issues further.
To actor Michael Shannon’s credit, I think he does a credible job with Fowley. As the movie tends to reduce the character to a series of random antics, feel free to watch his interview on Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show. Note to how little Jett talks, how often she is interrupted and cut off, and how often Fowley speaks for her and the band. I think these interjections and silence speak volumes of the sort of industry sexism Jett had to deal with.
Having said all this, am I happy and pleasantly surprised that this movie got made? Yes. Do I wish it could be better? Of course. Do I think the story of The Runaways and a myriad of other bands should be told? Absolutely. I still recommend seeing this movie. And if it gets people interested in the members’ music and their history, along with the careers of the movie’s director and stars, even better. I’ll close with a recollection of a scene from the movie: Jett visits Currie in the hospital following the lead singer’s free-fall into addiction. Jett informs Currie that she read about an all-girl band forming in Korea. “They suck,” Jett maintains, “but it’s still pretty cool.” My sentiments exactly.
Ya’ll, I’m working off a bit of a sore throat most likely contracted from gallivanting during SXSW in the middle of weather changes. With this in mind, I thought I’d share two items courtesy of GRCA peeps. Add these rocker girl movies to your Netflix queues. I know I’ll do the same, and make sure to report back on the ones I haven’t already written about. Feel free to peruse my thoughts on The Fabulous Stains and Jubilee. If I may be so bold, I’d also add All Over Me and Linda, Linda, Linda to these lists.
BTW, obviously The Runaways needs to be added to this list. When I finally see it, expect an entry.
So, after recovering from the pleasurebomb that was SXSW 2k10, I’m finally able to recap the rest of the week. Tonight, I’ll post my thoughts on Thursday and Friday. Tomorrow, I will summarize Saturday’s festivities and highlight a few of the events I attended on Sunday.
With that, Thursday.
Left work around 4. I had a staff meeting earlier that morning and very much did not want to galivant around in biz-caj attire. I went home to change and of course, by 4:30, traffic was at a stand-still. Parking was harder to come by, so I ended up leaving my car on east 12th in front of my friends’ house. Got to Club Deville around 5.
Liars – If you’ve seen them before, you’d imagine how this went down. Loud, intense, sweaty, and their new album, Sisterworld, sounds good. Not as awesome as when I saw them at the Pitchfork Festival back in 2006 when they were supporting Drum’s Not Dead, but that was one of the best, most exhausting performances I’ve ever seen. Plus, there was some cigarette and pot smoke billowing around the tent outside the venue, but not enough to compare with what was floating around on that muggy Chicago summer day nearly four years ago.
After that, my partner and I ate some Hoboken Pie on the curb out front and plotted out our itinerary. We went to the Ghost Room to catch General Elektrik at 8 p.m., running into our friend Jacqueline along the way. When we got there some pseudo-house band called Scorpio Rising came on. Ugh. The obvious wah-wah bass was surpassed by the outfit’s hippie feel-goodisms. We promptly went to the porch and I read Tracy Morgan’s interview with BUST, his first magazine cover. The upcoming issue also has a feature on sissy bounce, which is a queer hip hop movement based out of New Orleans. Check it out when it hits newsstands.
General Elektriks – White boy French funk outfit. Good energy. Reminded me a little bit of Mellow and Beck circa Midnite Vultures, an era I wouldn’t mind if he returned to at some point.
Mountain Man – Heard about this almost exclusively a capella Vermont-based trio thanks to my friend Will. These women sang in three part harmony only occassionally accompanied by an acoustic guitar, which members Molly Erin Sarle and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig shared at various points during their set at Buffalo Billiards. They’re still new and a bit green, as evidenced when member Amelia Meath intimated that they had never sung with microphones before. Sometimes they weren’t completely together as a group. But when they were, which they were for much of the time, they emphasized the power unaccompanied vocal ensembles have in creating symphonies of sound. I also liked the Sapphic subtext to many of their songs, one of which was about living on a female commune, and the support they gave one another. A lot of hand-holding and hugging on that stage. They’re on my radar.
Explode Into Colors – Their show at Wave was on my must-see list, especially since I missed them at the festival last year. This Portland trio were really great. As I already wrote about them, I’ll say two more things: 1) More bands should have multiple drummers and 2) if you can’t get down with a bassless ESG scoring a post-apocalyptic Western, I can’t help you like things.
After this, we kind of hit a low point. We went to Aces Lounge to check out Jean Grae and Talib Kweli, who were amazing. Unfortunately, 88-Keys and Strong Arm Steady opened for them and they were derivative and making the bill run behind schedule. 88-Keys has worked with Kanye and I could see becoming a bit of a draw, particularly on the college tour circuits like 40 Acres Fest. Unfortunately, he’s also the type of rapper to dedicate songs about his sexual prowess to the laydees and say “no homo” when introducing songs about men (specifically one-minute men, which he assured us he wasn’t). Strong Arm Steady were a West Coast crew who worked with Madlib but were not themselves particularly remarkable and actually pretty messy in terms of delivery. The only highlight of their set was when Fashawn spat a couple verses on some song whose title I didn’t catch. I was getting super-annoyed, but then . . .
Jean Grae – Ya’ll, she’s the king as far as I’m concerned. Smart, challenging, confrontational, ingenuous, and the possessor of a killer flow, she’s one of the best in the game. And I don’t mean “good for a girl.” I mean on equal footing with or better than Mr. Lif, El-P, Brother Ali, Busdriver, Mos Def, Dead Prez, Jay-Z in his prime. She’s my favorite, and a grown-ass woman to boot. And I hadn’t actually seen her in concert since she did the Okay Player tour with The Roots back in 2004. So when she sashayed down a spiral staircase to Nancy Sinatra’s version of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” in a flared cocktail dress and cardigan (somewhat atypical for her to me, as I’ve usually seen her in jeans and t-shirts), I got amped. And when she demanded that the audience “act right” and participate by dancing and singing along, I obviously complied. She’s Jean fucking Grae.
Talib Kweli – Obviously amazing and great, as well as the reason for the showcase, as he is the owner of Blacksmith Records. He and Jean also had a lot of rapport, cracking each other up as they performed together.
After that, I snuck a peak at Phantogram at Red 7 and saw The Very Best begin to play Beauty Bar‘s backyard, where our friend Barrett was working security and had met JD Samson of MEN a few hours earlier. Then home, because Friday was going to be hella busy.
I took Friday off from work so I could help out at the GRCA day show at the relocating Cafe Mundi. Totally worth it. OMG, are there ever so many women and girls ruling it out there. After set-up, Kristen at Act Your Age and I got to watch Charlie Bell and Darling New Neighbors perform. After that, we interviewed several acts who were on the bill, including some long-time heroines of mine. I’m happy to report that Exene Cervenka, Jessica Hopper, and Viv Albertine are very nice in person. Hopefully all of the footage (much of which was shot by Kristen as well as Zoe from Schmillion and I’m the Fox) will be up on the Web in the immediate future. We got a lot of interesting opinions from these ladies.
Jessica Hopper – Did a reading from her book, The Girl’s Guide to Rocking, which she also signed for people.
Exene Cervenka – Still great, still political, still rockin’ a spare set-up with acoustic guitar and back-up singer. I also appreciated that she mentioned during her set how important it is to have spaces like GRC for girls’ self-empowerment.
Akina Adderly & the Vintage Playboys – Straight-ahead funk with great vocals, fronted by GRCA vocal coach Adderly.
Chatmonchy – All-female Japanese rock band that aren’t as well-known in the states but are royalty overseas.
BO-PEEP – In my opinion, the best show of the day. Loud, theatrical, high-energy all-female punk band from Japan. They were also very nice when I interviewed them, particularly since I couldn’t speak any Japanese and they weren’t proficient with English. However, I did discover that they love The Smashing Pumpkins and that they design and make all of their costumes. If they’re playing near you, go see them.
White Mystery – A close second to BO-PEEP for best set. A brother-sister guitar-drum duo from Chicago, currently on up-and-comer indie label HoZac. Please don’t dismiss them as the next iteration of The White Stripes and please don’t reduce them to their big red manes. These kids ruled it classic rock style. Also, the Whites are super-nice people. In our interview, we discovered that their mother makes a lot of their wearable goods (including underwear), singer-guitarist Alex runs merchandise workshops for Chicago’s chapter of GRC, drummer Francis was born on Keith Moon’s birthday, and so much about gear and the importance of bands running their merch booths.
Girl in a Coma – Really excited to see this San Antonio-based power trio, who I’ve somehow missed for the past year despite the fact that members are themselves involved with GRCA. Their songs were great and they really got the crowd rockin’ with their timely cover of The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.”
Viv Albertine – A cheeky, stylish lady with a dry sense of humor and a romanceless attitude toward love. Really enjoyed her new material and got to chat with her a little bit about acts she’s into, like Talk Normal and Grass Widow. Also has the coolest business card I’ve ever seen, though hopefully I convinced her to make them scratch and sniff.
Rosie Flores – Legendary punkabilly. Didn’t get to interview her, but enjoyed her set.
And with that, Kristen made her way home and my partner and I met up with our friend George at TerrorBird and some really nice deejays from Berkeley’s KALX. Frank was closed for a private party, so we decided to head over to El Chilito to catch our second wind.
Zs – Something tells me these guys are familiar with Big Black, Glenn Branca, and The Flying Luttenbachers. Profoundly loud, crushing, guitar-based free jazz. I can dig it. They were playing at Beauty Bar’s backyard at one of Panache’s many showcases. I hung out there for a few other bands.
The Carrots – Hadn’t seen this local indie pop outfit since SXSW 2006 and they’ve only gotten tighter. Cute, fun, and coordinated — this is the band you want playing your prom. Also, a nice sonic contrast to frontwoman Veronica Ortuño’s other band, Finally Punk.
Julianna Barwick – Man, I really like her music. Some people might find a girl singing into a loop station boring, but fuck them. Barwick’s approach to song formation is to improvise parts and feed them through her loop station until she’s built an entire choir out of her own voice. I was riveted.
Met back up with my partner, who tried to catch She & Him and John Doe to no avail. Caught the last few songs of Uffie’s set at Mohawk, which were whatever. Some people are excited about her, and I’m not sure why. Sure, she’s young and French and there’s the connection with Justice. But she endorses this “I’m young and bratty and materialistic” ethos that I wish certain feminists weren’t so quick to champion (see also the Married to the Mob clothing line, though I do want MTTM’s Lady Kier t-shirt). I think we’re better than that. And I think this shit is boring, and I bet it gets hella played at American Apparel.
Fashawn – I think this Fresno kid has star quality. Put him on your mix tapes, boys and girls.
The Entrance Band – I’m not so into psychedelic hard rock, but they’re fucking great. Caught them at Red 7, the third time I’ve seen them in as many SXSWs. Nothing really to say other than bassist Paz Lenchantin rules the planet. Melissa Auf Der Maur, who was two people to my left during their set, seems to think so too.
After that, there were a few shut-outs. I couldn’t get back in to the Mohawk to see Grass Widow, perhaps because all the people with badges were watching Mayer Hawthorne and the County. We couldn’t find the Independent to see Anti-Pop Consortium. The xx show at Central Presbyterian Church was badges only. So we ended things with Dengue Fever at Encore. Fun retro pop outfit from Los Angeles and Cambodia.
Phew! That’s enough for now. I’ll wrap up my thoughts tomorrow. Thanks for reading.
Before I went on vacation, Kristen at Act Your Age told me that PBS was going to show Dream of Life, a 2008 documentary by Steven Sebring about Patti Smith. Then yesterday, as I was sorting out my house, my friends Jacob and Melissa reminded me that it was going to be on later that night. It should be noted that I received reminder messages from them within the span of five minutes. I’m fine with being the music geek friends send these sorts of notices to. Thanks, everyone.
First, a disclaimer. I’m not a Patti Smith fan. What I mean by that is, I don’t know Smith’s music very well. Several of my friends got to know her through her music, perhaps developing their feminist and/or queer identities as a result. I’m sure the same could be said for readers of this blog I don’t know personally. This isn’t to say I’m not open to listening to her work. I’m just not very familiar with it. If there is interest in subsequent posts wherein I listen to her albums in chronological order and document my thoughts about it like Carrie Brownstein did with Phish earlier this year, show me the way.
Next, a confession. I haven’t until recently been interested in listening to Patti Smith’s music. While I haven’t listened to Horses in its entirety, I am familiar with her, and the ways in which I’m familiar with her give me pause. Here is why.
1. Each time I see a documentary where she is discussed, the opening chords to “Gloria” fade in and a bunch of musicians wax pretentious about how her music melded the sacred with the profane, or that she was not a musician but a poet and I get pissy. Not because of the song, but because of the purple prose being recited over it. I actually hadn’t heard the song in full until I was well into college.
2. With some exception, these superlatives tend to come from men: Glenn Branca, Thurston Moore, Legs McNeil, Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and Michael Stipe are but a few names. I remember Alice Bag talks about her influence in the supplemental feature about women in punk in Don Letts’s Punk: Attitude and I know riot grrrl pioneers like Kathleen Hanna were inspired by her, but the praise mainly comes from the men. Established or well-regarded rock and roll dudes. Legends, if you will.
3. In some of the things I have read on Smith, she wasn’t very kind to the women and girls around her. Blondie’s Debbie Harry talks about how dismissive and unfriendly she was during their CBGB’s days in Please Kill Me, an oral history on New York punk collected by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. It was also reported in Mark Spitz and the late Brendan Mullen’s L.A. punk oral history We Got the Neutron Bomb that Smith was nasty to The Runaways after they tried to visit her backstage after a concert, leaving a baby Joan Jett particularly crushed. Now, oral histories are tenuous at best and Smith is not asked to comment about any of this. Also, Bebe Buell speaks favorably of Smith in Please Kill Me. Kim Gordon has a prolonged friendship with her as well. But this, coupled with the fact that she doesn’t identify as a feminist makes me feel weird about her status as a feminist rock icon.
4. Add to this the very apparent sense of malecentric hero worship Smith evinces and I feel really weird about her. While I like that she likes Maria Callas, The Ronettes, and Christina Aguilera, I don’t get the sense that she had much use for women. She cut her hair to look like Keith Richards. She learned to hail a cab by watching Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back, a man who would later tune her guitar. That same guitar was a gift from Sam Shepard. Tom Verlaine apparently has the most beautiful neck in rock music, though her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5 possessed something altogether else. Pablo Picasso made inimitable art until Jackson Pollack created paintings out of the drippings from Picasso’s Guernica. Willem de Kooning’s paintings made her want to touch the art in museums, an “offense” she gleefully committed on more than one occasion.
In addition, Smith’s most well-known for covering songs by men, reclaiming Them’s “Gloria,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” and Nirvana’s “About A Girl.” Of course, she redefined those songs by singing them as a man without changing the male-female pronouns or amending them to be about Patty Hearst or Kurt Cobain. And, as I’m sure my friend Curran would be quick to point out, Smith often aligns herself with queer men like Arthur Rimbaud, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Michael Stipe. Curran may also posit that this makes Smith more closely as a transgendered person, which makes sense given Smith’s commitment to androgyny and sexual ambiguity.
However, I’ve always felt that Smith’s indebtedness to men has aligned herself at with a more liberal feminist, at times heterosexist view of how women play the game of rock (i.e., play the man’s game). While I get how others believe that she’s expanded how women can look and sound in rock, to me it still feels more like she’s abiding by male definitions of performance and sound rather than redefining it for female artists, a group she may not in fact feel that she is a part of.
To be clear, I don’t need her to be feminine. I’d like it if she were a feminist, but I’d be happier if it just seemed like femaleness wasn’t so burdensome or powerless or safe to her. However, this is how it’s often seemed to me that Smith views or once viewed my sex category, and with it my gender, and this has always been our wedge. I’ll let her state her case.
Of course, this outlook may evince some potential transphobia on my part. I also might be privileging binaristic norms around gender and sexuality instead of championing fluidity. This nagging feeling keeps me coming back to Smith as an idea. But maybe I should get to know her better. And with that, the documentary.
I’ll be blunt again. For the most part, I found this documentary to be indulgent yet slight. Smith of course is the subject, but I was disheartened by how much she seemed to dictate the narrative (I find it just as frustrating when men do this, though I did like when Smith ordered filming to cease backstage before a performance). I would have liked more context.
I also would’ve liked to have been surprised by it more. I didn’t learn much about the artist or the person behind her mythology. I also didn’t get much of a sense of time and place. I could deduce the passing of time by watching her children mature. I understood when we were watching her tour the Trampin’ album because she was speaking out against the Iraq War and the Bush administration. I gather that dancing on the beach in Coney Island with Lenny Kaye was fun, but don’t know why it needed to be shown in slow motion. I know that losing her husband and her friend and long-time collaborator was traumatic because she said so. I don’t know how she felt about the loss of her parents during the 2000s. I saw that she loved playing with her guitarist son Jackson, who toured with her, but I know very little about her daughter Jesse past a gender-bending pubescent trip to the bathroom and, later, a carriage ride with her mother. And past some previously captured interview footage of Smith, I don’t know why she left mundane New Jersey to become a punk poet in New York, though I think I can imagine why.
That said, there were little snatches of Patti Smith the daughter and the artsy gender rebel that I enjoyed and did help me get to know her better. Seeing her eat hamburgers at her parents’ time-warp home. Seeming both proud and embarrassed when her father admits that he can’t go to his daughter’s concerts anymore because he lost his hearing at the earlier gigs he did attend while wearing one of her concert t-shirts. Trading chords with Shepard. Reminiscing about eating hot dogs in Coney Island with Maplethorpe. Holding up her children’s baby clothes and proudly declaring their cleanliness and her refusal to use bleach. Talking about how wanting to touch original paintings in museums is easily satisfied by making your own art. Playing woodwinds with Flea on the beach and swapping stories about how expertly both musicians can pee into bottles while traveling. And seeing her performances and hearing her words, her songs. I wish I was given a timeline to find out when all of these works were created, but I’m content to find out for myself. Let’s start by revisiting “Redondo Beach.”
The Runaways biopic trailer is up on the Interwebz. I know about it thanks to Courtney, who posted this article to our friend Annie’s Facebook page. I’ve been at attention for any news about it for months, so I just had to rush out and write a post. What do we all think?
Admittedly, it looks like a standard rock biopic trailer that actually doesn’t reveal too much about the band. We know from the trailer that the girls were in a band, the rock industry in the 1970s was dominated by men, and The Runaways had a male manager who wore glam eye make-up (Kim Fowley, played by Michael Shannon who was excellent in Revolutionary Road).
While we see that Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) may have gone through some inner turmoil, we don’t see any acting scenes from the girls. In fact, we don’t hear the actresses deliver any lines of dialogue and I’m not sure if they’re actually playing (though I hope they are and speculate that Dakota Fanning did her own singing as Cherie Currie). The only spoken words we hear are all from adult men. So that’s a bummer.
I’m also curious as to how the movie will navigate the band’s myriad of replacement bassists and how this may be informed by Jackie Fox and Joan Jett’s legal disagreements.
Nonetheless, I’m fucking stoked. Can’t wait to see these girls. Looking forward to Alia Shawkat, who makes an appearance as one of the band’s bass players. Also looking out for Scout-Taylor Compton, who plays Lita Ford and played Laurie Strode in the Rob Zombie Halloween remakes (proud aside: the second installment of the series featured a dear friend of mine). So I hope these ladies (including Kristen, Dakota, and Floria) rock that shit.