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?
This year, three new albums found their way into my constant rotation. One is EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, which is the strongest debut album I’ve heard so far (feelings I share with Lindsay Zoladz and Stacey Pavlick). Erika M. Anderson’s spare acoustic-drone psychodrama is all peroxide and rusty razor blades. It’s an interesting stylistic counterpoint to one of last year’s great debuts, Glasser’s Ring, where Cameron Mesirow encrusted her electro-feminist musings with barnacles and jewels.
The other two albums are huge artistic leaps forward. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake reminds people who only casually listened to her after Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea that she remains one of rock’s most vital artists. These tend to be the same people who wish she revisited Rid of Me, not knowing that she did in 2004 with Uh Huh Her, which is seething and vital on its own terms. tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l is the other one, and a beast live. Here, Merrill Garbus proves the Blackberry ad wasn’t a fluke and that her debut album’s lo-fi set-up was less an aesthetic choice than a pragmatic necessity. Like Kala, w h o k i l l foregrounds propulsive drumming and struts and shines like a pop record. Both have been met with near-unanimous critical acclaim. They’re also two of my favorite records of the year so far. No contest.
Thematically, they have much in common. Put simply, they’re albums about forging and contending national identit(ies) in countries that have or continue to define themselves by war, a point Harvey articulated about England in her recent Fresh Air interview. They also quote from other artists to locate and conjure their country’s musical heritage. w h o k i l l‘s dazzling opener, “My Country,” references “America” and ”Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone, the country’s first prominent interracial, mixed gender rock band. It also champions the United States’ problematic multicultural spirit throughout, with liberal quotations from cultural imports like ska and reggae and Garbus’ omnipresent ukulele. England‘s “The Glorious Land” samples the Police’s “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.” The saxophone and trombone in “The Last Living Rose” sound like a Kinks flourish. “The Colour of the Earth,” an elegy to a dead soldier, barrels along like a pub anthem. Two of the album’s showcased instruments, the autoharp and the zither, echo the lush stringed instrumentation that made 4AD the nation’s home for dream pop in the album’s three-song centerpiece, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” “All and Everyone,” and “On Battleship Hill.” It’s as much a British album in sound as it is for its interest in the First World War and England’s involvement with the ongoing crises in the Middle East.
And while I don’t want to compare Harvey to Kate Bush, another dark-haired musician/lady genius with a complicated obsession with her homeland, I do marvel at how Harvey uses her voice as genderfuck. For an album largely about war and living with its atrocities, I agree that using a breathy tone destabilizes the directness of her words. In its way, it reminds me more of Armando Iannucci’s staggering In the Loop, a piercing satire about Anglo-American politics and the Iraq invasion. Harvey uses her voice to offset and deepen the tragedy. Iannucci and his writing team use comedy to illustrate the stupid, careless banter of ambitious civil servants, career politicians, and military personnel who use words and protocol to kill people and destroy nations. Has anyone synced up “The Words That Maketh Murder” to any scene in that movie on YouTube? It’s intuitive.
But let’s face facts. They’re albums by white women. Of course, we’re a homogenuous group amongst ourselves and these two albums are their own entities. w h o k i l l is an album about being a white woman with a complex interiority. Garbus opines about gentrification on “Gangsta,” fantasizes about making love to the cop who is arresting her brother in “Riotriot,” mourns the loss of a loved one by police brutality on “Doorstep”, and tries to unlearn ingrained body hatred in “Es-so”. While she may be embellishing or fictionalizing at times, she is certainly singing from her peer group’s perspective, specifically the vantage point of relocated urban white hipsters (Garbus recently moved to Oakland). Harvey plays with gender, assuming the role of a traumatized male soldier or embodying a degendered narrator, and her ability to morph into these characters connotes white privilege. Garbus’ play with ebonics (using words like “gangsta,” “powa,” “killa,” and, on her first record, “fiya” for “gangster,” “power,” “killer,” and “fire”) suggests the same thing.
This gets at issues of appropriation. “England” samples Said El Kurdi’s ”Kassem Miro” and “Written on the Forehead” lifts Winston “Niney” Holness’ “Blood and Fire” while employing an omniscent narrator to reflect on the cultural richness and war-wrecked blight of some unattributed Middle Eastern country that Harvey has revealed to be about present-day Iraq, even though several countries still use dinar as currency. These songs gesture toward England’s history as a brutal colonizer, as well as its migratory musical and cultural heritage. They are my favorite songs on the record–elliptical, searching, imaginative. But as is often the case with sampling, that doesn’t mean they’re racial politics aren’t troubled.
In the middle of “Killa,” seemingly an ode to female self-empowerment, Garbus asks “would you call me naive and an idealist if I told you I am disheartened that in this day and age I do not have more male, black friends?” It’s a question imbued in white female privilege. But it’s also an interesting and productive question white people don’t like to ask or think on very often. Best of all, it’s also a question with an answer. It’s why Merrill Garbus was able to study African folkloric traditions while attending a liberal arts college, smear paint across her face, and cite Fela Kuti as an influence. It’s why Glasser’s backup singers put on conical hats for Jimmy Fallon without explanation and no one cries foul. It’s why Kate Bush is allowed to use black people to “color” a music video. It’s why the very concept of eclecticism in popular music is racially loaded and lousy with class signifiers that would make Bourdieu put down his tea cup and furrow his brow.
It’s also a question I could ask to get at why my friend Kristen was one of the few black women in our grad program at UT. It’s a question that gets at the heart at why I didn’t think to introduce her to Cassandra, another black woman in my friend group constellation–because I didn’t want to seem racist for assuming that my black girlfriends would like each other. It also gets at my embedded racism when I sent panicked text messages to them about some pushback I got from my Alicia Keys post. I wanted confirmation that I was racially sensitive and, once I realized what I was doing, immediately apologized for trying to force them into the role of wise black female cultural arbiter when they probably just wanted to sleep or watch television or eat ice cream. It’s why Maya Rudolph’s bridal party is comprised of white ladies. It’s why seeking out a black Zooey Deschanel may be a fool’s errand and thus why it may be more productive to champion Web series’ like the nuanced, hilarious The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl instead. Because class, race, and white cisfemale privilege color all of this, and like Harvey and Garbus, I directly benefit from it.
When I started this blog, it was out of a personal need to highlight female musical contributions. Now sometimes it just seems like I’m just championing white ladies–hence the delay on a post I’ve been writing in my head for a few months. Nowhere is this more evident than in looking at my record collection, which also proves that fetishizing an eclectic mix of genres across identity categories means having the disposable income to do so (or at least deciding not to buy a car or make a baby with it). And as much as I recommend Georgia Anne Muldrow, pump Betty Davis, put Chavela Vargas on mix CDs, laud Cibo Matto and OOIOO, seek out acts like the Lost Bois, celebrate Jean Grae’s new effort, breathlessly await Psalm One’s next album, and agree that white women shouldn’t only listen to artists that reflect their own identities, it probably reads as either defensive or self-congratulatory for being down. Scratch that, it is being defensive and self-congratulatory. That doesn’t mean I’m only going to make mixes with white ladies on it. I just refuse to take credit or feel good about myself for including Ebony Bones or the Bags on a mix CD.
I’m a feminist because I believe there’s value in aligning with an ethos that’s committed to dismantling the patriarchy and celebrating a transinclusive notion of female identit(ies), even when I have to fight for it to be equitable, acknowledge when it isn’t, and help work toward creating a system of -isms that includes all my sisters (even the ones who don’t want me as their sisters). So I’ll keep trying to be an ally, always call race into question when I’m talking about gender, and assume I have much more to learn than I do to teach. I love music because it transports me both within and outside myself and provides me with sites of identification and something to do on a Saturday night, and then forces me to consider the implications of such mental travel and hive formation. I love writing about it because it clarifies my opinions, opens up a dialogue, and holds me accountable. I love Let England Shake and w h o k i l l, because they are angry, varied, and gracious. And it’s because I love them that I have to question why I do.
SXSW 2011 kicks off today. I’ll be diving into the music portion of the festival with abandon next week and reporting on it for Bitch. For those interested looking for suggestions on what to check out, here’s my rundown.
But before we get started, let’s check some things off our list.
1. Are you wearing comfortable, close-toed shoes that can weather days of walking and standing?
2. Do you have earplugs? Some shows are really loud. You don’t want to be yelling at people during polite conversation days later.
3. Are you staying hydrated? Sure, Lone Star flows freely (and is marked up, though Brooklynites don’t notice), but make sure you’re drinking lots of water.
4. Have you checked the weather before going out?
5. If you’re especially susceptible to cedar fever and the like, did you take any allergy medication?
6. Do you have a schedule? More importantly, do you have several options for each time slot? A lot of us want to see Raphael Saadiq, which means many of us won’t. It’s nice to have contingency plans.
7. Do you have a little bit of sunscreen handy for the day shows? Remember what Darlene Conner learned from her grandmother. Skin is a gift!
Also, some industrious folks can pull a Hilah and make potables to nosh on and barter. I will not be one of them, though, as I’ll most likely be macking on Kebabalicious. For a guide to vegan-friendly fare, check in with Vegan Smurf.
Oh, and musicians. Please don’t spend your set futzing with tunings. You aren’t playing an evening at the Paramount. Yes, I realize that SXSW is a bit of a grind and no doubt showcases feel dehumanizing come Saturday. But if you’re really great, we’ll see you again in an actual concert where you can dazzle us for two hours. For now, you have maybe 50 minutes. Make it count.
Okay. So here is who I’m excited to see.
First, there are the acts that I already know I like. Folks like Thao Nguyen, Jean Grae, Invincible, TOKiMONSTA, Dessa, Glasser, Screaming Females, Julianna Barwick, Grass Widow, tUnE-yArDs, Nite Jewel, Smoosh, Andreya Triana, Indian Jewelry, Sharon Van Etten, and Schmillion.
Then there are legendary types. Did you see that Hazel Dickens is playing? What? Yes, I’ll try to see her. Thanks, “Hot Topic,” for nudging me toward all kinds of important women and/or queer artists.
For better or worse, hype is a big part of what drives SXSW. Hell, it’s what drives the music industry writ large. In addition to all the people lining up to see James Blake, Gold Panda, Weekend, Dum Dum Girls, Tennis, and maybe Fang Island, I’m sure folks are going to try and catch Cults, Yuck, the Joy Formidable, and Ear Pwr. I hope Butts catches some of that buzz. At first, I firmly classified this duo as a novelty act. But their 20-second songs about things like running out of toilet paper are pretty catchy and basically the kind of music I’d want to make with my friend Curran. Also, this band came together after some drinking. The B-52s formed while getting drunk at a Chinese restaurant, and if you call their first two albums “novel,” I’ll fight you.
I’m not sure where Big Freedia and Esben and the Witch are in their careers at this point. I feel like they might be waning a bit. I thought Freedia’s performance at the Kool Keith show was underwhelming and Esben’s debut record was poorly received. Yet I’m still interested in seeing if Freedia will pull out a great show. Also, I heard that Esben gave a great performance at the Matador anniversary weekend in Las Vegas, so I’m still interested.
There are also acts I’d like to see get more attention. Big Freedia’s celebrity has somewhat eclipsed Katey Red, another artist associated with bounce who I actually like more. Wye Oak is a longtime favorite and have steadily built a sizeable following. Their new record is also making me itch to do a comparative analysis between them and Beach House. White Mystery have gotten some good reviews and were a festival highlight for me last year, so I’m going to check in with them again. I haven’t seen the Shondes, but I’m so excited to see them that I encouraged readers to donate money to replace their van so they could play here.
I also like to find a few acts I think have a shot at universal appeal. Folks like Thao Nguyen make accessible, interesting music that I think most everyone I know would like. Maybe you can think of it as “the NPR vote.” Some contenders this year are Carla Morrison, Quadron, Wonfu, Gold Motel, Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, Khaïra Arby, and Frazey Ford. I’m also interested in seeing Japanese funk group Zukunasisters.
Supergroups are important too. It’s nice to see awesome musicians come together on a new project. Wild Flag is getting much attention, and “Glass Tambourine” is a rad song. However, please note that Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda, that dog.’s Petra Haden, and Shimmy Shimizu of Cornelius have a promising act called If By Yes. Their songs are breezy and refreshing, like a glass of lemonade with a shot of Tabasco.
Alongside Glasser and Barwick, some ladies are tending toward the dreamy and the mystical. I’ll refrain from comparing any of them to Kate Bush because that’s lazy. However, I’m planning to check out Braids, Grimes, Phantogram, Tamaryn, and Austra. I’m especially interested in artists who do interesting, unsettling things with atmosphere. Lookin’ at you, EMA, Lower Dens, Las Robertas, Blank Realm, No Joy, Christian Mistress, and the White Eyes.
SXSW is a festival that prioritizes rock music. Unfortunately, dance acts and hip hop artists tend to get the shaft. There’s a shocking dearth of hip hop this year beyond what I already listed, though I strongly recommend you follow Scratched Vinyl‘s coverage (founder/editor/personal friend Chi Chi Thalken will be giving a rundown on KOOP’s “Hip Hop Hooray” this Sunday at 2 p.m., so tune in). However, while I don’t want rock to be the festival’s default genre, I do upon occasion enjoy a cold beer and an electric guitar. For folks looking to rock out, might I suggest Heavy Cream, Fever Fever, Puffyshoes, Those Darlins, and Le Butcherettes?
Austin is a thriving music community in its own right, so check out some of our local talent. Christeene‘s an international superstar, but she’s ours. Schmillion are opening for the Bangles, so they’re due to break huge any day now. Agent Ribbons and Soft Healer spin a moody, beautiful tune that befits our vast landscape. Most everyone can get down to Akina Adderley and the Vintage Playboys‘ retro soul.
Likewise, there are some great showcases being put on by locals. I already mentioned GayBiGayGay, which will nurse you through your Sunday hangover. Mess With Texas has become a big-tent tradition. Girls Rock Camp Austin is partnering with Bitch for their day show and is holding a benefit where attendees can receive a guitar signed by Susanna Hoffs. Veronica Ortuño is holding her third annual Night of Rage. KVRX and Party Ends are putting on some good shows as well. And even though Terrorbird Media isn’t a local promotion company, it’s run by some very nice people with good taste. Also, apparently the good people at Karaoke Underground are doing their thing at Dive on Saturday, the 19th. Belt your favorite indie rock tunes, regardless of whether you have a voice left.
I attempted to be comprehensive here, but I’m sure I forgot some important people. Feel free to leave endorsements in the comments section and I’ll see you on the fairground.
Despite the aims of this blog, there exists an impossibility: I can’t keep up with everything that goes on in popular music. I try to winnow down the aggregate by focusing on women and girls (and sometimes some relevant men and boys, but usually in the periphery). But some things get lost in the proverbial mix. Tonight I thought I’d focus on two artists I’m starting to get into, thanks to my neighbor David and Kristen at Act Your Age.
First up, tUnE-yArDs. When I saw the cover for BiRd-BrAiNs, I dismissed the act out of hand. Surely this is some kind of indie white boy band who is too in love with their sense own irony. Maybe they do dance music, but in quotes. Ho hum. I dance for real.
But actually, Merrill Garbus is the woman behind a solo project called tUnE-yArDs and specifically picked the name to be annoying. You can listen to old fogey rock critic Greil Marcus espouse his opinions on her work here. You can also play the clip below, which shows the singer performing “Hatari.”
I have some thoughts of my own. I think it’s interesting that Garbus is being lumped in with a spate of new artists who embrace lo-fi (note: a lot of people approach the term as a subgenre; I think of it more as a recording philosophy that eschews state-of-the-art technology for outdated, often analog equipment and favors using domestic spaces to double as studios).
But, I have trouble with a white woman weaving African music (specifically from Kenya and the Congo) into her sound after studying abroad during college. I don’t know much about the Garbus family’s social standing, but there’s definitely the risk of world music’s cultural poaching here. Some folks, like my partner, might find her race more troubling when hearing her voice, which seems to betray both her race and age. I feel a bit weird about it too, but I also like the richness of her tonal quality. This might help me come around to the prospect of a live puppet show, which I’m also on the fence about. The grooves and her ear for unexpected melodies along with intersting harmonic and rhythmic shifts help. I’d like to see her in a live setting to see how all of this comes together. SXSW?
Also: Beach House. Man, have people talked them up. Dudes, mainly — some of whom seemed a little too preoccupied with vocalist Victoria Legrand’s Nico-esque vocals, making The Velvet Underground’s influence a bit too obvious. So I’ve more or less avoided them, confident that they aren’t going anywhere and I’ll get to them eventually. That said, I do really love the music video for “Master of None” off their self-titled debut, and like the song as well.
Their third release, Teen Dream, comes out next week. Kristen gave it a thumbs-up, which was enough for me. As Michael Katzif points out, the new album has a lighter, dreamier sound. At times, the album reminds me of Kate Bush and 80s-era Fleetwood Mac (“Norway” boasts a guitar line that sounds quite a bit like “Gypsy”). I’ve taken for granted the number of times Beach House have made it down to Austin. I hope I get to check them out real soon.