If I had to pick one rock band to invite over for dinner, it’d be the B-52′s without question. I’d even drink sweet tea if it was spiked. They formed after getting drunk in a Chinese restaurant, so I know good things can happen with them while they’re eating. Maybe they’d bring over the plastic fruit Keith Haring gifted them. I hope Kate Pierson brings her girlfriend too.
I love the B-52′s without any trace of irony. I requested a cassette copy of Cosmic Thing for my tenth birthday because I saw Stephanie Tanner do a dance routine to “Love Shack” on Full House and heard the Mickey Mouse Club cover “Roam” and was sold, only to find that “Dry County” was my favorite track on the album.
What actually endeared the B-52′s to me was the video to “Love Shack,” which looked like the most fun shoot ever–way more fun than Sinéad O’Connor’s devastating “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The club in that video was what I wanted the parties in Dirty Dancing to be, though as an adult, I’ve come to love it, appreciate its distinctly Jewish purview, and recognize its feminist potential. But no one was risking back-alley abortions after getting knocked up by slumming waiters at the Love Shack, perhaps because of all the same-sex hook-ups going on.
I didn’t recognize it as such at the time but, with RuPaul in tow, “Love Shack” one of the queerest clips I’d seen at that age. Along with the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Freddie Mercury, and family friends Ken and Dennis, the B-52′s were a big part of my LGBT sensitivity training growing up. Later, I found out that Cosmic Thing was released after an extended hiatus. It was their first record after guitarist Ricky Wilson died of AIDS. Frankly, I still marvel that Cindy was able to record after losing her brother so tragically. Perhaps taking cues from kindred spirit Pee-Wee Herman, the B-52′s recognized children’s need for queer visibility and ingratiated themselves into kids’ programming, with members providing the theme song to Rocko’s Modern Life and the group coming together as the BC-52′s for The Flintstones. Actually, I’ll count Rosie O’Donnell as part of my education too. Even though she wasn’t out yet, she pinged my ‘dar big time.
I’m thinking about queer visibility and alliance because Wisconsin Capitol Pride is going on this weekend. But the B-52′s expanded my mind in other ways. Of their peers, Devo and the Talking Heads get branded as the eggheads. I’m not disputing that they made esoteric pop music that legitimized “graduate student” as a cool vocation. But the brains behind Blondie and the B-52′s are often discredited because they made fun records and trafficked in thrift-store kitsch. Yet, as the documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out makes clear, the B-52′s avant-garde pop was just as intellectually rigorous as R.E.M.’s mumblecore and at home with Pylon and the Bar-B-Que Killers. And David Byrne identified with the B-52′s enough to produce Mesopotamia. Maybe they’re dismissed because Fred Schneider professes cultural ignorance on “Mesopotamia” by stating “I ain’t no student of ancient culture–before I talk, I should read a book!” Frankly, I wish more people were that honest. I’m sure a lot of people can’t abide the group because Schneider’s defiantly gay vocal mannerisms trigger latent homophobia. That or “Rock Lobster.”
I’ve always loved “Rock Lobster”–so much so that a college friend gave me a 45 copy for Christmas one year. I’m not alone, either. Apparently Haring used to paint to it for hours, to the ire of his flat mate and neighbors. But it’s terrible for karaoke because it’s seven minutes long and most people can’t commit to Schneider’s campy narration and the ladies’ Ono-esque sea creature noises. That’s why I suggested Karaoke Underground replace “Rock Lobster” with “52 Girls,” because drunk people enjoy screaming people’s names and pointing to their friends.
Somewhere I read that the B-52′s’ read on paper like an American Studies thesis but sounded like a dance party. That’s pretty right on. Like artist Kenny Scharf and filmmaker John Waters, the group was obsessed with queering retro futurism and Cold War Americana. Their name references the bomber that streamlined modern warfare and the bee-hive hairdos preferred by teenyboppers and girl groups. During the Reagan Administration, the threat of Soviet revolution and nuclear fallout held relevance. The easy solution was to retreat to a time when xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia (all synonyms for “paranoia”) seethed under shiny, vinyl surfaces. Folks like the B-52′s thought this was a punchline with horrifying ramifications, and responded by regressing. I almost wrote on this for my Cold War Media Culture class but wrote about West Side Story instead for some reason. When Ruth La Ferla’s considered the economic ramifications of retro-futurism’s escapist pleasures for the New York Times, I kicked myself.
For me, it’s easy to pore over any B-52′s album cover. What are they wearing? Where can I find those wigs? But the one that captured my imagination was Whammy! Though obviously on a set, the composition of William Wegman’s shot suggests that the group is in an abyss, staring above at an uncertain future. Vikki Warren’s costuming is amazing. Kate and Cindy’s outfits are vivid bursts of red and yellow against the men’s black-and-white ensembles. I especially love the silhouette of Kate’s dress, bringing to mind Judy Jetson and the hula hoop. Released a year before Reagan was re-elected and thus fulfilled an Orwellian prophesy, Whammy! was the group’s most forward-looking record to date. As a result, it was underappreciated. But songs like “Legal Tender,” “Song for a Future Generation,” and a cover version of Yoko Ono’s “Don’t Worry” (later replaced by “Moon 83″ for legal reasons) were and remain relevant.
Five days ago, Chloe Angyal wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown entitled “Miley Cyrus < Betty Friedan: On the Search for a Feminist Pop Star.” Springboarding off The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman’s assessment that Miley Cyrus’s new single and accompanying music video for “Can’t Me Tamed” is empowering for girls, Angyal chided some critics’ need to claim female celebrities who project even the slightest sense of self-empowerment as feminist. She also called into question whether or not feminism and pop culture can ever really go together. As a fan of the site (it’s on my blogroll), I of course read it and RTed (follow me @ms_vz).
I’m right with Angyal on most of this. I had just read Rachel Fudge’s essay “Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power is Bad for Feminism” that a Girls Rock Camp Austin volunteer forwarded, so I was certainly in the right headspace. The line “It’s tempting, but ultimately misguided, to try to make feminist mountains out of girl power molehills” particularly spoke to me. Also, I was also frustrated by Wakeman’s piece, as it assumed that pop music and MTV were the portals through which all girls take their cues, thus absenting girls who don’t have access, reject these offerings, or perhaps find some middle ground. Also, I thought the clip was a blatant attempt to reinvent a girl pop star into an “adult” artist who equates edge with wearing lingerie and smudged eyeliner.
However, I took issue with some of Angyal’s argument. Kristen at Act Your Age left a great comment outlining the lack of actual girls’ perspectives in feminist criticism. She also pointed out that pop music is still often assumed as the bad object against which punk and riot grrrl fought and superceded, a bias we confront in our work with GRCA by trying to dialog musical genres with one another in our music history workshops. But I thought I’d add a few additional concerns. Originally, I was going to post them as a comment to the article. However, it’s been nearly a week since the article was published — a lifetime in the blogosphere. Plus, I figured I could work through some of these issues here and reassert this blog as a communal space for feminist exchanges about music culture.
1. Angyal’s major critique seems to be less about who gets labeled a feminist role model and more toward who does the labeling. To me, she was lobbing her complaint at writers who want to argue the progressive powers of pop music with minimal consideration for enlightened sexism, capitalism, division of labor, corporate enterprising, branding, media saturation, and taste engineering cultivation. I say “here here.” But then I also do this sort of analysis myself. What’s more, I’d like to think I do it on both sides of the mainstream/underground divide, where the lines continue to blur. I know I don’t have the clout or name recognition of more prominent feminist bloggers, and perhaps I’ll cultivate it with time. But I’m here, and so is this blog.
I think Angyal might also be frustrated with how quick writers are to jump on Tweeting trends and topics that guarantee high SEOs. I may be projecting, as this is something that bothers me and I rebel against. Often, I find myself recalling and revisiting bygone or obscure texts to argue their historical merit or dialog them with the present. If I do write about current popular texts, I don’t have much interest in covering them quickly at the expense of evaluation time. I’m not sold on the idea that trends = cultural relevance any more than I am that Sleater-Kinney is inherently better than Nicki Minaj. While I have upon occasion covered a person or topic that was popular and got me some hits, I only did it when I felt I had critical insights to lend. Thus, it can be frustrating when I get traffic because a bunch of people were Googling Megan Fox, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Taylor Momsen, or Miley Cyrus, as has happened to Kristen. On the one hand, hits are great. But those figures are bloated and misleading and may misrepresent my work, because this blog has only sporadic concern with what’s of the moment. But when it does, I hope I treat it with a consistent critical rigor. After all, there truly is no perfect text.
2. Since there is contention between mainstream and indie culture, I’d like to point out that the matter of identifying as a feminist is just as much a concern in the underground and on the fringes of music culture as it is under the mainstream’s spotlight. As a feminist music geek who tends to root for the underdog, I’m often faced with the reality that many of the artists I love — indeed, many of the artists who pointed me toward feminism — don’t identify as feminists. Björk and PJ Harvey don’t, nor does Patti Smith. Rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and many others don’t either, though for reasons that perhaps speak more to racial exclusion, as feminism tends to be a white women’s domain. There are many artists I like whose feminist politics I don’t have a grasp on, including forward-thinking women like Kate Bush, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, and Janelle Monáe.
There are also artists who do identify as feminist who give me pause. Courtney Love has used feminism to validate her outspoken persona and rail against industry sexism. She has also used it to justify getting plastic surgery, an argument that I take issue with because it obscures class privilege, ingrained beauty standards, and weakens the political potential of choice. Lily Allen has employed the term at times, though her actions and behavior at times suggest that she extols the supposedly feminist virtues of being a brat. Lady Gaga is only starting to claim any identification with feminism. Even confirmed feminists like Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Le Tigre, Gossip, and Yoko Ono — who I admire a great deal for their musical contributions and political convictions — should be subject to scrutiny and considered as individual feminists rather than as a monolithic representation of who a “good” feminist is.
Also, rather than considering pop music as an endpoint or part of a binary, it should be dialoged with other genres and mediums. Recently, Anna at Girls Rock Camp Houston dropped me a line asking about my thoughts on new criticism against Lady Gaga from Mark Dery and Joanna Newsom. As their criticisms questioned her supposed edginess, called out her obvious indebtedness to Madonna, and argued over a lack of musical songcraft, it immediately recalled recent sound bites from Michel Gondry, M.I.A., and Grace Jones deflating the pop star’s artistic inclinations.
I’m of two minds about these detractors’ comments. On the one hand, I still agree. In the year since I first posted about Gaga, I’ve essentially gathered greater nuance for the pop star while still arriving to the same conclusions. Save for a few hits (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Bad Romance,” “Monster”), I still think her music is fairly boring and could have much more political bite than it actually does. I thought her American Idol performance of “Alejandro” was overblown. It’s also a fair point to bring up how Gaga lifts from other cultural texts, just as Madonna has throughout her career. And like Amanda Marcotte, I think there are lots of other interesting female musicians doing work we should be following. I mean, is it really a crime not to find Gaga interesting? Does Gaga have to be the female savior of pop music? Can we not look elsewhere? Also, in the cases of Newsom, M.I.A., and Jones, do we have to assume that their criticisms are just examples of female cattiness?
Yet something about these comments smacks of the idealized notion of art vs. commerce, with Gaga imitating one while supposedly embodying the latter. So, I call bullshit, because it’s not like these musicians and this video director don’t also dabble with both. Also, how would they speak of, say, Karen O, another female musician who makes femininity Marilyn Manson grotesque. Would they simply sniff that she did it before Gaga? Would they give her the point because she’s mocked art stars while also being one?
In short, feminism is tricky from all sides. It’s not one thing and it’s never perfect.
3. Finally, I follow commenter Tasha Fierce and take issue with Angyal’s supposition that Betty Friedan is an exemplar of feminism. She penned The Feminine Mystique and founded NOW. She also helped position feminism as a middle-class, college-education, white ladies’ game. She also referred to lesbian separatists as “the lavender menace,” though later recanted. Thus, just as I don’t want Miley Cyrus to be the ambassador for girl power, I don’t believe we should have one (straight, white, middle-class, adult, cisgender, able-bodied) female represent feminism. Let’s encourage discourse, even at the expense of comfort. Consider me a willing participant.
If you’re a follower of this blog and haven’t gotten a hold of the new issue of Bitch, I heartily recommend it. I also recommend that you get a subscription, something I intend to renew after the holiday season. As luck would have it, the current issue came in the mail just as I was heading to Fort Worth for Thanksgiving, and its theme is all about artists. In it, you will find articles about mediated representations of female artists in television and film, the troubled history of contemporary feminist art, and an indictment of the patriarchal implications of Donald Judd’s artistic take-over of Marfa.
While I’d like some more coverage of iconoclastic artists like Kara Walker and an extension of the term “artist” to include women like contemporary dancer Louise Lecavalier, I recognize that the good people at Bitch only have so much negative space to fill and loved the issue all the same. It was just the thing to read while running on the elliptical machine in the guest room when in need of some solitary quality time. I am an only child, after all.
One person I’m really glad Bitch focused on is Yoko Ono. By having 20 female artists contribute their words and feelings about this great woman, Ellen Papazian helps shatter the myth of rock’s dragon lady widow and considers her influence as an artist, musician, Japanese immigrant, feminist, mother, wife, and woman. Importantly, these women also challenge the notion that Ono’s cultural position as feminist conceptual artist was trite and instead suggest ways in which it was revolutionary and brave. Let’s think about this when we look at works like “Cut Piece,” wherein Ono invites audience members to cut off pieces of her clothes and hair — sometimes to dangerous effect at the hands of misogynistic participants — or “Y E S,” which is comprised of a ladder, a magnifying glass, and three affirmative letters scrawled on a board overhead.
Another lady I’d like to shine a light on, especially since she wasn’t featured in Bitch‘s Art/See issue is composer and fellow Houstonian Pauline Oliveros.
I’m in the process of putting together a couple of entries for an encyclopedia for American women in popular culture. I’ve sent off two, but am stalling on an overview of female composers because, frankly, beyond Ms. Oliveros, Libby Larsen, and film scorers like Wendy Carlos and Shirley Walker, I actually don’t know too many myself and was hoping to use this assignment as an opportunity to broaden my own understanding. A Pandora guide I inherited from my friend Emily will hopefully expand my own knowledge base, but feel free to throw out American female composers I should discuss. In the mean time, I thought I’d share a piece by Oliveros, an accordian player and pianist who emphasizes the importance of breathing in music-making, cultivates the idea of deep listening in contemporary classical music, and incorporates it into her music for feminist reasons.
Let’s toast these female artists and others who’ve carved spaces for themselves and, as a result, tried to bridge the chasm between subject and spectator, hoping to forge that most feminist of ideals: communal space. Here here! I sip my Lone Star in their honor.
Last week, I was bestowed with a treasure. My friend Curran made me a two-volume mix CD, one of my favorite things to give and receive. I especially love Internal/External’s “Stepping Up to the Mic,” Yoko Ono and Cat Power’s “Revelations,” and Takaka Minekawa’s “Fantastic Cat,” which he selected specifically for my cat, Kozy. And he also reminded me that I should have been listening to Crass this whole time.
His mix came with a 20-page set of liner notes with lyrics, observations, and personal meanings for each song. Curran is a very thorough, thoughtful person who values homemade things and resistive, non-normative modes of expression. I had a dream that he wrote a 30-page essay on Shonen Knife for this blog’s “Records That Made Me a Feminist” section and have no doubt that he might. You should read it.
The week before that, I was bestowed with another treasure. My neighbor-friend Rosa-María left a clipping from Entertainment Weekly in my door, with the blurb for Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls circled. So I picked up a copy (actually, Kristen got me a copy from the UT Library, as I hadn’t replaced my UT student ID yet). I had never heard of the author before and know very little about who she is as an author or what she means to her native England (I guess she’s a writer and teaches writing classes at the university level; thanks, Wikipedia). I wasn’t even sure what era this book was going to cover (luckily for me, she comes of age during the 1970s, a very interesting time for England and to me). Just as you do with a mix CD, you take your friend’s recommendations on faith and dive in.
Let me share with you now one of the best quotes I’ve ever read on the power of making mixes for people. Greenlaw’s words:
The greatest act of love was to make a tape for someone. It was the only way we could share music and it was also a way of advertising yourself. Selection, order, the lettering you used for the track list, how much technical detail you went into, whether or not you added artwork and no tracklist at all, these choices were as codified as a Victorian bouquet.
Yes, exactly. This quote has new resonance for me after making mix CDs for 50 GRCA campers. I hope they take the blank, one-color paper sleeves and make something completely their own out of them.
Now, the task of writing a review for the book poses a challenge. Its use-value is a little hard to determine. It’s a memoir. So, if you know about Greenlaw and care about her artfully written recollections of coming of age, then this is a good book. But if you don’t know Greenlaw, or have much invested in the place and time in which she comes of age, you might feel like you’re grasping for straws.
But I appreciated Greenlaw’s willingness to recollect events, political movements, personal activities, rituals, and practices as means of identification. She erects collages clipped and ripped and taped and pasted from magazines that constantly shift and mutate her bedroom’s landscape. She laquers her flipped hair and eyelids and straps on platform shoes to go to discos with girlfriends. She recounts the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols antics from the safe distance of her neighborhood and television. She starts listening to “hippie” records (ex: Santana, Genesis) because of a boy, who later accidentally leaves a crate of records for her on the tube when they meet up again as adults (with her partner and child in tow). She goes to concerts with friends. She visits a friend in the hospital after a suicide attempt. She makes and unmakes girl friendships. She renounces punk for new wave because she thinks the subgenre mirrors her affinity for Russian literature and Gauloises. She loves reading and writing, but hates school. She roadtrips to Ohio because she loves Devo. She thinks about Thatcherism and the National Front alongside the Pop Group’s second album, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, though didn’t put them together at the time (which, seriously, a book that reminds me to throw that record on is a good book by my definition). She cuts her girlfriend’s hair at a party. She constantly dyes and cuts and grows out and re-dyes her own hair.
In short, she constantly changes and renegotiates who she is, configuring herself always in a state of becoming, even after she’s transitioned out of her teenage years.
Putting all of this into a broader context, she’s very easily the type of girl British cultural theorists like Angela McRobbie were later devoting books and articles to, helping to build girls studies programs in the process. McRobbie’s girls tended to be bookish, middle-class in an increasingly impoverished country, rebellious but well-behaved, mercurial and fidgety and looking for their place in music culture and their piece of the street. But this girl, Lavinia, wasn’t theoretical. She was real, and, as an adult, created a document as filled with history and reference and memory and meaning as any good homemade mix. Her book is worth a look and a listen.