Two areas I don’t recall covering in the blog so far are 1) bands whose songs focus on cinephilia and 2) female musicians who use their visual arts training in the service of their bands. Today, we can focus on both by considering The Long Blondes’ debut full-length Someone To Drive You Home and lead singer Kate Jackson’s artwork for said album.
So I’m new to this band, who I guess are no longer a band. That’s a bummer, but at least I’ve had fun pumping this album at full volume in my car this past week as the skies became increasingly overcast. And singing at full volume. As my friend Brea mentioned in her entry about records that made her a feminist, it’s important for women and girls to find singers whose vocal ranges match their own. It’s really true. Perhaps we could think of it as double-identification — being able to relate to a female singer’s persona as conveyed through her lyrics, performance style, fashion sense or whatever on one level and being able to replicate, mirror, or blend her tone, pitch, and timbre with your own. However we want to theorize it, I’m glad that my notes can work with Jackson’s strong, supple alto.
Matching a singer’s range also makes shouting easier. I love Animal Collective, but screaming along to Avey Tare doesn’t make any sense for me. We can try and make it queer or whatever, but it really just feels silly and strained to my throat and ears. Screaming “Edie Sedgwick! Anna Karina! Arlene Dahl!” along with Jackson, on the other hand, makes perfect sense.
The opening track, appropriately titled “Lust In the Movies,” is a good transition into the defunct band’s cinephilic leanings. Indeed, the movies are everywhere. Specifically movies from the post-war era, a considerable amount of them of the film noir tradition or have some kind of sinister edge, while others are campy b-movies that have since cashed in on retro chic.
Imagined film snob boys corrupt willing schoolgirls with Russ Meyer films in “Fulwood Babylon.” Girls want to be cool enough for the movies that play in film snob boys’ heads in “Lust in the Movies.” A boy and a girl compare themselves to C.C. Baxter, The Apartment‘s love-lorn protagonist in “You Could Have Both.” Obscure references to British celebrities of the 1940s and 1950s like Hattie Jacques and Peter Rogers thread through break-up narratives like “Five Ways to End It.” Greta Garbo is looked upon with envy (and irony?) as the woman who snagged all the handsome men in “Never to Be Repeated.” “Only Lovers Left Alive” is inspired by Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, a romantic sentiment perhaps echoed in Jackson’s sleeve art, which references Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern’s frenzied lovers in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.
As many of these movies are classic Hollywood, iconographic art house, and/or have the Criterion stamp of approval, we might call them films instead of movies, if the writer of this blog held fast to making such a distinction.
Now, we could get into a discussion of what this means in terms of preference and why more clearly feminist classics don’t get shout-outs like, say, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Maybe they haven’t seen these movies. Maybe they thought the last movie I mentioned was boring (the 200-minute running time has kept me from seeing it, though it is in my Netflix queue). However, I’d hazard to guess that the Russ Meyer reference in “Fulwood Babylon” might be done with a bit of feminist cheek, and while I have trouble reading the nuances of intentional camp in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, I’m sure my friend Curran would smile and nod in recognition of the reference.
And yet. I find how film references are used in these songs to be particularly interesting. For one, I think especially in “Lust in the Movies” and “Fulwood Babylon,” a critique is being made by Kate (and her chorus of singing fans) against the sorts of boys who live in movies (perhaps including Dorian Cox, a former Long Blonde who co-wrote the majority of the album with Jackson). These boys are too busy looking for Edie Sedgwick, Anna Karina, and Arlene Dahl to notice the real woman in front of them. Fools.
For another, I find the blurring between fantasy and reality, the projected and the lived, the fantastical and the mundane heartening and relateable. Many of these songs are not actually about being in the movies, but wishing you could be or pretending you are to get over a failed relationship, get through your boring day job, get ready for a night out, get in the car to leave town, or simply get through your 20s.
There’s some humanity in these songs, particularly between women and girls. Two lonely girls flee their humdrum lives together in “Separated By Motorways.” A spurned lover hopes her ex’s new love fares better than she did after the break-up in “Heaven Help the New Girl.” A twentysomething tells a 19-year-old girl that she doesn’t need to resort to mutilation to get through that stupid, cursed age in “Once and Never Again,” a solidarity anthem so catchy that I just requested it be added to the Karaoke Underground song list.
And while the movies being referenced aren’t explicitly feminist (or argued and/or championed as such by theoretically florid film scholars), I’d argue that there’s much going on with the female movie icons that Jackson’s and her songs’ protagonists (which may be iterations of herself) identify. Having brought up Sedgwick, Karina, Dahl, Garbo, this is where I’ll fold in Jackson’s spare, mysterious cover. The woman in the cover is recognizable to many as Bonnie Parker, as played by Faye Dunaway in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, a divisive and galvanizing movie that marked a sea change in American cinema, upped the ante for screen violence, reflected the shift in generational values, presupposed the turbulent year that would be 1968, and made thousands of women cut and straighten their hair into sleek bobs by Dunaway’s influence. It might have made them want to tote guns, fire bullets, and rob banks too. In short, this was seen as a dangerous film that still holds some influence as a countercultural text that appeals to men and women.
Some of those women may still be shuffling through their 20s, figuring it out. They might not be compelled to rob a bank, but they might be tempted to quit their job, or at least bitch about work at the local bar. Hopefully they won’t bitch about each other as much, as this cattiness is evident on the album and something I’d like us to rise above. But there’s something nice about being reassured that someone, whether a movie character or a friend, will be there to drive you home. Even if your car is riddled with bullet holes.
Some super-smart feminist friends have been talking about records and musicians that made them feminists lately and it makes me wanna wax nostalgic too. I’m really excited to be talking about Viva! La Woman, one of many albums that made me a feminist but the first that left quite an indelible impression. I basically put this blog together so that I could, at some point, thank Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda for blowing my mind. Thanks, ladies.
Right before I turned 13, I saw the video for “Know Your Chicken” on 120 Minutes, which was the pinnacle of my pre-teen Sunday nights. This video, with the two amazingly cool ladies bolted me upright. I’d get to the clip’s deliberately cheap aesthetic style and its parodying of both the sitcom and the genre’s gendered relational dynamics later. In junior high, I just needed to find out who the ladies were.
Sunday, the day of ritual for many, was also one for me. At 7 p.m., Houston’s alternative station (then Rocket 107.5 the Buzz, now 94.5 the Buzz) would broadcast “Lunar Rotation,” where director David Sadoff would play new stuff and oldies that didn’t make into heavy rotation. At 10, the station would broadcast “Modern Rock Live,” KROQ’s syndicated call-in program. Finally, at midnight, the station would have an hour of “whatever” programming. Usually, some guest would play whatever they wanted. The one that most immediately comes to mind was Self’s Matt Mahaffey serving as guest deejay, playing album cuts from Portishead’s Dummy. It never mattered, because it was always white noise for 120 Minutes, which ran the coolest, newest videos that never aired on MTV during the day.
In terms of feminist reflections on my girlhood, Sunday was this fantastical time where I could hang out in my room (usually playing Nintendo, sometimes reading, sometimes making wall collages out of clippings from Seventeen) and wrap my head around some new music. This was a bit hard to do as my hometown is a bit removed from much of anything new.
But Fridays on MTV gave me another place to access this beguiling song, via their short run of Squirt TV, originally a New York-based public access show that my boyfriend, Jake Fogelnest, would record in his bedroom. Liz Phair also came onto Fogelnest during the show’s MTV run, but Liz will get her own post when I write about my 17th birthday. For now, let’s watch Cibo Matto perform live.
And then they were on House of Style, eating dessert. Then the video for “Sugar Water” came out, which left such an impression that I wrote an entire section of my thesis on it. A short time after that, they were getting a write-up in Rolling Stone, with their album’s genre-melding, cut-and-paste sound being favorably compared (however problematically) to fugu. I would later come to call my college radio show “Cheesecake or Fugu” in tribute. And there they were on my stepbrother’s Tibetan Freedom Concert CD, a bit later, when I was a freshman, yelling “shut up so we can eat, too bad no bon appétit!”
So, even though they were on a major label and being promoted on MTV and Rolling Stone, Cibo Matto seemed like they were from Japan based in New York transmitted from the moon. And yet, they’ve followed me everywhere since, making themselves familiar, like a home.
All this hype, but I didn’t get the album until Christmas sophomore year, when I was 15. I wanted the purchase of this album to be special. When I finally got it, I spent hours ignoring the paperback of Wuthering Heights I had to read for school (which also made me a feminist, in opposition) so I could study the album’s packaging. Mike Mills’s cover alone was empowering — the curvy, muscular, perhaps multi-ethnic superwoman standing proudly in her gold bikini and sandals. And the curvilinear sketches that accompanied the lyric sheet was elegant and beguiling. But for me, it was all about the inlay image underneath the disc.
While this image was shot in New York, it looked like another world to me alone in my bedroom in Alvin, Texas. I wanted to know everyone in this scene and be their friends. I wanted to know where Yuka and Miho got those bikes and dresses. I wanted to listen to all of the records people were pouring over. And I actually did pull my stepbrother’s skateboard out of the garage, busting my ass as I attempted to use it. But more than that, I wanted the confident cool that these two women possessed.
The older I get, the more comfortable I feel with myself, and I feel much of this is indebted to Cibo Matto, especially this first album, as to me its basically a declaration for the powers, pleasures, and peculiarities of femaleness. One need only look to the title.
The concept of the album is important. “Concept album” as a construct tends to make me shudder, thinking about bearded dudes noodling with guitars and piles of synthesizers and writing tiresome odes to alienation, but, indeed, Viva! La Woman is a concept album. About food. Eating food. Each track, with the exception of “Theme,” is named after food and all of the songs mention eating or being consumed as if they were food. More times than not, it’s about eating instead of being eaten.
And OMG, they did something totally dirty with their cover of “Candyman,” turning the original, which I always found oppressively, creepily cheerful, and turning into some kind of porn soundtrack/trip hop/bossa nova thing, complete with sampled moaning (*blush*).
On that tack, this album is super-sexy, in ways both obvious and difficult to process. Perhaps it suggests that Asian and Asian American women don’t reflect the limited, servile, infantalized depictions others have circulated at their expense. With “White Pepper Ice Cream,” a slow, rollicking bass line accompanies lines like “black and white, Bonnie and Clyde” suggesting that women and girls can occupy both within themselves at once. And with “Theme,” the album’s centerpiece, what begins as a short story about a chance encounter with a handsome stranger while vacationing in Milan becomes a blind-folded S&M session that collapses into muffled, breathy coos; the music reflects the narrative changes at every turn. I didn’t know what to do with this as a teenager, and am still trying to figure it out as an adult.
Thinking about the constant stylistic shifting that goes on in the album’s instrumentation, I guess the duo’s sample-happy approach brings us to another feminist awakening: everything is connected. Beck gets a lot of credit, via Odelay, for helping set to tone for popular music’s comfort with hybridity the 90s (of course borrowing from The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, bringing on The Dust Brothers as producers). I won’t dispute that. But I’d like to add this album (along with Pavement’s Wowee Zowee and Björk’s Post) into the discussion. If mention wants to be made of the group’s gender, ethnicity, and their relationship with hip hop, so much the better.
Cibo Matto’s use of quotation and musical association was crucial to defining the era, but also bespoke the duo’s attitudes toward femaleness. Because connectedness doesn’t just apply to how they built tracks, but also in how they wrote lyrics. Once again, everything is connected. In “Sugar Water,” black cats crossing one’s path is cosmically linked to a woman in the moon singing to the Earth. Extrapolating further, everything is connected and everything is informative. The personal is not only political, but educational.
And finally, I really enjoy the album’s weirdness. I say this not as a way to other the Japanese American women responsible for its creation or to announce my whiteness alongside it. Literally, the album is packed with memorable, weird, sometimes shouted non sequitors that serve as the songs’ hooks. For example, in “Beef Jerky,” the chorus is “Who cares? I don’t care? A horse’s ass is better than your’s.” In “Know Your Chicken” the bridge is “spare the rod and spoil the chick before you go and shit a brick.” And of course, “Birthday Cake” contains the much-quoted line “extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil and the MSG — shut up so we can eat, too bad no bon appétit!” I like to think moments like this suggest the possibilities to rupture, critique, and find humor in living life female.
And sometimes songs don’t end. A song like “Beef Jerky” concludes with the elliptical phrase “let’s eat carrots together until . . .” Indeed, life doesn’t end. It simply builds on itself, layer by layer, line by line, sample by sample. I can’t wait to discover what I find in this record when I’m 35.