Last night, Tobi Vail shared wonderful news with the Typical Girls listserv: Kill Rock Stars’ acts Grass Widow and STLS were releasing new music today and playing a few gigs together. You can even listen to Grass Widow’s new album, Past Time, through Spinner. STLS’s Drumcore doesn’t officially come out until September 7th, but I’m already excited.
I’ve been following Grass Widow‘s mumbled surf rock since Carrie Brownstein highlighted them on NPR’s All Songs Considered SXSW preview. STLS’s new work also comes as good news. One half of this percussive duo is Lisa Schonberg, erstwhile member of the now-defunct Explode Into Colors, who I luckily got to see once before they disbanded. In sum, the two bands abide by two tenets I’ve since added to my list of biases in a recent post decrying the work of Ke$ha and Katy Perry, whose sophomore effort Teenage Dream also comes out today.
1. Eschew conventional rock outfit line-ups. Don’t clamor for a bassist or two guitarists if the music doesn’t call for it or if you can’t find instrumentalists willing to commit or with whom you gel. If your instrument is the accordion or you and a friend both want to play drums, let it happen.
2. Women picking up guitars and playing together will always excite me, especially if they’re interested in odd tunings or angular melodies.
Unfortunately, these acts will not be making it to Austin on their dates together. Hopefully they’ll change their minds and add a few dates. But if they’re coming to a venue near you — especially if you’re a blogger named Caitlin who is relocating to Portland — I do hope you check them out.
So, I was having a breakroom chat on Friday with my co-worker friend Rebekah. She was asking my thoughts on the cause-and-effect relationship between Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” and “Monster.” We were discussing what we made of the idea of Gaga directly addressing the threat of sexual assault for women being flirty and getting trashed at a club, in effect providing social commentary for her breakout hit.
I spent a significant part of my week listening to Katy Perry and Ke$ha’s debut albums. In doing so, I thought about how pervasive drunkeness and/or hookups are in dance songs (sexual violence is not as prevalent, though Kiely Williams troubled the waters with “Spectacular”). Another friend is putting together a mix for her birthday party and helping her come up with a track list exacerbated the point. Though I don’t eschew getting drunk or hooking up, Rebekah and I struggled to come up with a song that didn’t focus on these things either with direct language or through euphemism. She mentioned that applying something like the Bechdel Test to dance songs might be interesting, though difficult.
I find a lot of value in the Bechdel Test. It originates from Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic series, wherein a character named Mo vows to only watch movies with 1) at least two women in them who 2) talk to each other about 3) something besides men. It’s a simple set of criteria to use on film that is actually difficult for most texts to abide by (in addition to the clip above, read Rachel McCarthy James‘s recent TelevIsm’s post about applying the test to television shows).
So I hope to draft a list where drunk behavior and hookups aren’t mentioned. I haven’t come up with a snazzy handle, but the idea is there. I came up with Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music,” ESG’s “Get Funky,” Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s Alright,” Out Hud’s “One Life to Leave,” and Hot Chip’s “Over and Over,” among others.
Prince – “1999”
Pylon – “Dub”
Le Tigre – “My Metrocard”
Gossip – “Pop Goes the World”
Janelle Monáe – “Tightrope”
Assuredly, there are others. Feel free to offer yours in the comments section, this blog’s Facebook page, or on Twitter (via @ms_vz).
The second session of GRCA 2010 comes to a close tomorrow with an amazing showcase. Likewise, Wednesday’s music history workshop commemorated the second year Kristen at Act Your Age and I have been involved with the organization. As is customary, I like to write down a few things I learn from each GRCA session. As honed as our workshop has become, it’s always open to modification. And each workshop is its own entity, based entirely on who the girls are. But there is one constant: I’m always challenged and surprised by what each group of girls brings to discussion.
1. Remember to include a section on metal, as many of these girls are fans. I’ve been given some great leads on who to include from blog commentary, friend recommendations, and a particularly informative lunch meeting with Erika Tandy. Thanks for helping out an admitted metal neophyte.
2. Sometimes a girl will come right out and tell you she doesn’t like any female artists. She may be a little smug about it like a pre-teen can be at times. When asked why she’s at GRCA, she may give this hilariously catty retort: “I’ve already gone over this — it’s summertime and I get bored and I need something to do.” Don’t let this throw you and don’t take it personally. Thank her for her honesty and hope that she participates anyway. Acknowledge her when she does.
3. Sometimes a girl will be related to a co-worker. Note the connection and make sure to incorporate her into the discussion while remaining impartial.
3A. You can be amused if she’s quite formal with you, as you were a pretty formal child yourself.
4. If a group of girls are talking amongst themselves, don’t let that bother you. Keep your ears open for a band or artist one of them mentions and bring it up. It’ll let them know you’re listening and also keep them on your toes.
5. Don’t worry about being cool. You’re probably an old lady to them. But even if they don’t think you’re cool for knowing about MGMT or that Ke$ha signs her name with a dollar sign, they might be amused if you drop song titles or mention that “a girl’s gotta get paid.”
6. Remember to include Lady Sovereign and Selena on next year’s mix CD, because there’s always at least one girl who is excited about each of them.
7. Bone up on your musical terminology and make sure to emphasize instrumentalists’ technique in some of the clips you provide.
8. Improvise and share with your co-facilitator. Technology may always be erratic, so don’t crutch on it. Clips may not always load. Take the lead from your co-facilitator and pop in a mix CD to illustrate your points. While you may not always have as wonderful an instructor to work with as Kristen, being aware of moments in which you can volley off one another are key.
8A. Make sure you extend this openness and trust to the counselors. They will save your ass every time. Hearts to Esme.
9. Don’t freak out if a girl disagrees with you or seems weirded out by something. You’ve been handed a teaching moment. Start a discussion. Ask some questions. Steer the conversation into something productive. And make sure you’re doing as much listening as talking.
10. Some girls may get hung up on Etta James’s fat knuckles. This will bother you, as sizeism has already taken hold. Let Kristen riff on how body types may differ across genres and that skinny ladies aren’t an ideal we should aspire to if that’s not who we are. Mentally clap for her as she drops an important message while keeping the girls on task.
11. It’s always okay to stop a workshop so you can clap in time to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” It’s also a good idea to end a workshop with a dance party.
12. Make sure you pay attention to every girl in the room and give each one a chance to contribute. Be especially cognizant of the girl who sits immediately behind you. That girl may seem disengaged or shy at first, but she is full of good ideas and smart opinions. She might tell you that her mother styled her hair like Salt-N-Pepa and that she grew up listening to The Supremes. She may also give you a hug after the workshop, which will make your day.
I’m also looking forward to what Kristen and I will learn when we take this workshop on the road. We’ll be helping out with Girls Rock Camp Houston on August 13th. As an ex-pat Houstonian, I have personal investment in GRC staking its claim there. While I love GRCA and am proud to be a part of it, Austin is already such a music-friendly city. While Houston has a considerable artistic community, the sprawl tends to swallow it up. Speaking as someone who grew up in a rural suburb equidistant between Houston and Galveston, it was pretty difficult to go to shows and get involved with a scene that was about 45 minutes away from you and scattered about a very large city that’s not always hospitable to girls. So I’m hopeful that GRCH will forge a much-needed communal space for grrrl musicians.
Recently, my partner got season nine of The Simpsons on DVD. Perhaps suggesting our age, this was the last season either of us watched in its entirety upon original broadcast. We’ve caught episodes from season ten on in syndication, and I marvel at how the show has maximized high definition’s potential. We also saw The Simpsons Movie, which was more remarkable for the assuredly bombed woman who sang loudly to herself, yelled at Maggie for being a “cunt,” and called us “asshats” for telling her to be quiet before being escorted out of the theater. But for both of us, the ongoing series peaked 13 seasons earlier. The show may be sporadically hilarious and subversive, but like many successful television shows that go on for too long, it has also exhausted premises, developed a frantic tone, got further away from the family’s class struggles and feelings of mediocrity that made the show especially poignant in the early seasons, and dispensed with much carefully-crafted character development.
This last point seems especially true of Marge and Lisa Simpson to me. The show was never especially savvy with what to do with the tower-coiffed matriarch, who has dumbed down considerably in my estimation. The show’s predominantly male, Ivy League alum writing staff admit as such in several episode commentaries, noting that they rarely provided her with friends, struggled with ideas for a character so doggedly sensible, and sometimes relied upon female personnel to give her character development and narrative action (ex: season seven’s “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield” was written by Jennifer Crittenden).
But the family’s spiky-haired middle child prodigy was always the show’s center for me growing up. What’s more, Lisa episodes were penned by male writers and rank among the best of the series for me, though they tend to focus more on her relationship with Homer than with Marge. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein’s “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” is my absolute favorite, but it’s in rich company with Jon Vitti’s “Lisa’s Substitute,” Dan Greaney’s “Summer of 4 Ft. 2,” Mike Scully’s “Lisa’s Rival,” Greg Daniels’s Emmy-winning “Lisa’s Wedding,” and David S. Cohen’s “Lisa the Vegetarian” (note: Oakley and Weinstein were show runners from seasons 7 and 8 and were replaced by Scully for 9-12 to develop the animated series Mission Hill; Greg Daniels went on to co-create King of the Hill and adapted the American version of The Office). So you’ll excuse me if I get snotty and say that Lisa has no business lip-syncing Ke$ha’s butt-stupid “Tik Tok.”
Much of why these episodes work so brilliantly, apart from the writing, is to do with the animators and animation directors working in accord with voice actress Yeardley Smith, whose distinct performance captures so much nuance around the heartache, loneliness, and ironic detachment that often comes from being the kid sister of a popular kid and is too smart for her surroundings. As creator Matt Groening often points out, Lisa is the only character he envisioned leaving Springfield. He and many other show personnel counter this by claiming her as the show’s tragic character whose ideas and actions are often thwarted or go unnoticed. Several smart girls can relate.
However, while I have noticed a slight lapse in Lisa’s all-too-precious perspicacity as the series has gone on, I recognize that she’s still a smart girl committed to change. To echo Jonathan Gray’s claims in Watching The Simpsons, Lisa remains the longest-running feminist character on television.
One thing I especially like about Lisa is her interest in music. Assuredly, she’s motivated in many other areas, including environmentalism, writing, and film-making, among others. But I always delighted in seeing Lisa strut out of Mr. Largo’s band practice while belting out a saxophone riff, as the director clearly doesn’t know what to do with free-thinking talent who have exceeded his teaching abilities. She has also used her musical aptitude toward political change, rallying her father Homer and his co-workers with her acoustic guitar and an impassioned protest anthem when they staged a strike at the power plant for better health benefits.
Having recently watched season nine’s “Lisa’s Sax” (written by past and current show runner Al Jean), I was touched while relearning the origins of how Lisa came to the jazzy woodwind instrument. Unable to afford admission into a ritzy private day care for their accelerated toddler, Marge wracks her brain for a way to encourage her daughter. Homer ends up forking over money he was saving for a new air conditioner when a chance visit to a music store presents Lisa with her artistic calling. I think it was a wise investment.