Yesterday, Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style posted an entry on Taylor Swift, which I read while waiting for her to unpack what’s going on with Demi Lovato in what I hope will be a future post. Given her interest in contemporary gossip culture, she focuses her attention on Swift’s success in cultivating her own celebrity through her music and savvy use of social media and the tabloids. As she has generously before, Annie linked an entry I wrote on Swift some months back. She also called me out as someone who didn’t like Swift.
Well, “call out” isn’t exactly the right term. It suggests I had something to hide. I’ll be clear. I dislike Swift’s music and persona to such a degree that I have to keep my misogynistic tendencies in check (yes, feminists can be lady-haters too). In fact, I recently asked Kristen at Act Your Age to redirect a foaming-at-the-mouth ALL CAPS rant I was launching into toward a more productive discussion. We shifted gears with a conversation about the Spark Summit “Girl Activists Speak Out” panel Shelby Knox moderated, which I recommend viewing.
My acrimony toward Swift hasn’t altered much, though it would give me much to talk about with Sady Doyle and Amanda Hess following their recent Swift-related exchange for Tiger Beatdown. I find her passive-aggressive revenge anthems against boys who wronged her and pious missives against sluts she takes upon herself to shame unbearable. I still take offense to celebrations of her guitar playing and songwriting as exceptional, interpreting it less as evidence that young women and girls are making tremendous in-roads in the music industry and more as condescending ignorance toward the perennial presence of young female musicians society chooses not to prioritize. Her constructed authenticity bothers me, a criticism I wage against the majority of contemporary country musicians and virtually every white man who plugged in an electric guitar in the 1960s. Her upper-middle-class family moved from Pennsylvania to Nashville and home-schooled their daughter in a Christian tradition so she could break into the industry.
As her star has risen, her lyrics gesture toward a keen, callous awareness of how gossip culture operates. It’s almost like she got linked to John Mayer in anticipation of writing a song about what she may have done in a hotel room with him so Jezebel could speculate over it. She’s also become more indulgent, further evidence that her false modesty belies a wicked sense of entitlement. Forgiving Kanye? Devoting nearly 7 minutes to John Mayer? Calling Camilla Belle a mattress gymnast? Speak Now? Ann Powers may be on to something when she says Swift has matured musically, but I’ve heard enough. It may get her magazine covers and move units. But I find her capitalizing on supposed victimhood to be as monstrous as her personal life is boring.
I take particular umbrage with Swift’s nerd drag. She may have endured hardships in her teen years. She may have felt uncool and threatened by weird girls with hip sensibilities and less normative interests, though I can imagine high school yearbook coverage distorts this perception, if not her recording contract. She may have been misunderstood and it may be manifested in her music videos where she wears thick glasses, but she gets to hand those back to wardrobe. Many of the nerd girls I know had prescriptions. Being a nerd was intrinsic. As a result, they were harassed by their peers. They endured homophobic epithets or having garbage thrown at them. The best they could hope for was to be ignored entirely, as if their existence didn’t matter. Some were queer. Most had little interest in extra-curricular activities, focusing instead on riot grrrl, comics, science fiction, or Anne Sexton, though one of them played softball and volleyball while distancing herself from the in crowd. They may not have been as calculated, but all of them were smarter than Swift ever play-acted at being.
What was especially funny for me when reading Annie’s post was my incidental soundtrack. Roughly twenty minutes before, I put on a no wave mix from the Free Music Archive while doing some office work. When I started Annie’s entry, I was about 14 minutes into a live recording of “Sweetness,” a song by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore’s side project Northampton Wools. For those familiar with a subgenre that formed as an extreme reaction against punk’s relatively tame dalliances with nihilism and (aural and physical) violence, it might come as little surprise that this is the section that sounds like a lead violinist is tuning to a test tone in the center of a beehive. A better juxtaposition couldn’t engineer itself.
I don’t bring this up to cast myself as some diving rod of subterranean cool. I hardly think of myself as any reliable barometer and would challenge such an impression if one exists. I may romanticize my discovery of college radio during high school. It was certainly informative of the sardonic feminist crank I’m proud to be today. But I didn’t form a band. I didn’t sneak out of the house to attend gigs at Fitzgerald’s or Mary Jane’s. While my interests in underground music developed (though not much deeper than Liz Phair’s Matador years), I didn’t harness it in any oppositional way. It didn’t even occur to me because I was too busy taking down the minutes at National Honor Society meetings. It was a curio I kept to myself, bringing it out of my bedroom on rare occasion. I still subscribed to Rolling Stone. I fancied myself an intellectual because I read rock anthologies I got at Barnes and Noble. Talk about nerd drag.
Rather, what crystallized in reading Annie’s post was that, in identifying with Swift, her descriptions of a relatively normal teenage existence weren’t dissimilar from my own. I had a sense of this from taking a girls’ studies class with her, wherein personal anecdotes of feminine adolescent experiences would seep into discussion. We grew up in small towns. We didn’t have animosity toward them but had ambitions beyond them that involved tending to a decorated résumé. Having read Anita Harris’ seminal piece on can-do and at-risk girls, we shared the sentiments held by much of the class when relating more closely with the former. We didn’t challenge this binary in our teen years with recreational drug use, shoplifting, or truancy. In our aggregate social interactions, I sense that our exchanges would be similar if we were in high school. I don’t think we’d be close friends, bifurcated by different social allegiances. However, we would be cordial in the hallways, respectable toward one another’s observations in Socratic seminars, and partner up for team research projects. We probably would’ve been in French Club together.
This is all prelude to why I was listening to this no wave mix when I read Annie’s post. I was revisiting Ut, a seminal no wave band that I didn’t hear until college. I did know about them in high school, but that’s because they were mentioned in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic.” For those following along, the band is nestled between Billie Jean King and DJ Kuttin Kandy. I learned about it in Spin, because it was supposedly hipper than the Boomer rockism Jann Wenner privileges in his publication.
Sally Young, Jacqui Ham, and Nina Canal of Ut deserve as much tribute as Lydia Lunch, Y Pants, or the Bush Tetras. Though I’m a fan of the Contortions and DNA and proselytize the contributions of their female members, no wave was introduced to me as a dude’s fetish toward dude music. You know, Swans’ fans who can’t get enough of Michael Gira’s pilot outfit pummeling them with purposefully grim songs about cops, slaves, and rape. It has a function, but I question its import. It’s also fairly tedious, as is usually the case when white men try to confront people with their definitions of ugliness.
Ut is a good way in. Like Young God founder Gira, they also ran their own label, Out. By committing to the sonic austerity and infusing it with feminist rage against personal and systemic oppression, Ut created well-crafted and truly terrifying music. Regrettably there’s little live footage and reissued material isn’t especially easy to come by, which I think make their contributions worth greater attention. I may not have listened to them in high school, but I embrace and aspire to learn from the kinds of girls who did and would. Taylor Swift fans are welcome at my lunch table too, so long as we can trade mixes.
Earlier this week, I went to Music Monday at the Drafthouse. This week’s offering was David Bowie’s 1973 concert feature, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which shows the legendary conclusion of the artist’s breakout tour which went out with a bang at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was directed by D.A. Pennebaker who Dylanologists (snicker) might revere for shooting Don’t Look Back and synth-pop enthusiasts the world over can credit for capturing Depeche Mode’s 1988 Rose Bowl performance in 101. Stardust is a valueable historical document of the artist, his band (particularly guitarist Mick Ronson), and the last days of glam rock, a subgenre that would capture the imaginations of a generation of boys and girls on both sides of the pond.
While I think Pennebaker and his film crew constructed a few minor but unfortunate heterosexist images here (i.e.: showing teenage female fans in a clear state of religious/sexual ecstacy but not pointing the camera at any of the boys that assuredly were in attendance; downplaying the sexual dynamic between Bowie and Ronson’s on-stage interplay by framing Ronson’s extensive solos as a chance for Bowie to change costumes with the help of several female personnel), it cannot be denied that Bowie is a helluva entertainer and an assured diva candidate.
His interest in cultural provocation and reinvention impacted Madonna, who inducted the purposely absent icon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. His androgynous look and campy performance style paved the way for like-minded male artists like Prince and Adam Lambert, the latter of whom is apparently too hot for prime time because his orientation has turned queer subtext into text. And finally, his theatrically nasal voice and lyrical wordplay have influenced indie rock singer-songwriters like Dan Bejar of Destroyer to turn odes to girls and books into labrynthine pop.
Oh, and let’s not forget Bowie’s fantastic turn on Extras. I know Andy Millman won’t.
But all of this means nothing, as I’m going to be focusing on Lydia Lunch, a woman who probably has no use for Bowie or any of his accolades. Fitting in a way, as she’d probably have even less use for being called a diva. While I have no problem declaring her one anyway, I’m also pretty sure she’d tell me to fuck off.
For those unfamiliar, Lunch made her mark fronting no wave group Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Like many of that scene (who’d probably even hate to be referred to as such), this band constantly deconstructed what bands were, what songs were, what music was. Nonetheless, they made an upsetting, exciting scrawl.
And Lunch became imfamous for her confrontational vocal and performance style, something she also brings into her art and written work. Lunch doesn’t sing songs, create installations, make paintings, and write essays and poems so much as disembowel salf-fashioned, sometimes hilarious psychodramas about sex, abuse, death, drugs, and the grotesque implications of image construction. And filth. Always filth.
Acerbic and frequently bored, she’s a delightful addition to any music documentary. In fact, she practically saves 2004’s Kill Your Idols, Scott Crary’s otherwise messy attempt to outline the New York downtown scene from the proto-punk offerings of The Velvet Underground and Suicide to the ascendance of then-up-and-coming acts like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars. Here, she tells her version of the unhistoricizable subgenre that is no wave and strongly endorses against band formation and traditional instrumentation, suggesting kids pick up tubas instead of guitars.
Unfortunately, Crary feels the need to frame his subject in such a way that her heaving bosom is in nearly every shot, which contrasts sharply with the interview footage of Swans’ Michael Gira, which is almost entirely comprised of low-angle head shots. To further pronounce the Citizen Kane indebtedness, Gira’s shot in black and white. Lunch’s breasts apparently required color.
That said, I struggle with Lunch in ways akin to how I struggle with Patti Smith.
On the surface, they’re very similar. They’re both northeastern female underground music-art world figures who made their names blurring filth with art with persona. They also got their start working and aligning with men, sometimes causing me to wonder if they find a particular kinship with men over women, if music historians have overemphasized their work with men, or if they want to absence gender from any discussion of their work, except when they’re making the argument themselves.
Of course, Lunch has worked with a number of women, including Exene Cervenka, Kim Gordon, and Annie Sprinkle. And both women occupy interesting cultural positions that challenge gender roles that line up perfectly with divas. While both women actually employ collaborative processes in their work, the heavy lifting of their male instrumental counterparts is often relegated to the background to emphasize their singularity.
Of course, that I’m doing much of the emphasizing along with generations of like-minded commentators should not be ignored. Instead it should be challenged in terms of how we’re perpetuating the idea that women are better suited to the iconographic role of the solo artist and not toward a further understanding of art- and media-making’s inherently collaborative process and what roles women have, or choose not to have, in it.
Of course, both women seem to like being perceived as cults of personality, which tends to be the realm of the solo artist. Many women have followed, and continue to follow, in this path. We need to keep asking why. I’d like to start by offering up this question: could there ever be a collective of divas working together on a musical project?
Perhaps Lunch and Smith’s configuration as solo artists has something to do with their iffy relationships to feminism (the former instead aligning herself with humanism when she feels its necessary to align with any isms; the latter out-right dismissing feminism).
But one thing I respect about Lunch is her stubborn resolve not to be considered a historical figure. Or an artist. Or a musician. Or a poet. Or a writer. Or a woman sometimes and a human almost never. Because to her, the categorization that inevitably comes from creating or complying with the instation of identity markers create limits on people. Thus, she also resists the entire process of canonization. So I know she’d reject the impetus behind this blog’s assessment of the cultural import behind her personae and body of work.
But canonize I will because, as a feminist, I feel like we have to create a space where we value these sorts of contributions from women and girls. We should also contend the complexities of our art and its political implications. Feminism is tricky and slippery, and most exciting to me when it kind of hurts my head. So is the work of valueable, smart women who will wrestle free from any categorization. Even if I think they’re divas. Even if they think the entire construct (or any construct) is bullshit.