Saturday, November 15, 2008

One of these things is not like the other: Little Lungs at 237 Quail

On Friday, October 17, New York metro-area band Little Lungs made the long and tedious journey to Albany. They endured hours of weekend upstate traffic in a tiny vehicle packed to capacity with musical equipment, all to play a show in the comparatively sleepy Capital District.

And so, on Friday, October 17, I put away the books for a night and stepped far beyond my comfort zone. I went several blocks from my house, in maddening Friday night college town traffic, to the heart of the 'student ghetto', all to see Little Lungs, the only decent band that had come to town all season. Fortunately, I did not have to do this alone: my protegee and friend Stephanie came with me, to provide moral support, and also to indulge her own curiosity about the band.

I am happy to report that the band did not disappoint. Little Lungs played a short but tight set that seemed to entertain even the most jaded Albany scenesters who were in attendance.

Little Lungs really stood out that night, and not just because of the high quality of their performance and their songs -- they really are different from most of the bands that were on the bill in a number of ways. First, Little Lungs were the only non-local band playing that night. Second, they were the only band on the roster not playing seven minute posthardcore masterpieces that featured overwrought guitar work. Third, they were the only band that didn't employ screamed vocals or a heavy, masculinist sound made to be moshed to. And finally, and maybe most importantly, Little Lungs were the only band there that night that was not comprised of white guys who felt the need to antagonize the small audience gathered in the basement space that night. That's right, I said it: there are actual girls in Little Lungs.

But Little Lungs deserves more credit than "they were the band that didn't suck". Regardless of who they played with, or where they are from, their style of music, or the male-to-female ratio of their members, Little Lungs sounded really good that night.

Little Lungs write songs about ambivalence. From what I can tell, it seems that they are frequently inspired by that vaguely uncomfortably mid-twenties malaise, a malady that typically entails a disconcerting alternation between fervor and apathy, and an uncertain quest to figure out if there's really any point to any of this. They are the Reality Bites of current postpunk, and they are able, somehow, to recreate this feeling in the live setting. They play unsteadiness and vicissicitude with assurance and stability. Their songs might shift their weight from one foot to the other nervously, like a boxer who's considering throwing the fight while warming up, but Little Lungs never pull any punches. They carry off the contradiction, and the result is surprisingly uplifting; a cold, unfinished basement in a city that feels like the middle of nowhere never sounded so good.

p.s. Want to see for yourself? Catch Little Lungs on tour this winter -- dates are posted at ther myspace

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Crawling in Whose Skin? Co-opting Young, Female Bodies and Girly Parts

I recently found myself wandering disappointedly through the Virgin Mega Store in Times Square. I had gone there to procure the new Marnie Stern Record, and was shocked that the allegedly ultra hip, super cosmopolitan record store of the future with its in-house travel agency and in-store movie theater did not have the one cd I wanted. After looking at the over-priced t-shirts, I headed for the exit, consoling myself by vowing to order the album directly from Stern's record label that evening. I reminded myself that I would rather give my money directly to Kill Rock Stars than some corporate chain, anyway.

Before I made it to the front doors, my eye was caught by a cd cover that featured the face of a young woman. The portrait is only from the neck up, but the way her hair fans out behind her makes it look as though she is lying down. She has what my 'bff' Ashleigh and I have affectionately termed "My Chemical Romance Makeup"; her face is pale, while her eyes are lined with a mixture of black and red-tone eye shadows for a bruise-y, "at the morgue" kind of effect. Her eyes are wide and her lips are parted just slightly, with what seems to be an unpleasant shock.

I gravitated towards the cd, I'm not entirely sure why, and I picked it up, and found out that the album is I Am Ghost's Those We Leave Behind. I studied the cover, and made a few hasty assumptions, based on the image and the name of the band:

1. They're goth. Only bands that write about death and darkness and gloom make use of the My Chemical Romance makeup.
2. They're goth because only 'goth' bands would have the word 'ghost' in their title.
3. They're an all-dude band because for some reason, lately, guy bands are using images of women in their advertising, videos, and album art.

The last point stuck in my mind: is this really a trend, guy bands inexplicably using female bodies? As I trekked home from the record store, I tried to think of other examples, but couldn't come up with anything. What does this mean? I asked myself. Am I imagining this? Or has dead-looking girls on album covers become so common that I don't even notice it now?

The first time I noticed this weird feminization of rock images was in Linkin Park's early videos, "Numb" and "Crawling". In both videos, the band 'plays' at some undisclosed location, while images of a young girl in various forms of distress flicker by. I know, when you put it that way, it sounds kind of absurd; you can't help but wonder: why is one of the most popular and successful guy bands in the world using that most maligned and misunderstood of figures -- the teenage girl -- in its music videos?

For those unfamiliar with Linkin Park, this is what happens in the videos: in "Numb", an 'artsy' (read: unpopular and non-blonde) high school girl wanders through Prague and bumbles through her classes; you see her drawing during a lecture (she is reprimanded for this by teacher). You see the other students laugh at her, you see her trip on the stairs. During the second verse, you get to see her at home, arguing with her mother over dinner. "Crawling" starts with our bottle black hair, pierced-nose, 'goth'-looking protagonist crying in the bathroom, and watching her dark makeup-blackened tears roll down her pale face and into the sink. Unlike Artsy Girl, Gothy Girl looks a little more conventionally attractive, and she seems to have a boyfriend. She also seems to have some sort of problem with her father, whose face we never see.

Artsy Girl and Gothy Girl have something else in common though: self-inflicted wounds. Artsy Girl appears to be a self-mutilator (she has 'numb' carved into her left arm), while Gothy Girl has purple-blue bruises on both her arms, though it's not clear whether she or her skeezy father put them there. Either way, it all adds up to the same tired formula: teenage girls have to be screwed up or damaged in some way -- i.e., 'promiscuous', self-mutilators, binge drinkers/druggers, etc -- to be interesting, worthwhile, or marketable.

I've come across a few more offending record covers: there's Alexisonfire's debut album, the cover of which features two uniformed school girls who seem to be gearing up for a knife fight. (The cover, like the band itself, and like their one fan who I know, my 'bff' Ashleigh, is actually very tasteful.) There's Escape the Fate's Dying Is Your Latest Fashion from 2006; on this cover, you see a made-up, female face from the nose down. Her lipstick is smudged on her face, and her cheeks are either bruised or smeared with dark eye makeup. My personal favorites, I think, are Bury Your Dead's covers: You Had Me At Hello has a pair of fishnet-ed legs on it. Cover Your Tracks has a woman's bare midriff. Their self-titled has another girl's face on it, and yes, again, she has heavy, dark make up on and looks like she's either been crying or attacked or something equally horrible.

You could explain all of this with two words: "sex sells". An attractive girl, even one who looks like she's been beaten, will attract onlookers to the product or album. It worked on me; I was drawn to that I Am Ghost album like a big gay magnet. But still, I don't think that that's what's going on here. There's nothing explicitly sexual about Linkin Park's videos or most of the album covers mentioned above. (The Bury Your Dead covers are a different story.)

No, the impression that I get, from Linkin Park, at least, is that the use of troubled teenage girls is supposed to signify how the narrator of the songs, or lead vocalist Chester Bennington, feels -- powerless.

Teenage girls as a rule are not entirely without agency, as anyone who has so much as seen the movie Heathers knows. But between their age, their gender, school, parents, societal pressures to look and behave in very specific ways, and countless other forces, they are at a definite disadvantage. For this reason, teenage girls, like young children, are vulnerable to multiple kinds of abuse, and in reality, they have little control over their lives. And while this is all very poignant, it makes Linkin Park's videos look like a blatant appropriation of the average miserable teenage girl experience. For Chester Bennington, the straight, white frontman for a band with 20 awards and at least one certified diamond album, to imply that he feels as trapped and unhappy as a teenage girl who is being abused, seems preposterous, to the point where it borders on offensive.

I should admit here that I don't know very much about Linkin Park for their members. I can't really judge them because I don't know what their intent really is; I just know that it looks bad from where I'm sitting. And that I'm hoping that one day, teenage girls will form their own bands in huge, impossible-to-ignore numbers, and start to tell their own stories.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Do I have to? Music, feminism, and obligations

Last winter I discovered Tegan and Sara's latest album, The Con, and fell in love with it from the bleakness of my on-campus apartment. Last spring, I started listening to their previous album, So Jealous. In the summer I bought tickets to their October 5th show at Terminal 5, and continued to work backward through their records. And on Saturday the 4th, approximately 20 hours before I was supposed to go see them, I found myself struggling to explain to my friend Alma: "See, I like Tegan and Sara...but I don't."

I can hear the strangled cries of Tegan and Sara fans across North America now, a chorus of indignant "How can you not like Tegan and Sara?"s. It's a fair question, there's more to like about them than there is to dislike. They write good songs with catchy, but non-annoying hooks, they're great at telling funny stories, their lyrics are quotable, they're wonderfully easy on the eyes. They're out lesbians, and I'm sure that if I were coming out of the closet, that would make them more appealing to me, the same way that knowing that Corin and Carrie had dated made Sleater-Kinney more appealing to me back when I was coming out. They're snappy dressers who put on great shows. Tegan and Sara, one can argue, are the complete package: beauty and talent, humor and poignancy, style and substance. But unfortunately, none of this changes the fact that stylistically, their music is not quite for me.

I feel a certain amount of guilt over this, and it is specifically feminist guilt. The Second Wave of feminism encouraged us to embrace other women -- all women -- without condition, in the spirit of sisterhood. It asked all of us to overlook the mistreatment we suffered at the hands of other women, who usually had more power than us, and support women even when disagreed with them or their views, and asked us to call them our sisters, and this ideal has trickled down through the years and through some current feminist criticism and literature. And I feel like even now, us women of color, us women of limited means, us lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered folk -- have found ourselves wondering, "Do I have to?" Are we really obligated to support all women, even if we don't like them or their ideas? For me specifically, as a musician and as a critic, I ask myself constantly, "Do I have to like this band or artists just because they girls? If I don't like this artist or band, is it because underneath all my feminist dogma, I'm just a huge sexist?"

When I wonder if I'm a chauvinist after all, I remind myself that division between women is not always the product of internalized sexism. Any girl who's ever been socialized with other girls, through school or team sports or a religious organization or whatever, knows that not all animosity between girls is caused by jealousy or competition. Sometimes, with both guys and girls, you just don't get along with a person. Tegan and Sara is a good example of this. If I'd gone to school with Tegan and Sara's music, we wouldn't have been friends or joined the same extra-curricular activities or talked in the hallways. I don't think we would have had big dramatic fights or arguments or anything, but I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have mingled. (On the other hand, if I'd gone to school with Tegan and Sara themselves, I probably would have been all over at least one of them, pined after one or maybe even both of them in an Angela Chase sort of way, but this is a different issues altogether.)

Tegan and Sara are a great exception though. There are a lot of women and girls out there who are making music that I wouldn't have gotten along with in high school, who I would have hated as a teenager. There are a lot of women and girls that are making music that I don't like, not just because it's not 'my style', but because it's bad. It's poorly written, poorly produced, and marketed in such a way that is insulting. I'm mostly talking about pop stars, but there are also country-pop and rock-pop crossovers who are guilty of this. You know who I mean: the Britneys and Christinas, yes, but also the Avrils and Shania-types. I don't feel quite as guilty about my intense loathing of these artists. It's easy to shrug it off with a nasty "feminism is about quality, not quantity."

But this leads to the question: what about this term, "quality"? What if the concept of "quality" is inherently sexist? Isn't there something inherently masculinist and hierarchical about 'objectively' evaluating the mertis and faults of a piece of music? I worry that we've internalized sexism to such an extent that it manifests itself in our hatred of certain things. It's too easy to feel a sexist, leering abhorrence towards girls who slink around in underwear and heels and lip sync to shoddily arranged synth beats and call themselves artists. It's too easy to accuse them of setting feminism and its gains back, to resent them for their hypersexualized looks and behavior and how it affects both us and the men in our lives. Male artists are never, ever accused of being too sexy, and criticisms of the quality of their music are never so venomous as the diatribes that have been written, by both men and women, about people like Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears. "Quality" frequently seems like an excuse to enumerate a girly pop star's many faults, and not just her music.

It's not very sisterly or feminist to have such negative feelings towards any women, no matter how upsetting their words and actions may be. But it's not any better to like an artist just because she identifies as a woman, or to insist that we all like female artists 'just because'. By that logic, we'd all be obligated to like Sarah Palin.

Which is not to compare Tegan and Sara (who made many jokes at Palin's expense on October 5) to the current Republican vice presidential nominee. A comparison between Palin, and say, Britney Spears -- who once announced very publicly her trust in President Bush and his campaigns in the Middle East -- might be more appropriate. But it's the point, not the vernacular: it is unrealistic to expect anyone, including women listeners, to like all women musicians. It's unrealistic to expect us to like every woman we encounter -- men certainly aren't expected to all like each other. Men don't burden each other with the expectation that they will all be perfect representations of whatever masculinity and manhood mean to them, and so long as a guy doesn't have a limp wrist, men don't attack each other for not meeting their specifications. So why should we do that to each other? Why should us girls who participate in music and pop culture, us lady musicians, attack or resent women musicians for not being, say, Beth Ditto, or Kathleen Hanna, or which ever other women we admire?

It will sound like old news, maybe, but the conclusion I've come to is that it's a waste of energy and time to dislike other women so intensely, for whatever reason. It's also a waste of time and energy to feel guilty about not liking someone or something, even when, like Tegan and Sara, it's good. I want to encourage all of us, myself included, to stop thinking in terms of quality, and prioritize our feelings towards music, how it makes us feel, not how we think we should feel. And I want to encourage us to make room for the Britneys, the Lindsays, the Christinas, the Kellys, the Tiffanys, the Avrils, the Jessicas, and whoever else might come along, because so long as they make someone feel good or happy, as pop stars frequently do make younger girls feel, we should be able to give them some space. They might be problematic, and their visibility might inspire doubt or misgivings in some of us feminists and critics, but that's the thing about feminism: it's not about choosing between quantity and quality. It's about having both -- in politics, in art, in music, everywhere.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


A column on sex, gender, and discrimination within the Anglo masculine stronghold of rock and its subsets, especially punk and hardcore. Why?

BECAUSE there are non-male, non-straight, non-cisgendered, non-white people who listen to the genre. Girls, gays, trannies, genderqueer folk, "people of color": we listen to rock'n'roll, we listen to punk, we listen to hardcore, even though you only see/hear skinny straight white dudes on mainstream rock radio and "video" channels

BECAUSE there are non-male, non-straight, non-cisgendered, non-white people who are MAKING rock-n-roll that is transgressive, that is brave, that challenges social and musical conventions and asks uncomfortable questions about sex, gender, race, and class-based discrimination, and these artists deserve more attention

BECAUSE non-male, non-straight, non-cisgendered, non-white people who are participating in rock-n-roll need a place to discuss the discrimination we face; these divisions are reflective of oppression and hierarchy in larger society, and we need to talk about these problems if we ever hope to solve them

BECAUSE non-male, non-straight, non-cisgendered, non-white rock musicians need a space where we can publicize and critique their ideas, releases, and performances, and discuss the contributions they are making to popular culture and art

BECAUSE it is time for us to make rock-n-roll live up to its reputation of being a liberating and radicalizing force for its audience/participants....a genre like rock-n-roll, that has the potential to be so subversive and so inclusive, should be big enough for ALL of us

BECAUSE the scene is male identified -- but it doesn't have to be.

The white patriarchal hierarchy in rock'n'roll NEEDS a swift kick to the groin -- and this is as good a place as any to start.