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.