Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hump Day Treat: Merrill Nisker?

On this lovely Wednesday, we have Merrill Nisker, better known as electroclash revolutionary Peaches, and her video for "Boys Wanna Be Her"!

I think my favorite part of the video is the band. A veritable supergroup, The Herms (apparently short for hermaphrodite) are comprised of JD Samson of Le Tigre (who is so rockin' that keytar better than I thought anyone ever could), Samantha Maloney (who has played with Courtney Love and a ton of other bands), and Radio Sloan (known for her work with The Need, Courtney Love, and general Pacific Northwestern/queercore scene awesomeness).

Peaches' consistent questioning of gender roles and norms, and her fearless sonic and physical experimenting with both sound and gender, are why I really enjoy her work, though. She is out there challenging the hypersexualized, hypergendered music industry, and for that I will always be cheering her on, and singing along. So grab a brush, get in front of the mirror, give a little shimmy and start singing to yourself about how boys and girls want to be you, on this fine hump day!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Contradiction in Terms: 'Girl Power'

During my President's Week break, I started watching dvds of the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which might be my favorite television program of all time. The last season, which aired during the 2002-2003 season, is an overtly feminist exploration of what series creator Joss Whedon claimed to be the show's original theme: "It's not about right or wrong -- it's about power."

In the first episode of this season, The First Evil, as in, the first, undiluted evil that came out of Pandora's box, closes the show with this quote, telling the character Spike that it's about power. It's a chilling scene that was made even more chilling for me because this time, it reminded me of something I'd seen a few months ago. Back in October, on a particularly lazy Sunday, I watched the Frosted Pink with a Twist! benefit: a musical extravaganza that combined today's pop stars and gymnasts with the goal of raising awareness of cancers that affect women. The show was quite the cheese fest, even for a cancer survivor support event, and perhaps its corniest moment was when Carole King performed this gem:

(This is a situation where I'm kind of sorry that there isn't a video of the actual performance of this song at the benefit, but at the same time, part of me is glad that I didn't have to see it again. It was fairly horrifying.)

Perhaps Carole King, who is of course one of the original women pioneers who fearlessly went forth into the vast male-dominated musical hinterlands back in the 1960s, deserves credit for her foray into rap. But even if you don't find her emcee skills cringe-inducing, what about the use of the expression "girl power"?

I'm one of those radical feminists who hates this 'girl power'. It's unacceptable to me for a few reasons: 1) it implies that 'girl power' is inherently different from 'actual' power; 2) it implies that girls cannot or should not have access to 'real power', but that it's okay for them to have 'girl power'; and 3) it's a blatant co-optation of some actual female empowerment that started to happen in the 1990s.

What is 'actual female empowerment'? How is it different from 'girl power'? Well for starters, female empowerment isn't a marketing slogan, and it isn't linked to say, the Spice Girls, five middle to upper class white women who made a brief career of performing songs of questionable quality in generally skimpy outfits. Also, it's not "a self-reliant attitude among girls and young women manifested in ambition, assertiveness, and individualism." (That's the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of 'girl power'.) No, legitimate female empowerment isn't just about individuals, and it isn't just about 'ambition' or 'assertiveness': for me, female empowerment is about something much broader, something bigger than individual women. Empowerment is about fixing (or, more often beating) a system that works against you.

Which is not to say that individual empowerment of girls is bad. Nor is it bad for girls to have the aforementioned self-reliant attitude, assertiveness, or ambition. It's just the expression, 'girl power' that grates on me.

You might be thinking that this is an issue of mere semantics. You'd be half-right. It is about semantics, but semantics are never 'mere' -- semantics shape the way we think. Language isn't just words and spelling and grammatical rules; language is concepts. Languages are systems of meaning, and words determine the way we conceive of everything around us. Words tell us what is possible. And this is why 'nit-picky' feminists still argue about how to spell 'woman', and insist on naming things: because we know that power -- the real kind, not the 'girl' kind -- is expressed through language. As I see it, 'girl power' tells us that it's okay for us girls and women to be bold or forceful or purposeful or desirous, so long as it's on an individual basis or small scale, and as long as it's related to sexuality or one's career. So long as it doesn't turn into actual sisterhood or community, or a larger movement to improve conditions. So long as you never start to think "what, really, is Girl Power?", and so long as you never start to think about what we as women could accomplish if we worked together.

Because if we did start to think about what it could be, we would realize that Girl Power is the potential for women to collectively create serious, positive change in all aspects of life and society. And the people with the 'real' power -- governments, religious groups, financial institutions, etc -- don't want us to think about this.

This is why Carole King's use of the expression bothers me so much. As far as I can tell, Carole King did what I just described: before beginning her solo career in the 1970s, she worked as a songwriter. She worked with male songwriting partners, but she wrote songs for female performers. She wrote songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow", which was groundbreaking at the time (along with other songs that were less groundbreaking), and she helped to make female singing groups and solo artists commercially viable. You could argue that those women worked together to change the music industry in the 1960s, and they didn't do it with 'girl power' -- they did it with talent and hard work. Talent, skills, the time, energy and resources to commit oneself to hard work -- this is the social capital held by people who have 'real' power. Women like Carole King who have this social capital, who changed things, have to be clear about how they did it. How else will we learn from their example, how to make things better? In the music industry, or anywhere else?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hump Day Treat: Inaugural Double Header!!!

Here at Rock and the Single Girl, we find that Wednesday can often be the hardest day of the long school-slash-work week. You're not as tired as you are at the end of the week, but you're getting there, and at this point, you still have the energy to wish for the week to be over already and feel bad about yourself, but you're not close enough to the weekend to start relaxing.

Well, here at Rock and the Single Girl, we also say, to hell with all that! Sometimes a little music is all we need to turn our day or even our whole week around. So from now on, you can come on down to R&tSG and get a little Hump Day Treat -- a video with an upbeat, empowering song, sometimes old, sometimes new -- to help brighten your day!

I often feel like this performance is the one decent thing Carson Daly ever did on his stupid show. The quality is not so great, but that's okay because you can still see how much Le Tigre is having here. And serious points for the jump rope at the end!

Brought to us by the fine folks at Punktravesty, here we have a live performance of "TKO", Le Tigre's first single off their their major label debut, This Island. It's unfortunate that the official video is not available for embedding purposes, because that video is a lot of fun, but a live video might be better -- watching people get up onstage and play a song for an audience is always inspiring to me, anyways.

Were you one of those people who was utterly devastated when Bikini Kill broke up? I can't lie, I wasn't. It took me years to realize BK's deceptively simple genius. When Kathleen Hanna announced new projects Julie Ruin and Le Tigre in the late '90s, making old school fans and riot grrrl salivate at the thought, I was too busy having my face melted by early Sleater-Kinney and Team Dresch and trying to get through my first year of high school.

But even though I didn't like Bikini Kill when I first heard them, I was always, always, always intrigued by their lead singer. I still am, because Kathleen Hanna is more than a frontwoman, and more than a musician. Hanna is an ideologue. I'd go so far as to call her a successful feminist ideologue. She's a talented and charismatic artist, and she's used these skills to make feminism and feminist thought relevant to a new generation of women and music fans. Perhaps more shockingly, she and her bandmates JD Samson and Johanna Fateman have made feminism both relevant and danceable.

So listen to Le Tigre on this fine Hump Day -- listen, dance, and be proud to be a feminist!

This Hump Day Treat Double Header is dedicated to my dear friend Leigh Phillips, who is suffering an unbearable winter in upstate NY. Shake that groove thang baby, just like we did at The Shondes last June!!!

p.s. Got any good ideas for a future Hump Day treat? E-mail me and let me know:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

So This is the New Year: January Shows

In the interest of taking my own advice from my last blog, and starting off the new year right, I went to see some of my favorite local bands last month: I saw Cheeky play with P.S. Elliot and Little Lungs on January 1st, and then saw Mortals on January 10th.

On that first day of the new year I ventured into the labyrinthine heart of Brooklyn in single-digit temperatures, determined to have a better year than the last, and convinced that seeing Cheeky was the way to make this happen. I eventually arrived at a rickety little apartment building where all the tenants seem to be friends, and the kind of kids who consider an apartment-wide houseparty/show a regular weekday night, rather than some sort of special event. The radiators were hissing, the floors were creaky, the stairs were narrow, uneven, and seemingly on the verge of collapse. By the time I went up to the top floor where the bands were playing, every hallway and room seemed to be filled to capacity.

Just after I got there, Cheeky launched into their first song with the combative and irreverent energy they bring to all of their performances. In the live setting Cheeky is fast, dirty and vicious. They are the sonic equivalent of a skinny hockey player -- light, fast, and more than capable of slamming you into the boards and taking some of your teeth. Cheeky's fun, off-kilter, intentionally sloppy style of playing always reminds me of the Lunachicks, and always seems to put everyone in the room in a good mood. By the end of their set, their were shouts from the audience of "You fucking twinkie!" This wasn't an insult or homophobic slur, but lyrics from, and requests for their song "GROW FINS TURKEY." While I wasn't exactly shouting for it, I have to admit that I was happy when they decided to close the set with GFT, and I definitely was not the only one. By the end of Cheeky's set, the entire room was singing along.

Just over a week later, I went back to Brooklyn, to see Mortals at the Charleston. Located conveniently near the Bedford Avenue stop on the L, the Charleston is a dim, cozy bar with a very much unfinished basement and some pool tables in the back. That night there were two bartenders with Neil Young-Crazy Horse era hair cuts and beards working, and their decision to play a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band album informed my decision to wait outside for the bands to get set up.

Mortals has only been performing together since August, but you wouldn't know it from watching them. The band faced considerable obstacles that night: there was terrible weather, the venue was cold, the sound was questionable at best, and the openers were frankly terrible. (I could name names, but I won't.) And then their set was disrupted by the smell of a dead mouse and a girl dramatically collapsing to the floor, her drink falling to the ground and her glass shattering into a thousand pieces like a scene from a movie, or something. Despite all of this the band performed valiantly. They produced a sound much grander than the tiny, dirty basement setting, and as soon as they started their set, I forgot about the low temperature and the dead mouse. Mortals already have a distinctly dark and sophisticated sound, and richly layered, inventively structured songs. Even with the fuzzy sound at the Charleston, they recreated their complex pieces with force and intensity. When their half hour set ended, the only critique I could come up with is that it was too short. I was ready to hear more of their new songs, and I was ready right then, damn it.

And that, friends and readers, is the power of the live show. It inspires you, amuses you, forces you to get out of your house and out of your head, and gets you thinking about the possibilities. Will my year actually be better because I went to see Cheeky and Mortals in January? Maybe not. But for those two nights, I felt like maybe this year would be a good one. For those two nights, I thought "this is the new year, but I feel completely different. And when I think about those shows, even now, over a month later, I start to feel that way all over again.

Wanna hear for yourself? Check out Cheeky and Mortals at myspace