Sunday, March 27, 2005

Musique feminine, continued

Now I've reached practioners of la musique feminine proper, artists who express feminism not merely through their lyrics but through the very form their music takes, a form that is theoretically particular to female modes of consciousness. To do this properly, I should really have my copy of "The Laugh of the Medusa" (from The Newly-Born Woman) open in front of me, close-reading passages and appying them to these songs I've picked out. But I'm in the porcess of moving, and it's packed in a box somewhere. I just think there's an interesting parallel to me made between these musicians and writers like Cixous, Wittig, Sarraute. I've tried to avoid music that is merely meant to be marketed to women, that is created according to the very stereotypes of essential femininity these artists were trying to undermine. This leads one to the usual conundrum about essences. I'm not necessarily endorsing such an essentialist view of gender, however. I only report, and you decide. I don’t think one can gender techniques – that to do so is to apply a social construction, and attempt to naturalize that by developing its web-like reach. But who knows? Perhaps if you strung these songs together and looped it for an afternoon, you might really start speaking from the body and destabilizing the masculinist hierarchies that enable logicentric "thought."

1. The Slits, “Spend, spend, spend,” “Typical girls” (1979)

According to guitarest Viv Albertine, this is how the Slits developed their musical style: “It came completely out of nowhere, this weird, self-taught organic thing. As we became more aware, we didn’t want to follow male rhythms and structures. . . . We consciously thought about getting girl rhythms into music and concluded that female rhythms were probably not as steady, structured, or as contained as male rhythms.” Albertine also admits the “influence of the whole 70’s feminism thing.” This is somewhat ironic, since the Slits ended up with a male drummer playing traditional reggae beats with deep historical roots. Nevertheless, this exemplifies self-conscious attempts at making “female music.” One can hear the hallmarks in the unrestrained vocal style and the pointed lyrical critiques. The Slits try to claim the call-and-response structure as an aspect of essential femaleness, an approach that will continue to crop up. Ari Up's singing illustrates Kristevan semiosis: yelping pre-lingual nonsense noises from outside the oppresive paradigms of comprehensible language (aka the Symbolic). The guitar playing is unconventional: “angular” or “jagged” in rock critic terminology. The song's evince an untutored "purity" that's supposed to ensure that this is tapping into some sort of pre-rational spontaneity. The idea is that training means automatically training into a phallologicentric musical heritage/hegemony.

2. The Raincoats, “No looking,” “Fairytale in the supermarket,” “The void” (1980)

The Raincoats approach is in my phallologocentric opinion, a bit more sophisticated and a bit more radical. The lyrics are not as overt in their critique, and the music is more complex on its own innovative terms. The rhythms here really are unconventional and uncontained. The musical influence of Nico and the Velvet Underground is very apparent (The Velvet Underground had a female drummer who was often praised for her “primitive” style). In his liner notes Kurt Cobain (a big fan) claims that “They’re playing their music for themselves,” and that makes it appealing, moving, reassuring. Again, the fundamental myth behind this concept of female music is that the musicans are removed completely from the commercial and cultural matrix by virtue of something – here it might be their faintly foreign status – the singer is Portugese and the drummer Spanish. With the Shaggs, it was that they were rural children. With later bands it will be because they are crazy, or foreign, or gay, or something.

3. Kleenex (aka LiLiPut), “Ain’t you,” “Hedi’s head” (1978), “Feel like snakes twisting through the fog”, “Outburst” (1981)

It's kind of amazing that this band, who hail from Switzerland, of all places, ever existed. If Kleenex hadn’t have existed, Cixous and Kristeva would have had to invent them. It is as though they read “The Laugh of the Medusa” and Desire in Language, and interpreted them as though they were Rock and roll for Dummies books. The liner notes for reissue of their complete works are pretty amazing too. About “Hedi’s head”: “As far as anyone had ever heard before, what the group produced was absolutely female -- noises males would have been ashamed to make. . ., the syllables racing in a circle like a boomerang. . . . It was the language of so full of resentment and desire, playfulness and fear, that they simply cannot keep quiet discovering there was no reason why they should . . . the feeling of breaking loose is irresistable: they sound like ten-year-olds maniacally cutting up their Barbie dolls.” According to the liner notes, Kleenex wrote lyrics in English because English is a language where precision was especially difficult for them to achieve – sometimes words were chosen randomly from a dictionary: “meanings would be lost and meanings would emerge out of the mess.” Kim Gordon, the bass player for Sonic Youth, who does this sort of music herself, claims “they used girl voices in a joyous language that pronounced freedom without commercialization of girlhood or political pedantry.” All of this goes to show the way this idea of female music is shaped by critics and practioners eager to define a genre. The musical ideas of this genre are here realized in their purest form – this would be, then, if you buy the argument, music at its most female – with all the abject semiotics and non-linear irrationality that would be supposed to connote.

4. Throwing Muses, “Stand up” (1986); “Red Shoes” (1991)

Throwing Muses employ a number of the stylistic features of la musique féminine: quirky rhythms, swirling arpeggiated guitar figures, impressionistic lyrics that subvert grammar and monologic interpretation, and a yelping, yodelling vocal style whose influence is all over the Ani DiFrancos and Alanis Morrisettes to follow in their wake. Kristen Hersh, who possesses that voice, has had well documented struggles with mental illness and that contributes, for better or for worse, to the band's essential female mystique – her vocal style and her lyrics, often dubbed “irrational” by the sort of writers for whom that is a positive thing are presumed to give vent to some feminist truths and frustrations à la The Madwoman in the Attic. Often the music achieves a palpable and disturbing intensity, as if you were eavesdropping on a schizophrenic or listening to a precocious child throwing a tantrum – perhaps this is the intended well-accomplished effect. Throwing Muses streamlined and popularized the kind of music the Raincoats were making, but more likely they were more overtly influenced by early 4AD Goth music like the Cocteau Twins. Later the band Belly spun off from Throwing Muses, and had a big '90s alternative radio hit, “Feed the Tree.” By that point the radical aspects of their kind music had been completely dulled into easily marketable idiosycracies, stylistic tics that differentiate in a crowded market. Around then sonically crafted female angst became a dependable niche market: witness Hole, Garbage, Fiona Apple, Alanis Morrisette, etc. Kristen Hersh never got to cash in, except in cultural and intellectual capital – she gets taken seriously as a poet/artist.

5. Sonic Youth, “Flower” (1985)

Sonic Youth's bassist, Kim Gordon, who takes up feminist topics and concepts in the songs she contributes. All of their music has intellectual pretensions; the avant-garde feminism is just one of those concerns. Gordon became a role model for the riot grrl acts that took many cues from her look and sound. This song features her angry, noisy polemical style – her other style is a half-talk, half-whisper approach where the concern is to delineate some confused and disturbing subject position.

6. Sleater-Kinney, “Banned from the End of the World” (1999), “The Drama that You’ve Been Craving” (1997)

Sleater-Kinney originally got a lot of press for being lesbians, which means something to some people and perhaps serves as a guarantee of their femino-centric approach. I include them because of their style, which I think is a successful evolution of some of the stuff above – the guitar work is still amateurish by Van Halen standards, but is expert and proficient by its own. The layered vocals allow them to achieve the “female” polyrhythmy simultaneously while injecting some healthy destabilizing dialogism and polysemy at the same time. The overlapping vocals move at different tempos in different keys, different lyrics in different rhythmical patterns that comment on each other in various intriguing ways. They can serve to represent the whole riot grrl sound, even though they are really post riot grrl. That whole movement was about seizing rock and roll from men, and deriving some sort of mode for women to rock in – some bands, like L7 just sounded like male grunge bands with female singers, but others were more experimental in their approach. Bikini Kill is the band that best represents the genre, but their music is basically straightforward punk. Sleater-Kinney are technical innovators.

7. P J Harvey, “Yuri G” (1993)

Harvey usually works a blues-rock vein, but she veers over into “female music” strategies occasionally. This song is from Rid of Me, which is probably her most confrontational work. She wanted to challenge stereotypes of feminine passivity and daintiness by projecting this larger than life persona, described in another song as a “50 Foot Queenie.” Most of the songs describe sexual desperation with unsettling intensity. This, presumably, is unlady-like to some people, and makes her music a bit of a jolt for them. She will use her share of histrionical vocals, and will use repetition as a musical strategy in a way that could be linked to psychoanalytic theories of pre-symbolic experience.

8. Erase Errata, Other Animals

Strongly influenced by Liliput, Erase Errata employs the strategies of spontaneity, fragmentation and repetition and gutteral, semi-lingual singing and pursues evergreen feminist topics such the male gaze, consumer reification, and the like.

Obviously I have left out much I could have included under the shifting criteria I have employed in compiling this. I could have, for example, thrown in representative music of the Lillith Fair variety, or Ani DiFranco, or Tori Amos, but one could argue that its commerciality disqualifies it, makes of it a compromised music that shows the way the “system” will co-opt female music and smooth it out, and nullify its radical potential. Yoko Ono should be included somewhere too: not only did she break up the Beatles, the quintessential homosocial band, but she made her own atonal antimusic that codifies many of the feminist formal approaches described above.

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