Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why I'm not a Riot Grrl

Laina Dawes, a music writer for Metal Edge, recently penned a piece for Bitch Magazine titled "Why I Was Never a Riot Grrl." A black woman, Dawes cites race as a key factor for her lack of affinity for the movement.  Her notes on the intrinsic whiteness of the movement were insightful. But for me, a white feminist in love with loud, angry music, her column inspired a different kind of consideration.  Why wasn't I a riot grrl?

Part of the reason lies in geography.  I grew up in Indianapolis; and the riot grrl movement was based out of Olympia, WA.  Nowadays, the internet somewhat nullifies the role regional concerns play in cultural exposure.  But then, to know about things happening in cities other than yours, you had to be tapped in to the underground zine scene. I knew a guy who was; but his interest was death metal, not angry girl bands. As a result, I knew about bands like Brujeria and Xysma and Demilich.  But I knew nothing of Bratmobile.

Because of my Midwestern nativity, I initially relied on my parent's menial record collection, my older brother, and mainstream media like MTV and Top 40/Classic Rock radio for musical exposure. I listened to hair metal, grunge, classic rock and funk, and pop music. During this time, I was also learning to play guitar and I had started writing songs. In the mid 90s, when women performers began enjoying that brief moment of musical popularity, I loved the Luscious Jacksons, Poe, Garbage, Alanis, L7, Hole, and The Cranberries.  Still, riot grrl bands remained off my radar.


And then I moved to LA. Somewhere around that time, I became aware of the term "riot grrl" and of bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile; and eventually, I heard Bikini Kill at a listening station at Tower Records in Sherman Oaks, CA. I fucking hated it!  Now, to give context, I came from cock rock not punk rock; and I aspired to be a female Jimmy Page, not a female Steve Jones.  As such, my first response was to disdainfully assert "They can't play their fucking instruments!" to my comrade Kelly, a barely legal KISS fan, who was on a three year hiatus from college. "Yeah," she agreed. "They do suck!"  When I heard part of the riot grrl philosophy was to make music regardless of their relative mastery of their instrument, I grew even more incensed. I had worked hard to develop a decent level of guitar mastery; and I never really liked the idea of sucking on purpose. I was definitely not a riot girl, I thought. I am better than that.

Jimmy Page - My Lifelong Guitar Hero

Over the next few years, I learned some things I hadn't understood about the music business.  For one, I learned that female instrumentalists are evaluated as "sucking" by male musicians unless their mastery is so extreme it cannot be denied. I learned that I should actually consider "you're pretty good for a girl," a compliment. I learned that girls who were in known bands, and who didn't meet the criteria for musical savant, were judged as benefactors of their marketable physical image; and as Fay Funk notes in "What I Learned from D'arcy Wretzky," I learned that success scored with merely mediocre instrument mastery, leads to severe criticism, and easy dismissal of  said mediocre female musician's cultural importance while successful mediocre male musicians are spared such extreme vitriol.     

Darcy Wretzky - How dare she be mediocre AND successful!

By owning their awfulness as musicians, riot grrl bands were able to subvert the judgmental shit so many female musicians have faced for not being goddamned Mozarts. By shamelessly sucking at playing their instruments, riot grrl bands became acceptable. They found a niche. The guys that still ruled rock (and I'm talking performance as well as the means of production, distribution, promotion, booking etc. here) didn't feel musically threatened by the riot grrl. They thought, "they're girls and they suck, but they're not trying to not suck, so it's kind of cool and punk rock." Meanwhile, girls, or perhaps I should qualify based on Dawes's article, white girls, could see other white girls occupying the stage, representing an untethered white girl point of view where only the male point of view previously existed. Moreover, those girls were forwarding a feminist agenda to which other girls could relate; and it was done with the attitude that male approval was not required to take the stage and forward that message.

It took me a long time to fully understand the whole point of the riot grrl movement and appreciate its value and influence on a whole generation of female musicians and artists.  But I still don't consider myself a riot grrl.  Don't get me wrong - even at almost 40 I'm a pretty pissed off feminist; and I've made some loud, dark, and angry riotgrrl-esque music in my day too.  But I also felt incredible pride when Dave Immergluck, the guitarist from the Counting Crows complimented my playing after seeing me perform with singer songwriter Arrica Rose; and a few years later, when I auditioned and got the gig playing guitar with a band of boys who had no intention of hiring a female player, I felt more pride than I had felt playing with any of my previous "girl" bands. In my mind, getting that gig was proof that I wasn't kidding myself when I set out to give a music career a shot. I may not have been Mozart, but I didn't suck; I was good enough to play with the boys - good enough to take a shot at the same success male musicians who also aren't Mozart strive for.  But, a true riot grrl wouldn't have needed that validation I needed to prove that she deserved to be there. Riot grrls are better than that.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

JD Samson (Men and Le Tigre) Gets it So So Right

Men's JD Samson, better known for her work with feminist dance punk outfit Le Tigre, fielded a lot of pretentious artist accusations for "I Love My Job, But it Made Me Poorer," a blog post she wrote a couple years ago.  But, I knew what she meant.  To make a go of it as a professional artist, you sacrifice a lot of shit. Even if you find success in the form of notoriety, more often than not, it doesn't bring the financial stability that many people imagine; that lack of stability that feels romantic in your late teens and 20s isn't quite so endearing as you progress in age and maturity.
JD Samson
She talks more about this struggle and its impact on her recent work in this fairly recent podcast from the Bitch Media Popaganda Series too.   

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Thoughts on Walter Kirn's "Confessions of an Ex-Mormon"

Slowly, I'm making my way through the Cheryl Strayed edited collection of the The Best American Essays of 2013.  Most recently, I completed Walter Kirn's "Confessions of an Ex-Mormon."  Originally published in The New Republic in 2012, the title had me expecting something lurid and provocative. However, this was not the case. Instead, Kirn's article inspires a consideration of community by reflecting on his experiences with Mormonism. In spite of my intrinsic agnosticism and my love of personal space, and with the caveat that I recognize this article is but one man's evaluation of his experience, I am intrigued by the way an ideology based on the notion of sharing rather than hoarding might impact overall satisfaction in life. 

Kirn's experience with the Mormon church begins when, deep in the midst of midlife confusion, his patent attorney father moves the family from Minnesota to Arizona in hopes of a new start. Instead, Kirn's father falls into even greater mental turmoil. Following a near breakdown, while boarding a flight, Kirn's father is seated next a couple, who sense his despair and begin talking about their church with such radiance that Kirn's father reaches out to the church a few nights later. Kirn was 13 at the time the two young missionaries visit; his family joins the church shortly thereafter. Kirn recalls feeling genuinely included in the Mormon church, a feeling he's not previously experienced at his Lutheran church or elsewhere for that matter. However, when the family moved back to Minnesota, he and his family eventually fall away from the church.

Walter Kirn

Mormons have a bit of an image problem to say the least. In fact, Kirn cites the criticism aimed at Mitt Romney, during his presidential campaign, and regarding his "magic underwear" as initial inspiration for the essay.  A long lapsed Mormon who had grown disgusted with the church's stance on issues such as gay marriage, Kirn was surprised by his anger at the attacks on Romney, and disappointed with Romney showed restraint in his response. He felt a need to defend Mormonism. But where had this loyalty come from? He had been a Mormon only a short time; and he left, without ever serving a mission over questions about key doctrines of the faith. 

30 years after Kirn's introduction to Mormonism, he unexpectedly had another encounter.  At 46, and in spite of finding success as a writer with his novel, Up in the Air, which was later made into a movie starring George Clooney, Kirn is unhappy. He is lonely, and using a number of drugs to deal with depression and anxiety when he meets a woman on the internet who lives in Los Angeles. They like each other and he decides to move to Los Angeles temporarily not only to be present for movie related meetings but also to see if this relationship has any potential.

Kirn finds a guest house rental on a private Beverly Hills property where several young Mormons live communally. Again, he experiences the feelings of inclusion he recalls from his youth.  There are almost endless opportunities to socialize within the group. Moreover, their willingness to help each other out without the insisting on returned favors, and their easy generosity with the fruits of their various successes is shocking but ultimately medicinal for Kirn. His depression subsides, and he breaks his dependence on drugs.

From their starchy white shirts and bicycle powered door to door mission work, to their spirit babies and magic underwear, Mormons are sometimes mistaken for a Cult; and maybe this is deserved.  Certainly some of the fundamentalist sects engage in extremely cult-like and even criminal activities. However, as Kirn relayed his story, I admit I felt drawn, just as he did, to their genuine commitment to supporting their community, to helping each other out, and to sharing their resources. It's all very un-American.

America has long romanticized  the feats of the individual; and a resistance to acknowledging community contributions to individual success, such as those discussed in Malcolm Gladwell's, The Outliers, is evident. In fact our entire economy is constructed to allow individuals to pursue and ultimately amass enormous wealth if they so choose and if they are so fortunate. The problem with the structure is that the distribution of the spoils rarely mirrors the community contributions to the individual's who are credited with the success. We believe "great" individuals deserve EXTREME financial reward.  However, Gladwell's work shows us that while be like believing the Bill Gates' of the world were bound to be Bill Gates' regardless of outside factors, that simply isn't the case. Sadly, this cultural mindset that values individual greatness over community greatness sets nearly all of us up for disappointment because greatness can't be distributed too generally or else it ceases to be meaningful. So, on some level, we average underlings are left to feel a sick sense of collective failure.

Individually, we turn to yoga and pharmaceuticals and fast cars and the biggest houses we can afford and special diets and therapists and self-help books.  We turn inward or take up running or vow to lose weight or read more books or work for an animal rescue or practice a faith all in the quest for the greater life satisfaction our averageness doesn't afford us. But these are all symptomatic cures - and to be sure - they are really all we have when significant systemic changes that would place greater value on community success will not occur anytime soon.

Perhaps this all makes me sound like a raging socialist; and maybe that's what I've become.  But once upon a time I bought in to America's rugged individualism. I moved west in pursuit of my own American dream and I had no doubt that I..I alone could actualize that dream. Some might call that idealistic narcissism.  But I think I was a pretty average young American.  It took me about a year to learn the truth of Maya Angelou's refrain: "nobody but nobody can make it out here alone." So, while I'll never be able to ascribe to God-centered community, the Mormons are on to something with their rugged communitarianism. We would all be wise to stop putting such heavy value on the successes of individuals.  They don't do it alone.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Men Don't Know What the Little Girls Understand recently printed an insightful piece about the struggles female music critics face. In Oh, the Unbelievable Shit You Get Writing about Music as a Woman, former Nashville music critic Tracy Moore laments the abuse women critics, who approach their job with serious intention, receive.  Specifically, Moore reports taunts of whore-dom, from a peanut gallery of male critics, who claimed such nonsense as "you have fucked every member of every band you have ever covered."  Moore contrasts her experience with the rather positive response Sarah O'Holla's blog "My Husband's Stupid Record Collection" has received from male critics to suggest an underlying sexism that discourages women from serious critical engagement with music while simultaneously encouraging a passive damsel in distress "show me the way" like respect for the male point of view.     

O'Holla's blog has been embraced and shared and shared again by male critics.  While initially drawn to O'Holla's blog for its "charm," Moore, and other female critics, have become suspicious of a sexist subtext to the adulation.  In short, Moore argues the reaction to O'Holla's blog highlights the acceptance of female points of view only when they are couched in a frame of novice understanding.  By contrast, a woman who enters the room, claiming expert understanding and eager to engage in a serious discussion about music, is shunned and insulted with "get on the tour bus and suck a dick" sorts of minimization. 

Obviously, male claims of supreme understanding of popular music, its performers, and its cultural significance are nothing new. And the notion that women who want to write about music or, for that matter, play music or work in wardrobe for musicians are whores with glorified titles on their laminates is also nothing new. However, there are certain types of understanding available to female spectators of music that are not available to men; and while the ying and yang of sexual seduction and desire are a component to that understanding, there is more than that.  In fact, part of that understanding connects to one of the foundational cultural purposes of popular music culture - the break down of gender constructs - a component that women experience in a much more intimate fashion than men do. 

Before we explore this in greater depth, let's first examine establish the value for a type of criticism for which female critics are often minimized and that is the mention of "details that were about something other than the literal sound of the music, like how the performers acted, dressed, or looked, and how the music was received" (Moore). This attack on attention to elements outside the structural forms of music was echoed in a recent Daily Beast article titled "Music Criticism has Degenerated into Lifestyle Reporting, which points to a recent episode of American Idol where Jennifer Lopez made fun of Harry Connick Jr. for using the word "pentatonic" in his response to a contestant's performance. While I would agree both that music criticism should not rely solely on "lifestyle reporting"  and that it is comical and sad that Jennifer Lopez, a best selling musical artist, is unfamiliar with one of the most basic musical terms, I would argue it's equally comical to suggest that criticism of popular music should ONLY be about melody and harmony and song structure and dynamic and lyric.  That's only the half of it.  Moreover, it is not uncommon for male writers to address external details in their criticism.  Read anything by Chuck Klosterman or Greil Marcus for evidence of this kind of reporting from the male point of view.  As such, I reject the notion that music criticism should exist in a form only bubble. Form is absolutely valuable.  But it is not all that is valuable. 

Now that that is out of the way...let's use a well - known classic song to explore the difference and potential value of the female point of view in rock criticism. In the iconic Doors tune "Back Door Man," Jim Morrison crooned "the men don't know but the little girls understand."  While the song is regularly assumed to be a testimonial of male posturing and braggadocio, it can just as easily be read as a testimony about the experience of male performance and its distinctness from the experience of the male spectator. Morrison asserts this difference when he says:

"You men eat your dinner
Eat your pork and beans
I eat more chicken any man ever seen."

While this is most certainly a bit of male sexual posturing it can be read for greater meaning as well. The use of "you men" speaks to the barrier that exists between Morrison and his male audience. He is not like them. He is a different kind of man. A back door man. The male read of braggadocio is further complicated by "the men don't know but the little girls understand."  Men understand braggadocio and posturing just fine. So what is it they don't understand?

Jim Morrison, the Object and the Ladies Gazing

I contend this understanding relates as much to power and it's relationship to objectification as it does to sex.  In western society, women universally experience the objectification of the male gaze.  Whether it's a man sitting an extra 30 seconds at a stop sign to watch her cross, or a catcall from a car, or an unwanted facebook comment, every woman has endured some kind of objectification; and while women work to subvert its effects and control that objectification, it's never completely divorced from its negative subtext. However, male performers allow female spectators to take on the power position of active gazer.  They become the catcallers, the lingerers, the objectifiers. The male performer, in turn, becomes the object of that gaze, an experience all women can relate to. Moreover, watching the male performer take that position of object and turn it in to a position of power over both men and women, can allow women to imagine their own objectification in a way that feels a little less negative. Additionally, the male performer's experience of objectification becomes wrought with the same difficulty of the female experience when he is subjected to expectations that he maintain the performance when he is off the stage.  This role switch creates a connection, a shared pleasure and a shared frustration not afforded to male spectators, who'll never really understand the difficulty of objectification in the same way. In fact, men fantasize about being objectified because from their point of view, gazing upon someone is only so satisfying. The power to progress beyond the gaze is the fantasy; and that power is transferred to the object. In essence, male spectators perceive the male rock star the same way he perceives women: they both have access to sex anytime they want. Because the average man doesn't have the negative experience of this objectification, his understanding of the experience is are all fantasies.

Of course, this contention of a role reversal is not perfect. Male rock stars are still men and thus have opportunities to exploit and control their own objectification in ways that women can't.  Still, that doesn't obscure the fact that culturally, one of rock music's main functions is to play with the laws of gender; both performers and fans are actors in this play. Elvis's hip sway was controversial in part because dancing was a "feminine" activity.  To dance while people watched was an outright assault on 1950s gender codes.  Hordes of female Beatles fans, out of control and climbing fences in an effort to touch their heroes, was not behavior becoming a young girl.  Boys were allowed to be  unruly, not girls. The way this push and pull is understood by women IS fundamental in understanding music and its cultural role. Discouraging women from sharing their experiences, in ultimately serving to slowly bleed rock music of its real cultural value. Even Kurt Cobain understood the future of rock lied with women. We've already heard the male narrative. Now let us speak.  Let us tell you what we understand. And quit telling us we don't get it...or that the way we get it makes us whores. Even if a woman has slept with every member of every band she's ever written about, that's a story worth hearing. After all sweet sweet Connie Hamzy most certainly understands a few things about those iconic artists that male spectators could NEVER understand.