‘I Enjoy Being a Girl’, by Joanna Rodrigues
Wearing a smile, a big bright pink frill of a dress, the kind found mainly to be worn by Miss Barbie herself in the mid-80s, and wearing also her hair how Doris Day would have worn it in the sixties, is Nellie Mckay. It takes two chords to realise that she’s wearing that grand piano in the same way she wears the pin curled platinum hair. A hairstyle so immaculately lifted from a 60’s film that if worn by anyone not as sweetly wrapped up in her own world, would have looked like a ploy for attention, a gimmick, some disaffection for modernity, or a crude representation of the word ‘quirky’.
You may be forgiven for associating Mckay, at first impression, with the ‘chicks with pianos’ clique - the Norah Jones, Jane Monheit style of easy listening. The first few seconds of ‘Sari’, coupled with this sweet image of a little lady sitting in a dress fit for a Disney Princess, holds Mckay in that exact light just for a moment, in a bright sparkly Broadway light, as if all that’s missing is a feather boa and at any moment she will spring up from her seat, leaving the piano to play by itself, whilst she tap dances her little heart away. Instead of a chord change into this light-hearted ditty, what you hear is like a constant beat, light hearted enough to match her hair, but also solemn enough to emphasise the awesome stream-of-consciousness style rap she tries on and wears effortlessly, opening this strange song with ‘Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t apologise so much’. Norah Jones is now the last thing on your mind. Mckay is transformed into the most bizarre hybrid of Jazz, Broadway and 8 Mile as liberal rage possesses this life-sized doll, and then she says ‘DIE MOTHERFUCKER!’.
Out of your mind go Doris Day and Barbie and Disney, and as you are hit between the eyes by your own preconceptions of saccharine girlhood and sweet ditties, you are left feeling foolish but also quite excited to see what is going to happen next.
20th Century representations of women in Art, especially Pop music, although diverse, are in some aspects extremely stunted. And what popular female role models are lacking is the kind of genuine heart behind their music that completely dismisses stereotypes and does what great music, and indeed Art, should do – disarm the audience of all preconceptions.
The late 60’s and early 70’s seemed to be the beginnings of new, interesting and better rounded portrayals of femininity both outside and within the second-wave feminist movement. A particular aspect of this movement was the emergence of Women’s (also known as Womyn’s or Wimmins’) Music which consciously segregated Feminism from mainstream culture by defining their goal as producing ‘music for women by women’.
The movement was founded by African-American activists and musicians such as Bernice Johnson Reagon and also lesbian activists and folk singers like Meg Christian and Margie Adams. Women’s Music as a genre was mainly preoccupied with creating a separate space for women artists to merge political activism with music, rather than setting up artistic guidelines or creating a single sound. Acts born out of Womyn’s Music vary from the a capella group ‘Sweet Honey in the Rock’ and their fusion of African-American history, folklore, dance and sign language, to folk rock acts like The Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge.
It is easy to understand the impetus behind creating this outlet for women who felt oppressed by a strict patriarchal gaze that prohibited them from expressing their own sexuality even within their own counter-cultures. Women’s roles were still ignored within gay rights and civil rights movements, as they were mostly lead by and concerned with men and still imposed the same restricting roles upon women.
Ideally, Women’s Music is a beautiful protest in the midst of the extreme political anxieties of the 1960’s and 70’s. Such a conscious departure from commercialisation frees it from the male-dominated structure it opposes, but it inevitably denies being a part of this structure by creating a counter-structure – neither structures are changed nor improved. Ultimately, the aim of Women’s Music fails as it voices the concerns of women only to women- what about the rest of the population, the happily oppressed majority? Informing women of how they’re nothing but objectified ideals of male fancy is nice and all, but it does not instantly cause the collapse of a Capitalist patriarchal music industry, let alone society.
The 80’s produced Madonna and her commercially pleasing brand of post-feminism, like a girl version of Prince, but not as dirty and more family friendly because girls were still not allowed to sing songs like ‘Scarlet Pussy’. Her chart topping hit ‘Like a Virgin’ could have been a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the male idealisation of female sexuality, had it been written by Madonna herself and not by a man for a male singer. However, Madonna managed to pull a feminist hat trick with that one; with her overtly sexualised performances and the lucky irony of being named after the Virgin Mary, she managed to subvert a song which could easily be about a coquettish love object into a self-conscious admission of sexual freedom.
Madonna’s main trick however, is innovation, and by constantly and tirelessly reinventing herself she creates this illusion of complex femininity. After the Virgin Mary phase there was ‘Who’s That Girl’ and her stab at fashionable androgyny, then in the 90’s she took published a book filled with black and white nude photos of herself, and finally in 2001 she wrote ‘What it feels like for a Girl,’ a simple song that despite its plain message is perhaps Madonna’s most feminist song to date. Her reincarnations are countless for a woman who’s still alive; every time Madonna releases an album she strives to change herself so entirely she falls short of changing her name. Madonna’s separate entities, however manifold, are never simultaneous; she is only ever one facet of herself, or her product, an erratic agglomeration of shock tactics and whatever is trendy. This perpetual innovation is really a form of marketing, of tapping into the zeitgeist and propagating the faux feminism that is predominant in female Pop acts. The only constant message that can ever be taken out of Madonna as an artist is that you can be yourself by wearing underwear as outerwear, and that just leaves you feeling cold and inappropriate.
Almost thirty years later, with lesser degree of success, her Madgesty is still peddling the message of sexual freedom through quasi-obscene music videos, and of course making friends with Michael Moore has given her the political maturity that would have otherwise been erased by profuse amounts of Botox.
This tradition of commercial feminism was exploited and developed well into the 90’s, with acts like the Spice Girls using ‘Girl Power’ as an excuse to sing ‘2 Becomes 1’ to their target audience of five to ten year olds – and apparently that was okay, because it was about safe sex. Suddenly there were more and more new Girl Bands and Boy Bands, just dying to take a shot at singing double-entendres crafted to cause swooning in impressionable teenage girls.
So, the mid-90s managed to further undermine any previous attempts of the alternative female role model in popular culture. The Spice Girls (or more accurately, their male management) used and manipulated the Forer Effect perfectly by distilling every stereotype of womanhood into five even cruder stereotypes that appeal to every single female child in the universe. Because, of course, if you’re a girl who likes playing football you will wear nothing but track suits at all times and of course, if you are ginger you tend to act like a mentally unstable person – it just cannot be helped.
In effect, pop culture picked out the essence of the Riot Grrrl movement and somehow corrupted it into something utterly horrifying. What started out as a group of like-minded girls trying to establish a set of Punk DIY ethics created by and for teenage girls so that their real concerns and anxieties could be voiced without being condescended to as a simple case of the PMS monster, was turned into something short of a farce.
In the late 80’s Kathleen Hanna was studying Photography and counselling victims of domestic abuse during the day and stripping by night in Olympia, Washington, when Kathi Acker told her to start a band. Olympia provided Hanna with a thriving music scene centred on a nurturing culture of Punk and DIY. She started by setting up exhibitions of her own photography and then it was spoken word and poetry, but whatever Hanna created expressed her concerns for the way society mistreats women, whether physically, emotionally or politically. Most of all Hanna felt women needed to be heard that the atrocities she witnessed through the girls she met and counselled at work and even on tour needed to be publicised, discussed and divulged.
Whilst on tour with Viva Knievel, Hanna started corresponding with Tobi Vail after reading her zine, a self-published, handwritten, photocopied and stapled magazine called ‘Jigsaw’ in which Vail wrote about music and gender issues and urged girls to join bands. The pair found a sort of ideological common ground, and in 1990 they started Bikini Kill which, alongside Bratmobile, would become one of the founding bands of Riot Grrrl.
Considering that Hanna found her roots in poetry and spoken word, Punk seems like natural selection, in fact everything about it is perfect for being remodelled into a feminist sub-genre, no other scene could have so firmly grounded the Riot Grrrl Manifesto –
BECAUSE we are interested in creating no-hierarchical ways of being AND making music, friends, and scenes based on communication + understanding, instead of competition + good/bad categorizations.
An effort to take on a genre that is loved by girls but not completely female-friendly was turned into sensationalist media coverage and the movement was broadened into the sort of genre pigeonholing that it aimed to defy in the first place. Kathleen Hanna was simmering in her own outrage as politically lukewarm acts like No Doubt and Courtney Love (who infamously punched Hanna and threw sweets at her during a concert after she insulted her offspring) were being labelled as Riot Grrrl bands.
Nevertheless, as an underground movement Riot Grrrl reached a considerable audience, obviously inspiring songs such as No Doubt’s ‘I’m Just a Girl’ and even (in a more literal sense) Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and this is not necessarily a denigration of the original movement. Bikini Kill got mentioned several times in the ’99 film 10 Things I Hate About You, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew – of course, they were the favourite band of the angst-ridden militant feminist eponymous shrew, but the sentiment was close enough. . This impact upon popular culture may have been undesired, but it created a great deal of associations. Right around the same time MTV made Daria, a spin-off of the lesser thought-provoking Beavis & Butthead, which gave birth to the best female character in the history of television, ironically written by a man, much like other with other interesting female role models in TV and film, such as Buffy, The L Word, and Ghost World.
By associating feminism with Punk ethics, bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile forged themselves into a male-dominated genre without compromising their roles as self-sufficient musicians, but most importantly Riot Grrrl was very consciously creating a movement that was applicable to women without compromising the basic integrity of DIY ethics and principles – they did not set out to create a feminised, or girly, version of Punk, but a genre which held the same ideologies at heart, only in a feminist context. Of course, by inheriting these original ideologies, Riot Grrrl also inherited the underlying puritanical snobbery of Punk. Then the movement becomes an excuse – it is acceptable for people in the movement to write the word RAPE on their naked flesh because it is a form of protest, but any female artist outside this paradoxical world of politics runs the risk of being called ‘lame’ if they decide to go on stage wearing no trousers. As Hanna herself said ‘just because you're wearing a goofy hat doesn't make it performance art’– surely that applies to you too, Kathleen? Does the authenticity of the ‘performance art’, or more importantly the message, differ depending on whether it is a product of mainstream culture or of an obscure movement? Riot Grrrl started with great ideals of community and even managed to be less separatist than Womyn’s Music by including a few male band members, but instead of evolving into a greater cause it just imploded into Herstory. ‘Revolution Girl Style Now’ was its aim and in a way it was a movement of its time, held very much in the present and not very well preserved or contained; that’s probably the ‘Now’ part of it. The ‘Revolution’ part is the hardest to analyse, because instead of carrying through its aim of ‘disrupting the status quo’ and changing or defying ‘beergutboyrock’, Riot Grrrl created its own art form. In a way this is much more valuable, because of its potential to influence other artists, but in another way it fails to meet their urgent needs for change and equality.
In the end, much like Punk, Riot Grrrl turned into a parody of itself and continued chasing its own tail until Beth Ditto finalised its transition into the mainstream by schmoozing with the oppressor – the Fashion Industry. Ditto is what Hanna was completely dismissing – you don’t have to sever yourself from mainstream culture in order to function under your own principles, and Beth Ditto is the perfect example of this. The front lady of Washington based indie band The Gossip looks like something that could have only been pulled off in a John Waters film. As soon as ‘Standing in the Way of Control’ was released it was being remixed by bands like Soulwax and Hanna’s own electroclash project, Le Tigre. It even got featured on the soundtrack of Skins, E4’s series about underage hipsters doing what they do, and all the hip, cool, young things were listening to The Gossip, so naturally they became NME darlings for a year or two. In 2006 NME featured Ditto in their ‘Top 10 Cool List’, and because they are a humble and music-loving publication they ran a couple more articles covering that amazing act of chivalry.
Posing naked for the cover of NME and LOVE magazine created a huge divide in public opinion, because god forbid a woman above size zero should wear couture let alone be seen naked, she just has to be quirky and zany, and it has to be a statement. But what is most refreshing about Ditto is the sincerity of her I-don’t-give-a-fuckitude – one moment she’s seen covered in sweat with her top off on stage, the next she’s sitting next to Kate Moss in New York Fashion Week and designing a plus-sized range for Evans. Perhaps Ditto is treated as a bit of a gimmick, but how else could the media portray her? It is easier to run by some facts – her boyfriend is transgender, she is a lesbian, and she walked the runway for Jean Paul Gaultier. Overall, this is great tabloid material to be exploited because it plainly dismisses her as a complex human being and just pastes on some quirky labels instead. Little to nothing is mentioned about her music or her gay rights activism nowadays, all we are shown is how skinny Kate Moss looks next to her in pictures; despite her personality and talent Ditto has been turned into a semi-commodity. She is almost a commodity because Ditto is not obnoxious and art-driven like Hanna and she does not objectify herself in the same way as female artists like Madonna, leaving her in a safe Hipster limbo. Perhaps if her music were as challenging as her personality Ditto would not be stuck in such a comfortable rut.
In 1997, nineteen year old singer songwriter Fiona Apple gave a dangerously sincere acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards. ‘This world is bullshit’, says the first of the piano chicks, with the alarming restraint of someone who is just about to slap something in the face, ‘you shouldn’t model your life about what you think we think is cool’. Her anger is awe-inspiring and passive aggressive, almost as if it is directed at herself for having to say this, like MTV is making her grass them out. And as her speech stumbles and tries to reassert itself by invocating Maya Angelou, you understand why Apple is so angry – to a less sympathetic audience she looks like a product of MTV, like an angst-ridden hypocrite, and she knows it. But she also looks damn scary.
The music video for Apple’s first breakthrough MTV Award winning single, ‘Criminal’, was a pre-emptory strike against whatever the music industry had in store for her. She told Spin ‘I decided if I was going to be exploited, then I would do the exploiting myself’; of course the exploitation also worked towards her artistic advantage. The song is about using your sexuality in order to gain advantage on something, betraying some faceless feminist instinct and feeling judged by this same instinct. In the video, a scantily clad and sulky Fiona Apple seems to be saying that actually, maybe it is okay to use your sexuality on your own terms, maybe the problem lies in the criminalisation of women who are branded sluts for doing what is socially acceptable for men. A message very similar to that of the whole Riot Grrrl movement, only perhaps braver in nature because of where it is being set up, not apart from the rest of the discriminatory music scenes, but in the midst of it.
Apple’s MTV VMA’s acceptance speech was threatening in the very same way that Nellie Mckay’s performance of ‘Sari’ still is, because both artists defy in their own way, the audience’s expectations. The latter defied the expectation of the typical ‘Thank you’ speech that is usually dedicated to God at Music Award ceremonies and the former defies the expectations of easy listening piano Pop or Jazz. She also looks too blonde to ever say the F word – but mostly, Mckay and Apple defy aesthetic expectations. Neither artist makes a conscious decision to do a Simone De Beauvoir and butch up, like for example Missy Elliott, in order to gain credibility. Both women present themselves without explanation or caricature, as extensions of their extremely personal and confessional craft.
Mckay and Apple’s extremely personal lyrics are perhaps what make their music, especially Apple’s, more vulnerable and slightly unhinged, sometimes even threatening. Unlike Hanna and Ditto, they are not consciously obnoxious and evasive in their lyrics, and perhaps this is due to the genres they dwell in, but the main difference between these female artists lies simply in their own expression through music. Apple manages to capture the sense of loss and despair she felt long after being raped at the age of 12 outside her home within the lyrics of ‘Sullen Girl’. ‘But he washed my shore/And he took my pearl/And left and empty shell of me’ is doubtlessly a more haunting and complex lyric than ‘Just cause my world sweet sister/Is so fucking goddamn full of rape/ Does that mean my body must always be a source of pain?’. Obnoxious lyrics can be screamed louder, but creating beauty out of atrocity is what real Art is about, about making the statement but also transcending it.
Bikini Kill’s ‘Double Dare Ya’ carries a similar message to Mckay’s ‘Sari’, as Kathleen Hanna wails in the tones of a petulant child:
Don't you talk out of line
Don't go speaking out of your turn
Gotta listen to what the Man says
Time to make his stomach burn
The song is provocative and obnoxious, and it is great because of that because it starts out as a sort of complaint, but here is where it meets its weakness. The song’s simplicity renders the lines ‘You’ve got to know what they are/ ‘Fore you can stand up for your rights’ limp and contrived, because they hint at a larger complexity that is not there. Feminism is a complex and ever-changing set of ideologies that can be paradoxical even amongst themselves; cutting women’s rights down to one line in a song does nothing to address this complexity, or to challenge any kind of rhetoric whatsoever. This is where ‘Sari’ succeeds, in the way that it articulates a single thought through concise yet complex rhetoric rather than using clichéd references.
Nellie Mckay’s debut album ‘Get Away from Me’ is the first double album released by a woman. She was nineteen when it came out, and wanted desperately ‘to be a star’, I suspect in the Barbra Streisand meaning of the word – and yet the very title of her album is a joke on the current female singer-songwriters that she would have otherwise been associated with.
Mckay instantly sets herself apart from the ‘chicks with pianos’, and quite rightly, because she is not just a girl making easy listening songs for Romcoms, and to classify her with the any other artist would be more than blasphemy, it would be impossible; the girl cannot be defined. She has starred in Brecht plays with Cyndi Lauper, appeared on PS I Love You as Hilary Swank’s sister, and is currently playing the lead in her own musical about the serial killer Barbara Graham – and that’s just what you can find out on her Wikipedia page.
Often you will read or hear the terms ‘ground-breaking’ and ‘genre-defying’, and it will make you scoff with indignation and mistrust. I hate to say this, but Nellie Mckay is both, but in the subtlest way possible. As you listen to a song like ‘Mama and Me’ it seems deceivingly simple and cute, but it is a delicious mixture of rap, storytelling, jazz and cabaret that really cannot be picked apart.
Everything about Mckay is ironic in the loveliest way. In ‘Mother of Pearl’ she uses humour to evoke and undercut notions of Feminism, she sings ‘feminists don’t have a sense of humour’ in the same kind of conscious but light-hearted manner in which she sings about an alcoholic cat lady who is about to be committed into a mental asylum in ‘Ding Dong’.
‘I Wanna Get Married’ could be lifted straight from the soundtrack of a pre-60’s musical, in fact the lyrics are not too far off from Mildred Bailey’s 1935 hit ‘I’d Love to take Orders from You’. As Mckay delivers the lines
I wanna be simple and honest and dimpled
'cause I am your wife
I will never tarry
I'm not even torn
I wanna get married
That's why I was born
Just as lovingly as if she really meant it, evoking Doris Day’s
I'm strictly a female female
And my future I hope will be
In the home of a brave and free male
Who'll enjoy being a guy having a girl like me
The parallel between Mckay’s style and the seemingly ‘unfeminist’ songs of domesticity of the 1930’s- 1960’s seems like a straight out parody, a condemnation on Mckay’s behalf of these simplistic ideals of womanhood. However, nothing about Mckay or her music is simplistic, in fact it is very obvious that she admires this ideal of femininity – what sets her apart from any other retro-loving artist is that instead of adopting ideals, whether musically, aesthetically or ideologically, she furthers them into her own and creates a sort of feminist oxymoron, a truly three dimensional role model with rhetoric to spare.
And so, just as you get used to Nellie Mckay’s brand of disarmingly ironic and sharp commentary, she releases ‘Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day’.
Feminist movements like Riot Grrrl and Womyn’s Music are a good revolutionary start, but they’re not enough. Acting outside of mainstream culture and criticising it from a self-imposed pedestal is simply not enough. The best form of social commentary is often complex and filled with paradox because it is constructed within the society it criticises. Music works in a similar way – the best music, and even the best artists are those who assume these paradoxical roles within society, who instead of creating something that is safely contained and detached, subvert and assume these complexities. What is admirable about artists like Nellie Mckay and Fiona Apple is that they let themselves and their ideologies surface in their work without consciously constructing a public image or being too self-consciously detached from the mainstream.