Pop culture treasure, high culture trash.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Stealing Pink Flag is not the answer

Yesterday evening, somebody or a gang of somebodies broke into Jon and Mark's new house. Said somebodies shattered a window, came in through a back room and helped themselves to Mark's computer, a stereo, $10 worth of change and Jon's enormous CD collection, artists N - S. Thus, Music to Climb the Apple Tree By was spared, and Myrmidons of Melodrama was not. Some Wire disappeared as well, but only because it was in a stack on top of Jon's shelves, not because it was specially selected by the thieves. Before Jon told me this, I imagined a band of disenfranchised Wire fans roaming south Minneapolis, breaking into people's homes and seizing Situationist recordings in order to redistribute them to the populace. If they'd been doing that, they would probably have remembered to steal Entertainment! as well.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Blame it on the ocarina

Because really, people just don't get down on the psalmodikon, schreierpfeife and MIDI-pedalboard the way they used to:

Lauren Pelon: Women in Music, Someone Will Remember Us

4:00 - 5:30 PM, September 24, 2007
Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, Michigan League
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor MI

Lauren Pelon traces the story of women in music and performs music from around the world. The concert celebrates music written by, or for, women. Crossing the boundaries of time, distance and culture, Pelon sings and plays approximately 25 ancient and modern instruments, some designed for women and some forbidden to them.

This event is co-sponsored by Center for the Education of Women, School of Music Theatre & Dance.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Where precisely

Matos wrote in asking for some clarification of my last post:

Darbyshire [sic], Pauline Oliveros (who ran the Mills College dept of electronic music), Laurie Anderson, Bebe Barron, Clara Rockmore, Roberta Beyer, Maryanne Amacher, Laurie Spiegel . . . wait, where precisely are women being written out of old-school electronic music history again?

I guess my concern isn't for "electronic music history," which inevitably includes all the big names he mentioned, but for the broader stories of women's involvement in music that are in told in popular press, film and television. Here I'm thinking especially of those media that are targeted towards little girls. These stories tend to focus on women as solo vocalists prior to about 1975 to the point of leaving out many important bands, to say nothing of drummers, producers, engineers, etc. Technicians are usually tremendously upstaged. So as a girl growing up in the U.S. today, you learn about women musicians, but only up to a point. You eventually deduce from mainstream sources (and the lack thereof) that women's participation was conditional, and absorb tacit assumptions such as "there weren't any women drummers before the 1980s, there weren't any female record producers in the early days, there were no all-girl garage rock bands," etc. Clearly, if you are a music critic or historian you are going to know these things aren't true. But if you're a 12 year-old and your only exposure to music history is, say, MTV and VH1, you're never going to hear about Delia Derbyshire and Pauline Oliveros and the Luv'd Ones and Mo Tucker and all the women who one way or another did musical things before mainstream history says it was culturally and realistically "possible" for them (you'll hear about the Velvet Underground, sure, but what major Velvets documentary has ever devoted serious time to Tucker?) Hopefully, if you're a precocious and resourceful 12 year-old you're going to get on the internet and find out about these people, but even then you're going to have to know what you're looking for and the digging is going to be hard and slow-going.

Any more thoughts, Matos et al.? Keep the dialogue going!

Saturday, September 15, 2007


The best thing in this month's issue of The Wire (the one with PJ Harvey on the cover) is Simon Reynolds' review of White Noise's Electric Storm, first released in 1969 and currently undergoing a reissue by Island/Universal. As interesting as the words are, it's an accompanying picture that clinches it: a small black-and-white photo of White Noiser Delia Derbyshire, bent over an array of reel-to-reel tape consoles.

It's an arresting image, not least because it seems like it shouldn't exist. We're not used to seeing photographic proof of women's involvement with audio engineering in the early 1960s; it wasn't supposed to have happened. Replace the console under Derbyshire's fingers with a typewriter and the photo slides into a historical context we can recognize. But as it stands, the image of a woman hard at work in a recording studio, her hair and clothes dating her as unmistakably 60s, inspires a kind of revolutionary disbelief. This isn't an ironic feminist collage, the kind that inserts grinning housewives into the cockpits of space shuttles. It's what actually happened. Women were involved in early electronic music; they did stand at consoles and splice tape and twiddle knobs, even in the presumed-to-be-all-male corridors of the 1960s BBC. That there was only a minority of them doesn't erase their existence. It's a shame our narratives of women's musical history don't accommodate them.

They certainly don't accommodate Delia Derbyshire, whose name survives primarily as the arranger and co-producer of the original theme to Dr. Who, which stands as one of the most icily beautiful pieces of pop ever used in the service of science fiction television. This was still the era when a record company could refuse to hire a woman by citing a men-only policy (Decca turned down Derbyshire in 1959), but the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop was more enlightened and took on five women for its eighteen-member staff. Derbyshire worked there until 1973.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

When more is not enough

One thing people seem to be missing in the Britney VMAs fiasco is the built-in voyeuristic critique of "Gimme More." In the context of the song, it isn't Brit-Brit who wants more; it's us. "Gimme More" starts out as a straightforward club brag/sex invite not too different from the thousands of others that have supplied pop music with lyrical material for the last 60+ years. But then the story turns, and suddenly we're veering away from the territory of R. Kelly's "More and More" towards something closer in mood and critical intent to the Flying Lizards' "Hands 2 Take"***:

Cameras are flashing my way, dirty dancing
They keep watching (They keep watching)
Keep watching
Feels like the crowd is saying,
"Gimme gimme more, Gimme more, Gimme gimme more"

If it all feels repetitive and unforgiving, that's because the watchers are, too. We (and let's face it, we're all implicated) relentlessly demand more from Britney: more disaster, more trauma, more Bad Girl Mama baby-dropping and limo-exiting crotch flashes. We keep her in the sights of a Panoptical surveillance system so insatiable and vigilant it would make Foucault squirm.

At the VMAs, the premise of "Gimme More" was literalized to the point of absurdity, with the watchers at home and in the Las Vegas audience demanding more even as Britney served it up. By the time she was sleep-syncing, "I just can't control myself/They want more?/ Well, I'll give 'em more!" the entire spectacle threatened to collapse under the weight of its own self-referentiality. And in the end, it did collapse, because Britney didn't deliver on her promise. After previous years of python-handling and Madonna-kissing, the 2007 VMAs' spangly knickers, bleached weave and wobbly phoned-in stripper poses just weren't enough "more" by comparison. They were a whole lot less.

In a weird way, though, Britney did give us what we all wanted anyway: more failure. Nothing's as fun as kicking a diva when she's down, and Brit's been tremendously reliable in giving us glorious, inscrutable failures to consume and shake our heads at. For the time being, failure is her greatest strategy for success. Her real downfall won't come until the screw-ups cease to entertain, and the demands for more gradually fade into a silence that asks for nothing at all.

***"Hands 2 Take"
So you're, you're screaming,
you're screaming out for more
You got hands to take
Hey, what are you waiting for?

Anything you want
In the land of toll-free
At least in self abuse
There's a little dignity

Monday, September 10, 2007

It's got to be boring

Somehow, I am not making this up.

On Nov. 28, 1976, Andy Warhol and a companion sat down with Jodie Foster at the Café Pierre in Manhattan to conduct a question-and-answer session for Interview magazine. Brandy Foster (misidentified as Randy) accompanied her daughter to the meeting, but soon split, leaving her youngest child, who had just turned 14, to fend for herself. Warhol asked most of the questions.

Andy Warhol: So, when are you going to get married?

Jodie Foster: Never. I hope. It’s got to be boring — having to share a bathroom with someone.

Andy Warhol: Gee, we believe the same things.

-Forever Jodie, Forever a Pro

Friday, September 07, 2007

Soda pop tastes good to me today, yeah

Miranda July stumping for Slant 6 in the New York Times! First generation riot grrrl solidarity in a family newspaper, just the way it should be. This almost makes up for the recent Rick Rubin/Gossip sketchiness. I feel the same way July does about the Soda Pop Rip Off record. That thing is a marvel: sixteen songs, original DC riot grrrl tenacity, three smart girls mixing it up in the early 90s Dischord treehouse. The finale, "Thirty-Thirty Vision," might be the best Slant 6 song ever were it not for the B-side of Inzombia, which I defend in spite of the title track. Heck, even that is kind of worth it for the experimental gutsiness, witchy organ meanderings and lyrics about doughnut varieties. Instrumental minimalism was a strong suit of theirs. Slant 6! Grrrl-tested, Miranda-approved.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Everybody into the Range Rover

The Gossip just won't stop blowing up. Today they're in the New York Times Magazine, bookending Lynn Hirschberg's combination state-of-the-music-industry address and Rick Rubin profile. That the Gossip can be called a "new" band when they've been around for over seven years is bewildering and sad, and makes the conclusion of the article all the more ominous:

Rubin headed back to his Range Rover. In the car, he said he had some live footage of the Gossip that he wanted to show me. "I saw the group at the Troubadour, and they blew my mind," he said. "It was the best show I've seen in five years. Afterward, I met with the band. They felt stressed, and they were having trouble writing songs. The energy in the room when they were performing was so intense, and I'm not even sure how we'd get it to feel like that in the studio. So we decided to record a live show during their European tour, and we're going to release a DVD of the live album as their first release."

Rubin looked pleased. Beth Ditto, the lead singer of the Gossip, is exactly what he has been looking for since he took this job at Columbia: she is an outsize personality in an outsize body with a Joplin-esque, bluesy voice. Ditto is the kind of artist Rubin loves — unique, ambitious and open to guidance. "For a band like the Gossip," Rubin continued, "the support of a record company like Columbia is still really important. I grew up in the independent music business, and you still really need the muscle of the majors. A record company call can still get you heard like nobody else."

Rubin paused. "That's the magic of the business," he said. "It's all doom and gloom, but then you go to a Gossip show or hear Neil [Diamond] in the studio and you remember that too many people make and love music for it to ever die. It will never be over. The music will outlast us all."

True enough. But what kind of "guidance" does Rubin have in mind? And what's all this about the Gossip needing his "muscle"? Last time I checked, they were pretty muscular on their own. Last time I checked, they were a radical feminist punk band saving the lives of queer misfit smalltown American youths one song at a time, too busy living their politics to save the corporate music industry from its own demise. Is that in danger of changing? Where do they go from here?

The Gossip and Neil Diamond. Peas in a pod.