Pop culture treasure, high culture trash.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Siren Nation

Even with an 250 extra words, there were a few things I couldn't squeeze into my Siren Nation story. First: a disclaimer that it's unrelated to the Village Voice's Siren Music Festival. No weird cross-continental collabo happening there. Second: a ton of sadly unused quotes that I feel deserve some kind of visibility, especially since I had such rich conversations with the people involved. So here's a small sample. If you happen to be in PDX this weekend and can spare the money, consider getting a pass, it should be a rad event.

Natalia Kay:

"I remember seeing Bikini Kill and Team Dresch when I was in college. I had never, ever, ever been to a punk rock show that was an all-girl band. And I had never seen an audience that was 95% punk rock girls. That was totally inspiring and empowering to me, to feel like I owned the space. I think that the reason why women's music festivals do really well is because the art that women are putting out there really speaks to a lot of women, and some men, who don't see that perspective being reflected—their own experiences being reflected—on stage, and being sung about by somebody and in any other way expressed artistically."

December Carson:

"It allows us to give back to the people of Portland, and to offer an opportunity for people to have active participation in the festival. We want it to be more two-way, to have the community be gaining more than just entertainment. I want it to be more than an entertaining festival. I want people to feel how culturally rich Portland is, and to walk away with that sense of, wow, there are these women who can do unbelievable things, whether it's directing a film, or fronting a band, or being a visual artist. So this will always be a component for us: to showcase the multiple talents these women have."

"I am a woman working in the music business, and I know from personal experience that women are not treated the same. And you can tell me that this battle is unnecessary, but I know, personally, that this battle is necessary."


PAOLO CRUZ said...

This quote from the article really struck me, because it kinda sums up what appears to be the saving grace AND crucial flaw of Siren Nation's approach:

"I want the hiphop voice to be heard. I want the bluegrass voice to be heard. I want the performance artist to be seen."

Now, I have enough good faith in the organizers (and people in general) to assume that the quote reflects the genuine breadth and eclectic scope of Kay, Carson, et al's interests. But it comes with the inherent risk of "diversity by numbers", where you basically have a kind of "Noah's ark" approach to organizing a festival -- an unintended tokenism.

In practical terms, it usually translates into thinner crowds during sets for acts who are precisely NOT "what you're hearing on the radio and what you're seeing in these magazines".

At best, it might create a situation where certain performers find a niche in the record collections of educated white hipsters (which, let's face it, is probably the default demographic at a PDX music festival) -- in the same way that one might claim they're into "grime" after listening to M.I.A., Lady Sov, and nobody else.

At worst, the festival risks diminishing its scope (and thus relevance?) in upcoming years, once the organizers figure out exactly which artists or types of music prove to be the most lucrative, when it comes to paying for the overhead expenses.

I really hate being so cynical about this -- part of it may well be "geographic jealousy", on my part, knowing that nobody over here has the capital (economically AND culturally) to organize an equivalent fest of the same magnitude.

Lizzie said...

Thanks for the smart comment as always, Paolo.

I agree that tokenism is a problem. Everyone who's ever planned any kind of feminist art event has had to grapple with that. In my experience, what happens is you find yourself forced to choose between tokenism and invisibility. Which is a horrid decision to have to make. It begs the question, "Is representing people as tokens preferable to not representing them at all?" I'm reminded of Harvey Fierstein's remark in The Celluloid Closet about how he doesn't mind classic Hollywood's depiction of queer men as sissies. He calls this philosophy "visibility at any cost." I realize music festivals aren't equivalent to films, but I think it can be instructive to compare problems of representing identities to problems of representing music genres, since obviously the two are so overlapping.

Finally, don't underestimate your cultural capital! At the risk of sounding paternalistic, I'd say that even if you don't have exactly the kind of cultural capital that abounds in PDX, you have different kinds that are just as good, and that can allow you to organize exciting events that are relevant to your community.

PAOLO CRUZ said...

This probably merits an entire blog post unto itself, but here it goes...

The biggest problem is that the "events that are relevant to 'my' community" may not always be the ones that appeal to my personal tastes and interests (leaving aside the issue of commercial viability, if that's even possible).

The fact of the matter is that myself, my partner-in-crime Claire, and our immediate matrix of like-minded, creative pals are very directly influenced *precisely* by the kind of feminist culture that might be considered quasi-hegemonic in the Pacific Northwest US: the 'usual suspects' that end up on the covers of BUST, or get written up lovingly by P4K, or get fond reviews for their shows in Olympia.

Frankly, at a visceral, rocking-out level, there's nothing we'd love more than a festival line-up that consisted of the darlings and "icons" of that "scene" -- The Gossip, Team Dresch, The Blow, Men, Miranda July, etc.

However, because those performers *necessarily* emerged from a particular social context that represents a culturally-specific way of practicing feminism, we're all critical enough to recognize the messed-up, potentially imperialistic dynamic at play. (Indeed, this is something we've addressed more than once, in the past.)

Still, I can't deny that we're not as interested in the sensible-shoes-wearing, UN-sponsored conference-attending method of practicing feminism -- which seems to be the "accepted" way of doing things, round here. Does that make us "inauthentic" Third World/developing-country feminists? Obviously, the answer is no.

But that situation certainly won't help raise funds or gather resources for a Ladyfest in Manila, or Kuala Lumpur, or Jakarta. Especially when we don't have the kind of artist-friendly, DIY-supportive culture (or economy) that one might find in Seattle or PDX. (Except *maybe* in Singapore.)

Even if we could round up the capital needed, there would still be an element of "preaching to the choir", since we'd most likely be gathering people who share our sensibilities, to begin with.

After all, there are already existing local women-organized events that promote ethnically-inspired folk music, or soul divas, or laid-back Lilith-esqu guitar pop.

In some ways, what some of us want, quite honestly, are events closer (musically) to what's heard at Ladyfest, or Coachella, or SxSW. And if that means placing limits on the kind of culture being offered, does *that* make us "inauthentic" feminists?

Lizzie said...

It seems to me that many of the conflicts you've described come from the issue of belonging to multiple communities. Which is why the suggestion to organize a festival that speaks to your "community," singular, is so naive. How do you organize a festival for your community when you belong to several different communities at once, and they're not mutually supportive? When you find yourself living on la frontera (as AnzaldĂșa would have put it) and juggling multiple alliances (as Le Tigre would sing it).

Transplanting third wave, Pacific-NW American punk rock feminist culture to SE Asia seems doomed from the get-go. The word "transplanting" suggests inevitable failure, recolonization and neo-imperialist disaster. But what if, as you write, you're in a place that isn't going to have a Ladyfest coming through town any time soon and you feel shafted?

Maybe one way to do it would be to avoid transplantation as much as possible. To create a local festival and then place limits on what it would be for. Maybe if it was explicitly non-pedagogical, and was just a get-together of feminist punk bands you know or could seek out, you could avoid the preaching to the choir bit, because there wouldn't be any preaching going on. You could certainly argue in response, however, that feminism is pedagogy, and therefore feminist festivals can't avoid consciousness-raising and a certain amount of (politicized) philanthropy. Really feminist festivals are never just a bunch of punks playing music. And maybe now I've wandered back to the beginning, when you said you didn't have the cultural capital to produce a festival in the first place.

On the super-tiny off-chance you aren't, are you familiar with Mimi Nguyen's writing?

Lizzie said...

Here's the correct Mimi Nguyen link.