Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I Am a Lonesome Hobo

Where another man's life might begin
That's exactly where mine ends

These weren't the lyrics I was expecting to stick in my head from last night's Thea Gilmore gig at Union Chapel. In fact, it wasn't really a gig I would have bet on myself attending, being that she was covering Bob Dylan's album John Wesley Harding in its entirety to mark the legendary almost-Crouch Ender's 70th, and I am not what I would call a Dylan fan, in that I've never been electrified by his music. But I was electrified by Cate Blanchett's performance as the beautiful, androgynous, charismatic imp in I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' strangely magical anti-biopic of the anti-rock star.
Despite my lack of Bob-knowledge, I was exhilarated by the film's freewheelin' turn through Greenwich Village, outlaw country, Gospel choirs and back - but what's stayed with me are the performances by Blanchett, Julianne Moore (playing a female folk star who is in no way based on Joan Baez) and Charlotte Gainsbourg -- although what I remember most about Gainsbourg in the film is thinking that someone should write a biopic of Patti Smith (Just Kids is crying out for an adaptation) and cast her in the lead.

That says more about my preoccupations than about the film, or indeed about Dylan, whom I was undoubtedly turned off male professors with a tendency to waving around a rolly in one hand and a battered copy of Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin in the other, while exhorting us to "fucking read Dryden." No thanks. So I'm no Bobsessive, but I love Thea and loved her cover of "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" so I was willing to see what she'd come up with. While Caroline Sullivan of the Guardian called Gilmore's recorded version of JWH "for completists only," the live show brought out something that's perhaps less palpable on the record, and excitingly strange: a female artist singing these incredibly masculine songs.

It's not just the lyrical content that could loosely be described as pretty male, but the stance of the singer: the inheritor of St. Augustine, the frontier dweller -- and the hobo. Figures of wandering, of travel and movement outside of social norms, whether sinners or saints (who were once sinners), the characters and narrators of the songs are facets of a male archetype. Which is not to say that women don't wander, move (or sin), but that the conservative patriarchal forces of Euro Western society have largely conspired to keep women in the house (where they belong!), so that any wandering woman is automatically errant and aberrant, as a symbol and in actuality.

So for Gilmore to claim the hobo's harmonica (I'm dying to say the hobo's oboe, but it would be a lie) is visually as well as audibly powerful. Where a man's life might begin is both traditionally and symbolically, exactly where a woman's ends: at the threshold. In the story of Dinah, the Old Testament makes it clear that a woman outside her front door cannot be raped, because if she's out there, then she's declared herself common property; an attitude that persists today in shaming rape survivors based on their location and clothing. Which surfaces the other sense in which a woman's life might end where a man's begins, a sense that is threaded throughout the history of folk music: in murder ballads that often hymn the end of a woman's life at a man's hands, often for her presumed infidelity, but sometimes just because that's the way things are between men and women. Willie Nelson's "I Can't Let You Say Goodbye" (used to excellent effect as the killer's theme in Jane Campion's hugely underrated In the Cut) makes the point chillingly: "Please have no fear, you’re in no harm / As long as you’re here in my arms / But you can’t leave so please don’t try…” The archetypical male/female erotic relationship is not a model of love, but of murder.

Nowhere is this clearer than on Kristin Hersh's ferally brilliant album Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight, which brings new life to old songs by revoicing them -- not from a female perspective, but as a female singer, in an act of transgendering. Rather than rewrite the lyrics to give us female murderers (there are a few of them in the old ballads as well), or happy endings (the Disney post-feminist princess trick), Hersh - like Gilmore with JWH - stakes a claim to the songs and the masculine archetypes they contain. Hersh's jangling take on classic American folk songs (including lullabies with dark intentions) preceded, by three years, Tori Amos' better known project Strange Little Girls, a cover album that identified female personae within and as narrators for songs by male artists, playing with goddesses and (as this Red Riding Hood-inflected video shows) fairy tale heroines.

But unlike Disney re-ups, Amos' strange little girls -- with their wigs and wolves and vaginas raining blood from the sky -- show that femininity is a performance, a put-on (or stick-up), a costume: one that is often worn under duress, or interpreted as putting oneself at risk. Stranger still, Dylan's JWH ends with a song that might suggest the same about masculinity. "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" -- if you look at the title objectively, what it offers is a position of vulnerability: not I'll be your lover or man or master, but "baby." Yes, it's also a little creepy. But the nursery rhyme-like lyrics ("The big old moon's gonna shine like a spoon" -- what do you make of that little gem, Ricksy-baby?) and suggestion of escape and the abandonment of social norms and the outside world - close the door, kick your shoes off - creates a space beyond gendered identities (OK, so the singer is pretty bossy and demanding -- "bring that bottle over here" -- or maybe just wants to go the whole baby fetish...), a space where men can admit to vulnerability. And sung by a pregnant Thea it has something extra, some enlargement of the aspects of human life that tend to appear in pop music. Open your eyes, open your door, maybe?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Singing the Pirate's Gospel

...which is what I have been doing for the last week, since seeing Alela Diane at the Scala. I am an Alela nerd (yes, limited edition vinyls, SXSW sessions, semi-legal download of her unreleased first album; even an Alela-hand-made quilted T-shirt) but her new full-band project Wild Divine leaves me... hmmm. Part of it is that I think it would be weird to go on tour with your dad and your husband, but I have neither so who am I to say. And part of it is that the swinging 70s rock-out sound is not one that means much to me, compared with a girl and her guitar. Especially coming on after the support act -- a wildly brilliant, triple-drumming Peggy Sue, who played a kicking set while dressed in homage to John Hughes' movies that they are TOO YOUNG to have seen first time round, which was adorable/made me feel ancient -- the whole Fleetwood shtick felt old to me.

Which is maybe its point: homage, retro, etc. So why was it not as adorable to me as Peggy Sue's drummer rocking an Eric Stolz fedora? It's not like I love the 80s in any way. Alela, incidentally, was wearing a low-backed, knee-length fringed black dress. Her all-male band were in jeans. And there, for me, is the bind: that 70s sound is, well, kinda floozy. Maybe then it was in a good way, but now it seems to part of the flow of the sexualisation of women in the music industry rather than a protest against it. And here's the double bind: while Alela absolutely has the Lady of the Canyon voice to sell the songs, even over the great wash of guitar and bass that her producers have thumped her with (the bonus CD showcases the pre-wall of sound versions which grab me much more), but she can't channel Stevie Nicks via her hips.

And nor should she have to -- or feel she has to. But somehow that sound demands a performance of free love female sexuality. Which brought home to me just how far our perception of female performers in the music industry depends on how they perform with their bodies -- not just Rihanna and Xtina and etc., but ALL female performers. If they're folky, they're expected to be coy, virginal, or medieval: it's not just a beard/no-beard or plaid/no-plaid deal as it is for male performers, but about the interaction of the triad of their voices, their bodies and their accessories. And while many reams have been written on the agential performativity of sexuality by Madonna (etc., etc.) and, conversely, the sexualisation of male performers (differently) in hip hop and boy bands, I feel that it skirts the issue.

So I'm particularly excited by Peggy Sue and their keening monotone, which is full of desire and rage and anomie, and is queer without being Song of the Week on Glee. And also about seeing PJ Harvey later this summer, because Let England Shake doesn't just raise the envelope or push the bar or dance circles round the box of female performers' sexuality, it just walks straight past. Having screamed her desire for her ex-lover's "fucking ass" on A Woman A Man Walked By, perhaps she feels she's gone as far as she can with the straight-talking, SlutWalking style she pioneered. And it's not that the historical/geological palette of Let England Shake is _better_ than her unquestionably feminist and intensely exciting previous material, but that she's found a way to do something _different_ (following in the barefoot thoughtsteps of Patti Smith's Trampin' in some ways). Let England Shake's sense of the bodily as earthly/earthly as bodily -- in this case applied to mapping the traces of wars 'abroad' in England's landscape -- first appeared on White Chalk, where the wars were within a woman's body. The albums, for me, are a pair, and I'm intrigued to see how she'll follow up her White Chalk show which I saw at the Royal Festival Hall: Edwardian gown; toy instruments; soft-voiced, inter-song banter. How will she make Alexandra Park shake?

This all matters to me not only because pop music is a huge tranche of dominant culture and socialisation, but also because poetry, for me, is -- very deeply, almost unacknowledged -- a substitution or sublimation of my primary desire to be a singer-songwriter. Blame/congratulate my early exposure to Joni Mitchell and Carole King via my mum's own Lady of the Canyon period. Or my surprise encounter with Tori Amos pre-Little Earthquakes (and I'm very excited about the new Tori album AND about a Tori poetry tribute I'm going to be involved in this summer). Or discovering Tracy Chapman just when I needed her most. Or being arrested, breathless, by the video for Kristin Hersh's Your Ghost on MTV. Or even blame my parents for my Hebrew name, which means little bird. I've always wanted to sing but I'm beyond unmusical.

So poetry it is, but always in relation to that (r)evolving group of female musicians who dominate my stereo/iPod. Hence the question of performance and sexuality feels very personal: what to wear to a reading, which poems to choose (rude or not rude), how to banter/flirt -- all with the aim of "selling", which is itself, of course, highly sexualised, especially for women who are still perceived as selling themselves (ie: their sexuality; ie: the only thing they have -- although don't own) whenever they appear publicly. Which makes all the choices non-choices: Victorian nightie? Basque and chaps? Meat dress? It's always a complicitous critique because it engages in the discourse set up by patriarchy in which a woman is defined by what she wears, and is thus always defined as sexually available by dint of wearing clothes, as all clothing either reveals or conceals the body and can thus be interpreted as sexualised. This is what the SlutWalk is all about. And I am all for it.

But I feel like, rather than wanting/needing to wear a short skirt and clumpy boots (I spent my 20s doing just that, and it was great, actually), I need the outfit equivalent of Trampin' or Let England Shake: a performativity that doesn't even get into the argument, that says something different on its own terms. Any suggestions?

Friday, May 13, 2011

For Joanna Russ, imaginaire extraordinare

Little Endless Delirium with some of the Women's Press Science Fiction to be found in Delirium's Library (well, all that could be found: the rest has been put somewhere Very Important and Easy to Locate that I now can't remember - hence the name of the library) including Joanna Russ' The Female Man and The Hidden Side of the Moon.

Feminist science fiction pioneer Joanna Russ has died, aged 74, on 29 April after a series of strokes. Christopher Priest's obituary for The Guardian does an excellent job of explaining why her work was so important (and unjustly neglected), but it doesn't describe the impact of reading it: while Eleanor Arnason writes that she found Russ' work abrasively angry, she also notes that thinking about Russ moves her to want to write more.

As much as the sexual anarchy and political energy of Russ' work, it is this will to write - to share stories, to reinvent them - that I take from her work. Her humour, her generosity to her characters (who tend to reappear from short story to novel), her critical thinking about writing, are embodied in her appetite in later life (according to Priest) for slash fiction, which derives part of its charge from busting open canonical texts, and part from doing so in a supportive, reciprocal community. In her introduction to Chinks in the World Machine, Sarah Lefanu notes that many feminist SF writers began by writing slash or (earlier) novelisations of TV episodes. That idea of fiction as a communal practice, as a shared art, a conversation -- and refuting the denigration of such an idea within capitalist patriarchy with its demands for the Author and [his] Originality -- is central to both Russ' embrace of science fiction as a recyclic genre, and to her witty (and yes, purposively angry) critical writing.

In reworking, she salvages and surfaces the unpredictable: not just untold stories, but untellings.
When Janet Evason returned to the New Forest and the experimenters at the Pole Station were laughing their heads of (for it was not a dream) I sat in a cocktail party in mid-Manhattan. I had just changed into a man, me, Joanna. I mean a female man, of course; my body and soul were exactly the same.
So there's me also.
While Joanna [Russ] has died, Joanna (and her parallel selves Jeannine, Janet and Jael) show us possibilities for who we can all be, also.