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?

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