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Tuesday, August 12, 2003
Boy, I sure do hate Northern State.

Here's a quick, totally patriarchal lecture, gals. This is gonna be about what you might call two familiar subjects for me.

First off: humor.

"Even if you hear a track you think is slamming and you feel and and want to listen to it, but it's all about bitches and hos, that's damaging. I used to listen to that stuff when I was like nine and sing along to NWA -- at camp, we were like, 'Somebody say hey, we want some pussy!' The music sounds good, you're dancing, you're singing, but it definitely affects your perception of self, your self-confidence, your understand of how relationships should be."

Hmm, that's not very joycore, is it? Sexism in rap is a problem, but I'd suggest that you're going to have to go a lot further than censoring NWA to get young girls to feel better about their "perception of self." The real problem with sexism is that it's a) boring, and b) validating of men's perceptions about women. Or so it seems to me. But at any rate, "Somebody say hey, we want some pussy!" is a hilarious fucking line, and when something's slamming and you don't like the lyrics, just bite it and use it for yourself.

But ask them about Fannypack -- the pre-fab Brooklyn girl group with the flash-in-the-pants hit of the summer, "Cameltoe" -- and all of a sudden they're not so sisterly. Well, at first they try. They really, really try. "At this point a lot of people are gonna realize that there's a gap in hip-hop that could be filled by females, and white females, and the question is how are people gonna go about filling that gap. They could be coming from different angles, and I would say that their camp is coming from a different angle," says Spero.

Prynn pipes up. "I would say -- fuck it, I would say I think it's wack to have boys write your rhymes and all your music and then put on hot pants and show your ass in New York magazine. Yeah, that's wack."

Ah, that old chestnut, "singing something someone else wrote = bad." Besides the fact that this model's been a centerpiece of pop since its inception (and if you don't think you gals are pop, take another listen), and besides the fact that Fannypack has not exactly been ardently pursuing authenticity--they have, in fact, been entertainingly self-aware about their creative process--you gals are going to have to get a bit less defensive about the whole comedy thing. Yeah, I know, authenticity is a big thing in undie hip-hop (or, more accurately, indie rock, which is the scene you're probably more a part of), and you all feel a bit self-conscious because you're from a wealthy Long Island town and just being feminists and talking about victimization just isn't quite enough, cred-wise, you really are going to have to acknowledge that humor (or, um, the intention of humor) is at the center of your music. Your rhymes are funny, or at least clever, my wee little babesicles. And that's OK. To paraphrase what Scott Thompson says of Eminem, why you gotta be scowling in your pictures when you're laughing it up on the mic? Sweeties, humor is OK; admitting that you're funny is even better. Fuck cred.

Besides--honestly--do you really think you kids are gonna fill the gap in hip-hop for white females? (A gap which, as far as I can see, only exists in the mainstream.) You think you're gonna be hanging with Missy and Nelly or what? Or are you gonna be big on the indie scene and fill the "white hip-hop girls opening for the Dismemberment Plan on their reunion tour" gap? I think it's the latter, and I'd like you more if, like Fanny Pack, you were a bit more honest about that.

OK. Second: politics.

But the minute they show up, we totally girl out -- French manicures are evaluated, my orange mules are admired, boyfriends and peeing are discussed -- and everything is all right. By saying that, I'm not trying to out Northern State as prisses by day, posers by night; on the contrary. I'm saying these ladies are the real deal: cool girl-geek feminists who talk about politics and clothes in the same breath ("keep choice legal, your wardrobe regal"), who rhyme the word "chest" with "palimpsest." They write their own rhymes, complete with props to Parker and Plath (plus hip, kitschy nods to Nigella Lawson, Kavalier & Clay, Dawson's Creek, and Professor Plum "with a candlestick in the conservatory").


"We believe wholeheartedly that we are part of the women's movement, and we're just trying to put ourselves out there in a way that is inspring [sic] to young women," says Sprout.


Prynn's the one Parker Posey would play in the Northern State movie: lean and long-fingered with a thrift-shop skirt and a bonus cleft in her chin. Her feminist "click" came while watching her mom not leave her dad because she couldn't afford a lawyer on her own; Reviving Ophelia also helped. "I remember asking a lot of questions in Social Studies and not really being satisfied with the answers," she says.

Sprout, with long brown hair and camo-green pockety pants, looks like your favorite camp counselor. She figured out feminism when she finally got that her mom's choice to stay at home totally counted as "work."

"Keep choice legal, your wardrobe regal"? Are you fucking kidding me? See, this is where that whole "no, we're not funny" thing comes into play. (Am I just making this up about them having a problem with being perceived as funny? Geez, I hope not. They sure seem like they're concerned with people taking their feminism real serious-like.) Because if it was a joke, a parody about feminism meant to diminish the seriousness of the former view with the banality of the latter, then it would be sorta funny. But as a serious declaration--which we know it is, since they're "hardcore feminists"--it's just, well, stupid.

Looks, chickadees, lemme tell you something--and this is going out to all the Kathleen Hannas and Ani DiFrancos[1] out there. Art is not about slinging slogans; it's about ambiguity, and when you just throw in something like "keep choice legal," it makes it sound either fucking stupid or like a crowd-pandering bit on the level of "throw your hands in the air!" (And don't try and tell me "Keep choice legal!" ain't gonna get more of a cheer at the Luna Lounge than "Party people in the house, say yeaaah!") When you put something in as received truth when it is, in fact, a contentious issue, without noting the opposition, it ruins the whole point of throwing it in there in the first place. Being a feminist is not just closing your eyes and repeating things until they're true, or making slogans part of your lifestyle. If it's political--if the "personal is political," a phrase which makes me want to bash my head in with a copy of "The Bell Jar"--then you should be rapping and living your life like a discussion, like an argument, because that's what politics is, not just feel-good, let's-all-get-together-in-a-group-and-agree-about-stuff-ism.

That's what irks me about girl-groups like Northern State (see also: Le Tigre, Rogers Sisters, etc.): their politics have become their art, and their politics are simplistic and dumb. These gals are so convinced of the rightness of their views that they don't seem to feel any particular need to convince you of their validity, so when they start making music, they don't feel the need to convince you that they really love doing it, because simply the fact that they're girls and making music is supposed to be an "empowering" and "inspirational" act. And so they go on in these deadpan voices with deadpan music behind them, and I guess it doesn't, you know, conform to any mainstream models of femininity (although it does sound just a weeeeeee bit post-punk--and hell, a bit Neptunes-y), since heaven forfend they sound happy or enthusiastic or sad or whatever. Enjoy it! Joy! Sing! Dance! Have fun! If this life is your politics, man, your politics is boring, and I don't really want to live in a world like that.

But that's just me and my penis-obsessed, animal-killing masculinity.

[1] In fairness, Ani actually has been good at this model of politics at times; I particularly like the lyrics for "Little Plastic Castle," which are nicely ambiguous. She's never been very good about challenging and engaging her fans on the problems of embracing a foreshortened version of her politics, which I sometimes get the feeling are more complicated than she lets on.

UPDATE: Some folks made great comments, so I wanted to reply here, since it helps clarify my position theory-wise.

For a good example of what I think is a good song, politics- and even feminism-wise, see my Fluxblog post on PJ Harvey's "Rid of Me", which I'm really quite proud of. That lays out my position in a pretty good way.

The Throwing Muses call is a good one, and thanks to Sue and Joe for helping me figure out better what I'm trying to say. So lemme give that a shot.

First off, "art is about" should always be read "I think art is about," and so forth. I just stopped putting those qualifiers in because it feels tiring to read, and often I'm just floating an idea with some enthusiasm to see how it sounds, although in this case I do pretty much believe what I said, humor and politics and art and the intersection thereof being something of a favorite subject of mine. (Sorry for saying "intersection" just then.)

Second, as you'll see from the PJ Harvey post, what I think of as a political statement is not just what's generally regarded as a political statement (i.e. Northern State-ish stating-of-positions), or even what would be regarded by weirdo cultural theorists as a political statement (the Throwing Muses example Julia gives us). I take both of those and then I add my own weird, perhaps misguided category of politics-as-discourse, which I've picked up because I'm a political philosophy nerd. Maybe the most obvious example of that kind of a "political" song would be a duet, where two voices trade positions (with neither being overly favored) about love, death, Keynsian economics, whatever. So I'm not asking for them to endorse pro-life positions; I'm just asking them to acknowledge that they exist in some way. With multiple vocalists, the possibility is certainly there.

Sue brings up Dylan's "Masters of War," Neil Young's "Ohio" and a Sleater-Kinney song. Now, while I really don't like S-K, I know this is in no small part due to the vocals, and I actually like the lyrics she quotes--up until the last line: "culture is what we make it, yes it is / now is the time, now is the time to invent / invent invent." How does this differ from the first two songs she mentions? I don't mind people stating political positions, and I guess I don't even mind them stating only one side of it. But look at what we've got here: "Ohio" has a narrative to it, the centerpiece of the song ("4 dead in Ohio") being a statement of fact rather than a political opinion. Dylan's song, too, has a narrative to it, in that weird Dylan way. Whereas the Northern State example--and, to a lesser extent, the S-K example, although I might just be being crotchety there--is just, "Hey, here's this position, now let's talk about clothes!" It's a non sequiter, with no argument to back it up, and worse, it's an abstraction. So it's both lazy lyrics writing (lyrics are, I think, generally better when they try and deal with specifics) and lazy politics. Why should we keep choice legal? Who knows? Can't really argue with it, can't really refute it. So it's specifically that noncontextual statement of position that irks me, a conclusion without an argument, and worse, an abstraction without any reference.

Also, that kind of thing is very rarely funny.