Thursday, August 16, 2007

Elegantly Dressed Women of Substance


Elegantly Dressed Poly Styrene. www.cbgb.com

I was recently contacted by a bumptious idiot boy of whom I’ve never heard asking all sorts of reductive and revisionist questions in relation to a musical ensemble of which I used to be a member. He was, he explained, planning a major retrospective. Not of me, and the band I was in, obviously. Said ensemble was part of a larger group of very interesting young people doing even more interesting young things. You’ve heard of the sum of the parts thing right? This was in the late 1970s and early 1980s; a time that now appears to me a Utopian blip that snuck in under the udder of glorious mudder feminism and created a power paradigm in the arts where alpha male egos, for one brief shattering moment, didn’t rule the agenda as if it were their own personal Masai Mara. Believe me, we all had big fun when that happened.

After laborious correspondence with my former male colleagues in this ensemble in which we all served very much on an equal footing, we agreed on what we thought was going on here – a commercially driven rewriting of history to retrospectively place importance on a couple of individuals who didn’t intellectually dominate at the time but subsequently attained success. The question that came up most often in this correspondence was why? The place in musical history that the individuals we are talking about now hold isn't dependent on what any of their contemporaries thought of them then or thinks of them now, surely. They've been verified by record sales. Is that not what they wanted? Why were we being asked to affirm a situation that so very obviously wasn’t a reality? The reason is that society now demands successful people to have back story that qualifies their success; much like ordinary people have CVs that chart a progress of personal development. It can't cope with leaderlessness, much less accept it as a melting pot for a successful artistic movement. That would be anarchy. Gasp! Who doesn't know their history then?

The values by which we as artists lived then were built on equality and trust and the only power struggle that you ever had to have was whether it was your song that got worked on. You won if you had the most together bit of a song. Believe me, it wasn’t a question of whether or not commercial radio would pick it up. This was an environment in which bands comprising nihilistic punks, twee philosophy and architecture students, separatist dikes on bikes, straight men wearing eyeliner, gay men playing drums, disabled people in beautiful clothes and beautiful people in disabled clothes could and would form bands together and fucking get on. I sometimes feel like I’m in the prequel to a George Miller film here but I come from that moment in time when the world wasn't divided into male decision makers and female functionaries.

The point is a long time coming, even for me but last Wednesday, one’s beloved Guardian kicked in with the very timely publication of a piece on the ‘forgotten women of punk’. Not that I’d ever forgotten The Slits or The Raincoats or today’s elegantly dressed and entirely wonderful Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. These were the women who inspired me when I joined a band and these bands were what all of us, not just women, listened to all the time. They demanded recognition as musicians. There had been women dominating in popular music before, and they’d been acclaimed, but they and their music had always been defined by men. As much as they were rebels: Billie Holiday, Dusty Springfield, Patsy Cline, The Supremes and every other Motown female artist, even Suzi Quatro were never really their own women. They were moulded, polished and packaged; much as women are today. Joni Mitchell was easily side-lined as folk, Chaka Khan made freak by novelties. Worst of all, the most influential woman in music of the last twenty-five years - Madonna has done everything in her power to make women appear trivial, submissive and obsessed with personal gain. It so fucking ain’t pretty. Much as I love Debbie Harry, it was her lesser celebrated soul sister Patti Smith who was the true Boudicca of the CBGBs era. I'm sure Debbie would agree.

Ours was a very different time. I’ve seen the equality that I took for granted snatched from me and the illusion that it was never there in the first place emailed to me in the form of a demand to provide a pointless corroboration of a fantasy. I’m not too old to say ‘fuck off’. I am, fortunately mature enough to know a stupid fight when I see one. Let history work it out. I will say this – you’ve missed something amazing if you insist on redefining the punk years by today’s values – i.e. there has to be some male mega-ego in the driving seat for it be a successful cultural experience and wouldn't it make a nice ring-tone. Everything has to be entrepreneured to fucking death now. I could say loads more on this but I've had a horrible day, even for me. Another time...

19 comments:

Reading the Signs said...

Pants - First off, I hate it that you've had a horrible day. I love all this, what you've said here, though, but then I come from that planet too. I was never in a punk band, though, but I do remember a time when I wanted to be Polystyrene just for the pleasure of singing scrub away, scrub away, scrub away the SR way. I think Debbie Harry had her wonderful moments in Parallel Lines and lost it after that and sold out (and knew it).

I think better times may be around the corner. But I say this only because of what I observe in my daughter and some of her mates, the changes I see taking place - the coming of a backlash, possibly.

Andrew said...

Very thought provoking post Pants. Advances in women's rights, gay rights, rights for disabled etc are so taken for granted now there is a serious danger of going backwards.

For all of what is thought of Madonna now, she was great. Happy birthday to her, 16th Aug.

Meredith said...

Bravo.

Ms Baroque said...

Andrew, I think you might be missing the point. "advances in rights" is exactly the kind of thing that makes it look like one thing is happening when in fact it's exactly the opposite.

I know this because, having not been in a punk band, I too can look back and watch the sexual politics get more and more regressive. (Having said which, as I have said to TSP in the past, it did kind of depend who you were hanging around with! The 80s was also the time of yuppies - and those guys were macho pigs - and Young Fogeys, & I knew a lot of very young people then who were trying very hard to be very conventional. Strange... but of course even they were the beneficiaries of the punk sensibility - as it were - and of course there was still the buzz in the air.)

RTS, you think so? My daughter and her friends are fearless and almost amazonian in their confidence - I think - but they have bought the whole Next Top Model/commodification thing hook, line and sinker. Not one of them is engaged with ISSUES in any way at ALL. I don't see any of them rebelling against any hegemony or anything.

I think history and past events have always been repackaged this way - I seem to recall reading, in the eighties, articles by people who were part of the scene at the cavern and couldn't believe how everything was being misrepresented. Every era interprets the past by its own values; that's gotta feel bad when it's something you were part of.

Hi Meredith!

Ms Baroque said...

I just tried to embed this brilliant video into this comment but it's not letting me. Anyway it is PERFECT for this discussion, so go see it! I may post it on mine too.

http://erin-obrien.blogspot.com/2007/08/last-photoshop-youtube-i-will-ever-post.html

Reading the Signs said...

Ms Baroque, my daughter is 21 so perhaps it's also to do with growing up, having lived away from home for 3 years and coming up against a few of life's hard knocks. She was just like your daughter (re Top Shop etc). Now she is the one who tells me like it is about the subtle (and not so) workings of sexism. And she gets second-hand jeans. She won't compromise on shampoo, though - only the most expensive. But this, she claims, is common sense.

R.H. said...

I've just lit a smoke and coughed like mad. Hello darlings, how nice to see you all here, very sweet. I haven't read this posting except I saw music mentioned and said to myself oh golly. I don't like the obscure stuff at all, I like big hits, that's all. I got a 45 at the fleamarket on Sunday ("Don't Get Me Wrong" -The Pretenders) and have been playing it non stop ever since. What makes a hit anyway, I don't know, but that Chrissy Hind birdie is sure good looking, which always helps. Mind you, I do think that in the way of achieving success a little bit of talent is okay for mediocrity, but there's nothing like an adverse childhood to make you run faster, and jump higher.

Truly.
-Robert.

That's so pants said...

Hi everyone

I'd written a big long detailed reply to all before went out to yoga but I managed to lose it and I'm not sure I've quite got it in me to do it all again. I'll try.

Hi Signs

She's a germ-free adolescent, cleanliness is her obsession,
cleans her teeth ten times a day...

Ah. They just don't make songs about OCD sufferers and, indeed, people with very clean teeth like that anymore.

Hi Andrew. Madonna should have quite after Desperately Seeking Susan - she was good in that and she didn't sing.

I actually think that the revolution in awareness more profoundly influenced Australian society and its legacy is more entrenched and therefore more difficult to repeal. I agree with Ms Baroque that it was largely a case of very high profile lip service and actually few back people's or women's lives were made better. Gay rights I think are an exception for a lot of reasons.

Then again not everyone's experience is the same. The Australian poet Lisa D'Onofrio, who I'm guessing is about fifteen years younger than me, wrote that her Melbourne school wouldn't set the Australian classic novel My Brother Jack for girls as it was a 'boys' book' and they had to read Wuthering Heights instead. At my Sydney girls' school, we read My Brother Jack AND Wuthering Heights. I don't recall a single incident at school where I was gender channelled.

Hi Meredith!

Hi Ms Baroque

We have discussed these issues many times haven't we! I think you're right about the circles you moved in. My first ten years in Britain were exclusively in 'the counter culture' and it certainly wasn't what you'd call diverse in terms of views. My awareness of the mainstream was filtered through comedy so I'm sure my perception wasn't accurate.

In my great lost comment of earlier in the day, I'd said pretty much what Signs says about the children expanding their world view once they spread their wings a little and outgrow the 'schoolgirl' phase. She has recent personal experience to back that one up.

The Erin O'Brien link is hilarious - thanks. Anyone following it should be aware that when you copy and paste, you need to at 'tml' as this somehow got dropped off. I was going to copy/paste it again but I think that's how I lost the last lot.

Signs - See comment to Ms Baroque - I thought that was how it worked out too.

Hi Robert - Don't get me wrong is a great song. In my new novel (painfully being reconstructed as we speak) one of the characters sings Brass in Pocket at a karaoke bar.

As Frank McCourt writes in Angela's Ashes. 'A happy childhood is hardly worth your while.' Maybe you should write it all down. They say publishers are still going crazy for misery memoirs.

xxx

Pants

Yes we have

That's so pants said...

ERRATA

That should be 'black people' rather than 'back people'. I'm not aware of any prejudice against chiropractors.

And Madonna should have 'quit'

'Yes we have' no bananas, we have no bananas today.

xxx

Pants

R.H. said...

Yes well I should write it all down, and I made a start once, but I'm no good at misery. Silliness gets in the way.

What does 'that's so pants' mean? I'm guessing it's like that's so shithouse.

-Robert.
In Moderation.

That's so pants said...

Hi RH

No, no. You must write it down. Silliness is a great foil for misery.

'That's so pants' is a peculiarly British expression that means 'that sucks'. But it's not as strong. Probably it would be more accurate to say 'that's ever so slightly sucky'. I picked it because you want a blog title that's unusual and will go to the top of the list if anyone google searches it.

xxx

Pants

R.H. said...

I had a blog inside a blog at Miss Brownie's for a short while, I called it: Starvation is Such Sweet Sorrow. It was an enormous hit.

I can't remember what I said but it was astonishing.

And how's this, just to be obliging I made two very mild comments tonight on someone's 'monkey' blog, and both comments have been deleted. What a surprise.

Well I'll tell them this, darlings you'll have to broaden your minds more, and not be checking the silverware after RH visits. Because I'm not here to rob you, of anything. Truly.

That's so pants said...

Hi RH

I've suggested you start a blog before - then you can say what you like and reject US or play Russian Roulette with our emotions like a certain Englishman does periodically.

xxx

Pants

Ms Melancholy said...

Hey Pants, good to be back here. I work with a lot of young women, and I have found myself (in moments of deep despair, which is not good when you are in a therapy session) teaching them the history of feminism and why it is not a dirty word. I am not supposed to do this by the way - impose my values on the client - but that is a whole other post. I blame post modernism. In abandoning totalising discourses, we appear to have entirely abandoned any coherent political understanding of the world.

On a lighter note, I can still remember the first time I heard The Slits version of 'Heard It Through The Grapevine' - fucking fabulous!! I could get quite sentimental now.... I am going to youtube now to see if I can find it. Thanks for a fab post.

That's so pants said...

Hi Ms Melancholy

Lovely to see you. Bang on the money about totalising discourse. Problem is, nobody thought to abandon conclusions at the same time so now all we have are absolute 'assertions' to quote Richard Dawkins, about the world that people feel under no obligation to substantiate.

Even Neil Spencer, editor of the NME when it almost defined intelligent journalism, is now resident zodiac hack for the Observer (!!) and apologist for mumbo-jumbo. What is wrong with everyone?

Much as you've tempted me to spend the rest of the day seeking out obscure bands on YouTube, I have an appointment with yon British Library. Fortunately, the general public still has free access to the learnin' should they choose to accept it.

xxx

Pants

R.H. said...

What?

Russian Roulette?

Don't be silly, I'm an Aussie, bullet in every chamber.


(How's that. Is that okay?)

That's so pants said...

Hi RH

How about a new game/dish or game dish even?

Aussie Omelette anyone?

As they say, you can't unscramble an egg.

xxx

Pants

Ann O'Dyne said...

re:
" R.H. said...I had a blog inside a blog at Miss Brownie's for a short while, I called it: Starvation is Such Sweet Sorrow. It was an enormous hit. I can't remember what I said but it was astonishing."

In the absence of Miss B ...
(whose proper title when Guugled, produces "the godmother of Melbourne punk" just let me tell you that for free)
may I verify that RH speaks the truth. It was astonishing, but stopped astonishing readers after he made her take it all down.
*sigh*

That's so pants said...

Hi Annie

Sorry I missed all that.

xxx

Pants