Lesley Gore, a personal reflection from a simple fan

Part Time Pop Star
Lesley Gore (1946-2015)

Like so many kids who were raised on oldies radio, I couldn’t tell you how long I’ve known the music of Lesley Gore. To say “all my life”, while it’s almost certainly an exaggeration, is about as accurate as I can be. My earliest memory of Lesley Gore does not even involve the lady herself, but a performance of “It’s My Party” on this episode of the sadly neglected monument of 1980s children’s television, Kids Incorporated. But even that memory would never have registered had the song not already been a part of my life. I have no recollection of the first time I heard “It’s My Party”, though I can say with as much certainty as one can with early childhood pop culture memories that I knew every word of that song before I could even identify any music actually written during my lifetime. For me, Lesley Gore was never some obscure chronological colloquialism of my parents’ generation. She was a fact—a universal constant—like the speed of light or The Beatles.

No doubt you know her work. A dynamic performer with songwriting chops of her own, her biggest hits have been a part of the musical vernacular for half a century. In the coming days, much will be said about Lesley Gore, her influence over the world of music, and in the world at large. Many will rhapsodize about her proto-feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me”. Some will lament the label-induced pigeon-holing of Lesley Gore (a lifelong lesbian) as a lovesick, boy crazy teeny bopper. And justifiably so.

But I am not here to justify Lesley Gore. As a straight male born more than two decades after her first hit, Lesley Gore never did anything for me socially. Yes, I do get goosebumps when I listen to “You Don’t Own Me”, not for any altruistic reason, but because it is a brilliant performance of a great song. Growing up in a pre-internet world where everyone I knew was obsessed with Hanson and Smashing Pumpkins, a familiarity with pop star two generations out of fashion (and a girl singer at that!) resulted in a social life that was anything but sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. At that age, there is no justification for timelessness. These days, there is no need for one.

A few years ago, I sat in an all night diner with Chicago math metal power trio The Cell Phones after a show in Columbus. As it was October, the conversation inevitably turned to their plans for a Halloween gig: a Lesley Gore cover set they had titled Gore. Of course she occupies a great deal of shelf space in my record collection, but I have never known anyone else for whom that was true. So I asked. “We’re huge fans” they said.

Lesley Gore died of lung cancer on Monday, February 16, 2015. She was 68.

MADBOY/MINK, pimping the disco

MADBOY/MINK (if you know who took this photo, let me know)
MADBOY/MINK (if you know who took this photo, let me know)

2014 was the year I gave up on synths. (I know, it surprised me, too.) Five years ago, I lived for synthpop. I put an electronic record confidently at the top of my “best of the decade” list. (I went back and listened to that record again this week, it’s still firmly in the top two.) And yet, for whatever reason, in 2014, I decided I’d had my fill (too much terrestrial “alternative” radio perhaps). It’s ironic, then, that the best record I heard in 2014 was a disco record into which synths and laptops factor heavily. And it wasn’t even close.

For my part, MADBOY/MINK were a complete accident (Indian disco swing doesn’t often find its way into my inbox). Following one of the myriad rabbit holes that dot the internet landscape while reading up on a film featuring band member Imaad Shah, which I had screened as part of a film festival I was jurying at the time (M Cream, an Indian indie certainly worth two hours of your life if you can track down a screening), I came across a Bandcamp page featuring a single five-song EP called All Ball released about six weeks earlier. All Ball is the lone official release from the band, though a YouTube search would indicate that the Mumbai duo have a number of other tricks up their sleeve.

From the moment “Alley Cats” drops it’s first disco-shrouded Old Possum reference into the music hall mix to the bassy burlesque of “Taste Your Kiss”, All Ball swings unrelentingly, a godsend to all who, like me, still consider the Verve Remixed albums to be the greatest compilation project undertaken by a single label. Inject a healthy dose of funk into tracks like “Lemonade”, “Funkenstein” (self-explanatory), and “Pimp the Disco” and you have a debut that mines the best bits from a hundred years of popular music and combines them into something new, never dated, and always filthy (pimp the disco / bring it to its knees / I like my generator with a little bit of sleaze).

MADBOY/MINK are Saba Azad and Imaad Shah. They are based in Mumbai, India. They’re EP is called All Ball. It is on Bandcamp. It is also free (which is about infinity dollars below market value).

Dead Rabbit Hopes: reconsidering body image and suffering with purpose

The Shoe - I'm Okay
The Shoe – I’m Okay

I don’t normally make a fuss over music videos (the only one that comes to mind is that Xiu Xiu video from a few years ago). And I was going to leave Stereogum to do the heavy lifting on the premiere of the “Dead Rabbit Hopes” video by The Shoe (you might remember the song from an older post), but ultimately, I decided to dedicate a fair bit of space to it anyway. My reason is two-fold: 1) we’ve been fans of The Shoe for a long time, and I’m not going to shut up about them just because someone else is willing to talk about it now; and, more importantly 2) it confronts much the same issue addressed in that Xiu Xiu video, but from a completely different angle.

First The Shoe (and, yes, I promise to do everything I can to avoid the all too tempting Xiu Xiu/Shoe puns). I’m not going to say a whole lot about the song itself since we already covered the premiere back in November. At the time, I said that “Dead Rabbit Hopes” felt indicative of a new direction for the band, not so much stylistically (it shares many characteristics with the band’s earlier work), but there is an intentionality about it now that was not as prevalent earlier on when The Shoe were more focused on improvisation. And I stand by that. This is music with a purpose. The video for “Dead Rabbit Hopes” lends credence to that argument.

Stereogum’s post debuting the video earlier this month came with an NSFW warning. Fair enough. The vast majority of the video features lead singer Jena Malone in a stylized state of edenic nudity. The key here, however, is that word “edenic”. In Jena’s own, recently oft-quoted words:

“I wanted to talk about a woman’s beauty and sexuality in a way that felt very different from our highly manipulated and sexualized world. I actually wanted to desexualize my own naked body while upholding its own perfect eternal grace. I didn’t want it to be about lingerie or booty shorts. I wanted it to be about the work of art that you are born with.”

And in that sense, I think “Dead Rabbit Hopes” is a success. You don’t need me to preach to you about the ubiquity of hyper-sexualized popular culture. If you’ve ever turned on a television or perused a magazine stand in most parts of Europe or North America, you’ve seen it for yourself. But the video is self-possessed and in control. It’s easy to look at a video like “Dead Rabbit Hopes” with the same kind of aesthetic eye one would classical nudes hanging in an art gallery. And the public reaction seems to reflect that. The overwhelming majority of comments (the ones I’ve seen, anyway) have been positive.

Which brings me back to that Xiu Xiu video. My original post was instigated when, shortly after its premiere, YouTube removed the video for “Dear God I Hate Myself” for a terms of use violation. And, while I managed to find the video hosted on another website, that version too has since disappeared. Of course, since the internet is magic, a few more versions have popped up and I’ve embedded one below because I think now is a good time to revisit it. But it is also important that you read the next paragraph before you watch.

YouTube was quick to ban “Dear God I Hate Myself”. For three agonizing minutes, band member Angela Seo forces herself to vomit multiple times while frontman Jamie Stewart stands, mostly out of shot, dancing and munching on a chocolate bar. The pain and disgust in her eyes is very real. It is relentless. Four years later, and this is still one of the most difficult videos I’ve ever had to watch.

The grounds for the video’s removal were only later described as “shocking and disgusting content”. The extant comment threads from the Stereogum premiere post are nearly devoid of positive reactions. Many reduce the video to pretentious art school shock tactics. Others insist that the video is an elaborate hazing ritual devised by Jamie Stewart to torture the new girl. To their credit, Xiu Xiu were quick to respond to the criticism. In a blog post (the link for which now appears to be dead) Angela Seo explains “I grew up around a lot of people who were bulimic…perhaps because bulimia was the most visible, prevalent, and even normalized form of self-destruction at a very impressionable age, I will always think of it as a major form of self-hatred”. And yet, despite her insistence that “the video was my idea. Jamie didn’t exploit me or coerce me or anything like that”, audiences continued to see only coercion.

What I find troubling about it, however, is not the video. Yes, it is difficult, even painful to watch. But, what bothers me to this day—perhaps even more in the past few weeks than it has the last few years—is the swiftness of our collective condemnation of a valid and valuable artistic and philosophical statement. And now, in light of the most recent offering from The Shoe, I am hoping that we might be better prepared to reconsider Xiu Xiu.

The question we have to consider is not a simple one and will, in all likelihood, require us to confront certain questions about ourselves in the process. Why is one video more offensive than the other? In both videos, women have taken it upon themselves—uncoerced—to address issues pertaining to body image by portraying themselves on film in a manner of their choosing. But it is in our reactions to the two that we stand to learn the most about the issue in question and where we stand in relation to a solution.

With “Dead Rabbit Hopes”, The Shoe aim to address the issue of body image in a positive light, to emphasize the importance of prizing the individual body as a work of art. (I would be inclined to extend the metaphor to encapsulate the whole of the person—body and mind, joy and suffering, etc.—but that is a philosophical and aesthetic argument no one wants to hear from me.) There is no discounting the degree of vulnerability inherent in most forms of public nudity, film or otherwise. And presented in a purely aesthetic, almost funereal manner more reminiscent of Vera Kholodnaya’s  final performance than Miley Cyrus at the VMAs, it is an important point well made.

Vera Kholodnaya, silent film star, February 1919
Vera Kholodnaya, Ukrainian film star, February 1919

But the ironically harsh reality that we, as an audience, have to accept is that Jena Malone is still a beautiful woman. And I don’t say that to discount the band or their message, both of which I fully support. The only person whose sincerity I am calling into question here is myself. We can shout our support at the tops of our voices, but how can I know I believe it—and I want to believe it—until I’ve been challenged by someone or something that isn’t so easy to look at.

And Xiu Xiu’s video for “Dear God I Hate Myself” is not easy to look at. Four years on, and it is still difficult for me to watch without averting my eyes at several key points during those three long minutes. All throughout this post I have been asking, albeit rhetorically, why this is the more offensive of the two videos. It is easy enough to identify what it is that people find offensive—in American culture, vomiting, as a rule, is considered a largely private affair. But then, so is nudity, and yet we have little difficulty extolling the virtues of a woman who is so comfortable in her own skin that she will take her clothes off in public (film is, after all, a public medium).

Where Xiu Xiu differs is in the suffering of it’s protagonist, suffering which is then transmitted to the viewer through an unflinchingly tight shot. For her part, Angela Seo is the first to admit that her participation in the video was voluntary. It is when we factor in the element of the will that the video oversteps the bounds of the believable (or at least what we conceive as believable). Though her pain may well be real, her willing participation is an aberration in a society that actively prioritizes its own comfort (physical, emotional, ethical, or otherwise). It is the gastrointestinal equivalent of self-mutilation. She reasons, “perhaps some people don’t understand that one can voluntarily choose to hurt themselves physically. Maybe some think it’s just so stupid and dumb that one had to have been forced to do it?” Of course it is grotesque and disturbing—the fact that we see it that way is a boon to our humanity—but writing it off as a shock tactic and sweeping it aside helps no one.

Yes, it is an act of violence against oneself. There’s a reason Seo, in her post about the video, called it an obvious act of self hatred. But censoring it, pretending the video never happened, solves nothing. The central action is still real, still a problem. It’s clear the band have no intention of condoning or supporting the act. But to the same end, there is no reason for them to use the video to explicitly condemn such behavior, at least not in so many words. It’s a participatory critique. There is no need for them to say “this is a horrible thing” because we, the audience, are perfectly capable of seeing that for ourselves.

And we should be glad that we are shocked by this. Our revulsion is a sign of life from our ever-dwindling sense of humanity. No, the ability to watch someone vomit without flinching is not a badge of honor or a mark of sophistication. No one is saying that, at least I hope not. When we watch Angela Seo willfully inflict pain on herself, we are forced to confront the reality that there are people, most of them young women, who do the same to themselves daily. But they do not do so in service to a greater good or even in the name of art, but in the pursuit of a false ideal—sacrificing themselves to a golden idol of fictional perfection.

Our disgust is a benchmark of our humanity. Xiu Xiu have been good enough to remind us of that. Rather than simply add their voices to a lock-step cacophony of condemnation, they have aroused in us pity and sympathy. We should not be able to watch a video like “Dear God I Hate Myself” and maintain our myth of self-superiority. Our visceral reaction is not to the images portrayed, but to seeing our own collective brokenness laid bare. It’s uncomfortable, of course it is, but more importantly, it is a starting point.

If we are ever to view our bodies as works of art “in [their] own perfect eternal grace” as The Shoe have urged us to do with “Dead Rabbit Hopes”, we must first identify and embrace the part of each of us that already feels that way.

The Shoe’s LP I’m Okay will be released by Community Music on 3 June 2014. Xiu Xiu’s LP Dear God I Hate Myself has been out for a long time. It is on Kill Rock Stars.

Lesley Flanigan at The Fuse Factory’s Frequency Friday

Lesley Flanigan performing in Columbus as part of the Fuse Factory's Frequency Fridays series (photo by Eric Robertson for The Indie Handbook)
Lesley Flanigan performing in Columbus as part of the Fuse Factory’s Frequency Fridays series (photo by Eric Robertson for The Indie Handbook)

Wild Goose Creative, at the bottom of Summit St. in Columbus, is a far cry from Chicago’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, the last place I saw Lesley Flanigan perform. About 400 miles and God only knows how many seats separate the two venues. One, the picture of intimacy, the other the epitome of the Big Stage, with a stage so big it could swallow the former whole—many times over. Friday’s show, part of the Fuse Factory‘s Frequency Fridays series, was of the former variety.

It cannot be easy presenting an electronic music series in a city where DIY and garage bands dominate landscape and synthetic dubstep is the most readily available electronic music. And yet, Columbus isn’t without it’s electro-acoustic bright spots, Brian Harnetty, Masterer of Appalachian field recordings (and favored collaborator of Will Oldham) being among the most obvious examples. Within that community, Fuse Factory plays an important role in bringing national acts to Columbus as well as spotlighting local talent, like Tone Elevator, who opened the show Friday.

Peter and Jessica at Wild Goose Creative, March 2014 (photo by Eric Robertson for The Indie Handbook)
Peter and Jessica at Wild Goose Creative, March 2014 (photo by Eric Robertson for The Indie Handbook)

A small setting, like Wild Goose—with two dozen folding chairs set only a few feet from the performers—leaves little to the imagination. That immediacy, the intimacy, far from being a hindrance to the music, breathes new life into the listening experience. While the sight of a dubstep DJ propped in his perch pumping phat beatz into the club can truly be one of the most mind-numbing sights in all of music, even a slight cable malfunction early on in the Tone Elevator set injects a bit of dramatic tension into the music’s emergence from nearly-white noise while Tenori-On lights blink white from a tabletop corner. In the hands of Peter and Jessica Speer, incidental sounds like the chirping of birds and presidential speeches take on the form of intentional music.

Sound is a visceral thing. In purely physical terms, it is a disturbance, a disruption. The entire history of music is little more than the story of man’s effort to harness and control those disturbances. In an earlier Skype interview with Lesley Flanigan, we discussed in purely abstract terms the physicality of sound and ideas like sound sculpting. But at a distance of eight feet, abstract terms become a physical reality.

Lesley Flanigan at Wild Goose Creative, March 2014 (photo by Eric Robertson for The Indie Handbook)
Lesley Flanigan at Wild Goose Creative, March 2014 (photo by Eric Robertson for The Indie Handbook)

Less a “glimpse of the artist at work” and more an entering into the work, the relationship between recording and live experience is more akin to the difference between visiting the Rothko Chapel website and entering the Rothko Chapel—one is interesting on an abstract intellectual level, the other is a conflation of small and broad strokes into a confrontation with one’s own mortality.

I won’t go so far as to say “I saw God Friday night”—I would hate to saddle any artist with such immense responsibility, and besides, it would be a lie—but I saw many other things. A twist of the wrist and sudden scrape of microphone against speaker cone. The near-violent trembling of a small piezo confronted with the presence of its own sonic reflection. In short (to borrow and adapt a phrase from EJ Koh*), I saw the Thingness of Sound.

And that is the importance of a series like Frequency Fridays. In a world super-saturated with passive listening experiences, artists like Lesley Flanigan are taking incidental noises and even minor annoyances like electronic feedback—the sounds of everyday life that so many of us go out of our way to drown out of our lives with our earbuds and iPods—and molding them into new forms, giving the intangible a physical presence.

Fuse Factory have an annual Frequency Friday crowd-funding drive (to pay artist fees and expenses, the usual). There is one week remaining in the current drive. If you’d like to donate, there’s an indiegogo page here.

*We’ll get to EJ Koh soon, hopefully next week.

New Music from Columbus, OH – Lydia Loveless

With a vocal prowess and songwriting chops that belie her young age, Lydia Loveless is already a seasoned veteran. In some ways like a harder edged contemporary iteration of Stiff Records ingenue, and fellow Ohio native, Rachel Sweet, her music is equally fit for a Nashville honky-tonk or Columbus, Ohio’s D.I.Y. dives. All I know is, I never fully understood the term “country punk” until I spent a few hours with a Lydia Loveless record.

TsuShiMaMiRe (つしまみれ) – Mamire + “Speedy Wonder” video

mamiremamireSo it took me a while to get on top of this one, but from what I gather, Japanese art punk trio TsuShiMaMiRe released what I take to be a “best of” collection – Mamire – last week (though, given the usual limitations of Google Translate and the fact that my Japanese is limited to a few dozen kanji, I could be wrong about all of this), touching on much of the band’s 15 years together.

Within the one new track included on Mamire – “Speedy Wonder” – verses fall somewhere on the spectrum between late 1960s Midwestern garage and “Fell In Love With A Girl” era White Stripes while the chorus flirts seductively with what can only be described as punk rock monody, all of which is tied together with a whole-tone (nearly palindromic) under-chorus. Put it all together, especially with the video, and the package feels a little like a Coathangers track (who, by the way, will have a new record out next month). (Don’t for one second think I mean to imply anything by that. After all, TsuShiMaMiRe have been wielding these skills for ages. This comparison is intended for educational purposes only.)

Wow, lots of parentheses up there. Anyway, here’s the video. And one last link to the website. Also Facebook.

New music from Columbus: Nick Tolford and Company

With a sound that recalls the rock and soul of the early ’60s built on a solid foundation of ’50s R&B, a Nick Tolford & Company show feels more like a party with a few hundred of your closest friends than a rock ‘n’ roll show (which is just how a rock ‘n’ roll show should feel). “Every Day” comes from the band’s second LP, Just a Kiss, released in January.