Between Dystopian Dance Party and my guest posts on Andresmusictalk, I feel like I’ve been writing a lot about Nina Simone recently. Not that I’m complaining, of course: Simone is one of my all-time favorite artists. She was as bold and daring a performer as the likes of Peaches or the Slits, but carried herself with an imperious dignity that earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul”; and, especially in the late 1960s, her voice as a radical Black woman made vital contributions to the very culture that marginalized her.
Take, for example, her 1966 song “Four Women,” an emotional portrait of the manifold ways African American women have been oppressed throughout history. Over an ominous blues piano line, Simone lends subjectivity to four archetypal figures: the dark-skinned slave “Aunt Sarah,” the mulatto “Safronia,” the Jezebel/prostitute “Sweet Thing,” and finally the embittered militant “Peaches.” With her last verse, she declares that the rage at the heart of the Black Civil Rights movement is both inevitable and justified by the indignities of the past; “I’m awfully bitter these days,” she admits, “because my parents were slaves.” And in inhabiting these figures–widely perceived as negative, racist stereotypes–she gives them a sense of humanity and empathy that could not be found in the women’s movement of the time.
Peaches is a role model–and not just because she has made a career of being as vulgar as possible, collaborated with both Iggy Pop and Tone Lōc, regularly wears pink hot pants, and had her breasts casted by Cynthia Plaster Caster, although those are all admirable achievements. No, Peaches is a role model because she creates fearless art that is entirely her own. Her 2000 debut album, The Teaches of Peaches, was released when she was 36 years old, an age when most women begin disappearing from the public eye. On her latest album, 2015’s Rub, Peaches continues to defy, and confront, ageists and misogynists alike with her brand of absurd, hyper-sexual humor.
Of course, it’s not all humor. If you think that Peaches’ music is just an endless onslaught of dirty jokes, then you’re wholly missing the point. Her music and performance art deal with issues of gender and sexual identity, aging, and beauty norms.
Rock and roll is a notoriously male-dominated genre: never more so than in the 1970s, the peak years of a groupie culture that turns women–and, more often than not, underage girls–into a commodity for chauvinistic rock stars to exploit. But the communal ideology and relatively asexual nature of the late-’70s punk movement gave women and girls a window to become subjects, not objects in rock. Artists like Patti Smith, the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, and the aforementionedTina Weymouth of Talking Heads came the closest of anyone to date in cracking rock’s glass ceiling and carving out a prominent space for women in full control of their music and image.
Of these women in punk, few others were as bold, brazen, or shocking as the Slits. Widely considered the first “all-girl” punk band, the quartet of Ariana “Ari Up” Forster, Paloma “Palmolive” McLarty, Tessa Pollitt, and Viv Albertine were like a female Sex Pistols, only better. Ari in particular would wear an oversized raincoat and intermittently flash the audience; she was even known to occasionally urinate onstage. Then, of course, there was the iconic cover photo for their 1979 debut album Cut, which featured Forster, Albertine, and Pollitt topless and covered in mud like a cult of Dionysian maenadscaught mid-revel.
In her own words, Joni Mitchell is not a feminist. She firmly rejects feminism, saying “the feminism in this continent isn’t feminine, it’s masculine. Our feminism isn’t feminism, it’s masculinism.” This is coming from the same woman who, in a 1992 interview with Rolling Stone, said that “genderization is a form of bigotry,” and later in the same interview cited all of her heroes as being men, claiming that there are no female role models who are “restless.”
While we could delve further into why her thoughts are misguided, I’m frankly tired of having to explain and justify feminism. I also don’t know what the hell she means. But, while her words may be disappointing, as well as conflicting, Joni Mitchell doesn’t need to self-identify, agree with, or even understand feminism. Her career as a distinctly female musician who forged her way through a male-dominated profession speaks volumes louder than anything she’s said to the press.
I first heard Antony Hegarty–now known as ANOHNI–during my short-lived indie pop phase, around the time of her 2005 album I am a Bird Now. At the time, due to a combination of youthful ignorance and Anohni’s policy not to mandate the use of “she/her” pronouns, I was unaware that she was a transgender woman. All I knew was that her voice was so beautiful, it transcended not only gender but also species: as far as I’m concerned, the person singing on that record might as well be some kind of gorgeous, siren-like alien or angel, not bound to any kind of human body at all.
I don’t listen to much music that would be described as “indie” anything these days, but I still love I am a Bird Now. It, like Anohni herself, is transcendent: it’s beautiful, melancholy baroque pop that can’t be bound to any particular trend or scene. And its closing track, “Bird Gerhl,” is still damn near capable of moving me to tears–even if, as a cisgendered man, I can’t fully relate to its lyrical themes of blissful freedom through transformation.