Feature ·

Prix Fixe: Oh Bondage, Up Yours! A Tribute To International Women

Blondie, Bonnie Raitt, Helium, Liz Phair, Malaria!, Nina Simone, Poly Styrene, Santigold, Wanda Jackson: Prix Fixe: Oh Bondage, Up Yours! A Tribute To International Women

Welcome to Prix Fixe, a feature for our contributors to neatly assemble and categorize a menu for your delectation—a list exploring the connections between music and pop culture, among artists, within an artist's body of work, or anything else we think might amuse you and start internal or external conversations about music.

 

Seeing as March 8 is International Women's Day, this edition celebrates some of our personal favorite frontwomen, singers, songwriters, and icons. In an industry all too keen on reducing its girls to over-sexed mouthpieces, these female artists, creators, and pioneers left an indelible, fiercely independent mark. Of course, there will be notable omissions and a couple of disputes -- so sound off in the comments about your favorite females.

 

Let's start at what could be the beginning...

 

 

01 Wanda Jackson

Before a decades-long string of sweet-voiced folk chanteuses, before the riot grrrls, before chart-topping pop stars, there was Wanda Jackson, firmly planting herself next to her male contemporaries and showing them she could do anything they did. She began her career during the mid-1950s when options for women in the music industry were limited, but turned this handicap into an opportunity, eschewing the plaintive sweetness and sexless lyrics of her female contemporaries in favor of her own gutsy style.

Jackson began her music career during high school, recording a handful of songs on Capitol Records; "You Can't Have My Love", a song she recorded with the Brazos Valley Boys, proved a modest hit. Still, Capitol refused to sign Jackson on the grounds that "Girls don't sell records," so she signed a deal with Decca instead. Before long, Capitol realized the error of their ways and wooed her back in 1956. By the end of the decade she had recorded "Let's Have A Party," widely credited as the first female-recorded rock and roll song, began touring alongside Elvis Presley, and started exploring rockabilly via hits like "Fujiyama Mama" and "Funnel of Love."

Yet in spite of her derring-do, praise from famous contemporaries and several top 40 hits, Jackson never enjoyed widespread notoriety. I suppose that's because at the time, she wasn't incredibly marketable. Her distinctive voice is raspy, strong, and suggestive, and in a world of ankle-length petticoat skirts, she stood out in her (at the time) outré outfits: short skirts, sleeveless tops, and showy fringe dresses. So maybe Wanda Jackson should have been insanely popular, but honestly, her independent streak and grit are better suited to a fringe audience. Her legacy is that of a musician's musician, but the scope of her influence is wide, and she's openly beloved by everyone from Elvis Costello to Lemmy.

And after tireless touring, getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, an appearance at SXSW in 2010, recording "The Party Ain't Over" with Jack White, and a cover of "Funnel of Love" courtesy of post-punkers The Fall, Jackson's being rediscovered by a new generation of listeners. At friggin' 73. Wanda's party ain't never over. ~Susannah Young

 

 

 

02 Nina Simone

The difficulty in praising an icon like Nina Simone is that accolades are heaped upon her so frequently. Love for her is as ubiquitous as with Dylan, Gaye, the Beatles, Brian Wilson, et. al. Because that love is so universal, it feels unspecific. What does it mean to love Nina Simone?

The pianist and singer famously faced gender, race and political barriers with idiosyncratic artistry and a dignified brush of the shoulders (I believe some call it an "uncompromising attitude"). Her '60s/70s output -- "Mississippi Goddam," "4 Women," "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" -- were embraced in their time and continue to hold sway.

However, circle back around the block and you'll see a more remarkable story. Woman sets out on a modest path -- to study piano -- and winds up becoming the Bette Davis of the jazz world. While many of us encounter some detour that takes us off on a completely new course in life, few have the vision or willpower to assert so much control in the process. Indeed, Nina Simone did it her way. ~Dan Nishimoto

 

 

 

03 Bonnie Raitt

As a kid, I hardly noticed my gendered listening habits. Even with an eclectic stream of my brother's rap, metal and hip-hop tapes, my dad's jazz tastes and my mom's pop radio, I was constantly in the company of men. That is, until I first heard Bonnie Raitt. To be honest, the guitarist-singer's early-'80s output hardly blew me away; Green Light is fun, but hardly more than a nostalgic nugget. And the humor of her blazing her way through "Me & the Boys" was definitely over my head. However, what was memorable was the comments of my male friends: "She's good... you know, for a woman." Even at that early point, I remember thinking, "That doesn't sound nice."

Raitt inadvertently opened a door for me. Instead of having a pivotal song or performance that grabbed my heart, her career "came back" at a key point in my life. Her resurgent popularity was an introduction to the gender politics game that finds new meaning with each generation. So, on this International Working Women's Day, I'm thinking about Bonnie and what it means to be a woman. ~Dan Nishimoto

 

 

 

04 Poly Styrene

If the original (and, let’s face it, short-lived) punk ethos was about being precisely who you are, convention be damned, then maybe Poly Styrene deserves credit for being the punkest of the lot. The sense of social ostracism that defined the nascent punk movement had also informed much of Marian Joan Elliott-Said’s early life. Born in 1957 in an intensely homogenous Britain to a white English mother and a Somali father, Said’s family relocated early on -- from London’s Bromley section to Brixton -- in search of a more accepting community.

 

In 1976, after bearing witness to an early Sex Pistols gig, Said was inspired to start her own band, and placed an ad in NME. The result was X-Ray Spex, led by a rechristened Poly Styrene, who sported dental braces and teen gawkiness with subtle, admirable aplomb. Germ Free Adolescents, the band’s first -- and now classic -- album (they wouldn’t make another one for nearly 20 years) featured Styrene’s phenomenally off-kilter vocals and produced blissful punk anthems "The Day The World Turned Day-Glo," "Art-I-Ficial,” and "Oh Bondage Up Yours!"

 

Recently, fans’ euphoria following an announcement that Styrene would be releasing a new album, Generation Indigo, was dampened by news of her ongoing battle with breast cancer. Here’s hoping for a swift and full recovery to one of punk’s most legendary, inimitable performers. ~Kali Holloway

 

 

 

05 Malaria!

For far too long, electronic music was seen as a man's domain. The technological, computerized geekiness inherent in synthesizer work was strictly an outlet for boys and their toys; while it was perfectly acceptable for a woman to front an electro band, it's still hard for people to accept that the same woman could program, arrange, or produce that music. Running down critics' lists of the most influential electronic musicians -- Kraftwerk, Eno, Vince Clarke, just to name an oft-mentioned few -- is an equally disheartening trip through a boy's club.

 

Naturally, any chance to see a girl group encorporate its own fully crafted electronics is a welcome one. Long before Le Tigre or Chicks on Speed, there was Malaria!, a German art-punk act. After their first musical experiment Mania-D imploded, Bettina Köster and Gudrun Gut (an early member of Einstürzende Neubauten) rallied together a musical girl gang in early '80s Berlin at the height of the reinvigorated Neue Deutsche Welle scene; listening back on Malaria!'s all-too small catalogue, it seems unfathomable that they haven't yet enjoyed a posthumous punk reappraisal (perhaps it's the Google-unfriendly moniker). Songs like "Kaltes Klares Wasser" -- more famously covered by the aforementioned Chicks -- have icy, hypnotic minimalist appeal, especially when cut through with a shock of saxophone or Köster's throaty, androgynous snarl.

 

More recently, Köster turned to films and has recorded as Autonervous (with Jessie Evans) and solo (her album, Queen of Noise, came out early last year). Gut had a series of one-off alliterative projects -- Matador and Miasma --before settling down as the founder of Monika Enterprises, a pioneering German label that houses techno females like Barbara Morgenstern, Cobra Killer, and her own Greie Gut Fraktion project with Antye Greie. It's that subtle support of fellow women artists that was most appealing about Malaria!. Their independence, their inherent feminism, wasn't worn as a superficial badge of empowerment or thinly-veiled sex appeal. It, quite simply, spoke for itself. ~Hilary Beck

 

 

 

06 Blondie

You can still find for sale vintage ‘70s buttons with the slogan “Blondie Is A Group!," and they serve as a reminder of how much the public once needed to be reminded. Debbie Harry -- the charismatic, beautiful and very blonde lead singer of the band -- was often mistaken for the outfit’s namesake, an assumption that wholly overlooked the inestimable contributions of the band’s other members (guitarist Chris Stein, bass player Gary Valentine, keyboardist Jimmy Destri and drummer Clem Burke).

 

The misidentification seems like an honest and all-too-forgivable error when you listen to the band’s early output or watch old videos: Harry, with her ineffably cool vocals and vixenish presence, is easily the indisputable center of attention. Which is not to take credit from Blondie, the aforementioned group. After all, between 1976-78, they released three seminal albums (Blondie, Plastic Letters and Parallel Lines) which seamlessly blended girl group lolli-pop, new wave and punk into a satisfying whole -- and made the band worldwide stars. Still, it’s Debbie Harry, former Playboy Bunny turned punk pioneer, who remains the eternal iconic representation of one of music history’s very best bands. ~Kali Holloway

 

 

 

07 Liz Phair

A no-nonsense female voice emerging in the male-dominated early ‘90s slacker-rock scene, Liz Phair was quickly appropriated as a sex-positive indie role model, thanks in part to the erotically charged lyrics on her debut album Exile in Guyville (“I want to fuck you like a dog / I’ll take you home and make you like it” and “It’s fuck and run, even when I was twelve” are highlights). She backed off slightly from soft-core song-porn on sophomoric Whip-Smart, which deftly chronicled the insecurities, ambiguities, and, okay, orgasms of a 20th-century relationship, but kept her focus on love and lust.

 

“Bloodkeeper,” which was recorded for the Scream 2 soundtrack, shows off the necromantic side of Guyville’s favorite romantic. Phair seemed right at home in the murder-rock niche, belting lazily about offering up her own “blood on the tracks” and taking off her lover’s “lovely body parts” over distorted, sinister guitars. Though the track was nixed from the film’s final OST, “Bloodkeeper” still serves as an excellent final bastion of weirdness in Phair’s multiplicitous oeuvre. ~Sarah Dupuis

 

 

 

08 Helium

Sure, Mary Timony sported pigtails and a short skirt for the better part of her career fronting Helium, but unlike labelmate Liz Phair, she managed to subvert that submissive image and make her sexuality an irrelevant afterthought.

 

How did she pull it off? Maybe it was her Dungeon Master-esque lyrics about dragons, curses, and May fairs. Maybe it was her can't-give-a-fuck monotone, peppered with the occasional Kim Gordon-meets-Stephen Malkmus sneer. Or maybe it was her innovative, experimental axe-slinging on the ironically titled No Guitars EP, the penultimate release of Helium's half-decade existence.

 

The brief but powerful "King of Electric Guitars" showcases all these strengths: medieval themes, gender ambiguity, and psychedelic, swirling riffs. "Go throw yourself to the hounds," she admonishes her would-be musical competition, preoccupied with retelling stories of amorous frustration. That task is fruitless, because "love has no sound." Anti-romanticism never sounded so sweet. ~Sarah Dupuis

 

 

 

09 Santigold

Most of us heard of Santi White for the first time just after the release of “Creator” and “L.E.S. Artiste," both of which seemed like impossibly great debut singles for an artist who had, for all we knew, appeared out of nowhere. The former, with its dub gleanings, and the latter, with its punk leanings, were, above all, firmly pop at their core, which is to say enticing, anthemic and demanding repeat listenings.

 

As it turned out, Santigold -- or Santogold, as she was known in those days -- hadn’t inexplicably materialized at all. The singer had cut her teeth in punk band Stiffed, written for other artists and even done a stint as A&R for Epic Records. In 2008, she added to that laundry list with the release of her eponymously titled debut, a hodgepodge of genres united by Santigold’s distinctive stamp. Since then, she’s appeared here and there with a list of who’s who (Pharrell, Julian Casablancas, Jay-Z, Kanye, Lykki Li and kindred spirit M.I.A., for starters). But here’s hoping that rumors of a new full-length will be followed by audible proof in the near future. ~Kali Holloway


Ride - 20 Years On: Looking Back At Ride's 'Nowhere' Baths Baths: Interview
Sponsored Content
Tags
Blondie
Bonnie Raitt
Helium
Liz Phair
Malaria!
Nina Simone
Poly Styrene
Santigold
Wanda Jackson

SHOUT OUT WANDA JACKSON

/site_media/uploads/images/users/hybridxdawn/toropovbioimage.jpg dtoropov

hell yeah!

/site_media/uploads/images/users/susannahyoung/photo-on-2009-12-14-at-1051jpg.jpg susannahyoung

Find us on Facebook

Latest Comments

    Recommended