Kurt Cobain's shirt on display at the EMP

I hate being a One-Note Nancy, but Seattle’s Experience Music Project is a real sausage-fest. In fact, that’s exactly what one of its employees admitted to my partner when he complained about the lack of women represented in the museum and the gift shop. So, for example, when I entered that flashy gift shop I was prepared to buy (retail!) any one of the following books:

Turns out you cannot buy anything having to do with any female rocker — not even a refrigerator magnet — nor will you see much about them in the museum overall. So what’s new? And why am I bothering to work up a lather about it?

Here’s what I decided after watching (and writing about) all those cult movies about female rockers last winter: rock is still liberatory. For women, making music rather than just admiring the snarling, strutting, misunderstood dudes who’ve been celebrated for their art ad nauseum can be downright incendiary. It’s because women have been painted as the admirers of male rockers — a dynamic that portrays women as sexual rewards for worthy men rather than aggressive sexual figures themselves — that reversing roles seems so fantastic, so revolutionary.

Thus, how great was it to leave the extensive exhibits of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and the evolution of the electric guitar and turn instead to the Hands-On Lab upstairs, where piles of children and adults were going inside little studios to do computer-led lessons in playing instruments, singing, and mixing songs. And here they were — girls getting the hang of the drum set, the guitar, or screeching along to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are.” (Oh wait — that was me.) Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but after finding none of those great women rockers I grew up with represented in the museum downstairs — Blondie, Lydia Lunch, Joan Jett, Tina Turner, the early Liz Phair, Chrissie Hynde, Queen Latifah, Courtney Love — it was in the Hands-On Project that I started to see that gleam in girls’ eyes as they got over feeling self-conscious and instead focused on getting the beat right.

Which brings us back to feminism, doesn’t it? Is it just me, or does feminism have to fight the same fights over & over again, such that women rockers still have to fight for a place at the table? The only upside, as I see it, is that when women do get onstage, they still have the capacity to blow your mind.

 

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Let’s face it: most films about bands should be called “The Rise and Fall of [band name].” The Runaways (2010) is a classic tale that follows this model: band gets together, writes some great songs, has some personality clashes, has a big big show, and breaks up in dramatic and tragic ways. There are other narratives that have them selling out (Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains) or being misunderstood — but in general it’s odd that these movies tend to tell stories of decline. In contrast, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Linda Linda Linda meanders a bit but ultimately ends with the triumphal appearance of a great high school girl band. There’s no way you’ll finish this film without wanting to scream along with the power-pop chorus — which, conveniently, is the title of this film. Thus, in this continuation of Feminéma’s Cult Marathon for Movies About Female Rockers, we travel to Japan for an altogether new story about the girl band. (And a quick shoutout to Feminist Music Geek whose site I just discovered and you should too, and who wrote a great piece about this film.)

Rinko and Kei (Yu Kashii, the guitarist with the angelic face above) are mad at each other. Normally this might just seem like the usual ups and downs of high school girls’ friendships, but the problem is that the Shiba High Hiiragi-sai festival is coming up and without Rinko they don’t have a singer. Drummer Kyoko (Aki Maeda) and bassist Shiori (Nozumi Shiroko of the band Base Ball Bear) won’t pry into it, but they seem to agree that finding a replacement singer is Kei’s problem. So when Kei gets put on the spot — is the band going to play the festival or not? — she recruits the first girl she sees: Son (Doona Bae). Problem is, Son only recently arrived from South Korea with a limited command of Japanese, and has never sung with a band before.

If this were a Hollywood film, Son’s questionable language/singing skills might be hyped up for Big Dramatic Effect — but that’s what’s different about this film: it’s subtle, even quiet. Kyoko and Shiori give the slightly depressive, almost sullen Kei a lot of space to work out whatever’s going on in her head (is it the fight with Rinko or the ex-boyfriend?), while Son practices at a local karaoke bar and watches the rest of them from her wide, lost-in-translation eyes. But if she doesn’t quite follow all the conversation or understand the girls’ long histories together, she’s certainly determined. The story of this film is about girls who eventually become a unit — practicing till exhaustion and then putting on a show.

Guys seem to circle around these girls, but they don’t really matter much — and what a relief that is when you consider how even The Runaways seemed more oriented to the band’s Svengali-like manager than to each other. Kei’s fight with Rinko is far more disruptive than her breakup with her now ex-boyfriend; likewise, when a shy boy named Mackey arranges a complicated secret meeting with Son to ask her out, the whole scene is played for cringe  comedy when Son expresses no interest whatsoever. In fact, I think she exaggerates her geekiness and limited Japanese skills in this scene to heighten the sense of distance between the two of them and get him off the hook. This film is about how the four girls form a bond together, rehearsing during long nights such that they collapse for lack of sleep the next day. The only way that boys matter in this film is that the band decides to cover songs by the 1980s Japanese punk band The Blue Hearts rather than write their own material; they even call themselves Paran Maum, or Blue Hearts in Korean. In doing so, as Feminist Music Geek points out, they voice the sentiments of the Blue Hearts men who wrote songs about women, engaging in that queer act of identifying as men but in the bodies of women, no more so than when they race through the rain to perform for the first time the song “Linda Linda”:

As the film ends they’re singing another Blue Hearts song, “Owaranai Uta,” with terrific outsider punk lyrics:

Let’s sing an endless song
For this asshole of a world
Let’s sing an endless song
For all of the trash
Given the cold shoulder from life
I cried alone at night
Until now there were many times
I thought I couldn’t make it
The moment of truth is always
Something scarier than death
Until now there were many times
I just wanted to run away
Let’s sing an endless song
For me, for you, and for them
Let’s sing an endless song
So we can laugh tomorrow

Fantastic. Rock on.