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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I’d hoped this early film about the fictional all-female band The Carrie Nations would prove the point I’m trying to make in my Cult Marathon for Movies About Female Rockers: that these films can’t help but have a feminist message. But Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has proven me wrong. This film is what might result if a crazy person decided to merge together a pre-1962 Playboy bunny party, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Austin Powers (1997) — making me set aside my feminist expectations. Should you watch this film? The short answer is no. But we all know that Feminéma is not given to short answers. Here’s the worst part: this movie has more in common with 2010 than the far more radical films of the early 80s.

The Carrie Nations (from L-R: Pet, Kelly, and Casey) can play a great rock song, but ultimately they’re all big hair, big eyes, and big breasts — and big on hopping into bed with whoever’s available. Created by the notorious breast-oriented director Russ Meyer — you know, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! — using the wordiest, weirdest script ever by Roger Ebert, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a soft-core feature with a whole lot of women who just happen to like to taking their clothes off. (What, are you objecting? are you some kinda square?) I thought at first this would be one of those Small Town Girls Go To The Big City tale (Texas to L.A., to be precise); but the film’s too chaotic for that. On its 10th anniversary Ebert wrote that Meyer wanted it to “simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick and a moralistic expose.” I’m not sure I understand the satire, nor did I see those things going on simultaneously, but I certainly see that it moves from one to the next in nonsensical progression right to the abruptly moralizing conclusion.

Remember the scene from Austin Powers in which Vanessa Kensington tries to bring him up to speed after being cryogenically frozen for 30 years? “You know, a lot’s changed since 1967,” she tells him. He responds, for a big laugh line:

“Well, as long as people are still having promiscuous sex with many anonymous partners without protection while at the same time experimenting with mind-expanding drugs in a consequence-free environment, I’ll be sound as a pound!”

No one could have captured more accurately the world of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: it gleefully and subversively shows a Southern California that welcomes all manner of (interracial, gay, BDSM) sexual unions with no AIDS, no herpes, no worries. Except that sometimes there are dire consequences indeed: spurned lovers try to kill themselves or others, take too many pills, or spiral to madness. The movie’s schizophrenic view of sex — “everything’s okay, until it’s not!” — seems far too familiar in 2010, an era in which one can see anything, all the time on the internet and the same time schools adopt abstinence-only sex education. So what am I to do with this great song, “Find It,” which begins almost as soon as the film opens?

The disconnect between that singer’s angry voice and her low register (was this inspired by Janis?) and the obvious fact that it’s not really being sung be that Kewpie-doll, baby-voiced Kelly (Dolly Read) continues to leave me baffled. This song is the film’s one gesture to feminist power — and even this is undermined by the overly cutie-pie actors who mouthed the lyrics but can’t muster any of the urgency or the fury of the real thing.

Apologies, readers: the campy pleasure of this film was mostly lost on me. Its anxious undermining of female sexual power was far too familiar to our 2010 world than seems funny; its eagerness to kill off the lesbians, transform the tranny into a demon, and celebrate the Carrie Nations’ ridiculous manager, Harris — himself an unholy mix of Greg Brady and Benedict Cumberbatch (the BBC’s new Sherlock) — all of this didn’t seem funny anymore. I realize I’d feel different if I were in a raucous theater full of howling viewers rather than in my own living room, waiting for my sweetie to get home from work. All of this is a reminder that The Runaways (2010)’s lack of feminist ire shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me when I saw it last year. For that, dear readers, you’ll have to go back to Times Square (1980).

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.

Once upon a time a director named Allan Moyle bought a secondhand sofa, and as he was cleaning it he found a diary stuffed into its cushions. As he read through it, he realized it had been written by a young woman, one who’d lived on the streets and had probably been emotionally disturbed. Even though Moyle had only directed one film in his career, he used the diary to start writing a script, and eventually came up with Times Square. There aren’t many movies about female rockers, but the few that exist have become cult favorites — hence starting Feminéma’s very first Cult Marathon for Movies About Female Rockers.

When I say cult movie, I don’t mean the big-budget numbers like last year’s The Runaways or 2006’s Dreamgirls, nor do I mean the Spice Girls movie Spice World (1997) or Josie and the Pussycats (2003). The very term evokes little-known movies, or films that died at the box office, or were critically panned and went undiscovered for a while — like Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, which I wrote about last month. Thus, I’m not writing about films that were wrongfully denied prizes; on a strictly critical level, these films have their problems. The pleasure of the cult film comes in other, secret, subtextual meanings — occasionally demanding that we read against the film for the things it implies yet seems to reject. Times Square is just such a movie; and for some of those readings and/or personal responses to it, check out this fanblog, DefeatedAndGifted, or this response by the author of the PussyRock Fanzine (and many thanks to both of them for these great screen caps):

When I first saw this movie, it was a fucking epiphany. I was 14 years old, hospitalised in a psychiatric unit and just getting into alternative culture. Times Square was a revelation. It showed you how exciting and chaotic the big city could be and how it would inspire and stimulate you as well as scare you. That was my dream — to run away to the bright lights and have my own creative renaissance and be discovered by some cool alternative media Svengali. It seemed like Nicky and Pamela represented the 2 halves of my personality and my 2 possible futures. … This movie seemed like the only thing remotely resembling and evoking my mood and hopes and fears at the time.

Pamela (Trini Alvarado, left) is the über good-girl daughter of the NY city commissioner, but being good has left her feeling like a soulless zombie; Nicky (Robin Johnson, right) is a street tough with disruptive, antisocial tendencies. They meet in the mental ward of a hospital being checked out for similar conditions — how else can adults explain these girls’ unwillingness to be “normal” and “happy”? — and despite the differences between them, they recognize one another as similar souls, so they run away together to live in an abandoned building near the downtown docks. At first they focus just on surviving. But because of Pamela’s father’s efforts to find her using posters and radio notices that emphasize Nicky’s mental instability, they gradually start to articulate a reaction against the normative world around them. Those articulations are easier for the educated, poetic, gentle Pamela; but they’re more explosive from Nicky, who embraces their new underworld identity as The Sleez Sisters:

The film’s fame comes from moments like that — the girls’ energizing, exuberant defiance of the status quo. It also comes from the queer relationship between them which, though never explicitly sexualized, is clearly the real story of this film. In fact, the original cut had far more lesbian content; due to radical conflicts between the film’s producer Robert Stigwood and director Moyle, who eventually quit the project in frustration, Times Square was brutally edited — and it shows in choppy and nonsensical narrative leaps. (Do any diehard fans out there know whether that cut footage still exists? What a great addition it would make to a DVD.) The only way men matter to the lives of Nicky and Pamela is as conflicting authority figures — Pamela’s uptight father and, at the other end of the spectrum, a local radio DJ with his own agenda (Tim Curry) — these girls are primarily dedicated to one another in a way that goes beyond simple friendship and even simple love.

The most poignant and perfect expression of their bond is a beautifully-shot scene in the drydock, looking out over the harbor. They’ve just found it and have decided this’ll be their home, and they need to adjust to their new style of life. Nicky tells Pamela that if either one of them is ever in trouble, they should scream out the other’s name for help: “PAMMY! PAMMY! PAMMY!” she screams to demonstrate; Pamela responds: “NICKY! NICKY! NICKY!” It’s the equivalent of one of those male bonding scenes in which two dudes slice open their hands to exchange blood with one another, but this is more subversive; it signals that these girls might well face sexual violence or attack while living on the street. Yet screaming together gives them a voice (just like we were taught in those self-defense classes in college) and it makes them giddy and giggly, too; it’s like a spell they cast around them that cements their tie to one another. It’s specifically a feminine bonding moment based on female danger and a rejection of female victimhood — no wonder the film reads so obviously as queer despite the heavy editing.

Watching this film reminds you of the commentators in the amazing documentary The Celluloid Closet who describe watching certain films over and over and over just to catch that one amazing queer moment. No wonder Times Square was “a fucking epiphany.” The rock/punk scenes — “I’m a Damn Dog Now” in the above clip, and the “Your Daughter is One” scene you can find on YouTube — don’t just confirm the girls’ outsider status, but show how that music looked different if it was done by girls, and how subversive it might be if they embraced a whole lot of racial and sexual epithets. So what if this movie’s crazy storyline leaves you scratching your head a bit (who ever saw homeless girls with such enviable wardrobes? with such a great furnished “apartment”? who so easily get jobs in a topless joint, yet don’t have to go topless?). I can be snooty about such things (remember my unwillingness to overlook the narrative gaps in Easy A?), but I finished watching it and only wanted to return to certain scenes over and over and over. One of the last scenes, in which an army of teenage girl fans of the Sleez Sisters show up wearing the same black-mask makeup as Nicky, didn’t make any narrative sense but made me wish the statement would come back, even thirty years after the movie’s initial release.

One final note about that army of teenage girl fans: there was a similar plot element in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, although it was deeply troubling in that later film. Clearly, films of this early 80s generation realized that teenage girls were looking for an outlet, a leader, someone to articulate their frustration. Was this how filmmakers addressed the question of feminism as it pertained to a young generation? Or was it a more ambivalent gesture — in Susan Douglas’s terms, filmmakers “took feminism into account” for a brief moment and then ignored it? I’m left on the fence…with only a long list of more cult films about female rockers to help me answer it. Rock on, readers.

“The Runaways” leaves no cliché untouched. It’s as if the writers went to TVtropes.org and selected the biggest chestnuts.

  • girls with daddy issues
  • girls turn to music because they don’t fit in
  • success quickly leads to substance abuse problems
  • dreamy drug-fueled sequence in soft light with lesbian sex
  • conflict within the band over big ego of lead singer

Right up to the end:  the band’s big blowout fight takes place — in the recording studio.  The one thing I can say is that at least the film moves as efficiently as possible from one trope to the next, and manages that efficiency by focusing solely on Jett and Currie at the expense of all other band members.  It’s such a disappointment.  So Floria Sigismondi, the film’s director, isn’t going to be the next female winner of a Best Director Oscar; and I’m starting to think that Kristen Stewart has only one trick in her acting bag (avoids eye contact, hunches shoulders, mumbles).

And it’s too bad, because the film could have answered a lot of questions about women in rock.  The film has a lot of obligatory scenes of screaming male and (especially) female fans — but what are they screaming for? 

There’s a great moment in Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” in which Christian Bale, as the maybe-gay teenager fan of a David Bowie-type gender-bending rock star, takes his newly-bought record into his bedroom in the crap suburban house where he lives with his family. He gently takes the sleeve out of the cover, letting us see the beautifully erotic nature of fandom. It’s a great moment — evoking the possibility he might experience by listening to it, not just for its music but for the personal liberation and transformation it promises.  “The Runaways” tells us that Bowie was also a huge influence on Cherie Currie (which is so interesting on its own).

The same possibilities were there for “The Runaways” other than to plow through all our received wisdom about how rock bands get together and break up.  The band’s officious manager, who teaches them how to growl and purr for their audiences, sees their appeal solely in sexual terms.  Rock is a man’s world, he insists; they’ve got to meet it on those terms.  “This isn’t about women’s lib, this is about women’s libido,” he says.  But during concert scenes, you start to feel intuitively there’s more to it, before you’re yanked away to another cliché (Cherie is worried about her sick dad!).

Another wasted opportunity to think about women onscreen.  But let’s also pause to remember that Joan Jett, now 51, is still rocking, promoting new talent, and looking hot and mean.

Before there was the Bitch Magazine I know and love for its rants about gender in the media, there was the Bitch: The Women’s Rock Mag With Bite, the late 1980s zine that appeared on newsprint every month, clearly produced on its creator’s Apple computer and cut-and-pasted into shape. Lori Twersky denoted the page numbers by hand, and the logo was (what else?) a hand-drawn dog, often portrayed with a bone or scratching its head with a back foot.

Considering that we listened to The Bangles in the 80s, Bitch was kind of a revelation. Whether it was an article about Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth or Lydia Lunch, Bitch was full of snarky interviews, fiesty feminist rants, and a genuine appreciation for the music they made.  These rockers weren’t girlie-girls — they kicked ass (and, as one issue told us, Joan Jett inspired a cult/commune in San Francisco to hold her up as a near-deity).

So as I get ready to see “The Runaways” despite its mixed reviews, I’m thinking about my teenaged relationship to women rockers — the revelatory experience of watching Chrissie Hynde, Courtney Love (no one who saw Hole’s “Live Through This” concert could doubt her ability to kick rock’s ass), Blondie, Lydia Lunch, the Breeders, and oh, Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville,” women who seemed to be making big feminist statements just by being so fierce in their lyrics and onstage.  Is it simply my age that makes the thought of Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning in the roles of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie a bit distasteful?  Trying to suppress my doubts in an age of Lady Gaga, Twilight, and “post-feminism.”