Thursday, October 21, 2010

RIP Ari Up

Punk rock (like most all other rock) was pretty much a boy's club, which was one of the things that made The Slits so super cool and exciting to me when I was growing up. Another thing that isn't paid enough attention to these days is how much the bands (in both NYC & London) that were collected under the umbrella of punk rock differed from each other stylistically. The Slits were punk as fuck, but sounded nothing like The Clash or The Sex Pistols, or anyone else really.

Well, Ari Up, lead singer and driving force behind The Slits died yesterday at the age of 48. She will be missed.

17 comments:

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Actually I'd credit punk with being the first scene that wasn't a boys club. Previous scenes had a few exceptions (Grace Slick, Janis Joplin), but the punk scene was the first to have a significant number of women--- Lydia Lunch, The Adverts, The Vibrators, Patti Smith, X-Ray Spex, Crass, The Avengers, Siouxsie---and post-punk was very nearly 50/50 as evidenced by The Young Ladies Post-Punk Handbook, an unspeakably awesome three-"disc" compilation hosted at Musicology. Yes, there were a lot of boys, as there is with most music scenes, but punk was unusual in the sheer number of women who were prominent on the tours.

Unfortunately, the press wasn't interested in them---didn't fit the "yobbos spitting" story. And most crucially---and this has been the death of many a female-fronted band---the fan base wasn't there. Music by women (if it isn't Ke$ha style porn) has to build its fan base among women, and girls/women, by and large, don't seek out new music and don't support small bands---following 'zines, reading scene reports, and tracking down underground radio tends to be a boy thing. So a whole, whole lot of great female-led punk bands have been allowed to more or less vanish, known only to feminist crate-diggers.

A world where women turned out in even moderate numbers to buy records by The Slits, the way hordes of boys bought Sex Pistols paraphernalia, would have been a very different world. If only!

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Ah, here's the link: http://musicophilia.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/women-of-post-punk-the-young-ladys-post-punk-handbook-volume-1-1978-1983/

Seriously, this comp is unspeakably awesome. She counts a lot of stuff as post-punk that I'd call punk, but I'm not complaining about another chance to hear The Once Over Twice and Smother Love.

Caviglia said...

That is true, but as with most of the people you listed, the other people in their bands were all boys, which sort of kills the 50/50 thing utterly. Saying "girls don't dig around in bins" being the problem is just silly. They need to get on the radio *first*. with the bands with boys in them, digging around in bins wasn't necessary. The bands that didn't get played on the radio, wind up in the press, etc. that had boys in them, were just as ignored, by and large except by obsessed music geeks. It's a vicious cycle.

Caviglia said...

Sorry, I'm really tired. But what I mean is bands like X-Ray Spex & the Slits were cool because it wasn't just a girl singer. Both Siouxsie and Patti Smith were always all about exceptionalism.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Siouxsie and Patti, yeah. Arguably X. But The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Crass, Liliput/TheAu Pairs, Young Marble Giants---there's lots of punk and post-punk bands that had a lot of women (though usually a boy drummer, for some odd reason).

As for radio: No, I disagree. Digging in the crates, or going to shows, is exactly how bands, especially small, unconventional bands, find an audience. After all, we're not talking about mass-market radio-friendly bands here. The Clash and the Sex Pistols, maybe (and rarely), but most of punk and post-punk acts were sustained by a tiny handful of college DJs and a lot of very dedicated fans.

Most people didn't find Big Black, The Fall, or any other "alternative" band via the radio (I sure didn't!), they found it because they heard one band via a cool older friend/brother/late-night VJ, then did some reading and learned about that band's influences, then read some fanzines with new band reviews, then went to clubs. That's fandom, and that's how any small artist making uncommercial work finds an audience.

A female band is going to have to build its audience among women---the whole point of caring about a band's gender is that one wants music that somehow reflects your personal experience. And if you're making unconventional music, you need women willing to go outside the usual channels and actively seek out new music---in a word, fans. But very few women really pursue music fandom, or any other kind. It's easy to make fun of the boys in "High Fidelity", but those are the people who make small acts big. The Slits were never going to be The Sex Pistols, but they coulda been The Smiths *if* the fans had been there.

Honestly, I think this is a huge problem for women artists of all stripes. With the arguable exception of dance and maybe painting, women just don't have the kind of search-the-crates attitude that a lot of boys have---how many women have you known who read fanzines or blogs to find new music, who look through band biographies to note influences and then get records by the bands their favorite bands cite, or who keep track of who assistant-directed on a film so they can watch for their directoral debut?

What's sad is that there's really a vast world of interesting music by women out there, and a constantly renewing cadre of women making unusual, personal, exciting music. But every year, they die on the vine, not because the big bad media gatekeepers won't let them through (although that doesn't help), but because the women who should be their fans just aren't interested in the kind of obsessive hunting-down that a small band needs.

Caviglia said...

I heard lots of those bands first on the radio, or saw them live. I think that mainly speaks to the difference of where we grew up. I didn't feel like you had to work that hard to find decent music, and there were some women around. The Kill Rock Star and Portland/Seattle bands got a lot of press attention so people have heard of them and did okay (in an indie sort of way). It just runs so deep. On of the problems with the High Fidelity model, and one of the things they (rightfully) get made fun of, is that they are often times hostile to women and the things or bands that they like. If you run in those circles (and I have) you spend a freaking huge amount of energy defending yourself and your taste and being dismissed. Of course there are girls around but it's always harder and you spend a lot of time being ignored. Most people can take only so much of that before they get bored and do other things. Art has been awful for women traditionally, so I find it kind of weird that you would bring that up.

Caviglia said...

I sometimes think you don't realize how hostile these worlds are because they're not hostile to you. We're both writing about our own experiences, but our experiences are just so different.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Oh no, I certainly understand how hostile the High Fidelity world can be to women, Though I think a lot of women think it's more gender hostile than it inherently is because it's a world where only deep knowledge wins respect---a woman who could name the dates for every Led Zep session would be able to shut Jack Black up in an instant, but there's precious few women who can. Similarly, "defending yourself and your taste and being dismissed" is what everyone in that world does to everyone---if you recall, most of the scenes in the record shop involve the two non-Cusack clerks insisting that the other's taste sucks. You're supposed to win respect with argument backed by trivia, and it *is* hostile, and that's a kind of hostility that a lot of women aren't prepared to endure.

But in any case, I'm not disagreeing that the world of High Fidelity is unfriendly to women. What I'm saying is that until one can imagine a version of High Fidelity with an all-female cast, then women in music will always be pushing up a very steep hill, with not much reward on the other side.

Until there is a critical mass of women who follow The Slits (or rather, the next Slits) the way the High Fidelity kids follow Belle & Sebastian, female musicians aren't going to build an audience. Kathleen Hanna has probably come the closest to connecting with that kind of audience, largely thanks to Spin's adoring coverage, but without women willing to read her interviews and buy records by all the bands she cites, she'll always be an exception.

Caviglia said...

What I'm saying is that it runs super deep. You need coverage, you need women journalists, you need women DJs (late night, indie, whatever), and it's just harder and more frustrating at every step. Being an outlier sucks.

And, yes. I know. I've been shutting up boys who assume I'm stupid my whole life. I know how to do that. It doesn't always work. And you, my friend, really REALLY don't have that initial contempt to surmount. Really. Maybe if I was ugly I'd be less of a threat. I don't know. Not that there aren't tons of awesome men. There are. And I think I need to mention the awesomeness that is Kim Gordon who is not about exceptionalism and has in her super cool way promoted, assisted, helped and encouraged more young indie bands than nearly anyone. And how cool is Julia Cafritz? And am I the only one who remembers Scrawl? Or, hey - Thalia Zadek? Of course, I'm dating myself here.

Caviglia said...

PS I don't think Exene is about exceptionalism in the same way that, say, Patti Smith is. She did collaborate with Lydia Lunch, and I think with her it just seemed that way as I'm not sure there were as many women in the LA scene. With Patti, I do find it a little problematic. Poison Ivy!! But to get back to your very first response, yeah, absolutely. Punk was the first scene that had any kind of egalitarianism. Though, I might call Motown the first that wasn't a total boys club. Ladies kind of ruled the house there. And also all those great girl singing groups out of NYC.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Heh---I loved Thalia Zadeck back in the day! Was never all that into Scrawl, though...

I still think the problem is way more on the demand side than the supply side. There's lots of women making incredible music, and a substantial back catalog. But the women willing to do the work to track it down remain super thin on the ground. Now more than ever, you get media attention by building a network of fans, not the other way around. Every year, a new generation of boys discovers the Velvet Underground, but X-Ray Spex remain neglected.

Caviglia said...

Well, I think problems kind of compound and it's a little more complicated than "girls just aren't willing to do the work".

I don't remember what Scrawl were like on recordings, but they were good live. Live Skull I saw like a zillion times. I think I saw Come a few times, too, but was a little too young for Uzi. Want to hear something crazy? Thalia is OLDER than Ari Up.

Tim N. said...

I can remember Debbie Harry talking about showing up at CBGB's and getting the "who invited the girl?" treatment. So there was something of a boys club thing going on down there.

The English bands seemed to have an easier time, although even the Slits didn't start to get bigger notice until they toured with The Clash and Siouxie went through the same sort of thing with the Pistols.

Caviglia said...

Yes. That's what I said. Because I was busy being in CBGBs being treated like I was a moron. Can you provide a link, I'd like to see that?

Tim N. said...

I'll try to dig it up... it might have been on "Seven Ages of Rock" (a great series which also features some nice clips with Viv Albertine) or one of those.

On a side note: a friend just introduced me to Scrawl, turned out he's friends with Marcy Marzuki, and they've got a great sound. Don't know how I missed them the first time around. :>)

Tim N. said...

Here's the Seven Ages of Rock I was talking about... still digging for the DH quote. It was on a show that had her going back to the nabe and hanging with Chris on today's Bowery. Good show. I'll see if I can find it.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2140251529115240665#

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

I think it's both! The music press is less likely to be interested in "girl bands" (though that's increasingly the opposite of the case---a lot of really mediocre riot grrrrl groups got media attention by looking good in torn stockings). AND girls aren't willing to do the work.

But it seems a lot more plausible that girls will start doing the work and force the press/labels to pay attention than that the press/labels will start investing money in acts that they're not sure there's an audience for. Change has to come from the audience up, not the labels down.