Category Archives: Women Who Rock

Different as It Ever Was: Kidjo’s “Light”


On their 1980 album Remain in Light, Talking Heads thought and acted global. Over the course of their previous three albums, they had made the transition from art-school weirdos to acclaimed rock band. Now, as darkness dawned in Reagan’s America, they wanted to do something truly historical. They thought big, expansive, the foundation of humanity. They thought Africa.

On Remain in Light, an album on the Library of Congress registry, the rock quartet gathered musicians and sounds. Inspired by Afrobeat artists, specifically Fela Kuti, they played with polyrhythms, long jams, horns, backup singers. Most critics and listeners loved it. But even that many years ago, some denounced the white Americans for cultural appropriation. This is what makes Angelique Kidjo’s reinterpretation, or reappropriation if you will, of this seminal album so interesting.

Kidjo is from Benin, West Africa. As a young singer recording her first album in the early 1980s, she enjoyed considerable less cultural freedom than Talking Heads. In fact, in ‘83, she fled the country’s military-controlled government for Paris, not wanting to be pressed into civic service (a story remarkably similar to Celia Cruz’s flight from Havana to the U.S.). In the decades since, she has become a global pop star, famous for her powerful voice, Afrocentric anthems, and irrepressible dance moves. A few weeks ago, she staged a concert-cum-revival at the Theater at the Ace Hotel, mostly playing all the songs from Remain in Light, but also leading the audience — and Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison — in a conga line around the venue for some of her own classic hits.

I love the original Remain in Light; it lived on my turntable when I was in college. But Kidjo makes the songs her own, digging into their juju and finding new resonance in David Byrne’s famed lyrics of alienation — “this is not my beautiful house,” the colonized female sings the colonizer male’s words. Vivien Goldman says Kidjo “triumphantly re-claimed the album for her continent” in her essay on the musician for Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, the anthology I edited (hitting stores October 9). As you can see from the video above, when Kidjo sings “Born Under Punches,” it’s not a metaphor.

The show was great, phenomenal. But the one thing I missed from the original version were the backing vocals. The interplay between the awkward Byrne in his Tom Wolfe-esque white suit and the grooving singers (Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry) was one of the elements that made the live shows captured by Jonathan Demme in the film Stop Making Sense both sweet and transcendent, hilarious and delirious. Fortunately the backing vocals are more prominent on Kidjo’s album version, which drops June 8. But also, the singer brings front and center what the Heads placed 20 feet from stardom, as the saying goes: #BlackGirlMagic

I hear from reliable sources (my brother and St. Vincent) that David Byrne’s current tour is also incredible, which I don’t doubt. I watched Stop Making Sense for the first time in years last weekend; it’s an important document of a band in transition. (Though you do have to wonder what everyone was on that allowed them to perform at that speed and intensity — ah, the ’80s.) Check out the mixture of aerobics and modern dance in “Life During Wartime” from Stop Making Sense.

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Liz Phair’s Rebel Yell

You would never have known from last night’s bold-as-love performance at the Masonic Lodge in the Hollywood Forever cemetery that Liz Phair has a history of crippling stage fright. Maybe it was the army of ghosts that the artist said had her back (“don’t touch my ass!” she scolded one), or maybe it was the quarter-century of power she found in the old songs she had dusted off for the show, but the exile from Guyville played for about 80 minutes without falter or stammer. She wasn’t alone up there; a younger musician whom she never introduced but referred to once as “Connor” accompanied her on electric guitar and vocals. But sonically, his role seemed to be primarily one of moral support. About halfway through the show, Phair had had enough of his trying to lead each song with a countoff. Reminding him he was playing with “a rebel,” she plunged into the next song without the human metronome. Empowered by the small audience’s enraptured support and the refound determination of her old songs, Phair played with a confidence and ease that evaded her when her first album, Exile in Guyville, whose songs she mostly played last night, made her an overnight indie star 25 years ago.

If you’ve listened to the recently released box set of that album and the previous tapes she recorded as Girly-Sound, you know how well that material has held up over time. That was even more evident at the show. The lodge was full of, well, women (and men) like me: well into middle age (my friend sat over a vent because she was having hot flashes), nodding our heads to songs as we relived how Phair was one of the first artists to express the gendered power imbalances of both intimate relationships and professional relationships in so-called alternative music communities. As she told me when I interviewed her back in April for The Guardian: “I was tired of being the girlfriend of the guy in the band, I was tired of hearing that my music tastes suck. This was not ‘alternative’; this was just underproduced.”

This was Phair’s first show since the release of Girly-Sound to Guyville. You’ll be hard-pressed to find tickets to the first leg of shows, but she has added more dates in the Fall. For you Angelenos, she’ll be at the Theater at the Ace September 21. Sure, this was a nostalgia trip for many of us, but I think her songs would resonate with young women today; Phair called it “Fuck and Run,” today they call it “hook-up culture.” As she told Allison Wolfe, for Wolfe’s essay on her in Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, the book I edited (out October 9): . “Male rock and roll singers have forever talked about sex graphically and gotten it on the radio. As a woman, I wanted to take that back.”

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King Princess’s Contagious Freedom


“Freedom is contagious,” St. Vincent said at the ASCAP Expo Panel I moderated May 7. It was her lovely, evocative way of answering my question about what it was like to make an album with David Byrne, which she did in 2012, on Love This Giant. In three words, this gifted musician summarized the spirit of artistic collaboration, of two souls open to innovation and communication bouncing ideas off each other, emailing each other bits of sounds and bobs of lyrics, not being afraid to fail in front of each other or to embarrass themselves. I want this saying on a T-shirt: FREEDOM IS CONTAGIOUS. Let’s catch it.

It was an honor to share the stage with St. Vincent, and a pleasant surprise to be there with King Princess, a new artist who is already blowing up on YouTube. My first question was to point out that not only do they both have stage/pen names that denote a high sense of self-esteem, but they are also identities that are at least partially masculine: What kind of freedom does such a put-on persona give them? Both pointed out that their given names — Annie Clark and Mikaela Straus — don’t exactly shout “rock star!” Clark said her given name sounds like a “stoner babysitter from 1985.” “King Princess is like an attitude,” Mikaela explained. “I take comfort in it as kind of a shield to exist in, where I can make cohesive art.

HOLLYWOOD, CA – MAY 07:St. Vincent, Evelyn McDonnell and King Princess attend The 2018 ASCAP “I Create Music” EXPO at Loews Hollywood Hotel on May 7, 2018 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for ASCAP)

Her Holiness and Her Majesty were both articulate, engaging, empowering. I loved the way they spoke to each other, sharing their experiences of being college dropouts (St. Vincent, from Berklee School of Music, King Princess from USC) and urging audience members, especially women, to take advantage of the cheap and easy affordances of such gear as Apogee. But their personal styles were so different. Clark sat straight in her chair, looking elegant and poised in a long dress she had gotten that morning, while Straus lounged in hers, all comfy in a long shirt, pants, and track shoes.

At just 19, King Princess is already a fledgling online celebrity. She has earned her followers not just because she has a strong, vulnerable, warbling voice (think Regina Spektor, kd lang, Amy Winehouse, Lorde) but also because she writes melody-driven songs about longing and loss, aimed unabashedly at female love interests. In interviews and at the Expo panel, she is candid and open about her sexuality. Her song “1950” is an ode to queer history, specifically the book The Price of Salt. She just released her latest song and video. Like “1950,” “Talia” is a song about a lost lover, represented by an inflatable love doll in the video. Watch it here:

 

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Liz Phair to the Rescue!

Liz Phair is sitting in the Rose Café, a well-loved Venice, California, eatery where tech-industry entrepreneurs munch quinoa alongside music-biz hipsters sipping lattes. The critically adored singer-songwriter does not look like 25 years – sufficient time for her to conceive, deliver, raise and send a son off to college – have intervened since her debut album, Exile in Guyville, made her the Rolling Stone cover girl for third-wave feminism. She ignores her matcha until a foul odor of burning oil wafts over from the kitchen – a peril of open-air design. Phair coughs. Once, twice, repeatedly. It’s as if something heavy and toxic has seeped into this bastion of urban chic, landed in her sensitive lungs, and has to be expelled, forcibly and immediately. She perseveres, telling me about how the book she has written was compelled by the election of Donald Trump, her voice cracking under siege. Then I begin coughing.

“It’s affecting you too,” our canary in the coal mine exclaims. “Sorry, I’m going to save you.” She flags down a server and we move beverages and recorder to the bar, far from noxious fumes.

Liz Phair does not suffer irritants quietly. And lately, irritants abound. Once again, men are excluding women from power, reducing them to sexual objects, and shutting down or demeaning their modes of expression. It’s Guyville redux, only this time, it’s not just faux-alternative hipsters in the indie-rock scene of Chicago in the early 1990s. It’s the top dog in the White House.

I caught up with Phair recently for The Guardian, one of the world’s greatest newspapers. I have to admit I was heavily influenced by the great interview Allison Wolfe did with her for Women Who Rock. Read my interview with Liz here: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/may/03/liz-phair-trump-change-her-music-exile-in-guyville-25-years

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