Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Bechdel Test

Theme: Musical Bechdel Test. The three rules applying to movies become only two rules here:
  1. There should be at least two women involved in (the conception/execution of) the piece.
  2. The piece should be about something other than a man.


I loved this theme, it was amazing and kind of obscene to see how much music didn't make the criteria!

I only managed one track, due to leaving my runway too short (the night before music club): 
Massive Attack; Paradise Circus from their Album Heligoland, 5th from the Brit group relelase Feb 2010 (for those interested Heligoland is a small German archipelago in the North Sea).
Paradise Circus was sung by guest vocalist Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star, and my second female included in the execution (liberal position taken on theme interpretation) was Georgina Spelvin who featured in the video, which blended footage from the 1973 adult film "The Devil in Miss Jones", Georgina was the porn actress who starred in the film 36 years earlier and was then interviewed for the promo, the interview was juxtaposed showing the aged version of Georgina with the 1973 footage.
Also interesting the unreleased original demo of this song featured Yolanda Quarty (Phantom Limb), Yolanda was the vocalist for Paradise Circus when it was known as Harpsichord while they toured in 2008 but Massive Attack chose to record and release the 2010 album with Hope, albeit it never in the same studio.  Martina Topley-Bird has also been the vocalist for this song as recent as 2014.


I get relationships are a major factor in people's lives, but why do men get to sing about fights, dungeons and dragons, fast cars and other esoteric subjects? I'd never really paid attention to lyrics from some of my favourite bands that I thought would make this theme a cinch - all their songs were about bloody blokes! Here's where I ended up:

Kemistry and Storm were a drum and bass DJ duo who also started the uber influential Metalheadz record label in the mid-nineties with Goldie. They often indulged in the glitchy, dark and technical side of the genre, which tends to float my break beat boat. This track finds the two ladies playing some quality tunes without even a consideration for Mankind, let alone paying attention to your average Tom, Dick or Harry. General doses brutality is the order of the day. First track off the album is Trauma by Dom and Roland that adds an ominous cinematic flair to the pummeling - taken from their excellent DJ Kicks mix album (it's the first track on the video below and only about 3-4 mins long).

Gorecki was a Polish composer who found belated fame with a '95 CD release of his Symphony Number 3. I was introduced to it by a flat mate at college who was studying music and played it most Sunday's (to assist with readjusting to society after jumping around to glitchy drum and bass on a Saturday night). The second movement of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is sung by Dawn Upshaw, joined by the London Sinfonietta, which includes many female musicians. The music draws its inspiration from an inscription that an 18 year old Polish girl wrote on a Gestapo prison wall to her mother (the inscription read: Oh Mamma do not cry, no. Immaculate Queen of Heaven, you support me always). The music is dark, warm, moving, sad, yet beautiful.


This theme had me researching more than I have for any other, and opened me up to a whole host of female artists.

Warpaint - Disco//very
I roped in some friends for suggestions of what to pick for this theme and they quickly came back with Warpaint. This all female four-piece from LA formed in the mid-2000's and released their third album, Heads Up, from which this track comes, in 2016. I kept coming back to it as I debated a small number of possibilities, I think because I found it groovy while packing a bit more attitude and oomph than a lot of the electro dream-pop that many female fronted bands are producing these days. The video, which they released with another track from the album, shows off their attitude and individual personalities nicely.

Fly My Pretties - Mud & Stardust
I saw this show live, in the second row of the Paramount in Wellington. The whole show, and particularly this track, was mesmerising. I was a tad worried when presenting this as she finishes many lines with 'am'. Thankfully the matching rhyme was never 'man', and so I successfully negotiated the theme! Fly My Pretties, in case you don't know, are probably best described as a live-only, New Zealand super-group who members change from tour-to-tour and who co-write and cross perform their songs for release after the tour. This track was written and lead by Wellington's A Girl Named Mo.


Music is pretty much entwined with the human condition so while there are some fantastic female artists out there, a significant portion of their output has a bloke embedded somewhere... Luckily enough I have a couple of exceptions to the rule in my collection so I was feeling pretty pleased with myself but still ended up with a narrow field inside another narrow field. 

First up, Laurie Anderson and her debut 1982 album Big Science. The album did surprisingly well in NZ peaking at number 8 in the local charts... no mean feat for an avant-garde offering in a conservative country with a fraction over 3million people. Having said that, two years later in 1984 we embarked on a massive social upheaval from which some say we have never recovered. Coincidence? Who knows... The second female connection is through the album's producer, Roma Baron, a Canadian born record producer who is also credited with a number of instruments on the album including the second instrument from hell, the accordion. The main single from the album, 'O Superman', doesn't make the cut but the track just before it does... 'Born, Never Asked' (with handclaps by Roma Baron!)

The second offering is a three piece band from Osaka who were inspired by The Ramones. While they had some success in the US their other claim to fame outside of Japan was touring the UK as an opening act with Kurt Cobain and Nirvana... Why Kurt appreciated three women from Osaka who played 1980's punk pop while dressed like something out of the 60's we will never know but Shonen Knife have racked up over 30 years in the business and are still going strong and touring regularly. I saw them in late 2017 at Meow in Wellington... a very apt venue as they are also known for singing about cats. And food. In fact, unlike many punk/pop bands, Shonen Knife don't really sing about rebellion that much... or at all, really. They are more of your relentlessly optimistic, tooth grindingly positive, smile-till-your-face-aches, punk poppers... and sometimes that is just what you need! So, from the 1998 album 'Happy Hour' here is 'Catch a Bus'.



My partner comes from a family with two generations of proud feminists and we're busy raising a third generation to join them. I was stoked by this theme because one of the best things about feminism is its music.

When I met as a young man the young woman who later became my civil union partner, her music collection was infinitely better than mine. Riot grrrl was just one of the many fantastic genres she introduced me to. so for my first choice, I played perhaps the defining single of that genre - rebel girl by bikini kill.

There are many examples of political protest song in feminist rock, but my favorite tracks tend to be more celebratory - celebrating female autonomy, or female solidarity. And sleater-kinney combines protest with celebration as well as anyone.

Sleater-kinney live at the king's arms is right up there on the list of all-time best gigs for me, and a sleater-kinney poster has been on the wall of our girls' bedroom their entire lives.

At our civil union, polly and I played sleater-kinney's let's call it love as we signed the register. it's a ten-minute feminist response to led zeppelin's whole lotta love. It's a celebration of female sexuality generally and the multiple orgasm specifically. And boy does it rock.


In many ways, pop music is the register for empowerment of young women – it speaks to their desires, experiences, and often carries messages of self-affirmation for people struggling with the kinds of insecurities borne of a society that is against them. It’s fair to say a lot of anti-pop prejudice stems from sexism – the kinds of men who take themselves and music too seriously are unwilling to recognise the manifest qualities of the best examples of pop, and that is at least partly because they just don’t understand the audience it speaks to.

I make no claim to being especially enlightened – I just like a tune that bangs, which is the other important dimension of successful pop. One of today’s great proponents of the pop banger, Lorde, grapples with growing up in the public eye on her 2017 album, Melodrama, which is about breaking up, being lonely, and cutting loose. Homemade Dynamite is about the latter. Written with Swedish popster Tove Lo, it is about chemistry. Particularly, the chemistry between two people who meet at a party while rolling on MDMA, who strike an instant bond and feel, for a moment, like they can take on the world.

A couple of selections that were played at music club set me thinking about the music that mum used to play around the house before we teenagers seized control of the stereo once and for all. One of the CDs that made a big impression on me was Marianne Faithfull’s 1990 live album, Blazing Away. I knew almost nothing about Marianne Faithfull, but the drama of her voice and the subtlety of the arrrangements that supported it were transformative for me, and a big lesson in the emotional spaces that music can you to. I didn’t realise that many of the songs on Blazing Away were covers, such was her complete ownership of them and the overall cohesiveness of the record.

Years later, when my Tom Waits enthusiasm was in full swing, I realised that although it was Strange Weather was first released by Faithfull on her 1987 album of the same name, it was written by Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan. It was subsequently released by Waits on his 1988 live album, Big Time. Big Time was itself part of Waits’ arc away from the lounge-bar crooner act of the 1970s through a Latin and Balkan weirdo vibe before he settled into the junkyard American songbook persona he’s explored since Bone Machine. Waits’ stylistic change of course coincided with his marriage to Brennan, who has been his co-writer since 1980. She is widely credited with this change of direction, including by Waits himself, who would praise everything about her, from her bizarre interests to her eclectic record collection. In the movie version of Blazing Away, Faithfull says it feels like her song, even though she didn’t write it. And it does, but it also has Brennan’s strange fingerprints all over it.