She Bop

From panel discussions to boobs aflame, feminism and punk rock form a holy union at Chicago's Ladyfest

Ray celebrates Ladyfest's commitment to remaining anti-corporate and independent. "I'm realizing that it's hard to get people to change their biases without being exposed to something in a mainstream way," she admits. "When I'm down at the diner, sitting next to my neighbor who has a Confederate flag hanging outside his house, and I want to know how to bridge the gap between us, he says something like, 'Well, I think that Ellen DeGeneres is all right.' And I think, television! TV is what makes him not want to burn me and other lesbians at the stake!...But when there's no access for women at all in the mainstream--in the power-hungry, homogenized media and music industry--you really have to build smaller coalitions among the people who are left out of that system. And that's what Ladyfest is trying to do."

Does that mean Ladyfest is working within the separatist spirit of punk rock? "For me, punk is a philosophy, not an aesthetic," Ray explains. "The idea behind punk is, that music is a community of people who don't have a voice in society, and yet these people can come together to hear their voice through music."

And throughout Ladyfest, one can hear any number of voices that are separate--many by choice--from the mainstream. Over the course of the festival, I exchange business advice with the editor of Venus (a smart Chicago zine about women in indie rock that still struggles to achieve more widespread distribution), chant along with the Pirate Cheerleaders (a group of feminist pom-pom girls who bring it on like Kirsten Dunst never could), and listen in as two sex educators teach a workshop on sex toys ("Be sure to peel the microwaved cucumber before you use it, or you can get some nasty pesticides!").

 

Some of the best Ladyfest Midwest acts are also the most obscure. Oakland electronic duo Blechtum From Blechdom perform at the Fireside Bowl, a ramshackle bowling alley, in shirts with matching twin flames on the bust and pants that sew the two artists together at the rump with a two-foot swath of musical-noted fabric. "There's a Boob-B-Q in here. My tits are on fire!" they sing while plunking out a beginner's ditty on a synthesizer. Amid cheesy orgasmic-moaning loops, Nintendo-style jingles, and a Muzak version of "Private Dancer," they sing about the difficulties of coupling with an extraterrestrial, turning the male anatomy into a raver's glow stick, and singing the praises of "bad, bad music everywhere." This is what a feminist looks like: Siamese twins with a sense of humor who teach themselves how to mix their own loops while conjoined at their bottoms.

And speaking of bottoms, performance artist and cult hero Cynthia Plaster Caster gives a short lecture on musicians' lower halves at the Empty Bottle bar. Her subject? The art of making plaster molds of penises and breasts. The artist proudly displays her casts of Jon Langford and Sally Timms (both of the Mekons, both well-endowed). Catching up to Cynthia after the show, I ask her whom at Ladyfest she would like to use as her next model.

"I would love to do [Le Tigre frontwoman] Kathleen [Hanna]," she gushes. "But, well, I don't have a lot of plaster left!"

"Then you'd better not try getting Kathleen," I say. "You definitely won't have enough."

"Yeah, you're right," she replies. "Maybe I'll get [exploitation filmmaker] Doris [Wishman] to do it. She's a single-cup-of-plaster kinda gal."

This is what a feminist looks like: an entrepreneurial sculptor who creates her own phallus and commemorates flat-chested women.

The following night at the Congress Theater, South Bronx hip-hop/house/
soul/funk group ESG--an influential group of the late-Seventies and early-Eighties underground whose songs have been sampled by countless artists from the Wu-Tang Clan to Unrest--put on a show that may stand as the highlight of the festival. Drummer Valerie Scroggins and her sister, singer Renee Scroggins (who once shared a single bill with both the Clash and Grandmaster Flash!) bring their daughters along to play bass and guitar. The younger ESGers are definitely not professional musicians. But when their mothers started out playing their bouncy polyrhythms, they weren't either. The ESG performance centers upon community and celebration: Renee's rousing gospel and Valerie's soulful beats buoy their daughters' efforts through dance-floor classics like "You're No Good" and "UFO." The daughters look on with an "I can't BELIEVE Mom is famous!" expression. In return, the audience--who had heretofore observed acts like Mary Timony and the Need with clinical stillness--erupt into dancing and singing. This is what a feminist looks like: a generation of independent women, all grown-up, passing their knowledge and power on to their children.

 

Maybe some day we won't need Ladyfest's punk spirit to be our voice. But for now, if we rely upon feminist musicians to enter into the mainstream and embrace its ideals along with its album sales, we'll be in danger of accepting token efforts like Spin's "The Girl Issue" or the disingenuous Women of Rock edition of Rolling Stone for support. (In a 1997 Chicago Reader article, cited at a Women in Rock Journalism panel at Ladyfest, Monica Kendrick asked skeptically, "Can [Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner's] transgressions be redeemed by hot-pink pages that list self-mutilation, Christina Ricci, and Kurt Cobain as defining aspects of 'Girl Culture'?"). By increasing the visibility of female artists from around the country, providing a forum for discussing contemporary feminist issues, and developing a woman-organized, woman-supported festival and larger community, Ladyfest manages to educate both its male and female attendees on a variety of issues. At the same time, it doesn't define women's music in a narrow way that would circumscribe its message in gender-neutral forums.

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