Electroclash of the Titans

Über-girl group W.I.T. sexes up New York's nu-wave boys club

On the fun scale, watching electronic music performed live rates right up there with having herpes, shoving things in your eye, and waking up in bed with that guy from the bar who reminds you of Pauly Shore. Which is why electroclash--the latest (over)hyped export from New York's thriving music scene--is poised to reinvigorate clubland, changing the way you listen to (and look at) electronic music. Gone are the fugly DJs in track suits, matching beats for the enjoyment of their fellow track-suited-raver-friends-who-also-happen-to-be-DJs. Gone are the droning 10-minute trance freakouts. Gone is the suffocating air of self-importance. Electroclash is about sex and fun and glamour and irony. It's about clever, hummable songs and larger-than-life personalities. It's about pulsing '80s synth beats with high-sheen production, wry lyrics, and some coquettish disco queen intoning humorously paper-thin mantras over the top. It's about whatever you want it to be, really--whether that means staging an art-damaged, cabaret-style evocation of Weimar, Germany, dressing up like the seventh Village Person, or donning a sci-fi rubber suit and singing sensitive-boy lyrics that would make Morrissey blush.

Putting a flawlessly made-up face on the scene right now are W.I.T., a Warholian trio of pouty, model-perfect beauties whose music--co-written with electroclash impresario Larry Tee (who also co-wrote RuPaul's "SuperModel")--mines '80s excess and girl-group glamour for all it's worth.

"Oooh, I like it/Tell me that you like it!" intones a breathless Melissa Burns on the group's hook-laden new-wave dance hit "Ooh I Like It," from their forthcoming self-titled album on Tee's Mogul Electro label. You can't help laughing (and you're supposed to) when Burns later sings, "I hope you understand I'm no tease/I do what I please/And I'm pleased to meet you!"

Onstage the trio, dressed in glammy gold-lamé halter tops, looks like a cross between a Robert Palmer video and a sexed-up, fleshed-out version of Rhino's Girl Group Greats compilation. "We're out there to entertain. We're like JonBenét Ramsey," Burns explained during a recent interview. In the space of less than 20 minutes, she also compares the group to the Shirelles, the Supremes, the lead characters of Dynasty, and Bettie Page (for her part, Burns looks something like a China-doll version of Deborah Harry). This cultural name-checking is at the heart of the W.I.T. project: The group is a deliberate pastiche of girl-group clichés.

"We're celebrating all the things we love about super-successful female images," says Burns. But this is different from satire, she maintains. "We love the machine, we love all the videos. We love commercials. We're not doing some subversive commentary."

Maybe not intentionally. But there is something subversive about W.I.T. And the more they talk about their motivation, the more the feminist framework upon which they drape their stylish frocks begins to show. "There was something happening in New York, with groups like Fisherspooner and Andrew W.K. and we were talking about how there were no girls, or girl groups, doing stuff. We thought Let's build the perfect girl group. "

Shakin' it for your love alongside Burns is Christine Doza, a noted underground feminist writer who published the zine UpSlut when she was in high school. "Bloodlove," Doza's oft-cited essay about growing up as a third-wave feminist, is often read in Women's Studies courses. (It was anthologized in 1995's Listen Up: Voices From the Next Feminist Generation.) On the outside, at least, Doza has changed quite a bit since she wrote the essay: Then 17, she was, she says, an "angry, ideology-spouting young woman with a shaved head." These days she looks like a model for downtown hipster chic.

For Doza, the transformation has been personal, not political: She chalks it up to maturing. "We really do wear high heels and dresses and do our hair and enjoy those parts of being female," says Doza. "It's not like we're mocking the whole construct of gender. But there is a lot of subtext, I guess."

The group's name, which stands for "Whatever It Takes" (but is pronounced "wit") came about when Burns and Doza were talking about what Burns identifies as "clichés of ambition attached to girl groups but never to boys. It's always like she clawed her way to the top, she was kicking and screaming, she'd do whatever it takes."

The group's lyrics further their subversive-but-not-intentionally-so-but-still-kinda politics, exploring the often-vapid girl-group terrain of "love, loss, and longing." "I surrender my love to you. I can't fight it anymore. There is a war in my soul," vamps Burns on the Berlin-esque "Surrender."

Onstage, W.I.T. perform their humorous, highly stylized valentine to the '80s through choreographed dance moves (hip-shaking and finger-pointing, mostly), singing, and frequent lip-synching--especially if the club has a crappy sound system.

"The whole point is that this is a pop project," says Burns. "We're not a garage band--no one's really coming to see us for that. It's more like an art show about pop."

And you can bet they'll never wear track suits.

 
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