Saturday, January 15, 2011

The one in which I discover the artistic link between Sleater-Kinney, Patti Smith, and The Dixie Chicks

A woman I once respected described Sleater-Kinney as having “all the passion of remedial math.” A half-decade later this comparison still flummoxes me.

SK’s alleged lack of passion was part of larger online discussion on why rock fans don’t (or won’t) listen to female-fronted bands. I find it disheartening, though not really surprising anymore, when a women discredits art made by other women. Maybe she was fully convinced that Sleater-Kinney’s music was atonal, dispassionate noise, but I don’t hear it. I think it’s hard to look at that and not see the bigger issue at play: the old trope that women don’t “rock.” And the few that do — the ones granted access to the boys’ side of the playground — do so only because they co-opt a “male” style of rocking.

So who got a pass that day? Chrissie Hynde for one. Patti Smith did, sort of, when she wasn’t accused of being “the last hippy,” rather than “the first punk.” (This is fairly apt, by the way, but I dare anyone who doesn’t think Patti Smith isn’t a rock star in the truest sense of the word to go to one of her shows if you get the chance.) Throughout their careers, both women have aligned themselves with men, and, at least in Patti’s case, eschewed the feminist label in favor of the “artist” one.

I think what a lot of music fans mean when they don't like an artist's work is, really, they don't like the artist's "brand." I know I'm guilty of this. Sometimes it's really hard to separate the music someone makes with its cultural implications. I don't like country music. There. I said it.

And of course, this is a lie. I like the sound of county music, but the baggage that comes with it -- the stereotype of a country music fan who has a Toby Keith bumper sticker sandwiched between an NRA one, and another that says, "She's a child, not a choice." Logically, I know not everyone who listens to mainstream country music is a right-wing, second amendment supporting, anti-choicer, but that image is prevalent enough to make me groan when someone tells me he is, well, a Toby Keith fan.

The Dixie Chicks subverted country music's "narrative," and did so in a commercially devastating way after Natalie Maines's denouncement of the Iraq war and then-president Bush. (Check out the documentary Shut Up and Sing for the whole story.) Would I like them -- or admit to -- had they not recorded this song? I don't know. "Ready to Make Nice," is a great song under any circumstances, but it also solidified their position as country music outsiders, which is part of the appeal.

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