Why Everett True is wrong

Written for Collapse Board

“Mostly only art created by women has any validity. The male experience has been created and recreated so often” – Everett True, 1992

That is such bulls***. It’s like saying that only Tuvan throat singing/rock hybrids have any validity because you don’t get much of that, either. (And, f***, it’s good stuff.)  I don’t flip the sleeve over to check the gender before I’ll listen to the record, any more than I’d think too much about whether they were, say, Turkish. And, yes, a Turkish act does bring a certain flavour to the mix that you rarely get with non-Turkish acts. It’s informed and shaped by its Turkishness but not wholly defined by it because it’s more than that and to reduce it to that is to insult it.

Take Aylin Aslim, for example. I don’t know who she is, but I love her. I don’t have the slightest clue what she’s singing about (though Google translate tells me it’s called “ghoul”). There’s definitely a Turkishness to what she does, but I don’t set out to listen to Turkish folk. I just like this one – her – because she has such a don’t-give-a-f*** attitude and playful energy that makes her an absolute joy to listen to.

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It’s an attitude prevailant among women who enjoy rock music but not so much among those who don’t. What is it that makes us different? Too much testosterone in the womb? *Notes elongated ring finger.*+ Well, yes, but it’s more complicated than that.

When I was 16 I was in a band with a much older American who used to know Courtney Love. I quit the band before we played any gigs because my bandmate wanted to call us Beef Curtains. Courtney once said that Hole was not a genital reference – the line of inspiration was “there’s a hole in my soul”. If even Courtney Love thinks it’s vulgar, you might want to rethink your strategy.

(While we’re on the subject, what is the obsession with body parts? I heard Hermione from Harry Potter referred to as “the one with the vagina”. Seriously? “Lindsay Lohan’s dress was so short I could see her vagina.” I’d be impressed if you could. The vagina is the inner bit; the vulva is the outer bit. If you’re going to be vile, at least be correct. And my most hated: “hot piece of ass”. What, you don’t even get to be a whole ass? If you were any less of a person, you’d vanish altogether.)

Of course, Babes In Toyland could be pretty vulgar at times, but that went with the primal fury of their sound. Kat was a terrifying presence on stage, and I think that’s what Lorraine wanted to capture with our band. It would have worked for her, but not for me. I’m just not a screamer.

The problem I had with bands was the same problem I had with drama class: there just weren’t any roles I felt comfortable with. You’re either the love interest, the shouty one or the mad one. Zooey Deschanel, Kat Bjelland or Tori Amos. Other women wanted to play Hamlet; I wanted to play Stoppard’s Guildenstern. Where are the Guildenstern bands: the ones on the sidelines making wry observations? Elastica were in the 90s, but they’re long forgotten now. History doesn’t favour the adequate; only the outstanding. While we’re at it, where are the girl Hamlets? You know what I’d really like to see? The Portias: Shakespeare’s most overlooked female character. Smart, quick witted, resourceful, and thoroughly, refreshingly sane.

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I’ve heard a lot of good albums in the past year by female-fronted acts, but no truly great ones. I wanted to like PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake a lot more than I did. I enjoyed Glasser’s Ring and Guai Li’s Flight Of Delusion and Buke And Gass’s Riposte – but compare those to the last albums by Sufjan Stevens or Foetus or Battles? Those are better because they have more depth, innovation and variety. Even if you’re more than just the ‘love interest’, ‘shouty’ or ‘mad’, a real person is made of many facets. The worst character in fiction is Twilight‘s Bella: a canvas of nothingness onto which the empty project their shallow desires. Washed Out in book form.

Into the best music, the songwriter pours her whole soul. There’ll be love and hate and lust and longing and regret and happiness and rage and despair and humour and raw, personal honesty. There’ll be wry, witty observations and songs about belief and doubt and shame and pride. And – to be fair – there are a lot of good albums where the lyrics contain all those things but the music does not. You cannot make a great album with 12 songs that sound roughly the same, and that alone is why so many fine albums by clever women just don’t hit the mark.

Female rock stars are like female athletes: they can outperform most of both genders, but the women can’t beat the best of the men, and I don’t really know why. [Whoa, now just wait a minute! – outraged Ed] Is it just a numbers game? I’ve named three outstanding male acts out of tens of millions of male-fronted bands. Were the numbers equalled up, would there be women among the Greatest Bands In The World? I certainly think so, but we’re still stuck with a default where fewer little girls love rock than boys, and I’m not sure if that’s going to change much.

Is it because we’re too eager to praise female-fronted acts? They’re so rare and precious that any band that comes along that isn’t abysmal is celebrated more than it would be if they were boys, when the truth is that they’re just not good enough – or if they’re good, they could be better. Too many albums blow their load in the first track and only the better ones don’t run out of steam halfway through – but that’s not the same as surprising you on every song. Let England Shake was an indisputably fine album, but it’s the best album I’ve heard in a year by a woman – not the best I’ve heard overall. If I was Polly Jean Harvey and heard someone say, “It’s a great album … for a woman,” I’d be horrified. [I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone say that. Anyone – Ed] More than that, I’d know I need to up my game.

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How do you respond to that challenge? I saw Everett True call out Lucy Cage and Scott Creney as two of the most naturally gifted writers he’d seen, and I look at their work and think, “They’re better than me”. I’m normally employed for being cheap and reliable, but is that how I want to be forgotten? History doesn’t favour the adequate: most people don’t even recall what I wrote last week. I need to work harder; take more care; pour my whole soul in – not because there’s any grand competition, but because adequate isn’t good enough.

It’s not enough to outrun the crowd, you have to want to break records. Break them in the sense that you shatter people’s expectations of what you’re capable of – alter not just your own record, but their assumption of what the record can be. The best records leave you reeling, devastated, excited and bewildered. You didn’t know music could do this. Then the next song comes along and does it again, but totally differently. It leaves you dazed, confounded and forever changed. I just can’t see people tearing up at Glasser the way they do with Cardiacs’ Dirty Boy.

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It’s not that I think Cameron Mesirow lacks the talent to make a game-changing album, but I don’t think anyone told her that she should. I feel like the teacher with the red pen: Must Try Harder. Yes, you should, and yes, you must! Certainly if you want to look yourself in the eye in the mirror. You need the pride of knowing what you do is the best that you can do and of pushing it as far as it can go. It’s not the body parts that divide us but the emotions that unite us. It’s not the “male experience” or the “female experience”, but the human experience in all its depth and variety. Your quest is to portray that in all its visceral beauty and complexity.

If you’re not doing your damnedest to push yourself harder, then your art doesn’t have any validity at all.

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+Actually, only the right hand counts for that, so that’s that bit of pseudoscience out of the window
There’s some great discussion in the comments field over at Collapse Board.

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