The only thing you need to know about Soft Cell’s original, banned Sex Dwarf video is that it featured a little person in bondage gear. It was that literal-minded. Of course, in 1981, it was the boobs and leather straps that fanned controversy. What Soft Cell set out to do, and succeeded in doing, was to paint a thinly-veiled picture of the gay underground, with its sleazy clubs and bars, its dark cruising fields, its fearless sexual exploration, and its hunger for real emotion. All gay life being underground life, the key word was ‘thinly-veiled’. Hence, in the videos, glamorous scantily clad women, prominent and ironic. We can view that period now with nostalgia for a bygone era of real authenticity, as everything special and counter-cultural about it becomes fodder for t-shirts. We can also look at is as kind of corny and very very sad, now that everything that used to be in the closet is proudly on parade.
Amanda Palmer just can’t stop being controversial, at least in the small corner of our culture where indie music is subject of serious discussion. Controversy is to be expected for a very emotionally and intellectually unfiltered person who lives her life on social media, as Amanda does. I’m not sure how and why we’re at a cultural moment where we’re having a heated discussion about a 12 year old song by a now defunct indie band, but here we are, so let’s have the damn conversation. Is Amanda Fucking Palmer transphobic? I mean, I think that we can agree that as a person, she is not. She is super pro-everyone being who they are and having the freedom and the right to do so. Is she an over-privileged white feminist and cis person who hasn’t quite grasped the nuances of intersectional identity politics? Oh yeah. So maybe she didn’t realize that it isn’t very nice, to say the least, to use language crudely referring to medical sex change – a physically, emotionally and politically fraught experience that many very vulnerable people struggle to go through – as a lyrical gimmick. I’ve always taken it as a broad metaphor, but listening closely, I can’t figure out what exactly the metaphor really is. It may be very broadly saying that personal growth can sometimes be traumatic. We change ourselves, and are changed by life, in extreme and violent ways. My best guess is she’s trying to say that society is cruel and dehumanizing in its expectations and often forces people to undergo painful and invasive changes, medical and otherwise, in order to become someone they’re not or someone they think they need to be. Which is a good point to make. We are all in a constant state of cutting and chopping away at ourselves in pursuit of, well, selfhood, it’s very often not even a very authentic self, and it’s usually female people who are hurting themselves to conform to externally enforced social expectations. But trans people who pursue identity-confirmation procedures in order to live their identities are not the same as women who are being oppressed by social standards, it’s a false equivalency, and one should not be used as a metaphor for the other. All of which, I know, is very complicated if you don’t spend time immersing yourself in these issues. And this is a song that was released 12 years ago, when these issues were not being discussed as much as they are today, so you can’t expect the same standard of cultural sensitivity. Something that was just fine 12 years ago may trouble you now, it may trouble you enough to thoroughly sour your enjoyment or it may not. It really depends of how much you were getting from the artist in the first place, and how much you still need from them.
25 March 1942 – 16 August 2018
When it comes to sexually explicit material, few bands have been as gleeful with their shock tactics as Lords of Acid. That may be why they never broke very far out of the underground techno scene. In the late 90’s they saw the internet-porn-fueled future and they thought it was going to be a blast. They also knew that orgasmic female moaning was a surefire party-starter at least as old as Serge Gainsbourgh. No pretentious big ideas about broader social context for them, though. Nuance? Never heard of her! Drinking, dancing and screwing in smoke-filled dungeons is the only life that matters. There’s something liberating in that kind of mindless hedonism.
There comes a point in every important conversation when you have to stop and ask, “But what does David Bowie have to say about it?” Although David Bowie has contributed more than most others in his field to our evolving ideas about sexuality and gender, he’s not the type to write crude anthems about fucking. I’m guessing that he was probably one of those insufferable intellectual soft bois who gave his one-night-stands a book to take home as a parting gift. Which, as a person who can’t quite separate sex from philosophy, I can relate to. That as it may, there wasn’t very much to find for this particular series of songs. Just a semi-instrumental from the obscure Buddha of Suburbia album. So, when pressed, I suppose that David Bowie just wants you to shut up and dance.
Peaches is best known for a song called Fuck the Pain Away, and for performing in a glue-on mustache and a strap-on dick, so it goes without saying that sex is a favorite topic of hers. I’ve always been of the opinion that her talent for shock value is more interesting than her actual music, but I’m also invested in the idea of music being a vehicle for boundary pushing, big ideas… social change, even. And we’ve often seen that music that effectively does those things is not necessarily the very best music, or made by the most proficient musicians. Peaches may be more of a performance artist than anything else, and she’s confrontational with her image and her ideas. What she’s confronting is vastly complex, but at the most obvious and basic level, her work deals with the images of women and women’s sexuality that we see in the media. It’s the ideal of the pliable, available, eternally open-mouthed sexy girl; and the idea that female sexuality is essentially passive and decorative, an ambiance, pink-hued, warm and moist, always and only there for men to sink themselves into. But here’s this homely broad with frizzy hair and serious Jew-face who likes to get naked and sing about fucking, and she sees sexuality as an imperative, an inward drive, an internalized and subjective experience, an aggressive force, something that men are only incidental to, something they may be on the receiving end of or they may not. This song – a cover of a minor hit by minor 80’s new wave band Berlin – takes a lot of pop song cliches about ‘making love forever’ and Peaches looks the camera dead in the eye when she delivers them. The original song is a duet: female vocalist promises that she is a virgin, a slut, a little girl, a blue moon and a dozen other things. The male vocalist declares that he is a man. Peaches declares that she is all of those things herself. That doesn’t make it a good song, honestly, but it does make it a good piece of performance art. It declares that sexuality itself is performance art; cliched roles may be discussed and subverted by artists and academics, but we still play them in the bedroom with no sense of irony.
Songs about sex. Everyone writes them, but it’s a pretty solid rule of thumb that people who have a nuanced view of sexuality don’t put it right up there as the title. The 1975, as you might have guessed, just by looking at them, are strangers to nuance. In their view, the greatest impediment to sex is… wait for it… “She’s got a boyfriend anyway.” I have to suspect – and the name of the band kind of supports me here – that this is a group of young men who really, reeealllyyy wish today’s music scene had the same groupie culture that it had before all the women realized that instead of giving musicians blowjobs in the limo, they could achieve their rockstar fantasies by actually becoming musicians themselves. Don’t worry, Matty, there will always be girls who want to give you a one-off blowjob in the limo before going home to be with their boyfriends while you go back to your hotel cumstained and alone.