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“I guess you go too far when pianos try to be guitars” — it’s a classic Tori Amos quote, and far be it from me to decipher any Tori Amos lyrics (oh don’t get me wrong; I love me some Tori.) but I find this quote to be particularly interesting and evocative. I looked up her own comments on the song, which added an interesting dimension to the lyric:

The line, I guess you go too far/when pianos try to be guitars is just about never being enough. I felt that with my instrument sometimes, wanting to be Jimmy Page. You can only be you. A lot of times it’s never enough for people.”

And I started thinking about gender. Now there’s nothing inherently gendered about playing guitar or piano: Joni Mitchell, Joan Jett, and Ani DiFranco all rock(ed) the guitar scene. Elton John, Rufus Wainwright, and Billy Joel are piano men. Nevertheless, I think these instruments get gendered. For some reason I cannot fathom, all the indie rocker guys singing with intentionally rough/scratchy/stylized voices are  don’t usually get dismissed as trying to be Dylan or a 60’s music throwback (or if they are, it’s considered a positive thing), and yet, you can’t be a woman with a piano without the Tori Amos/Sarah McLaughlin/your music is so 90’s comparison. I realize that there are exceptions to this (Regina Spektor seems to be doing pretty well for herself, thank god!), and so I’m going to full-out admit that I understand that there’s some generalizing involved. But that’s not the point…

Vienna Teng's <i>Inland Territory</i> is an intimate and sophisticated album.

Vienna Teng's Inland Territory is an intimate and sophisticated album.

Now, I love me some guys with guitars, but I also love some women with pianos. So I’m going to talk about two women with pianos who deserve your respect and your ears: Vienna Teng and Terami Hirsch. Are they trying to be “guitars”–make those kind of musical waves? I don’t know, but they do rock.

Vienna Teng is a Taiwanese-American singer-songwriter from the SF Bay Area (yay!). After graduating from Stanford, she went into computer engineering, only to give it all up to pursue her music. But before I get going on her music, let me get to the instance that inspired this post in the first place. Back in May, Vienna Teng launched her fourth album “Inland Territory.” I started searching for reviews of the album and came across this piece from Paste Magazine, which struck me as incredibly lazy. Not only did the author not bother to make sure he wrote down the track titles correctly (He called “White Light” “White Lie,”) but he also introduced the article with this rather telling statement:

With her nimble piano arpeggios and Lilith Fair balladry, Vienna Teng casts a backward glance during Inland Territory, a retro-minded release anchored in the legacy of Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and other mainstays of the mid-‘90s female-songwriter boom.

It honestly felt to me as if Mr. Leahey heard the piano, thought “Lilith Fair,” assumed he knew what “Lilith Fair” meant,  and shut his brain off. To be fair, Teng, in general, makes deceptively simple music. Upon first hearing it, you’ll probably think, “Well, this is pretty.” And it is. She creates lovely, stirring piano melodies. But just because something sounds pretty and has a woman singing it, does that mean we can assume what the content is and shut our brains off? Have we really reached the point where melody translates to shallow except when Sufjan Stevens sings “Chicago”*?

If he had bothered listening to the album, Leahey would have heard songs exploring people’s willingness to ignore world events, mistakenly believing that what happens in “3rd world countries”  has nothing to do with them (“Radio”.) He would have heard a vignette from the point of view of a teenager in a hypothetical future in which Americans are sneaking over the border to Mexico, hunting for work (“No Gringo.”) He would have heard a song from the perspective of her Taiwanese grandmother, an attempt for her to understand her grandmother’s harsh criticism of her musical career while still portraying her grandmother as a brave, sympathetic individual who had to flee oppression in her homeland (“Grandmother Song.”) Throughout her songs, she puts on a variety of masks and personae to talk about contemporary issues, identity issues, and, yes, love. When she addresses political issues such as immigration (or gay marriage, as she did in her song “City Hall” off of “Dreaming Through the Noise,”) she focuses on the people these issues effects, forcing herself and others into the shoes of someone they may or may not find easy to relate to. I fail to see what’s so “retro-minded” about this kind of approach.

And that’s the thing about Vienna Teng: she seems so easy to dismiss, and this makes it all the more important that we don’t. Honestly, I think it’s because her music is irresistibly pretty that we allow it to succumb to our worst prejudices; at first even I was inclined to assumed that there was nothing behind the lovely, swirling piano. But pretty doesn’t have to mean hollow, and in Teng’s case, it certainly doesn’t. She’s a fantastic artist and performer, with remarkable empathy and sensitivity. I absolutely adore “Inland Territory,” but really, you can’t go wrong with any of her albums. I linked to her site above, which has some streaming music, and you can also check out her myspace.

As little-known as Vienna Teng is, singer-songwriter Terami Hirsch is one of the most obscure artists I listen to. That’s a fact, not

<i>A Broke Machine</i> is a dark, fascinating soundscape.

A Broke Machine is a dark, fascinating soundscape.

a bragging right–in fact, I wish she weren’t so obscure. Terami is a little difficult to classify. Though she’s piano-focused, she works with synths and keyboards to make highly textured, layered songs with mysterious lyrics. Her albums sometimes feel dark and heavy, but part of the heaviness simply comes from the digital layering.

I first fell in love with the song “Little Light,” off of Entropy 29. It felt like the theme song for an as-of-yet unwritten heroine of a dystopian tale. I know that is a terribly vague description; this is why I don’t describe music often on this blog–I simply don’t have the technical vocabulary to explain it. However, the rest of the album had such a specific mood to it that I found I could only listen to it when I had the energy to give it its deserved attention. A Broke Machine, her latest album, is no lighter, but perhaps more sophisticated and beautiful. Then again, I might be biased because it contains my favorite song of hers, “The Collector” (I’ll go back to that in a moment.)

I’m going to talk about “The Collector” in specific because I think it’s the closest I can come to encapsulating exactly why Terami fascinates me, despite it being more accoustic than her other songs. From the swirling piano intro, to the verse-chorus structure, there’s something instantly familiar about the song; it reminds you of a love ballad. And yet, something’s wrong. Maybe it’s the tone, the frightening lyrics, the sheer… obsessiveness of it.

Why can’t I let it go?
I’m tired of impossibilities
Chasing down a ghost
To pin it like a butterfly
And hang it on my wall for beauty
I was running through the noise
Playground photographs of me
Chasing down the boys
And tripping over shoelaces
I’ll hold them down to touch their beauty
Oh, I collect what I cannot hold
I collect what I ache for
I collect what I can’t let go…
I collect all I can!

It’s utterly creepy (and I do not condone unwanted touching of anyone, even if it’s children playing with each other,) but, ultimately, that’s what makes this song so interesting. It’s a broken love ballad, trying to contain beauty. And yet, there’s something so relate-able about this character, wanting to be closer to, to encompass what she finds beautiful/sexual. It’s disturbing, but thought-provoking, and utterly addictive to listen to. Some of her songs, of course, have a more of a sense of renewal: “A Hundred Flowers” has a sense of renewal; “There’s a Garden” is about remembering the happy person trapped within you during a bout of depression. But all of them twist your expectations. They are meticulously crafted little gems.

Unlike Teng, I think Terami is probably overlooked because she’s simply not commercial, despite the obvious care she takes in designing every aspect of her albums (down to the cover art!). And, you know, that’s not a criticism; plenty of people make music that’s difficult to get into. You can listen to Entropy 29 on her main site (linked above,) or check out her Myspace page for songs from A Broke Machine (yes, including “The Collector”.)

Sorry for the less-than-analytic post, but I’m tired and brain dead; I just wanted to post this before moss started growing on the mirror. I’m here, and I’m thinking, but I am but one woman, and occasionally susceptible to writer’s block. Hope everyone out there and reading is well!

*Disclaimer: I love Sufjan Stevens too.

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What’s more fun than Valentine’s chocolate? Femme fatales! Clearly.

Barbara Stanwyck as the classic femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson

Barbara Stanwyck as the classic femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson

I have a Noir-loving streak. Can’t help it–ever since I took a class in college on American Film Noir, I couldn’t help but gain a soft spot for the overly-gender-conscious, campy genre. And, of course, I love the concept of the femme fatale.

I suppose I could do a long, in-depth post about the femme fatale in the American cultural imagination and how she represents the anxieties (and dark fantasies) surrounding the sexually assertive woman. Maybe I will someday. But it’s Sunday, not someday, and I’m tired, so instead I’m going to leave you with some awesome videos to celebrate the archetype.

Rita Hayworth- Put the Blame on Mame (from Gilda)

People consider Gilda to be the quintessential femme fatale, which is kind of odd because she’s not actually a femme fatale at all. She gets blamed for promiscuity because of her overt sexuality, and in this number she intentionally plays on these fears. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, she’s not supposed to be singing at the nightclub at all, much less removing any articles of clothing. Also, I love the song to bits. Quinn Lemley also does a nice version of it. Just remember that most people can’t get away with referring to San Francisco as “Frisco.”

This next clip, though not a Noir video by any means, really gets to the heart of what a femme fatale is (at least, to me). The femme fatale can hold power over men precisely because of her sexual promiscuity.

I think this awesome Eartha Kitt video really sums it up. Note the direct link between promiscuity and other sorts of “evil.”

Eartha Kitt- I Want To Be Evil

Enjoy!

So, remember that little section I used to have called “The Snazz?” It was a place where I used to post the snazzy media that I was reading/watching/listening to/ seeing/etc.. In any case, you might notice that it’s gone. Vanished, for good and for better. I decided that the format just wasn’t working–the page wasn’t serving any purpose whatsoever. But, because a cultural critic should be steeped in media, and blogs are meant for sharing, I’m revising The Snazz.

So here we have the new and improved Snazz: Every Thursday I will do a post about the media that I’m indulging in this week, and you can share your

I'm going to see Coraline this weekend!

I'm going to see Coraline this weekend!

recommendations, rants, comments,  concerns, musings, etc. Links may include anything: blogs, comics, games, YouTube videos, magazines, etc. Because with so much frustrating media out there, we need some snazzy stuff. (All book links go to the Powell’s website because I’m a snob like that.)

I’m reading:

  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie- I’m very torn about this one so far. Rushdie gets a little too symbolic for his own good. Also, New York Times, it’s very problematic of you to label a single novel as “A continent finding its voice.” Just saying.
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore- This book does insane things with genre, and I love it for it. Also, the ending makes me profoundly uncomfortable, in a very good thought-provoking way. I’ll stop there to save space.
  • The Feb/March issue of Bust (my subscription finally arrived!)- Still delving in.

I’m Watching:

  • Zaïna @ The Cascade African Film Festival– A Moroccan film about a very awesome 11-year-old girl! Includes nomadic life, horse racing, and the impersonation of ghost queens.
  • Coraline (tonight or tomorrow! So excited!)- Yes, I’m a Gaiman fan like everyone else.  This Bitch blog post makes me a little bit sad about the production though. I’m still going to see it and probably love it. I hope the puppet-sculpting crew members end up getting A) jobs and B) the respect they deserve.
  • the “X-Files” (though there’s nothing really new and exciting about that)-because I find watching Scully in all her geeky genius to be a very cathartic activity.

Also, I’m going to try and make it to the Portland International Film Fest at some point, if I can. I’m thinking of adding “Mad Men” to my tv watching line-up. Anyone seen it?

I’m Listening:

  • Wir Sind Helden– Die Reklamation- Totally danceable German rock. (Link goes to their official page, which is in German. Don’t feel bad–I can’t read it either. For all I know, their songs could about killing puppies, but my flatmate assures me otherwise.)

I’m Seeing:

Mandy Greer Dare alla Luce @ The Museum of Contemporary Craft – (okay, so I saw this last week. I’m stretching my rules.) An incredible installation of textile art at my favorite free museum in Portland. It’s mind-blowingly beautiful (and about a Roman myth in which breast milk created the Milky Way). Snazz indeed.

So, everyone, what are you reading/watching/listening to?

Fans of the Dresden Dolls and frequenters of the feminist blog-o-sphere will already be familiar with the

Amanda Palmer (image from Paste Magazine)

Amanda Palmer (image from Paste Magazine)

clash between Amanda Palmer and Roadrunner records. Actually, I’m not too fond of the term “clash” in this situation because that would imply two parties on the same level disagreeing over a point, but it’ll do in a pinch. For those of you unfamiliar, after releasing a music video for her new single Leeds United (link goes to youtube), which features her bare belly, the Roadrunner Records executives told Amanda that “there were certain shots that they wanted to either cut completely or digitally alter to ‘be more flattering'” (source: Amanda Palmer’s official blog). Fortunately for us, not only has Amanda Palmer herself taken a stand against this, but also a group of her fans have started The Rebellyion. In protest against Roadrunner’s idiocy, the hundreds of fans who joined the Rebellyion have submitted photos of their bare bellies in all of their un-edited glory. I’m not focusing on the Rebellyion in this post, but I’ve got to give them a nod here. I’m glad that something so positive has come out of this.

But I think there’s even more to discuss here. The record company’s decision itself, though it bothered me, didn’t necessarily shock me. There are plenty of horror stories about artists on major record labels from Kenna (who, despite the acclaim of fellow artists and producers, had to fight to get any radio play because his work was difficult to categorize) to Sara Bareilles (whose hit single “Love Song” came out of being frustrated with Epic Records demand that she write another love song for her album) constantly having to fight to keep their artistic visions alive while very conservative record executives panic over what will sell. Though this pushes the line even there and reveals how truly fat-phobic our culture is, what really shocked and disgusted me were some of the other comments that Palmer revealed on her blog:

“I’m a guy, Amanda. I understand what people like.”

And, at a later meeting:

He said he thought it was a shame that someone as smart and talented as me could not make a commercial record that they could sell. And he thinks that someday I’ll see the light and write some better songs.

The comment, “I’m a guy. I know what people like,” is the most revealing piece of this entire dialogue. It gets at so much of the struggle that female artists have to deal with just to get our work out there. As I like to put it, it’s the problem of being told that people actually mean humankind when they say mankind when a lot of the time they don’t. There is this ever-pervasive idea that if you write for women, you are not writing something commercially viable. Men write for everyone, women for women (I mused a little about this in my Wordstock Reflections post, if you’re interested in reading more about this point.). Thus, men are expected to have more commercial knowledge.

I support the rebellyion wholeheartedly (yay!), but, in the end, this goes beyond the belly. I agree that it is disgusting that our society has such a distorted view of beauty that an unedited belly has apparently become disgusting for the masses, but there’s a part of me that is concerned that the record company’s marketing even has to reach Amanda’s belly. This goes into the state of our culture’s reception of female artists. For cis-men, it is far easier to leave their bodies behind and become voices, words, and brush strokes, or, if they don’t entirely lose their bodies in the process, they can at least move fluidly between sex object and artist (I guess maybe there can be some argument in the cases of heartthrobs such as John Barrowman, David Duchovny, or the whole slew of 90’s boy bands, but that’s neither here nor there, and I’d need an entire separate post to analyze them.). Women, according to our culture, are always attached to their bodies in some way. It brings back memories of sitting in high school English classes and having to hear the harsh commentary the boys would make about Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton’s appearances. In Spanish class, they acted like Frida Kahlo’s unibrow was an affront against their eyes and their hormones. It’s enough to make any girl despair not only about her body image, but what would happen if she dared tried to write or paint; especially if her work brought up her body at all.

I always think about it like dressing for a job interview. When my (male) flatmate dresses for a job interview, he focuses on looking neat and polished. He worries about whether he is over or under-dressed. When I dress for a job interview, I start by worrying about these same things, but then I get to my chest. I always spend a good chunk of time staring in the mirror wondering if the shirt I am wearing is modest enough or if it is so modest that I look frumpy and unapproachable. Women have to work not to be taken sexually, and, a lot of the time, if you’re being taken sexually, you (unfairly) run the risk of not being taken seriously.

Amanda, as a performing artist, is proud of her body (and she should be!). I’m not arguing that it would be better if we had no idea if she looked like, if she just sang from behind a curtain. I don’t think she’d enjoy that anyhow. She sings about relationships, sexuality, masturbation; her body is an important part of her music in a very positive and empowering way. The problem here is the record company’s inability to see her as more than her body (or, if they do, as more than her body and a money making machine.). So many of female artists who are in the mainstream–I’m using a very simple definition of “mainstream” that has nothing to do with people arguing about selling out or who is or isn’t indie (aka-I’m not talking Tori Amos, Sarah McLaughlin, or anyone like that)–are designed simply to be only the sum of their bodies. Think of The Pussycat Dolls; their name and, as far as I can tell, all their songs are designed to make you focus on their bodies. Their physical form is more important than what they’re singing. If you want to sell a ton of records in a brief burst, I guess they are who you want. This, of course, has nothing to do with art, which shouldn’t surprise anyone by now, but that’s just the way it is (note that whenever I say, “That’s just how things are,” I don’t mean it as the conclusion of an argument nor as a preclusion of much-needed change. Maybe this is how things are, but that doesn’t mean it’s the way things have to be.). So, from what we can see here, aside from a misogynistic fear of women who make angry music, part of what makes Amanda Palmer’s songs “difficult to sell” in the minds of the record company is her refusal to use her body how they see fit. I even wonder if they would mind her anger if she allowed the record company to airbrush her image (probably not, but I’m angry now, and so I’m going to speculate in ways that are not particularly kind to the record company.).

Roadrunner Records is not only perpetuating horrible body-image issues and suggesting that a very attractive woman is unfit to perform un-airbrushed, but they are also denying the worth of Amanda Palmer as an artist outside of the confines of her body and the worth of her fanbase as a commercial market. I know, I know, music is art, art shouldn’t be judged on marketability, but it is a little insulting that the very loyal fans of the Dresden Dolls/Amanda Palmer (I don’t know much about it, but I do know they have a very active fanbase) are considered unimportant from the record company’s point of view. And it is even more insulting that Amanda’s song-writing skills mean nothing in comparison to her having a round belly.

Noe Venable

Noe Venable

We’ve all heard the phrases for female indie/alternative musicians: chick rock, a girl and her guitar/piano. Descriptive, yes, but you always get the sense that someone’s saying that they’re oh-so precious, precious being used in that grating way creative writing teachers enjoy springing on you when they think that your story veers dangerously close to resembling a Norman Rockwell illustration. In short, so many female musicians get dismissed as not being serious artists before anyone even hears them, which is a shame because many of them are wonderful (and some aren’t, as with any group of artists.) Rather sad, don’t you think? So let me introduce you to one. By far one of my favorite “indie” folk/rock/alternative singer-songwriters is Noe Venable. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of her; really, no one has heard of her outside of dedicated fans and the San Francisco music scene (although now she’s at school in Massachusetts, so maybe she’s getting some publicity over there.).

Sometimes I think becoming a fan of a musician is a little like falling in love: people hear a song they like, and it decides to follow them home. Next thing you know they are buying every single album by that artist, shelling out money for fan club memberships, and reading a year’s worth of blog entries. For about a month or so, no one can touch that artist’s brilliance, but soon the novelty wears off they get comfortable with him or her and settle down. The insatiable lust tapers off into something more comfortable. My fascination with Noe’s music was never like that. Honestly, the first time I heard her song “Boots” (from the album of the same name), I knew that I was listening to something brilliant but couldn’t enjoy it. I found her voice jarring and fragile. Nevertheless, the song wouldn’t leave me alone. It demanded to be listened to, begged for second chances. Believe me, “Boots” definitely deserved a second chance.

Noe is vibrant, thoughtful, irreverent, and tender. One minute she’ll be singing a mysterious song of personal transformation, the next she’ll be comparing a sunset to cunnilingus. The beautiful, the erotic, the terrifying, the esoteric, and the ugly all have a place in her world, which makes it all the more satisfying and real. Nowhere is this more apparent than on her fourth album, Boots. Noe says of Boots:

In so many of my favorite stories these troubled men dream of finding a woman to save them. You read stories like that and you’re troubled, and you start dreaming of the same thing. Then one day you wake up and say, wait, I am the woman in those stories. But I’m troubled! So now who’s going to save me? I think that’s where Boots begins.

I think most fans prefer “The World is Bound By Secret Knots,” which is also a fantastic album, but “Boots” is my personal favorite. Even the first two songs on the album alone work together to produce a stunning musical portrait of the disparity between projected and personal identity. The first song, and title track of the album, is sung from the point of view of a woman who relies on a pair of boots for strength when dealing with the dangerous realities of her world:

I go to the corner where it all goes down
and I do things I’ll regret but not right now
they say “angel, you been here before”
yeah, I had my boots to carry me

just like Pandora with her box
I let everything out and spin around
and when they come to me, it’s like a river to cross
but I have my boots to ferry me

I’d like to see my eyes in someone else’s face
I’d like to see my face on a magazine
the things I want, the life I need
my boots keep me between

The end of the song fades into an acapella section which soon melds organically into the softer, gentler guitar intro of the second track, “Prettiness.” It is unclear whether the narrators of the two songs are intended to be the same or different, but both women are equally aware that while the personae created by the clothes they wear may be fragile and false, they have everything to do with the way people treat them:

I have never been one for prettiness prettiness
thinking of lace ’bout makes me puke
but the thing I just bought has a little bit little bit
I’m putting it on and I’m thinking of you

when I was a child I followed some holy men
going into woods to do their work
I had an overcoat on just to cover me cover me
listening for anything I might learn

and there were stars up in the heavens
and if they caught me, what could they do?
they did not know I was a woman
at least I didn’t think they knew

It would be, as one of my friends suggests, so easy to dismiss this as another woman singing about cutesy things, using boots and lace as metaphors for what kind of woman she is. But the use of clothing here is both deliberate and clever. After all, no matter your gender, clothing is a major part of the creation of public image. Noe has done a fantastic job capturing the dilemma so many women (and men) face in deciding how to present themselves, the tention between who we are, who we have to be to get the job done, and who we could be.

When I think of these songs, I picture characters like Dana Scully on the X-Files.  I see my mother back when she was trying to apply to medical school, and had to deal with interview questions such as, “How do you feel taking a man’s spot?” I remember an article I read about women in academia who faced a nightmare getting dressed in the morning because no matter what they wore they either seemed too frumpy, frigid, or sexy to be taken seriously. All of these women have (or had) to somehow transcend their gender in order to be taken seriously for the work they do. Women who want to “see their face on a magazine” or dream of being able to “follow some holy men,” have to craft their personae very carefully.  In both the literal and symbolic senses, we have to know when to wear lace and when combat boots. To be taken seriously as a tough woman, as a smart woman, we have to put on androgynous boots, try to be just asexual enough without losing female identity. Therefore, when we do show a little bit of lace, ask to be seen both as  brilliant minds and as potential significant others, we risk losing our boots, our symbols of strength and courage. We risk becoming mere sex objects. And it’s scary. At the end of “Prettiness,” as the instrumentation swells, only to suddenly vanish beneath her voice, Noe asserts, “He does not know I am a woman, | But I think I might want him to know.” The risk, trust, and self-confidence embodied in that statement is at once incredibly powerful and relatable.

Not all of Noe’s songs are about gender identity. In “Strange Companion,” she sings from the point of view of a car who witnesses the brutal murder of its owner. In “Prayer for Beauty,” she daringly asserts that a belief in the potential for beauty is necessary to combat ugliness in the world. In “Juniper,” she sings from the point of view of a child who feels most at home amongst the branches of her favorite tree. Noe treats all of these subjects and characters with thought-provoking insight and fantastic (mostly) acoustic accompaniment. Her music is truly a treat for both the mind and the ear.

If you’re interested in learning more about Noe, or hearing a song or two, I suggest you check out her official website, where she has a few songs for download, or her myspace page.

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From the Cracked Mirror is a blog about culture, both high and low, including art, literature, film, food, and advertising from a progressive and feminist perspective. I’m here to critique, elucidate, wonder, and gush...

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