Originally written for No Depression
The Cinebarre is a movie theater attached to an old mall on the outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina. It shares a highway exit ramp with hotels and chain restaurants. One way is the farmer’s market, the other is the arboretum. I’ve never known anyone to shop at the mall there. I’ve never been inside but, from what I can tell, it’s still at least somewhat functional. There’s a larger mall across town anchored to Barnes and Noble and a couple large department stores. In this town, every shop and bar has a sign up that says “Put your money where your heart is. Buy local.” So it stands to reason the mall is a destination most folks only ever approach if they need to buy a gift card for a family member in another state, where a Malaprop’s or Top’s Shoe Store doesn’t exist. (Buy online? Why would anyone do that in Asheville?)
I’ve come to Cinebarre one grumpy Sunday afternoon to kill some time watching that Katy Perry movie. Next to me, a young mother sits with a glass of wine (there’s waiter service and a full bar at this place) and two young girls. The girl sitting closest to her grips a pair of dolls that look somewhere between Bratz dolls and American Girls. Her shoes are covered in glitter. Her clothes don’t necessarily match, but the outfit works. Her friend is dressed much the same, but without the dolls. They’re both probably seven.
The movie is good, tugging you into a world of Perry’s creation, built on music and dancing and, more than anything else, a desire to create a space where people can find joy and connection in a less-than-perfect world.
I like Katy Perry. In a parallel universe, I may have become her largest detractor – considering songs like the one where she asks her alien man to abduct her – had I never seen her live. But, a couple years ago, during a lull in the schedule of Americana bands at Bumbershoot in Seattle, I climbed to the top of the stadium seats and took in about half of her mainstage set. It was something like 2 in the afternoon. She worked her ass off up there – proving she has a voice that need never be touched by the auspices of autotune; proving she’s backed by a band of remarkably gifted indie rock instrumentalists; showing the kind of presence and command of a midday festival crowd in the City that Grunge Built…the kind of presence which can only be formed by years of playing for nobody in bars with no backup dancers or band. Indeed, as the film attests with plenty of footage, Perry cut her teeth playing solo acoustic – songs which would be applauded on this site and could just as well have been written by someone like Amos Lee or Ray LaMontagne. Before that, influenced by her traveling Pentecostal preacher parents, she tried her way in the world of contemporary acoustic Christian music.
The Katy Perry we see now with the spinning boobs and silly string backdrops emerged in response to a bullshit music industry that wanted to make her sound like Alanis and then Avril and then whatever other “girl power” singer came along. Fuck it, she finally said, and flew the coop to another label that would let her write her songs by herself, for herself, etc., etc.
I understand the impulse.
When I was at about the age that Katy Perry told her label to get lost, I had somehow found my way to Riot Grrls. From my small town in Florida, where people self-segregated (still do, mostly) and the white kids drove big-wheeled trucks covered in mud and packed with CB radios, without the benefit of the internet, I found my way to the gritty, chunky guitar riffs of bands with names like Bikini Kill, L7, Babes in Toyland, Heavens to Betsy, Sleater-Kinney, Hole. I wasn’t an angry kid. I was kind of popular, I think, and just didn’t feel in-step with my peers. I wanted out. Big time.
I had zero appreciation for the high school way of life – that which prized appearances over ideas – and made sure my feelings about that were clear when I cut my hair into a boyish bowl senior year and started wearing the shirts of alt-rock bands in place of my Keyette jersey. I had a sneaking suspicion life beyond the high school walls wasn’t all that different, especially not for girls, and I had a craving for the intersection of all my interests – music, dancing, ideas, connections, imagination, questioning the way of things, defiance. Everything but the dancing could be found in the universe run by Riot Grrls.
From Riot Grrls, I learned about integrity and empowerment. I learned that a world which valued the contributions of women might not be perfect, but it could be just as legitimate (to coin a term, ahem) as the one in which we were already living. From listening to singers like Donita Sparks and Kat Bjelland and dykecore vocalists like Kaia Wilson and Donna Dresch, I learned that you don’t have to scream to be heard. There is power in every corner of your voice as long as you use it. Whispering, grunting, mumbling, caterwauling…no matter how a woman speaks, they seemed to be saying, she deserves to be heard. We deserve to be heard. Listen, for the love of god.
These are the same ideas behind everything Woody Guthrie ever wrote, and a couple of years later – following the long rusty, dusty road introduced to me by Ani DiFranco – I discovered the Riot Grrls’ message was nothing new. It had been passed down and repeated and amplified and poeticized throughought the entirety of human history. One big, long, musical game of telephone to which more and more people were bound to be listening all the time. The more of us joined that particular chain of justice and peace and equality for all, I discovered, the more the chain started to look like one big field of thriving flowers overpowering the din of concrete just by existing, by standing with all its color and warmth.
Pete Seeger tells a story about history being like a big unbalanced scale. On one side is a giant bucket full of rocks, the size of a planet. On the other is a basket of sand. The sand is always leaking out of the basket and all we have to fill it back up with is a bunch of teaspoons. We’re always scooping up sand with our teaspoons and putting it back in the basket. People say, “You’re crazy. Don’t you see the sand is always going to fall out of that basket? You can’t possibly balance that scale using tea spoons.” But we’re getting more people with tea spoons all the time, and if we all keep at it – only if we keep at it – the scale will tip. You can wait and see, or you can join us.
I say all of this – this whole convoluted twistingly circuitous statement about stuff – because there are three women in prison in Russia. Three members of a ten-or-so-person band who were arrested because they climbed over a railing to stand – and sing and dance – in a part of a church where only men are supposed to stand. They were charged with “hooliganism” and sentenced to two years in jail.
We humans have a problem with perspective. We wage a war on drugs when, if we step back for a moment, we can realize drugs aren’t the problem. People take drugs for reasons which will continue to persist whenever every addictive substance is erased from the planet (which will never happen because human beings do not control the whims of nature). We wage a war on terrorism as if that’ll ever eliminate the human impulse to convert others to our way of thinking through any means possible. And we lock up prisoners of conscience – artists and defiant activists – as if we can so destroy the spirit of oppressed people on the verge of empowerment, that ruling forces can once and for all convert others to their way of thinking through any means possible.
Locking up Pussy Riot – like attacking cocaine and Chick-fil-a and guns and abortion and gay families and black skin and Islam – is not going to fix anything at all. A giant conglomerate record label could not turn Katy Perry into Alanis Morrisette despite all the money they could possibly throw at her. Outlawing cocaine and guns will not stop people suffering from mental illness, from self-medicating or lashing out. Millions of people buying waffle fries are not going to make me walk away from my partner and the family we’re working on making. Passing laws that ban women from wearing religious garments is not going to erase the message of Muhammad from the hearts of those who have dedicated their spirit to his teachings. And redefining the word “rape” will neither stop men from attacking women and boys, nor will it save any clusters of multiplying cells from having their growth spurts interrupted by women incapable of taking care of the baby which could one day result.
And so, once again I find myself here on a music website trying to shed light on where all these things connect. I guess at least partly because I’m here on this site all day every day and I see people trying to make sense of why a song stirred their soul, or why it didn’t. There’s a great deal of discussion about the dexterity of guitar skills or the poetic allusion of a half-verse which leads into a chorus. People argue about whose words and melodies are more pertinent in a world of impertinence. And what I take away from all of it is a need to connect with strangers. A need to find joy and understanding away from the political vitriol of graphic memes splattered across Facebook. A need to step away from all the injustice and remember we all have so much in common, and so we owe each other at least an embrace if not a pledge to protect one another from harm.
And suddenly Katy Perry on the screen outside of this small mountain town, asking why we reject the fairy tale, talking about how the only thing that really matters to her when she gets onstage is that everyone in the room can find a smile on their face, even if it’s just for two hours…suddenly the gulf between this California girl with her spinning boobs is not so markedly separated from Kaia Wilson, Donita Sparks, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Woody Guthrie.
And me, I’m sitting here in the South, outside of the city, with the smallest part of me worried that the woman sitting next to me with her two girls might be concerned that she’s sitting next to a pair of lesbians holding hands in the dark theater. It doesn’t stop me, of course, because I pose no threat to them. But society and my upbringing tells me to feel sheepish about these things, so the thought enters my head. I quickly knock it away by life experience, which has taught me whenever people gather in a room around music, the things which divide them fall away.
At the end of the movie, the young mother leans over to me and my partner and says, “Isn’t she so cool? I’m so glad there’s someone in mainstream pop telling kids to stop trying to fit in. Just be who you are and that’s the most important. Be different. Know what you have to give the world. What a relief to have someone making music little girls can love that tells them different is beautiful. Because I have a different one.”
I push myself against my chair to give them room to walk by, and out march the two little girls with their glitter shoes and dolls and daringly mismatched outfits. Boom, boom, boom. Even brighter than the moon…even on the outskirts of town.