Talk About Body
, February 21st, 2011 10:39
It's been said before, but it's fist-pumpingly good to see a feminist band taking MEN as their moniker after ideologically blank all-male bands proclaimed themselves 'Girls' and 'Women', presumably because all the best crystal- or wolf-related names were taken. MEN come armed with theory, and they have been performing for a few years now. They've had the time to hone their live shows into thumping projection-driven extravaganzas. JD Samson and Johanna Fateman build on the sometimes shonky sugared-up early-80s party synth minimalism of their previous band, Le Tigre. They've jumped forward a few years and added every trick in every AOR producer's coke-dusted playbook to stripped-down dance beats.
That's what it sounds like; here's what it's about. Talk About Body deals with bodies as the final resting place where everything from politics to power to the slow hook-drag of time comes back, in the end. It would be too easy for a record like this to be picked apart as a theoretical project, a record written like a manifesto that tells you what it's trying to do rather than doing it, but Talk About Body comes through with the goods.
The title of first single 'Off Our Backs' nods to a lesbian feminist journal that ran from the 1970s to the early 2000s, combining political activism with a down to earth mission to 'liberate all peoples'. It gallops along with a singsong vocal over a loopy guitar line that could have come from an '88 disco remix of Haircut 100. The official video features a tug of war on between healthy-looking butch women, hairy-chested bears, skater-dressed transmen, women who aren't so butch but more athletic. JD Samson dances around in the front like a boyband idol (the lesbians who look like Justin Bieber tumblr was ahead of its time). The dancing is peppy and poppy and boppy, sunny as the cheerleader chant that drives the tune. But the lyrics are about the power relationship between a couple, or a performer and her audience, negotiated through fucks, lies, reviews and cash.
This album could just as easily be called Talk About Money. Some other lyrics, taken from random songs: "Life's half price for suckers in love"; "Free love, free money"; "My body can't afford itself"; "Second time, second time is gonna cost some money"; "Working world is chained in time"; "Is it so hard to make a new heart?/ Share all our love, put it on a credit card".
'Who Am I to Feel So Free' questions gender construction as well as the dismissal of gender issues as first world problems. There's even a deep-voiced shoutout that sounds like one of the deranged and deluded alpha male Bob Dobbs/ Cowboy-in-chief characters in a Devo song: "I feel so free I could never die'" Because however much we can change our bodies to fit with our ideas of gender and aesthetics, love and utility, they're still bodies that need to eat and sleep and pay for stuff, bodies that can be frisked or probed or kettled. Freedom is linked to the prison of body, and all the ways it can be enslaved.
It's something to worry all of us now: queer, straight, trans or cis, the younger we are the more likely we've got more debt to look forward to. JD Samson describes how she studied film at private arts university Sarah Lawrence, and though working three jobs, she says "Unfortunately I will be paying off my loans for a very long time". These days, it's like the two things that mark people as full adults are understanding their gender and sexuality, and taking on masses of debt. There's a reason these songs are as much about money as anything else.
By incorporating sound cues from the mid to late 80s, the last time in most people's living memory (or just early enough before to have left its Thatcherite taint), many of MEN's songs suggest these struggles were always there. 'Make it Reverse', sounds like one of the music videos in an episode of 80s popstar cartoon Jem, with the drum break from Phil Collins' 'Tonight Tonight Tonight'. The next few songs slow down a bit, shift into minor keys, and both revels in and sounds haunted by the pastel and acid wash end of the 80s. There are borrowings from all kinds of 80s dance pop and chart rock: 'Simultaneously' hints at the Church's 'Reptile' and also U2's 'With Or Without You': it's the guitar sound of the last huge crash, skitterish, echoing, still somehow bloated.
This is followed by 'If You Want Something' which goes into an-ESG flavoured groove with the synth from Steve Miller's 'Fly Like An Eagle' trailing clouds of stardust, petrol fumes and sleeping gas. The lyrics of both songs address lovers or comrades; probably people with shared histories that go way back, too, deeper, if not further back, than credit histories.
Gender and body, money and power, how can you isolate, let alone separate these things? 'Rip Off' pre-empts any discussion of borrowings or influences by listeners or critics – "Orange Juice is the centre of the world" or "With disco and funk rhythms/rather in the manner of the Gang of Four". But why go there and explain? The next verse goes on to explore the effects of 'hypnotic' half-spoken monotone singing; the chorus repeats the "orange juice" line swapping "our truth" for the thing at the center of the world, later swapping this for "aren't you?".
It's a problem of most groups who try to define and live by some kind of ideology or code face: ideals are always challenged by lived reality. Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus' history of Riot Grrl, explains how one of the main reasons for the movement's collapse was infighting over talking to the press, about official definitions and distortions of what exactly the (never quite defined) movement was about. MEN have learned from this history and are well aware of these threats. 'Rip Off' is a manifesto that allows for contradiction. It joins form to function in its lyrics, explaining its workings to a groove which sounds a bit like a spikier Tom Tom Club (in the centre of this reviewer's world, at least).
Another thing: if MEN use 80s AOR tics that suggest decadence and decay, they're combined with enough disco love to offer hope. The final tracks, 'My Family' (which marries buzzsaw guitars with cowbell) and 'Be Like This' go further, and grab on to the tradition of family in the club, in the band, on the dancefloor. Disco is legendary for its sweaty indiscriminate embrace: you're human, you're here, you're in! Against outside head-noise of ideals and proscriptions on behaviour, a dance beat takes over, drives through a world in chaos outside, where maybe, as JD Samson suggests, that menacing noise is thunder, maybe it's airplanes (dropping bombs?) Maybe dancefloor unity is always temporary, but it's not necessarily always doomed.