Saturday, April 2, 2011

Best of Women: We Dance To The Beat

Achievement in Music: Robyn
Oh man, remember Robyn? Back in like grade seven, when she had that single and she was blonde and Swedish and then she sort of, uh, disappeared? I have a soft spot for one-hit wonders, specifically internationally successful artists who occasionally break through to North American listeners. Chumbawamba? Primo example. We were all "I get knocked down! I get up again! This....this is basically a drinks menu! Awesome!" for a summer, and then they disappeared back into their European hole, back to being anarcho-punks with serious lefty leanings that weren't easier conveyed to radio listeners.

Robyn hasn't gotten serious press since '95, but last year she came out with a blistering triad of synth-dance albums that were an experiment in post-Napster album production. She released acoustic versions of dance songs she hadn't written yet, collaborated with Snoop Dogg and Royksopp, and sort of came back. The culmination album, 2010's Body Talk, is ridiculously good. I mean, dancefloor jams aren't for everyone, but for folks who like their sugar with synth and 808s, it will rock you.

I especially dig the fact that she got experimental with her album structure. In the pop music world, it's rare that we're allowed a glimpse behind the production curtain. Can you imagine Britney releasing her works in progress? Her albums, even if they're released to mixed reviews, are touched by the hands of a thousand producers and a million tweaks, all before fans get their hands on the finished product. Robyn was like, "Ehhhh...eff that. I'm not perfect. Some of these songs will be better as acoustic jams, and some will rock the dancefloor. I'll take it as it comes." Love that! It speaks to a vulnerability, a willingness to be imperfect, that is extremely rare in pop music. The most we're usually offered is an acoustic outtake of a pop princess in sweats, tickling the ivories in an unconvincing bid to show us they are the authors of their own successes, instead of an army of A+R, marketing, production and support people.

Anyone who can release a song with the lyrics, "We dance to the beat of a million bad kissers with clicking teeth" is aces in my books. Her songs are funny, making pop culture references (Deloreans!) while still retaining the nuttiness of an actual honest emotional expression. I know pop music can be personal, but when Robyn belts out the instructional chorus to "Call Your Girlfriend," I get the sense that homegirl might have been there.

Best of all, the video for the hit "Dancing On My Own" is unabashedly angry, which is terribly cool to me. I feel like women in the entertainment industry rarely give themselves permission to express rage, much less through dance. She has fucked-up snaggle teeth and a deconstructed soccer-mom hairdo. I love it. I love that she is honestly human in an industry that does its best to present the world in glossy three-minute chunks. I love that she embraces her damage instead of denying it. I admire her for trying her things, for sticking to her roots, and for expressing herself in a medium that usually only expresses a love for the dancefloor. Tack så mycket, Robyn.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Best of Women: Fashion! Yipee! Sparkles!

Achievement in Fashion Design: Rodarte / Kate and Laura Mulleavy
All right, I'll cop to the fact that leading these awards with a couple of fashion designers is a little like attending the Vegetarian Food Fair with a steak in my purse. But: how many other female fashion designers can you think of? Betsy Johnson? Um...Donatella Versace? For an industry that is dominated by images of women, there are precious few broads in a position of authority. It seems to be all dudes and skinny fifteen year old Ukrainian girls.

In any case, the Mulleavy sisters are the creative team behind Rodarte. In the past few years, they've created a collection based on the vulture, outfitted the dancers in Black Swan, and been pressured to lose weight by Vogue. Their aesthetic isn't slutty or glitzy (Donatella), but rather pretty and textured. They aren't afraid to go a little weird (see: vultures) and yet they still look at the women wearing their clothes as women, not as hangers or cardboard cutouts.

It's no secret that fashion objectifies women, turning them into commodities used as a prop to sell the clothes. Rarely does a strong female force emerge, and when it does, it tends to be a novelty rather than an actual shift in power. There was the much-lauded "Age of the Supermodel," a decade or so of singular names (Naomi, Cindy, Linda, etc.) who were considered huge assets. who? The fashion houses that used their images to sell their product? The magazines that put them on the cover so that their issues would move? They made millions of dollars, yes, but you would be hard-pressed to figure out how they raked it in while today's models are interchangeable alien heads with stick bodies.

In fashion, women tend to be relegated to the sidelines - quick, name me one prominent fashion photographer who could also give birth? Or a designer who isn't also a model-actress hyphenate? We have Vogue's indomitable Anna Wintour, but even she does her damnedest to propogate the image of sylph-like teenagers as the sole vision of acceptable beauty. Her annual "Shape" issue is a parody of real-life bodily diversity: the variations run the gamut from "thin" to "petite" to "short" to, um, "pregnant." Like, what?

Fashion is frivolous, sure, but everybody wears clothes. We choose our looks based on how we want to present ourselves to the world - sexy cowgirl? Prim and proper? Slightly depressed? - and even though most of us can't afford/aren't interested in the highest-end fashion, its influence trickles down to what we put on our bodies every day. We receive so many cues about bodies, about sexuality, about socioeconomic status, about youth, from the clothes we wear and see others wearing.

So when I see a pair of sisters creating beautiful, interesting, challenging clothes, it's a good thing. I like their weirdness. I admire their unwillingness to compromise. Most of all, I adore that, despite the fact that they are simultaneously successful and so outside the box.