23 January, 2009

knee-jerk

i hardly ever get nasty emails, and i think this is a product of my relative obscurity. to come to my show, to know about my music, you have to work hard, and it's unlikely you'll work hard to find something you want to complain about. so, how odd that in the last week, i have gotten two critical, dare i say, nasty emails from listeners. it's been my policy, based on my slim experience with this sort of thing, to not respond directly. if someone wants to complain to me in person, we can have a dialogue. if they just want to insult me via email, i dont need to engage in that.

one of the emails was about how i shouldnt wear a boyscout shirt (or any other uniform) if i am not a member of that society. however, the other one has inspired some thinking on my part. here's the backstory:


i have a song called "the taste of you". it got released in 2003, on my record "grand". when i play it in concert, i often introduce it by telling a story about why i wrote it. i used to live in providence, which if you have ever been there, you know has a lot of strip clubs. one of them, "the satin doll", was across the alley from where i lived. i could literally go out my backdoor, walk 20 feet, and be in a strip club. which i did a few times. i find going into a strip club, as a woman, a very interesting experience. sometimes it turns me on sometimes it feels like an anthropology experiment, depending on the vibe. i remember going into the satin doll and being completely ignored. i would sit at the edge of the dance bar, with my dollar bills and my watery drink and wait for the women to come dance near me. they never did. only once, in another strip club- "the foxy lady"- was i ever noticed. i was wearing a tiara that said "its my birthday". a woman offered me a birthday lapdance. i thought it over, looked around, and ended up refusing politely because of all the men staring hungrily at the scene unfolding. like i said, a very interesting experience.

so i told this story last week in fall river, MA, when i opened for bettye lavette (!!!). and then i played the song and went on with my show. i have literally told this story at least a hundred times and never had any reaction besides nervous laughter (older straight audiences) or loud guffaws (younger, mixed or gay audiences). either way, it works to set up the tune. and yet, a gentleman in the audience that night was so offended that he had to write me:


While suffering through your sub-textually convoluted tale about nights at the Satin Doll, I was reminded of early African American movie actors who would make fools of their own race on camera.No matter how many jazz chord progressions and clever vocal inflections you employ, the conclusion is that you have tasked yourself to resound the message to a full house that it's acceptable to objectify other females for entertainment purposes.

Holding out a dollar bill to extort bizarre behavior from a fellow human being is beyond repugnant. Maybe you have a special - "Gee, I'm bored tonight" - clause in your moral code, that allows you to randomly minimalize others.

I came to the conclusion some time ago that not all misogynists are necessarily men.


this email has set me thinking how to respond. in fact, there are several ways to view what i was talking about:
firstly, there is a very good argument that women in the position of dancers at the satin doll are there of their own choice, are expressing their sexuality as they see fit, and not suffering in the least. my friend gretchen recommends the documentary Live Nude Girls Unite for more info on this viewpoint.

secondly, heterosexuality is assumed everywhere, regardless of gender. as a lesbian fruitlessly expressing desire in the traditionally male guise of a stripclub, i am drawing attention to the pervasiveness of heterosexual privelege. plus i find the image of wee old me in the stripclub, trying on the ill-fitting coat of the "misogynist" dance patron, to be comic.

thirdly, regarding the analogy about race, i am reminded of the great bert williams and his signature song, "nobody".
have a listen right now. maybe it appears that bert williams, in blackface as he often was, is a pathetic specimen of a black man making a fool of his race. i dont think so. i think bert williams bravely uses himself, and the only language given to him by society, to artfully and effectually subvert the hegemonic assumption of white righteousness.

i respect the writer of this email for taking the time to express his offense passionately, and i enjoyed the mental exercise of considering and articulating my reaction. but i have a few questions remaining. how would i have reacted if it were a woman complaining? should i keep telling the story? should i turn this guys email into a story? what do you think?


08 January, 2009

resolution

i've recently been hanging out with some friends who blog much more frequently than i do. they spotlight funny pictures, new toys, cool cover songs, general awe-some-ness EVERY DAY. how do they have time to do this? how do they keep it short like that? every time i sit down to write a blog it becomes a novel of personal growth. can i learn to keep it simple? do i need to? i actually think i am ok with my mostly-monthly blog of great heft (or the cyber equivalent).

i do write everyday. i am a proponent of morning pages- the oft-talked about process of waking up, rolling over, and spewing. i do 5 pages most mornings, with the exceptions of mornings like this one, where i got up at 7am. gasp. thats too early for me to take the extra 30-45minutes it takes me to do my pages. today is my annual trip to the dodge dealer in keene where i get my sprinter-van serviced. it's quite a van, if you havent seen it outside my gigs, and you cant just take it round the corner to meineke for a quick lube. it usually takes half the day. or most of the day when there's something wrong with the transmission. like today. so i am wasting time in the waiting room of the dealer, with the history channel blaring, and rotating cast of grumpy car-owners. who is ever happy to have to wait for their car to be worked on?

the ostensible subject of this blog is "resolutions". new year's or otherwise. in fact, it just struck me "resolution" has several meanings to me. but first, the easy definition. that which we resolve to do. resolutions can be tricky. they are often about change on a big scale. the kind of scale that ironically can only happen one day at a time. "i resolve to lose weight". this, for example, is not a one time statement. it's gonna take a while. i think that's why most resolutions fade. by april, they are a dim memory. or, sometimes they aren't. sometimes, it really does help change something to resolve it at the new year.

last year, my new years resolution was to stop using a set list. which i did. which has taken me most of this year to be comfortable with. at first it was terrifying. despite having written hundreds of songs and having them all memorized, i still worried that i would forget everything i knew the moment i walked onstage. what a lesson to learn to both trust yourself and to access all your knowledge even when you have to do it quickly, with a lot of people watching! from the very first time i tried it (22 jan 08, larchmont NY), i got results. i was more connected with my songs, more engaged with the audience, i played a longer, more dynamic set. the longer i've stuck with this, more has been revealed. i am constantly surprised by the new turns a show can take when you dont script the musical arc ahead of time. granted, this is easier when i play solo, but i've even started to be able to do this with some band gigs, which is really really fun. i think i'll resolve to keep on without a setlist.

this year, for new year's, i played at a fantastic little place in philly, the tin angel. my friend garrison and i did 2 shows, and at each i asked the audience to write their resolutions on a piece of paper at the merch table. here are a few of the ones people wrote down, divided into category:

the ordinary with extraordinary effects:
"to be more organized"
"to make a new friend"
"to be patient"
"to send folks "just because" cards, just because"

the masochistic:
"to go to boot camp 4x a week"

the denial:
"i will not use tobacco in 2009"
"to stop using the f-word in preparation for my child"

the entreprenureal:
"to make erin mckeown's tshirts" (ok girls, i GOT it)

the ambitious and heartbreaking:
"to tell my kids more stories about my childhood, learn to play my harmonica finally, and accept my husband for who he is"


i love this last one. it looks backwards, it looks forwards, and its painfully honest. my own new year's resolution was two part: to stop wearing jeans and to be more of myself, more often. ok, so i said this onstage, which i think means i have to stick with it or 250 people are gonna call me on it. actually the second part is easier. do you know how hard it is to give up wearing jeans? why am i doing this? i think i want to feel like i am stepping myself up. not just haphazardly throwing on the easiest thing. the ordinary thing. the comfortable thing. why am i doing this? does around the house count? what about in the snow?

it struck me, writing this, that "resolution" can also mean clarity. i think anniversaries provide clarity. they let us stop for a moment and look back. how are we different than we were the last time we stopped? what's changed? anniversaries provide awareness and perspective; they enhance the resolution of our view of ourselves. the more we look, the more aware of ourselves we are, the finer that resolution grows. eventually i will be able to witness myself on the cellular level.

"resolution" is also the close of something. it is the final chapter of a saga, it is a completion, it is a point after which we stop struggling and accept. i like that too. a new year's resolution to let go. to give up. to surrender. to let the plot be done. to walk away. easier said than accomplished. but thinking of "resolution" like that, i can let 2008, and all its details, float away. resolved.

happy new year, everybody! may it be your best!