23 January, 2009


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?


  1. I think your response to the email is so articulate and cuts so straight to the heart of the matter that it would be a shame to leave the whole thing behind: story, email, story-of email. So, at least from, um, an audience perspective (?) I think the story should stay, and the email story could join it. I'm a likes-talking-and-stories kind of audience member.

  2. I was going to say the same thing. The e-mail story would make it even more interesting, and it would make people think. Which is what we need these days.

  3. i third the above comments.

    i got the birthday lapdance once; it was strange. on the one hand, it was a really intense turn-on in the moment and for days afterward. on the other hand, i was excruciatingly aware that i (and my sexuality) had become part of the show in a way that it didn't and doesn't with the guys in the club. i can understand why you would have turned that down. EXISTENTIAL DILEMMA-INDUCING

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  5. I want so desperately to believe that women in strip clubs (and prostitution, and porn films, and certain relationships) are there by choice. But I just don't anymore.

    I've been doing an internship for the past semester with a (very)small production company that made Holly among other films and does a lot of work trying to cut off the demand for the sexual services of young girls. I'm talking as young as eight, seven, six years old. I've been horrified by things I learn in my research.

    Unfortunately, most of the so-called "free" women who are 25, or 19 or 18 years old, have made the "choice" after at best being coerced or preyed upon leaving a screwy home situation, often becoming addicted to drugs and being stuck in this job/lifestyle, or at worst kidnapped and kept as a sexual slave.

    Like I said, I want it to be different for the dancers. But in reality it turns out it's a hair's breadth away from the coercion if not the violently forced prostitution, and often it's not even that far.

    Just some food for thought.

    Keep telling the stories. Always keep telling the stories.

  6. I find strip clubs really uncomfortable places, for all the reasons you and Linda have articulated. And yet, there's no denying the power of a half-naked woman (or man, for that matter) smelling of watermelon bubblegum (why?) pretending like you're the only one she'll take her clothes off for.

    What I find really interesting about this guy's email is that what he's complaining about you doing (offering someone a dollar to help take away your boredom) is not that far from what we as listeners do when we come to your shows. And that's an uncomfortable thought too.

    In any case, I really enjoy the intellect that accompanies your music - not just a beautiful melody but also something intelligent said within. So please don't lose the original story - and I look forward to hearing the poetry that comes of this guy's complaint.

  7. You told the Satin Doll story in Asheville. I found it quite amusing and it gave me this entire new insight into the song that I couldn't have ever simply guessed if left alone. I like your music and anything you can do to further clarify it for me is welcome.
    If one night you go up on stage and explained to me that White City was ACTUALLY about your involvement in KKK outreach programs I'd be like... uh, wow, uh.... wow, I, I guess I missed something there about Erin... Bummer, I think I am going to go home now.
    But no, you tell me a fun harmless story that allows room for thought after the telling.

    What can I say... sometimes people have objects lodged in their semisolid waste chute and they take it out on the world (ha ha double meaning) because they don't even understand how said object got there. (or else they are in denial of the fact that they put in there themselves and liked it).
    For the record I am Stripper neutral... We all do what we do. We all use what we have and people use us for what we have. Strippers, accountants, doctors, artists... everyone. A personal saying of mine is that "It's better to be used than be useless."

  8. wow. i am so excited and blown away by the comments so far. lots of things to think about, and as always, everyone has a different, valid experience. thanks! and keep em coming.

  9. Some people will be able to find misogyny in stories like yours regardless of disclaimers or supplemental context. The most you can do, in my opinion, is provide as much transparency as possible regarding your own thoughts and intent. If, given that information, someone is going to consider the song or your story misogynist, so be it: that's their perception of a word's definition applied to their perception of your words. Entirely subjective, and outside of your control.

  10. I didn't hear the critic in the email complain about liquor, car, pharmaceutical, or for god's sake dog food companies using the sexuality of a naked woman to earn a buck....Are you there by free will? and is she there by free will? Then its all good. If there is NOT free will as in any sexual transaction, then it is not good. Maybe your there for messed up reasons, maybe she is too. and that IS something to think about. But who am I to judge you, and who is anyone else to either? As someone who is a performer, and has been ripped to the ground by armchair critics who talk about rather than do, If the criticism is 1. giving you something to think about, and helping you make your performance better from your point of view or 2. clarifies for you why you are doing it the way you do it then it is worthwhile. If it is a defamation of character, not about the work, but about the artist, vague, or just mean and nasty, then it is their issue and not the issue of the artist. There, I will get off this slippery soap box now.

  11. Posted on behalf of Gaye:
    Reminds me of a concert 25 years ago when I sang "St Louis Blues." Got a monstrous earful from a feminist that the song blames a woman ("St Lou-ie woman, with her diamond ring, leads my man around, by her apron strings,if it wasn't for powder, and her store bought hair, that man of mine, wouldn't gone nowhere") for man's infidelities and. . . how dare I sing it. It really worried me for a bit, but that song is one of the greatest of all times (especially with the minor bridge). Mulled it over and, yes, some truth, to her words, but. . . I have to choose my battles. I had to let it go and continue to sing my heart. That is but one message in this world. I sing many others -- and spread the blame. And that woman did pull him away. . . Kick ass and take names, Gaye

    Thanx for sharing,

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  13. Maybe you could just send a note back to this gentleman asking him why it is that he has that much time on his hands.

  14. Wow, there are so many issues that this man's email, and your response, raises...First off, OF COURSE you should keep telling the story, because it's TRUE, because it's LIFE. I went to college with a couple of strippers who would invite me to come down and visit (I never did), but I totally respected their work (and man, they made bank!) I believe that professions like this and, like, porn, (and dare I say it, prostitution) should be legitimized and/or legalized. But I'm kind of digressing from your tale...I would love to have a big ole conversation about this issue, but suffice it to say, Keep telling your story. It creates a much needed dialogue.

    In fact I'm going to take this over to my blog, so I can expound away. Check it out if you want....yellerbelly.blogspot.com

  15. Oh, and thanks for recommending that Carol Queen Movie. Maybe this would also be a good resource on the topic:
    Sex Worker's Art Show has a new book.

  16. this is unrelated to this post, but i just heard on npr that blossom dearie has died. i was oddly moved to dig her out of the depths of my music collection just last week. hearing her sing "rhode island is famous for you" made me think of you. i wonder if she ever heard your cover of it?

  17. I agree with a few that replied saying to keep telling this story, and others.
    First, I like the idea that you want us to know more about you, not less. It's a nice bonus to seeing you live.
    Second, if you start censoring yourself based on single, individual complaints sooner or later the mere fact that you are a lesbian will offend someone, and then what?
    The reason I go to see you is you're you. If I want to go see someone that doesn't offend anyone I'll start following Pat Boone!!

  18. Erin - loved this post. Your thoughtfulness actually makes me glad that you received this email - and this post is most certainly your best response.
    The story of your song loses no meaning whether you walked into the neighbor's "house" for your own personal reasons, or simply to see if you could shake things up, or even because you were bored, and they were there. The story is about your response to the world as you live it and see it and even imagine it.
    This attendee may have a hot-button issue in his heart and on his tongue, but he's not making a good argument against your performance. Your story seeks neither to answer questions about lesbians in strip clubs nor to disrespect the dancers in those clubs. It, if anything, can raise all of those questions, and state: so, there it is, folks, this life. And then there's a song.

    Upon all this reflection, do you feel that you were behaving that in a man you would have thought misogynistic

  19. Susie Bright and her 19 year old daughter Aretha are answering sex questions here this week, and one of the questions made me think back to this discussion. Someone was talking about a woman they went to school with and lamenting that this fantastic woman had gotten into porn and how the titles were degrading and was there a movement to have more woman-positive porn. I was impressed by Aretha's response, which was--Yes, it's already here! And she recommended Good Vibrations Guide to Adult Videos. So, check it.

  20. i was listening to my ipod on shuffle today at work, taste of you came on and i thought of this story. it made me enjoy it even more.

    please never stop telling your stories.

  21. Your songs got me through my first mini-marathon...and I listened to "To the Stars" as I crossed the finish line.

    You are an inspiration. Keep writing the songs that make some people uncomfortable...it means you are doing something powerful...