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V/A - Girl Monster

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Artist: V/A

Album: Girl Monster

Label: Chicks on Speed

Review date: Oct. 31, 2006

Girl Monster is a massively ambitious three-disc compilation whose project is less historical or narrative than it is theoretical. Over the course of 60 tracks (40 of which are exclusive), it does more than trace female/genderqueer creativity, from post-punk to contemporary manifestations: it maps out extremely smart, subversive negotiations with both pop and underground culture, negotiations that result in music that is both compulsively catchy and deeply political. Girl Monster – curated by Chicks on Speed’s Alex Murray-Leslie and realized in collaboration with Anat Ben-David and Chicks on Speed Records – opens itself up to the widest possible audience by collapsing, along with gender binaries, the ‘theory v. feelings’ opposition that serves little function other than naturalizing the notion that ‘out’ music is boys-only territory. These songs are political (and coherent in the context of a sprawling compilation) in ways that go far beyond this process, manifesting the political in not just the content but also the process and texture of the songs.

Rhythm is at a premium throughout the compilation, and, while the original track sequence offers no shortage of piquant transitions – check out the way LiliPUT’s “Die Matrosen” marches into the trunk-rattling boom ’n’ bling of KATastroPHE’s “Your Girlfriend” – it also contains the germ of inexhaustible re-combinations and new linkages and disjunctures. However, rhythm’s function extends beyond making the compilation ‘modular’: it’s a subversive and semantic tool that’s used in vastly different ways throughout the compilation to provide an immediately available point of entry that’s no less thought-provoking for its surface play. This is pop music reconstituted through punk guerrilla tactics.

Much of the time, what comes out is a stuttering, unheimlich semblance of the kind of gender essentialisms that overdetermine our perception of female subjecthood. By way of opening tracks (not counting Chicks on Speed’s intro), Girl Monster could hardly do better than Scream Club’s “Fine as Fuck,” a kind of butch/femme take on the Trick Daddy single “Nann Nigga.” The Trick Daddy reference is but one point in Scream Club’s hyper-referential flow, which manages to perform masculine nonperformativity in a way that would make Judith Halberstam proud, all the while creating a persona and a flow that carves out a space quite different from that inhabited by Peaches, who guests on the track.

The compilation more or less passes over riot grrrl as such, probably because it was so well documented during its own time. But its absence here (and the displacements that resonate through contributions by Le Tigre and Tobi Vail) suggests a break with the movement’s rock-based aesthetics for a synthetic approach that incorporates everything from digital hardcore to performance art and mainstream hip-hop. If there’s a theme linking these artists, it’s the conviction that music can be more politically effective by manifesting the texture and tensions of everyday life – consuming, discerning, being bored – rather than pursuing some illusory notion of moral righteousness. Ultimately, the inclusiveness of this approach makes the compilation’s three-and-a-half hour running time seem ruefully short. Tellingly, it’s the accessibility of the songs, the immediacy of even their highest-stakes experiments (see Kevin Blechdom’s “Me Saw Me Momma,” which makes me think of a Gertrude Stein re-write of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”) that produces the “girl monster” affect mentioned in the collection’s liner notes.

This resonates, of course, with feminism’s most widely diffused motto, “the personal is the political,” but Girl Monster muddles the meaning ascribed to this slogan by eschewing the confessional mode of telling, one whose ‘emotional honesty,’ for women at least, is bound up in stories of personal tragedy and victimization (cf. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath). The approach is epitomized by one of the compilation’s most well known tracks, Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic,” whose stiffly funky, insistent drum pattern buoys what might be the most extensive name-drop in recorded history. It’s the furthest thing from traditional notions of the ‘personal,’ but the shout-out functions not as a canon-building effort, but as a reading list that provides critical tools for reading – and refashioning – dominant discourses. There is an inherent privilege in esotericism, and Girl Monster manages to be both ‘readable’ and ‘writable’ in the Barthesian sense, inviting endless possibilities of recombination and active engagement. Girl Monster, as an essay from the liner notes explains, is an aberration: a manifestation of patriarchal society’s anxieties surrounding an unknown, uncontrollable, ‘monstrous-feminine’ to quote the title of Barbara Creed’s study of horror films.

The mouth on Girl Monster’s cover collage is open in what could either be a howl or a yawn; ripped out of its context, the organ folds the ambiguity and barely-sublimated violence of mainstream portrayals of women back onto itself. Like the music contained in the three-disc set, this act opens up not a space for freedom within pop culture, but the potential for a range of subject-positions within dominant heteronormative discourse, pockets of subversive potential that are in constant flux. In a word, it’s a really empowering toolkit.

By Brandon Bussolini

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