B-Sides: Sex, Hope, Alison Mosshart, Ellen Willis, and Rock'n'Roll
"Rock is, among other things, a potent means of expressing the active emotions—anger, aggression, lust, the joy of physical exertion—that feed all freedom movements, and it is no accident that women musicians have been denied access to this powerful musical language. I think it's crucially important for female performers to break that barrier and force rock to reflect their experience and aspirations." - Ellen Willis
It's no secret that I'm a rather huge fan of Alison Mosshart. But on the train home after being simply blown away by the Kills at Terminal 5 Friday night, I started trying to pick apart just why.
It's been hard to figure out, honestly. The Kills and the Dead Weather are both quite good, very different bands, both full of swagger and cool and the type of rock that hits me straight in the gut and travels down, not up. The kind of band that, as Ellen Willis would have said, turns me on.
I spent the week reading the latest collection of Willis's writing, Out of the Vinyl Deeps, posthumously edited by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, and glorying in every detail of the rock writing of the woman who, possibly more than anyone else, shaped my thoughts on feminism, sexuality, and rock'n'roll. And Saturday morning I was up at 7:00 sore-legged and sleepy to do a last bit of writing before getting on the train to meet a bunch of like-minded folks at NYU for the "Sex, Hope, and Rock'n'Roll" conference celebrating Willis's work.
And so on the train home from Terminal 5, the long ride back to Brooklyn, I asked myself over and over what Willis would've thought of Mosshart. Of her witchy black hair and smile and snarl, of her hips and her swagger and her crooning voice when she goes all torch-singer. Of her very particular performance of femininity, her tomboyish preference for skinny jeans and boots and button-downs, blazers and layers and then layers of makeup, heels and a smile—when you can see it.
Of the way she shares the mic with her male bandmates as if maybe, maybe they're fucking but also more likely they're just buddies. And yet there's none of that feeling like she has to play along with being one of the boys—her sexuality doesn't have to be buried or flaunted, it simply is and is a facet of who she is.
Janis Joplin was one of Willis's favorites, the one she returned to over and over again, and Joplin gave everything to her fans and had nothing left for herself. By contrast Mosshart doesn't share her life with the world. She writes love songs but we don't know who about; she makes the entire audience, male and female, fall in love with her and then leaves us hanging and goes home to her secrets.
There's a lot of Chrissie Hynde in her—not just the bangs but the cool, the poise—but there's something that Alison Mosshart has all to herself. I want to see her in twenty years (and I somehow bet that she'll be just the same but older, possibly even more confident).
Willis always wanted women musicians who rocked but also put their politics to their music. I get none of that from Mosshart from either band—not even in the dreamy way TV on the Radio sing their politics—but what I do get every time is that vision of anger, of aggression, of lust and physicality, a violence that reminds me of Jean Genet's lines:
I give the name violence to a boldness lying idle and enamoured of danger. It can be seen in a look, a walk, a smile, and it is in you that it creates an eddying. It unnerves you. This violence is a calm that disturbs you.
Genet, of course, was talking about men, but really he's describing the characteristic that all of the best rock stars share. It's in Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Lou Reed, and it's in Alison Mosshart. (Jack White has many things but none of it and that's why he chose Mosshart to front his heaviest band; Jamie Hince does in fact have some of it and that's why he and Mosshart can take up an entire stage and then some just between the two of them.)
At the conference, speakers kept circling back to Willis's thoughts on desire and pleasure. How we will never be able to change anything if we don't allow ourselves to let go, to experience the communal bliss of a rock show as well as the very individual bliss of lust. Devon Powers noted that Willis wanted "both a politics of style and a style of politics," and Daphne Carr pointed out that her work was not just about desire, but desire in public.
And now, dancing in my seat to the Kills' "Nail in My Coffin" I realize that I don't, after all, need to pinpoint or pull apart my love for Alison Mosshart any more than I already have, that sometimes it's enough to simply say, "Because her music makes me feel good."
Of that, I'm sure, Willis would approve.
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