Girls in their Bedrooms: A Playlist

Mankwe Ndosi (credit: Chrys Carroll)

In the summer before middle school, my sister and I communicated with one another using our throats, emitting deep, growly noises from the safety of our bedroom – until we collapsed in laughter. We may have been inspired by the raspy voice of evildoer, Dr. Claw, on Inspector Gadget – our favorite childhood cartoon. We admired Penny’s intelligence as the true author of the investigative work, but loved spewing evil and darkness from our throats into the world. It felt dangerous and hilarious.

This was something our mother despised as it was unladylike. Like the effect of most censorship, this only made throat-talk more enticing. Our answering machine greetings growled at callers, and we pranked our friends using “the voice”. But, throat-talking outside of our bedroom was largely off- limits. The snarl in our voices twisted mundane requests like “we’re not home, leave a message at the tone” into messages smoldering with possible meaning.

We don’t play much with our voices, especially in public, especially as women. Music is an area that is at once restrictive in its feminine conventions, but leaves room for artists with courage to experiment.

Musicologist Jacqueline Warwick uses Hélène Cixous’ theory of écriture feminine to talk about voice and desire in 1960s girl group songs, which use vocables like “doo lang” and “shoop” – what she terms “girlspeak” – to convey feminine desire that would have been unacceptable in more direct forms.

In the spirit of girlspeak and unguarded creativity found in intimate spaces, inspired by the show Girls in the Bedroom and sisterly vocal experimentation, I created the following playlist. Though only one of them uses vocables, they all signify aspects of feminine creativity through their lyrics, timbre, stylistic choices, and/or video imagery. The tunes I’ve compiled are playful, glib, earnest, open, annoyed, and ultimately speak to me as a girl or woman – sometimes for reasons that feel universal, and in other instances for reasons that are intimately bound up with my experience as a girl who grew up in the Midwest and became an ethnomusicologist.

 

Girls like Us” by The Julie Ruin (2012)

This song walks the line between innocence and danger, discussing affinities for cotton candy and alcohol in the same breath, and enumerating girlaphernalia like plastic handbags and highlighters. The tone of her voice walks this line, too. It’s unabashedly girly: salty and sweet, sassy and syrupy. During the verses, the voice refuses to be chained to the song’s rhythm, frequently defying the beat.

Her mention of the female-dominated origins of jazz, her valley-girlish rejection of creation myths, and finally the music video featuring Barbie dolls (and occasionally My Little Ponies) in a variety of settings makes this my favorite girl anthem of all time. 1 The title of the group originates in a 1997 independent record titled Julie Ruin that band member Kathleen Hanna produced from within her apartment.

girls like us like cotton candy
plastic handbags alcohol
girls like us sometimes ignore people on the street
even though they’re people that we know
girls like us sneak breaks at Wendy’s
and girls like us invented jazz
girls like us have no foundations
creation myths are so passé

 

Iko Iko” by The Dixie Cups (1964)

This captivating tune conveys genuine playfulness. It feels like it emanates directly from its function as a game thought up at the playground rather than a Billboard hit (#20 on the Billboard pop charts in 1965). The stick clicks and rounded vocables (which apparently derive from a Native American language) invite listeners into a world of girlhood.

My grandma and your grandma were
sitting by the fire.
My grandma told your grandma
“I’m gonna set your flag on fire”…

See that guy all dressed in green?
Iko Iko, ah nay.
He’s not a man
He’s a lovin’ machine
J
ockomo fee ah nay

 

Langue de amour” by Laurie Anderson (1984) (at 55:50)

This composition explores creation myths in a more comprehensive and ambitious way than “Girls Like Us”, particularly the Christian creation myth of Adam and Eve. Anderson tees up conventional binary oppositions in her lyrics and sound, asking us to question them. 2

The snake told her things about the world.
He told her about the time there was a big typhoon on the island
and all the sharks came out of the water. Yes.
They came out of the water and they walked right into your house
with their big white teeth.
And the woman heard these things. And she was in love.
And the man came out and said: We have to go now!
And the woman did not want to go. Because she was a hothead.
Because she was a woman in love…

Her juxtaposition of slang words like “hothead” with more folksy language creates tension, as does the narrator’s obvious awareness that listeners might question the veracity of her story (repeating “yes” after reciting questionable ideas). Anderson’s feminine voice is manipulated and mediated through Vocoders, complicating the quaint scene the text conjures and stereotypical notions that map women to nature (and men to machines).

Anderson’s creation story is told from the perspective of Eve, a woman who falls in love with knowledge – delivered from the tip of the snake’s tongue, unquestionably also an allusion to feminine sensuality and pleasure.

And this is not a story my people tell.
It is something I know myself.
And when I do my job, I am thinking about these things.
Because when I do my job, that is what I think about…

 

So Leave” (at 5:15) by Poliça (2013)

Polica – I Need $ / So Leave from Isaac Ravishankara on Vimeo.

“Drums. Bass. Synths. Me, Women” is how lead singer of Poliça, Channy Leaneagh, describes her second album, Shulamith, named after the feminist author and organizer – someone lead singer Channy Leaneagh has dubbed as a “mentor and muse from the grave”.

Shulamith Firestone coined some of the most important tenets of second-wave feminism, like “the personal is political” as well as some of the most amusing insights on motherhood: “pregnancy is barbaric” and childhood is “a supervised nightmare”.

There’s a lot of barbaric and nightmarish darkness made beautiful in Poliça’s music that feels like it germinated from within the intimacy of one’s own room. Leaneagh says, “we’re…walking that line between brutal and beautiful all the time, very nice people but very angry people. We’re living that dichotomy constantly”. 3

The tune “So leave” has some anger, some resignation, and lots of beauty.

I don’t like when you tell the boys that I’m your girl
Wear me round like a lucky charm
With plastic pearls
So leave
Me alone is all I know
Just me and my girls
So leave

 

Cartwheels” by Patti Smith (2004)

Hope springs eternal in this one from Patti Smith – godmother of punk, and speaker of truth to young artists.

While Firestone bemoaned some of the consequences of having children, Smith embraces hers in a pretty tender fashion – writing this tune for her daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, who plays piano on this track (her debut as a recorded musician).

The good world
The good world
Come my one, look at the world
Bird beast butterfly
Girls sing notes of heaven
B
irds lift them up to the sky

 

Percussive Singing/Beatboxing (inspired by Miriam Makeba) by Mankwe Ndosi (2010).

Vocalist Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) demonstrated extremely eclectic taste, performing folk songs from Israel to Indonesia, South African traditional and popular music, African jazz, and Broadway show tunes. Makeba fled from apartheid to the United States. Despite the fact that much of the music she performed was unfamiliar to American audiences, she developed a national reputation.

Mankwe Ndosi, songmaker & culture worker, counts her among her most important influences.

In an interview with Mankwe on October 23, 2013, she spoke with me about music and our social environment in the United States:

I am used to stunned silences [after I sing]… I know I’m coming out of left field, especially given the poverty of the musical choices that people, especially young people, [experience]… a lot of what I do, the improvising, it has a lot of influence and ear to music from around the world – that a lot of people have never heard. What I’ve done in terms of what has made me unique to this community, but not unique to the world… is really listening to the whole world as a musical world.

I like to play with the edges of pretty and ugly. Improvising is often a terrifying experience, it’s like flying off of a cliff and once you accept that you’ll make the wrong choice sometimes, instead of getting frozen in the wrong choice, you can make another choice right afterwards, there’s no script. Don’t like what you’re doing? Just stop it and listen . . . listen to the sounds that want to arrive, the music that wants to be made.

I have been asked to stop singing in malls, in airports, when people aren’t used to hearing singing, it changes the space – it turns it into something else – it pulls attention and focus. It’s amazing that something as simple as that can be intimidating, can be a protest. Sometimes I will sing in places where I’m not supposed to as a bit of a protest, but one in which I can rub and I can make my point.

 

Inuit throat singing by Kathy Keknek and Janet Aglukkaq (2007)

Inuit throat singing is practiced almost exclusively by women and girls as a vocal or breathing game, played in groups of two or more, facing one another. Like the throat games my sister and I played in our bedroom, it frequently ends in laughter. First one to laugh – or run out of breath – loses.

Inuit women used it to entertain themselves during the long Canadian winter while men were away, and even sang lullabies in this style to put babies to bed. Throat-singing was banned by local Christian priests over a century ago, but young people like Kathy Keknek and Janet Aglukkaq are bringing it back. Though Inuit throat singing always privileges rhythm, their rhythmic delivery in this video sounds inspired in some part by hip hop in an exquisite way.

 

Setkilimden Sergek Yr-Dyr” by Tyva Kyzy (2006)

While they have the same name in the English language, Tuvan and Inuit throat singing sound worlds apart – and they are, though they both manipulate the muscles in the throat to create sound. Tuvan throat singing (xöömei) tends to prioritize timbre (the tone produced by an instrument, such as the voice) rather than rhythm. In xöömei, performers sing two notes at the same time by manipulating their throat. Though Tuvans have been clever enough to practice it as an art form and a way of communing with their natural surroundings, anyone can do it – though it takes some (okay, a lot of) practice. Interested? There are countless tutorials available on YouTube.

The first and only all-female group to perform xöömei is Tyva Kyzy (Daughers of Tuva). These exceptional women met in high school and started making music together, even though most Tuvans believed (and some continue to believe) that women shouldn’t throat sing, citing warnings like it can make a woman barren or that its use of facial muscles will spoil a woman’s beauty. 4

Here they perform a kojamyk: a light-hearted tune that involves a variety of different throat-singing techniques (sygyt, borbangnadyr, kargyraa) you’ll see named in the lyrics below.

“Setkilimden Sergek Yr-Dyr” 5

My sygyt carries a light wind                          Sygydymga ooi syrynnaly eei
From my soul comes a cheerful song              Setkilimden ooi sergek yr-dyr eei
As soon as I begin to sing borbangnadyr       Borbangymga oi bodu kelir ei
My melody becomes a beautiful song.           Ayan yrlyg oi ayalgam-dyr ei.

Like a lullaby for my beloved                         Xöömeiimge oi xongnun chazaan ei
My xöömei raises his spirits                            Xööküiümnüng oi öpeii-dir, ei
From the cradle, my talent was                       Kargyraamga chazalgham-dyr, ei
To raise my spirits with kargyraa.                  Kavailyymdan, oi chayaalgam-dyr, ei.

 

Disco//Very” by Warpaint (2014)

The expansiveness and murky voluptuousness of this tune, mixed with the girl street party in the video make it well-suited for this playlist… or maybe I was compelled by the old-school black and yellow (Casio?) keyboard featured in the video, the same one I spent hours playing with in my bedroom when I was 13.

The lyrics – I make room for everyone – and the wearied way they’re delivered – remind me of the unwritten rule that girls/women should play nice, at least nicer than boys/men. Inclusiveness is important, but it is also exhausting.
We need a break from being nice once in a while.

I’ve got a friend with a melody that will kill
She will eat you alive…
Like cyanide it’s poison
She’ll eat you alive

You’re another one in a long long time
Wrestling people for peace, wrestling people for peace

I make room for everyone
I make room for everyone
I need to take a break

 

My Crew” by Jean Grae (2003)

Three years before Nas’s album Hip Hop Is Dead was nominated for a Grammy, Jean Grae (born Tsidi Ibrahim) was singing about rap’s death. 6 “My Crew” is a love song to hip hop and a rallying cry to remain true to the spirit of its origins.

Jean Grae’s chosen name is a spin on Jean Grey-Summers, a Marvel Comics superheroine with telepathic and telekinetic powers. Grae uses her powers to fight for hip hop, and calls for solidarity against the forces working to destroy it. Is there anything more feminist than awareness about our interdependence?

What happened to us in the bigger picture?
Don’t you understand when one of us falls?
Step and we’re all fallin’ with ya…

I represent for a nation, thought we was in it together
But I guess it gets strange when money rains in sunny weather
Tougher than leather
We’re weaker than glass
And shattered on the side of the road
Trying to get a ride, but pass each other fast…

Do you even know where we at?
Fuck you, and that we’re here
You can’t even open the map
Rap’s dead
Rap sucks
But thanks to ya’ll for
Killin’ it
Grillin’ it down
And spillin’ its guts
And fillin’ it
Back up with trash…
Wait up I mean cash

 

Poor Atlas” by Dessa (2010)

Against a sparse setting, Dessa’s lyrics describe the difficulties of building a (female) body without a decipherable blueprint, without a solid repertoire of women-centered stories to guide beliefs about our form. Like others on this list, the lyrics make reference to Christian creation myths (“no god attached”). If the female figure is not modeled on Adam’s rib, if Christian stories do not tell us the full story of our design, where do we look for alternatives? The meter is 6/8, giving it a lilting, somewhat urgent feeling. Combined with the breathy timbre of Dessa’s delivery, it feels as though a forbidden secret is being revealed.

I’m building a body
From balsam and ash
I’m building a body with
N
o god attached
I
’m building a body
From blueprints in Braille
I’m building a body
Where our design has failed

There’s a book full of plans
At the feet of poor Atlas
Titled ‘For Man’
But the architects only drew blanks
Now there’s nowhere to go
But go back, go back, go back, go back.

 

Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do” by Robyn (2010)

Was Robyn reading Hélène Cixous when she titled her 2010 album Body Talk
Cixous created and believed in écriture feminine: “writing with the body” – the female body, in particular: “Women must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies” (“The Laugh of the Medusa”, Signs 1.4 1976:875).

Despite its startling title, the song is all charm. Robyn enumerates the origins of her stress, and at halfway through, the message becomes clear: Everything will kill you if you let it. “Don’t. fucking. [let people.] tell [you.] what to do.” Make up your own f*^~ing mind.

Can’t sleep, it’s killing me
My dreams are killing me
The TV is killing me
My talking’s killing me
Let go, you’re killing me
Ease up, you’re killing me
Calm down, you’re killing me
My God, you’re killing me

 

Turbulent” by Shirin Neshat (1998), featuring vocalists Sussan Deyhim and Shahram Nazeri (played by Shoja Azari).

In this installation by Shirin Neshat, whose art primarily explores the relationship of women to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, two musical scenes are placed side by side, in striking contrast. Shoja Azari sings a poem by Rumi confidently to a group of men who appreciate his performance, and applaud for him warmly. After a pause, we learn that the covered woman (Sussan Deyhim) on the other half of the screen, facing away from us into an empty auditorium, is even more virtuosic than the man. The cameras move around her in a circular pattern, covering perspectives we didn’t realize we were missing, and depicting her mental state. Her rage and isolation7 are most clearly articulated in the depths and heights of her wordless abstract lament. By the end of her performance, she has proven herself, and is no longer hidden. The man is stunned into silence.

Neshat shows us complexity within apparent oppositions: man/woman, white/black, public/private, culture/nature. The performances alone vividly capture the imagination; the video enhances it. Neshat manages to leave interpretation open to the viewer/listener while communicating with directness the issues she seeks to address.

Lyrics to the Sufi poetry sung by Shahram Nazeri8:

How long can I lament with this depressed heart and soul?
How long can I remain a sad autumn ever since my grief has shed my leaves?
My entire heart and soul is burning in agony.
How long can I hide the flames wanting to rise out of this fire?
How long can one suffer the pain of hatred of another human?
A friend behaving like an enemy with a broken heart.
How much more can I take the message from body to soul?
I believe in love.
I swear by love.
Believe me my love.
How long like a prisoner of grief can I beg for mercy?
You know I’m not a piece of rock or steel,
But hearing my story even water will become as tense as a stone.
If I can only recount the story of my life,
Right out of my body flames will grow.

 

[1] The only way the song could get better lyrically is if there was a reference to Wendy’s fries dipped in Frosties during those sneaky breaks. 

[2] To read more about Anderson’s music, see Susan McClary, “This is Not a Story My People Tell: Musical Time and Space According to Laurie Anderson,” Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, University of Minnesota Press, 1991: 132-147. 

[3] “DIY Oct. 2013 interview” Huw Oliver ‘Poliça: ‘We’re Very Angry People’, DIY Magazine, October 22, 2013. 

[4] See Theodore Levin and Valentina Süzükei’s 2006 book Where Rivers and Mountains Sing. 

[5] Lyrics found in Levin and Süzükei, 2006, p. 201.

[6] And Andre 3000 said “hip hop is dead” on “Funkin’ Around” in 2001, but the lyrics are less direct and, therefore, seem less critical. 

[7] Female singers in contemporary Iran are forbidden by Shiite Muslim laws to sing or play music in public. 

[8] Translated lyrics found on Outcasting: Fourth Wall, 05 October 2012, http://www.4wfilm.org/2012/10/shirin-neshat-turbulent/.