Lens Shifts

Lydia Lunch as featured in Venus Zine, photo provided by Windowspeak Productions

Diving through films, booksessays in researching this project, my lens zeroes in on how women in rock are presented in media by men vs women. Specifically how sometimes male authors minimize female subjects accomplishments to sexuality/sexualization at the expense of talent, value of contributions and intelligence. It seems to be an either/or proposition where each is mutually exclusive, unable to ever cross.

This is not a revelation by any stretch – sexuality first is seemingly inextricable when representing female instrumentalists. It’s also not exclusive to music, and I could easily expand the time range to cover the plethora of female musicologists, filmmakers, scientists, etc. For now, I’ll focus on punk/post-punk rock n’ roll.

In Helen Reddington’s ‘The Lost Women of Rock Music’, journalist, artist and long time UK punk authority Caroline Coon speaks about her support of women using sexuality as part of their image. And how those who don’t, experience interference with their success.

“I’m never going to put women down for using their sexuality as a negotiating tool in the workplace. But for the musicians who weren’t going to go in that direction…then they were absolutely going to be excluded.” (p 73)

This quote doesn’t exactly capture the sentiment I’m investigating here. However, I find it relates, as it illustrates the mindset of media makers when discussing female artists. Speaking closer to my treatise, the example that lead to authoring this post came in watching Lydia Lunch in the No Wave film documentary ‘Blank City‘ (directed by Celine Dahnier) and noting the difference of her presentation in ‘Kill Your Idols‘ (directed by Scott Crary), a No Wave music documentary I’d seen previously. It had been many years since I’d seen the latter. When watching the former though, the shift made itself immediately present.

Lunch’s sexuality comes through as a central point in Idols via many film clips that feature her in a series of provocative and sometimes sexual situations. These color and in my opinion distract from the interview sections where her passion, talent and commitment for her work is palpable. By sharp contrast, sections with male artists such as Glen Branca, Martin Rev (Suicide) and Arto Lindsay (DNA) don’t mention nor reference their sexuality. Admittedly, I’m hard pressed to think of an instance when these performers have used sexuality in their image. Though I would posit that it’s implied as part of the rock n’ roll persona. Curiously one section further supports my impressions by juxtaposing Jim Thirwell’s (Foetus) words against a gritty b/w film featuring submissive sex acts performed on him by Lunch.

Let me be clear, I _do not_ have judgements against the film clip(s) contents. Rather the way they are used here, which I find undermining.

As I was reviewing KYI while writing this post, something else struck me. The framing of the male interviewees has the camera looking up at the subject, while many featuring Lunch has the camera looking down upon her while she speaks.  The metaphor is challenged when interviewing Yeah Yeah Yeah’s lead singer Karen O, who is captured in an upward facing angle while sitting next to the bands male guitarist Nick Zinner. Karen O and Lunch are the only two ladies interviewed.

In the No Wave/Cinema Of Transgression documentary ‘Blank City’ one of the first things I noticed when Lunch hit the screen was the focus on her as a fully actualized artist. Her collaborations with Richard Kern and Cassandra Stark Mele are given breath and depth exposing the viewer to the elements and people informing the work . Her unwitting collaboration with Nick Zedd, ‘The Wild World of Lydia Lunch’ is given particular attention, showcasing a personal moment on both their parts which I find strengthens my view of them and their work..

In speaking of it Lunch states, “It’s a home movie of me walking around London with a “fuck off” cassette I sent him in the mail as the soundtrack. I was not happy with this.” Later she adds, “…I always respected Nik. He was brilliant, his writing was fantastic.”

An third perspective is added by writer and lecturer Jack Sargeant,

“There was a gang of people all living in downtown New York dating each other. So, they’d be going out with each other, split up, then go out with someone else, then have a fight. What makes it more amusing in the Cinema Of Transgression is that Nik deliberately turns up the heat with all these things.”

Finally, a standout scene features her reflection on the term No Wave, “We need to have a category in which to define movements I guess. I mean, I don’t have a problem with No Wave because it says No! …Wave. So again, it’s defined by what it isn’t. What is it? I don’t fucking know.”

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