Friday, October 1, 2010

Cycle Of Le Cyc

Last night I went to the DVD release party/show for Le Cyc, a project presented by Polydactyl Hearts. It was an animation (sort of)/music hybrid, performed in a church, under the direction of the Wavelength music collective, featuring attractive young people from Guelph. It was totally a hipster paradise. Good hipsters, when they die, go to Polydactyl Hearts shows.

I sound like I'm shitting on, which I'm totally not. It was right up my alley: the main event was a presentation of Le Cyc, a series of sketches that have been inked with coffee and red wine and then matched to a song cycle. It's about an evil leg-stealing man, a mechanical parrot, a bicycle race and a triumphant return. Set in a future/alternate reality where people must pedal bicycles to generate power, it obviously appealed to my sci-fi, DIY, and bikey sides. The drawings were very cool, and the lead singer did different voices for the characters, including the very best evil laugh I've ever heard.

Crafts make me feel a little self-consciously hip. Obviously, I've done 'em. In high school, I used to meticulously bead images and words onto shirts, including an insanely intricate face and my dad's favourite, a tank top that said "Nobody likes you" in a child-like scrawl. I beaded and knit and made collages, I sewed (poorly) and I never thought twice about it. It was just something to keep my hands busy.

In the last few years, and it's since died down a little, there was an explosion of crafty hipsters throughout the land. Ladies (and it did seem to be mostly ladies) used traditional crafts to celebrate their own nerdiness, or to give the finger to traditional assumptions about gender roles. They launched crafting collectives and crafting shows to sell their wares. Bust includes a monthly craft for its readers, ranging from sweaters to Damien Hirst knock-offs. Hell, the entire Etsy empire (and its gleeful court jesters) is based on the idea that hand-made = good.

Which it is. But it's also painfully hip, encapsulating so much of the hipster "thing:" it's one-of-a-kind, it's bound to be a little bit pricier and harder to track down than your standard Urban Outfitters fare, lending it that "I just picked it up in Berlin" aura. Clearly, you could make it yourself, but it's also way hip to frame your purchase of a feathered hairpiece as if you're a patron of the arts, a heady experience for mostly-broke 20-somethings with an extra twenty bucks to spend on accessories. Crafting also has a child-like element to it; even though a lot of these products end up being intricate and complex, the word "craft" hearkens the mind back to rainy summer camp days when a bunch of hyperactive eleven-year-olds would be engrossed in making God's Eyes before playing dodgeball and then snacks. Adults create art; children do crafts.

So, is it revolutionary for folks to make things? Sure, in the same way that urban homesteading is revolutionary or artists collectives are revolutionary. Go back a hundred years, and the things that are bleeding edge now were standard-issue then: people farmed, and people joined co-ops, and people used their own hair to make crafts. Most people have at least one hobby that's active: cooking, designing teeshirts, writing television reviews, fixing bikes, opening bars, starting book clubs, gardening, raising ferrets, playing a sport, building a ham radio. And so on. Whatever it is requires creativity, production, and attention to detail. When so much of our world is premade and easy (hello, Ikea!), we like a pastime that presents a little bit of a challenge.

Art schools, in the past few years, have tried to marry the highbrow aspects of ART with the hands-on layperson elements of CRAFT, with varying degrees of success. OCAD's Material Art and Design program allows students to study jewelry design, ceramics and fiber arts, while SCAD and FIT offer programs that might help a budding crafter sell their wares, but don't necessarily teach the skills. There are resources, but crafts are usually given the short shrift in the big arts family. Art that's seen as do-able by your average housewife or teenager is often not really seen as art at all.

Which is why I like projects like Le Cyc: it's such a nice example of the DIY thing. While any chump can knit a sweater, it takes a different level of hands-on to create a musical animation (or animated musical) about dystopian bike societies. But Le Cyc and Polydactyl Hearts retain their crafty vibe. While undeniably homespun, Le Cyc transcends its hipster-made crafty roots and becomes, against all odds, art.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Put Another Dime In The Jukebox, Baby

GQ, that bastion of good taste and promoter of $150 handkerchiefs, has compiled for its lucky readers a list of the 25 Sexiest Women In Rock: a nine-page spread celebrating the feminine spirit in the unabashedly ball-filled world of rock and/or roll. Loosely historical, sort of chronological, definitely pictorial, the article highlights the "brashest, ballsiest, most beautiful women to ever step up to the mike."

Aw, man. Or woman, I guess. I know any time a men's magazine does a spread on women-in-rock, nobody's going to be 100% happy. On the plus side, it's a chance to celebrate some gold-standard performers, showcase some new voices, and indulge in nostalgia for boners and guitar solos of yesteryear. GQ's collection of kicks off in 1965 with Cher and wraps up in 2009 with Katy Perry, with broads like Carly Simon, Tina Turner, Chan Marshall and Lauryn Hill providing the meaty middle.

On the other hand, these kinds of articles often fetishize the women for being attractive without mentioning what that cost them. I'm no women's-libber type, but it's hard for me to take seriously articles that talk about Fiona Apple's prettiness in her video for "Criminal" but don't mention that she was an anorexic teenager. The article's authors gloss over Nico's 15-year addiction to heroin in favour of highlighting her Nazi-Germany and teen-model past. Marianne Faithful, presented in GQ's pages as a fashion idol, Jagger-blower and sexual goddess, actually released more than 20 albums. They mention Chan "Cat Power" Marshall's notorious meltdowns, but since she's now happily and healthily releasing critically acclaimed albums, she's safer than someone like Lauryn Hill, who's profile doesn't mention her more recent disappearance from the public eye. Hill's blurb instead, again, focuses on her looks and her "raw talent" in equal amounts.

I'm not naive enough to think that the music industry is all about talent: there's a reason record labels have marketing departments. But for each of the legitimately strong, ballsy women who are featured - Grace Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett - there's a face who's known more for her bedfellow, addictions, fashion sense or childhood than for her musical output. Women whose notoriety outshines their talent.

GQ, which has a vested interest in showcasing pretty girls of all ages and eras on their pages, because it's a men's magazine and men tend to like pretty girls, slips a few surprises into their list. Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon is featured, alongside a portrait that doesn't show her face. Cher shows up, reminding people that before she was a punchline, she was a powerhouse. Grace Jones, who is both sexy and terrifying, snarls at us from her photo. But so many of the women on these pages are seen as soft, delicate, damaged: Apple, Nico, Faithful, Michelle Phillips, Stevie Nicks.

It's interesting to note that most of these delicate little flowers are from the '60s and '70s. By the '80s and '90s, instrument-playing ladies are dominating the list. Women like Chrissie Hynde and the Bangles' Susanna Hoffs are showing up, playing their own instruments and sassing the fans with a new brand of self-aware sexuality. In the 2000s, MIA and redheaded powerhouses Neko Case and Jenny Lewis (both of whom have successfully navigated the leap from band member to solo artist) wouldn't be caught dead hanging off some rock-star stud's bedframe: they make it on their own terms.

I don't doubt that Nico and Francoise Hardy and their delicate, damaged brethren have far-reaching influence in the music world. I just wish GQ had talked about it. These dames are attractive, even the ones that claim not to be (Chrissie Hynde? Are you insane? Do you even own a mirror? If you aren't a babe, then I'm Quasimodo. Jesus. Not the point), and yes, they're sexy. But I would argue that their sexiness stems not from their looks - even though they're all babes - but from their ability to handle their instruments, their voices, and themselves in a world where a female bass player is noteworthy.

I realize also that this is sort of a matter of taste: some men, when weighing the merits of both sexy and musically talented, are going to prefer the wholesomeness of Linda Rhonstadt to the ferocity of Grace Jones. Some are going to prefer the loony sheen of Katy Perry to the deconstructedness textures of MIA. That's fine. But a female musician is still a musician, and ignoring her talent in favour of her looks or her tragic/notorious/titillating life story does her a major disservice. Talk about the soaring range, the commanding stage presence, the devoted fan base, the record-breaking sales, the critical rejection, the bold costumes, the underhanded management, the whatever story is relevant to the music.

Show me women who have taken their suffering, their objectification by men, their sexual damage, their addictions, eating disorders, psychotic fits, and other ravagements of their life stories, and turned that into powerful rock and roll. I will respect the hell out of them. That's commanding. That's sexy. That beats the hell out of a pair of icy blue eyes or being the object of Bob Dylan's lust any day of the week.