Based on faint signals from the endless stream of subliminal chatter that makes up most of the 21st-century information deluge, I discerned that something was going on with The Go-Go’s.
First, a musical featuring their songs (Head Over Heels) opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015. A “farewell tour” (yeah, right) followed quickly thereafter in 2016. This was followed by a performance in 2018 in support of the announcement that Head Over Heels had made the great leap and would soon appear on Broadway. A documentary about the band appeared on the screens of Sundance right before the pandemic hit earlier this year (now available on Showtime and quoted extensively in this review). Though COVID-19 scuttled any plans for an oxymoronic farewell tour sequel, the band has optimistically rescheduled the concerts for 2021. Then, completely out of the blue, The Go-Go’s released their first new single in nineteen years on July 31, 2020 (lifted from the documentary).
The marketing side of me couldn’t figure what all this activity was about. It looked like your classic partially-planned, partially-serendipitous publicity campaign, but to what end? If the master plan was to build some buzz for a future on the casino circuit, it seemed like overkill. What were these girls up to?
The fog cleared through a piece that appeared on Spin just a few days before I started writing this review: “Dear Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Induct the Go-Go’s Already.” I then traveled back in time and found an article on LGBTQ Nation (written by one James Duke Mason, who happens to be Belinda Carlisle’s son) that celebrated the documentary and bemoaned the Go-Go’s exclusion from the Hall: “The glaring omission of the Go-Go’s in the 2020 list of inductees to the RRHOF is a testament to the institution’s irrelevancy.” There seems to be a burgeoning groundswell of support on behalf of The Go-Go’s—there’s a Facebook page promoting their candidacy, while Gold Derby, a site that publishes odds on the major American entertainment awards, identified the group as favorites for the honor in 2021.
Having long believed that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was as irrelevant as irrelevant gets, I found it hard to believe that anyone would invest the slightest bit of energy into a campaign to gain entrance to such a thoroughly corrupt institution. I hope the Go-Go’s get the call and tell the Hall they can shove the award where the sun don’t shine.
That won’t happen because The Go-Go’s are a group of Second Wave feminists who fought for inclusion within the current system and not Third Wave feminists who advocated revolution against the patriarchy (Belinda Carlisle made this very clear in the documentary). Second Wave feminists (like Hillary) wanted to prove that “anything men can do we can do.” The Go-Go’s did that with Beauty and the Beat: the first album by an all-girl band who played their own instruments and wrote their own songs to top the charts (for six weeks, no less).
Let me be clear: that was a big deal. There wouldn’t have been a Third Wave if it weren’t for the women who had the courage and patience to break the endless maze of glass ceilings that constitute the patriarchal structure. The Go-Go’s proved that girls could do it, inspiring an entire generation of women to fulfill their potential in the field of music. Kathleen Hanna said it best: “As a young girl, going into a space where women own the stage, and own it unapologetically, like they were born to be there — to me it represented a moment of possibility.” There is no question that the female rockers who followed the Go-Go’s owe them a debt of gratitude; ergo, they qualify for induction under the loosey-goosey standards set by the Hall itself: “Criteria include the influence and significance of the artists’ contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll.” I happen to think that clearing the way for more than half the human population was pretty damned significant.
The argument against their induction is the simple truth that they didn’t last that long—after three studio albums marked by declining sales, the group splintered. Part of it was the usual stuff—drugs, alcohol, internal conflicts, the usual downsides of fame—but they also facilitated their own destruction by buying into “common industry wisdom” and refusing to move on from the formula that led to their breakthrough. Replacing the intensely dedicated Ginger Canzoneri with an “executive management team” was certainly a no-win deal with the devil; even worse was the rigidity of the other band members in denying Jane Wiedlin’s request to sing one of her own songs on Talk Show because they couldn’t get their heads around someone other than Belinda Carlisle doing the lead vocals (?!). This short-sighted decision led to Jane’s departure and a full collapse shortly thereafter. Their insistence on continuing to call the same old plays in the playbook with the same old players tells me they wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway—bands that fail to grow rarely last, and if they do, they find themselves playing to a shrinking fan base.
But hey, if Del Shannon (a two-and-a-half hit wonder) could make the Hall, so should the Go-Go’s.
It’s important to note that the criteria cited above contains no reference whatsoever to the quality of the music. So, if a shit band captures the hearts of the mindless masses, sells tons of records and spawns a slew of shit-band imitators, Shit Band #1 belongs in the Hall.
Though it won’t have much influence on their chances of successfully completing their quest for enshrinement in the hallowed halls of Cleveland, I shall now proceed to my evaluation of the quality of Go-Go’s music based on the evidence provided by their most popular and most highly-acclaimed work—their debut album Beauty and the Beat.
The Go-Go’s began life in the highly active, exceptionally inclusive and DIY-supportive L.A. punk scene of the late ’70s. “Anybody could do whatever they wanted—it was total freedom,” remembered Belinda Carlisle. The original members had very little in the way of musical experience or training, and though adding Charlotte Caffey to the lineup gave them a member with some classical piano education, Charlotte had been drawn to the punk scene in defiance of that education: “All this music theory, rules, had to be thrown out the window.”
As the band gelled and developed more confidence, they replaced their original DIY drummer with Gina Schock, who not only had a great punk name but had worked hard to shape herself into a solid rock drummer and expected her new band pals to adopt an equally strenuous work ethic (“It doesn’t hurt to rehearse, it only makes you tighter”). Eventually the Go-Go’s became the house band at the Whisky a Go Go, where they connected with the English ska/punk bands Madness and The Specials, leading to a U. K. tour that served as their Hamburg experience. They left the Mother Country a much tighter band with a low-budget single on a British indie label (“We Got the Beat”) that garnered some L. A. radio airplay. At the height of their local success, they once again emulated The Beatles by making a controversial change in the lineup, replacing bassist and punk devotee Margot Olavarria with one Kathy Valentine, a guitarist with no experience on the bass (a condition Ms. Valentine quickly corrected by going on an extended coke binge and immersing herself in the band’s lo-fi demo tape). The change coincided with a gradual but steady turn towards more pop-oriented tunes. While that shift did not sit particularly well with the punk purists, the Go-Go’s were determined to broaden their appeal in order to secure a big label recording contract.
Despite the growing buzz, the major labels, having learned nothing from the infamous Decca-Beatles fiasco, unanimously decided that “All-girl bands just don’t sell records” and left the Go-Go’s out in the cold. When a paradigm is stuck in neutral, only an outsider can shake things up; fortunately for the Go-Go’s, they found one in Miles Copeland III, manager of The Police and brother of drummer Stewart Copeland, who had co-founded I. R. S. records with the intention of signing cutting-edge, boundary-pushing artists.
What qualified the Go-Go’s as boundary-pushers may appear to have more to do with their essential dicklessness than their music. Anybody can listen to the Go-Go’s and pick out the obvious influences (punk, British Invasion, 60’s girl groups and surf music), recall their DIY origins and understandably assume that Go-Go’s compositions are simple, derivative efforts. Your average anybody could then plop his ass in front of the stereo, experience the music going down nice and easy and say, “Yep, pretty simple stuff.”
Hand that anybody a guitar and ask him to play along with “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep” and “This Town,” and I guarantee you that in a couple of minutes his fingers will be tied up in knots as he shouts, “What the fuck?”
Although the Go-Go’s made it sound easy, you have to look under the hood to appreciate the complexity of their music and rhythms. Some of their chord patterns would have thrown Mozart for a loop, and even when a song calls for very simple chording, they instinctively knew how to manipulate time and rhythmic expectations to create all kinds of surprises. Though producer Richard Gottehrer successfully coaxed them into slowing some of the high-speed punk tempos they used when playing live, several of the songs on the album are still pretty damned fast, making for some high-quality chord change practice if you’re up to it.
Once Gottehrer taught them the basics of recording, the Go-Go’s developed a signature sound that was bright and tight, the result of a rock-solid rhythm section and well-executed vocals. On Beauty and the Beat they convey infectious energy, not unlike the more harmonic bands of the Invasion. In contrast to the glaring pomposity and deadening overproduction you hear on the supergroup monstrosity Asia (the only album to outsell Beauty and the Beat in 1982), the Go-Go’s come across as girls who are having the time of their lives and want you to join in the fun. What is very clear from listening to Beauty and the Beat is that the Go-Go’s believed in themselves and their ability to beat the guys at their own game.
Beauty and the Beat lives up to the album name with the introduction to “Our Lips Are Sealed,” featuring the sound of Gina Schock’s steady drumbeat (a greeting that will be used to kick off a third of the songs on the album). Jane Wiedlin helps strengthen the beat with her contrasting eighth-note attack on rhythm guitar, followed by the sweeter texture of Charlotte Caffey’s guitar arpeggio, which in turn cues Kathy Valentine to enter the fray with her thumping bass. Kathy’s entry is somewhat dampened by the simultaneous appearance of a synthesizer, a superfluous addition that serves two purposes: 1.) to let future audiences know that the record was produced in the synthesizer-crazed ’80s and 2.) to give idiotic critics like Stephen Thomas Erlewine an excuse to attach the fake genre label “new wave” to Go-Go’s music. I find the synth annoying as fuck and would have preferred more open space to highlight Kathy’s marvelous picking.
My pique is mollified by Belinda Carlisle’s attitude-laden soprano, delivered in a girlish tone of slight cockiness that reminds me of Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las but with a more melodic quality. The connection with the girl group era is further strengthened with the inclusion of the line, “It doesn’t matter what they say,” a rather prominent piece of lyric in The Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You.” It’s important to note the lyrics were written by Jane Wiedlin’s temporary love interest, Terry Hall of The Specials and Fun Boy Three, who mailed Jane the lyrics from the U. K. and asked her to tweak them and come up with the music. Not knowing any better (translation: not having been subjected to classical music theory), Jane came up with a chord combination that makes no sense whatsoever but works like a charm—that out of place A# chord and her subtle departures from the A major scale really enrich the listening experience (as does Jane’s sanctioned lead vocal moment on the arpeggiated intermission).
The lyrics, based on Jane-and-Terry’s somewhat illicit relationship (he had a girl on the side), essentially renew the time-tested rock ‘n’ roll story of facing down the [fill-in-the-blank] (parents, friends, teachers, clergy) who frown upon one’s choice of steady squeeze. Rather than giving into dad (“Leader of the Pack”) or taking a posture of sultry defiance (“Baby It’s You”), Jane and Terry conclude that the best option is to “pay no mind to what they say,” shut the fuck up and enjoy what you have. As a woman who has had more non-standard relationships than most, I heartily endorse this advice.
The ladies harmonized exceptionally well on “Our Lips Are Sealed,” but they take it up a notch on the bouncy British Invasion tune, “How Much More.” Though the chord structures and harmonies recall the sweeter upbeat songs of the invasion, Gina Schock’s near-punk-speed drumming would have blown the Brits to smithereens—just compare her thumping toms on the chorus to Dave Clark’s chorus work on “Glad All Over” and you’ll have to admit it’s Gina by a landslide. Belinda imbues the lead vocal with sweet sincerity and power while the guitarists provide gorgeous three-part harmony support on the verses and richer four-part harmony on the chorus. The only thing I’m puzzled about is why “How Much More” wasn’t one of the singles—it’s a great tune that can change my mood from sourpuss to sweetness-and-light-and-strawberries-and-cream in a heartbeat.
“Tonite” doesn’t quite turn me back into a grump, but I find the rhythms rather clunky and the connection between Gina’s drums and Jane’s rhythm guitar out of whack. Party songs in minor keys generally don’t work unless you’re providing background music for the wake of a person everybody despised. One could say that the carpe diem lyrics foreshadow one of the major causes of the Go-Go’s relatively speedy decline:
There’s no one
To stand in our way
Get dressed up
And messed up
Blow our cares away
I don’t think the use of the word “blow” here was an accident on the part of the Caffey-Wiedlin-Peter Case songwriting team. Cocaine is right up there with cheesy synthesizers on the list of “Things I Will Never Understand About the Eighties.”
“Lust to Love” involves an important evolutionary step in women’s history—the era of unbridled lust that followed the delightful realization that The Pill was not just about birth control but about women gaining the right to fuck whoever they wanted to fuck whenever they wanted to fuck. Hooray! We can use guys as sex objects just like they used us! Yay, freedom!
The thing is . . . unless we’re talking about a woman with strong dominant tendencies possessed with the discipline and desire to control wayward emotions AND a male partner who seriously and sincerely gets off when she dominates with intentional coldness and distance . . . you’re going to run into a problem common in the fairer sex. Women generally have an ample reserve emotional intelligence and there’s nothing that gets in the way of objectifying a sex partner as thoroughly as empathy . . . or worse, feelings of tenderness towards the intended object. That’s the dilemma facing Belinda Carlisle’s character in “Lust for Love,” and man, is she pissed off about it:
It used to be fun was in
The capture and kill
In another place and time
I did it all for thrills
“Love me and I’ll leave you”
I told you at the start
I had no idea that you
Would tear my world apart
And you’re the one to blame
I used to know my name
But I’ve lost control of the game
Cause even though I set the rules
You’ve got me acting like a fool
When I see you I lose my cool
I love the drama of the song—the open space featuring only Belinda, pizzicato guitar and (later) ominous tom from Gina recall some of the Shangri-Las more dramatic moments.
I have no evidence to support the hypothesis that Jane Wiedlin was referring to Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s “Ode” when she wrote “Change the lines that were said before/We’re all dreamers, we’re all whores,” but my Irish grandmother used to read me that poem when I was a wee lass and dammit, this is my blog and I’ll cite lines from my favorite poems whenever I fucking feel like it:
We are the music makers,And we are the dreamers of dreams,Wandering by lone sea-breakers,And sitting by desolate streams; —World-losers and world-forsakers,On whom the pale moon gleams:Yet we are the movers and shakersOf the world for ever, it seems.
Whatever her reference point, it’s pretty clear that Jane was thinking about Los Angeles, but her experience there spawned a different take:
Change the lines that were said before
We’re all dreamers – we’re all whores
Like worn out cars
Litter the streets of this town
Litter the streets of this town
This town is our town
It is so glamorous
Bet you’d live here if you could
And be one of us
In other words, stay the hell away from the City of Angels.
The song is noted for its abrupt time signature switch—three measures of 4/4 followed by a single measure of 2/4—executed perfectly by the band. However, there’s a lot to love about this piece—Belinda’s clean and clear vocal, delivered in a tone of slightly bitter cynicism, marked by pauses of varying length as she spits out the words “this town”; the spot harmonies that appear throughout; and Charlotte Caffey’s fabulous lead guitar work that lies somewhere between surf and secret agent. Two minor key songs in a row can be kind of a downer, but the combination of “Lust to Love” and “This Town” confirm the notion that the Go-Go’s were a group of very talented women willing to break both societal expectations and musical norms.
Side Two opens with their well-known anthem, “We Got the Beat.” I expect I’ll get the same kind of flak from commentators that I received when I pronounced the B-52’s “Love Shack” one helluva song—something along the lines of “I can’t stand this song—the DJ’s played it to death!” Well, tough titties, folks, because I think the Go-Go’s nailed this one and it fully deserves its status as a timeless rock classic. Belinda’s vocal is even more girlish as she moves to the upper part of her range, but the unique quality of her voice is perfect for this kind of song (and her status as an ex-cheeleader certainly helped on the “YEAH!”). Charlotte strengthens her cred as a great surf guitarist while Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine and Jane Wiedlin wisely avoid the tendency to overplay their rhythmic parts, delivering a strong, danceable beat with just the right amount of punctuation. The stop-time-let’s-all-clap-and-do-the-fucking-Watusi part is a perfectly executed crowd-pleaser.
I do have one nit to pick regarding both “We Got the Beat” and “Our Lips Are Sealed.” Both songs are tuned to different pitches, so if you follow the published chord patterns, your opening A chord is going to sound bloody awful. I don’t mind “We Got the Beat” as much because the guitars are tuned a half-step higher, so all you have to do is slip a capo on the first fret and you’re good to go. Unfortunately, you have to tune down a half-step for “Our Lips Are Sealed,” which is a pain in the ass, especially if you don’t have locking tuners and you have a cheap-ass Strat like mine that goes fucking crazy whenever I try to use alternate tunings.
You’re welcome for the PSA.
“Fading Fast” is a good cool-down song after the heat of “We Got the Beat,” a song where Belinda Carlisle rises above the pedestrian you-lied-you-bastard lyrics and delivers a rich vocal that manages to express both the ragged feelings of relational exhaustion and a deep inner conviction that she’s strong enough to withstand the loss of this loser. I also love how Kathy Valentine’s bass plays a more prominent role in the mix, as she always manages to fulfill the rhythmic support role while finding opportunities for harmonic enhancement. Hmm. Now that I think of it, the two best bass players I know personally were both ex-lead guitarists, so maybe that’s where you should look if your band is suffering from the all-too-common Flaky Bass Player Syndrome.
I think I’m the only person I know whose favorite song on Beauty and the Beat isn’t “We Got the Beat” or even “Our Lips Are Sealed” but the third and only non-charting single from the album, “Automatic.” With its dark tones, Charlotte’s sinuous minor-key guitar riff and sudden bursts of silence, it’s the perfect dramatic vehicle for Belinda to nail her audition for a spot in the 1920’s Berlin cabaret show. Her deliberately mechanical clipping of the syllables (aut-o-mat-ic-ic-ic) reflects the values of the modernistic thread in Bauhaus whether she was aware of it or not. Given the cinematic possibilities of the song, I was surprised that they didn’t produce a supporting video with Belinda in drag, surrounded by smoke, performing for an audience of gender-flexible guests. I think the Go-Go’s could have used an erotically sophisticated video to offset the girls-having-fun routine on the “Our Lips Are Sealed” video and thereby earn some cred with the artistic types.
The Go-Go’s opted for the Bo Diddley beat for “You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep (When You Can’t Sleep),” but their performance here feels more obligatory than fully invested. The primary value of the song is to confirm my deep suspicion of songs with unnecessary long titles. I think they began with a decent concept on “Skidmarks on My Heart” (men loving their cars more than their girls) but their fascination with the concept led to metaphoric diarrhea that gets quite tiresome in short order.
As they approached the finish line, the Go-Go’s found themselves short one song. Richard Gottehrer recommended they shy away from their standard playlist and perhaps consider doing a cover song. The ladies weren’t too keen on that option, and rightly so—a cover song would have eliminated the concept of an all-girl album filled with songs written (or co-written) by the girls themselves. Fortunately for posterity, Kathy Valentine offered up a song she had written when she first moved to L. A. (the first song she had ever written) and her bandmates jumped at the chance to record it.
Given the three-year space between Kathy composing the song and its unexpected emergence in the studio, it’s amazing how the song perfectly captures both the obstacles the Go-Go’s faced and the determination to overcome anything and everything that stood in their way. According to Songfacts, “She was living in a ramshackle apartment with dim prospects when she took out the guitar and came up with the song, which is about not giving up.” Set to an exuberant high-speed beat peppered with syncopated thrusts, “Can’t Stop the World” is also a melodic-harmonic Invasion-oriented delight. Belinda gives us one of her strongest vocals and the band plays and sings with genuine enthusiasm. The enthusiasm is understandable, as they all had to deal with the unique difficulties women face in trying to define themselves in a society that would prefer to limit women to a predictable, supportive role—difficulties of both internal and external origin that Kathy described so effectively in the song:
I gave up looking for a reason
To live with things just the way they were
I came around
Used to be easy to get to
So they got to me just about every way
Caught with no cards up your sleeve
Not much to choose from
Grew up all along just thinking that you couldn’t lose
Don’t want to live without that security
You think that with a little bit more you’ll be alright
Can’t stop the world
Can’t stop the world
Can’t stop the world
Why let it stop you
Why let it stop you
Why let it stop you
While “We Got the Beat” may be the anthem for the fans, “Can’t Stop the World” does a much better job expressing what the Go-Go’s were all about. They had come to a point in their lives when they weren’t about to let anyone or anything stop them—not the men, not tradition, and certainly not the classic female struggle with self-doubt.
Though Beauty and the Beat was a slow bloomer, taking seven months to reach the top of the charts, the Go-Go’s eventually pulled off the miracle. It may have been only one moment in time, but it was a vitally important moment for women and for music in general—greater inclusion meant greater diversity and different perspectives on music. And while I admit I don’t think the honor is all it’s cracked up to be, the Hall is pretty much all we’ve got in the way of recognizing such significant contributions to music, so I’ll be very happy if the Go-Go’s finally get the recognition they deserve.
Janet Weiss brought some serious talent with her when she joined Sleater-Kinney, but her suggestion to use The Kink Kontroversy as the template for the cover of Dig Me Out was a stroke of genius.
The Kink Kontroversy is one of the great garage albums of all-time, featuring just-fucking-plug-and-play classics like “Milk Cow Blues,” “Gotta Get the First Plane Home,” and “What’s in Store for Me?” It’s also a transitionary album, with songs like “I’m On an Island” and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” forging the path to The Kinks’ Golden Age where Ray Davies expanded his playing field to encompass commentary on socio-cultural themes.
Dig Me Out is also a transitionary album, heralding a shift from the heavy punk orientation of Call the Doctor to a more rock-oriented sound that still retains punk edginess—in essence, garage. Bringing on drummer Janet Weiss, who learned her licks from the great ’60s rock bands and by studying the work of Topper Headon and John Bonham, made that transition possible. Corin Tucker said of Weiss at the time, “Musically, she’s completed our band. She’s become the bottom end and the solidness that we’ve really wanted for our songwriting”. Janet’s versatility would also serve the band well as they further diversified their music over the next two decades.
Corin’s mention of “the bottom end” calls attention to a non-standard feature of Sleater-Kinney: no bass player. As a self-admitted bass whore, I always listen for a tangible bottom in any genre, and until Sleater-Kinney, I always believed that rock without a bass player was an impossibility on the level of trying to fuck George Costanza after his post-dip-in-the-pool shrinkage. Amazingly, Janet’s skills with the kick and the toms and the Brownstein-Tucker complementary guitar approach fill the gap so effectively that there are very few moments on Dig Me Out where I miss the bass. As producer John Goodmanson pointed out, “The awesome thing about having no bass player is you can make the guitars sound as big as you want.” Anyone who has fiddled around with Garage Band knows that the bass is the ultimate space invader, often requiring the engineer to dial down the other instruments so the bass doesn’t sound like a big amorphous blob. The absence of bass allows Sleater-Kinney’s twinned guitarists to let it rip with abandon, giving the music greater emotional intensity.
Another facet of the Sleater-Kinney sound that may catch a novice listener off-guard has to do with Corin Tucker’s lead vocals. Corin has described them as intentionally harsh in order to amplify the urgency of the band’s feminist message; Heather Phares of AllMusic described them as “love-them-or-hate-them-vocals.” Personally, I find her delivery terribly exciting and a perfect match for Carrie Brownstein’s lower register when the two engage in duets, call-and-response or layered vocals. This is going to sound weird, but when I think of a singer whose vocal approach is most similar to Corin Tucker’s, the one who comes to mind is Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops. The Holland-Dozier-Holland team deliberately forced Levi into a range beyond his comfort zone by writing songs for a tenor instead of Levi’s natural baritone; the idea was to give the vocals the urgency of a gospel preacher warning the flock about the danger of sin. Correspondingly, Corin sings at the top of her range to “preach” the band’s woman-empowering gospel with comparable intensity. As Carrie Brownstein explained in her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, the vocal stretch was facilitated by an unusual approach to guitar tuning, one that also served to firm up the bottom:
In Heavens to Betsy, Corin had always tuned her guitar to her own voice. So it was completely arbitrary that when she plugged into a tuner one day in an attempt to coordinate our tuning, her guitar happened to be in C-sharp. We never thought to alter it. It’s one and a half steps below standard tuning, which creates a sourness, a darkness that you have to overcome if you’re going to create something at all harmonious and palatable. So even when we’re getting toward a little bit of catchiness or pop sheen, there’s an underlying bitterness to it. The tuning also forced Corin to sing differently—it pushed her into her higher registers, into a wailing, the outer edges.
Brownstein, Carrie. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (pp. 87-88). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. (All quotes below from the book.)
The combination of fiery vocals, a world-class drummer, ripping guitars and palpable emotion made Dig Me Out one of the great kick-ass albums of the ’90s, comparable to the equally relentless performance by Rancid on And Out Comes the Wolves.
Carrie Brownstein captured the essence of “Dig Me Out” thusly: ” . . . those three words could tell you everything you needed to know about the feeling of smallness, of being held back, of such a basic desire to tear even a fraction of light into any form of darkness we’re dealt with.” The metaphor calls out the simple fact that the patriarchy has systematically buried women along with the right to manifest their full potential for millennia, assigning them the limited roles of caretaker, baby production machine and sex dispenser. Despite laws in most civilized countries designed to grant women equality, the habits and stereotypes of oppression still hold sway, and that hypocrisy intensifies the “darkness” we experience. Hence, women today live in a space characterized by constant tension, because words rarely turn into tangible deeds—the words say “be who you want to be” but reality slaps us silly for believing in such obvious crap. That kind of stuff gets really old after a while, so when you label a woman as “bitchy,” try to go a step further and appreciate all the things she has to bitch about.
While it may be obvious to even the most blockheaded listener that Sleater-Kinney’s lyrics create tension by challenging our pathetic status quo, “Dig Me Out” is a sterling example of how Sleater-Kinney is one of the best when it comes to creating musical tension. Though none of the members received much in the way of formal musical training (Carrie Brownstein: “I don’t know much theory, I play by instinct and feel, I could probably get schooled by an eight-year-old on tonics and inversions.”), their instincts are musically sophisticated. If you try to look up the chord patterns to Sleater-Kinney songs, you’ll find most of them are expressed in tablature rather than chords. There are chords, of course, usually of the classic rock variety (5th chords with no thirds), but they’re generally relegated to the background to provide a reference point. The emphasis is placed on the second guitar—not a lead guitar in the traditional sense, but a guitar that focuses on notes and “made-up chords” derived more from the feel of the song than musical logic—hence the need for tablature. So—you have a stripped-down chord with one set of notes (or a simple arpeggio), a second guitar playing either made-up chords or arpeggiated notes and (equally important) a singer providing the melody, all conspiring to create tension. The stripped-down chords serve a dual purpose: sometimes they create tension through half-step moves; other times they serve as a basic foundation for the deviations created by the second guitar and singer.
In “Dig Me Out,” the tension from the second guitar is clear from the outset, as Carrie adds a flattened sixth to her made-up chord, causing our ears to tremble in dissonance. Carrie further contributes to tension throughout the song by playing single notes that may be in the key of the chord in question but not in the chord itself (sticking to the B-note when the chord pattern as moved on to C#5, for example). Both Carrie (on guitar) and Corin (on vocals) make frequent use of the tension inherent in the 7th note, a half-step away from the major chord root. This is somewhat unusual in rock, where the tendency is to go for the flattened 7th, the signature note in every major blues scale, while major seventh chords have been used primarily for their softening effect (refer to the Cmaj7 that opens “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” for an example). The tension becomes almost overwhelming in the bridge, where the chords descend by half-steps, Carrie consistently takes advantage of the missing third to wreak havoc on the expected chord content (even shifting to the minor key in the initial descent) and Corin insists on sticking to the F# granted by the opening B5 as the first note in the duplet (two-note series) even when that note has no business being there according to the laws of music.
Well, the guys wrote those laws, too, so fuck it.
The rhythm also alternates between single and double-time, and the sheer speed of the transition would likely befuddle most drummers. Corin and Carrie chose “Dig Me Out” as Janet Weiss’ audition song and, needless to say, she passed both audition and studio take with flying colors. I also love the way Corin leaves it all on the field during the chorus, belting it out like she’s trying to sweep away years of repression and frustration. You can’t find a better supporting argument to make your case for the proposition “Resolved: Girls Can Kick Ass, Too” than “Dig Me Out.”
“One More Hour” confirms that hypothesis and then some. Awkwardly enough, Corin Tucker wrote the song about her breakup with Carrie Brownstein. The history of popular music is full of stories of intra-band intimacy: sometimes it works (Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of Talking Heads); sometimes it doesn’t (Big Deal); sometimes the parties somehow manage to shoulder on (the McVie’s are the most obvious example). According to Carrie, nearly all the songs on Dig Me Out have something to do with her relationship with Corin or the triangle with Corin’s future husband (NOT a ménage-à-trois), but due to superior compartmentalization skills, she remained clueless, focusing on the music rather than the lyrical content.
Thankfully, “One More Hour” isn’t simply a coded message from one ex to another, but a passion-loaded expression of the vulnerability that makes an intimate relationship between two women so beautiful and so potentially painful. Falling in love with anyone always entails risk, but falling in love with a person of the same sex multiplies that risk. First, both parties have to overcome the social programming that stigmatizes homosexual relationships. While attraction to a member of the opposite sex has been normalized and involves few barriers, the most common response of a person experiencing same-sex attraction for the first time (and maybe the second, third and fourth times) is denial, a feeling that “there must be something wrong with me.” The danger of engaging in a same-sex relationship extends beyond the risks involved in any intimate coupling to potential banishment from one’s family and workplace discrimination, which is why non-heterosexuals form supportive, semi-closed communities or choose to keep their inclinations secret. Things get more complicated when you consider that both danger and secrecy carry a certain level of thrill—and it’s doubly crushing when you’ve overcome your denial and made yourself completely vulnerable only to find out that the other party was just using you to get their kicks. That wasn’t the case with Carrie and Corin, but the breakup was still “brutal and heartbreaking,” probably aggravated by the enhanced fragility of the same-sex relationship.
The stage is set for an emotional powerhouse of a song with Carrie’s Devo-reminiscent guitar riff supported by perfect stutter-step drums from Janet and Corin’s screaming high-string two-note chording in the opposite channel. Corin’s vocal tone in the opening verse is packed with a combination of feelings—sadness, regret, bitterness, vulnerability. She puts words to those feelings in the awkwardly-constructed phrases of a break-up, uncomfortably combining resolve and loss:
In one more hour, I will be gone
In one more hour, I’ll leave this room
The dress you wore, the pretty shoes
Are things I left behind for you
As Carrie shifts from riff to double-time rhythmic support in the two-line bridge, we hear Corin beginning to face the loss as she recalls the emotional memory of the connection—the special form of intimacy expressed through deep eye contact:
Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes
Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes
Up until this point, the band has wisely withheld the bottom—wisely because when Corin shifts from the high strings to the low strings, the now booming bass sound heralds the release of deeper, rawer feelings of loss, accompanied by Carrie’s (unconscious) attempts to soothe the pain. That transition is one great rock-and-roll moment:
I needed it (I know, I know, I know)
Oh I needed it (It’s so hard for you to let it go)
I needed it (I know, I know, I know)
Oh I needed it (I never wanted to let it, let it go)
Kudos again to Janet Weiss, whose innate sense of compositional structure tells her exactly when to hold back and when to let it fucking rip.
“Turn It On” is about . . . well, it’s about getting turned on! Duh! This isn’t “turned on” in the Timothy Leary sense of psychedelic drugs and consciousness-raising, this is about the moment of heightened sensuality when the clit starts to get wet and the dick starts to get hard (if applicable). What’s interesting here is that Corin describes one of those relationships where you find your potential squeeze irresistibly attractive but you don’t quite trust them to be real—and you don’t trust yourself not to give in to the temptation:
Why can’t you tell me
Is it worth a fight
Do I sound crazy
Well I just might
Why do your words
Have to ring so false
Why do your eyes
Have to change so much
It’s too warm
Inside your hands
It’s too hard
It’s too good
It’s just that when you touched me
I could not stand up
I fell into
I fell down
Those relatively coherent lyrics are followed by an “oh, fuck it” barrage of “turn it on” and associated mutterings indicating that Corin has decided to let herself go. Go for it, sister! Backed by more of a classic rock arrangement (love the handclaps in the chorus), “Turn It On” is not only validation of the Riot Grrrl principle of refusing to deny female sexuality, but a flat-out gas.
According to Carrie, John Goodmanson used baseball theory to determine the track order: “put your top three batters first.” It certainly worked in terms of the first three cuts, but if you were expecting a grand slam from the cleanup spot, you’re likely to be disappointed. “The Drama You’ve Been Craving” features an intriguing title and not a whole lot else. The vocal duet approach that worked so well on “One More Hour” is a bit of a mess, lacking a clean distinction of roles. The music is more akin to the punk you hear on Call the Doctor, but here the bottom fails to make an appearance to give the song some grounding.
Carrie takes over the lead vocalist role on “Heart Factory,” a dig at one of the cultural beliefs that emerged in the ’90s: the belief that with a few surgical alterations and a fistful of pharmaceuticals you can take control of your life and be the sex machine you’ve always wanted to be. Carrie presents the pro-alteration perspective in the verses, employing an “eventually it will come to this” argument in a flat, slightly sardonic tone:
We’re manufacturing hearts, we’ve got the perfect thing
The word on the street, we’ve got the new love machine
Heart with an on and off switch and a remote control
Now you can program how you feel before you walk out the door . . .
Well you can leave ’em hot and you can leave ’em cold
And you can give ’em what you want, you can get up and go
And you can take your heart out and you can put it back in
I think we found the way to put the fun back in sin
Gee, I think sin is pretty fun as-is.
The ultra-human rejection of becoming an android is found in the chorus, where Corin joins in the fun and delivers the knockout punch over full band power reminiscent of ’70s hard rockers:
Find me out
I’m not just made of parts
Oh you can break right through
This box you put me into
The juxtaposition of quirky and raw power proves to be quite a pleasurable listening experience, each mode serving to strengthen the impact of the other.
“Words and Guitar” celebrates the power of rock itself, distilling the genre down to the basic ingredients and emphasizing the freedom inherent in playing it louder than the authorities would prefer. They’ve sold me on the proposition in the first verse, where Corin and Carrie play call-and-response over a rumbling background deliciously interrupted by stop time segments:
Words and guitar
I got it, words and guitar
I want it, way, way too loud
I got it words and guitar
I want it all
(Can’t take this away from me)
I want it all
(Music is the air I breathe)
I want it
(Can’t take this away from me)
Words and guitar
Corin’s lead vocal on the verses is powerful and phonetically precise at the same time, not an easy feat when you’re singing at high speed—I love the clarity and syncopation of the lines that lead the second verse–“Take-take the noise in my head.” The band shifts out of bash mode for the bridges, with Janet shifting from toms to snare-and-cymbals and Carrie playing a lovely arpeggiated riff. Corin’s vocal in this passage absolutely melts me, especially when she uses the 7th note to create an extended moment of tension before resolution:
I dream of quiet songs
I hear the silky sounds
Hush, hush and rock
Oh give me pretty song
Oh let me have that sound
Most critical interpretations have focused on the power the women feel now that they have the privilege of immersing themselves in rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t disagree with that perception, but it should be noted that “I got it’ has a double meaning—it expresses “this is mine now, fuck yeah” but also serves as a reminder that rock is better when you stick to the basics—words and guitar. Those basics have been grounded in rock mythology almost from its inception, as the picture of Elvis singing with all his might while holding that big fat acoustic guitar on the cover of his first album so beautifully demonstrates.
“It’s Enough” continues the celebration of rock ‘n’ roll with foot-to-the-floor full-throttle explosiveness that wraps up in a punk-friendly one minute and forty-seven seconds. When Corin ends the song with the line, “I make, I make, I make . . . rock ‘n’ roll,” it feels like both a statement of liberation and a well-deserved pat on the back—i. e., “Hey! We’re pretty good at this rock ‘n’ roll thing.” Expanding beyond punk dogmatism and into the more flexible field of rock ‘n’ roll created new avenues for self-expression and the opportunity to reach a wider audience. There is no way in hell Sleater-Kinney would have lasted as long as they have (going on twenty-five years, minus a six-year hiatus) if they hadn’t extended their musical reach.
They certainly branched out with “Little Babies,” with its fanciful “Dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum do” chorus closer to The Go-Go’s than Wendy O. Williams. I’ve always believed that punk had more to do with attitude than short high-speed songs loaded with distortion (as London Calling so conclusively proved). The flat tone in Corin’s and Carrie’s voices on that chorus definitely has a Shangri-Las edge to it, so it sounds a lot tougher than it appears on paper.
As for content, it is entirely logical to assume that “Little Babies” is about motherhood:
I’m the water, I’m the dishes, I’m the soap
I will comfort, make you clean and help you cope
When you’re tired feeling helpless come inside I am the shelter
And then when you’re feeling better I’ll watch you go
Dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum do
All the little babies go oh oh I want to
Dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum yeah
Rock the little babies with one two three
Are you hungry? Did you eat before the show?
I peeled potatoes, set the table, washed the floor
I know the others treat you rough and when you know you’ve had enough
You’ll come and see me ‘cos you know I’m always here
Anyone with a modicum of cultural sophistication who reads those lyrics is likely to respond, “Oh yeah! That’s Harriet Nelson! Ricky must be playing at the sock hop tonight!” And you’d be 100% right and 100% wrong at the same time. You’re correct—it’s a depiction of mom-taking-care-of-family. Now take it one step further and imagine that everyone in the patriarchy is programmed to believe in the sacred formula: woman = mother.
“Little Babies” is a song that sounds like it’s about the fans, and maybe it is. But later I realized that it was probably also about me, some confluence of Corin’s caretaking role toward both me and the audience, feeling taken for granted and misunderstood by both. The role of a woman onstage is often indistinct from her role offstage—pleasing, appeasing, striking some balance between larger-than-life and iconic with approachable, likable, and down-to-earth, the fans like gaping mouths, hungry for more of you.
Brownstein, Carrie. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (p. 138). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Hmm. I understand the perception, and it may have been true in Corin’s case, but I can’t imagine anyone perceiving Billie Holiday or Patsy Cline as “caretakers.” It’s also obvious that while male rock stars may not serve as caretakers, they do provide a convenient object for crazed fans who identify with them because those fans have no life of their own. But while I think Carrie was painting with too broad a brush, the expectation of women to be caretakers is baked into our cultural norms, and it remains something that women still have to deal with.
All I know is this: If I had a husband who came home one day and said, “Make me a sandwich,” those would be the last words he would ever utter on this mortal plane.
The girls hit the accelerator again—this time, literally—with “Not What You Want.” Corin gives us another strong performance here, with her “foot on the floor/go eighty, ninety-five, maybe more.” What happened is she had the urge to get the hell out and go wherever, grabbed a bloke named Johnny, ordered him to get his car so they could hit the road, then seems to ignore his apparently genuine concern (“Tell me baby, what’s wrong?”). She seems to respond with something likely to go over poor Johnny’s head—“It’s not what you want/It’s everything”—but it’s also possible that she’s talking to herself. Either way the message is: “Johnny, sweetie, don’t think sex is going to solve this. This has nothing to do with what I want—it’s this whole goddamned fucked-up world.” That’s a very common sentiment today—few of us seem to know what might make us happy, but even if we had whatever that thing is, the noise that surrounds us makes it impossible to appreciate the gift. Corin is reacting to the modern low-grade fever that never seems to go away. In keeping with the enormity of the angst attached to such a situation, the band expresses the depth of the frustration by leaving it all on the playing field. In addition to the sheer power of the song, I love the way Janet Weiss handles the cymbals, giving us a beautiful balance between shimmer and crash.
The closest thing to a ballad on Dig Me Out is “Buy Her Candy,” where Corin’s lovely vibrato emerges with greater clarity than it does in the harder songs. The guitar duet here is simple but effective, with Corin’s arpeggio complementing the melody and Carrie’s precisely-picked low notes establishing a tempo that creates the feeling that we’ve entered a realm where time is advancing at a slower pace than the real world. The music provides an effective backdrop for the internal monologue captured in the lyrics, where the narrator fantasizes about their female celebrity crush. It’s revealing that the narrator first describes himself as a nobody before extolling the woman’s virtues; the crucial line “If I buy her candy/Will she know who I am?” captures the pathos inherent in a relationship based on fantasy. Living in a different social strata and unable to make any kind of meaningful connection, the narrator takes comfort in the perception that she is accessible to no one: “She is selfish/She is kind/No one can say/She is mine.” Although they could have rocked all album long as far as I’m concerned, this little break in the action is a compelling experience.
The heat returns in the form of “Things You Say,” an exposé of the human tendency to substitute strategy for authenticity and honest conversation for a script. Corin jumps straight to the point in the first verse, where she attempts to enlighten her partner on the deleterious effects of self re-invention:
You got your words
But they make you stuck
Now you can’t feel
Now you can’t want
It’s just too messy
It’s just too thick
Is it too scary
Or just too real?
Oh, the layers and layers we create to avoid unmasking our true feelings! Corin’s response is found in the chorus, and on the last go-around she appends four lines that answer the scary-or-real question (it’s both) and qualify as Words to Live By for anyone in search of true intimacy:
It is one desire
Burning hot and bright
It could fill the sky
It could fill me up
Worth the trouble
Worth the pain
It is brave to feel
It is brave to be alive
I don’t know why we created a world where simply trying to be who you are qualifies an act of courage, or why we established cultural norms that force people into role-playing, but I’ve always agreed with Blake that the nearly all human problems stem from repressed desire. The music supports the duality presented in the song, with the rhythm choppier in the verses and hard-driving in the chorus. Corin’s tone in the verses is naturally dismissive and impatient, but in the chorus and coda, the purity and strength in her voice is undeniably moving. The only fly in the ointment is the unintelligibility of Carrie’s response vocals, but it’s a relatively minor quibble.
I’ve already noted a sonic connection between Sleater-Kinney and Devo, but “Dance Song ’97” makes it so obvious that even contemporary critics picked up on it. The beat will be familiar to Freedom of Choice fans, as will the thin organ that added a sci-fi feel to “Whip It.” I don’t have a problem with the arrangement, but the lyrical focus on repressed desire was covered far more effectively in “Things You Say” and slotting the two songs back-to-back highlights the weakness of the second. Dig Me Out ends with “Jenny,” a slow, dark grunge number with minimalistic lyrics that qualifies it as a mood song. While the band is tight and Corin’s is as strong as ever, I have to confess that the mood they create reminds me of the way I feel when I’m on the rag—grungy-grumpy-messy-yucky. Chalk up my commentary to intensely personal critical bias and leave it at that.
Sleater-Kinney has continued to produce critically-acclaimed albums over the years, each representing another step in their musical growth. Apparently, their recent collaboration with St. Vincent took things a bit too far for Janet Weiss, who left the band last year. I wasn’t surprised by their embrace of electronics; Kathleen Hanna went there with The Julie Ruin years before. And though the critical reception to The Center Won’t Hold was more mixed than usual, the important point is that after all these years, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein continue to embody artistic integrity. While they conclusively proved that women can rock and with the best of them on Dig Me Out, what’s most important about the album is it was a confidence-building, door-opening experience that resulted in one of the great catalogs of the female experience.