Like Gang of Four, The Au Pairs made authoritative, tight, and imminently danceable songs that rocked their politics just as hard as their grooves. Lesley Woods sang with a smoky, snarky, blues voice and played a twitchy guitar that she used to scratch up the hollows of the throbbing, syncopated punk rhythms. They wanted to take over the world, or at least the pop charts, but disappeared after two albums.
They aimed big while revolutionizing the small. Unlike a lot of political-with-a-capital-p bands, their politics were personal, honest, funny, awkward and unflinching. They weren’t telling anybody what to think, or even what they thought. They were just dramatizing situations and roles, and left it up to their listeners to make the connections to larger contexts. Most of their lyrics address power hierarchies, whether between romantic couples, governments and people, or even within bands. The mixed genders of the group and their use of Jamaican dub aesthetics were both ways to bypass and test the flexibility of those levels of authority. Simultaneously playing with and ignoring sex and gender (sort of like The Raincoats), they mixed it up with everyday stories of the negotiating that goes on in all types of relationships.
Come Again (banned by the BBC) looks at the way even the most private of spaces and moments are fraught with competing demands and sympathies. There’s nothing more transcendently fun than an orgasm, but here (even progressive) women have to be aware of the pressures on them to perform for their partners—it’s only polite—and sometimes fake it; even when they want it, even if they know their partner is trying, especially when they don’t and he isn’t. And what about feeling like you have to because you’re a new woman who changed the rules, and has sex on your own terms—because those women always have orgasms, now, right? Just thinking about it can throw you off your game, even when things had been going well. An allmusic review patronizingly called their songs “hectoring”, but Come Again rocks like crazy and ends with this hilarious and all too recognizable chorus:
Is your finger aching? I can feel you hesitating.
Is your finger aching!?!
Yes, thank you, I got one. Yes, it was nice.
Yes, we should go to sleep now. Yes, yes it was fine—
We must, we must do it again sometime. We must—
Yes, but I'm tired. Cum again? Wot?
Shit, I forgot to put my cap in!
The album came out at a time when the British government was busy ignoring rising levels of Fascist youth violence directed at Asian and Pakistani communities, gay clubs, feminist spaces and performers—anything not white and right wing. At the same time, the government was torturing female IRA prisoners (many falsely accused) while maintaining a public face of innocence. In Armagh, Lesley calls out the way torture and rape are used as tools of governments and patriarchies, both of whom hide behind professions of belonging to a higher order that couldn’t possibly be guilty of those things. We don’t torture / We’re a civilized nation / We’re avoiding any confrontation, Lesley mockingly chants throughout the song.
I wish she were still around today. In just under thirty years, “We don’t torture, we’re a civilized nation” has mutated from denial to excuse to justification. “We’re civilized people, and civilized people don’t torture, therefore all that stuff you’ve seen and heard about that looks like torture isn’t.” It’s become a hallmark of right wing discourse to argue in bad faith and to claim that the horrible thing being done isn’t really happening, and even if it is, they’re just doing it to protect you. Witness the disingenuous claims that anti-choicers don’t hate women or want to punish their sexuality. Why, no! They love women so much, they’re taking away their rights and choices so they don’t make any of those stupid decisions women (especially poor women) are likely to make when there isn’t a man around to tell them what they really want. Right now, in the US, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) is trying to make the Hyde Amendment (which prohibits federal Medicaid funding for abortions services) permanent law. As it stands, it’s a budget item that gets voted on each year (which is bad enough, and has been going on for 34 years), but making it permanent law would have the effect of making abortion coverage illegal for low income women on Medicaid, federal employees, and military women. It would also effectively end abortion coverage in private employer policies, and endanger life-saving emergency abortions at state and local public hospitals. If you live in the US, visit this link to The Center for Reproductive Rights, where you can write to your Congressional representative and tell them to oppose this act.