Unfortunately, we finished out the decade with a president who largely backed off on his pro-choice promises, with both NOW and NARAL asking the street-level movements to tone down the demonstrations for fear of alienating an administration they thought was tenuously still on their side. By the turn of the millennium, fully in the sway of “finding common ground” with anti-choicers5, abortion rights had been chipped away to such an extent that it was more difficult to obtain one than it had been under Reagan and Bush6. And now we’ve arrived at the point where a Republican Congress can shamelessly introduce a bill that would not only prohibit abortion coverage through private insurance, but that attempts to define rape out of existence for the majority of women who have been sexually assaulted. They’ve since backed down and removed the “forcible rape” language (proving that street-level feminist activism still has power, and is needed more than ever), but they’re still going ahead with the bill. If you live in the U.S., write to your representative, and if you’d like to do something more directly positive, donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds, which helps fight these measures and helps pay for women who can’t afford abortions on their own.
I was thinking of all this when I recently revisited an album that had been a favorite of mine back in ’95, but had fallen off my radar in the ensuing years. Susan Voelz is probably best known for playing violin in Poi Dog Pondering (and has contributed to albums by John Mellencamp, Alejandro Escovedo, and Ronnie Lane). Much of Poi’s work is characterized by the use of relentless optimism as a weapon against the inevitability of death, but Susan’s solo work finds her examining more ambiguous territory. Recorded after surviving a horrific car crash, she starts to question the ability to connect or take action within this brief existence, asking, "When we die, will we think this was anything?".
That emotionally abstract, quizzical tone flows through the album. The instrumental Mystic River Bridge refers to a real-life suicide while Susan wonders if the jumper chose the location for its name. The poppy Happy can be read as a manifesto for allowing yourself to be who you are (“Just for an hour I'm going to be happy/Just for a day I'm going to let dumb things happen/I don't care how I look 'cause I look good-enough/I don't care what I think 'cause I'm not thinkin' much”) and as a caustic take on happiness as a goal instead of a state of being (“I don't wanna feel bad/So I stop feelin' anything”). Later on, William, about a man hospitalized for manic happiness, expands the idea further. In the liner notes, Voelz writes of Step Off the Roof, “There was a news story of protesters blocking entrance to a clinic, forcing girls to climb a ladder to enter through a second floor window. What if she skipped the procedure and turned and induced her abortion by jumping off the roof onto the protesters below?”.
She can be solemn, but none of it feels depressing or dour. It’s actually breathtakingly beautiful—somewhat like Mazzy Star’s languid sensualtiy crossed with Andrew Bird’s spritely, tight-rope dancing virtuosity. Dreamy—like so many things back then tended to be. The arrangement and production for such a small album are spectacular. Seductive, swooning melodies (rich and velvety with deep purple hues) are cloaked in mesmerizing, atmospheric guitar drones that swarm around the more distinct core of Susan’s breezy voice and the bright solar flare of her violin. She has a way of pinning a hook to your eardrum (especially in Taka Looka Round and Step Off the Roof) and the rare ability to sing about discrete, concrete things in a tender, personal way while at the same time holding them just far enough out of reach to analyze it like a butterfly impaled on a needle.
1. I have a theory (which is mine), which is that “The 90s” actually comprised a period from about 1988 (the year of the first Pixies’ album) to about 1994 (around the time Curt Kobain killed himself. Not that Curt “owned” the 90’s or that his death caused its downfall or anything, but it’s as good a date as any, and my memory of the period is of things going downhill fast after that). At least, this was the in-between time period for the cultural highlights of my in-between generation. Yes, other stuff (soul-deadening effluvia) happened in the 90s “the decade”—boy bands, nu-metal, rap-rock—but those things didn’t belong to “The 90s”.
2. No, I’m not saying that feminism is dead, just that the media has wholly fallen for the backlash.
3. In fact, a lot of activism was in response to the wave of home-grown, Christian terrorism directed at abortion clinics in the late 80s and early 90s.
4. Doing some research online4a, I notice that Gillian Anderson emceed in 2001. *nerdgasm*
4a. I also see that Stone Temple Pilots once played Rock 4 Choice, despite having recorded Sex Type Thing, which was totally rape-y. I know Scott Wieland later claimed it was an anti-rape song, but I find it nearly impossible to get over the first person perspective and the fact that there’s nothing in the song to undercut his point of view. There’s probably a whole other post that could be done just on the subject of male bands writing what they think of as anti-rape songs that identify with the rapist instead of the victim. Just off the top of my head, there’s NIN’s Big Man with a Gun, and Nirvana’s Polly and, of course, Rape Me. Polly at least, puts the creepiness of the narrator front and center (whereas Sex Type Thing just makes STP sound creepy), and could be read (if you were thinking of writing a term paper on it) as alluding to the inability to have true sexual equality in a patriarchal society. Rape Me, on the other hand, with its cop from the Teen Spirit riff, just seemed to be Curt going off on his hatred of fame and what mass media did to his art, which is pretty trivializing of actual rape victims.
5. There is none. When one side believes women have the right to make their own decisions about their health, their lives, and their bodies—and the other side thinks of women as less human than a clump of cells, as people who deserve to be punished for their sexuality, and who have no interest in the needs of children once they’re born—I can’t imagine what we could possibly have in common. There is no compromise to be made on women’s rights. You either believe they have them or they don’t, and the anti-choice crowd is not going to stop until they’ve overturned Roe v. Wade. And after they’ve accomplished that, they’re going after Griswold v. Connecticut, so stock up on birth control now.
6. There’s an excellent article on the history of Rock 4 Choice, its place in the 90s alternative culture, and the withering of mainstream feminist activism here.
I still wonder why everyone stopped wearing Doc Martens.