May 20, 2011

The Jags. Evening Standards.

I have this fantasy that the sleeve for this album got made first and then handed to the band with instructions to make an album that would fit inside it. Because nothing else could have produced the synesthetic mesh of image and sound found here. It may not be an unjustly overlooked classic of new wave power-pop, but it may have unintentionally created its iconic apotheosis. Four nattily dressed lads stand looking studiedly aloof in front of the clean lines of a bauhausian office building beneath a romantically airbrushed turquoise sky. Sort of a cross between The Cars portraits on the back of Candy O and The Feelies Crazy Rhythms. The Jags themselves sound (a lot) like early Elvis Costello, and were in fact dismissed by critics as unworthy imitators when this was released in 1980. I was actually never a big fan of Costello, so this doesn't bother me, as I don't consider him terribly sacred. Their song Back of My Hand made the Top 40 and is occasionally resurrected on power-pop comps, but they never quite equaled it or scored another trip to the mainstream. It is undoubtedly the catchiest song on the album, but the rest of the songs are strong, punchy bundles of crisp, nervous energy, and to the people who encountered them, they're very fondly remembered.

Here's the problem, though. Either someone in the Jags had very recently been dumped, or they were just generally misogynist pricks (could be both/and). It seems like eighty percent of the songs on here are about how women are this stupid, sadistic alien species with the single-minded goal of breaking men's hearts, fucking with their lives, trapping them into bourgeois marriages and—of course—doing all this with men who aren't them. I know, I know...these sort of attitudes towards women are so common in popular music that if I had to edit out all the bands that weren't perfectly feminist, there would be precious little left to listen to. I'm hoping to get a copy of Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music for my birthday. Writing of the Sex Pistols' Bodies she said
It was an outrageous song, yet I could not simply dismiss it with outrage. The extremity of its disgust forced me to admit that I was no stranger to such feelings---though unlike Johnny Rotten I recognized that disgust, not the body, was the enemy. And there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, love, hated---as good rock and roll did---challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics.

They Jags may not be political in their stance, but the feathery-haired guy who sort of looks like Bruce Campbell on the cover is a pretty sharp songwriter and clearly has a vision he wants to communicate. It's the typical vision of nice guys turned bad boys due to not being given the pussy they so clearly deserve, but at least he owns it heart and soul. If guys start bands to be more attractive to women, I will never understand why they then go on to write songs insulting women and generally calling them heartless sluts for dating guys who weren't them before they had their own stage. Especially when you consider that (at least in the 80's) women were the primary audience for and consumers of new wave and power-pop music. Who did The Jags think their audience was? Who were they writing to?

Their saving grace is that the music is really catchy and choosing pleasure is its own kind of rebellion. Also, without the lyrics sheet I rarely know what the singer is singing about. It's just that...when you do read them—jeebus they can be pretty bad. Woman's World outright states in the chorus that It's a woman's world we live in / And a woman don't think straight, handily pointing out the confusing, oppressive, and flighty pussyarchy white male rock stars are forced to live under.

Then there's their one hit, Back of My Hand. Pandagon was talking about giving out fake phone numbers to get creepy guys to leave you alone at bars, and how women aren't entitled to the space to just be out with their friends. It was in response to this post at The Hairpin about how stalkery guys can be in those situations, and it made me think of this song, which sounds at first to be about getting a woman's phone number, but is actually full of thinly veiled threats of violence. With the double meanings of "I've got your number" (I have your phone number / I know what kind of person you areand what sort of sneaky thing you're up to) adding "written on the back of my hand" makes it pretty clear that he's threatening to hit the woman in question for the sin of not calling him for dates. Savor this run of lyrics and see what you think:

You only call me if you're feeling blue
You tell me I don't pay attention to you
But if you only knew just what I'm going through
You wouldn't phone those guys who mess around with you girl
You're not unreadable, you're not unbeatable
I know just what you are, don't push your luck too far
You're not untouchable, not just another girl
I get in touch with you, I only wish you knew...
I got your number written on the back of my hand
I got your number...

The weird thing is that I remember there being a lot of masculine gender panic over insufficiently manly new wave acts in the 80's, which was coupled with anxiety/resentment that this style was supposedly being driven by sexual young women having the hots for this new, androgynous version of the male. So to find this kind of sexual push back—a warning to women to know their place—in the songs that helped inspire that panic is odd to say the least. It seems like for every gain women achieve in regards to freedom and pleasure, there's a backlash—even within the cultural items that women's choices have helped make successful.

Evening Standards

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