If you were lucky/cool enough to be part of the Girls on Film Festival last month, I hope you came away as excited and inspired as I did. I didn’t get to see as many films as I would’ve liked, but the three I did catch made a huge impression on me. I knew next nothing about the Australian film Radiance (1998), and it turned out to be one of the best surprises I’ve had in recent memory. Rachel Perkins debut is a beautifully shot family drama, where three estranged sisters return home to regional Queensland in the wake of their mother’s death. Playwright Louis Nowra wrote the screenplay, and it’s a subtle, sophisticated portrait of three very different women bound by blood, but the real strength of the film comes from extraordinary performances from Rachel Maza, Deborah Mailman and Trisha Morton-Thomas as the sisters. As they dig up more and more buried resentment and family secrets, their relationships to one another change over and over, pushing each of them to their limits as actors. It’s an intense story, more than it seems at first, and one that deserves far more respect and recognition in Australian film history.
The other two films I saw made for terrific companion viewing: The Runaways (2010) and The Punk Singer (2013), a doco on Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. As a double-act, they blew me away repeatedly as I realised how truly transgressive women in rock (or music in general) can be. Particularly in the case of bands like Bikini Kill, who started the still-powerful riot grrl movement even as the hyper-masculine grunge movement was selling flannel and Big Muff distortion pedals by the thousand. It was revitalising to see how powerful can be, and how people like Kathleen could loudly confront the social biases that held women back. Just watching the doco took me back to being a teenager, the age when you really believe that music can change the world. I’ve lost that sense over the last few years, but The Punk Singer made me see that any change has to come from outside, from the underpowered and under-represented.
That got me thinking about the powerful, challenging music women are making right now, even as the music industry tries to equate ‘feminine’ with ‘weak’, ‘wussy’, and worst of all, ‘nice’ (as a synonym for ‘anodyne’). Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of room in my life and my music collection for wussy music made by both men and women; there’s no imperative on women to make transgressive or confrontational statements with their music any more than that expectation exists for men. Traditionally, though, those statements are less valued and less celebrated than the statements made by men, so here’s my tiny attempt to redress the balance somewhat.
Annie Clark is a maniac, of the best possible kind. Her music is wild and unpredictable, as likely to be sweet and innocent as it is to hear a furious outburst of shredding guitar. Her latest album, St. Vincent (2013), is an even stranger evolution of her distinctive sound, a more electronic twist on her savage, thoughtful, lovely and thoroughly odd back catalogue. I won’t say much more: I’ll leave that for Anna to cover in an imminent episode of the Ladyist podcast. Instead, I’ll let ‘Birth in Reverse’ speak for itself, in a language unlike any other.
Picking any one Janelle Monae song instantly does a disservice to her staggeringly diverse catalogue. Even with just two full-length albums and an EP to her name, Janelle’s worked in torch ballads, robot anthems, funky explosions, punk fury, classical overtures (several of them) and about a billion other genres, all nestled neatly alongside and within each other. Listening to The Archandroid in full is a quick tour of 20th century popular song, all filtered through her fantastically inventive lens. Add to that the ongoing sci-fi narrative that spans all her releases, with that metaphor touching on ideas of femininity, identity and a host of other complex ideas, and you’ve still only got a partial image of the breathtaking creative mind that is Janelle Monae. And, at the risk of falling into the trap of defining female musicians by the way they look, it’s impossible to look past Janelle’s impeccably neat suits and the engineering miracle that is her quiff. It’s a marvel, and just one of the impossible things Janelle makes normal with every move.
FKA Twigs (Tahliah Debrett Barnett) makes music that you can’t easily pin down. Like Burial and the xx, there are flavours of British dance culture, particularly garage and two-step, mixed with soul, choral harmony, and a host of other genres. The combination is unique and incredibly expressive, feeling intimate and impossibly distant at the same time. That duality makes her music compelling and strange, but it’s also incredibly physical. Songs like ‘Lights On’ hint at Tahliah’s conflicted state of mind as she grapples with trust and intimacy; that confusion turns into deep longing ‘Hours’, which drips with unfettered desire and sensuality. Pop music typically constrains or judges any expression of female sexuality, so her declarations of physical longing feel revelatory, and even more human amidst the track’s alien tone.
Maybe it’s just my bias towards anyone who can come up with a title like ‘Avant Gardener’, but Courtney Barnett’s A Sea of Split Peas double-EP has quickly become one of my go-to listens. The sun-drunk strum and casual Aussie twang she sings with are awesome, but a total misdirect: Courtney’s way, way smarter than the drawl suggests, both as a songwriter and a lyricist. Her style is unflashy, but there’s a great mix of sublime, off-handed wordplay and sharp observations that belie the sharp mind behind them. ‘Avant Gardener’ is full of great lines (“the paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar/I think she’s clever ’cause she stops people dying”), but ‘History Eraser’ is a miracle of a song, the most casual earworm you’ll ever hear. If Courtney ever wants to sing me a Triffids song in the back of a cab, I’ll be there in a flash.
That’s just a sample of the amazing women making music right now. If you’ve got an artist or band you want to share, tell us all about her/them in the comments — bonus points for including links so everyone can check them out!