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Commentary by Simon Frith 1979

Sisters under the skin?


By Simon Frith

There’s an interesting column by Penny Valentine in the latest issue of Creem about the American press reaction to the Stiff package which visited New York just before Christmas. The New York writers heard Wreckless Eric as a profound cultural commentator, and couldn’t make any sense of Lene Lovich at all.

Lene was, reckoned Dave Marsh in Village Voice, ‘like Patti Smith, with all the pretensions and none of the vision.’

‘Lovich,’ wrote Toby Goldstein in Creem, ‘aroused equal parts of love and wrath from the audience, depending on one’s loyalties to her soundalike, Patti Smith.’

These comparisons seem so bizarre that I’ve spent the last week playing nothing but Lene Lovich’s Stateless LP and Patti Smith’s Horses. Sound alike? Well, Lene and Patti are both female singers, they both use full throaty voices, they both use a controlled shriek as a rhythmic device. But this is to detach sound from context in away that it ridiculous.

Patti Smith is an American rock star – intense, self-consciously arty, with a vision of rock ‘n’ roll as modern-day bohemia: Patti Smith as Keith Richards as Rimbaud. Horses is a classic record because of the urgency of its longing for the rock ‘n’ roll utopia.

Stateless, by contrast, is a relaxed, funny, gimmicky pop album. It features neat love lyrics, jolly tunes and, despite Dave Marsh, no pretensions at all. It is difficult to imagine a record less like Patti Smith’s.

Comparison is the essence of all rock criticism. It is the easiest, the quickest, often the only way to translate sounds into words, and inept comparison is simply bad criticism. But the ubiquity of the Lovich/Smith pairing in the US press wasn’t just a matter of New Yorkers being hard of hearing. Women musicians always suffer from criticism by comparison. There are fewer female performers, there are fewer comparisons that can be made. The real reason why everyone in the Bottom Line heard Lene Lovich as Patti Smith was that Patti Smith was the only other quirky woman rocker they’d seen all year.

In Britain, the choices are greater, the Lovich comparisons more varied. Lene stalks the stage like Siouxsie, plays sax like Lora Logic, swoops up and down her vocal register like Kate Bush, is as soulful as Bonnie Tyler. What make Lene different, according to the Daily Mirror, are her mantilla and carrot-coloured plaits.

None of these judgments make much sense to me either, but they do reflect another sexually divisive issue – the relationship between music and image.

Music and image can’t be separated for anyone; they are integrated in the way artists present themselves, in the way Elvis Costello’s music takes its meaning from his look as well as from his sound. The sexual problem is that women’s images are less free, less autonomous than men’s. There is a more limited repertoire of acceptable female roles. One of punk’s greatest achievements was to open up the possibilities of the female stage presence, but even now it is difficult to imagine a woman being able to use the conventions of ‘ugliness’ as acceptably as Elvis C.

One of the hardest qualities to pin down in rock is ‘charisma’, the way artists attract audiences, draw them into the spurious intimacy of public performance, charm them, awe them, coddle them.

The most obvious attractive device, for men and women performers alike, is sex, and the most unpleasant sexual performer in rock at present is Rod Stewart, whose puffed-up cameos on Top Of The Pops are those if a Liberace who takes his own flabby glamour seriously.

There was a clip on Kenny Everett’s show last week of Marilyn Monroe’s first-ever screen performance. A TV commercial it was, and very depressing. Monroe sold herself and her product as equal commodities for consumption; she was caught, from the start of her career, in the web of male fantasies.

It is the web that all female performers – musicians as much as actresses – find hard to tear a way out of: remember Gay Advert struggling to be a bass player and not the most photographed face of punk? The point was made in Jim Jackson’s MM Mailbag letter about the Pretenders a couple of weeks ago: girls in groups are always singled out for special media treatment as instant visual appeal. Notions of rock glamour have survived punk’s mockery virtually intact.

Lene Lovich is not obviously glamorous, and does not obviously fit existing sexual stereotypes: her stage charm rests on her individual vitality and good humor. It is not surprising that the instant comparisons are with other female individualists, other women who have constructed their own stage presences, whether Patti Smith or Siouxsie or Kate Bush.

But the more I listen to Stateless, the more I’m convinced the Lene Lovich’s music fits into a much more mainstream pop tradition – the tradition of Sixties girl groups, pop stylists like Sandie Shaw, British pop soul singers like Dusty Springfield, and Polly Brown.

For all its vocal mannerisms, Lucky Number has the wry romantic precision (‘now my lucky number’s two’) of an old Mary Wells song, and Stateless as a whole is much more redolent of Lene’s Detroit childhood than of her so-called Slavic touch.

For me, the only feasible Lene Lovich comparison is with Blondie. Lene Lovich and Les Chappell, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, are exploring the musical and lyrical language of old accounts of teenage girl culture.

The two women have chosen different modes of presentation, but they are both in control of their images and music in ways in which the Crystals and the Shangri-Las and the Shirelles were not. Heart Of Glass and now Lucky Number  – 1979 is going to be an important pop year.