Fembots Have Feelings Too

Or, How I Learned To Stop Caring and Admit I Love Pop.

A guy I met recently was sort of surprised that he met me at a Hold Steady Show. “They’re such a guy band,” he said, and I sort of agreed. The show that I attended (with two very feminist girlfriends, I might add) was certainly packed with guys–and a certain type of guy, too, that wears a baseball cap and jeans somewhere between fitted and baggy, not Williamsburg-skinny.

Of course it’s sort of sexist to say that but it’s also TRUE. I also have always been into what the uber-rock-star (even if she has given up the mantle!) Silvana called Dude Music.

I was a punk. Well, first I was a goth, which is a little more femme a genre (the boys wear makeup! while they sing lyrics about girls dying! WAIT COME BACK). But I started listening to angry punk rock in high school. And not riot grrl, either. I didn’t really discover Sleater-Kinney and thus ladies who rocked harder than any guy until college. Nope, I was old school and loved the Dead Kennedys, plus I was from Boston and even though I moved South I kept up my Boston pride with those Boston street punk standards: Dropkick Murphys, etc.

I had an ironic Spice Girls sticker on my car in college. But my senior year in high school my best girlfriend and I bought a Spice Girls tape between us and used to drive around singing along. So I guess you could say that my pop love was always sort of there. But, you see, it was IRONIC! It was FUNNY that I had a Spice Girls sticker on my car! Because I was going to Serious Punk Rock Shows and wearing big boots (with short skirts) and getting stomped in the pit and getting angry when my male friends tried to “rescue” me.

The same with the ubiquitous 80s nights in college. Sure, we danced to Madonna. We loved Madonna. Because she was past her moment!

Now, I always listened to what GarlandGrey, also at Tiger Beatdown, called ladymusic. Tori Amos got me through high school alive and relatively with-it, and when I got to interview her a year or so ago, let me tell you that at age 29 I still gushed and told her that she got me through my misspent youth and was thrilled that she gave me a hug when I left and told me that she had a good feeling about me. TORI! But I digress. My college boyfriend, when he mocked Tori, found himself handcuffed to a chair and listening to the Spice Girls. No, really. I have pictures.

That ladymusic got mocked by dudes other than just that exboyfriend, it’s true. But I was willing to fight for it in ways that I was not for pop. I was an English major, so I could break down the cultural significance of Madonna for you. But argue for her music? Beyond “well, I like it at dance nights?”

Feministe-ers, I was a secret rockist.

If you have never been a Music Writer (a phrase I’ve used more often than Rock Critic even when I was taking it Very Seriously and reading lots of Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis) you may not be familiar with the term, or with this article that breaks it all down. But check it:

Rockism isn’t unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices – that’s part of why it’s so powerful, and so worth arguing about. The pop star, the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the “awesomely bad” hit maker: could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.

Let’s make that clear: Pop is feminine. Rock is for dudes. Right? That’s why when we talk about Sleater-Kinney (and oh, please, I could write you a book about Sleater-Kinney) we have to mention that they’re Girls! Who! Rock! and not just one of the best rock bands of my lifetime, period. That’s also why those boy-groups that always seem to have a resurgence every 10, 15 years are roundly mocked.

So! Fast-forward a few years. I learn to talk about feminism in academic terms as well as in personal terms, and I learn to talk about pleasure and desire as political concepts (the real personal-is-political, thanks) and I grew to hate, to deeply loathe the term “guilty pleasure.” Why the fuck should I feel guilty about pleasure, right? Kathleen Hanna said “I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe.” And she was right! But she was also never a guilty pleasure. Not in Bikini Kill, anyway. No, you had to take her seriously cause she barnstormed punk rock.

So I am learning gradually to stop talking about songs as guilty pleasures or to feel silly buying certain music that is not “serious.” But I honestly think I didn’t let myself fully realize that I could take pop music as seriously as any single by the National and moreso than I take the latest bearded incarnation of sad twee boys to hit the indie rock stacks (Fleet Foxes, I’m lookin’ at you) until last summer.

What happened last summer? Michael Jackson died.

Michael Jackson died and I was having coffee with someone I’d never met at the time but who has since become one of my closest friends and favorite co-conspirators, Matt Sheret. Matt and I talked about Michael Jackson as ubiquitous cultural icon in the States (he’s British; don’t hold it against him), and then when I went home I noticed that once again Jackson was everywhere. Every car that went by, every bar with open windows, every front-steps party in my Brooklyn ‘hood was playing Michael’s greatest. Remember that video from in front of the Apollo?

So. Did it take the death of the King of Pop–in other words, a man–for me to take pop music seriously? I hit iTunes for the best of Michael and emailed Matt and Kieron, the mutual friend who introduced us, and we had a multi-day-multi-person email conversation where we discussed lots of aspects of Jackson. To me, Jackson’s gender was always interesting. He was a safe pop star, one who squeaked “I’m a gentleman” when asked if he was a virgin, right up until those allegations. You know. He was desexualized, I’ll argue, in part because he was a POP singer.

I started a “pop” tag on my Tumblr and started thinking about what this meant. Started using “pop idol” like the baby Oscar Wilde in Velvet Goldmine when I talked about David Bowie, instead of rock star.

Fast forward to now, where I’ve been on a two-week Robyn binge, which basically started when I returned from England, visiting Matt and Kieron and several other friends. Where I’ve bought tickets to see Robyn in August in NY on the same night as Metric, who also have a lady singer but are Much! More! Serious! But I’m gonna go see Robyn. Because she makes me happy and makes me dance and girl can SING. And those are accomplishments as worthy as any indie rock record.

And what brought me here? Years of thought about pleasure and lots of dancing to Madonna. A few years as a Music Writer and lots of Ellen Willis and yes, Lester Bangs. A comic book called Phonogram and a friendship with the guy who writes it, who is one of the best advocates for pop–and women in pop–that I know. And those emails with him and with Matt. Yes, dear readers, I’m 30 years old and a committed feminist and it took a couple of straight guys who are not only willing to admit they love pop in all its feminized glory but to argue for it to get me to realize that they’re right.

See? I’m still guilty of the same shit. Oh, my internalized sexism. I’m doing my best to fight it, though. Here, have some Robyn. I have officially claimed this song on behalf of all ladybloggers ever called “funfeminists,” “fakefeminists,” or, of course, “fembots.”

Lyrics: I’ve got some news for you/Fembots (fembots) have feelings too/You split my heart in two/Now what ya gonna do

(Once you go attack you ain’t never goin back/I’m hi-tech baby)

Fresh out the box the latest model/Generator running on full throttle/can I get a fuel up? hit the bottle/(reboot)/I got a lotta automatic booty applications/Got a C.P.U maxed out sensation/Looking for a joy to man my station/(reboot)/rock-rock the nation/(rock it, baby)

I’ve got some news for you/Fembot have feelings too/You split my heart in two/Now what ya gonna do/(and scan me)

My system’s in mint condition/The power’s up on my transistors/Working fine, no bitches/Plug me in and/flip some switches/Pull up in docking position/Pop the hatch and hit ignition/Bbb-burn out, baby/Ready for demolition

(Once you go attack you ain’t never going back)

My superbrain is a binary/Circuitry and mainframe tens-filled here/I’m sipping propane topped with a cherry
(reboot)/In fact i’m a very scientifically advanced hot mama/Artificially discreet no drama/Digitally chic titanium mama/(reboot)/Ring the alarm

I’ve got some news for you (uh uh)/Fembots have feelings too (you know)/you split my heart in two/Now what you gonna do/(here we go)

My system’s in mint condition/The power’s up on my transistors/Working fine, no anekatips b!tches/Plug me in and flip some switches/Pull up in dragging position/Pop the hatch and hit ignition/bbb-burn out, baby/Ready for demolition

(Once you go attack you ain’t never going back)

Once you gone tech/You’re never ever going back/You gotta enter access code/Up on the back of my neck/Initiating slut mode/All space cadets on deck/There’s a calculator in my pocket/Got you all in check


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23 Responses to Fembots Have Feelings Too

  1. Annaham says:

    I love this post.

  2. Beck says:

    Tori got me through highschool too! You’re lucky to have met her. Sadly I’m not that into her newer stuff. But Under the Pink, Little Earthquakes, Boys for Pele…..I once had an online moniker :Fascist_little_panties…love her.

  3. Steph says:

    Yes!!! I too have struggled with rockism, but I think I might be over it.

  4. Kathy says:

    I’ve always had lots of guy friends who were either into music as superfans, or in bands themselves, so I’m pretty familiar with rockism. Once I realized I was only accepted as “one of the boys” when I didn’t challenge their choices, I let myself enjoy pop music. (By the way, I kind of refer to most contemporary music as “pop.” Most inveterate rock snobs hate this.)

  5. Jo says:

    I basically listen to all metal all the time: black metal, funeral doom metal, folk metal, blackened folk metal, pagan metal, ambient black metal, ambient folk doom pagan metal, you name it. And it’s the most bloke-dominated music genre I can think of. As a feminist, it makes my inner “this ain’t right!” radar go BEEP BEEP but I just. can’t. help loving it. Aargh.

    I’m definitely on the same page re: eye-rolling at the “pop is for GIRLS therefore not to be taken seriously unlike manly men music like indie rock” belief so prevalent in media outlets and popular (!) opinion. So frustrating.

  6. Wendell says:

    Kathy, that’s a striking observation about being “one of the boys.” I know some guys who preface a differing opinion about music by saying it might be controversial. Dear me, anything but that! ;)

    For a while I was mired in “serious,” music (though mostly not rock). Then a (male) friend of mine led me to pull out my B-52s tape of “Cosmic Thing” and it was all over.

  7. Wendell says:

    http://williambennett.blogspot.com/2010/02/unlegitimate.html has some ideas that could show why pop is so worthwhile. We as individuals might try to legitimize our liking it (See Sarah’s astute calling out of the phrase “guilty pleasure”), but pop itself doesn’t seem to do that. Compare that to the industry involved in legitimizing “rock” and those who couch their own tastes behind “objective” legitimization, and you can show just how conservative rock (and its so-called “rebellion”) can be. I could be overstretching the idea, though.

  8. scrumby says:

    This is a lesson I always have to be reminded of it seems. My older brother was a huge influence on my musical choices; he was the guy who brought me to my first punk show and burned me best of Slayer mixes. I felt an incredible amount of pressure to live up to his standard of taste which was sad because he was surprisingly sensitive to mine. After finding my hidden Pet Shop Boys and Duran Duran CD’s he introduced me to Joy Division and David Bowie; After finding country on my presets he made me a Loretta Lynn/Leonard Skinner/ Southern Culture on the Skids mix. I’m a lot less guarded about my musical selections around him now but he still catches me by surprise sometimes. A little while ago he and I were on the way back from a Deathclock show and discussing the video they had shown which lead to videos in general. Suddenly he pipes up with “speaking of videos, have you seen the new Lady Gaga? It’s awesome.”

  9. Isabel says:

    (By the way, I kind of refer to most contemporary music as “pop.” Most inveterate rock snobs hate this.)

    Ha, me too – a habit I’ve picked up from a having a slightly disproportionate number of classical-music-type friends & a deep fondness for it myself – my two big music categories are “classical” and “pop.”

    I heart this post. & I might add that rock is – or, perhaps more accurately, has since the days of Elvis been largely perceived as – a very white-dominated genre, which isn’t nearly as true of pop – not in the days of disco (a genre which in particular is also notable for its association with gay culture), not now during the chart-topping reign of hip-hop & R&B.

  10. Cole Grey says:

    You handcuffed your boyfriend to a chair? I really hope that was completely consensual, but cuffing someone down and making them listen to music they don’t like doesn’t sound like a pre-negotiated scene to me.

  11. Sarah says:

    @Cole Grey

    I wouldn’t mind at all spilling the details of the negotiations in that particular relationship, but I suspect that the guy in question doesn’t want any more of his business all over the Web. And since he’s generally a decent dude, I try to respect that.

  12. A Musician says:

    my two big music categories are “classical” and “pop.”

    Me too. (Although I also throw in music theater as its own category). Sometimes I try to avoid offending rock snobs by lengthening “pop” to “popular,” but sometimes I don’t.

    Personally (although I definitely don’t speak for all professional musicians here), I think all my musical training and education actually makes me MORE equipped to appreciate different types of music for their own merits. And pretty much all music has SOME merits.
    Of course, some trained musicians take the opposite approach. In my experience, these people are typically (but not always) dudes. They’ll pick a musical period or two and 5-6 pop (pop, rock, alternative, whatever the categories are) artists, and declare all other music to be worthless crap. I had a roommate in undergrad who jeopardized her GPA by absolutely refusing to engage with anything from the Romantic period (which is, in a way, the “pop” of classical music, in that it’s accessible and its complexities aren’t as subtle as other periods). I also knew a guy who would make instant judgments about people’s character and intelligence based on their opinion of Elliot Carter. And an accompanist who bitched and moaned about ever having to play Jason Robert Brown, because apparently taking Jason Robert Brown seriously is like the WORST THING EVER or something.

    Personally, I think they’re all full of crap. I sing opera pretty much exclusively, (and I pass the “are you smart enough to understand Elliot Carter” test with flying colors) but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the way Ke$ha’s music has almost created a brand new way to use the human voice. I mean, combining the possibilities of modern electronic music with a hybrid of singing and rap AND certain inflections that almost tempt me to call it Sprechstimme (the Schoenberg version, not the music theater version) (Gosh I hope there are some geeks who know what I’m talking about reading this)…I think that’s pretty damn cool. Am I saying that Ke$ha’s the great artist of our time? No. But I am saying that her music has worth and value and that she (or whoever’s behind her music) has made a real, substantial contribution.

  13. A Musician says:

    *Smart enough to understand Elliott Carter is one thing, smart enough to spell his name correctly is apparently another, lol. I fail.

  14. My mother was a huge influence regarding my musical tastes. It was her vinyl albums of 60’s and 70’s rock that formed the backbone of what I enjoy now. As a result, I have the soul of a rocker and a fondness for melodic pop. Mom jests that she made me a music snob, and she’s right!

    Like you, I’ve been through phases and infatuations with different groups and different sounds, but there’s always going to be a default kind of musical setting I return to over and over again. I used to feel guilty that the stuff I wrote and the stuff I liked wasn’t as broad and expansive as I thought it needed to be, but….meh. That’s just who I am and what I like.

  15. Isabel says:

    A Musician: I want to doodle little hearts all over your comment, I love it so!

  16. aine says:

    It’s funny, I was JUST thinking about what you said at the beginning of this post. all the music I’ve wanted to listen to lately is guys…mostly 90s-grungey/alternative rocker guys. which is a normal phase for me to go in and out of, despite my love of Tori and Ani and Natalie Merchant, because I grew up with parents who liked so many different kinds of music- but it really does shock people (guys). I ran into someone I hadn’t seen for a while the other day, and when he asked me what I was listening to lately, I said, “oh, a lot of 90s stuff….Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Pavement, Mark Lanegan…” and he was legitimately shocked, because I’m this quiet girl standing there in a sweater set and a flowery skirt, I guess…

  17. HECTOP says:

    I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t understand what the point of this post is. I think it’s either that hating pop makes you sexist, or that hating a band because they’re “not serious” enough is dumb. In all honesty, I don’t even know what constitutes as “pop.” Hell, I don’t even know if there’s a thick or thin line between pop and… the stuff that isn’t pop (rock? isn’t that umbrella term kind of meaningless at this point?). I don’t really agree with either of the conclusions proposed (if those even are the conclusions proposed…), but I’d like to hear more before I rant or something.

  18. Gembird says:

    As a miscellaneous person in black who listens to angry music a lot, I only have this to say:

    Sarah, you are right and awesome and cool. And good pop music is really, really good.

    It really does bother me that some guys get annoyed if you listen to pop music, or even some of the less macho rock music (for example HIM, who are so darn cheesy but also awesome) because “We thought you were better than that.” What, so in order to be respected by you I have to only listen to music made by dudes about being dudely dudes? Just- no. Way to devalue women’s contributions to music after you already made them too uncomfortable around you to make the kind of music you actually like.

    To me, music is music and I shouldn’t feel ashamed of liking something just because it’s seen as too feminine. I sometimes still do though. Reading articles like this one (and the comments, thank you everyone) definitely helps, because I know it’s not just me who finds it hard to deal with the stuff I took on board without noticing. So yeah, I will stop talking about me now and just say thanks for writing this.

  19. A Different Sarah says:

    I really liked Robyn when she first came out in the 90’s and had wondered what happened to her. I’m really, really disappointed that she’s jumped on the whole robotic-pop bandwagon with Lady Gaga et al. When she came out she was just a normal girl who wrote and sang pop songs about normal life stuff with a good deal of gusto–not hyper-sexualised, but not squeaky-clean-smiley-virgin either. “Show Me Love” was a simple song about simple desires sang with lots and lots of feeling. This shit I hate because I just cannot relate to it. What I demand of music is that it be sincere. To some that would make me a rockist, but really I’m into every genre except for polka, Strauss waltzes, and robo-music.

  20. Isabel says:

    a different sarah – I heart this song deeply, but if you did like Robyn back in the day, check out Be Mine!, Eclipse, With Every Heartbeat, Dancing On My Own, & Hang With Me, as a sampling from her two more recent albums of Robyn-with-lots-of-feelings.

  21. Sarah says:

    @A Different Sarah

    See, I think that’s the POINT of this song: women who make/listen to/dance to even the most fluffy music “have feelings too.” Hence my claiming it for every woman who’s ever been told they’re too fluffy/unserious/FunFeminist. But I agree with Isabel–Be Mine! rips my heart out, particularly this version, and Dancing On My Own is both heartfelt and a great dance song.

    See, I just don’t think it’s insincere to make fun dance music. Sometimes, as Cyndi Lauper reminded us all, girls just wanna have fun.

  22. A Different Sarah says:

    Well, I didn’t really dig those 2 new Robyn songs, but thanks anyway…I do love “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” though! And of course it’s a sincere song: Cyndi Lauper sincerely wants to have fun, like all us girls, and furthermore in the video she looks like she’s sincerely having it! :-)

  23. SW says:

    I love this post!
    I’ve been thinking about Robyn a lot lately – no matter how much I gush about how fun her music is, how sincere she seems, so many of my friends just dismiss her outright, or condescendingly shake their heads at me. I had an extended argument with my boyfriend earlier today; after about twenty minutes of him ranting about evil media complexes and robotic commercial pop stars, I think I managed to get him to admit he enjoyed it on some basic level.

    (By the way, I’m pretty sure the “you scan me” lyric is actually “jag älskar dig” – Swedish for “I love you”)

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