Lesbian Concentrate – Bernie Bankrupt

Photo Credits: Mihee-Nathalie Lemoine


Track Title: Sisters in the Struggle

[audio:http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Sisters_mix.mp3]


Lesbian Concentrate, a Lesbianthology of 13 Songs and Poems, 100% Undiluted
 is rumoured to be the first album ever released with the word ‘lesbian’ in the title. Olivia Records released this compilation album in 1977 as a protest to Anita Bryant’s homophobic “Save the children” campaign in the 1970s. It features the work of over 20 women artists and various performance genres such as solo folk music, spoken word, blues, funk, Balkan chanting and poetry. Released on vinyl only, the album includes extensive liner notes with details about each song and a printed gatefold insert listing lesbian resources around North America. The liner notes also include photos of all of the artists involved. It includes popular songs such as, “Leaping Lesbians” and “Women Loving Women,” as well as a spoken word piece entitled, “The Subject of Lesbianism.” It was representative of lesbian culture of the time – including popular artists and themes that were central to political debates. The main recording engineer was a woman, Sandy Stone, which was unusual for the time and indicative of the woman-centered production context.

We Know You Know

I’m in a band called Lesbians On Ecstasy and we decided that we had to dive into this, the lesbo-est of all lesbo albums for source material for our second album. Our first album used lesbian anthems (Melissa, kd, indigo girls…you know the list) and made dancefloor bangers out of them. For the second album, we really wanted to dig deeper into the lesbian vault and work with material that none of us were familiar with. In walks Lesbian Concentrate. The rest is herstory. The resulting album, We Know You Know, features 8 tracks inspired by Lesbian Concentrate.

Yo, look around you: the track

The process of mining Lesbian Concentrate for source material started with intensive listening sessions. In those sessions we try to find bits that pop! – either lyrics, a snippet of melody or a signature sonic element. One song that jumped out immediately is “Gay and Proud.” It went on to become the LOE track “Sisters in the Struggle,” and the first single on the album. I will take this opportunity to describe the song in detail, including information about the source material, instrumentation, engineering and mixing.

The list of source material for each LOE song is long and varied. For “Sisters,” there are two principal sources and several others that provided smaller sampled bits. The chorus lyrics (and main theme) are from the song “Gay and Proud,” which was written by Debbie Lempke and appears on Lesbian Concentrate as performed by the Berkley Women’s Music Collective. The last four lines of Lempke’s song became the chorus. The original lyrics are:

We women been waiting all our lives
For our sisters to be our lovers
Hey look around you now
Ain’t you glad we finally found each other?

The feel of the original is upbeat, featuring a single voice performing the verses and a chorus of women’s voices joining in for the refrain. Piano, guitar and bass are the only instruments. The above lines are from the final refrain, when all instrumentation drops out and the vocals are left a capella. It was a combination of placement, emphasis and the lyrics themselves that attracted me to this section. I was intrigued by the meaning in the words. Obviously the ‘sister’ is referring to a fellow feminist, spawning the name for the LOE track, “Sisters in the Struggle.” But I also like the potential mis-use of the word ‘sister,’ which could be biological (and pervy), and the potential mis-use of the word ‘lover’ – obviously sexual, but which I also interpreted to mean a conspirator or ally.

In order for this section to be usable for a new track, it needed to be altered. First we manipulated the cadence and timing, taking the upbeat tempo and slowing it down to half time. We took out the “we women,” as the new timing requires less syllables. Those two lines became the chorus of the new song. The second half (hey, look around you) does not appear until later. The chorus for the new track is sung by a small group of women. It begins in unison and splits into harmonies and eventually a canon by the end of the track. The choral vocal quality is reminiscent of the Olivia Records style, but the instrumentation contrasts the comfortable folky sound. The arrangement mimics typical dance music, with spoken delivery in the verse and inspirational melody in the chorus. However, as a contrast to most dance music, the delivery of the chorus is rough and folky and not sung in a diva style.

Like many Lesbians On Ecstasy songs, a key element in this track is the bass. Bass is central to dance music, often embodied in the kick drum, or through low frequency synth sounds that carry a driving beat. During the verses, Veronique plays the bass-line from the Tittsworth (Baltimore club DJ) track, “Eastern Motors.” [1]

As the song progressed, it became more and more dramatic. Instead of shying away, we looked to exploit the uplifting tone of the original song by introducing more lyrics that contributed to the anthemic feel. Right after the second chorus, there is a drop to the first section of the bridge with the additional lyrics:

I’ve been lonely without you, you my sisters, my sisters
I’ve been, like, waiting to see you
You my sisters, my sisters
Hand in hand in hand

The song then returns to the lyrics from “Gay and Proud,” changing ‘hey’ for ‘yo’ and ‘aren’t you glad’ for ‘its awesome.’

Cover vs Remix (aka ‘the judiths’)

There has been some academic discussion about the production style of Lesbians on Ecstasy. Judith Halberstam talks about the way that the sincerity of the band can ‘queer’ the idea of a cover song in her paper, “Keeping Time with the Lesbians On Ecstasy” (1993). In response to that paper, Judith Peraino retaliated with, “Listening to Gender, A response to Judith Halberstam” (2004), suggesting that our cover songs are in fact ironic. The two papers take opposing stances on the intention of our ‘cover’ songs, pivoting upon that question of sincerity vs. parody. Both authors make excellent observations about our music; however, neither author considers the possibility that the term ‘cover’ is not accurate for our songs.

There are several reasons why the word ‘cover’ doesn’t fully describe our musical practice. A cover song is a new rendition of a previously recorded song. One of the central reasons that this is not a description of our practice is that we never refer to only one song. The general guideline of our production has been to take lyrical content from women’s music sources and musical content from a plethora of sources, a practice akin to sampling, but without the technological practice that is normally associated with that word. I’ll refer to it as ‘performative sampling.’ While sampling is certainly a contested term, it usually refers to using chopped up bits of audio from previously recorded songs, editing them together to create a new track. While we use the philosophy behind this practice, we re-perform all the sampled material ourselves. Therefore, we are only sampling the idea of the sampled portion of the song, or the written score that represents the portion of the sampled song, and not the recorded song itself. While the borrowed musical content might be slightly harder to identify than the lyrical content, it certainly plays an equally large a role in our songs. Perhaps using these two different sources places our practice somewhere more in the realm of the mash-up – taking two different songs and mixing them together to make a new (and usually unlikely) song [2]. There are elements of mash-up in what we do, yet that term does not account for the fact that we use little bits of lots of songs to write new songs altogether [3]. Our songwriting practice is ambiguous and not true to any one form; it also differs from song to song. It is impossible for us to respond to the demand to create a dialogue between the ‘original’ song that we reference and the ‘cover’ that we create. Impossible because it relies on the idea of two distinct songs, two objects that have a one-to-one relationship with each other. Our songs are much more open-minded than that model imagines. Each song has a long list of partners in its creation – we could say that the songs are in more of a polyamorous relation with their predecessors, rather than a monogamous, faithful relationship to the original. These songs have various arrangements with different partners – no heteronormative remix standards can be applied.

Another well known Judith, the Butler one, discusses gender in terms of the original and the copy. But our songs are not, as Butler says, “a copy without an original.” They are, indeed, a copy with an original, but it is not an authentic copy. Butler’s quote refers to gender, but I will use it here to refer to our music and the ways in which her analysis of the queer subversion of gender categories can be used to understand our own queer subversion of the musical categories within which we work. In this case, the original is known – it is a song that existed in the past, and continues to exist, although many people may not know of its origin. Whether that song can be considered original asks a different question. Copyright and intellectual property laws declare a song to be original if and when the artist declares it to be so. Copyright mostly protects the lyrics of a song and the associated melody. Instrumentation, unique ‘sound’ and recording style do not fit within the realm of copyright, which means that many ‘original’ songs incorporate elements of existing songs without compromising their claim to originality. So already we can take issue with the idea of a purely original song upon which we would be basing our purely derivative copy.

In this case, it could be said that this original that we are copying has elements of the copy within it from the very outset. Is it possible to pin-point the first ‘womyn’s music’ artist? Probably not. The narratives of this musical period tell the stories of the first artist to be wildly successful (Cris Williamson with The Changer and the Changed), but that is not to be confused with stories of the first artists working within this genre. Their musical styles were typically consistent with popular music of the time, with subversive elements included through the lyrical content. Yet while it can be tempting to try to locate the originator of an idea or a sound or a movement, what might be more exciting is discovering links and layers between moments of time. By sampling past feminist voices, we are creating community with those artists. In the same way that some people have discussed the idea of temporal drag, this can be seen as temporal collaboration with lesbian artists from the past. We work to create dialogue with the past through sampling.

Similar to the way that Olivia used music to create community and reinforce their political ideals, LOE has created community – although one tied more closely to ideas of queer theory than second wave feminism. From the initial involvement with the StudioXX community to collaborations and interactions with queer artists, activists and groups across North America and Europe, LOE has functioned as a musical project and an organizational strategy. The Lesbian Concentrate remake project was the excuse and vehicle for research into early lesbian feminist music. The resulting songs, videos and artwork have been used to form community and facilitate discussions about early women’s music and second wave feminism in our network of collaborators, friends and fans. While the band began as a purely fun-time project, it piqued my own interest in lesbian music and womyn’s music from the past. I wanted to know more about independent feminist musicians and labels and ways that those histories were intersecting with my life.

Ambiguous. Kinda Like Bisexuals

To position this in relation to the theorization of Lesbians On Ecstasy as a cover band, two different standpoints have been presented as possibilities. The first is that our ‘cover’ versions are sincere tributes to the original artists to whom we are referring. The second possible interpretation is that our songs are ironic parodies mocking the sincerity of the original artists. Both of these positions can be defended through interviews given by the band, and the material itself. The reality is somewhere in between these two polarized options – not only are both of these positions equally valid, but they are equally accurate. In interviews, we give contradictory accounts of our process all the time. We lie. Sometimes we tell the truth. But perhaps the very ambiguity that arises from this grey area makes the project richer for discussion. This ambiguity is possibly the queerest part of the whole thing. The right to be in-between, to change our minds and identities, to take the piss, to be sincere, is how we can look at the queerness of the project.

To attempt to answer whether our songs are sincere or a parody would be futile and counter-productive. Embracing this ambiguity is also not an attempt to avoid answering difficult questions about our intentions, it is in fact at the very heart of what we are doing. Within each song is an idea – a narrative idea and a musical motif. Considering solely the narrative or lyrical element, there are certainly some songs that are firmly tongue-in-cheek or ironic, but when combined with the musical element, that narrative element changes its character. Within each song there are moments of humour and irony, as well as sincerity and sometimes sadness. While we aren’t immune to the kitschy aspect of making lesbo-feminest-techno-electro, there is a deeper motivation to the overall project. This motivation could best be described as a kind of nostalgia or even romanticization of feminism itself. These days, it could appear that making music with any kind of overt political agenda is simply outdated. However, the simple act of researching Olivia and creating the re-makes could be seen as an act of creating community across time. In addition, the collaborative process of Lesbians On Ecstasy has permitted this research to open up discussion about second wave feminism in contemporary queer communities. Perhaps then, the socially transformative potential of music lies in these types of collaborations and discussions, through action, over time and with fun.

Footnotes:

[1] I refer to this track as the Tittsworth track because it was through his release that I heard it for the first time, but his track is a remix of the jingle for a car dealership in Baltimore called Eastern Motors. I’m sure that their jingle is based on an old soul or funk track, but I’m not sure what it is.

[2] Like Enya with Yo Majesty or 50 Cent with Nine Inch Nails

[3] There are many musical forms that I could reference here – musique concrete, plunder music, themes and variations, found footage but there is no singular term that can be used to accurately describe the totality of our practice.

References:

Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that Matter. New York: Routledge.

Halberstam, Judith. (2006). “Keeping Time with Lesbians On Ecstasy.” Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture. Vol. 11: 51-58.

Peraino, Judith. (2007). “Listening to Gender: A Response to Judith Halberstam.” Women
and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture – Volume 11: 59-64
.

Discography:

Cris Williamson, 1975, The Changer and the Changed, Olivia Records.

Lesbians On Ecstasy, 2007, We Know You Know, Alien8 Recordings.

Meg Christian, 1974, I Know You Know, Olivia Records.

Various, 1977, Lesbian Concentrate, a Lesbianthology of 13 Songs and Poems, 100% Undiluted, Olivia Records

Bernie Bankrupt is a member of Lesbians On Ecstasy, Dykes on Crack and Boyfriend. She also owns a small dep in Montreal and has an unusual obsession with small white dogs. She is no longer vegetarian. Lesbians On Ecstasy is Fruity Frankie on vox, Jackie the Jackhammer on octapad and Véronique Mystique on monster bass. They work collaboratively.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Allyson Mitchell (not verified) on Thu, 07/02/2009 – 15:14.

Dear Bernie Bankrupt, Thank you for this. Now I finally have more complicated language to grapple with these ideas. Less confused. More motivated. Smart Love, Allyson