Talk About Body: JD Samson – Erica R. Meiners

Photo Credit: Sylvia McFadden

Formerly with the 1990s band Le Tigre, JD Samson has had a history of involvement with pleasure-producing feminist projects since graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 2000 with a major in film studies. In addition to Le Tigre, JD continues to collaborate with a number of visual and/or musical artists, including Peaches, Christina Aguilera, Emily Roysdon and Cass Bird. JD’s latest project is with MEN.

MEN, the trio of Michael O’Neill, Tami Hart, and JD Samson – each artist having a distinct musical and political lineage–identify themselves on MySpace as “disco house, punk, and reggae.” With danceable tracks like “Simultaneously” and “Life’s Half Price,” MEN’s politically charged queer pop is a mixture of Lesbians on Ecstasy, Pet Shop Boys, Joan Armatrading, KRS ONE, Nina Simone and of course, Le Tigre.

Released in February 2011, their first album Talk About Body foregrounds the elasticity of bodies, material and ideological, with lyrics that offer a sharp, feminist and queer lens on reproduction, street harassment, community, labour, pleasure, and ‘radical surgery’ and ‘prosthetic sex.’

It’s April 2011, and JD Samson is back in New York. The following is a snippet from our conversation that morning. As in most of her interviews, it appears JD is unstintingly kind.

Erica R. Miners: I love the track “Credit Card Babie$” It’s a really great anthem for queer reproduction right now…

JD Samson: The song takes this kind of depressing topic and turns it around and makes it a way for queers to come together. It’s definitely the song that people freak-out about the most when we play it—which is really cool. It’s definitely the song that was the first—THE hit that made people interested in us—especially queer people. I wanted to write the song because I’m now 32, and I’m definitely hitting a place where I’m interested in starting a family, but the complications push me back in a way. We really wanted to show all sides of questioning having babies…

ERM: You modify and cover the Joan Armatrading’s powerful song “My Family.” What is your vision for queer family or queer kinship now, especially when queer family in the United States just seems to mean gay marriage?

JD: Joan Armatrading is my favorite musician that has ever lived. She’s very inspirational to me, not only just for her songwriting but her vocal rhythm and her persona. I’m actually wearing her t-shirt right now. My aunt is a lesbian, and my aunt’s ex-girlfriend introduced me to Joan Armatrading when I was a teenager …and it was kind of one of those things where I thought at the time, “that’s for adults.” Later, I really got into it and Joan became this amazing hero to me. That song, “My family,” is from her first record that she made with—questionably—her partner Pamela Nestor, because they’re not out. That song, originally, is very slow and I find it very emotional and almost religious. We really wanted to turn it around and make it a disco track and kind of celebrate this new religion. One thing about being in a band all the time is that your family kind of shifts to be the people that you travel with, your band, and then it becomes the audience and your community because we choose to spend every night of our lives with our fans and with each other. I really wanted to express my gratitude to the people around me that are so giving and kind and whom I trust with my heart and stuff… my chosen family.

ERM: Talk about the album’s playful title, Talk About Body, and the meanings for you and MEN around trans and feminist politics?

JD: After listening to the record in its entirety, we realized that we talk about a couple of things pretty regularly on the record. One of them is the body and also sex and gender expression and identity. Then we talk about money and we talk about power and both money and power do come back to the body. It was important for us to have a title that wasn’t a command but felt like it could be. We were really interested in the way that those three words lead you to this reality-check and that’s really what the record has become. The record is a way for all of us to silently realize where we are right now, and I think it can seem depressing and it can also seem really hopeful. Those words “talk about body” kind of help us all talk or not talk, but saying we talk is that you have to think. My body and our bodies and MEN, the title of the band and why we’ve named ourselves that, also make people gawk. What bodies we live in and how we get to choose our genders and label ourselves, our sex–it’s all kind of tied together.

ERM: In other interviews, you have outlined why the band is called MEN – you and Johanna [Fateman, of Le Tigre and original member of MEN] were talking about your new philosophy on life, just pre-MEN, and asking yourselves “what would a man do” (ask to get paid) as a “confidence boosting deal.” I am interested in what you outlined about these relationships between money, gender and a sense of entitlement?

JD: It’s really difficult. I learned in Le Tigre that we are being activists through our work and we don’t necessarily have to do every benefit that people ask us to do, because it doesn’t help us to survive as activists in the world. This is an interesting kind of journey to go on, because in some ways you can feel guilty for asking for money. I grew up in a multi-class background that was really complicated for me to try and keep up all the time. I do have a generosity issue where I’m continuously trying to pretend I have more money than I do. I want to say “yes” to all benefits and I want to give, give, give so much, but there is a line that I have to draw, for myself. It’s been really interesting to kind of go through that process. I was listening to some of the Le Tigre Sweepstakes record the other day, and there is this line that Johanna wrote that was something like “I am a feminist but I won’t be coming to your benefit”–I think that’s the line– it’s so brilliant! At a certain point, there was a way to measure your feminism based on how much money you can give and what people expect of you based on your level of like, you know? We just played Coachella, a huge festival, and we lost money. That is just how it goes sometimes. But people expect you’re going to be millionaires.

ERM: On that note, I know you DJ-ed a fundraiser in Chicago for the Transformative Justice Law Project, a local collective made up of “radical lawyers, social workers, activists, and community organizers who are deeply committed to prison abolition, transformative justice, and gender self-determination.” Why the commitment to queer justice organizations that aren’t working for the big ticket LGBTQ items, like marriage or the ability to participate in a permanent military economy?

JD: I am a supporter of the Sylvia Rivera Project here in New York. I’m in an interesting position in terms of trans-law because I am, in some circles, considered to be trans, but I really don’t identify as anything; I’m kind of just like me.

That’s difficult and problematic for some people to understand. But the reality is that I am happy under the umbrella term of queer or lesbian or gay, or any of those words. I personally have a difficult time with the separation into miniature subcultures, and I really miss the larger family perspective, I guess. So I choose to live within all of them. But people see me as this spokesperson for the trans community, and I’m happy to take that on while I’m also happy to not necessarily identify as trans, but also be a spokesperson for that community. Because I think what this does actually is to open everything up a little bit more, which is exactly what it should be all about: free gender fluidity. I also have a history with the Michigan Women’s Music Festival. Of course I do find issues with the policy of trans people not being allowed into the festival, so it’s important for me to show that I have support on both sides and that it’s also possible to be supportive of both sides for different reasons. I guess it’s just important for me to show my stance in lots of different ways and just prove that it’s not so black and white.

ERM: What are you’re reading these days?

JD: The Patti Smith book, Just Kids, which I’m really into. I’m really excited after that to read Bossypants, by Tina Fey. And I read Eileen Miles’s Inferno. I actually just bought a new copy of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, and I was going to re-read it because I feel like it’s been too long. I’m really inspired by people who have opened the world up and that’s the reason why I read so much nonfiction because I’m just like, tell me about how you do this, you know? … It’s been really important for me to stay away from too many definitions and labels, and to make sure to continuously create space and open it up instead of closing it down. I kind of try to stay away from too much theory because I feel like it does shut me down a little bit, closes the doors a little bit.

 

With July 2011 performances scheduled for London and Vienna, MEN’s live concerts might be out of reach to some of us, but not for your kitchen or garage dance parties.

http://blog.menmakemusic.com/
http://www.myspace.com/men

Photo Credit: Sylvia McFadden http://www.flickr.com/photos/sylvia_mcfadden/4037815609/sizes/m/in/photo…

Erica R. Meiners lives and works in Chicago.