Screaming Females' Marissa Pasternoster

It took me almost a year to finally see Bridesmaids, the Kristen Wiig comedy that was hailed hyperbolically as a feminist filmic milestone because it offered a counterpoint to all the Apatow straight-man-bonding/buddy vibes that were foisted upon us for the latter half of the aughties. I was kinda like, why do I need a counterpoint to that garbanzo? I’m good. And also I don’t find Wiig particularly funny as a comedian — her Saturday Night Live bits rely on the kind of facial contortion and vocal distortion that I despise in Jim Carrey, cheap physical devices that might have worked on me when I was five but I find super not-that-smart now. Yeah, her timing, etc etc etc, but suffice to say I was not racing to the theater (despite Bridesmaids’ other star, Maya Rudolph, who I love about as much as I dislike Wiig). But it’s on cable now, so I stretched out and gave it a chance.

It was fine — funny in parts, overreaching in others, though I appreciated the “this chick is stealing my best friend away from me” thread in the script, because any woman who’s been through seventh grade has felt that. But I didn’t find it particularly feminist until the very end, in which (not that spoiler, yall) the wedding in question featured an all-girl singalong to Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” — featuring the actual Wilson Phillips. For every movie that’s forced us to watch a dude air-guitar or sing along to Tom Petty or something, we’d gotten ours. Bridesmaids outed the coded femininity and feminist nature of “Hold On,” a schmaltzy but super-empowering relic of the ‘90s in which Chynna Phillips, wearing a kicky pageboy hairdo, sang the words, “No one can change your life except for you. Don’t ever let anyone step all over you!” HELL YEAH, THOUGH, CHYNNA! Hell yeah.

So it’s great that the trio is having a renaissance right now, based both on ‘90s nostalgia and the re-entrance of the subversive feminine power of harmonic sopranos. They just released a new album Dedicated, which is a sweet album of covers of their parents’ songs — the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas — showing both where they got their itch to harmonize and further establishing their inherited good genes. I lean towards the Mamas and the Papas songs — they were more into minor chords, utilizing altos in an interesting way and getting more complicated than the sunny-peachy Beach Boys, though shout to “Don’t Worry Baby.” It could also be an album dedicated to California and the natural riches it proffers — you know, babes and surfing. But beyond reminding us that “Monday Monday” has one of the prettiest bridges in pop music, it juices the idea that women harmonizing together is Greek classical levels of feminine power, and that cheesy girlishness is our antidote to oppressive maleness in music. Call ’em sirens if you like, but there’s a reason all those male writers and their heroes found the concept of a trio of ladies singing beautifully, utterly terrifying.

Screaming Females’ Marissa Pasternoster is something like an inverse to this: handling it all on her own, it’s the guttural, ululating beauty of her voice that’s an instrument of power, its brackishness inherently confrontational and oddly lovely at once. And then there’s her guitar talent, which is awesome, but I think people focus on it disproportionately: her voice is her real secret weapon. Nevertheless: rock riffage may not have the same cultural cache as it once did, thanks to the evolution of popular music along with new technologies—and the quasi-democratization of the form (hello, GarageBand). But there’s still so much power in reclaiming shredder history, of taking this concept that has been male-coded since the first dude said the guitar was an extension of cock, and exposing it for the gender-supremacist crapola that it is. Of newer, younger women doing this now, Marissa Pasternoster is definitely in the top three, and Ugly, Screaming Female’s latest, doesn’t skimp on her signature power riffing. With storied character Steve Albini helming recording duties, some of the tracks shout out the ladies who came before her — ”Leave it All Up To Me” could easily have been a mid-era Helium track, “Crow’s Nest” has shades of Sleater-Kinney, and you kinda just want her to join Wild Flag for an album or two. Ugly splits the difference between the group’s poppier inclinations and their leanings towards knees-to-the-floor grit, and through Albini’s adulation of the crispy guitar sound (totally giving us Jesus Lizard vibes) they reach a transformative spot where every instrument is clearer and cleaner than it’s been on prior albums. All the threads are in their right places; and with them, Pasternoster’s voice is on a proscenium. On “Rotten Apple,” an awesome, kind of pridefully self-deprecating punk statement song, she twists and stretches her vocals on the chorus, “I’m a rotten apple,” so that her meaning shifts with each turn. When it’s deep and throaty, it’s like she means it; switch to snarling and sassy, and it’s a defiant throwback in your face. It’s conversational in a way that conveys meaning beneath meaning, and it’s why she’s such a terrific vocalist.

On “It’s Nice,” we get to hear her as we rarely do: pared down, acoustic guitar, string section-assisted, and cooing. Here, she harmonizes too, but with herself, her vibrato rendering her vulnerable. Marissa Pasternoster! Vulnerable! It’s a beautiful moment and a smart piece to include on the record, a little levity among Ugly’s roiling drive. She doesn’t need to be super-charged and plugged in to access her power, or even need an instrument. It’s within her.

Comments (17)
  1. it’d be nice to chop off the first three paragraphs – i mean thanks for the bridesmaids update, but…

  2. Screaming Females is a band fronted by a female who rarely screams.

  3. …someone didn’t see “Liar Liar”…

    or “Me, Myself, and Irene”…

  4. yo but how can you deconstruct my fart nuggets when they are an enigma?

  5. No offense, but these Deconstructing pieces could benefit from steering clear of the constant gender role discussion. I think the only ones that have so far are the SVII Bells and Lil’ B articles, but other than that, I feel like we’ve all earned enough credits for a Women’s Studies course.

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      • You didn’t really get the point of my comment. It looks like you took it to mean that gender should no longer be discussed when really all I am saying is ease off it and add another element to the mix. The point of this feature is to deconstruct artists in all sorts of ways (or so I was led to believe) but it seems like most editions have begun to follow the same pattern of choosing a female artist and talking about female gender roles and / or female sexuality. There are other avenues to deconstruct musicians by (religion, politics, ethnic culture, race, social class and so on) and I’d just like to see Julianne look at some of these as well.

        So no, I’m not trying to start a “male-dominated complainfest” to get rid of gender discussion– In fact, aside from Lil’ B and the Rusko piece which both had little to do with male gender roles, males are underrepresented here in this feature.

    • If most of the posters (and one would assume readers) here are male, the argument for a more diverse palette of deconstructing topics makes sense. As you pointed out, mikey, this ain’t no Women’s Studies class.

      However, I am very interested to read music journalism/editorials from a perspective that is different from mine. I appreciate this column frequently featuring gender-related topics (and female bands) because those groups are not normally within my scope of listening. I am an auditory misogynist. For some reason, there aren’t that many female vocalists that I am interested in. There are certainly not that many female musicians who put out content that is superior to their male counterparts.

      That being said, I really appreciate the opportunity to think about music and my appreciation of music from another viewpoint. I also like the opportunity to call “bullshit” when one of those alternative perspectives is contrived.

      There are some core problems with the central theme of this piece, and therein lies the problem with the gender-centered commentary. To use the connection between Bridesmaids (and therefore, Wilson Phillips) and Screaming Females as a one sentence manifesto essentially stating that Pasternoster is superior because of her individuality is insidious. Say what you will about Bridesmaids, the emotional climax of the film is not the Wilson Phillips ending. The thesis of the film is that Wiig’s character has to sort out her own shit before she can sort out any of her relationships with other people. This is a lesson in personal development, not feminism or cheeky girlpower. The film is not an exercise in feminism at all. Feminism suggests an antagonistic relationship between women and men in society. It is a self-deleting philosophy. The film transcends this by allowing the central character to be defined outside of any such construct. This essentially creates much more a similarity than difference between Wiig’s character and what we are lead to believe is the character of Pasternoster. However, the author resorts to defining Pasternoster in terms of “shredder history” as male-coded construct (with requisite cock-as-guitar reference). This is a feminist approach to understanding Pasternoster. She is the defiant woman fighting her way into a male dominated cohort. The author then proceeds to fall into the feminist trap of relating Pasternoster’s emergence to Steve Albini’s production. It is Albini, it seems, who has helped Pasternoster find her inner shredder girl. If we are truly to believe that Pasternoster has it all within her, then why does she need Albini or to reference previous girl-shredder bands, anyway?

      My point, mikey, is that before we start sucking each other’s dicks for having passed the Women’s Studies final and move on to other topics, we need to sort out what we’re actually talking about.

      • A few things struck me here.

        First, how can someone have a beef with Wiig? I don’t always find her funny on SNL (Gilly makes no sense to me at all) but she’s never Jim Carrey level of muggin.

        It’s kinda funny for the author to (correctly in my mind) point out how people making Bridesmaids out to be some kind of feminist triumph being weird. I thought it was funny regardless of “Oh isnt’ it great to see womyn being funny!” stuff. But I am a guy so mayby I relate differently to it. But then she gets into Pasternoster as some kind of feminist hero. Both premises seem to shoehorn a socio-political point where there doesn’t really need to be one.

        It seems to me the goal should be that female (and male) artists are judged on the quality of their work regardless of gender role politics. Again, maybe as a guy it’s easy for me to say. But it always seems to be female/feminist writers that are pushing the gender role arguments. I can confidently say that guys just don’t think about that stuff (blanket generalization) that much.

        As to Pasternoster I can’t really say anything, I’ve never listened to her band. But I loved Helium back in the day and thoroughly enjoy Sleater-Kinney just ’cause they rock, end of. Also, I’d like to point out PJ Harvey especially for showing a female artists can just do her thing and be well respected for it. I can’t think of anything she’s put out that was bad. Bjork comes to mind as well. Do they say something about feminism/gender politics I’m missing? Honest question maybe I’ve got dude blinders on.

        I’ll admit to being someone down on the idea of girls being badasses instrument-wise in the past. I got turned around on that when a band I was in found a girl to play drums. She could put us dudes to shame and hold her own as the only girl in the band. But she did like to play in other bands with all girls as well. Understandable I suppose.

  6. Using the word shred or shredder is a HUGH stretch in this article.

  7. Is the phrase “but I find super not-that-smart now” meant to be ironic? Regardless, it’s quite off-putting.

  8. “I withheld my attention from a popular thing for a long time because I sensed that I would not be able to enjoy it no matter how many of my far-less-intelligent friends told me I might. Then, when I did give it a try, I did not find it especially pleasurable.” WHAT A SURPRISE. I love having my tastes ‘deconstructed’ by a writer who evinces zero ability to engage critically with her own.

    For example: saying that Kristen Wiig in particular and physical comedy in general are “super not-that-smart” shows how little comedic sensibility you have. What, you like audited a film course once and now you think that all comedy has to be Woody Allen?

    In conclusion, I would love if just once one of these columns could be about the same thing for more than a single paragraph at a time. This isn’t your tumblr.

  9. So let me get this straight – you dislike Wiig because she relies on facial contortion and vocal distortion to be funny…but you love Maya Rudolph??

    Yeah…I don’t like drinking beer because of the carbs so I opt for strawberry pasta milkshakes instead.

    Can someone please reconstruct “deconstructing” and have it not include Julianne?

  10. If you guys can’t get along we wont deconstruct anything ever again

  11. I deeply and vehemently disagree with everything you said about Kristen Wiig, Jim Carrey, Judd Apatow, and the Beach Boys, but Screaming Females/Marissa Pastemoster is/are great.

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