Deconstructing: Screaming Females & Bridesmaids & Harmonizing Females
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.