by Jennifer Maerz
LIKE PAYOLA, product can be just the sort of term that high-rolling music industry insiders use and pretend doesn't matter, and that indie stalwarts revolt against. Just look at Ashlee Simpson. The 20-year-old is basically a younger I don't think "dumber" is possible version of her sister, Jessica, who already sings vapid tracks that make shopping carts go round. Ashlee just wraps that same stupid-chick shtick in different packaging. ("I'm a simple girl in a complex world"? Dude, haven't you seen Mean Girls? It's OK to expose that brain you're hosting. Lindsay Lohan totally did.) All those black leather jackets may give Ashlee an edge in photo shoots, but musically they barely separate her from the same old curdled pop schmaltz. She's a package, a young girl who made the "difficult decision" to follow the elder cash cow to a world where not writing your own songs and not allowing your IQ to publicly rise to the double digits will load the family coffers and supply bling to the publishers of Blender for years to come.
She may be the most obvious new package on the shelves, but Ashlee Simpson isn't the only parcel music fans can purchase. International electro-pop trio Chicks on Speed (www.chicksonspeed.com) crate together their CDs with a line of clothing (like J.Lo!) and handbags, accessorizing their music faster than you can say InStyle. The difference, among other things, is that COS create products with a message of questioning rote consumerism, critiquing the fashion and music industries while simultaneously working in both worlds. And their pop confections have a solid center: as sweet as their sparkling vocal harmonies and airborne beats may become, that hipster dance floor comes decorated with COS's brainy billboards. Instead of lending their voice to someone else's script, COS are careful to keep an obvious thread running between everything they do. They're complex girls living in a complex world.
COS and singers like Ashlee Simpson do have similar roots, however. Munich's Kiki Moorse, New Yorker Melissa Logan, and Australian Alex Murray-Leslie began as faux musicians in a fake band in 1997, only instead of the institution of Geffen Records at their backs, COS had the Munich Art Academy. Since then, the Berlin-based act have released 2000's Will Save Us All and The Re-Releases of the Un-Releases, run their own Chicks on Speed record label, designed clothing made of paper and printed with hundreds of corporate logos, and riffed off popular culture in the name of art. Last year they created the Chixel, a Chanel laptop-bag knockoff that showed at the Von Roth Galerie in Berlin. The idea behind those bags wasn't to bring Canal Street to Chicksville, but rather to send the message that "all these large companies tend to imitate what's happening on the street," Murray-Leslie told me in a 2003 interview. "It's not fair, because [large fashion houses] are using these ideas and not giving credit where it's due." To that end, COS also create presentations for galleries, museums, and classrooms around the world, aiming, like fellow electro feminists Le Tigre and Peaches (both of whom collaborate on COS's latest U.S. release, 99 Cents and Re-mixes), to empower young visionaries in true DIY style.
In Logan's words, COS want to remind artists to always "sneak in the back door, infiltrate, and take over." It's a mantra repeated on 99 Cents' "Fashion Rules," on which, over a stark techno beat that hits a rigid catwalk strut, the women command, "Get out there now and break the rules." Their mock ice-queen chorus "Fashion is for fashion people / It's hard to be cool if you don't follow these rules" melts around the edges, though, when paired with what turns into such bouncy, ebullient electro pop. And Peaches lends a little rock recharge to the older COS hit "We Don't Play Guitars," taunting, "You may not play guitar but I play guitar," before adding an electric instrumental solo to the hiccuping howls and synthetic hand claps.
Taken alone, COS's more serious lyrics can sometimes inspire only as much thought as glancing at Adbusters cover text in line at Whole Foods. But coupled with the Chicks' massive artistic output, every new product only adds to the barrage of reinforcements they give for molding an artistic world while making airy dance music even the least socially conscious kids can still move to. Their packages remind consumers to look behind the labels. It's the opposite of what LA Weekly writer Alec Hanley Bemis recently labeled "the Cynics hard-bitten capitalists who did their best to isolate or invent successive pockets of hip, exploit them and slowly bleed their spirit." On the 99 Cent track "Shooting from the Hip," COS play on the survival of the slickest (i.e., the Stepford Simpson types) to their own techno-enforced beat, singing, "No one noticed you had disappeared. It's been two days, no connection / Pile of hardware making hits / If the quality is high. / At the parties there's a place for you on the guest list there's a place for you / in a somebody's arms."
Just imagine what a reality show about these chicks would inspire.