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The Gossip's first show of 2006 in San Francisco wasn't as likely to get tongues clacking as one I saw several years previously, the night mod, bobbed fireball Beth Ditto pulled a cute, bare-skulled baby dyke from the audience to twist and grind to the tune of "I Wanna Be Your Dog." But on Jan. 27 the mixed queer-straight crowd was yelling just as loud anyway, singing along like budding blues shouters and bopping up and down atop broken glass as a long-haired Ditto wailed through the sweat streaming down her face, swayed us and slayed us. Her best friend during her Alabama school days, Nathan Howdeshell, tugged as many sharp, shocked punk-blues lines out of his guitar as he could while drummer Hannah Blilie pounded home Ditto's words: you're standing in the way of control.
Control ... undergarments? In women's circles, control can be such a dirty word, but self-described fat activist Ditto would probably differ and describe it instead as a cry for seizing power, calling for a new team after half a decade of Republican-dominated government.
According to the US Senate Web site, 1992 was the year of the woman — the first time four women (Barbara Boxer, Carol Moseley Braun, Dianne Feinstein, and Patty Murray) were elected to the Senate in a single election year, following the highly combustible Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. The sight of an all-white male committee laying into law professor Anita Hill apparently led many to question the dearth of female senators. I'm sure some powers-that-be would rather that be the sole "year of the woman," officially mandated by the federal government. But for me, 2006 could have just as easily have fit that descriptor. Even if we didn't spend its closing month fussing over celeb thunderwear.
This year began with the typically fire-starting "say, ah-women, somebody" salutations of Ditto at Bottom of the Hill and continued through the strong musical showings of local all-female combos Erase Errata and T.I.T.S., the splashy emergence of girl bands such as Mika Miko and Cansei de Ser Sexy, and the newly revived ESG and Slits, which proved to be some of the most exciting musical reunions of 2006. In the fourth quarter, life seemed to rhyme with art, as Nancy Pelosi assumed her role as the first female House speaker and leaders such as Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa, entered the picture. As 2006 ends with five Grammy nominations for the Dixie Chicks and the girl-group-loving gloss of Dreamgirls, the pendulum of public favor seems to be swinging toward the double–X chromosome side of the block. We're not even counting the onslaught of Latin pop princesses à la Shakira and Nelly Furtado, reading into Beyoncé's strident awakening on B'Day (Dreamgirls probably hit a little too close to home for destiny's chosen child), and paying heed to the escapist serenade of Gwen Stefani. Could feminism be in again?
Perhaps — because you can smell the stirrings of discontent and brewing backlash in the winter wind. The demise of fem-firebrand groups like Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre foregrounded the question "Is the all-girl band dead?" — as the latter's Kathleen Hanna complained about not getting radio and MTV play on the basis of gender. How else to explain complaints of pretension surrounding the release of Joanna Newsom's Ys and the fact that the biggest gossip of the year — talked up louder than the Gossip's Ditto — came in the form of the pantyless pop-tart triad of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan? Even TV's would-be feminists tut-tutted about the trio's shaved, bared crotch shots, proliferating online like so many revamped, vamped-up NC-17 Hollywood Babylons and Celebrity Sleuths. Is the image of pop stars flashing cameras news? No, but then most of us never actually saw Jim Morrison's lizard king or GG Allin's scabs. Spears's career was built on the promise of pubescent sex — how does that change when her paycheck is splashed all over workplace monitors? What is celebrity when the highly controlled PR mechanism breaks down and the most intimate component of fame, tabloid poonanny, is served up, C-section and all, in a bucket seat?
So as pop's eternal girls go wild and skip the thong song and we muse over whether Pelosi and company's new roles could be the best thing to ever happen to Dubya, especially if he aims to avoid impeachment (mainstream media hand-wringing over frosh Demo centrists possibly going wild is disingenuous — does anyone really expect Pelosi to be as much a partisan pit bull as Newt Gingrich?), we have to wonder how we might transform this turning point, the second (or third or fourth, etc.) coming of the Woman, into something greater than the sum of its disparate, far-flung, all-girl band parts. It's tempting — and perhaps nutty — to draw rough, symbolic comparisons between the national discussion around Hillary Clinton’s and Barak Obama's possible presidential runs and the Bay Area's most arresting musical developments in 2006: the insurgent interest surrounding all-female bands and the buzzy rise of Bay hip-hop and hyphy. Is it time to lay siege to the turf of the Man. Even the oldest schoolee in rock's girls academy, Joan Jett, can point to Broadcast Data Systems statistics on how more than 90 percent of the songs played on rock or alternative radio are still by men. "It's institutional, and I'm not quite sure where to attack it," Jett told me this fall. "Except with the audiences. The audiences forced stations to play 'I Love Rock ’n' Roll.' So we got to get to that place."
That place — my space or yours — is wherever women (and men) put together bands to make their own "user-generated content," as a social networking site might dub it, or "art," as I prefer to call it, and find the will to take control. Of how they sound and how they get their music out. For a sample overview of that cutting edge, see Chicks on Speed's recent sprawling triple-CD comp, Girl Monster, Volume 1, with tracks by artists ranging from Kevin Blechdom, the Raincoats, Tina Weymouth, and Boyskout to Pulsallama, Cobra Killer, LiliPUT, and Throbbing Gristle's Cosey Fanni Tutti. Rewrite musical history and promise you'll be on volume two. SFBG
KIMBERLY CHUN'S CRAMMED TOP NINE
•Folk talk: Bonnie "Prince" Billy, The Letting Go (Drag City); Beirut, The Gulag Orkestar (Ba Da Bing); Joanna Newsom, Ys (Drag City)
•Hot rock: Awesome Color, Awesome Color (Ecstatic Peace); Erase Errata, Nightlife (Kill Rock Stars); Snowglobe, Doing the Distance (Makeshift); Om, Conference of the Birds (Holy Mountain)
•Interstellar explorers: Akron/Family, Meek Warrior (Young God); OOIOO, Taiga (Thrill Jockey); Grouper, Wide (Free Porcupine); White Magic, Dat Rosa Mel Apibus (Drag City)
•Live, with love: 7 Year Rabbit Cycle, Coughs, Citay, Gossip, Sonic Youth and Mirror Dash, Neil Hagerty, Flaming Lips, Liars, Radiohead, Grizzly Bear
•Odds and ends: Tom Waits, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards (Anti-); Marisa Monte, Universo ao Meu Redor (Blue Note); Girl Monster, Volume 1 (Chicks on Speed); Art of Field Recording: 50 Years of Traditional Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum (Dust-to-Digital)
•Party jams: Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury (Re-Up Gang/Arista); Girl Talk, Night Ripper (Illegal Art); Beck, The Information (Interscope); the Knife, Silent Shout (Rabid)
•Pop nostalgists: Camera Obscura, Let's Get Out of This Country (Merge); Pelle Carlberg, Everything Now! (Twentyseven); Essex Green, Cannibal Sea (Merge); Pascal, Dear Sir (Le Grand Magistery)
•Solo mio: Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-); Jolie Holland, Springtime Can Kill You (Anti-); Thom Yorke, The Eraser (XL)
•Reissue korner: Cluster; Karen Dalton; Delta 5; ESG; Ruthann Friedman; Jesus and Mary Chain; Milton Nascimento; Ike Yard; What It Is!: Funky Soul and Rare Grooves (1967–1977) (Rhino)