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TEMPTATIONS OF A LADYMAN
Sleater-Kinney, All Hands on the Bad One
Text: Jeff Johnson
The new Sleater-Kinney album is character driven. If this doesn't surprise you, please rewind to 1995, to the first song on sleater-kinney:
everything i say
comes back to me one day
everything you do
comes back to stare at you
Carrie Brownstein (or Carrie Kinney, as she was then known) and Corin Tucker always unquestionably owned their fiercely personal lyrics. Every song from their first 10" is delivered in the first person, an I from which they did not keep their distance. To fans it was liberating to behold S-K's infernal howl, their "i don't wanna join yr club." In fact, there's an I in every song on every album Sleater-Kinney put out through 1998's The Hot Rock. With one notable exception, S-K's I matches the mouth from which it comes: Of all their repertoire, the most prophetic song for the band's future is the first on side two of their full-length debut, Call the Doctor. Corin Tucker's operatic holler belts:
i wanna be your joey ramone
pictures of me on your bedroom door
invite you back after the show
i'm the queen of rock n' roll
Here Sleater-Kinney reaches into its heritage to summon a possible future, and their I takes on a comic complexity that will literally save them from themselves, from the curse of punk: solipsism and repetition.
The Bad One
After the lyrical and musical density of The Hot Rock, the band was ready to return to a more straight-ahead, apparently pared-down sound. In a major break from s.o.p., Sleater-Kinney saves their hardest-hitting wailers to spread out later on the album, and open with their first obvious character sketch. If "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" played at rock star drag, All Hands On the Bad One's opener, "The Ballad of a Ladyman," takes a cue from Ziggy Stardust (specifically, "Lady Stardust") and creates a once-removed persona, this time a king of rock n' roll. The album's first Bad One appears to guide the listener through the underground and expose her to a cast that includes "The Professional," "Male Model," "The Swimmer," and the jaded riot grrrl of "#1 Must-Have." Tucker tries out for the lead:
I could be demure like girls who are soft for
boys who are fearful of getting an earful
But I gotta rock!
I'd rather be a Ladyman
This last line is sneered in classic bitchy Stardust form as Tucker does Bowie in alien drag. The sharp, personal-is-political humor of "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" has matured into a cracked-enamel doll who meets you at the door with a promise that s/he will rock you. You have to laugh as her song ends "you're out of control but saying/'ooh ahh ooh' ... "
You're ready to party. You check out the next room, and your hosts greet you with an early ruling ("Ironclad"):
You went down in the very first round
Sitting ringside in a tiny town
Knock out knock out, first round first round!
Who, me? Yeah, you.
Despite the bravado, Sleater-Kinney knows this is a different match with a new strategy. No longer charging at the opening bell, S-K bides its time and works at the body with its portrait of a Ladyman, declares an early victory in the second, breaks into dance at the end of the song, then drops the title track, another shaker. "You can't get to heaven with a three chord song," Corin and Carrie harmonize. But bad girls go everywhere: "They called you a sinner but the people want to sing along." Having dumped the boxing metaphor in the second song, Sleater-Kinney puts a cleanup hitter in the fourth position. On "Youth Decay," Corin finally lets loose, spitting acid from the pit of her aching stomach with manic vibrato churning of the line "Am I rotting out?" Tucker finishes with her trademark side-glance toward the first LP with the closing lines of the song: "how many doctors will it take/Oooh oooh before I disintegrate."
It wouldn't be the zeroes (what else to call this decade?) without a self-conscious second opinion, and "You're No Rock n' Roll Fun" rises from the ashes of track four's burnt phoenix:
You're no rock n' roll fun
like a party that's over
before it's begun
In case you haven't caught the album's ambitions, S-K steps back to reiterate "You always wanna hear the/same old song/come on play another song." Who's heckling whom? Sleater-Kinney shakes off the question and the catcalls and cuts to another Bad One, "Milkshake n' Honey"'s pompous, bored male rock star. The band will not be pinned down, not even by itself.
Do You Really Want That Mastercard?
This is the key thematic insight of All Hands On the Bad One: that as you must constantly refuse to be owned by anyone but yourself (the challenge of music and relationships, S-K's primary concerns), you must also be wary of your own mastery. In this sense, "#1 Must-Have" is the most important song on the album. Here, control from without turns to control from within:
Bearer of the flag from the beginning
Now who would have believed this riot grrrl's a cynic
But they took our ideas to their marketing stars
And now I'm spending all my days at girlpower.com
Trying to buy back a little piece of me
It takes a long look in the mirror to come to "The Number One Must Have is that we are safe," this after a look at the world: "And will there always be concerts where women are raped/Watch me make up my mind instead of my face." The call to arms at the end of the song swells from an apology:
And for all the ladies out there I wish
We could write more than the next marketing bid
Culture is what you make it Yes it is
Now is the time
Excerpts From an Interview With Carrie Brownstein
JJ: Who or what is the bad one?
CB: (laughs) To me the bad one is sort of the concept of people that try really hard to induce virtue into their lives and by doing so create a dichotomy between good and evil, so that by them being virtuous they have to create an entity that's evil, and that entity is usually another segment of the population or other kinds of behavior that they want to label bad. But I think by sort of labeling something else as bad you are in some ways incriminating yourself. So it's just a slightly hypocritical judgement because we all have a relationship to badness. So to me the bad one is all of us. And in relation to the album, I think an album that's really character driven, like someone like the Ladyman, the Professional, the Swimmer, the character in "Milkshake n' Honey," all those people-the question is, is the Professional the bad one, or are we the bad one for thinking the Professional is the bad one? To me . . . [it] has to do with just kind of realizing the nature of evil inside all of us, and embracing that in some ways.
CB: On this album we want to talk about the lyrics because I feel like in the past we haven't talked as much about some of the political ideas behind our songs, and this album, aside from having characters on it, and aside from being somewhat humorous at times, also has a political edge to it that I think we've been wanting to talk about because it just doesn't really seem like the time to not have political ideas about things that are going on in our culture and society and I think we want to integrate that into our music and integrate it into things we talk about a little bit more.
CB: [There are] a lot of feminist themes on this album, and a lot has to do with just being able to sort of let go of the cynicism that can be debilitating to one's art or one's politics. A song like "#1 Must Have" feels a little bit like a call to arms about confronting some of the sexism and the backlash that reared its ugly head in pop culture last year. A lot of the songs are written from a perspective of our relationship to playing music and talking about how we want to embrace all these historical representations of what it is to play music, but also acknowledging the absurdity of it, and also wanting to change that, deconstruct it a little bit.
CB: You have to be able to have a sense of humor about playing rock music. It's kind of a silly venture in some ways. But you also are granted a lot of cultural power . . . and we want to take advantage of that as well as have fun with it.