by ELENA SCHILDER
The first Shit Girls Say video went viral sometime in late 2011. You remember. A guy in a wig says, “Can you pass me that blanket?” and “What’s my password?” because those are things that girls say. Critics of the video and its creators claimed that most people say things like “Can you pass me that blanket?” at one time or another, gender notwithstanding.
Some forms of contemporary female speech have the quality of a low hum, like the sound I imagine a cloud of bees would make. It feels like it’s there to fill gaps, to distract and ease the faultiness of modern conversation — whose faults we owe, maybe, to a more general and well-documented mood of distraction in the culture. We look up from our phones, say something, look back down at our phones, write something to someone else who is not there. And girls — adaptable and socially attuned as we are — have the capacity to bridge those gaps with seemingly superficial and effervescent ways of speaking to one another.
Of course, there is something sad about this form of speech, which takes no pleasure in originality, and instead serves to make people feel comfortable. These phrases are like compulsive tics of speech — said just to say something, almost to oneself. It makes me think of the process by which, as a woman in my mid-twenties, I learned to use exclamation marks in my text messages and emails. I did it to create the feeling of ease I described above: I didn’t want other people to think of me as harsh or biting, and I wanted to provide a feeling of acceptance and enthusiasm. But now that I do it, I often feel like I can’t go back.
The Roches are three sisters from New Jersey: Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy. They made the album that most of their less die-hard fans care about — self-titled, and produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp — in 1979. Their music is most accurately described as folk music, with beautiful three-part vocal harmonies and strange, sometimes dissonant arrangements. They write witty lyrics, some of which are also silly. In 1979, on Saturday Night Live, they performed a manic a cappella version of The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. In their brashness, they remind me a bit of the theater kids I knew growing up.
The Roches remind me of the nuances of female speech because their lyrics often articulate the shared sentiments of womanhood in a startling way. Of all their songs, people are most attached to the slow and deliberate “Hammond Song,” written as if spoken by an older sister to a younger sister, warning the younger girl not to “go down to Hammond.” The song makes the ages-old argument against doing what Felicity did, following a man without first taking care of oneself. “We’ll always love you, but that’s not the point,” they tell the wayward one, and, “You’d be okay if you’d just stay in school.”
Watching and listening to the Roches of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the years of their youth, I want to describe them as innocent. But it’s a description that may say more about the observer than the observed.
The Roche sisters seem to exist in a pure, girlish space that is either pre-adolescent or pre-Lewinsky, depending on how specific you think such innocence is to the 1970’s and the influence of second-wave feminism. Either way, they display a lack of self-consciousness in their demeanor, clothing, and songwriting that simply doesn’t have a modern equivalent: they are often coy without appealing to anything so narrow as “sex appeal.” The cover of their 1980 album Nurds shows them butt-bumping the camera — a cheeky joke, but not at all raunchy.
I recently took part in an argument about whether the new Diablo Cody movie Young Adult is misogynistic. On the surface, this argument, like the similar arguments I’ve had about movies like Bridesmaids or Knocked Up, doesn’t interest me. Good stories, we learn in writer’s workshop, should be true to themselves before being politically aligned. But a lot can be surmised about the political and cultural milieu into which stories are introduced by observing repetitions among characters and storylines.
In college I took a class on genre theory, and because I found the classification of genre to be a helpful way of thinking about stories, I have continued to think about them as falling into one of four categories: romance, satire, tragedy, and comedy. Of course, many stories engage more than one category. The thing about Young Adult, or — to take one example — the ever-popular Mad Men, or the Shit Girls Say video, as well as many other products of the culture, is that their portrayal of women is largely satirical or tragic. And that isn’t to make a criticism of the artists responsible for them. But when I watch Mad Men I sometimes feel a little scared, as if all the air is being sucked out of the room. Those women are chronically sad.
In the history of literature, much has been done with the sad woman, and even more has been done with the woman so empty, spoiled and materialistic that she can only be parodied. The Roches give me the same good feeling that I got when I read Harriet the Spy, another relic of 1970s New York girlhood. Women, like men, have great reserves of mischief and playfulness and, to be simple about it — happiness. And there is no law that says these characteristics can only be allotted to the pre-pubescent and the radically naive.
In a classic episode of My So-Called Life, Sharon tells Angela that once you have sex, you can’t go back to just making out. And the Roches say that if you go down to Hammond, you’ll never come back. Of course, experience often bears out the truth of these hypotheses. Once you’ve come around to the legitimately tragic parts of being a woman, or found yourself saying things you never thought you’d say in the interest of making conversation with the girl selling you a pair of $200 leggings, it can make you feel like Peggy Lee sounds when she sings, “Is that all there is?” — in other words, cynical and asthmatic.
Poignantly, Maggie and Suzzy Roche’s 2004 collaboration is titled Why The Long Face? Why indeed?
Elena Schilder is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about American Beauty.
"Hammond Song" - The Roches (mp3)
"No Shoes" - The Roches (mp3)
"We Three Kings" - The Roches (mp3)