Thursday, May 7, 2009

Freak Folk Sistas: CocoRosie

Bianca Leilani, a scantily-clad twenty-something year old woman, plays the harp while operatically harmonizing with Sierra Rose, a tomboyish vixen decked out in rapper attire, as she layers in samples taken from children’s toys and lays down a few rhymes. The two women are sisters, and are the basis of the band CocoRosie formed in 2003. Although the band has only been around for a brief number of years they have already released three albums: La Maison de Mon Rev (2004), Noah’s Ark (2005) and The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn (2007) and have become well-known for their live performances. CocoRosie is just one part of what is popularly being referred to as the freak folk movement, in which CocoRosie has created a space for their style of avant-garde music that allows them to discuss, challenge and reinvent gender roles that pertain to women.

Listening to CocoRosie’s “By Your Side”, one instantly hears an odd mixture of sounds: a pitch shifted voice, repetitive samples of a toy train, a fragile piano, and finally Sierra’s voice, which seems to stand outside the music altogether as she sings “All I wanted was to be your housewife” (CocoRosie). CocoRosie’s music unabashedly falls into the category of freak folk. Freak folk is a new and prominent form of folk music that, although no one can say exactly where the name began, can be traced back to the aesthetics of the anti-folk movement and the countercultural questioning of the psychedelic-folk movement (Richardson). In “By Your Side” we hear the raw lo-fi production quality and the tongue in cheek lyrics common in anti-folk music and we also hear the upheaval of traditional values in their lyrics common in psychedelic folk. Although in some ways these classifications are arbitrary, in popular culture they have become common ways of describing new forms of folk music, the newest classification being freak folk. As a freak folk band CocoRosie’s music takes advantage of traditional instruments as well as newer music technologies, which were not available to older bands, allowing their style to emerge as avant-garde. This is similar to the way Laura Mulvey saw the opportunity for film to take advantage of new technologies and “challenge the basic assumptions of the mainstream film” by becoming avant-garde (Mulvey 29). By working outside of a musical genre that is not limited by commercial success, CocoRosie’s music is able to express its sentiments about traditional gender roles and is free to generate new ways to perceive feminine genders.

CocoRosie’s music works against traditional and socially constructed gender roles by using elements of satire. One might be surprised or even offended when listening to some of CocoRosie’s lyrics. Often times they are very explicit, but even more troubling is the extremely subservient positions in which they place women. For example the first verse of “By Your Side” reads “I'll iron your clothes, I'll shine your shoes, I'll make your bed, and cook your food” (CocoRosie). These lyrics can be read in a few ways. The literal reading would be that that CocoRosie’s character desperately wants to return to the traditional feminine role of the housewife, however if we put these lyrics within the context of the Freak Folk Movement, which tends to question traditional values; we see how these lyrics point out the slave-like nature of being a housewife. Traditional roles although not explicitly meant to disempower women, historically has leave them in a position where they could be harmed by their husbands, as CocoRosie describes in a later verse “I'd wear your black eyes, bake you apple pies, I won't ask why, And I’ll try not to cry”, pointing to the housewives subjection to domestic violence (CocoRosie). Prior to the Battered Women’s Movement wife abuse was actually permitted by law and eventually only considered to be a civil crime (PCWTP). CocoRosie’s “By Your Side” becomes a satire that addresses this issue. We continually hear the faithful love anthem of “I’ll always be by your side, even when you’re down and out” dictating the character’s desire to become a housewife, however as the verses grow grimmer we can no longer believe the aloof sense of glee in Sierra’s voice and instead we find sadness in the song’s closing words “'Cause it's nearly midnight, And all I want with my life, Is to die a housewife, Is to die a housewife” (CocoRosie). CocoRosie criticizes the fact that traditional gender role expectations left open the opportunity for women to be beaten by men with little repercussion from the law. CocoRosie’s character in “By Your Side” gladly accepts abuse from her husband because she accepts it as part of her role.

CocoRosie’s song “Jesus Loves Me” also criticizes traditional gender roles via satire by discussing the social status of women within Christianity. Although the song specifically talks about Jesus, “Jesus Loves Me” does not refer to Jesus as much as it does the bible and its followers. Within the bible there are many verses which cite women as inferior to men. For example King James: Holy Bible reads “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Gen 3.16). It is the inequality between the sexes that CocoRosie’s “Jesus Loves Me” taps into.

The song itself takes it’s melody from an old Christina hymn that goes “jesus loves me, this I know, because the bible tells me so", however the lyrics are appropriated for CocoRosie’s Freak Folk style to read “Jesus loves me, But not my wife, Not my nigger friends, Or their nigger lives” (Warner). In these opening lines CocoRosie, with a tongue in cheek satire, illuminates the sexist and racist nature of the bible which places women in a role that is far from equal. The lyrics point out the hypocritical nature of Christianity which expected women to follow the word of God, but refused to accept them as equals making it seem as if men were God’s only true children.

However more interesting than how CocoRosie points to the inequality of gender roles is how they respond to those inequalities. “We’re just transitioning” seems to be an appropriate way in which CocoRosie describes themselves during a performance at the Gent Jazz Festival (July 20, 2008) especially when one considers the ways in which they’ve begun to showcase gender reversals both in themselves and their music (CocoRosie). It is not uncommon that in photos and during live performances Sierra sports a thin moustache and although it may be contrary to the nature of her sex, Sierra wears it as part of her personally devised gender. In the Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir famously said “one is not born, but becomes a woman” (Beauvoir). Contrary to the Essentialist belief that gender is an innate quality, Simone de Beauvoir believed that gender was a socially constructed concept and was therefore learned. CocoRosie seems to take this one step further by saying those genders can be deconstructed and reconstructed as one sees fit within a spectrum of masculinity and femininity.

Instead of a polarized gender, CocoRosie sponsors a more free-flowing or transient concept of gender. For example in CocoRosie’s nostalgic love song “Miracle” they state “I’ll be your girl, I’ll be your boy” suggesting that in a relationship one does not have be the girl or the boy, the husband or the wife, but that two people can transition continuously along a spectrum of femininity and masculinity without being limited by the title masculine or feminine (CocoRosie). CocoRosie’s concept of gender seems to fit in more with a Queer Theorist’s concept of gender rather than an Essentialist one. Certain Queer Theorist would see gender as a series of naturalized acts, but which hold no innate quality (Butler xv). These theorists would instead argue for a more ambiguous gender that is not defined in terms of masculinity or femininity such as what CocoRosie describes in “Miracle”.

CocoRosie does this again in their latest song “God has a Voice (She Speaks Through Me)” in which the lyrics read “God has a voice, she speaks, through me, every creature loves to be, in his arms please carry me” (CocoRosie). Here CocoRosie has taken the issue of gender to the celestial level where God is referred to both as “she” and “he” suggesting that even God can exist on either side of the gender spectrum. The song also serves as a nice response to the issues presented in “Jesus Loves Me” in the way that it refers to God speaking through CocoRosie. Since the Christian religion generally deems women as inferior to men it seems unlikely that God would speak through a woman, but CocoRosie questions this notion. “God has a Voice (She Speaks through Me” rejects the idea that an all powerful being would be sexist and challenges the same problems that are brought up in “Jesus Loves Me” by providing a better balanced perspective.

Aside from criticizing notions of gender, we can also begin to see CocoRosie actively responding to social problems surrounding women. Many of CocoRosie’s songs focus on women who have been sexually exploited. For example in response to Akon’s song “I Wanna Fuck you”, whose chorus goes as follows: “I see you winding and grinding up on that pole, I know you see me lookin' at you and you already know, I wanna fuck you” (Akon). In this song Akon describes a woman as a sexual object and says “I wanna fuck you” in an almost commanding way (Akon). He does not question whether or not he will have sex with the dancer; he says it as a matter of fact.

In response to Akon’s song CocoRosie wrote “You Wanna Fuck Me”, which plays exactly the same except for its lyrics which go: “You see me trying to smile up on this pole, but I'm just hiding the pain that's deep in my soul, you wanna fuck me? I already know you wanna fuck me and toss me back on the floor” (CocoRosie). CocoRosie’s words sympathize with all women who have been objectified and provide a little reality to the sex fantasy that Akon creates.

However where as “You Wanna Fuck Me” focuses on a “woman as the subject of the male gaze”, other songs, like “Not for Sale”, begin to focus on women that have control over their sexuality (Mulvey). “Not for Sale” is a stripped song featuring a harp and drumbox with one single verse that repeats: “You can leave me, on the corner, where you found me; I'm not for sale anymore” (CocoRosie). In this case CocoRosie is now switching the topic from woman as victim, to woman as empowered individual.

CocoRosie’s most unique musical quality is probably the way in which they switch gender roles in terms of their sexuality. As a woman the gender tradition would be to remain virginal and not to speak of female sexuality, but CocoRosie begins to represent females as sexual creatures. For example in the song “Promise” CocoRosie says “I'll, bathe you in the crystal light, That sleeps between my thighs” indicating a moment of female sexual desire (CocoRosie). Whereas sexual exploits are normally left within the realm of the male, CocoRosie has made the female the transgressor.

CocoRosie’s sense of active sexuality is even more prevalent in their cover of Lil’ Kim’s song “Big Momma Thing”, which represents a current trend in their music going towards rap. Incorporating rap into CocoRosie’s music leads to another interesting gender reversal. Normally rap is considered to be an uneven playing field for women; in fact many people would consider most rap to be degrading to women. However, there are a handful of women like Lil’ Kim and Queen Latifah that have transformed this boy’s club into a source of power for women (Rose). CocoRosie pays tribute to this tradition with their cover of Lil’ Kim’s song which goes “I used to be scared of the dick, Now I throw lips to the shit, Handle it like a real bitch” (Lil’ Kim). The song is explicit to say the least and fits into CocoRosie’s trend to reverse traditional expectation for women. Whereas rap songs are normally about a man’s desire to obtain a woman such as Akon’s “I Wanna Fuck You”, CocoRosie sings about female sexual desire explicitly with lines like “Tell me what’s on your mind when your tongues in my pussy” (Lil’ Kim). This is not to say that CocoRosie is trying to make their mark in the genre of rap, but instead they incorporate the style and attitude of the rap genre and mix it with their own. For example in a performance on DutchTV Sierra can be seen wearing a baseball cap, Lakers’ jersey, with a flannel shirt sloppily hanging off her shoulder (DutchTV). Although her outfit appears to be masculine, its masculinity is undercut by the fact that she is wearing a heavy amount of facial makeup, making Sierra neither completely masculine nor feminine.

CocoRosie also poses an interesting gender reversal with their cover of Kevin Lyttle’s song “Turn Me On”. Kevin Lyttle’s song has become a popular dance number, which unsurprisingly focuses on the sexual pleasures of a man. However unlike their cover of “I Wanna Fuck You”, CocoRosie does not change the lyrics to show the pains and sufferings of women who are objectified by men like Kevin Lyttle. Instead they sing the song as is and allow the song to take on a new meaning, simply by changing the narrator from male to female. Kevin Lyttle’s song becomes one of male sexual conquest to one of female conquest and dominance. It is a song that takes women from the position of subject of the male gaze and initiates a female gaze that is so rarely heard.

All of this is not to say that all freak folk music strives to push the boundaries of gender and challenge traditional values. Many bands, including CocoRosie, simply make music without the intention of challenging social norms, but inevitably due so as a result of their genre’s style. The culture surrounding freak folk music allows musicians to have their music heard without needing to depend on commercial markets. By living on the outskirts of the music scene, the sisters of CocoRosie can dress in rap attire, sing songs written by men, and criticize almost any institution they want. Their music, although maybe not intending to, inevitably brings up questions about the way gender is constructed within global society and sponsors an idea of gender that is not limited by traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. However, the inaccessibility of CocoRosie’s music may bring up questions about whether or not they are doing anything to help gender issues around the world. Sadly they probably are not doing a terrible amount to raise awareness about gender issues, due to their limited exposure, but then again that is not the main objective of freak folk music.

Works Cited
Beauvoir, Simone De. The Second Sex.

"Big Momma Thing." By Lil' Kim. MP3.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: feminism and the Subversion of Identity.

"By Your Side." By CocoRosie. MP3. 2004.

CocoRosie - Black Rainbow. Perf. CocoRosie. YouTube. 14 Sept. 2008. .

CocoRosie "Tekno love song" - Gent 2008.07.20. Perf. CocoRosie. YouTube. 31 July 2008. .

Genesis. King James.

"God Has Voice (She Speaks Through Me)." God Has a Voice She Speaks Through Me. By CocoRosie. MP3.

"I Wanna Fuck You." By Akon. MP3.

"Jesus Loves Me." By CocoRosie. MP3. 2004.

"Miracle." The Adventures of Ghost Horse and Stillborn. By CocoRosie. MP3. 2007.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990. 28-40.

"Not for Sale." La Maison de Mon Reve. By CocoRosie. MP3.

Pennsylvania Child Welfare Training Program, comp. Domestic Violence Timeline.

"Promise." The Adventures of Ghost Horse and Stillborn. By CocoRosie. MP3.

Richardson, Derk. "Freak Folk Flies High." San Francisco Chronicle [San Francisco] 14 Apr. 2005.

Rose, Tricia. "Never Trust a Big Butt and a Smile."

"Turn Me On." By Kevin Lyttle. MP3.

Warner, Anna. "Jesus Loves Me." Jesus Loves Me. By Anna Warner. Online music.

"You Wanna Fuck Me." By CocoRosie. MP3.

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