07/05/2009 10:54 PM | Los Angeles Times-Washington Post
In her landmark book Gender Trouble, feminist philosopher Judith Butler argued that gender is a performance, a put-on constructed out of lipstick and fainting couches or neckties and pigskin.
Butler called for opening ideas of gender to more radical expressions, not just the scripted roles found in Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, which has informed us, in short, that women like to talk and men don't.
Softening punk rocker Brody Dalle and mystic moon daughter Natasha Khan might be helping to write the rock 'n' roll addendum to Butler's 1990 opus with their radically different approaches to femininity in pop - and at an exciting time.
These days, so many of the most buzzed about emerging artists, such as St Vincent and Lady Gaga, are young women.
Australian native Dalle, the frontwoman of the now-defunct gutter-punk band the Distillers, has an abrasive, confrontational edge that cuts through her latest project, Spinnerette.
The Pakistan-born Khan, who performs under the moniker Bat for Lashes, takes a gauzy, artsy approach to her music, functioning as something akin to a Stevie Nicks for a generation raised on Björk.
"I've always felt like a dude, or at least split down the middle," Dalle said during a recent afternoon interview at a Los Angeles cafe. "I don't feel like I found my femininity until my 20s."
Wearing a studded belt over motherly hips and a faded tattoo on her creamy skin that she calls "a stupid mistake," Dalle looks toned down from her time in the Distillers when she sported a Lady Liberty mohawk and red lips and was married to another rocker, Rancid's Tim Armstrong.
Spinnerette's chugging rock leaves room for eccentricities and delicate moments, but its key ingredient is Dalle's voice, which veers from gravelly sneers to high-pitched "woos" that she admits nicking from Japanese duo Cibo Matto.
The new band, though, almost didn't happen. Three years ago, Dalle was pregnant with her first child with Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme and had lost interest in music. But once their daughter Camille was born, Dalle was "desperate to find myself again" and returned to the idea.
She wrote the demo for A Prescription for Mankind with baby Camille providing percussion with a Cheerios-filled shaker. Another song, Geeking, is from a lullaby she wrote for her daughter. Motherhood didn't alter Dalle's music, but it changed the subject matter.
"You get out the magnifying glass and have a good, ugly look at everything," Dalle, 30, said. "It just opens up a Pandora's box of old feelings, pain and trauma. And then, voila," she smiled, "you have a record."
Khan, whose debut Fur and Gold was nominated for a Mercury Prize in her native England, drew inspiration for her recently released second album Two Suns not from such drastic changes in her personal life but from travelling around California.
She also gained confidence from touring in support of Fur and Gold. "On my first album, I was a little shy still and not singing with my full power," said Khan, 29, speaking from England.
Two Suns, she decided, would showcase "more masculine energy, more powerful, rich and big sounds".
Some of her experiments led her to disguise her own voice and play with role reversal. "There were times that I was pitching my voice down a few octaves to give it a synthetic, masculine sound."
She created the gently stormy Siren Song as a battle between "the extremely feminine, to the point of being submissive" and a sexually aggressive, destructive force. The Big Sleep finds her voice interweaving with Scott Walker's ethereal pipes; he handles the deeper vocals in the song but his voice is androgynous and trembling.
The singer points out that what might be thought of as masculine is "really just strong female energy", and that the range of gender expression is endlessly slippery.
"It's all quite ambiguous and difficult to make black or white," Khan said. "I think in women there are massive spectrums of very bold and very powerful to very delicate and emotional forces and same in men as well. It's just the emotional spectrum in all humans."