Saturday, December 13, 2008

On Influences: Vivian Girls (a guest blog)

To Henry Darger, the Vivian Girls were warriors. They were children with the courage of grown men. They were victims and aggressors, fighting against the notion that children were somehow beneath the dignity of adults, and represented in thousands upon thousands of exquisitely catalogued drawings and narratives. The Vivian Girls were beyond human, twin-sexed--sometimes drawn with penises--perhaps pragmatic and perhaps meaning nothing at all. But they were the only tool in Darger’s extremely devout and socially anxious toolbox to help him process his childhood of abuse and his lifetime of solitude.

In the year 2008, the Vivian Girls are a band. They are a good band. I like their record, the self titled “Vivian Girls,” but something is not quite right. They are both meaningful and meaningless, and it is hard to say why. Maybe they are meaningful because of their potential to show us something about the way artists go from listening to creating their own music.
Why meaningless?
Because who really gives a shit anyway…

Incidentally, The Vivian Girls Experience from Philadelphia is an avant-garde duo who make up songs called “kitten lemonade stand,” and who have at least had a myspace since 2005. They also have some very impressive craft and costume making skills.

The Vivian girls in 2000 were a band from Melbourne, Australia, now disbanded. They list their influences as New Wave and Situationism. Now THIS, sounds like my kind of band.

Needless to say, that PBS special “In The Realms of the Unreal-the mystery of Henry Darger” sure has been getting around. That reminds me that the Public Broadcasting Corporation relies on support from viewers like you.

But this is a story about the Vivian Girls, the band. The band in 2008 made up of three girls: Cassie Ramone, Kickball Katy and Ali Koehler. A blonde, a brunette and a redhead. Not necessarily in that order. This is not a joke. Their album sounds like a hazy reflective on a whole host of bands that have in the past moved me to embrace the dual nature of destruction and creation in life, my femininity and masculinity. They have moved me because I expect the music in my life to bring about the next step in evolution. So it is natural that when I first heard the signifiers in the album:
Surfy Beat Happening guitar riffs (mmm, Black Candy!)
Vocals somewhere between Talulah Gosh and Heavenly
Vaseline’s Harmonies
heavy on the distortion, reverb on the vocals,
are you kidding me…I was excited. Especially because of how it stood out in the rotation of my local college radio, WUOG.

But after a few listens I started to notice a theme…no context. No life experience. Lyrics just added as an afterthought because songs are supposed to have words. Generic. Copied. Because its cool enough. Because its easier.

On their Myspace the Vivian girls want you to know that they are influenced by the Wipers, Nirvana and the Shangri-las. These are the bands that they want you to hear when you are listening to their music. This is perhaps more interesting then what their music actually sound like. It is interesting because they sound more like the bands that Kurt Cobain was into, than what Kurt Cobain used them to become. While Nirvana and Wipers (even though Nirvana certainly came after) seem to have evolved from a common ancestor (like Chimpanzees and Bonobos), Vivian girls seem to be a de-volved version of the two. If they are evolving from anything, its more likely a branch off of the Social Distortion evolutionary tree. Why?
Well lets take a look at some live performances:

And for a follow up, a look at some more of their recent “controversial” (if controversial means you are BORING, and having a conversation I have heard 100 times already) video interviews:

Vivian girls are without a doubt a band searching for a sound, but who have nothing to say about the present, let alone the future. They are not as Jonathan Richman once said, “In love with the modern world”. And even their love for the old world is suspect.

I played it for my friend at work who’s first response was “Wow, this doesn’t sound modern at all!” He was right. So it got me to thinking about what it means to produce art in 2008 and have nothing to say about the future. And more than that, what do the Vivian girls have that is uniquely their own? Are they creating anything new? I think the answer is yes and no. There are really beautiful moments on the album, like the high pitch harmonies on the song “Where do you run to” which reminds me of the Vaselines. And there is the warmth of the California sun (Which I have never experienced, but imagine often), synthesized by a certain kind of guitar tone that I don’t understand, in the song “damaged” which reminds me of one of my other favorite bands, X.
So at their best Vivian Girls owe their moments to bands from 10-20 years ago.
And this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if they could do so with the enthusiasm and creativity of, oh lets say, another one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite’s: Shonen Knife.

I mean these ladies really were in love with the modern world. I get the feeling they liked the Ramones too.

And on second thought, the absence of a modern sound is not really the Vivian Girls’ crime either.

What about Thee Headcoats? I thought.
While in 2000, still using all of the sound signifiers of 1960’s lo-fi garage rock, Thee Headcoats still sounded like a fucking force to be reckoned with. But this is because of what was under the manifest sound. It is not a repeat of 60’s garage rock, it is 60’s garage rock from an alternate dimension. It has something new to say about the past and what it is like to deal with that past in the present and future. I suspect this is probably because of Billy Childish’s horrifying experiences of childhood sexual abuse when he was 9 years old. It was best put by the love of my life who said, “Um…I don’t think anyone ever wrote a 60’s garage song about looking at the gun in their father’s hand, or the day they beat their father up.”
Good point.
Speaking of fathers, Kickball Katie told a story about her father (Mr. Kickball? Kickball daddy?) in this interview:

My point is, Vivian girls do not play music because their life depends on it. They play music because they want you to like them. There is a certain divining truth in music which is almost always true: If you are a boring person, you cannot make yourself anymore interesting by playing music. Your voice will reveal the truth, who you really are (or who you really aren’t). There was something communicated in Kurt Cobain’s voice that was extra-worldly. It felt as though if he didn’t get it out maybe the whole world would end. And maybe someday it will, but I do not think the Vivian Girls are anymore interested in this than they are with Sarah Palins’ fabulous million dollar haircut and debate “zingers.”

But in the end, I do like them. But I also feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for the fact that they are so emotionally young in such a big world, in such a big time. I feel sorry for the fact that they are talented musicians and have nothing to say, because there is a lot of sadness in really trying to create something meaningful for yourself and having it be meaningless to the world around you. (That would make a good song!) Listening to their recent video interviews I was reminded of hanging out with girls just like them in High School and early in college. No experience and an opinion on everything. They are not interested in anything other than repeating what has been said to them by someone they believed was interesting. They are no different from girls in Sororities, they just wear different clothes. They have different symbols but the same ritual context, the same class background. Just as it did then, it leaves me feeling utterly alone. It leaves me beginning to understand why Henry Darger chose to live his life in solitude with only his made up world to help navigate what was left of his sanity.

In many ways , the Vivian Girls are just like the na├»ve college girls that Jonathan Richman used to sing to from the cold sidewalks of Boston (still kind of inappropriate Jonathan…). He was pleading with them, that if only they would think for themselves, if they would only have the courage to live without the fear of disappointing your parents or having someone laugh at you, the fear of being alone, then their lives could be so full of meaning, joy and mystery. Just like how Henry Darger’s interior life was so rich, despite his ultimate fear of real human contact. So I guess why the Vivian girls’ are more of a disappointment than some band that just plain sucks is because of the stunning promise of what they could be, and that they seem to be running in the opposite direction of that promise.
Vivian girls, who cares what people say about you.
put out your cigarettes
and act like real girls.

Posted by: Lester Bang Bang on the door, Baby


Anonymous said...

Hey, I am member of the band "Vivian Girls Experience" and just wanted to quickly add that we have always written some of our lyrics from the point of view of the Henry Darger characters. We formed in 2005 and we were originally just called "The Vivian Girls".

Half of our band lives in Brooklyn, and the other half in Philly. We added the "Experience" on our name to avoid confusion with the other (more recent) band of the same name, location, and time period. Unfortunately this has mostly failed, and people still confuse us for them, but since we actually are thematically tied to the Vivian girls characters it seems silly to change our name.

We are also both artists & I make music in lots of other bands/projects.

See --

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