By Abigail Jenkyns
Peaches, feminist superstar or gender-bending freak show? Is it all in the music or the performance?
With her brash, lycra clothing and ‘don’t give a crap’ lyrics, Merrill Beth Nesker, better known as Peaches, is a force to be reckoned with. The Canadian ex-teacher turned electronica queen has completely overthrown the dominant ideologies upon how women should behave and what they should sing about. Peaches’ lyrics, performances and videos are often grotesque and sexually suggestive and it has often been remarked that going to see the performer live on stage is more like watching a feral dominatrix performing a burlesque act. Peaches is, however, unapologetically herself in doing so which has further cemented her as a prominent figure in the Electroclash/Synthpunk genre and with five studio albums and twelve singles, Peaches has definitely made her mark.
Nesker took her stage name from Nina Simone’s song ‘four women’ and has cited the films Tron and Grease as influencing her showy performances. Similar feisty lyrics are often replicated in other artists from the electronica genre such as Robyn, Le Tigre, M.I.A and Gossip. The pumping beats and synthesised sounds provide the perfect backdrop for the politically/feminist charged lyrics that appear in the genre. Contrasted with the mellow tones of manufactured pop, electronica artists like Peaches are able to surpass the expected and express themselves in ways that shock and astonish. Katy Perry can cavort around the stage wearing a cupcake bra but Peaches takes it a step further, in one of her early 2011 performances, Peaches performed an entire set wearing a costume made out of material breasts and Barbie doll heads. Peaches doesn’t take her performances lightly, although she portrays herself as a woman who has fun at all costs, there is the undercurrent of sincerity within her acts and the idea that she is trying make a stand.
Peaches first album Teaches with Peaches from 2000 really secured her as a ‘two fingers up to society’ type of artist. The album’s most popular and opening track, ‘Fuck the pain away’ sounds electronic in sound but the bold and punchy lyrics suggests more punk/rock and roll undertones. The song opens with the lyrics: ‘Suckin’ on my titties like you wanted me, callin me, all the time’ which really confirms that Peaches is certainly not a warbling wallflower of a singer. The extreme introduction to Peaches and her music way back in the start of the millennium really set her up for subsequent years, in which her lyrics and performances only became more extreme and outrageous. In her video for ‘Diddle my Skittle’, Peaches appears in a brash, pink, lycra outfit and spends the first half of the performance crudely emulating the notion that she has male genitalia, whilst in the second half the singer daintily tiptoes up the street whilst the camera focuses on aspects of her female body. It often feels that Peaches’ performances and music videos detract from the lyrics she is trying to convey.
Peaches is celebrated for subverting traditional gender norms and caused mild controversy upon the release of her 2003 album ‘Fatherfucker’ after appearing on the album cover with a beard. The distortion of gender binaries really made listeners question whether Peaches was really serious about her music or whether her input into the industry was more centred on her obsession with sexual politics. The name of the album itself questions the typical connotations of feminine insults, playing on the typically used phrase ‘motherfucker’. In her 2006 album ‘Impeach my bush’, Peaches again pushes the boundaries of ‘socially acceptable’ and completely dispels any beauty standards we typically see in the videos of mainstream pop artists like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. Peaches’ track ‘Boys wanna be her’ challenges a patriarchal society by celebrating the notion of the androgynous male. In ‘two guys for every girl’, Peaches uses the lyrics ‘I wanna see you work it guy on guy’, which challenges the porn industries’ obsession with ‘girl on girl’ and how the act of lesbianism becomes a form of titillation for the male viewer. Through using the male body, Peaches aims to challenge the male gaze and ultimately turn it on its head.
It could be argued that Peaches’ apparent form of feminism is just a crass way to objectify men, further propagating the issue of inequality, rather than solving or helping the issue. However, Peaches also objectifies herself, her videos are overtly provocative, she performs on stage in her underwear and she is ‘willing to be as raunchy as a man.’ Peaches doesn’t play up to the sexually provocative female image, she dresses like a woman, sort of, but more importantly, to make her point, Peaches acts like a man. There is a feeling that Peaches’ performances and general personality takes precedence over her musical talent and it’s unusual to see a stripped back, acoustic version of her songs. Peaches is a performance artist and doesn’t make any apologies for that, stating “My work gets misunderstood all the time but I actually love that. I get everything from ‘angry man-hater’ to ‘porn-performer’.” It begs the question as to whether or not Peaches can be taken seriously as an artist, her music definitely isn’t something you would listen to if you were feeling melancholic, everything is too punchy and salacious for that. Although her music can be viewed as a breakthrough of female dominance, it also becomes distasteful and tacky in doing so. Whilst Peaches attempts to challenge the patriarchy, her hyper-sexualisation of her own body only further promulgates the issue.
Does Peaches fully empower women? Is she a pioneer of music? I’m not so sure, but she does make a stand. Peaches and other performers from the Electroclash genre have a certain edginess about their performances that unsettle the status quo of genres such as pop, where dainty, self-indulgent princesses sing about former lovers. Peaches successfully goes beyond that, she may not have impressive vocals or morals but at least she attempts to highlight issues so many other singers so very often fail to address.
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