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‘Who put the Bitch Pop into Frock Rock?’ Melbourne’s PBS FM in the 1990s

Closing down, closing down! It’s the end of the century sale. Everything must go! Modernity is over (without ever having happened), the orgy is over, the party is over – the sales are starting.

(Jean Baudrillard, 1999)

 

‘Barbie’ Rock ‘Polymer’ stereotypes at PBS

By the fin de siecle 1900s decade, Third World Wars, New Technologies and Voodoo Economics had created an opportunity for unique events in the development of FM Radio and PBS. Was it because of the BBC’s World Music, Seattle Grunge, Brit Pop, or neo-Psychedelic festivals that made it all happen? Or was it, rather, the success of 1990s women’s music. Firstly, Riot Grrrl scenes, spearheaded by groups like Bratmobile and Bikini Kill; next, Girl Power empowerment with #1s ‘Bitch’ and ‘Barbie Girl’(*) ushering in an irresistible trend of leading women artists both in charts and the arts. It was not simply the frequency of grrrls playing anthemic songs – like 1992’s ‘Twist Barbie’ (Shonen Knife), or 1995’s ‘Bitterness Barbie’ (Lunachicks) – but fascination, in a ‘crisis of masculinity’ era, with subverted stereotypes as ideal dollhouse hothouse for evil genie goody goodies of ‘Barbie’ Rock.

Polymer Tee Vee Guide issue, 1999

[Announcer:] ‘Presenting ‘Polymer’.
A Grrrl rock fanzine! – featuring: Greil Marcus, Ian Meldrum, Paul Morley, Clinton Walker, John Peel, Killing Heidi, Elastica, The Donnas, Nitocris, Adana and Dead Star.
With reviews, fashion and sport.
Out Now!
‘Polymer’, the publication that respects you!
Happily sponsoring PBS.’
[Grrrl rocker noise blasts through the speakers]

 

Y2K Countdown

Out of the Y2K countdown at the crossroads of baby boomer, gen X or Y and millennial subcultural cross-dressing, 3PBS FM (in tandem with big sis RRR) ran the dazzling promo [above] for a lustrous new rock-press glossy fanzine, Polymer. Sporting the rad-chic, demi-monde, about-town address at the heart of down-bound-tram, post-Punk Fitzroy Street St Kilda – PBS liaison courtesy of the fantastic Francesca Trimboli! – Polymer briefly outbid rival indies for its very own fifteen minutes of fame flambé (popularly, at Brunswick St’s Polyester Books Fitzroy; Greville St’s Greville Records Prahran, and Lonsdale St’s Houndog’s Bop Shop West Melbourne), triangulating Inner-City-Sounds with a PBS sponsorship (plus unis, etc.).

The actual text was penned, typeset, laid-out, photographically illustrated and designed by a rogue-gallery, usual-suspect, freak-show collaboration, in the guise of only one solo shoestring hack/hacker author (barely hacking it!). Dero dilettantism on sleeve, this faithful PBS subscriber was turfed-out of any and every student union, computer room, and educational chat-rooms open to the uni public, without so much as a word processor to his name. The shamelessly generous student uni magazine editorial teams of Melbourne (Farrago), RMIT (Catalyst), Monash (Lot’s Wife), and Latrobe (Rabalais) – to name but a few – cliqued to the rescue, with many a burnt-oil marathon past usual closing-time. Yet, perhaps earwitness to PBS sponsor broadcasts, Melbourne Student Union soon kindly offered to deck their walls with Polymer cover Grrrls, after the Supersnazz chic Hummingbird-is-the-word got around. It even brought tears to the eyes of campus ejector-seat security staff during Polymer’s last days, despite their ongoing cyber-bubble excommunications (my history repeats ‘Student Card’ expired time and again). Through a Post Office Box in Collingwood 3066, predating the mindfully marvellous move of PBS to Easy Street, musician persons were encountered on trams, in studios – my fondest memory was a photo-doco visit to the Rock’n’roll Highschool also in Easy Street – on telephones, by postcard, at record company headquarters (Shock was the label of choice, but all were good Badsville to do Pop muze biz with) in concert, backstage and even at the PBS Sound Library.

I would-be truckin’ across the suburbs, often to two or three venues in rapid succession, checking-out new acts gushing with Grrrl Power, setting up interviews or plotting reviews. Now, even ‘VWFL’ footy grrrls of early issues are becoming household names. In the light of all this not useless grrrl beauty, as fully paid up ‘brat mobile’, while ever incestuous siblings attended their homely Hippie festival revivals, rather than Alvin Purple advisory ‘cold showers’, my own Bubble-gum reflex was a Jetsons’: EEP OPP ORK AH-AH! (Not doing me or others much ennui: it’s the DOO-WOP that counts!) All that sham Joe-Coolness was rewarded by integrated film-of-the-year Brats: just as unsegregated PBS was much better than youth JJJ!

Heralded in rock’n’roll thermodynamics by Nuggets’ Moving Sidewalks (1960s) to Post-Punks Pavement (1990s), this Riot Grrrl Power of ‘Barbie’ Rock gone wild with boots made for walking, featured on CDs like Dissent from Brits Linoleum: helping 3PBSFM to put the Bitch Pop into Frock Rock!

Dissent, Linoleum, 1996

‘In the industry of romance,
New ways to enhance,
Her beauty,
My little doll,
Beauty comes from the soul’

(‘Barbie Be Happy’, Essential Logic, 1998)

 

Dissent: the compact disk(**)

‘Of crucial importance’ to a ‘sociology of rock’, album reviews ‘seek simultaneously to provide a consumer guide, to comment on a culture, and to explore personal tastes,’ says Simon Frith. In terms of a consumer guide’, Will Straw suggests, ‘the genre as the context within which records were meaningful accompanied the rise of the “serious” record review’. That ‘generic economy’, drawn according to Straw from ‘film criticism’ important to academia, might also be traced to Jazz writing. But since ‘most journalists are male’, Frock Rocker Mavis Bayton believed, ‘a hegemonic masculine view tends to predominate in the music press’. Her comment on the culture distinguishes 1990s music as ‘a genuine female youth subculture with the explicit aim of moving in all areas of the rock world’.

To quote genre expert Keith Negus, even a ‘lucky researcher in the right time and place’ like me (a mere  male!) could discover the new ‘attempt … made to create an organised network amongst all-girl bands, via [the] fanzines’ noted by Bayton. This differentiated ‘Barbie’ Rock from the genre symbiosis with Heavy Metal, sfor which – Will Straw argues – ‘audiences do not constitute a musical subculture’. Contrariwise, Metal’s devotion to rock‘n’roll cover versions (refuting Straw’s ‘consistent noninvocation of rock history/mythology’ claim) was consolidated by the Grrrls’ own genuine delight in Metal covers. With such reference groups of Punk-Metal cementing Riot Grrrl to Girl Power, exploring personal tastes’ in the 1990s amounted to a ‘Barbie’ Rock Invasion of this, ‘the most male dominated of rock forms’.

*

‘Yeah, I mean I’m not familiar with the Linoleum LP you’re talking about, so I can’t really comment on that-’
John Peel, journalist (‘Polymer’ Listener In Hex issue)

‘Barbie’ Rock? Hahahaha!…tell me, which exponents of ‘Barbie’ Rock do you feature?’  
Caroline Finch, Linoleum (‘Polymer’ Tee Vee issue)

*

As the title suggested, Linoleum’s first album (1996) was sexed dissent from rock’n’roll mythology. Also capturing ‘Barbie’ Rock, singer Caroline Finch says, ‘Dissent is a different way of looking at things, and it’s a different way of song-writing and bringing up things that other people know but don’t usually bring up from a female perspective’.

Linoleum encountered the same obstacle course experienced by more high-profile groups, like Elastica (settling out of court with flattered post-Punk bands, Wire and The Stranglers):

We had problems in Australia certainly because another band called “Linoleum” showed up out of the blue … I think they’d put a single out a while before us, and they started demanding huge amounts of money from us for our name. So I know we had quite a lot of difficulty in Australia getting press and things, because we recently weren’t really allowed to be called Linoleum out there. That was a bit of problem. Yeah, I think the industry is in a bit of a mess at the moment.

Riot Grrrls were also banned by popular music media (recalling the blanked-out Sex Pistols at # 1) because of their manifestos, ejected male slam dancers and heckler abuse texta scrawls on their bodies. ‘I wonder, I mean there doesn’t seem to be a lot of coverage of female bands.’ Yep, the rock-press also practised social exclusion of certain forms/perceptions of music!

Musically Linoleum’sBarbie’ Rock vector surrounded Caroline’s piano high-pitch to contralto vocal, delivered in rapping Girl Power over-mime segues to room-tipping specular Riot Grrrl backing in 4/4 time. Paul Jones, an under-rated guitarist for these paranoid male unidentified times, supplied high-action manoeuvres and wrung-out the Heavy Metal power chord with duck walk riffs, surf licks, and free-form feedback.

Paul’s got a good set of new pedals and things, so there’s some interesting sounds on our new stuff. But they’re still coming out of the guitar, even if they don’t sound like it. I think that Paul’s particularly good at playing his guitar so that it doesn’t sound like a guitar sometimes. He plays not exactly in a traditional way, so I think that’s how come we get those results.

Caroline’s rhythm-sparring with Paul’s lead reinvents the classic dynamic duo of rock’n’roll guitars, only interrupted by Dave’s staccato snare to deep throb beats or the Grunge distorted fuzz bass of Emma. A wall of sound to white noise that, ‘takes power out of the hands of the dangerous people … and puts it back into the people who are being creative.’

American producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (LA-vets of Hole and Pixies notoriety), engineered and mixed the multi-layered studio flows into ultra-smooth yields, raised to vinyl quality 3D-depth. The Erik Nitschean-style Pop Art red, white and blue sleeve design, flipped with fresco secco group miniatures, was originally packaged in DIY lino.

The fact that it’s quite tacky and it’s … I love linoleum because it’s not what it appears to be. Especially when it looks like a very glamorous floor and it’s not. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen our records that are packaged in linoleum? We didn’t make that many of them. Ever since we first started up all our flyers, and our first singles were actually packaged in floor covering, which is quite fantastic.

Track listings for this fluoro floored genius of ‘Barbie’ Rock trace the stuff of masochist masquerade [‘Marquis’], alienation shock [‘Dissent’], risk chic [‘Dangerous Shoes’], macho snobbism [‘On a Tuesday’], remote control [‘Restriction’], substance abuse [‘She’s Sick’], post-modern angst [‘Unresolved’], and ad hominem [‘Smear’]. ‘It’s certainly a view of dysfunctional relationships, there’s a questioning of things that don’t work and I find all these kind of issues more interesting’.

[Announcer:] You’re listening to PBS
[Man: Q.] And what is its effects?
[Announcer: A.] You can go paranoid
Which means you think people or things are coming at you
Um, it makes your heart race
Your blood pressure can go low
So you can feel a bit woozy some times
It’s got a lot of medical effects on the body
[Woman:] Oooh Oh haha ha ha ha hahaha!
[Announcer:] PBS!

Polymer Listener-In Hex issue, 2000 [slightly updated]

 

(*) 1998 saw Swedish Pop group Aqua win a law suit by Mattel for copyright; yet the Macquarie  (2003) or Collins (2005) Australian dictionaries still stereotype ‘Barbie’ as ‘superficially attractive’.

(**) This section is adapted from a review for the 1990s female popular music genre.

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rock Chugg is a freelance sociologist from Melbourne. He has previously published on various aspects of media and cultural studies in Continuum, Meanjin and Refractory, and volunteers for community radio.

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