Today In Exasperating (Yet Enjoyable) Albums: Hits (Pavement For Girls)
Finland-based singer Astrid Swan had a bit of a Pavement Problem. She enjoyed the legendary indie outfit, but she didn't have the same fanaticism about them that her friends had... until, that is, she saw them at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in the spring of 2010, at which point she got so into them, she decided that she had to record an entire tribute album in their honor. And so she did, and since she is of the female persuasion and not a dude the way that the members of Pavement (and her friends who loved them before she did) are, she decided to call it... Hits (Pavement For Girls).
Swan claims that her tribute's subtitle is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, or at least critical: "For a long time Pavement seemed to me to be exclusively for the boys... That's why I felt I would never be invited to the fan club," she told Spin. "And because as a woman and an artist I have been tirelessly bracketed under 'woman-this-and-that,' I decided to play with this expectation of femininity myself." And Pavement For Girls is a mostly enjoyable listen, if you're not consciously thinking about how Swan "feminized" the songs and just thinking about how she made them her own: "Shady Lane" is drowned in a haze of synths and cooing background vocals; "Zurich Is Stained" is transformed into a radio transmission from another planet; and throughout, Swan's cracked, multitracked voice brings to mind those of Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly.
But do this tribute's intentions of teasing "femininity" translate when they're so, well, overtly stated? Surely "woman singing song written by man/group of men" isn't in itself a statement; just ask Dr. Luke and Max Martin and the many chart-topping women they've assisted. Wouldn't Swan's being bracketed as "woman-this-and-that" be more effectively upended by just covering the songsand still doing so in what's apparently Swan's stylebut not using the "for girls" title? When I alerted friends (of both genders) of the album's existence and title the reaction averaged somewhere between "groan" and "keyboard smash." The reasons why are probably pretty obvious. Think about what would happen if Swan had called it Hits (Pavement For Finns). Or Hits (Pavement For People Who Share Last Names With Characters From Twilight). What sort of expectations would those titles conjure up? What audiences would they drive away? Is the "playfulness" and operating in already-expected realms worth the further chasm-expanding between genders, particularly in the rock idiom, where what male artists and female artists do has seemingly become more calcified in recent years? Would the critique of gender roles have been more effective if the album were still subtitled Pavement For Girls, but every song was transformed into something that couldn't be mapped onto already-existing "lady rock" tropes? Or if the sorta pejorative "girls" (which is generally used implicitly as an insult"you throw like a," "you fight like a," "you play guitar like a," etc.) was swapped out for "women," or "ladies," or [insert your chosen term for the female gender here]?
I've spent a good chunk of today wrestling with these questions while listening to the record, and it's a shame that people will (justifiably, I think!) be turned off/irritated enough by the title to not engage with these ideas, let alone Swan's covers, further. Perhaps the best way to examine the gender divide in rock in response to this release is to look at other examples of Pavement songs being covered by women out there; while listening to Swan's record I was reminded of the joyous cover of "Shady Lane" put forth by the Dutch electropop alchemist Solexa.k.a. Elisabeth Esselinka few years back. She just did it. And it's great.