Ari Up, aka Arianna Foster, lead singer of the British band The Slits, died this past Wednesday. The Slits, at its inception, was a three-piece, female punk band that fused influences of reggae, tribal beats and unorthodox live stage presence that quickly put them in the spotlight, even first supporting The Clash on their White Riot tour when Up was only 15 years old. Although not hearing of The Slits for a while, upon her passing I started to wonder about the female presence in music today, and how many are either mainstreamed, cookie cut-outs or are extreme, salacious caricatures that are only image-deep that offer no real substance to their audience.
Those in the entertainment industry should not have to be considered role models for those that digest their material. I don’t believe it to be fair for them, as the industry for which they are employed is corrupt. However, it is extremely refreshing to encounter a person who embraces the female identity, claiming symbiosis with it, encouraging, fostering and igniting it. The Slits became the cornerstone of what was to become the Riot Grrl movement, which was an unapologetic rejection of modern societal restrictions to the female identity.
The most identifiable image of The Slits is their cover for the album “Cut,” which features the three members lathered only in mud and loincloths amidst a jungle. Up, in an unpublished interview with Spin Magazine, said, “The cover represented what we sounded like and identified with, which was tribal women who were not following the system, or what society told women to do and be. It represented our philosophy. We didn’t politically say, ‘We’re feminists,’ but we were the ultimate feminists without even wanting to be. We were just being us; just being ourselves as girls at the time of a revolution.”
The word “feminist” is still negatively connotative to both men and women in society. It’s extremely amusing to me, because feminism, as defined in the dictionary, is, “a doctrine that women should be given every social freedom, advantage and opportunity enjoyed by men.” Shouldn’t everyone inherently believe in that principle? Shouldn’t all women at least believe in that principle? It is hard to find that mentality in music, especially the music of women. On the surface it may seem to be female-friendly, female-positive and female-powered, but when you start to tear away at the layers you realize many do not have anything in the middle, a large void without a shred of creed.
Musicians such as Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Karen Olsen, Bjork, and P.J. Harvey do break the mold. They are intelligent, literate and extremely talented. They are fringe performers of the greatest caliber, not just “typical girls” as The Slits sing about. Although Lady Gaga is quite an impossible-to-avoid musician, she only shines as a spectacle, and intends on shocking rather than provoking. But she also is entitled to whatever entertainment she wishes to espouse, and is embraced regardless.
All musicians, especially all female musicians, do not need to all be icons of feministic ideals, but it is necessary that some are, to counterbalance the system, to remind the audience there is another side to it all. We have lost one mainstay of the homeostasis with the passing of Ari Up. Let’s hope the void may be filled.