A Talk About Body (Politics) with JD Samson
Mar 08, 2011
JD Samson's been a gender-bender for a long time. The androgynous and mustached indie icon/sex symbol is best known as one third of the well-respected feminist dance-punks Le Tigre. Mixing art with politics and activism for over a decade, Samson's made a name for herself blurring genre and gender lines while simultaneously arming an entire generation of outcasts with dignity, confidence, and self-worth. On her latest project, called—both fittingly and charmingly—MEN, Samson has ditched the guitar-driven, edgy punk rock for which Le Tigre was so popular and traded it in for a couple of synths and a drum-machine. MEN's debut album Talk About Body has been called everything from post-disco to post-gender (I even called it post-gay), in any case it's a high-energy, club-ready weigh-in on not only queer-politics, but body politics in general.
I caught up with the gracious and surprisingly soft-spoken Samson on her cell just days before MEN left for their European tour where I was able to pick her brain about the new album, glam, disco, babies, and bodies.
Kenny S. McGuane: First off, congratulations on the album. I think it's fantastic.
JD Samson: Well thank you, very much.
Is it generating the kind of excitement you'd hoped for?
Yeah, a lot of people have been writing about it and the reviews have been [pauses] really interesting [laughs], to say the least. So I guess that's cool, people are talking about it.
So what came first for you, was it activism or music? Did they collide at the same time?
I think they kind of collided at the same time for me. I came out when I was teenager in Ohio, in Cleveland, and it was really complicated for me to find a community where I could fit in. I was a teenager in a town where there wasn't much of a gay community that I could see or relate clearly to. I mostly looked toward magazines, gay and lesbian magazines, and tried to find out as much as I could from that. And I think that's also where my politics came from, to a certain extent, just to see what else was happening in the rest of the world.
David Bowie is often credited with, in many ways, liberating gay youth culture in the early 1970s, he made it—for the first time—hip to be queer. I'm curious, as someone like you who represents the cutting edge in gay pop music, would you give Bowie the same kind of credit? If so, is it something you noticed when you were young, when you were first getting into Bowie or other ambiguous and/or queer artists?
Well, I'm only 32, so Bowie wasn't really where I went first. For me I was more into Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, stuff like that. And I think that was my first step into queer music, and it was kind of a little bit less, like, "fabulous," I guess [laughs]. They were a little bit more emotional. So I kind of went for that and then as I grew up I was turned onto Tribe 8 and other bands like Team Dresch from the Northwest and the queercore music scene, Pansy Division, stuff like that, but I definitely went for less of a "glam" inspiration in terms of my queer music influences. But I think I went to a political place because that was where I felt like I wanted to be, I felt like I wanted to be able to be intelligent and analytical with my songwriting.
So in Pitchfork's review of Talk About Body in reference to what they call "your strikingly masculine appearance" they said that "your mere existence has probably helped more than a few kids develop some confidence of their own" and I wondered, arming queer kids with confidence is clearly an objective of yours, but has that always been deliberate on your part? In other words, have you constructed your persona with that aim in mind or is more accidental? Like, "Hey, this is me. My name's JD. I'm sexy, I'm talented, I'm successful, and if people are inspired by it then, well, that's cool too."
Well, when I first started off in Le Tigre I think I was completely unaware of... myself, maybe. I really had no idea that I was that different or looked that different or was sexy. I mean, I felt like the most awkward and ugly person alive at that point and I think it was really interesting for me to just all of the sudden develop this persona as being this sex symbol and an idol for queer youth to be whoever they want to be and ride the lines of gender and identity. I feel very happy that I was able to open people's eyes and I feel happy that I have brought a lot of confidence to people, but it definitely wasn't something that I thought was gonna happen, but when it did...I mean there were so many kids writing me, saying "Thank you, the fact that you have a mustache has made me come out to my parents" or "the fact that you do what you wanna do or look how you wanna look has made me a better person" and that stuff actually helps me a lot. I think that there is some sort of shared energy there, when people tell me "thank you", that helps me to keep going.
So in other words you've always just been "you" and then it turned out that people were really moved by "you" and were armed with confidence, so once those kinds of letters started rolling in and those kinds of compliments were being given, do you think that you felt better equipped to fully embrace yourself?
Definitely. I think that when people are telling you, "I love who you are," it makes you feel better about who you are. But, there is definitely a persona there. I do feel like I have developed this duality, where I feel like I have this real life and then I have this life of somebody who's helping other people [laughs], do you know what I mean? I think all performers have that to a degree, and that they don't necessarily intend for that to happen, but there is some sort of confidence you have to put into yourself in order to give other people confidence, so I think that I have to sometimes step into this other shell when I step on stage, which is, "I'm here for you, right now, and I'm strong"...even if I'm having a bad day or something.
Let's talk about the song "Credit Card Babies." I'm pretty sure I understand what you mean when you sing, "Why procreate?/And overpopulate?/There's insecurity/Questioning our liberty/I'm gonna fuck my friends and get a little, tiny baby." But, I want to hear more from you on that. Can you elaborate?
Sure, we started to write this record when I was 30 and I was starting to think more about having kids, it's always been really important to me to have a family, even when I was kid I remember thinking about the time when I'd be able to have a baby, but I'm not interested in birthing a baby. So it's been really interesting thinking about how I'm gonna have a baby, how is it gonna come into my life? In my romantic relationships, talking about having a baby has become a really frustrating sort of thing. They cost a lot of money, there are adoption fees, legal fees, whatever. I felt sort of frustrated that I feel like queer people have to plan a lot more, there's more to think about when it comes to having a baby. So I really wanted to write about that, we had the music for "Credit Card Babies," but it wasn't called that at the time. So we just had this dance track without any lyrics and I thought it would be cool if we juxtaposed this kind of depressing topic with something that was really "disco" and happy, and maybe we could create some sort of queer anthem. And, I guess, that happened, which is awesome. When we were writing the lyrics to the song, you know the part, "I'm gonna fuck my best to get a little tiny baby," that was definitely the first thing that came to me, and those are the sorts of things I think about [in terms of having a baby]. So that's how that lyric developed and then as we thought about what the song really meant we thought about the two different sides of having a baby when you're queer. Lots of radical, political queers question the idea of bringing more babies onto this planet, and we wanted to talk about that, whether or not we feel like we should have kids.
Speaking of disco, dance music is sort of self-evidently liberating. It definitely lends itself to what it is you guys are doing, but I wondered what it is you find especially useful about dance music in terms of activism and politics.
Well, I think that dance music is really about the body. It's about moving and it's about being present with yourself, your physical self and kind of taking up space, and being vulnerable. So for me that's why I choose to work in that medium because I'm really interested in all of those things, probably because of my own body politics and my identity. I think it makes sense to speak politically in writing and in music because it is so much about your body and vulnerability and taking up space and sharing that movement with people.
So given your political and social objectives, it seems like the decision to call the project "MEN" is kind of obvious, but I'm still curious about how it is you arrived at that name for the band.
Well, when the name first got bounced around it was actually for a DJ/remix production team that Johanna [also from Le Tigre] and me were starting. We were on a plane flying to a DJ gig and somebody said "It would be cool if you guys had a name that wasn't just 'Jo and JD from Le Tigre.'" Jo had just been telling me about her new philosophy on life which was what she called "What would a man do?" And basically it was a confidence-boosting deal, like say the promoter says, "I'm sorry, not enough people showed up to the gig, we can't give you the full amount of money." Normally, we would probably say, "Oh, don't worry about it, it's okay. We'll take less money." But Jo was like, "No, we need to start saying, 'No way! We demand the full amount!'" She called that kind of thinking "What would a man do?" Then that day, a promoter asked us for a name and I said, "Let's call ourselves MEN." But eventually the name became about other things, too, and we wanted a statement about gender fluidity and who get's to call themselves "men" and what is a "man." I also think it's interesting to think about it as just this umbrella definition for human life. I was talking about this in an interview the other day and a lot of times when I write music I say "we" and "us," I rarely ever say "me" or "I," and that's because I do feel like I'm thinking with all these other people in mind, and from the perspective of a group. So that's another reason I think the name "MEN" works for the group.
Speaking of Le Tigre, what's up with that?
We're actually trying to get this live DVD put out, we made a DVD of our last tour. We're putting that out this year, we've just been having to do a lot of clearances for it. And we worked with Christina Aguilera last year, that was really cool. We're all just doing different things right now.
So no breakup, just busy with other things.
No, we wouldn't call it a breakup anyway, we think that's a bit dramatic. We don't need the press release. We love each other, we continue to work together, all the time.
It's probably too early to tell, but what do you think the future of MEN is? Are you in a place where you're thinking, "God this is incredible and I'm ready to do the tour and then I'm ready to do the next album?"
Well, our record deal says that we need to shoot for a record within the next six months and we're on that track, we've already written 12 songs. So we're ready. And I mean, I live for my art and I don't know what I would do otherwise. I love making music, love traveling and seeing all the fans and creating that space in places all over the world.