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By Christopher J. Treacy
JD Samson & MEN
9 p.m. Jan. 28
208 S. First St., Ann Arbor
The sound and look of punk are different things to different people. But whatever the specifics, the spirit of the term is much more tangible – it’s a means of standing off to the side, likely in some state of rebellion. To quote late Plasmatics front gal Wendy O. Williams, punk is “… saying ‘no’ to the status quo.”
Musician, songwriter, DJ and activist JD Samson has spent her career on the hard-to-classify fringes of pop culture, composing music that is at once danceable, infectious and, well, punky. But what does that mean for an indie-pop artist in 2014? For Samson, it goes back to her role as one third of the celebrated electro-clash outfit Le Tigre, a band that helped tame some of the unrest stirred by the riot grrrl movement by using their music as a catalyst for positive change. So, perhaps on some level, punk is about being contrarian.
“The idea was to re-channel all that angry riot grrrl energy in a constructive way,” she explains over the phone. “It was the sound of smart people having fun, concentrating on how things are right rather than continuing to focus on what’s wrong. From there we built a sense of community and celebrated it, and at the same time we created a space where people could feel safe to express and enjoy themselves regardless of body image. It was about uniting people on a positive premise, but there was always some queer activism going on.”
Samson – out, proud and supremely androgynous at 35 – connects her sexuality to her music via the term “queering,” as in “turning something on its head.” Queering is an inherently punky ideal, and she’s used it as a way of fusing the oft-hedonistic world of dance music with gender and identity politics. She believes the righteousness of dance music provides a confident space to absorb ideas that challenge the world around you. This script-flipping manner comes across loud and clear through MEN, her current band, which plays Ann Arbor’s Blind Pig on Jan. 28. Touring in support of “Labor,” MEN’s second full-length release, Samson says her new songs continue where 2011’s “Talk About Body” left off, capitalizing on an electro-organic vibe that recalls the home-cobbled feel of LCD Soundsystem while continuing to provoke thought about what it means to be queer … both in and out of the sack.
“MEN is pretty much built on the same ideal as Le Tigre, but taking it further into the pop realm,” she says. “We go back and forth, between the artsy and the pop-y, between the personal and political.”
There’s been a lot of criticism about home-composing in the last decade, blaming software like Pro-Tools and Ableton Live for creating a digitally leveled playing field which allows low-talent individuals to make impressive sounding tracks. But Samson, who does quite a bit of home recording, sees ragged glory where others find fault.
“I think of myself as an artist before I’m a musician,” she says. “I studied art and theory and learned about self-expression that way; music is just the genre where success came. But when we talk about people using software to learn how to create songs, I think of this: Punk music used to be about self-taught people playing in garages. Now, the self-taught crowd is working from a studio in the bedroom. The aesthetic is very similar – it’s about teaching yourself to express opinions through your creativity, to find a channel for those ideas. It seems like a natural progression to me.”
That said, one thing listeners will quickly notice is that the vocals on “Labor” have a slicker production value than on MEN’s debut. Samson cops to using pitch control, but in alignment with her general M.O., for her it’s a tool of expression rather than any sort of crutch or bid for popularity. Given that she was a film student just prior to the digital revolution, she’s got a healthy respect for the handcraft of art (in general) and avoids shortcuts. But she also knows how to exploit a fun toy when she finds it.
“I have a weird relationship with Auto Tune,” she says. “Le Tigre didn’t use it at all; it wasn’t nearly as prevalent then. And the way it’s used now in mainstream pop is kinda crazy, like, even when the vocal line is really close to the right pitch, it gets used anyway. But I started using it for some demos and discovered that it’s useful as a learning tool, like, ‘Oh, that’s where my voice should be.’ And then I employed it as a way of creating a separate character in my production. In the song “I Don’t Care,” there are two voices, each panned to one side; one is tuned, one is not. So, Auto Tune is potentially a way of enhancing the conversation in my narratives.”
And sometimes, being a punk just boils down to pissing people off with your honesty. Back in the fall of 2011, Samson published a blog entry with the Huffington Post entitled “I Love My Job But It Made Me Poorer.” In it, she spelled out her feelings about embracing a career that lacks a safety net. She wrote very openly about struggling to keep up with her peers and learning to cope with financial uncertainty. Rather than recognizing it for its eye-opening frankness, however, many readers called her out in the comments with a sarcastic “boohoo” tone, blaming her for choosing a difficult career and accusing her of playing the victim.
“I don’t want to be too pessimistic,” she says. “The Huff Po article was meant as a reality check, but some people took it the wrong way. The point is that it’s time to let go of the myth that people in the music industry are living large. But it’s not all bad. It’s exciting to think that, ‘Wow, the music industry is no longer about money.’ That aspect of it isn’t going to recover. Now it’s about making art, which should have been the case all along.”