"I grew up having to sing along to very patriarchal, male, straight viewpoints—lyrics that had nothing to do with me."
Disruption is defined by radical change, a condition of forced reappraisal from outside the status quo. Deceptively catchy, with a strong dance beat cloaking explicit lyrics, the music of Peaches is a burlesque of disruption, a constant provocation to rethink the misogyny that underscores much of electronic music. Listen to her songs and you will end up singing along with tracks such as "Vaginoplasty," "Rock The Shocker," and "Two Guys (For Every Girl)." As a performance artist, Peaches knows not to take herself so seriously, deploying humor to ease in her message of sex positivity and gender fluidity.
Across six albums, Peaches has become a role model for a new generation of feminist artists who sing about female pleasure and power. But Peaches remains a major force in the music industry, and 2016 seems to be the year the mainstream is finally catching up with her. Recently, her song "Boys Wanna Be Her" became the theme song of the popular comedy-news show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and she also appeared in an episode of Transparent. This June, Peaches released Rub Remixed, a collection of remixes from her latest album.
Zachary Small When you started performing as Peaches your music was often called "electroclash." Can you define that for me?
Peaches I never understood how they could even call it that. Electroclash lasted six months. I used to hate on that term. Why call it anything? But the thing is, so many genres wouldn't exist without it. When electroclash came out, it was actually women at the forefront. It was Chicks on Speed, Tracy and the Plastics; there was Miss Kitten, there was Le Tigre, too. That's what made it special: a music genre that was mostly women. It was performance-based and sex positive; it was music based on electronics. But electroclash died because people didn't want to deal with it. It came too soon, and then it got reinvented. But it all started with electroclash.
ZS Do you think music keeps getting straighter?
P Yeah, definitely. And now it's all EDM. It's hilarious because America always riffed on Eurotrash music, but look at it now, it's Eurotrash. My music, however, doesn't really fall into those genres.
ZS Correct me if I'm wrong, but when I listen to your music, especially your more recent albums, it has a truly vaudevillian sense to it. By that I mean you have a real exchange with your listeners. There's a lot of satirical humor to your work.
P Yeah, and some people don't recognize that! Some people think my music is completely angry. But when you say it's vaudeville, I get worried that maybe it doesn't work as music on its own without a performance, which I don't think is true.
ZS No, you don't have to have a huge performance around your music. Lyrically, however, I think it does a good job of coding subversive messages.
P I'm lyrically up front in the way that vaudeville tells you what it's doing, but I try not to be as wordy. I want you to be able to dance along and repeat things, even when you're really drunk. You'll wake up the next day and say, "Oh my God, dick in the air? What was ‘dick in the air?' And I was singing about vaginoplasties?" I want people to be unafraid because I grew up having to sing along to very patriarchal, male, straight viewpoints—lyrics that had nothing to do with me. That was a long time ago; that was my impetus. Today, people like Nicki Minaj have blown it out of the water, expanding what you can say in a song and what girls can sing along with.
ZS You usually self-produce your albums, but for Rub you brought in Vice Cooler. What's it like going from a very individual practice to a collaborative one?
P To me it seems like an evolution. I do want to go back to my own music eventually. On my last album I worked with Cooler, who is a great male feminist. It was just the two of us working on the whole album. I learned a lot about production from him. We have this similar energy and love for certain sounds. I'm never trying to do anything but enjoy making music. I have an ambition to get my message out there, but I don't have any ambition to step on people's heads in order to be number one.
ZS But you've already had a busy start to 2016! Especially in the TV world.
P I've been in an episode of Transparent and I did the theme song for Full Frontal with Samatha Bee. She's someone who's really changing shit. In terms of performing on a late night TV show, though, it's never going to happen. People love to talk about me in America, but they don't want me to do my thing. I do get a lot of exposure, especially in print, but they still censor me on TV. I'm not really in a specific genre, so when I swear it sounds scary to them. Pop artists swear so much but for some reason it's okay for them.
ZS How do you fight against censorship?
P It's about continuing to make work in the face of censorship. I wish that what I do wasn't seen as "progressive." I mean to say that I wish more people understood what my music was really about, especially when you have people like Miley Cyrus wearing similar outfits and carrying a similar message. Is it just money behind her? What is it? Before her I was labeled as "progressive," but I've been discussing those issues for years.
ZS How did you first get into music? You originally studied theater, correct? From what I recall, you started with some very existential playwriting. Do you think any of that seeped into your lyrics?
P It's funny because I first started writing lyrics to release a stream of consciousness. It wasn't really based in what Peaches' music is about today. At the beginning, I also had a folk band with my girlfriends. We wrote more about relationships and our problems. We had each other to sing harmonies. In a way, that started a discussion about these gendered situations.
ZS I've been wanting to talk about your time doing the musical Peaches Christ Superstar and the opera L'Orfeo.
P It all started with my own production, Peaches Does Herself. It was a deconstruction of my work in a narrative form. When I went to theater school I really wanted to make musicals cool. While I was working as a director, I realized I didn't want to work in theater because I didn't want to have a heart attack by age thirty. I then realized that in music I could be the writer, director, and performer. I realized this as I became Peaches. When I was asked to create Peaches Does Herself, I realized that this was the cool music I wanted back in theater school. All this time I was just doing the research. I actually got to do what I wanted to do. It was so bizarre to come full circle.
ZS That's not a totally unusual story in the theater world. It's an addicting art form and people always come back to it. You can't escape it.
P And it's always in the back of your head. But this time I was ready, I knew how to make this musical work. I used a dramaturge, even for my own stuff. The dramaturge would say about a song, "I don't know how this relates here," and I would think, But…that's me! It made things more credible.
With L'Orfeo, things were different. I'm not very familiar with opera and I don't speak Italian. I spent six months preparing for it. And I worked with all opera singers, so my first croak at the reading was…ugh…and there were three guys in the production whose dream was to play Orfeo. Here I was, some old shit.
ZS And with Peaches Christ Superstar, which was your one-woman version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar—
P That show! Every few months I'll do it again. It's the most terrifying thing. First of all, it's not my own music. If I get lyrics wrong, it's not cool. I can't just improvise my way out.
ZS Do you think Andrew Lloyd Webber would really mind?
P That guy? Yeah.
ZS What's your favorite song from the show? Personally, I don't know how you get through singing "Gethsemane."
P That's my favorite! Last time I sang it, I had a tear in my eye. It was like I had a moment. I was feeling it and also thinking, Oh my God, I'm so quintessential theater right now. I love that moment of performance, even with Peaches, when it gets shamanistic—especially when you begin to relate to that songs and Jesus giving himself up to God.
ZS It's a cultic moment.
P Exactly, it's about giving yourself up to the music, to really get yourself.
ZS In terms of your own music a lot of people may say that it's very feminist. Would you label it that way?
P There's a huge backlash against feminism as a militant thing, but I don't believe that any well-rounded person is not a feminist. I don't understand it. We need feminism now, but the goal is for everyone to be equal. It starts with men; they have to understand their own privilege. Men need to make the changes, and it's too easy for them to make excuses and continue patriarchal privilege. Men are essential to changing the patriarchal system. I'm not saying that women can't do it on their own, but…
ZS A French philosopher, Hélène Cixous, once wrote that when a woman writes, she "cuts herself out a paper penis." By that she meant—
P —she gives herself a big dick? Why does it have to be a dick? Does she think writing is a male form of expression? Isn't she a writer? Is she a feminist?
ZS Yes, she's a French feminist. I think what she means to say is that writing can be an insurgent practice against the patriarchy. She writes, "A feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive. It is volcanic; as it is written it brings about an upheaval of the old property crust, carrier of masculine investments; there's no other way."
P Why does it have to be a paper phallus? I just think it's interesting how society is comfortable talking about dicks as long as you say it's a big dick, but we still can't talk about vaginas. That can be very damaging and transphobic. We need a new language.
ZS How do we find it? There's always a balance between objectification and empowerment. There's nothing wrong about a dick or a vagina—
P Well, they are as essential as our assholes, and we love to talk about those.
ZS Ah, yes. Dicks, vaginas, and assholes: the lower triumvirate. Speaking of which, let's talk about your song "Dick in the Air." That song has a lot of shout-outs. You even namedrop Ayn Rand. How did she get in there?
P I'm glad you brought up the shout-outs because not a lot of people do, but I'd love to discuss them. I brought her in because I reference trickle down economics. A lot of Republicans adopted Ayn Rand as their mascot; I think they've simplified her message. I don't like Ayn Rand, so that's how she got in the song.
ZS What about the others?
P Like Sisyphus? That's a reference to The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. Sisyphus is about inevitable cycles. You have this big wheel and you have to roll it up a hill until it falls back down, and then you roll it back up the hill again. So in "Dick in the Air" I say, "Roll with it, Sisyphus." Even with setbacks, you have to keep going.
ZS I also really loved "Close Up," the first song on your new album. In that song, you mention Natasha Lyonne. How did she get in there?
P Well, she rhymed with "hipbone." (laughter) I think she is just a badass and she has gone through so much but has successfully come out the other side.
ZS You talk a lot about technology and hookup apps in that song: “Blendr, Tinder, Findr, Grindr, romance the phone.” Do you think technology has changed human interactions and how we find each other? I wonder how it will change the course of feminism and humanism.
Zachary Small is a New York-based actor and dramaturge. His newest play, /VANITAS/, will receive a workshop at Dixon Place on November 3, 2016. He is also a contributor for Hyperallergic and tweets from @ZSmall93.