A Fashionable War

The new Mynabirds album, Generals, is slowly growing on me, despite initially being turned off by singer/songwriter Laura Burhenn’s quasi-political message and the accompanied “New Revolutionists” pseudo-feminist marketing effort, which seems to equate fashion with protest.

Whether it’s basic issues of reproduction (or as I like to call it, “a woman’s right over her own body”) or the simple notion that women deserve to get paid the same wages as men, rarely have women been more under siege during the past 40 years. The phrase “War on Women” is not hyperbole. This political season is putting issues decided in the ‘70s back into play, and yes, you should be afraid -- unless, of course, you believe that a woman’s only place is at home, doing the laundry and watching the kids.

According to the album’s press release, “Generals is fueled by a full decade of Burhenn’s political frustration and aimed at finding a revolutionary yet pacifist way in a world where, these days, it seems warring comes quick. Lyrically, it sings the voice of the collective frustration.

In fact, the album’s title track sounds like a call to action, with its chorus: “You want to fix it / Or fuck it up?” but doesn’t tell us what needs fixing. Burhenn wants us to go into battle with her, but is too afraid to tell us who the enemies are.  In the end, Generals is more of a collection of love songs with a few generalities thrown in that reflect Burhenn's distaste and frustration for America's ongoing war policies. War, indeed, sucks. We get it. Now name some names.

The New Revolutionists is another thing altogether. The portrait project created by Burhenn was launched in conjunction with the album. “Burhenn thought about what true revolutionary American women look like. Women who stand up to injustice are rarely pristine; they get their hands dirty. And Burhenn wanted to pay tribute to that.

The photo website, located at thenewrevolutionists.org, is a series of Richard Avedon-style portraits -- mostly of young, very hip women -- “meant to capture the spirit of a woman the instant before she would go into a metaphoric battle for everything she believes in.” Those of you involved in the local indie music scene will recognize a number of them. There are a lot of musicians or friends of musicians or friends of Burhenn among the 73 portraits. A number of them are associated with Burhenn’s record label, Saddle Creek Records.  Among the revolutionists: A practicing professional astrologer; “spiritualists” and yoga instructors; a woman who says she’s fighting for “beauty,” another who says she’s fighting for “love” and “creative exploration.”

There also is a handful of school teachers, a social worker, an organic farmer, and so on.

And not ironically, most of these New Revolutionists are stunning in their stylish black & white photos. The message: Revolution can be beautiful. I guess. But as I click through each portrait I’m left wondering: Where are the middle-aged, angry pit vipers in their unfashionable pant suits that spend their days arguing with chauvinistic meatheads, trying to get things done? Maybe they were all too busy trying to get their voices heard in board rooms and council chambers to stand still for a photo shoot for a website designed to sell records.

Or maybe that image of modern feminism is just a long-dead stereotype of what a feminist should be, destroyed decades ago by Gloria Steinem, a courageous leader of the women’s liberation movement in the ‘60s and ’70s, who, by the way, was and is damn sexy.

Through the course of writing this essay, I’ve gone back and forth and back again about Burhenn’s “New Revolutionists.” On one hand, I’m appalled at the idea that someone would create a website that touts feminism as part of a marketing promotion for their new record. On the other hand, what’s wrong with someone creating a website to host gorgeous portraits of her gorgeous friends, that calls them “revolutionists”? Isn’t the point that any of us, no matter what we look like, could be revolutionists in our own way, in our own private wars? Maybe, maybe...

Lord knows we need some New Revolutionists now more than ever. We need leaders who will stand up and call out people for who they are and what they do. But they have to be able to stick their necks out. They have to be willing to take risks.

The CD release show for Generals was a couple weeks ago at The Slowdown. It was performed before a sizable crowd, a large percentage of which were young women there not to start a revolution, but to rock. And Burhenn indeed rocked them, taking little stage time to pontificate her political views. And to be honest with you, that was probably for the best.

Because until she’s willing to call out specific people who are “fucking things up” and risk a Dixie Chicks-style backlash -- risk losing album sales and hurting her career -- her message will never be taken seriously.

Over the Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on arts, culture, society and the media. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 12:36 pm
on Monday, June 18th, 2012

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