Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The sweetest taboo

Recently I listened to Karen Finley's landmark track 'Tales of taboo' for the first time in years. I'm not going to say that it's a classic, at least according to the criteria I normally apply to great songs. But it has an undeniable greatness for different reasons, and remarkable impact even twenty years after its creation.

If her name rings a bell, you may remember Karen Finley as the locus of the NEA funding controversy of 1990. She and three other artists were denied Federal funding because of the controversial nature of their work; after lawsuits and quite a bit of public discourse, they won their money but the NEA stopped making grants to individual artists, to avoid similar messiness.

Of course Karen Finley relishes her identity as a controversial artist; her most successful work pushes the most buttons on topics of sexuality, power and abuse, hopefully stimulating the most reflection and change. I don't think she ever aspired to be a pop musician. Her forays into recording were really attempts to subvert the form and point out a misogynistic double standard in pop music. 'Tales of taboo' is her most notorious song, and it succeeds as a work of performance art because it works as a dance track but completely assaults our propriety, forcing us to consider that sex roles in popular music have been a decidedly one-sided power dynamic. How hard is it to think of a song that describes the physical attributes of a woman? That implies a sexual act to or by a woman? That judges a woman based on these characteristics? Now, how much harder is it to come up with a song that makes parallel statements about a man?

Pop music had been increasingly explicitly sexualized over the previous decades, and by the eighties the feminists were not the only sector who were dissatisfied with how commonly song lyrics objectified and maligned women. Music videos weren't helping the matter, either. Karen Finley decided to beat the boys (and the girls who were going along with them) at their own game. With the help of dance producer Mark Kamins (who had helped launch Madonna) she produced songs with far more graphic and controversial sexual narratives.

Boy, did she ever. There are very few lines from 'Tales of taboo' that I could transcribe here without including a serious profanity or a description of a seriously profane act. To summarize, Karen is harshly taunting a man with a list of sexual acts she would expect of him, as well as acts she would perform with her grandmother, with a dwarf, with yams, with Belgian waffles... There are detours into scatology and a stray racial reference, just in case she hasn't offended sufficiently. And of course that's the point: if men write and perform songs that are thinly veiled accounts of similar things, and they enjoy commercial success for it, what does it mean that we are offended if a woman takes it to the next logical step? Doesn't 'Tales of taboo' only make explicit what is already implicit in quite a bit of pop music?

'Tales of taboo' is just as shocking and difficult today as it was in 1986. And few women have gone as far towards the edge since. I'd give an honorable mention to Khia's 'My neck my back' which owes a greater debt to Karen Finley's second most notorious single 'Lick it' (no need for a plot summary...) Karen Finley worked and performed at Danceteria in New York City when Madonna was a regular, and I think Madonna was influenced by performance artists like Karen, realizing how she could employ controversy in a more commercially palatable manner.

It's important to note that while Karen Finley's performances are often characterized as stream of consciousness, the lyrics to 'Tales of taboo' have a real through line and a real climax, rather than just ranting and shooting from the hip. The song starts and ends with her reminding the man that he doesn't own her, and when she finishes with 'drop that ghetto blaster', it's a serious (if dated) metaphor.

I've read Angela Y Davis, bell hooks, Andrea Dworkin, and I hope I've learned from them. I've read Karen Finley, too; I haven't mentioned her as an author here, and she's definitely worth reading. But I really appreciate the ingenious act of subversion that is 'Tales of taboo'. I will not, however, be making a playlist featuring it for the Live 365 site (aren't you relieved, Mother?) because at heart, it's a manifesto in a pop song's clothing.

Karen Finley official website