Ah, it’s easy to take potshots at Kate Nash! Who is she trying to be, what is she trying to say? Is it any good?! When I interviewed her recently about her new album Girl Talk and – here’s the thing – her newfound feminist image, I didn’t find the answers straightforward, however sweet, well-meaning and friendly Nash was when we spoke; there’s a whole mess of uncomfortable contradictions to square.
It’s all about context.
Her 2007 hit single ‘Foundations’ was a little gem, its sharp, unflattering picture of a failing relationship bubbling with resentment and as gawky as the couple it depicted, but – context - Nash was stuck firmly in her mate Lily Allen’s mockney-sass shadow, and, frankly, one precocious/privileged metropolitan teenager doing hoppity-skip sarky pop songs seemed quite enough, ta.
Kate Nash, 2013 version, is still a bit of a chameleon, although she’s mostly playing a riot grrl rather than an Estuary-vowelled BRIT kid. Not everyone’s thrilled about it.
Let’s start with the feminist credentials. On the one hand, Kate Nash is a woman who releases her own records, plays with an all-woman band and hires women to work on the promotion and distribution of her music.
On the other hand, so do lots of women. Every day, across the world, in lo-fi, punk, post-punk, grunge, even, goddamn it, pop, dance and electro bands, women are working with women and it ain’t no big thing.
Kate Nash doing those things is mostly remarkable because it’s not the script she started with; you don’t expect a young, conventionally-marketed female pop star to shake off the traces quite so consciously (although who’s to blame for those expectations?). And deliberately choosing to work with women is within an industry still skewed along gender lines is an admirable identity-building act: “When you’re younger and growing up and everyone’s trying to fit you in a box, it’s like eeeeugh! Now I’m liberated, more in control!” she tells me.
But, on another other hand, she is doing all that from the position of a conventionally pretty, white, privileged in-all-kinds-of-arenas singer who makes shinybright pop rather than breaking radical new musical, aesthetic or sexual boundaries. She’s not Beth Ditto. She’s not Johnny Rotten. She’s not even La Roux.
There’s also the fact that while twenty years down the line the apparently epoch-defining Riot Grrl movement is being discussed in books, at conferences, on radio programmes and documentaries everybloodywhere you look, its direct influence on current mainstream pop is manifest by exceedingly few people. Kate Nash being one.
But… Riot Grrl’s influence is made messy flesh a thousand times over in the lower, scratchier strata of rock’s firmament; there are hundreds of bands doing the noisy girl thang; it’s hardly original.
And as Nash says “it’s important for girls of today to create new scenes, have new labels”; they might “admire the influence of people like Kathleen Hanna and Courtney Love… (but) things need to change… it’s a different world now”.
So why make music that sounds like 1991? You’d think there were no other ways of being a feminist musician.
Not that I mind pastiche done well. Last summer’s ‘Underestimate The Girl’, written and recorded in a day, so irked listeners with its scrappy grrlishness that hundreds of them took to the grubby depths of the Youtube comments section to berate her furiously. Her fans seemed to be steamingly cross that the new material sounded different to the songs of five years ago: less bubbly, less obviously chartpop and more (“How dare she?!”) obviously old-school indie, in fact. Fans of said old-school indie meanwhile seemed full of some kind of pompous pique that she was pilfering from their past and showing her workings-out so clearly.
Ah, some people are so taken with indignation when spotting a familiar sound or style that their ears can’t tell whether or not the thing is being employed in such a way that the song works. My first reaction to ‘Underestimate The Girl’ might’ve been a knee-jerk “That’s Courtney’s schtick, give it back before she decks you!” but actually I really like what she’s referencing; it’s my music, goddamnit! OK, the song doesn’t sound particularly original, and OK, you can read its influences as if they were ingredients on the side of the packet, but it makes a ferocious noise and has a nice, spiky, satisfying hook. She’s not scared of the tuneless screech either. It’s a really fucking good song, OK? Anything else you might say about it seems unnecessarily axe-grindy.
Girl Talk is saturated with the sounds and mannerisms of early-nineties girl-heavy indie rock as signifiers for DIY grrl power: Breeders, Bikini Kill, Pixies, Le Tigre all present and correct. Kim-ish basslines throb and saunter all over the record, complementing lovely dark grungey guitars. Nash’s chameleon voice curls itself into American sneers and growls as well as the familiar bright London-girl tones of old.
Yes, she’s cherry-picking the bits of Riot Grrl that suit her (Courtney Love’s screech but not her fucked-up dirty edginess; Kathleen Hanna’s guitars but not the ferociously confrontational sexual politics; Kim Deal’s up-front basslines but not her peculiarly plain cool… ) but taken at face value Girl Talk has some pretty good pop moments. Of course, Nash’s songs have none of the discordant teeth of a Talk Normal, Tunabunny or Trash Kit, bands much more obviously the heirs to the grrl throne; Nash’s riot is an act, a canny assumption of cool and a nudge to her influences (which also include surf rock and Brit pop).
This is no bad thing; music has always rifled through the dressing-up box, picking and choosing its clothes. Nash is putting on a costume as she’s putting on the snarl, just as she did with the snarky kid persona on Made Of Bricks. It’s clear that her cheerful appropriation of Riot Grrl’s tropes is related to the way Nash sees the world: “once something’s already existed it becomes more of an image than a reality”, she tells me.
So fuck authenticity. I don’t care if a song wears its influences on its sleeve if it makes a fine show of doing so.
Nash even talks about feminism in terms of image and style. You might, as I did, wince a little at her excitement that feminism in 2013 is “getting more popular, it’s on Tumblr; feminism is a more fashionable thing now with stuff like Rookie mag and Tavi Gerritson” but it’s true that feminism is much more than an academic pursuit: “it can be about studying and reading books, but as I get a bit older – I mean I’m 25 now –I feel like it’s actually just about life experience and you make your own version of it really”.
Hmm, I dunno… surely feminism is less a fashionable, personalised bolt-on to an identity than an on-going revolutionary process that engages fiercely with a structurally inequitable world? It’s not a self-development tool or “just like something to have in your life to give you confidence and make you appreciate women and realise the struggles that women face. And think about what you can do to improve that and live your own life.” Ouch.
Ah, poor kid. I shouldn’t pick hairs; in the end actions speak louder than words. As well as her proactive practice in the industry, Nash is also enthusiastically involved in Rock School For Girls, an organisation that teaches girls to play rock music.
“I’ve nurtured a bunch of teenage girls, I’ve encouraged and worked with them and I’ve watched them go from a bunch of shy, angry kids that didn’t really know what to do with their feelings to performing at QEH, shouting and knowing how to express themselves, feeling confident and being able to be involved”.
This is a very good thing.
Kate Nash writes some smart little pop songs and (dread compliment) she is trying; I can’t help but feel fond of her. She’s working hard at being a creative and technically-savvy musician: “I’ve always been in control, I’ve always co-produced but with this record it was really guttural and emotional and instinct-led, so I was perfectionist about every snare hit and every sound.” These – context again – are noble aims.
And she’s clearly having fun. She’s flicking the Vs at the industry-approved career path which would’ve had her boxed-up and smoothed out by now. The truth is that she’s trying to walk the talk: maybe that’s more important than the fact that renowned rebel girls Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift were top of her list when asked about women she admired. She’s young. That’s the music business for ya. I’m sure she knows who Pussy Riot are really.
It’s revealing that the most animated she got in the interview was when we talked about fame, celebrity and the press. Yes, so this is her frame of reference. Growing up as a teenager in the public eye and being critiqued publicly and nastily on one’s appearance and choice of boyfriend must be singularly destructive of one’s self-confidence; no wonder she picks out the empowering aspects of both feminism and playing music as particular personal themes. When I ask her how negativity affects her, it all comes out in a furious rush:
“I think it’s bad for the world, not just for me. I don’t really mind it because I’ve got a thick skin, I’m over it: people have said every mean thing you can think of on the internet and in magazines so I’m not really scared of it, but after doing work in schools it does piss me off because, you know what? You might not be affecting my life but you’re affecting fourteen year olds and warping their minds, making them think they have to look a certain way and be a certain thing and be perfect princesses! I’ve interviewed almost a hundred teenagers who hate themselves and think they’re too ugly and fat to be a musician. So now I don’t have any qualms about saying “Fuck you!” to those magazines that do that.”
That’s it: we live in a culture where girls don’t think they can play music because of what they look like. It’s fucking heartbreaking. Enraging. Never the music crit, the fact that Kate Nash works directly and effectively with girls at Rock School to counter that appalling message is immensely commendable.
Here’s some context from me: five years ago I was watching a children’s cabaret at a festival and three different groups of kids (all girls) chose to sing Kate Nash songs. Which, I guess, was significant and surprising enough in itself. There was one little girl, eleven or twelve at the most, slightly plump, pony-tail, glasses, her voice shaking with nerves as she started to sing, but my god, it was amazing when she did, the lyrics of ‘Mariella’ tumbling from her mouth with a heartbreaking mix of pride and terror. You could tell that every word - every single word - was being dragged from a depth of momentous identification with the song that perhaps only the very young are capable of. All the lines about fitting in, about being clumsy and loud and opinionated, about Mariella glueing her own mouth shut in protest… that girl’s rendition was then – and remains – one of the most moving performances of any song I’ve ever witnessed. I wasn’t alone either; the marquee was thrumming with emotion. And when she bounced happily down from the stage she was a changed person, flushed with achievement, as clear an example of the transformative power of music as I’ve ever seen.
It was awesome.
Out in the world, being lived and loved by people to whom Kate Nash rightfully means a great deal more than she could ever mean to me (grown-up beyond the age where her articulation of the gloriousness and shittiness of being stuck on the cusp of maturity could ever be more than mere appreciation) her cocky little songs have quite a resonance.
So say what you like about her, oh you mouth-frothing Youtubers, those little girls singing her songs were right there with her, doing with music what ought to be done.
Kate Nash gets a hell of a lot of Brownie points for that.
Words by Lucy Cage
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'Girl Talk' is out now.