Some twenty years before Le Tigre's "Deceptacon" became a dance party staple, Jean Smith--one half of the politically-charged noise band Mecca Norma--was at the forefront of the Riot Grrrl movement, her raw vocals and political activism inciting crowds throughout the Pacific Northwest.
"We did start out at a point when we were specifically trying to change things--in the mid '80s. I spoke directly from the stage about women trying to form bands, express things of interest to them, and tell them it was necessary and important. At that time there just weren't women in bands, certainly not to the degree that followed the Riot Grrrl movement."
Smith is referring to an underground feminist punk movement of which Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney have become poster children. Her tone is not nostalgic, but something in it marks a distance between the feminist, underground scene of the early '90s and the contemporary music scene. Back then, the absence of opportunity for female musicians lent a certain urgency and excitement to Mecca Normal's controversial project, which was led by the forceful presence of a confrontational frontwoman. As the duo garnered mainstream media attention, Mecca Normal became a source of inspiration for their fusion of the artistic and the political in the form of feminist lyrics. "It wasn't by accident...we intended to inspire people. For our small part in what happened beyond that, the Riot Grrrl movement did open things up for all kinds of women to feel that it was possible to participate in music in that way," Smith said.
Mecca Normal's current 25th anniversary tour channels the urgency of those earliest days that defined the band's earliest days into the present. On Friday, April 24, Mecca Normal will hold "How Art and Music Can Change the World," an art exhibit, lecture and performance event at RISD. The following day, Smith and her bandmate Dave Lester will perform at AS220 for the final show of their tour.
At the RISD event, Smith and Lester will "explain our origins and include evidence why we believe it is possible to change the world through art and music...we [hope] to give the idea that when you start a project you don't really know where it's going to go or what it can open up for you," Smith told me. The event will also include an art exhibit featuring Lester's poster series and "songs of a political nature."
When I asked her to identify the ways in which Mecca Normal has previously changed the world through art and music, Smith said, "We present something that is different. We advocate changing the world. The best way to change things is to do them differently." Her enthusiasm is convincing, yet her answers remain ambiguous. (The "how," it seems, will be saved for the lecture.)
Smith and Lester perceive themselves first and foremost as artists rather than musicians. Both band members hail from a visual arts background. Smith is an art school graduate and her parents are "abstract painters and abstract people." In addition to fronting Mecca Normal, Smith paints and writes novels. Lester is a "visual person who started drawing portraits of famous political philosophers and activists."
While Jean Smith emerges as a knowledgeable and passionate artist, it is difficult to reconcile her verbal passion with the vagueness of her project. She speaks of a need--in light of the recent election--for activists to encourage change. "It's harder to be passionate about positive things or potentials." This difficulty is manifest in her very speech. Is it possible to be creative and politically active without a negative catalyst to react against? Or can a "positive" approach to politics only yield mediocre art, and a vague, dissipated notion of its own agenda?
Her belief in the necessity of such activism surfaces in the mission behind Mecca Normal's current tour. "What we're intending to do on this tour is encourage people to consider adding political content to their creative self-expression and to remind people to be creative even if you're not an artist."
Still, Smith fails to fully address how art and music can change the world. Responses to this question place all too heavy an emphasis on the past, on the ways in which Mecca Normal's confrontational live performances paved the way for future artists. The fusion of art and politics remains an unsteady dynamic--does the politicization of art change art, or does it change politics? Does any artist's attempt at political change amount to an act of shameless self-promotion?
I'm still waiting to be convinced that art and music can change the world.
KATIE LINDSTEDT B'11 burned her bra and her banjo.