On Saturday, January 4, Little Waist, a Brooklyn-based outfit, kicked off a show at The Rock Shop. The band’s music is a curious amalgam of sounds that the members identify as “pop-punk/Lanacore” — a reference to their acknowledged influence, chanteuse Lana Del Rey. Most observers can detect some 1990’s riot grrrl in Little Waist’s DNA, and one reviewer of a Punk Island gig even found a touch of surf rock. The grungy, sludgy guitar of sometime-poet Audrey Zee Whitesides is the dominant texture here, in twisty single lines and monster chords. Her warbling voice, by turns angsty and contemptuous, rides high above it. However, the lovely dark-basement swirl of the music, echoing and thudding, is what truly stays with you.
Little Waist often shares bills with queer- or trans*-dominated bands, and this show worked well for it. The Rock Shop, converted into a music space four years ago from the Park Slope lesbian club Cattyshack, is resolutely eclectic, once hosting a trio with Thurston Moore and an all-female Rage Against the Machine cover band. Coming months will bring singer-songwriter Chris Pureka and an all-female mariachi group. Whitesides, a proud queer trans woman, says that she’s excited to “bring some lesbian energy back to the place” and that “it always feels cool to fill places up with queers — but especially nice given the location’s history!” The sound quality of The Rock Shop impressed a band more accustomed to DIY events, with their squalid basements and microphones plugged directly into guitar amps — Whitesides remarked it was “weird to actually hear everything we were playing.”
A band can benefit from a great sound system, but in the end it fails or succeeds on actual musicianship. On that count, drummer Nick Delahaye delivers. He produced a huge sound on the Rock Shop stage. While the cavernous miking of the toms helped, Delahaye also knows how to throw in the right riffs, as a song builds, to describe the contours of a rhythm and emphasize its bigness, holding back until it’s time to really lay on and wail — in straight four-four time or with the more jarring centrifugal force of a displaced snare.
Bassist Emmet Moeller looks every bit the defiant, no-nonsense rocker with his giant T-pose, legs forming one thin still tree and arms bowed expansively outward, a look of “Don’t mess with me; I’m concentrating” on his face. He is actually discreetly disciplined on his Fender, nailing down curt yet limpid arpeggios to anchor the chaotic wash of Whitesides’ guitar, and the rhythm holds firm and all is well.
Then there is the brains behind the outfit, Ms. Whitesides. Her singing is raw and direct, and it really works for some of the excruciating territory she explores. (There was even a sort of rockabilly backslap effect on her voice that night, but, dammit, it worked.) A great deal of the lyrics concern the relentless pressure of impossible decisions that Whitesides must make to navigate public spaces while keeping body, soul, hormones and dignity together — deciding, in various situations, whether she can or should “pass,” and whether she can or should make a stink about the latest incident of cruel dismissal. (In one song, she speaks fondly of a special dive bar as “The only place where I can get some quiet/A place where my words ain’t such a fuckin’ riot!”)
Elsewhere, she asks again and again rhetorically, “Do you know what it feels like speaking in two voices every day?” And it’s only rhetorical: she knows the target of the question can’t really know. We hear these themes from a number of trans* artists, but they don’t all hammer it home quite this starkly. Together, these songs are a collective warning to anyone who takes the privileges of their gender (even modest ones) for granted.
The question remains: what makes this music poppish? Is it the vocal passages with a self-consciously snotty nasal whine? (It would be very hard to mistake Little Waist for any of the cheesy Top 40 acts that employ said whine). Is it the link to Lana Del Rey? (We know that Del Rey employs lush strings and other 1960’s lounge elements, but there’s nothing lush or loungey here). Artists reserve the right to define themselves, but of course sometimes an incongruous definition is intentionally subversive.
Maybe Little Waist offers a more expansive definition of pop — repurposed, reappropriated, gleaned from here/there/everywhere in a wild pastiche, queered. I submit that what I saw was wounded but defiant rock in the great American tradition: an indictment and a wake-up call.
Curious about what the asterisk in trans* means? While the term “transgender” was preferred for the better part of the last 20 years, its suffix can easily call to mind the male/female binary. “Trans*” seeks to widen the scope of the term by deliberately encompassing all non-cisgender identities, including but not limited to transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, transsexual, non-gendered, bigender, genderfuck and more.
Correction, January 22, 2014: The original headline of this article, both online and in print, appeared as "Gender Benders Rock Their Fenders." The use of the term "gender benders" was wholly the work of the editors. We deeply apologize to the members of Little Waist for its inappropriate use.