This Is A Story About Potty Mouth
Abby Weems wants to do an experiment. Walking around town, a town that would presumably be Northampton, Massachusetts, the home base of her four-piece pop-punk band Potty Mouth, she wants to ask people to listen to their debut record, Hell Bent, and guess how many guys and how many girls are in the band. Ally Einbinder, the group’s scrappy, near-Boston-accented bassist, adds that she can predict the result already. “Most people will assume our drummer is a boy because the drums are so good. That, for some reason, surprises people.” Weems agrees, and the two laugh, looking over at drummer Victoria Mandanas, who barely makes a peep but looks visibly proud. She smiles and shrugs, while Phoebe Harris, the group’s noodly lead guitarist, adds that the experiment would be a wash anyway. “We’re an all-girl band, but that’s not a genre. People don’t get it. It doesn’t sound like all girls.”
I’m sitting with the band in a gazebo high above the city of Philadelphia, watching the Schuylkill River ebb and flow below us. Last night, the foursome had played a show at Golden Tea House, a welcoming and open DIY space in West Philly. In the front row of the crowd, a proud redheaded woman had stood beaming while watching Weems smoothly shift her agile fingers over the fretboard of her guitar, a découpaged Fender Telecaster that’s become somewhat of a talisman for her. The band played exceptionally well, putting on a fun, light-hearted show of terse pop-punk hits. The show ended with Harris putting down her guitar and picking up the mic to lead a rendition of The Ramones’ classic “Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World.” Nearly everyone was singing along.
Until today's record release, the four women, who met at Smith College and through mutual friends, have spent a lot of time talking not about their live show, their goals, or even their phenomenal, spirited full-length. Instead, it seems that every interview and feature turns to the issues of gender and its implications for their success as a group. The first time I’d seen them play was at Philadelphia’s Ladyfest earlier that summer, and given the theme of the weekend and the conscious choice the group made to play it, the issues at hand—being a woman who plays music in a band with vocal gender politics, and reacting to those who dismiss both of these things—appeared to be steeped in Potty Mouth’s creation story. But with songs about friendship, long nights spent drinking too much, and beleaguered romance, Potty Mouth strike me as more of a Blink-182 than a Bikini Kill or a Bratmobile, to whom the band pays sly tribute.
When I press them on this, Einbinder retorts, “We’re a band with a conscience. We don’t take our music or our experiences at a surface level.” Harris adds, “I just can’t approach the world that way.” Weems and Mandanas are nodding along. We shift from Potty Mouth’s feminism to the way female bands are presented in the press, when we land on a group we all find controversial: Savages. Einbinder marvels at how Savages grew to be a sensation without having any previous material out. “I think it’s about marketing and seeing a band not just about their music but as a marketable package.”
“I follow them on Facebook,” Einbinder adds, “and it’s like every status update is ‘LA: WE. ARE. HERE.’” We break into laughter, knowing that Potty Mouth’s updates (they have a presence on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and recently, Twitter) are of the more playful variety. Their social media voice is peppered with symbols and personality, which is no surprise, given how even in talking to the four women over the course of two long interviews and through emails and brief chats—wary as they occasionally may be of another journalist trying to “get” their band—their vibrant personalities overflow in every way. Technology doesn't dilute their genuineness.
Later I take the band into the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a brief visit, where the girls browse around the large and packed store of colorful artifacts. They look like completely normal, right-at-home musicians as they shop for postcards among the decorative menagerie of tchotchkes, and the heft of our high-minded conversation begins to shed all around us. I ask Weems about her boyfriend and her year off after graduating high school. She is earnest about how scary it is to have her friends start college while she takes time off to play with the band. Harris tells me about a recent art project, one where she drew celebrities with their pets. We leave the museum and tumble back into my car and Justin Timberlake is playing in the background.
As we drive, Einbinder asks about a mutual male friend of ours who had been at the show the night prior.
“He’s so cute!” Einbinder laughs.
I agree and tell her I think he’s a great guy. The car full of women between the ages of 19 and 26 rabble on about Einbinder’s attempt at flirting with him, (Harris jokingly adds “Ally tends to only love degenerates”) and she asks if I’d put in a good word for her. The vibe inside the car, with the easy, flirtatious pop music playing beneath our banter, is much lighter and more comfortable, and when we get out, we all look at pictures of my friend on his Instagram, comparing notes and giggling. I don’t realize it then, but this moment with the women is revelatory and deep and says much more about the mythology behind Potty Mouth than even their supposedly dead-serious ethos. Standing there, talking about boys and acting coy and goofy immediately after spending hours pontificating on gender issues, proves something that a lot of writers who talk about Potty Mouth (and a vast number of female bands, in fact) largely miss: women—like men, like people, like humans—are not one-dimensional, static characters. Yes, 2013, it's true.
So why do people keep getting it so disastrously wrong?
This Is A Story About Other People
The first wrong thing someone told me about Potty Mouth is that they begged mercilessly to land an interview with Vice’s music subsidiary, Noisey, when they released their EP Sun Damage. This first wrong thing was followed by an immediate second, wherein the band only landed the interview because they were close acquaintances with the interviewer, who had had a soft spot for their girlish pleading. The third and fourth wrong thing aren’t worth mentioning, but the fifth is that they sucked, that they couldn’t play their instruments, and were embarrassing amateurs. Weems, utilizing her most sardonic deadpan over breakfast one morning in June, told me the last wrong thing that I could stand to hear, a rumor that Potty Mouth only rose to a place of relative indie prominence because Weems had a tangential connection to Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s daughter, Coco.
Another writer that I know recently unleashed a torrent of aggression toward Potty Mouth on his blog when it was announced they’d be performing at Vitamin Water’s branded #Uncapped party in Toronto, an event headlined by Chromeo and co-sponsored by The FADER. The idea that a band who supposedly heralded themselves as DIY, and were supported as such by a variety of writers, could accept an offer to perform at an event ultimately bankrolled by Coca-Cola, was abhorrent to him, especially given Coca-Cola’s long history of being, well, Coca-Cola. He used an image of Weems to illuminate the blog post, an image that they’d posted to their Facebook of her wearing trendy sunglasses and sporting golden blonde streaks as she mugged toward the camera with a bottle of SmartWater. The post has since been deleted, but it was thoroughly critical of a band that has never been known for malevolence themselves, and the resonant feeling is that they had no right to accept “dirty” money to get ahead, even in a world where nothing—nothing—is clean.
A month prior, in an outrageous write-up premiering their kaleidoscopic video for “The Spins”, the fashion blog The Line of Best Fit began the accompanying text with a now infamous line, “When it comes to all-girl bands, really, all we can hope for is that they don’t totally suck.” The post was amended to reflect a more inclusive, albeit still largely condescending, attitude and the video remained on the blog, seemingly tainted by what wasn't there.
Why is it that so many people find contention in the actions of a vocal, young, and complex band of all women? Why were they being lambasted or maligned for actions that bands with names like Diarrhea Planet and rappers like Earl Sweatshirt could so easily get away with? The thought that Potty Mouth couldn’t be seen as who they were, and taken on the value of their music and the goodness of their personalities, is not a new topic for women in music, and perhaps Potty Mouth’s consistent pushing back can occasionally work to bristle people who’d rather just see them as cute, feminine girls with makeup and dye jobs, but with nothing more to say. No one wants to talk about Hell Bent as a singular record in isolation because well, there’s something much shinier and easier to grab at.
Earlier in our conversation, before we’d made it to the gazebo above the river, Einbinder and I had been discussing female writers, and how having more female music writers will help to proliferate the focus on women in music, instead of continuing to pull away from or misinterpret them. Pitchfork Media, arguably the most important and looked-to site for music criticism, only has a 30% female presence in its company overall. Einbinder is succinct: “If more women aren’t being hired in these jobs, not to say that women are the only people that should be writing about women musicians, but it would help to get these bands the right attention.”
Potty Mouth, signed to two labels, consistently and extensively touring, written about for every blog from Pitchfork to Stereogum, and putting out a full-length with tour demands in Europe and Australia already brewing, still remains a band that is frequently the focus of misinformed disdain or relational aggression. Weems tells me she ran into a girl she hadn’t seen in a while, who noted sarcastically, “How does it feel to be famous now?” Weems just laughed.
“Well, but—we aren’t!”
This Is A Brief But Necessary Sidebar About Geri Halliwell
When Gerri Halliwell announced she’d be leaving The Spice Girls at the height of the group’s massive worldwide takeover, I took a black Sharpie and crossed her out from every poster of the group in my room, of which there were several. I hadn’t realized that the act of doing this would make my room look like some sort of serial killer’s dungeon, tagging my next mark on a hit list with a visible X, but I also hadn’t realized how her departure was affecting 11-year-old me. At that age, betrayal was a new phenomenon, one that was unfamiliar and difficult to reckon with, and my only solution was in the petulant visual removal of the offending subject. Halliwell, the most fun, empathetic, and brazen of the group, couldn’t leave The Spice Girls. She was The Spice Girls.
Almost immediately after her departure, I began a downward and endless spiral into a history of male-dominated music. It started with an easy transition—boy bands like *NSYNC, The Backstreet Boys, and on and on—and then continued into the emo, pop-punk years of Blink-182 and Drive Thru Records. By college, as a woman who admired strong women (and also played music myself), I still hadn’t returned to listening to female-dominated or even feminist-leaning music. I’d left “girl power” behind in favor of lines about girlfriends leaving the country while their heartbroken men considered suicide or homicide, whichever came first.
I don’t like to blame Geri Halliwell for this history of male music, but in some ways I wish I could. Betrayal, after all, is a strong emotion. But it’s never too late to start seeing things for how they are, and how they should be, and when I watched Potty Mouth perform at Ladyfest in June, I was quietly touched by how misguided my music taste had been for years. When Harris, Einbinder, and I spoke before the show, they proudly displayed recently purchased, hand-embroidered “cumrags,” a towel to, well, mop up cum. They were ebullient about it. “Why didn’t this ever exist before?” Einbinder wondered. The women of Potty Mouth were my new Spice Girls—they could say crass, unforgiving, and funny things, and it was a newly relevant version of girl power. Finding Potty Mouth suddenly made it okay to absolve Halliwell from her sins. And all it had taken was a few cumrags.
This Is What It’s Like to Be Hell Bent
Hell Bent is a debut record that shines in unruly ways. It lacks in very little—at a cool ten tracks, there is nary a hair out of place or an excess slow song or momentum-stopper. With the compounded skill of Harris on her up-and-down, wobbly riffs and Weems’s accelerated guitar, the songwriting is as strong and determined as the band itself. Adding that to Mandanas’s already tight-hitting drums and Einbinder’s made-to-match bass plucking and you’ll find that what the band has put together are ten triumphant pop songs for misfits, like a perfectly hybridized Spice Girls and Blink-182 record. The deadpan, monotone vocals only serve to make the album even easier to relate to: despite all the discussion of gender the women and I get caught up in, Hell Bent feels perfectly androgynous. It’s only flaw is that it whizzes by remarkably fast, leaving your blonde-tinged highlights tangled and whipped over your shoulder.
Though occasionally the five of us spend a little too much time talking about issues we can’t change or problems they’ve been—and continue to be—confronted with, the record stands as testament to their persistence. Hell Bent is titled as such for a reason—in spite of the detractors and in the face of the haters, Potty Mouth aren’t sitting around moping and wondering why they are so vocal or so determined; they never ask if they should give up. Instead, they continue to be a strong-minded, determined, and beautifully complex group of women, and as their success grows, they surely will too.
The last track on Hell Bent is the appropriately-titled, Kathleen Hanna-inflected “The Better End”. When I ask the women about it as we sit cross-legged in the gazebo, they recall that the song was originally supposed to be called “The Bitter End”, but it somehow—through bad handwriting and typos—had gotten changed to “The Better End”. That slip-up and its result seem to be perfectly representative of who Potty Mouth is: through the torrent of criticism and unfair commentary, they still manage to triumphantly come out on top.
“We like it better that way,” Harris says, and plaintively smiling, the whole band nods in fervent agreement.