Sitting in traffic outside the Lincoln Tunnel, I see that the Violent Femmes are coming to town. The billboard sends my mind spiraling back to college, when the Violent Femmes had released their debut album. Not that I ever listened to it (then), but in the fervently evangelical atmosphere of Grove City College, many students rooted and grubbed for any whiff of esoteric Christianity in a culture on the—pardon the genre-switch—highway to Hell. Rumors abounded that the Femmes were covert Christians, just like another up-and-coming band called U2. Not only the Femmes were violent—reaction to such Christianizing assertions was as well. I remember one of the dorm-mates in my housing group getting into a shouting match that U2 was not a Christian group and slamming his door to sulk, literally for hours. This was important stuff. We were Christians in an underground world.
Of course, some of us knew that Gordon Gano clearly betrayed the influence of Larry Norman in his voicing. And there were rumors and rumors of rumors that the Violent Femmes were coming out with a Christian album, despite the popularity of “Blister in the Sun,” the homage to masturbation that raised the group to stardom. This rumor turned out to be partially true, as Hallowed Ground took on spiritual themes, a little bit country, a little bit soul. There was some tension in the group as Gano’s lyrics began to suggest something more overtly Christian. All of this was going on long before I discovered the Femmes. At Nashotah House I taught a guest lecture on Christian themes in rock music. I researched the Violent Femmes and found that I liked their sound. They made the cut for the lecture.
In a culture as deeply steeped in the Bible as ours, it is difficult to avoid Christian imagery altogether. The Femmes were from Milwaukee (not far from Nashotah House, as the raptor flies), the heartland where beats the pulse of unadulterated religiosity. Even Iron Maiden, after all, had released the platinum album The Number of the Beast. And David Buckna points out in a recent MuseMash post, that even Ozzy Osbourne has some religious aptitude. (I always thought there was more going on in “Iron Man” than meets the ear.) This may all be chalked up to cultural Christianity—there need not be too much conviction here. Those who feel oppressed, however, huddled together in their evangelical college dorms, will always suspect that there is something more beneath the surface that makes even the “Prince of Darkness” the bearer of light.
“Women and men,” runs the chorus of the They Might Be Giants song of that same title, “… everywhere they go love will grow.” Women and men. Thus it has always been. The Sumerians seem to have speculated, on a broken tablet concerning the creation of humanity, that some six varieties of gender had been ordained by the gods. This story reminds me of just how dicey gender definition can be. Despite the howls of protestation from man + woman = marriage crowd, the concept of gender is actually complex and diverse. The lowly slime mold of the genus Physarum has a combination of multiple sex-controling genes mixed with several different types of sex-cells, leading to a bewildering 500 different sexes. You’ve got to wonder what the Physarum bar-scene is like! So the whole women and men combination seems a little tame by comparison.
The ancients did, however, toy with standard gender role concepts. The Ugaritic goddess Anat, sometimes described as a “tomboy,” was perceived as a literal femme fatale, joining her in the company of Ishtar and Kali as warrior women-goddesses. She was a proto-Amazon (before they laid aside their male-bashing and set up a very lucrative web-site). Anat wears the severed heads and hands of slain warriors and stomps in blood-puddles, laughing all the while. Where did the ancients derive such violent feminine images as Anat and Kali? Some sociologists suggest that these myths were intended to solidify gender roles, although they seem to confuse the violent male with the shy and retiring female stereotypes. Perhaps the Ugaritians and other ancient folk knew deep down that gender is only a vague attempt to classify something that is really far more complex than it seems. Just when gender is nailed down you find yourself in a bloody mess as Anat swats at you again and again.
Anat ready to smite Egyptians who just don\’t understand the Violent Femmes
Nashotah is not far from Milwaukee where the folk-punk, genre-defining band the Violent Femmes started out. In college many of my overtly Christian radical friends told tales of how the Violent Femmes were a closet Christian rock group, based on some of the religious themes in Gordon Gano’s lyrics. When I listen to their CDs, however, I hear the same old angst that has plagued humankind for ages — what does a guy have to do to impress a girl (the same question may be reversed, turned upside-down, or dis-and-re-articulated, depending on whether you are female, male, or slime mold). At Ugarit they would have understood the Violent Femmes — listen to “to the kill” and tell me it’s not so! I would suggest that Gordon and the guys aren’t as much closet Christians as closet Ugaritians, struggling with the Anats and other violent femmes of their world and trying to make sense of it all.