Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

JD Samson Cuts It Up One Time

Written by Josie Schoel
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JD Samson, the mustache-sporting architect of feminist electro/dance-punk, has had many a label pinned to her lapel. She is a cult icon for the queer youth movement, a gender-bending visionary, and something of a sex symbol. In addition to her music, she has produced two calendars, JD's Lesbian Calendar (in 2003), and the 2006 follow up, JD's Lesbian Utopia, which documents Samson’s ten-day trek across the country in search of a halcyon lesbian land of milk and honey.  


Photo by Allison Michael Orenstein

JD Samson, the mustache-sporting architect of feminist electro/dance-punk, has had many a label pinned to her lapel. She is a cult icon for the queer youth movement, a gender-bending visionary, and something of a sex symbol. In addition to her music, she has produced two calendars, JD's Lesbian Calendar (in 2003), and the 2006 follow up, JD's Lesbian Utopia, which documents Samson’s ten-day trek across the country in search of a halcyon lesbian land of milk and honey. Shot by Cass Bird, the photographs vary from a shirtless and active Samson posing as a Baywatch style lifeguard to a more relaxed incarnation of the famous gender-bending superhero. Wearing a straw hat and the smoldering gaze typically reserved for spaghetti western cowboys, or jumping up and down on stage, Samson harnesses her audience’s gaze in a manner that critiques normative beauty standards and generates butch visibility.

When I ask her about her role in the cultural redefinition of sexiness, she remarks that, “some people think my face and my body and my moustache have reconstructed some kind of idea of beauty for some people in this world.” One of the appealing things about Samson is that she worries about interest generated by appearance only. “People are constantly judging me,” she explains, “based on my looks instead of what is inside of me. And . . . now I worry if people like me for me. Or just for some idea of what I am.” Anyone who has seen Samson, however, knows that it is her uniquely authoritative display of directed vulnerability, combined, of course, with her unflinchingly danceable anthems, that keeps the kids coming back.
 
Samson became a member of Le Tigre in 2000 after working as the group’s projectionist, and is now on tour with her Brooklyn-based collective MEN. Since Le Tigre officially went on “hiatus” in 2006, both Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman have receded from the public eye while Samson has stepped directly into it. She DJs around the country and has toured with Peaches, Junior Senior, and her own groups, Hirsute and MEN. After the success of Limited Edition Disco, MEN’s self-released EP, the group signed with the Los Angeles based label, IAMSOUND, for their much-anticipated full-length album, Talk About Body.

The name MEN, seemingly always a hot topic of conversation for Samson, may seem somewhat ill-fitting for a group that consists of two ladies—Samson and Tami Hart of Making Friendz (who recently replaced Ginger Brooks Takahashi)—and just one man, Michael O’Neill of Ladybug Transistor. In fact, the name, much like everything else Samson does, is political, and arose out of a conversation she was having with Johanna Fateman about patriarchal authority and female acquiescence. As a way to combat the learned gendered behavior, the two invented a kind of “confidence boosting philosophy called, ‘what would a man do' that would help us to believe in ourselves. And feel strong. Men, or man," Samson notes, is also “sometimes an umbrella term for ‘the human’” and sometimes “a comment on the fluidity of gender.”

Gender fluidity, and by extension, the potential malleability of the biologically sexed body, remains central to Samson’s work. In fact, when I did my due diligence as hard-hitting reporter and prodded her about a fantasy career other than that of art and/or music making, she said that while she is continuously compelled to create things around and about representations of the body, she is also “interested in the inner workings of the body,” and thus, her subsequent career of choice would most likely be a doctor. “I wish I would have done both,” she says. “I think my art would have influenced my doctoring, and my doctoring my art.”

Feminist theory can be tinged with a monomania about corporeality, oftentimes creating a kind of proverbial Rubik’s Cube, where the more the body and the way it functions in society is deconstructed, the more intellectually and physically confined the theorists become. While Samson focuses on representations of the body she also manages to successfully navigate that trap by not only talking about perceptions and representations of the gendered body, but by offering a space where bodies can feel free to move and redefine their own categories of subjecthood. Her focus on the body as a moving, working, political entity that can create, inspire, and generate art and artistic vision is explored throughout the album as well as in the music video for “Off Our Backs,” directed by Bryce Kass. The video, which features scantily clad bodies both dancing and playing a raucously sexy game of tug-of-war in the desert, captures both the utter joy of being in a body that sweats, breathes, jumps, laughs, and dances; as well as the power struggle inherent to being human—whether male, female, trans, straight, bi, queer, gay or however else you may or may not choose to define yourself: “The intent was to show a power struggle with bodies. To prove the song's lyrics. By creating a space where people take over other people and where bodies create spaces on top of one another. We wanted it to be sexy . . . It was honestly magic.”
 
Perhaps, then, the best way to enact feminist body politics is not in the classroom discussing Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, but rather on the dance floor, shaking your booty and pumping your fists.  “Dance music is all about the body. It is about movement and fluidity and vulnerability and safety. In numbers. Or alone. I think conceptually it is the only space to talk about what I want to talk about.” In fact, along with Emily Roysdon and Tara Mateik, Samson helped to create Dykes can Dance, an underground dance group as a response to New York City’s oppressive cabaret laws, but also as a way to reject the idea that lesbians would prefer to drink tea and listen to the Indigo Girls rather than tearing it up on the dance floor.

The discrepancy between the idea of who Samson is and the real her, whomever that may be, seemed to be somehow unified during MEN’s effusive, positively all consuming show at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop recently. I overheard one bouncer say to another that he better “watch the bathrooms” because “there is going to be a ton of faggy stuff happening tonight.” The “faggy stuff” was a celebration of selfhood, of the queer youth movement, and of the way the body moves and shakes when it is being honest, when it is responding to the music. “I think my body moves,” Samson tells me, “without any interest in defining myself as a specific gender. And that's what is interesting about me. I don't need to consider myself anything but me, and I think people feel freedom in seeing that. That dance to me is my body, but it's my body reacting only to music. Not to other ideas and perceptions of who I am.” And right now, she is celebrating the political, creating a spot on the dance floor for feminists, queer kids, and anyone else who wants to move.

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