Lez Miserable: the teaches of Peaches

Eleanor Margolis meets the high-priestess of sexually charged punk electronica and singer of <em>Fuck the Pain Away</em>, <em>Diddle My Skittle</em> and <em>Tent in Your Pants</em>.

On stage, Peaches, the 46-year-old high priestess of sexually charged punk electronica, is wearing a ruff of oversized breasts with Barbie heads for nipples. She sits, open-legged, as two female dancers in their knickers, one sporting a goat mask, the other a unicorn, simulate cunnilingus on her. As the singer of Fuck the Pain Away, Diddle My Skittle and Tent in Your Pants, she is surprisingly reticent when I ask her, just the day before her gig at the O2, if she’s ever wondered what the most perverted act performed to her music might be. “No, I’ve never thought what it is. But I imagine it was pretty filthy,” she says, with an almost nervous laugh.

The artist who provided the soundtrack to my teenage sexual fumblings is sitting opposite me outside the BFI bar, dressed in black and looking unassuming. Her outsized sunglasses highlight her gamine, sparrow-like features and she reminds me of a riot grrrl Edith Piaf. Currently on tour, promoting her film – Peaches Does Herself – the musician/director is chatting excitedly about the autobiographical rock opera, which recently made its UK debut at London Sundance.

“I’d describe it as an anti-jukebox musical,” she says. A reaction against We Will Rock You-style musicals, Peaches Does Herself uses the artist’s music to tell her own life story, rather than a completely unrelated, irrelevant narrative. “I like the music of Queen, but once you put it in a jukebox musical, you have nothing to do with Freddie Mercury. It’s lame.”

“I am a fan of the style of opera where you can tell a complete story just through the music and through the songs,” she says. In making Peaches Does Herself, Peaches set herself the challenge using the songs from her four albums to create an autobiographical narrative. The result is a brilliantly freaky pornographic ballet. As it happens, one of the leading roles is played by trans porn star Danni Daniels, who used to be a professional ballet dancer. As you’d expect from a film heavily influenced by 70s musicals like Rocky Horror, Tommy and Phantom of the Paradise, it’s gender-bending, glam and utterly Dionysian. I ask Peaches if she was also inspired by cult director John Waters. “You’re probably referring to Sandy Kane as the quintessential John Waters character,” she says. Indeed I am. Stripper turned comedienne Sandy Kane plays Peaches’ foul-mouthed, slightly wicked, fairy godmother.

So how did a nice Jewish girl from Toronto become alternative music’s doyenne of dirty? After all, the only echo of Jewish culture I can find in Peaches’ music is the rhyming of “menorah” with “labia majora” in the song I’m The Kinda.“My parents were quite liberal people, but we did grow up with two sets of cutlery.” Peaches, who was born Merrill Beth Nisker, is referring to the Jewish kashrut rule about using separate cutlery for meat and dairy. But was she ever a “nice Jewish girl”? “No,” she says laughing, “I was spaced out, that’s for sure. I would deliberately space out in Hebrew class because I didn’t understand why I had to learn this language. I would occupy my mind with other things.” Peaches found little outlet for her creativity at school and disliked the fact that music and plays were used purely to impress the parents. “I didn’t get why we weren’t learning to sing – just told to sing and if you get it wrong, you’re dead in the bath.”

“I didn’t realise you could be a musician,” says Peaches, “And I didn’t really know about art. I have a great family and intelligent parents, but they weren’t passionate about art. They listened to Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond.” Originally drawn to theatre, rather than music, “That’s what creativity was to me,” Peaches studied theatre direction at university and began a career as a theatre director. “Then I took acid one day and said, ‘I don’t want to do this,’” Peaches explains, “I thought by the time I turned 30 I’d have a nervous breakdown or something. Working with actors and sets, and yelling at people – it just seemed like too much to handle.”

“I fell into music really,” she says of her sudden career change, “I started playing it. I had one gig with my girlfriend, we played acoustic guitar. They liked us in this club and asked us to play there every week.” Peaches, then still Merrill, started out as a folk singer in Toronto. Enjoying writing songs and the immediacy of music, compared to theatre, she broke away from folk, “I was playing acoustic guitar and I was like – why am I doing that?” and entered an experimental phase. Her first band was called Fancypants Hoodlum: “I would sing crazy. I knew a guy who played bongos, so I asked him to be my drummer, I knew another guy who played weird EBow guitar.” Her next band, The Shit, was formed when she began jamming with fellow Canadian musicians Mocky and Gonzales. “We’d just sing songs that we’d spontaneously write in the room, about each other, about wanting to fuck each other, or whatever.” Were these jamming sessions drug-fuelled? “Just pot,” she says.

Soon after forming The Shit, Merrill Nisker became Peaches. She named herself after a character in the song Four Women, by Nina Simone. So is Peaches her Ziggy Stardust-esque alter ego? “No, I’d say more an extension of me,” she says, “I love Bowie and I love everything that he’s done for culture and music… but I feel I relate more to someone like Iggy Pop.” Peaches collaborated with Iggy on her 2003 single, Kick It, which was the first song of hers I ever heard. As a sexually confused 14-year-old, Peaches’ clever, fiercely erotic lyrics scratched an itch. A very itchy itch. As an outsider at school, her music reminded me that being different was badass. So, how does she feel to be a role model to young queers? “I just feel responsibility to be myself and I hope I can inspire people to continue to be who they need to be.”

Since releasing her debut solo album, The Teaches of Peaches, in 2000, attitudes towards her brand of sexually-liberated electro-rock have certainly changed. With artists like Lady Gaga, arguably a diluted version of Peaches, hitting the mega-mainstream, has what Peaches does become less edgy? “I’m not trying to be shocking. I’m glad that I can be mainstream and still be who I am – I don’t have a problem with that.” But Peaches feels that attitudes are becoming simultaneously more open and more closed – “I think there are just more people,” she says, “There are Mormons. And they’re growing too. Everything’s growing.

I ask Peaches if she feels that women in music have a responsibility to push feminist ideals. What of mainstream female artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, who are openly ambivalent towards feminism? “I think that’s dangerous,” she says, “I mean, what do people think feminism is? Feminism means equal pay for men and women. I just think people should realise that all women are feminists and there’s no way around that.”

When members of that standard bearer for musical feminism, Pussy Riot, were jailed last year, Peaches quickly became a loud voice in the call for their release. I ask her what drew her to the cause. “It’s a suffocating, horrible situation for women and artists in Russia,” she says, “they’re bringing attention to it and by this they are the essence of art.” What’s more, Peaches, who lives in Berlin these days, feels that, had she been born in Russia, she would probably would have been involved in something like Pussy Riot: “I was like – I need to support this, because this could’ve been me.” She is still in contact with some of the band members and met up with Katya Samutsevich, who was released from prison in October last year, in Moscow earlier this year. “She’s just an incredibly brave person.”

“It’s grim,” she says of the situation of the two Pussy Riot members still in prison, “They don’t give you medicine if you’re sick. They have to get permission to get outside medication. And it’s inhuman labour work that they’re doing.” At the O2 the next day, Peaches ends her gig with the song she wrote for the band and has the crowd chanting, “free Pussy Riot!”

So what’s next for Peaches? Despite the release of the single Burst, last year, she tells me that there isn’t an album on the way. “I’m just making music and seeing what I like,” she says. She tells me about her recent collaboration with burlesque performer Empress Stah, a song called Light In Places You Didn’t Know It Could Shine, about a laser butt plug. Noticing my bewilderment, she explains that this is an object used in Empress Stah’s performances. Only Peaches could make me feel silly for not knowing why a person would want to shoot a laser out of their arse.

A still from the film Peaches Does Herself.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

OLI SCARFF/GETTY IMAGES
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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era