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.

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Laid in America: how two YouTubers made a mainstream sex-comedy for children

Caspar Lee and KSI's new movie is officially rated 15, but digital downloading means their young audiences have easy access. 

It’s not that expectations are high when it comes to YouTube movies. Despite being released by Universal Studios, vloggers Caspar Lee and KSI’s latest feature film Laid In America always looked set to be cheap and cheerful rather than a cultural blockbuster. It’s just that the opening scene of the movie – in which KSI humps a blow-up sex doll doggy style while forcing its head down on Caspar Lee’s crotch, before ejaculating into his own boxers – jars a little when you consider the relative age of the pair’s fan bases.

Caspar Lee is a 22-year-old South African YouTuber whose prank videos and vlogs have earnt him 6.79 million subscribers. KSI – real name Olajide Olatunji – is a year older and has double the influence, with 14.64 million people subscribed to his video gaming channel. Although YouTube doesn’t allow the public to see the demographics of any particular YouTuber’s audience, videos of Olatunji and Lee’s meet-and-greets with fans reveal that the former is idolised by teenage boys and the latter beloved of pre-teen and teenage girls. Search “Caspar Lee book review” on YouTube and the first non-branded result shows a very young girl waxing lyrical about the star.

KSI and a 13-year-old fan, via kalabza1973

Despite Laid in America’s Red Band trailer and raunchy premise – of two English students in America desperately trying to lose their virginity, à la American pie – it seems the filmmakers, Bad Weather Films and The Fun Group, are aware of the pair’s audiences. The movie premieres tonight at the O2 in London and is then available for digital download only. This isn’t a reflection on the limited influence of YouTubers – whose transformation of the publishing industry alone shows they could easily sell out cinemas – but a savvy business decision that allows children to watch a film that has been rated 15 by the British Board of Film Classification. Rather than trying to sneak into a cinema, kids can affectively undo 104 years of film classification history with just a few clicks.

It’s not that it’s particularly shocking that 12-year-olds can easily watch this gross-out comedy complete with the requisite sex party, dwarf in a cage, plethora of swear words, and obligatory “That… was… awesome!”. No, the most offensive thing about the film (aside from KSI’s abysmal acting) isn’t the sex, it’s the sexism.

“Tabitha is a complete BLOB,” says Duncan (Olatunji) when Jack (Lee) asks why, if he’s so desperate to lose his virginity, he doesn’t sleep with the girl who keeps passing him love notes. “You know that girl that you’d never have sex with and then the night is coming to an end and you run out of options? … Basic Last Option Bae. BLOB.”

The credentials that make Tabitha a BLOB, appear to be – to the naked eye – that she is not tall, she is a normal weight, and she doesn’t wear concealer under her eyes. Heather Cowles, the actress who plays her, is in fact so attractive that you almost wish they’d gone down the old-fashioned fat-suit and fake-acne line. When a preteen girl who idolises YouTubers so much that she sets them as her profile picture watches them mock and deride what is essentially a normal looking girl, how will they feel?

Caspar Lee with fans at a book signing via Getty

There are a multitude of similar instances in the movie. “Did you get a chance to experience any American girls?” asks Jack and Duncan’s headmaster in one of the opening scenes of the film, as headmasters are wont to do. When the duo reveal they are both virgins, the principal acts shocked. “No girls? Not even fat girls?” he says.

None of this would be particularly damaging to the normal, adult audiences of similar Hollywood comedies. But YouTubers have an incredible influence over their fans, so much so that brands are willing to pay between £20,000 and £50,000 for them to recommend a single product in their videos. It seems a shame that this influence will be used to increase the insecurities of young girls and reinforce, yet again, that Sex Is Everything to young boys.

The attitudes to women in the film are beyond outdated. To begin with, Duncan and Jack need to “find hot girls” in order to be allowed into cool-kid Tucker Jones’ party. From this point on, women are a commodity. “The more money we appear to have, the hotter girls we’ll get,” says one of the stars – god, don’t ask me which – when the pair try out a dating app. Next we see them ride a Boober (like an Uber, but with two complimentary large-chested girls), leave a woman passed out in her lingerie after she hits her head, and be rewarded with sex for – and truly, romance is dying, dying, dead as I write this – telling a girl’s ex-boyfriend that she’s “not a bitch”.

But surely, surely, in 2016 this is all redeemed by a heartfelt message about how actually, losing your virginity and “getting” hot girls isn’t everything? No such luck. The ending of the film is basically softcore porn, though the final shot features Jack and Duncan riding a Segway shouting: “We go in your country and take your women!” They saw. They conquered. They came. 

It's not yet apparent whether the film will be a commercial success, though the pair think that if it is, other studios will also begin making download-only films. "I guess the studios will be like, 'Oh this worked, let's try this' and follow," KSI told the BBC. If this is the case, hopefully more consideration will be put into making movies with a positive message for YouTubers' young audiences. 

 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.