Rebel with a cause: Lydia Lunch
- Published: 24 November 2009
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She burst onto the punk scene in New York City at the age of 16 in 1976 with her 'no wave' band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and since then multimedia artist Lydia Lunch has unleashed her demons, ranted and raged about injustice, violence, war and nature's retribution and explored the darker side of obsession and sexuality through a myriad of creative media including literature, spoken-word performance, music, video, photography, poetry and film – the latter most notably with Richard Kern and his Cinema of Transgression in the 1980s. Other projects include a spoken word CD In Our Time of Dying (a blistering attack on the “American war whores’ race to global destruction”), a retrospective CD of her 30-year career, Deviations on a Theme, a multimedia show Real Pornography and her latest book Will Work for Drugs.
I was re-reading an interview you did in the book Angry Women in the early 1990s where you talked about a need for women to lead a revolution and for a conspiracy of women. That was about 14 years ago, and it still hasn’t happened – how closer are we if at all to it happening?
Oh honey, my quote is ‘Fuck Al Qaeda, what about Al Cunta?’ That’s the revolution we need. That’s the theme of Real Pornography, my new multi-media show. I can’t get off the themes I’ve been covering for the past 25 years because the problem is no better, it’s actually worse so the themes are of war, violence, nature’s retribution and our own personal revolution as pleasure as the ultimate rebellion against this fear-mongering campaign of hatred and genocide. Am I angry? I think it’s gone beyond that, it’s becomes almost humorous how predictable, unfortunate and disgusting the way the patriarchy – and yes I will blame them because they are running the show – is behaving.
When I interviewed Penny Arcade she said she thought that mainstream feminism had failed to achieve its goals of equality because women not only don’t support each other but actively undermine other women. What are your thoughts on this, and the current state of feminism today? Is third wave feminism a shallow movement?
LL: The first problem I have with mainstream feminism is when people like Andrea Dworkin came in and were anti-sex, because the first thing they try to steal from us as women is sex by forcing labels upon us which are insults but men’s behaviour mimicking the same thing is glorified. So the first thing that mainstream feminism fucked up on is they thought sex was the enemy – sex is not the enemy and pornography is not the enemy; to me pornography is symptom of the greater problem and it has changed over the past 20 years, but we still need more pornography, different kinds.
The problem with pornography is it’s made by fat, balding, hairy, beer-bellied men for the same – we need a lot more gay, queer, lesbian, punk porn, and more importantly an in-depth psychological investigation into obsessions and what drives us to sex. There have been some strides and there are some good pornographers out there but the problem is the distributor gets all the money.
Sex and porn is not the problem, it’s the use of sex to sell everything, then the denial of women’s rights to control their own body coupled with the pornification now of mainstream culture by the propagation of pop porn princesses who are just prostitutes of corporate record companies. I call it the Madonna syndrome – she shows us everything, she tells us nothing.
What about women not supporting each other?
I guess it’s true, but to me, bigger than the sexual divide is a class and financial divide. Being someone who’s been stubbornly independent and still under most people’s fucking radar after 30 years of performing, you don’t get paid for how many times people swing your name around or put you as the footnote in books of their own career.
The problem is when anyone gets into a position where they have money or power they immediately only want to associate with people with money or power and they forget about what their position was when they first came on board. That I see in my career all the time – that’s why I put on a series of performances to get people to do things they haven’t done before, especially in the spoken word format. I continually try to promote other people – for a while I produced other people’s spoken word records in support of their creativity. If I had Courtney Love’s money it would be a whole different story and then there will be Al Cunta.
You said in Mote magazine in 2000: “To me, the whole issue is anything that furthers, especially with women, an understanding and acceptance of experimental sexuality is definitely an important and necessary thing. It’s just an urgent thing.” What are your thoughts on raunch culture – the shift from the extreme of sex-negative feminism of the 70s and 80s to the other extreme today?
People could say the films I did with Richard Kern (Fingered, The Right Side of My Brain) way back in the day much before alternative porn happened were very raunchy but the point of making sexually explicit films or writing sexually explicit material was to try to further our understanding of the darker side of sexuality and what drives us; it wasn’t just how to out-raunch the next person as a shock tactic.
I’ve never felt that anything I did was shocking because I’m always dealing with the truth as I see it, the reality as I’ve lived it or the world as my enemy. I’ve never attempted to be raunchy with anything I did, and now it becomes just another redundant tool and it doesn’t help us to understand or show us anything different – it’s a Howard Stern or Jerry Springer reality competition. That’s the problem.
At the same time, I don’t think it’s enough that women think it’s fine for them to get their tits out and act like men; there has to be something deeper there, something that furthers our understanding of what’s going on. I guess that’s why I feel outside of everything. I’ve never felt musically, culturally, philosophically or sexually part of any clique – not that I’m above any of them, I just feel I stand outside of all of them.
What do you think of labels? How useful or not are they?
Labels! Think of a label for me, I dare you! (laughs). I consider myself confrontational, that’s all. As far as my sexuality goes, even I don’t know what to fucking call it and I don’t understand why anyone wants to pigeonhole or create a label. I guess I thrive on being undefinable. Bisexual? That doesn’t say enough. No, trisexual because I will try anything. If labels make someone feel better, if they are looking for a more defined outsider status and need a label for it, I just think it’s so much a part of mainstream bullshit to want to categorise everything. I’m outside of everything – can’t we all just say that?
I’m not a role model. I want people to say ‘I am myself, take it or leave it’. It’s not what you see is what you get – that doesn’t even come close to it. What you see is interpreted by your vision of what you’re looking at – look a little deeper inside yourself, tell me what’s inside there and don’t consider me a reflection or rejection of what you wish I was. It’s pretty fucking simple.
You said in your memoir Paradoxia that you’ve always had a masculine nature. Is this a good thing for all women to have and if so, is it something that should be encouraged and how?
I think what we need to encourage is embracing not only our masculine or feminine natures but every schizophrenic colour and flavour we have within us. That’s when we can grow – when we don’t try to deny who or what we are by pigeonholing ourselves. I feel like I inhabit this vehicle which is ultra-feminine and I have this hardcore Mae West vibe, yet at same time I feel like Rocky Graziano and I guess that’s a beautiful marriage.
No wonder I wake up feeling like I’ve been in a fucking boxing match! We all are so indoctrinated and socialised into the divide as children – don’t cry, act like a man, don’t be sissy; smile, nice, don’t be aggressive and I think that’s the first thing that’s got to fucking go. Stop training boys to be little backyard soldiers and stop training girls to smile and curtsey and learn to embrace all aspects of our personality.
What about the trend for a lot of dykes to take testosterone and embrace ‘transmen’ identities? What about the transgender or genderqueer movement that started in the 90s – what effect if any has this had on gender politics?
That is truly outside of everything and I can’t say I can speak for transgender people. I think whoever anyone thinks they are is who they should be and whatever it takes to get there. People should be allowed to decide, if it’s a matter of decision – some things are just straight twisted fucking genetics, whether it’s illness, a state of thought, a physical representation.
Sometimes there is no choice, so wherever we can execute the choice to decide is where we should be allowed to go as fully into that choice as possible. In a sense I feel almost feel transgendered just because of my emotional make-up – I feel like I’ve got the biggest dick of anyone I know, you just can’t see it. I know I’ve got big balls, no question about it, and big tits, so what do you do with it? Whatever you can.
A lot of strong, independent, women, such as you and Diamanda Galas for example, who speak out publicly and in their work against men in power or men who rape women, but in their private lives seek out the thrill of sexual submission and power play. Why is this?
It’s very complicated. My life is very disciplined, it has to be. I have to know what I’m doing a year in advance. I could never have accomplished what I have without having an incredible amount of focus and energy, and at the end of the day sometimes you don’t want to focus anymore, you want to turn that around to the other side, you want to turn 180, 360 and then again to another side of the power coin.
I think that’s one aspect and another is – sometimes when I’m desperate to be in a position in which people say ‘Well, what are you, sado or masochistic?’ and I don’t think you can define what I am if we want to get to the root of my sexuality. Sometimes when I need a submissive situation, it’s only because I’m using a man to be the puppet of my male personality and that becomes kind of complicated because I have this female body.
I’m very physically strong, I’m not a slight girl, I’m strong, I can take as much as I can fucking dish out – no doubt about it and can even take more than I can dish out – but at the same time it’s who is the puppet and who is the puppet master in any situation? Sometimes I’ll use the word ‘schizophrenic’ jokingly but because I’m a kaleidoscope in every situation I’m in, I see it from three different points of view. I’m the voyeur, the victim, the victimiser.
Just because I’m inhabiting this body now, it’s just a vehicle; it doesn’t mean I can’t crawl inside your body and start playing around from the inside out, sister – watch it!
Your work is inspired by reality – your reality, your experiences. Nowadays you seemed to have made peace with yourself, so what experiences are you now living which will be documented later?
One of the mantras I’ve been promoting for a long time is you can intellectualise and philosophise a concept, but it doesn’t mean you’re emotionally ready to live it. I think that pleasure as a rebellion – and I don’t just mean sexual pleasure – I need to find pleasure in every way I can. I’m finding it right now in the way the light is filtering in my window through these fucking curtains. So that’s something I think is really urgent for the individual – don’t take any second for granted, be really conscious of how you spend every moment and every dollar and where it’s going because so many dollars are going to the slave traders.
So I guess my rebellion is the same as it’s always been but the older I get I have to be conscious of my every waking moment, not take for granted the incredible bizarre beauty that this planet is, which is a near utopia but not as they’d like us to see it because part of their campaign is to make us terrified enough to paralyse us or go shopping. Fuck you! I’m not spending another dime, motherfucker.
It’s really about giving back to nature and to our nature as much as possible and trying to find the balance. War is never ending, it’s never over so I have to find beauty wherever I can, pleasure anywhere I can and again it’s not a sexual thing necessarily. I need to find peace in their war, I need to find life in their death, I need to find relief in their insanity – as the ultimate fucking radical rebel that I am and fuck you- and not with my dick! . That’s where I’m at.
You mentioned your show, Real Pornography. Why the title and what is real pornography?
The show’s title is Real Pornography because that’s what war is, that’s what reality is. It’s the obscenity of what’s going on now. I talk a lot about God bullies – whether it’s son of his sons who want to murder in the name of Moses, or Mohammed or Jesus or Allah or Yaweh – they’re mass murderers, they’re God junkies. Religion used to be the opium of the masses, now it’s the crack cocaine of assassins.
Real pornography is what we are living every time we turn on the TV or open a newspaper – you don’t even have to open the newspaper, it’s there on the front page every time you walk past a newsstand – that’s real pornography, not two people enjoying themselves causing a big stink.
You’ve said in the past that you create for a minority, not for yourself in a void. But isn’t it the majority ie the mainstream that really needs to hear what you’ve got to say?
The truth has never been a popular commodity. One of the lines that’s really an inspiration for me in Real Pornography is a George Orwell quote which is “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”. People want entertainment, diversion, they don’t want me slapping them in the fucking face with more reality, even if I’m trying to articulate and categorise a way of making sense of this – only the minority wants this.
That’s why Britney Spears and Madonna are the biggest pop stars, not me. They don’t want reality, they want entertainment. I’m not a fucking entertainer. If I’m entertaining and I am – you’ve been laughing quite a bit in this conversation – of course my language must have poetry. Passion is the bottom line and maybe I’m just too fucking passionate for the mainstream. There’s nothing I can do to make myself less so, and I won’t.
I knew from the very first day I opened my mouth as a public spectacle, and I’m talking when I was 14, the first time I opened my fucking mouth I knew I was speaking for these times but that I would not necessarily be recognised in these times. And I’m recognised – you’re talking to me, I don’t need more audience.
For years my career has been a crabwalk. I call it crabwalking through my career, sidewalking through all this bullshit, just the tips of my tiny claws getting through all this bullshit but still my head’s above the sand where it will stay and my audience will not increase no matter what I do and I don’t need them to, I have enough of them.
What I’m doing is a very intimate expression of extreme passion and only so many people have the stomach for it and even if the mainstream needs me to punch them in the fucking head, it doesn’t mean I’ve got that many fists; I don’t have enough ammunition. If I have enough bullets, believe me, the situation would change.
Any final words?
Have a great life as the ultimate rebellion.
For more information and to order merchandise, visit Lydia's website.
Photo of Lydia by Bart D. Frescura
Will Work for Drugs by Lydia Lunch is published by Akashic Books.