Regress-to-the-Mean Girls

The Pipettes give feminism, '60s pop, and foxy librarians a bad name

Anyone who worries about Next Big Things has likely come across Brighton, England's Pipettes, a trio of fetching late-twenties ladies making the rock critic rounds in kitchen-sink frocks. I'll be accused of assassination by proxy, of burning a flag the Pipettes didn't raise first, but these girls—and the boys who brought them together (and play the instruments behind them)—keep lobbing eephus pitches right into my wheelhouse. Theirs is one of the most misguided constructs in recent memory: femme-positive stance music out to take "ownership" over servile, misogynist wardrobes and eep-op-ork-ah-ah bubblegum from the early '60s. The Pipettes profess musical erudition, solipsist wonder, and DIY confidence, lifting carelessly and equally from American girl groups and the anorak (U.K.) '80s, even covering the bases with more obscure names like the Pop Group and John Cage, both mentioned in a ponderously melodramatic, self-penned biography available at thepipettes.co.uk.

Beyond ridiculous contradictions—feting Phil Spector then segueing into feminist rhetoric in the same paragraph, UHHHH—the Pipes have lashed out with withering "We've nothing against them" backhands at British pop idols like Girls Aloud (the new Spice Girls), damning their rivals' extroversion and settin'-us-back skin-trading in interviews. In reality the Pipettes are making waves for the same reasons, but nobody seems to be pointing out that their Wonderbra-and-polka-dot costume play, with a not-so-subtle dominatrix sneer reserved for naughty librarians, is abject fetishism. Of the many subjects on which the Pipettes are eager to appear well-informed, the nature of their modest success seems to mystify them, so instead they drone on about eras long gone, with a spoon-fed, halcyon view of America's hit factories revealed in interview quotes like "The thing about Motown is that during that time real pop songs with depth and musical integrity were being made, before everything became dominated by men and guitars." I would venture the "hit factory" double entendre escapes them.

Stance music for "naughty librarian" fetishists
photo: Mel Bes
Stance music for "naughty librarian" fetishists

Patched together from previously available singles (the Pistols' modus operandi), the band's import debut, We Are the Pipettes, is a worthy enough addition to the lineage of aloof-yet-yearning female pop. Critics and attuned fans know the lazy-ways sha-la rainy-daydreamers that preceded them (Thee Headcoatees, Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, and especially Marine Girls); this trainspotting isn't a prerequisite, but it's important to note that none of their inspirations needed the ideological crutches the buxom Pipettes hobble on. These older bands hit harder and made bolder sociopolitical statements precisely because they didn't spell things out, letting attitude and career choices define them. With such a slight catalog—barely over a baker's dozen songs, and only a few you'll remember—the Pipettes' early success is principally down to the juicy subject matters they lend critics an excuse to explore. Like those who fawn over them, the Pipettes have talked their way into this party, and I suspect we will not notice when they have left.

 
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