by Michael Goldberg
Monday, May 6, 2002
Catching Up With The Hissyfits
A version of girl-group rock plus punk equals something new, something deadly
The Hissyfits make an art of the kiss-off. On their debut album, Letters From Frank, they put their foot down, again and again, telling problem boyfriends "goodbye," "I'm leaving" and "Oh you could make me so happy, if you never ever fuckin' came back."
How on earth did I manage to miss The Hissyfits? The name seems so familiar. It's like I dreamed of them or something. Yet until last week I'd never heard them. Somehow I missed it, or was asleep, when Greil Marcus raved in his "Days Between Stations" column in Interview about the group's 1999 single "Something Wrong." "If they start with the Shangri-Las they turn a corner with The Who and before you know it you haven't heard them before," Marcus wrote, two and a half years ago. "It starts fast and picks up speed, the kind of speed you only want more of."
Last July Letters From Frank was released on the Top Quality Rock & Roll label. I missed that too either that or I'm suffering a memory loss. But anyway....
The lead-off track is "Something Wrong 2001." Since I never heard the original "Something Wrong," which appeared on the Mutant Pop label, I have no idea if this is the version Marcus wrote about, or a newer version. Whatever this is an amazing rock 'n' roll song. You can actually hear it this week, since we're currently featuring it as a free MP3 download in Neumu's (http://neumu.net, for those not reading this at Neumu) "Gramophone" area.
What is it about "Something Wrong"? The music is super simple. You could say it's just basic punk with a short repeated guitar riff, and sweet girlish vocals. Sixties girl-group vocals over punk pop has been done before, so it's not like this is the shock of the new or anything.
Only it's more than that. It's thrilling and disturbing, dangerous and disruptive like a nightmare you wake from that forces you to ask hard questions about your life. Listen to it once and you can't help yourself you have to hear it again. It's like those Sirens calling out to Ulysses and his men. A kind of seductive vortex draws you in. The pure sound of it is intoxicating, but when you pay attention to the lyrics you realize that this is not some cute love song.
The story is simple. Girl meets "Mr. Right," who is "the perfect kisser, perfect lover, perfect friend." But something what? goes terribly wrong. "Why does it seem like when I've finally found my Mr. Right/ Something inside of me, it frightens me, I say goodbye?" Hissyfits leader Holly Jacobs, AKA Princess, sings. Then she plunges into that chorus, the one that feels so right, but delivers a message so wrong: "There must be something wrong with me, there must be something wrong with me," over and over.
Marcus heard the Shangri-Las and The Who and something new in The Hissyfits. I hear The Ramones and Bikini Kill, Heavenly and the early B-52's ("Dance This Mess Around") and something new too. And the vocal harmonies. It's like you're dreaming, and in the dream you hear Sleater-Kinney covering "Needles & Pins" or maybe "Teen Angel," and you wake up and can vaguely remember what it sounded like. That's kinda what The Hissyfits sound like.
You try to get to the bottom of "Something Wrong," but there is no bottom. Is it simply intuition that warns the character telling the story that this guy's a mistake? Or is she in fact blowing it, ditching a guy who really is right for her? "But time has taught me all good things come to a bitter end," she sings. So rather than take a chance to see if this time the ending is a happy one, she splits.
The song asks so many questions. Like the tension and ominous rage in the bass and guitar intro. Like the opening line, which turns up later in the song, repeated like a curse: "He said, 'You look so pretty in this light it hurts my eye.'"
Many of the other songs on Letters From Frank reprise the romance-gone-sour theme of "Something Wrong." Often the guys in these songs are bastards. "I'm paralyzed with fear that you're already gone/ And I'll never see you smile again at me," go the final two lines of "Baby."
The Hissyfits, originally a trio, now a quartet with three new members (bassist/vocalist Hallie Bullet, viola player/vocalist Ren and drummer Sivan) supporting vocalist/writer/guitarist Princess, happen to be women. And because they reference '60s pop and rock as well as mid-'70s punk, you could think this was just a retro trip. But I don't think it is.
At first I thought the lyrics here could have been written in the early '60s, or perhaps Princess had knowingly written lyrics that reflect a pre-feminist view of boy-girl relationships.
But as I listened more it struck me that these are post-feminist songs. Any real relationship, pre- or post-feminist, must get to a point where at least one of the partners becomes vulnerable. And when that happens if that happens then whether you're a guy or a girl, you can be hurt, bad. These songs express that hurt. But in many of them, the girl makes a decision to end the relationship rather than settle for less than what she wants.
Consider "Baby." Here's the opening line: "Baby, I've got a piece of you inside of me/ It's growing bigger every breath I take/ And I start to shake 'cause you're inside of me." That lyric would never have made it to vinyl in 1962.
As the song continues, the central character begins to worry that letting him "inside of me" and "under my skin" was a mistake. "Where did we go wrong?" Princess sings, followed by that line, "I'm paralyzed with fear that you're already gone."
"911" begins "You said, 'I want you'/ You said, 'I need you'/ You said, 'I love you'/ Well I don't trust you/ And I don't care." She doesn't care because she doesn't want, need or love him. In "Tired" she tells him to fuck off. "Don't wanna talk about it/ You never listen anyway/ I've tried to scream and shout it/ But you just look the other way/ I'm leaving!"
If the women in these songs were to stay in these bad relationships and take it, they'd be living out a pre-feminist nightmare, but they don't. Instead they walk out.