The Vortex, Austin
November 6 - 8, 2008
by Claire Ruud
Gretchen Phillips’s Manlove, by turns tender, funny, intimate and political, premiered last week at The Vortex. Phillips is a career musician and lesbian icon in Austin since the 80s; today it’s easy to pick out her signature silvery-white crest of hair out in a crowd. With Manlove, she continues her experimentation with performance art, interspersing tunes from her new album with narrative and projected images. The resulting performance takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster—something along the lines of Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride—through the personal and the political. Manlove was unbelievably timely. Arriving two days after the presidential election, the performance provided a space for performer and audience to share mixed feelings: celebration and hope, alienation and regret, with the emphasis squarely on the former.
Variously a member of Meat Joy, Girls in the Nose and Two Nice Girls and The Gretchen Phillips Experience and Phillips & Driver, Phillips has worked across musical genres—from punk rock to lesbian folk to disco. But her first official foray into the performance art world occurred in 2007 when she created the performance Don’t Stop Believing for the Rude Mechanical’s fourth Throws Like a Girl festival. That performance followed a similar format to Manlove, but this time a more focused theme (tagline: “How sweet it is to love men when your investment is limited”) created coherence and flow that was just nascent in Don’t Stop Believing.
Like many other queer performance artists, Phillips draws on personal history, but the premise of Manlove is fresh: a lesbian’s relationships with (mostly) straight men. She structures the performance around a series of men in her life, some of them surprising. Dad, Jesus, little brother Caleb and president-elect Barack Obama made an appearance in that order through images, text and song. Phillips began each chapter by opening a black binder to the appropriately tabbed section and reading from it a pre-written script about the man in question. Photographs projected behind her created the effect of flipping through a family album while a friend tells stories about the people pictured in its pages. Each episode culminated in a song, now enlivened by the preceding stories and images.
Manlove pokes fun at the stereotype of the separatist lesbian; early on Phillips confesses to the audience that she “needs her Vitamin M” and sings an old country classic, “Almost Persuaded,” with a lesbian twist. The original is a straight woman’s first-person account of the temptation of infidelity. In Phillips’s rendition it’s about heterosexuality. She sings, “I was almost persuaded to let strange lips lead me on. Almost persuaded ... but thirty years of lesbianism made me stop and go home.” As Phillips sings, “strange lips” gains a double meaning: these lips aren’t just strange because they’re not her lover’s, they’re strange because they’re a man’s. The love song becomes a funny yet poignant riff on the pressures of a hetero-normative world—in a world that “persuades” heterosexuality, gay men and lesbians are almost, but not quite, persuaded.
Each of the men Phillips discusses serves a symbolic function: Dad gives Phillips life through a passion for music, Jesus offers the potential for a good and abundant life, her little brother elicits Phillips protectiveness—a good man hurt by the demands of masculinity—and the president-elect embodies the hope of alliance and a revolutionary response to a broken world. But throughout the performance, Phillips complicated each figure’s symbolic import through the revelation of her messy emotions surrounding him. For example, images of her brother as a child accompanied stories about their relationship and his ongoing battle with addiction as a teen and adult. Enriched by her preceding stories, Phillips’s song, “Your Drinking,” expressed so much tangled emotion. Together, images, stories and song both revealed and supplemented one another’s inadequacies of expression.
Each chapter of the performance evoked a jumble of gratefulness, pain, sadness and joy, and every time these feelings risked overwhelming the audience, Phillips leavened her sincerity and openness with humor, sarcasm and self-mockery. In this way, she worked her way into the audience’s affection, enabling her to draw us further into her sentimental journey—further than a jaded 21st century crowd is usually willing to go. In addition, the freshness of Obama’s victory, provoking in us a desire to let go of cynicism, embrace hope and work toward change, had most likely primed the audience for such a performance.
Phillips makes an astute yet endearing performance artist. She’s refreshingly real, without abandoning those critical moments of self-reflexivity. In a moment when artists and audiences seem more nostalgic than ever for the 70s and 80s, her stories and music offer fascinating glimpses at lesbian feminism and Austin’s rock and punk-rock scenes. It remains to be seen how well Manlove’s earnestness will translate into larger venues and for audiences less familiar with Phillips’s iconic persona. But here in Austin where Phillips enjoys a large cult following, the performance, so well-timed with the presidential election, felt refreshing and invigorating.
Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good.