On Her Influential Debut, Peaches Seized Her Pain And Pleasure
Editor's note: This story contains sexually explicit language and song lyrics.
In Sofia Coppola's 2003 movie Lost in Translation, an aging action star played by Bill Murray sits dispassionately in a Tokyo nightclub, watching a nearly naked woman dance to a song called "F*** the Pain Away." Its brash sawtooth bass and insouciant vocals break harshly from the rest of the movie's soundtrack, a stream of gauzy burbles composed by Kevin Shields of the shoegaze band My Bloody Valentine. The song heard in the strip club is performed by Peaches, a Berlin-based Canadian expat born Merrill Nisker, who names herself in one of its many sing-song rhymes: "What else is in the teaches of Peaches?" Murray's co-star, then-17-year-old Scarlett Johansson, enters the scene and sits beside him. She scowls at the dancer and smirks sideways at her companion. "Let's go," she says. They do. In a moment representative of the movie's sense of humor, Murray's character barks a "thank you" between the dancer's legs.
Championed as an understated gem, Lost in Translation was one of the first media properties to deploy Peaches' music as a symbol of unrestrained and improper sexuality. The movie maps a subtle romance between Murray's character, who is wealthy and successful but spiritually decrepit, and Johansson's, who has just graduated college and is two years into an unsatisfying marriage. Throughout the story, Murray spurns older women who want him, professionally or otherwise. He shakes off the attempt of a sex worker to draw him into a domination fantasy. He sleeps with a lounge singer around his age and regrets it the next morning. What he wants is to inch closer to the unspoken boundary between himself and the 22-year-old woman he has befriended, who is not like the others. She wears slacks and boyish sweater vests and speaks in broad existential queries, having majored in philosophy at Yale. The overt sexuality of grown women is rendered gauche in Coppola's lens, while the implicit sexuality of a very young woman played by a teenage girl can be circled with assumed politesse.
Before she named herself Peaches (after a line from the Nina Simone song "Four Women"), Nisker sang folk-rock with her then-girlfriend in Canada and taught preschoolers how to play music as a day job. She quickly grew bored with folk's tonal constraints, its inherent weepy sincerity, and she joined a series of increasingly experimental bands with names like Fancypants Hoodlum and The S***. When her bandmates started moving away, Nisker picked up a Roland MC-505 groovebox and tried her hand at making music on her own. She was 33 when she started writing the songs that would make up The Teaches of Peaches, the 2000 debut album of Peaches, and had just survived a bout with thyroid cancer and the dissolution of a long-term relationship. Nisker wanted to honor what she had lived through without wallowing in it — to deploy humor and sexuality toward reclaiming a sense of self.
Around the turn of the millennium, as ever, the ways women could be sexual in public were pinioned by a volatile set of social codes. Lilith Fair, the all-woman touring festival that ran for three years from 1997 to 1999, was both championed and pilloried in the music press for its implicit rejection of heteronormative sexuality. Many of its performers were openly gay, some were covertly so, and nearly all of them dispensed with the notion that to play music as a woman was to put oneself on display for men. During the same era, teen pop idols like Destiny's Child and Britney Spears were championed and pilloried for implicitly endorsing the same idea, wearing crop tops as they danced on MTV to ubiquitous libidinal hooks. Whether a woman reined in or flaunted her sexuality, whether she was seen as an authentic folk balladeer or a plastic pop automaton, she could not shed the inherent stigma of her gender. She still had to perform in an arena ultimately circumscribed by men. Peaches saw through the bind and figured that if she couldn't win, she could at least make the kind of music she wanted. She could be both authentic and sexual, emotional and gauche, and if the mainstream couldn't handle it, she would find an undercurrent of similarly frustrated listeners who could.
The Teaches of Peaches struck against that unsteady dilemma in which women and girls in the public gaze found themselves. Peaches' minimal, abrasive electronic beats derived heavily from both hip-hop — Salt-N-Pepa's 1987 song "Push It" is one of her clearest ancestors — and industrial acts like Atari Teenage Riot, while the deliberate brattiness in her vocal tone issued straight from punk and riot grrrl. She drawled gaudy innuendo over tinny beats, indulging in the fringe of bad taste and getting away with it thanks to hard-won charisma. Opener "F*** the Pain Away," the indelible single recorded live on cassette at one of Peaches' first shows, breaks the ice with a cannonball: "Sucking on my t*****s like you wanted me / Calling me all the time like Blondie / Check out my Chrissie behind," Nisker raps, aligning herself with the legacies of Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde — both women who, in the '70s and '80s, clawed their way into pop culture with an excess of presence.
Nisker wanted to sing about her body the way men were permitted to sing about theirs: crassly, explicitly and with plenty of humor. "Diddle My Skittle," with its static-blast industrial backbeat, marks an attempt to wield the clitoris with the same self-assurance as a male rock star (it's also the only song on the album to feature guest vocals, contributed by fellow Canadian singer/songwriter Feist, who's credited under an old pseudonym). "Lovertits," which takes for its spine a corroded disco synth line, similarly casts Peaches as the dominant subject in a sexual encounter. "You're gonna have to lay down with it," she commands, her voice breaking off into a coarse squeal reminiscent of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre's Kathleen Hanna.
Originally released on the Berlin label Kitty-Yo, Teaches, with its no-holds-barred, crotch-shot cover art, faced pushback even in Europe, where Peaches' minimal beats and expressive vocals first caught on. Thanks to the local success of the smirking single "Set It Off," she scored a performance slot on the U.K. music program Top of the Pops, and then had it pulled completely for being too outré. "It's not that I was explicit, but I was just doing something they'd never seen before," she said of the performance in a 2016 Vice interview. "Yeah, I've always been sexually open, but I've always been misunderstood." Speaking with The Guardian in 2018, Nisker elaborated that her stage antics followed a tradition well-worn by men. "I would put the microphone in between my legs, I would throw it around and whip it, I'd swallow it — not unlike many other performers I'd seen. So it surprised me when people said, 'Peaches is so sexual on stage.' I'd seen my rock and roll predecessors, who were male, perform, and people said, 'They're so rock and roll,' not 'They're so sexual.' "
Despite the gendered double standard that muted her individual success, Peaches soon found herself with a cult following in tow. Not long after the release of her debut, she could count the legendary gay director John Waters, whose 1970s movies conveyed a similar disregard for sexual propriety, among her fans. And the outright lasciviousness of Teaches ultimately seeped its way into the mainstream, circulating among major label record executives who heard a form of provocation that could be adapted to their products. In 2001, Britney Spears shed her schoolgirl guise with the undeniably sexual "I'm A Slave 4 U," nailing an iconic performance of the song with a live snake draped around her shoulders at the MTV Video Music Awards the same year. While writing her controversial "grown-up" single "Dirrty," whose video features her grinding on other women in crotchless leather pants, Christina Aguilera allegedly had "F*** the Pain Away" on repeat. (The singers' turns from subtle to explicit sexuality were mocked relentlessly at the time on shows like SNL.) "Avril Lavigne! Britney Spears! Christina Aguilera and Pink! All have come to me and said, 'You have helped me from girl into sexual woman,' " Nisker claimed in a 2015 Vice interview.
Notably, all the performers Peaches named as protégés were, like her, shielded from the worst of contemporary cultural backlash by their whiteness. In early 2004, three years after George W. Bush's inauguration and one year after the U.S. officially went to war with Iraq, a controversial televised performance seemed to push the trend back toward the morality and modesty preached by the conservative presidential administration and its allied pundits. Janet Jackson performed with former 'N Sync star (and Britney Spears' ex) Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl halftime show. In what was retroactively termed a "wardrobe malfunction," he ripped open her bodysuit, exposing her breast. Though Timberlake was the one who had torn her outfit, the commentariat latched onto Jackson, a Black woman, as the offending party, the one whose unruly body both revealed and exacerbated the erosion of American morality. All she had to do was stand there. Timberlake's solo career, which had taken off with a breakup song written at Spears' expense, moved on unheeded. Jackson's took years to recover — and, as Rich Juzwiak wrote in a retrospective analysis of the event, "America suddenly became a more dangerous place for public sexual expression. Broadcasters began regulating themselves even before the FCC raised indecency fines tenfold, up to $325,000, in 2006."
The Teaches of Peaches' influence streaked through a culture that, at times, seemed more scandalized by a woman's exposed body than by children killed in endless wars abroad. Morality, it seemed, had everything to do with sex and nothing to do with violence. But even years of political puritanism, even the rising success of benign, family-friendly American Idol stars on the pop charts, couldn't quite quench her spark.
Alongside Le Tigre and Chicks on Speed, Peaches was a central node in the electroclash subgenre, in which women could be loud and explicit onstage with relatively little blowback. Her vocal phrasings reappeared in mainstream pop in 2009 with Kesha's devil-may-care debut "TiK ToK." Throughout the aughts, the Swedish electropop duo The Knife carried her knack for making unrefined synthesizer tones and unpolished beats sound deliberate and provocative rather than amateurish. Later, with their solo project Fever Ray, The Knife's Karin Dreijer adopted grotesque biomorphic costumes similar to Nisker's early stage getups, and simulated a golden shower in a 2017 music video for a song containing lyrics that unmistakably describe queer sex. The same year, Janelle Monae's "Pynk" video dressed dancers in giant yonic pants and exaggerated pubic wigs, another echo of Nisker's cavalier attitude about supposedly unspeakable body parts.
Explicit queerness and explicit celebrations of sexual pleasure from people other than men are no longer the career-extinguishing aberrations they were when Peaches first fired up her Roland. Twenty years after The Teaches of Peaches, two of popular music's brightest stars released a song called "WAP," an acronym for a phrase that might be spelled out in full on a Peaches tracklist. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion saw their share of controversy for the track, which inflamed certain American politicians and pundits. Same as it ever was: The word "pussy" is excused when a presidential candidate is bragging about sexual assault but is considered obscene when two Black women use it to celebrate their power and pleasure.
The song rose to the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Hot 100. Cardi and Megan's careers roll on over the uproar. This time, the complaints do not conjure the same sense of moral authority, nor do they seem to stifle a hit. If Peaches' runaway tracks about sex were slotted all too often into punchlines, too unhinged for their cultural backdrop, "WAP" settles into a milieu that's a few notches less uptight. It can exist as a piece of dominant culture more or less on its own terms, as a winking delight and not just a joke. Its detractors are loud, but they sound foolish — like men with no idea of a good time, clinging to faded standards of propriety, who cannot fathom that a woman could possibly enjoy the contested body she's learned to call home.
Sasha Geffen is the author of the book Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, a history of boundary-pushing expressions of sex and gender in modern pop.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.