Talk of the Town

Justin Cober-Lake
Shoplifting — photo by Lawrence Braun

Cober-Lake speaks with Chris Pugmire of the Seattle band Shoplifting about politics' place in punk rock, the role of men in feminism, and the dangerous power of language.

Shoplifting's debut album Body Stories (Kill Rock Stars) achieves that seemingly rare combination of smart politics and enjoyable rock. As vehement as the group is on its political issues, it's every bit as aggressive in its ambitious punk performance. With an emphasis on gender politics, the Seattle band appears to be a descendant of the previous decade's Riot Grrrl movement, of which vocalist/guitarist Chris Pugmire says, "It's inspired us as much as any civil rights movement." Even so, the music aesthetics are their own. Mixing art-rock influences like Sonic Youth with the angrier side of punk, Shoplifting delivers a pounding music that might obscure its more subtle textures. If you pick up the liner notes, you'll find lyrics equally as intense and intelligent.

It makes sense to start with those lyrics, because Shoplifting understands the importance of language and the ability to control meaning in a political discussion (a topic that's been increasingly considered in US national politics). That fact becomes especially apparent in issues of sexual assault, where slight slips in meaning continue to allow perpetrators to walk out of courtrooms free. In "Talk of the Town", the group lists words that need to be re-defined more usefully — such as rape, consent, and community — in consideration of a sexual encounter without consent. Here, a rape victim becomes the "talk of the town" because she and her community don't have the language to pin down what happened to her. In this sense, her rapist "defines [her] course", even if she can say, "I define my boundaries / I define consent".

In a recent email interview, Pugmire explained the need to pin down meaning. "Have you ever had an argument about what constitutes assault or rape? Especially when alcohol's involved? With someone who's in total denial — or worse — totally aware of what they've done? It's sticky and beyond frustrating. Put it this way: language is crucial in any discussion of abuse of power because a few words and definitions can mean the difference between prison and freedom, or being raped/not being raped, or any number of scenarios.

"It was simplest way I could think of to ask myself — and whoever I happened to be arguing with — what do these words mean? My main concerns are with the varying meanings and interpretations of rape, etc. and getting those questions out there, so that people are at least thinking about the meanings, if not how those meanings apply to their/our own lives and actions."

This issue comes up dramatically around issues of date rape or acquaintance rape (which "Talk of the Town" points out), and the whole discussion is misinformed. The questions come up — How much did she drink? Why were they in his room? Why did she allow so much before thinking they could stop? — that mistakenly suggest consent can be implicit. When victims are abandoned because events couldn't be legally defined precisely enough, it's a problem, hence the need to "define c.o.n.s.e.n.t".

That power of naming and defining can also be a limiting factor within a positive situation. In "Syncope Riders", the narrator refuses to apply language to a happy physical experience, saying, "Don't name this...Words eclipsed...pleasure elision". Pugmire expands, "Where 'Talk' has personal ideas (informed by different feminist and anarchist ideas) about defining and dealing with rape, 'Syncope' uses the same tools to examine pleasure. More obliquely probably, but that's where it's coming from." In both songs — and, to a lesser extent, "What About a Word?" — the group captures the dangerous power of language, and it's a subject in need of more public discussion, especially as courts (and college campuses) seek to prevent and combat sexual assault.

While the band boils its politics into lucid statements in song, it also recognizes the range of feelings that can be entangled in such issues, and the narrators of Body Stories sometimes allow their anxiety to show through. Though they choose a path that requires courage ("Your terms / Empowered / Defiant"), it can be a struggle getting to that point. "Fear's just as much a part of what we do as alienation or personal connection or anger or happiness whatever," says Pugmire. "We're human." Yet that fear can be surmounted, and, in this case, it reveals the need for and enables the presentation of such direct lyrics.

When asked how this anxiety extends to concerns about critical or commercial reception, he responds, "What's important for us is making music that we enjoy and feel challenged by, and presenting it to, and sharing it with, people who are interested. I have no issue with positive critical/commercial reception if it expedites our ability to exchange ideas with more people than we're able to reach currently. Especially if the exchanges are unmediated."

So far responses have been mostly positive and Pugmire says that their crowds at lives shows tend to be "positive and open", adding, "We're as excited by them as they are by us, usually." He adds, "I can't and don't care to be the judge of" how being a political band influences the way people receive the actual music. He might not want to say it, but the "political" tag has stuck plenty of bands in their own little hole. The type of subversive the mainstream wants is the kind that doesn't really subvert anything, that just sounds comfortably un-establishment. Shoplifting has too much to say to be safe.

Near the end of the exchange, I have one more question. The presence, or at least role, of males in the feminist movements is still being questioned today, although perhaps less so than when Stephen Heath wrote, "Men's relation to feminism is an impossible one" to start off Alice Jardine's collection Men in Feminism at the end of the '80s. For all the theoretical discussion that's taken place, Pugmire cuts right to it: "People can debate all they want.... Feminism, as I understand it, is the movement to end the oppression of women. I don't think such a movement (movements, really) should exclude men or any gender and if there's people that think that, that's their deal, not ours. They can live in their happy separatist world where no one will disagree with them, but that doesn't mean that anyone has any right to dictate who makes up our band and who in our band is allowed to be present in, or talk about, feminism — or any topic."

That sort of directness carries Body Stories a long way, but Shoplifting backs it up with well-considered underpinnings to its lyrics. Couple that with explosive, unhinged art-punk, and the group has an album that is as enjoyable as it is important to hear.

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