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Music

What the Sirens Taught Us: An Elegy for Mermaidens

From the cover of Perfect Body, Mermaidens (Flying Nun, 2017)

There's something not-quite-right, something distinctly off-kilter, about the Mermaidens' feminine voice in New Zealand's music scene.

"In the colonies, a man could feel a man once more"
- Jock Phillips, A Man's Country? (1988)

For the prospective colonist, New Zealand wasn't simply a pristine country but a man's one; a place where nature wasn't just intact but where it could be mastered, and where even the limpest flapdoodle might come to fulfil his wildest fantasies of masculinity. The pristine imagery persists: when tasked with imagining the nation, today's Pākehā (New Zealanders of European descent) reach for the icons of The Great Outdoors: the beach, the bush, and – crucially – the barbecue, that sacred site of meal preparation, which manages to transcend the profane confines of domesticity altogether.

But all these signs are haunted by their prior associations, by the fact that the Outdoors, which they signify, has itself been imagined as the stage on which Victorian manhood assumes its true form: industrious, spartan, self-reliant, hyper-physical, emotionless (unless enraged), often drunk, obsessed with rugby (the most Victorian of games), and prone to bouts of aggression. (Watch what happens when a woman tries to take charge of a barbecue in the company of Pākehā men, especially if the national rugby team are suffering a losing-streak). The kiwi bach, then, that mythic indoor-Outdoors, is a Gothic pile; the 'bloke', its not-always-friendly ghost.

Blowfly photo by stevepb (Pixabay License Pixabay)

Hardly a coincidence that Pākehā have also yielded a disproportionate number of Gothic texts, many of them concerned with the question (as Ian Conrich pointed out in his landmark essay, "New Zealand Gothic"), 'what lies beneath?' From Maurice Gee's 1979 children's book Under the Mountain (which imagined a parasitic alien race hidden 'beneath' Auckland's sublime topography) to Peter Jackson's 1994 film, Heavenly Creatures (which depicted a conspiracy of madness and murder operating 'beneath' Christchurch's picture perfect suburbia).

Probably the most disturbing of these texts is David Ballantyne's 1968 novel, Sydney Bridge Upside Down – a male coming-of-age story in which the quaintness of rural life provides the perfect cover for a series of darker happenings. But what is most chilling about that novel is the ease with which it transitions between pastoral paradise and derelict abattoir, reminding us that this colony was never Bread Basket but Meat Pack: that 'beneath' the pristine surface is an economy founded not on some utopian co-existence with nature but on the bloodthirsty exploitation of its resources. Lambs gambol about the hilltops, but only because they are headed for the butcher's block.

But meat is conspicuously absent from the national collections. In 2017, a panel called 'The Butcher Shop' went searching for depictions of New Zealand's primary industry within its arts – and found precious little. Post-punk yields one: the now-infamous Skeptics' single 'AFFCO' (Auckland Farmers' Freezing Company) whose videoclip – a Stuart Page operation (and for many of us, his masterpiece) – juxtaposed animals in luscious fields with slaughterhouse interiors and a blood-spattered David d'Ath being wrapped in clingfilm, making explicit, thereby, the connection between pastoral surface, white-male aggression, and the meat trade (watch what happens when falafel is cooked on that barbecue).

Screengrab from Skeptics' 'AFFCO' (YouTube)

But the video was banned (although it is found here on YouTube) and remains controversial to this day, and doubtless because it disclosed an unspeakable truth: for the Pākehā male, you're never packing more meat than when you're actually packing meat; you're never closer to the national standards of masculinity than when you're out killing sheep – or clubbing seals, as the case may be.

As for The Holy Roman Empire (neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire), so for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: not really a 'massacre' – in spite of the film's reputation as the archetypal 'Nastie', its onscreen gore is relatively modest; the eponymous 'chainsaw', moreover, is only the last in a series of industrial tools repurposed as weapons – all the others are butchers' implements. (The implication is clear: the chainsaw's symbolic function is synonymous with the meataxe's – a prop in some obscene performance of an old-world masculinity which consists in being 'master' of nature.) (Incidentally, Pākehā New Zealand has yielded no shortage of 'chainsaw artists' and 'power-tool sculptors' whose work, moreover, is rarely anything but an alibi for a version of that same performance.) Nor is the film just about Texas, but really about any periphery that has done the dirty work – and the meat work in particular – of the centre.

For which reason, an awful lot of Tobe Hooper's 1974 film feels like it could have been set in New Zealand. It certainly yields a more accurate portrait of the Pākehā psyche than a lot of Pākehā-made attempts. But one scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an exception. Pam (Teri McMinn) approaches the house for the first (and last) time. A tracking shot follows her from the lowest of low angles, forcing the viewer into what initially feels like textbook voyeurism: from here, we can see her butt hanging out of the bottom of her high-cut shorts, and we sense that we are being forced to ogle her as if she were, so to speak, 'a piece of meat'. Minutes later, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) hangs her body on a meat hook, and that tracking shot becomes doubly sinister: we weren't looking at Pam as if she were a piece of meat, we were seeing her as Leatherface sees her – as an actual piece of meat.

But the scene could never have been consciously conceived by a kiwi director. In time for its New Zealand opening in 2014, fast food franchise Carl's Jr. tried to release an advert depicting a bikinied Paris Hilton consuming a beef burger. This too was banned (although it is found here on YouTube), and doubtless because it too disclosed some unspeakable truth. And it's on account of that truth that the one slur which retains the capacity to offend the Pākehā male is 'sheepshagger': when the overlap between his sexism and his carnivorism is made explicit, he is deeply un-settled.

Carl's Jr.'s Paris Hilton ad screengrab (YouTube)

New Zealand might not have dreamt up Leatherface; what it does have is the notorious 'baby-farmer' Minnie Dean – the only woman to have received the death penalty in New Zealand, and the subject of near-endless ghost-stories, songs, novels, documentaries, articles, plays, television programmes, and conspiracy theories. It's telling that the monster which plagues the national psyche more than any other is she who combines maternal work with the infallible sign of Pākehā masculinity: meat-production.

*

On 21 March of this year, the Workingmen's Bowling Club in Wellington will play host to Mermgrown – a festival curated and headlined by the band Mermaidens, and a celebration of its eight years together. It will also be, they have announced, their last show 'for a while'. They will be greatly missed, and for several reasons.

Two-thirds of Mermaidens – and both of its vocalists – are women. Of course, this grants them a unique sound within the male-dominated world of New Zealand rock music (and rock music in general): a feminine voice in yet another sea of men. More crucially, the band is explicitly concerned with female – and with the New Zealand female – experience with the kinds of worlds that women are expected to inhabit when the Outdoors is understood to be a giant boy's room: flawless home décor, superhuman beauty regimes, oppressive leisure, perfect manners, labyrinthine soirées, manicured food, state-of-the-art food storage, and an unfailing concern for men and children – in other words, with idyllic domesticity.

But something lurks 'beneath' this idyll. And how could it not, with song titles like 'Under the Mountain II'? And what is really unique to Mermaidens' sound is the ease with which it slips into Black Sabbath levels of fuzz and into time signatures rarely heard in pop (5/4 and 7/8 feature particularly heavily in the discography). In other words, there is something not-quite-right, something distinctly off-kilter, about this feminine voice – which seems to evoke but refuses to fit into the spaces to which feminine voices are usually consigned by the music industry. It's this same not-quite-right-ness which allowed Mermaidens – in collaboration with filmmaker Ryan Fielding – to provide New Zealand with one of its most disturbing music videos ever: 'Undergrowth'

On a first viewing, that video looks like a kiwi version of David Lynch's Twin Peaks: a picture-perfect rural town conceals something darker lying 'beneath' – something which prompts some seriously strange behaviour in the town's inhabitants (often involving microwaves and welding masks), and which eventually subsumes the central female figure. It should come as no surprise that this setting – picture-perfect though it is – is being exploited: we are shown trees being felled and factories bellowing smoke. But 'Undergrowth' is still a good deal weirder than the average kiwi Gothic.

In tampon commercials, blue liquid is always shorthand for menstrual blood. Apparently, women's bodily functions are too abject to be realistically represented in mainstream advertising and must be substituted with this sanitised equivalent. At the end of 'Undergrowth', this same blue liquid drips from the female figure's ears and nose: here, all her blood, and not just her menstruation, has been subjected to the same substitution. But what makes this scene truly disturbing is that only a few minutes earlier we've been shown footage of a Pākehā male cutting open and eating a sausage that same shade of blue.

It's a rare depiction of meat in New Zealand art, and its suggestion, though subtle, is devastating: he is eating a sausage made of the woman's flesh. His carnivorism (the centrality of the meat industry to his economy and landscape) and his sexism (his branding that landscape unfeminine) are implied to be part and parcel of the same evil. It's a gesture even more defiant than yelling 'sheepshaggers' at an All Blacks match – and that's because Mermaidens had to re-appropriate the sexist tropes of tampon commercials in order to articulate that gesture on mainstream television.

Who knows when we'll hear from them again; in the meantime, let's hope that gesture is repeated by others, again and again and again.

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