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The hand that rocks

By Rachael "Yellow" Huang

I'm sitting in front of my incredibly messy desk, looking at the tornado-swept abyss of my living room, ticking off the things that need to get done -- get rid of oriental carpet, wash dog, set up bed in kid's room, fix amplifier. And it dawns on me, why the heck am I doing this? Not making a to-do list. I'm a mom; moms always have to-do lists. Why does mine include fixing an amplifier? Why do I make rock music, it seems such an uphill battle, such an incongruous thing. Why do I rock out?

I'm the lead singer and rhythm guitar player for Placenta, an all-mom hard rock/punk/glam band. I started the band a few years ago, as a newly singled- mom, when I connected with other single moms, heard and read their stories, and realized that our reality is far removed from the image in the mainstream press of single mothers as evil personified. I needed to get our message out, us single moms, us moms in general, heck, women as a group, in a way that people would absorb and remember. I wanted to turn the tide against the oppression of mothers. We can't play the media's game -- we'll lose every time. We have to write our own stories. Music, little songs that get stuck in your head, those are very effective teaching tools. How did you learn the Alphabet? And if you're from my generation, how do you know that "a noun is a person, place or thing"? It just so happens that I am a 1) music teacher and 2) old punk rocker, so I decided to write my story with an electric guitar and some pink hair dye.

Over the course of the past few years, Placenta (aka The Lactators and JunkBox) has gone from a crazy idea to a pretty tame pop punk band to a non-gender-specific hard rock band, back to a mom punk band, and on to some kind of fantastic punk/funk/art/metal/synth mom band. Really, right at the moment we decided to try to re-embrace the idea of an all-mom band, the world turned upside down. We got interviewed for a story in the Wall Street Journal (a punk-rocker's delight), were put on the cover of USA Today, had Reality Show ideas pitched at us, all because someone realized that mothers were making rock music, and they thought the idea would make for good copy. Human interest, or perhaps News of the Weird -- but not the music columns. The mainstream press has a very narrow of view of motherhood, and an equally narrow view of what it means to be a rock musician. Of course, mom rockers may seem odd, if you see all mothers as June Cleaver and all rockers as Tommy Lee!

In order for the world to continue on it's present path of illness, mothers need to remain ever-reliable, ever the door-mat, ever nurturing. Even though no real mother now is like that, and none of our mothers were ever like that, nor none of our grandmothers and beyond, it's still an expectation. Walk out of June Cleaver land, and people look at you like you're on crack.

Rock stars, on the other hand, are expected to live the life of never-ending adolescence, drinking and doing drugs and trashing hotel rooms. Not true for, say, classical musicians. But that rock-n-roll lifestyle of excess is as much a convenience of the system as is the lifestyle of bland soccer moms. Rock stars are glorified laborers for the entertainment industry -- unless they get out of line, in which case they are has-beens.

I've never wanted to be a rock star. I am a rock musician. I practice my guitar, my singing, and my stage show. I write songs that I want to perform, and I hope that other people like them, too. I write songs to break the silence about things that are bugging me, or things that I just happen to notice. About being a single mom, being treated like a pariah, while my ex pays no child support, and nobody does anything about it. About having sexual feelings for the janitor at my kids' school, or a transgendered friend of mine. About being dumped by one guy after another. About feeling that, deep down inside, I'm ugly. About the depression associated with mounds of laundry, or having to shop at the canned food store. About the exhaustion and endless tasks of motherhood, compared to the stress and strain I imagine a rock star has. About feeling that, after all, I'm really too much woman for anybody, so there!

Placenta practices once or twice a week and performs once or twice a month. There are other bands in the San Francisco Bay Area who practice more often and play out more often than we do. We don't compare ourselves to other bands. We are unique. We are gunning for the system that keeps mothers down and musicians either poor or stuck like hamsters on a wheel, keeping an industry going.

Since Placenta doesn't fit into a convenient marketing niche, we get put on the bill with all kinds of other bands, which makes life interesting. We recently played a "punk night" with two all-guy bands who tried to make us play last (the booking agent was a single dad who could relate to our childcare cost woes, so that didn't work), threatened to leave if we went on before them, told their friends to turn their backs on us, then talked about their genitalia onstage. We've also been put on the bill with a campy 50s drag review (since we're queer-friendly? I guess that was the reason), and a series of singer/songwriters (because we're women? All women sound like the Indigo Girls?).

All press pigeon-holing and bad matches for line-ups aside, what keeps me rockin' is the act of making music. Every single moment of it. Planning our next set of crazy costumes; sewing a giant vagina for a special guest to wear onstage; working the beginning, or bridge or ending of a song over and over, till we get it right. Screwing up lyrics; playing a set with only 5 strings, as one broke halfway through the first song; not being able to hear each other; having people walk out because they want us to be more "girlie". Watching as people sing along to "La-la-la, I'm ugly!" or "Single mom, what the fuck went wrong?" or "I own my own pussy!" Seeing our picture in the paper, realizing how proud my kids are to have the pink-haired mom.

So, I'm standing on the stage. All the equipment is set up and we've done a sound check, with our tamest song. I'm wearing my Marilyn Monroe outfit and wig. My kids are at a neighbor's house. I know my house is still a wreck, the dog still stinky, there are dishes in the sink. I don't care. The audience doesn't know what they're in for. They can see that we're not exactly stereotypical suburban moms, but I love knowing that the minute I open my mouth and scream "Whaaaaaaaaaaaooooooowwww" to start "SuperGenderBender," all bets are off.

Placenta's in the house. Are you ready to rock?

mmo : december 2005


Also on the MMO:

Mama, you rock
Documentary filmmaker Jackie Weissman talks about her work in progress, “Rock N Roll Mamas”
Interview by Margaret Foley

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