Esthero: Goddess Worship Starts Here
originally appeared in Hyperactive Music Magazine, Number 7, Nov/Dec 2005
From the cover of her latest CD, Wikkid Lil’ Grrrls, Esthero’s pink-lip-glossed seduction reaches right for your erogenous zones—and you almost feel guilty about it. Almost. I mean, this is obviously going to be far too easy. Those coppery curls, that come-hither glance… you think you’ve got this chick all figured out.
Better watch out. She’s not as sweet as she looks.
In fact, Esthero comes out swinging. The album’s first track, “We R In Need Of a Musical ReVoLuTIoN,” is an acrid critique of the state of modern pop music. “I’m so sick and tired of the shit on the radio,” she croons, to a swinging rhythm that would make even your granny snap her fingers, expletives and all.
Glitzy photo spreads and finger poppin’ aside, Esthero isn’t one to curry favor. She’s the bittersweet chocolate on the candy aisle—maybe your tongue isn’t quite used to the flavor, but it won’t take you long to get hooked.
After making waves with her 1998 debut album Breath From Another, it would have been easy for the then-18-year-old artist to ride her momentum all the way to Britney-like notoriety. Instead, she all but disappeared from the music scene. Her time off the radar screen did little to blunt her edge, however: Esthero emerged from those years with gallons of fuel for forthright songs, and the huevos to back ‘em up.
Whether she’s shaming pop icons for their transgressions or rebuking a lover for his shortcomings, this gal delivers her pronouncements in a voice that any American Idol would give her eye teeth to have. More nuanced than your average Destiny’s Child imitator, Esthero’s voice echoes old jazz legends while comfortably fitting itself to drum & bass and even samba soul. Her influences are many and varied, and as singer, songwriter, and producer, she deftly combines her skills in a record that is deeper than its sweet cover belies.
But all that depth doesn’t mean Esthero is all business—the pink pirate knows how to let her hair down. “‘Wikked Lil’ Girls’ is, without a doubt, one of my favorite songs to sing,” she grinned. And how could it not be? Smarter and sassier than most “hott” pop numbers, the album’s title track purrs and snarls and doesn’t apologize for its sexy self: “You think that I’m a lady / You think that I won’t fight?” she sings, the answer to her question clear in her syrupy, sardonic delivery. This lady ain’t so ladylike; she feels no need to justify her behavior beyond assuring us that “You got’s to love living while you’re living or you won’t love life.”
In any case, this opinionated Canadian doesn’t really make excuses. Her sharp video for “Musical ReVoLuTIoN” makes a compelling point: “I did this scene where I’m naked … and I have electrical tape on my mouth, and I have a tiny TV in front of my vagina,” she described. “They filmed my mouth singing the lyrics, so I’m singing from my vagina and … I’m implying no matter how much you shut us up here, this is where the creativity comes from, this is what talks.” Coupled with stirring images of men smashing the very TVs that are feeding them images of tits, asses, and dollar signs, the video testifies to Esthero’s feminist beliefs and her piquant exasperation with American popular culture.
“I’ve been meditating a lot on what is the purpose of the artist, what is the artist’s job,” she explained, “and for me the primary [purpose] is to journal.” Both record and commentary, this artist’s journal looks beyond melody and chorus: “I guess I see music the same way as I would define my feminism: multifaceted. I can be androgynous; I can be more feminine; I can be masculine. I can be all of these things, and that is my right and also my nature; that is our nature, to be all of these things. … like the goddess Kali, to nurture and be violent at the same time. And I think the problem right now with this industry is the lack of variety, and access to variety.”
Pointing out the dichotomous forces shaping our society, Esthero calls out both the puritans and the libertines. She criticizes “the über-Christian morality police [who] attack artists when there’s all this other bullshit going on in the world,” but doesn’t spare the fleshmongers, either. There may be a sea of difference between the Red States and the Left Coast, but Esthero is quick to point out their common ground: “Now that I am a woman, I recognize it, and I see it, how your sexuality is directly linked to your morality and it’s held against you. You’re required to be this way up on video, but in real life it’s very Draconian… [there are] all these things that women aren’t allowed to explore.” Even in the most explicit of music videos, women’s sexuality is strictly defined, she explained: “The cock worship bothers me … the idea that a woman’s sexuality is only okay as long as she is worshipping the cock. When I wrote ‘O.G. Bitch,’ and I use the word ‘bitch’ or ‘cunt’ or ‘whore’ in a goddess-feminine sense, nobody wants to hear that. R Kelly can fuck little girls and be on the radio, [but] for me to write a song about celebrating the whore, the goddess, is totally not fucking okay.”
Okay or not, Esthero doesn’t pale from celebrating every aspect of her own inner goddess. “It’s all about asking yourself what you require from your art,” she clarified. “And I require different things at different times. Sometimes I want to shake my ass; sometimes I want to be healed; sometimes I want to think. And I think that can always change.”
It’s an approach that’s evident with this album. Each of these needs is fulfilled by some song on the record: the Riot Grrrl has her anthem (“Musical ReVoLuTIoN”), the brokenhearted finds solace (“Melancholy Melody”), the feisty girl smirks at her own naughtiness (“Wikked Lil’ Grrrls”), and the temptress crooks a finger your way (“If Tha Mood”). Each listener can find a foothold among the sly arrangements and sharp lyrics, making accessible to those with open ears even the most confrontational of songs.
“What we hear affects our hearts,” Esthero sings, “There’s gotta be a better way to communicate.” Even at her most mischievous, her respect for the larger process of her art shines bright. “As artists, we journal life,” she declared. “We’re journaling fucking history in a beautiful way.” Inside those bubblegum good looks lurks a true craftswoman, intelligent and in tune with the world in which she works. It ain’t easy or simple, and neither is she.
When a sultry voice asks us, near the end of the album, “My vocabulary leaves most men wary / I need to know: can you get into it?” we have just one answer: Oh hell yes.