It was only until the past two years that I really felt that I had some connection in a creative musical community. I’m not one of those people who’ve been in bands FOREVER; it was something I picked up in my post-academic life--probably because I never got to it in my younger years--but there was always the allure, not just for the sake of “rocking out” or whatever, but more for the camaraderie of being in a creatively collaborative performance environment.
I grew up on '80s movie montages and the distinct third-wave '90s “Girl Power” juxtaposed with Riot Grrrl feminism.
On top of being curious about why and how other women get into music, I’m always style-crushing--because while I may not be able to shred an axe, to me a big part of performance involves aesthetic. Nothing too self-serious, but you can’t ignore that image has an impact (even if the music itself doesn't).
I talked to some friends in music about how beauty and style is incorporated into their art, and when I could, I attended some local shows to snap some pre- and post-show beauty shots.
Let's start with Celene, aka Prom Queen.
Celene is probably one of the most glamorous and hard-working musicians I know personally (through the Internet). Not only is her music dreamily of another era, her whole aesthetic is spot on glamour go-go. She even Beyonce’d her latest album as a full video.
What are your go-to products to wear when playing a show? Are they different from the stuff you use every day?
Celene: "I use mostly Atomic Cosmetics makeup because it's free of toxic chemicals and made with performers in mind. They make a very heavy spackle foundation that I wear every time I perform, and I confess I sometimes wear it in daily life, too!
For shows, I’m almost in drag with the amount of makeup I wear. In daily life, I am typically much more minimalist.
You'll probably never catch me in public without a lined eye or something on my lips, so my liquid liner and my Lolita lipstick are always in my purse."
I met Amanda through a mutual friend who told me, “You’ll like her, she’s really cool…and she’s a badass, like you.”
How could I not befriend anyone with that intro? The first time I saw her perform in her band, Crazy Pills, she was this teeny woman with a guitar strapped to her body, hands a blur and yowling in such a way that blew my mind. What she does looks simultaneously easy and like no one else could do it but her.
Amanda: "First and foremost, I always stick a spare pick in my bra in case I drop one. That is of utmost importance. I should license guitar pick pasties. Basically, I cake on a ton of black eyeliner or eye gel. It's either Bobbi Brown's black gel eyeliner for an intense cat eye, or heavy Siouxsie Sioux eyes using Benefit's eyeliner felt pen, or new fave Make Up For Ever's waterproof eyeliner stick--that stuff is really good! I set it with black eye shadow and then spray the holy mess over with Urban Decay's setting spray, otherwise it gets under my eyes, which also looks pretty badass but scares people when I am off-stage selling merch and talking to people."
As front woman of punk band Perfect Pussy, watching Meredith Graves perform is like watching a semi-automatic in a pencil skirt.
At least, that’s how I felt at a PP show last spring, where I had the distinct experience of having a full-grown man throw his whole body on top of me. Aside from gigging, Meredith seems to have made herself a portal for feminist discussion in not only the punk scene, but anywhere Internets can be read, with sharp, enlightening criticism about being a woman in music.
Meredith: "I wear the same makeup all the time, and it's all very cheap. Liquid eyeliner has been my 'thing' as long as I've been wearing makeup, and despite trying every brand under the sun, I always go back to Wet N Wild Mega Liner. Something about the little paintbrush, I think. And it's two bucks, so if it gets lost I can get another one at any drugstore in the country. I wear coconut oil under a color-correcting primer and [Benefit] Benetint, and powder my eyebrows in accordance with my constantly-changing hair color.
If it's a nighttime show, I'll put highlighter on my cheekbones, because when I get photographed with flash, my face looks like a potato blob.
[I'll wear] lipstick if it feels right--again, usually Wet n' Wild, the rave reviews of MegaLast are absolutely 100% accurate. I own almost every color."
I became familiar with Wax Idols, Hether Fortune’s music project, about two years ago.
I think in that span, she went from poppy garage to what I can only describe as a post-punk dystopian New Year's Eve party. Almost every image I’ve seen of her is so glamorously androgynous and unapologetically sexy, so naturally I had to ask...
Do you have a certain look you go for when getting ready for a show, and how much does that affect your attitude/approach to performing?
Hether: "How I feel informs how I dress and what kind of makeup I do.
The way that you present yourself to the world is a valid form of art if you have a pure expressive intent rather than to just look trendy, sexy, or like someone else.
My look is just my look, on stage or off. Dramatic, androgynous, flash and fetish, black. If I feel good, I look good. Feeling and looking good puts me in a confident state of mind, which makes it easier to access my emotions in front of an audience and transcend all the nerves and potential awkwardness. Everyone is just standing there staring at you. It's important to feel strong and have a sense of purpose, to be ready to put on a show and entertain them. Otherwise, what are we all doing here?"
Celene: "Prom Queen's aesthetic is very important to the show. There's a cinematic quality to our music and a nostalgia that we want to capture and create in the live setting. We aim to achieve a mostly '60s look overall, to match our sound. But since our sound has a wide span, there's lots to play with; sometimes we sound more exotica, sometimes more western, sometimes mod or psychedelic, and our wardrobe and looks reflect that. I always have big hair and a dress. I have a wig system that makes it so I can achieve perfect, big '60s hair in under five minutes! I feel like once the wig and dress are on, I’m ready for a show."
Amanda: "I sort of figure out whose music is looping in my head and take that cue. Tom Verlaine? Tomboy it. Francoise Hardy? I put on this bright blue Kanebo pigmented eye shadow with black eyeliner. Nick Cave? MAC Film Noir and a pompadour. Grace Jones? Lots of cheek contouring and gold jewelry. You get the picture."
Linda plays guitar in a local Brooklyn band, Chimes.
When I met Linda, she was wearing knee-socks with cat faces on them, which struck me as strangely precious, as she was pretty much shredding to maximum psych on guitar while being one of those singers with envious aplomb for harmony.
Linda: "Be as cat-like as possible. A nice long cat-eye is key. Make-up can be so much fun, but it's not something I stress about too much on show days. When I perform, my face is usually engulfed in my hair. I can't help but head-bang. It almost brings me into a meditative state, where the music just takes me. I want to seem real and relatable, that's why I never go too over the top with my makeup. I like to keep it subtle."
What’s most important to you about the way you’re perceived when performing?
Meredith: "I guess I want people to recognize that the way you look and the way you sound and what you're saying can all be radically different and still wrap around each other and work in tandem to create a larger piece of art. I'm an extremely feminine-looking person in a little dress howling unintelligibly until I'm red in the face and covered in my own mascara and snot, but I'm talking about really personal, quiet topics in my normal, nerdy vocabulary. You can have it all."
It was cool to know that my own performance prep isn't any more or less unusual or unique to a handful of musicians I enjoy. If nothing else, I jotted down some notes on how to make my makeup stick to my face under hot lights and sweat.
- Do any of you guys play music?
- What's your stage look?
- Even better, what's your favorite stage look? Mine's probably Debbie Harry (for obvious reasons) or Karen O.