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In celebration of ugly dancing

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I would have loved nothing more than to see Lorde murder her Grammys performance on Jan. 28, and it broke my heart that she didn’t get to. After an exhausting six or so months of scandal, I had just about lost all faith in the entertainment industry. I was ready to ring in the new year with some kind of celebration. I was ready for Lorde to shake, shimmy, and violently convulse all over that Grammys stage and to shake my fist triumphantly in the air as I watched because I just love it when she does that.

See, for a while there, I thought that kind of stage presence was a thing of the past for women. Those awkward, disarming spasms, funny faces, absolute, ugly abandon—I figured it had come and gone and that I had missed it. Showmanship like Lorde’s was something I’ve admired since forever, but only from afar because it appeared to be going extinct.  

Take Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, for example. She was a front-woman to be reckoned with. Whether it was her hideous costuming, her outlandish choreography, or because she’d shamelessly fellated a microphone before an audience of thousands, Karen never failed to scandalize and to amaze.

“Every photo you’d see [in the press] would be the most unattractive, ugly moment of every show,” O said once in an interview with Elle, “But it’s pretty awesome that that’s what they wanted to showcase. The real. The gritty, visceral, bleh real.”

I will be forever grateful to Karen O for carrying the legacy of Hole, of The Raincoats, of Blondie, and of so many other female-fronted bands who like to get freaky on stage, into the 21st century.

But of course, we mustn’t neglect the solo acts. Fiona Apple was always an unlikely hero of ugly dancing in my eyes. Though her smooth, crooning ballads might conjure up images of elegance and demureness, she could headbang with the rest of them. Her 1997 appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman is bound to stick with you. She was only 19 at the time, but with a  brash confidence far beyond her years. During the performance of her would-be hit song, “Criminal,” Fiona throws an absolute tantrum on-stage. She growls into the microphone, she stomps her feet, she howls her lyrics. It’s amazing.

But, of course, audiences outside of the artists’ cult following were never especially kind to Fiona, or to Courtney Love, or to any of them for that matter. In fact, it seemed for a long time that this kind of stage presence was being used as further proof of the singers’ drama queen, angst-ridden personas. It seemed like maybe Ugly Dancing would come to be remembered as one of the kitschy, retro signifiers of late 1990s/early 2000s angry girl music, alongside poorly executed plaid and that one Meredith Brooks song.

I figured that while David Bowie and Eddie Vedder would forever be canonized in music history for their theatrics, Alanis Morisette would only ever be remembered as angry. But, whenever I see Lorde perform, and whenever I see Este Haim’s infamous bass face, I think, “They did it! They brought it back!”

There are few things more rock ‘n’ roll than being strange or ugly or spooky onstage. Ugly Dancing is about more than defying traditional standards of beauty and femininity, although this is a huge part of it. It’s about feeling so at home and comfortable in your own body that for the length of exactly one set, you let it do whatever it wants. I can only imagine how good, how revolutionary, this must feel.


 

I’m bummed that Lorde didn’t get to perform last week, but I’m trying not to let that disappointment eclipse my joy at seeing a mainstream pop artist continue to be so unapologetically strange every chance she gets. Whether or not she realizes it, every time she gets up onstage and does something ugly, her fans are watching and they are shaking their fists triumphantly!

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