In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Selena Chambers’s 33 1/3 book on Babes in Toyland’s Fontanelle is an insightful and necessary exploration of an underrated band and album.
In her own words, here is Selena Chambers’s Book Notes music playlist for her book Babes in Toyland’s Fontanelle:
About the book:
Babes in Toyland was one of the most influential and underrated bands of the 1990s. They rode the wave of the Minneapolis grunge scene crafting a unique sound composed of self-taught instrumentation and unabashed banshee raging vocals. Their stage presence was enigmatic, their lyrics vitriolic, and their Kinderwhore fashion ironic and easy to emulate. But what made them most inspiring was their ethos and a unique brand of sisterhood that inspired fans to create Riot Grrl and many legendary bands of the time.
Now on to the playlist!
Babes in Toyland’s music is complex in a way that it is almost impossible to describe. One reason is because they are a melting pot of musical knowledge and influence seasoned with artistic curiosity that made them unafraid to fail at experimentation and improvisation.
While it is easy to make Babes in Toyland all about frontwoman Kat Bjelland, this is not exactly my intent. The band wrote their songs in an organic and collaborative way—and I focus on this in the book as a key component of their creative ethos.
But…I feel that despite this, in many ways Bjelland was the band’s visionary conductor. She wrote the majority of the lyrics, would jumpstart jam sessions with riffs and structures she brought to practice, and ultimately designed the Babes’s sonic signature through her unique and Dadaesque vocal stylings. Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum, and for these reasons, I thought it would be interesting to look at her eclectic influences and trace how they may have entered her, and ultimately the Babes’, songwriting DNA.
Please note, that this playlist was designed to be heard through the comparison and contrast of the paired songs as discussed below.
“Medusa” by Sylvia Plath
Dust Cake Boy by Babes in Toyland (Spanking Machine)
While the rest of the following songs focus more on sound than poetics, we start with some spoken word. The Posterior Fontanelle chapter—where I discuss Bjelland’s lyrics in a critical and academic treatment—was my favorite piece to write.Bjelland rewards close reading, and one of the major literary influences she has openly cited is Sylvia Plath’s poetry. In fact, in “Dust Cake Boy,” Bjelland even alludes to Plath’s “Medusa” with “Dragging our Jesus hair,” and named a song after Ariel on their last studio album, Nemesistsers. Through studying Plath, Bjelland learned how to construct a personal lacework mythology that explored the fallacies of girlhood innocence and subverted the current era’s backlash desires for complacent women.
Butterbean by The B-52s
Catatonic by Babes in Toyland (To Mother)
Bjelland began to learn how to play the guitar when she was in high school. Her education was a combination of surf riffs that her uncle taught her, and picking out songs by favored bands The B-52s, The Divinyls, and The Cramps. Out of these influences, I found The B-52s the most intriguing because their overall light-hearted vibe seems like it’d be polar opposite of the brooding and raw music of the Babes. But actually, the Babes were always playful. Their song structures are unorthodox, and there is something about Bjelland’s performances that are theatrical in their improvisations.
I chose to pair “Catatonic” with “Butterbean” because this was one of the first songs Bjelland wrote in her second band, The Venarays. “Catatonic” would go through several incarnations.
By the time it becomes a Babes song, the lyrics become this interesting one woman play
using fragments of overheard dialogue and statements that create an Imagist narrative. She also builds on the negative space of the song with vocalizations. The B-52s’ styling featured similar characteristics.
Sunglasses After Dark by The Cramps
Spits to See the Shine by Babes in Toyland (To Mother)
There has always been something about Bjelland’s playing that is rockabilly AF, and is residual of the 1960s garage rock she trained on. “Spits to the See the Shine” is another recycled song from earlier bands, and the Babes’ most retro-sounding jam. Its riffs premiered in The Venaray’s performance as “I Hate You” and stayed pretty much the same lyrically when Bjelland re-recorded it (with her vocals) with the Italian Whorenuns. In both versions, “I Hate You” is played fast like most rockabilly songs. However, “Spits to See the Shine” is slowed down to a swampy crawl that calls to mind nothing but the creepy vamping of The Cramps every time I hear it.
D-7 by Wipers
Spun by Babes in Toyland (Fontanelle)
It was a revelation to Bjelland when she saw Wipers for the first time. This was how she discovered punk, and it inspired her to break away from the idylls of surf rock melodies and start experimenting with noise as an artistic form of expression in addition to chord progression and scales.
To the 2023 ear, Wipers aren’t as raucous as you’d expect. In fact, I would say the Babes are much noisier. Wipers are heavily distorted but with melodies sprinkled in between the simple riffs. Like The B-52s, they also were playful with a song’s tempo as you can see from the slow burn intro of “D-7” that explodes for a poignant, fist-pumping outré. Babes’ songs would end up having similar hooking devices. If they started out full throttle, they would ride the breaks until the song would spin out. But if they started slow and sweet, as in “Spun,” they would make sure it went out with a heart-stopping bang.
My Crotch Does Not Say Go by Frightwig
Handsome and Gretel by Babes in Toyland (Fontanelle)
While Wipers were Bjelland’s introduction to the glorious sloppiness of punk rock, Frightwig was her induction. This was her first encounter with an all-female punk band who played as raucously and confrontationally as any of their male peers without pandering to the male gaze. Seeing these women on stage, Bjelland felt bolstered to start pushing herself in a similar vein, and with the Italian Whorenuns, moved herself up to the front to start singing her own songs.
I’m pairing “Handsome and Gretel” with “My Crotch Does Not Say Go,” because they both confront bad sex and the male gaze head on. “Handsome” is a fragmented fairy tale of sexual and domestic abuse, and doesn’t mince words. In fact, Bjelland received a lot of criticism for it when it was released on Fontanelle, along with a few other slur-slinging songs, and the album almost earned an Explicit Warning label.
Antiworld by Nina Hagan
Mother by Babes in Toyland (Fontanelle)
Frightwig supplied the attitude, but it would be Nina Hagan who taught Bjelland style: “You know who I really thought was cool though, was Nina Hagan, because of her range. I always thought, ‘Man, if I could do that, that would be hot! So she kind of inspired me as far as like, ‘You can sing.” I found this quote in an early interview, and it immediately answered the question I’ve been asking for thirty years: Where in the hell did she learn to belt like that?
Bjelland entirely taught herself how to sing, and she took its possibilities seriously. Always pushing her range, she became famous for a scat-like improvisation that seemed like possession. That paired with the fragmented dialogue, changing perspectives, and a caterwauling scale that ranged from goblin growls to banshee like high-C’s, I always viewed her performances as cabaret-like. But I could never figure out where that could have possibly come from. Once I read her admiration of Nina Hagen, it all became clear.
Nothing by The Plasmatics
Bruise Violet by Babes in Toyland (Fontanelle)
Kat was drawn to the type of female performers who pushed the boundaries of the female space. There was the Neptunian variety of Nina Hagen who’s grotesqueries thwarted the objectifying female gazeness of cabaret’s of yore; Frightwig of their smart and no-shit straight forward punk rock with subverting lyrics and biting wit. And then there’s Wendy O William’s who literally strips down the groupie notion of female rockers into a jarring polarity of gruff and masculine metal singing—the voice of a million smoked cigarettes—with her tit’s out.
Hagen and Williams were what rock and roll was all suppose to be about—pushing the boundaries, destroying the norms, walking on the edge and sometimes falling off. It’s just that up until now, this existential exploration of freedom and rowdiness belonged to men. Bjelland wanted her band to push themselves and their music to extremes, too. It was not to be political or feminist, but at the same time, they weren’t going to erase the fact that their experiences were informed by the feminine—and that was highly subversive at the time.
Which is why I’ve paired these two songs. The complexity and delicacy of “Bruise Violet” got completely hijacked by a media backlash that loved nothing more than a mud-fight between powerful women. It was hard for people to comprehend that female friendships contain multitudes. In writing about an authentic personal experience, Bjelland writes a confronting song about jealousy and heartbreak that women can cause each other, especially when pitted together in the ultra-competitive patriarchy.
Also, for auditory correspondence, I liked how both women throw “You” around like diamond knives—the words are out to cut deep.
Solitude by Billie Holiday
Gone by Babes in Toyland (Fontanelle)
So this might be a bit contentious, but Bjelland, as well as the other Babes, have often cited their admiration for the Blues and its goddess Billie Holiday. The history of women performers and the blues is full of tales of abuse and reckoning, and while I by no means want to imply the Babes are descended from it, I do think listening to chanteuses like Holiday shaped a sense of cathartic possibility music could have for the female experience.
Just like I’ve always heard rockabilly undertones throughout Bjelland’s playing, I have always felt the Blues there too. It’s not her strange and haunting lyrics, although it is that somewhat, but it’s mostly how dynamic and evocative her singing is. We talk about how Bjelland screams a lot, but she also can croon to heartbreaking effect. By Fontanelle’s recording, she mastered how to create and use emotion to an extent that fans see themselves reflected in her songs. Where she learned this kind of relatability, I think, has as much to do with studying Holiday’s performances as Plath’s poetics.
“Gone” is my favorite song on Fontanelle. It takes a bluesy lament about losing loved ones and adds jarring elements of distortion, off-key harmonies, and breaking bottles to create a Greek chorus of pathos that always brings a knot up in my throat.
Selena Chambers is author of Babes in Toyland’s Fontanelle for the 33 1/3 book series (Bloomsbury Academic) and the Weird historical fiction collection, Calls for Submission (Pelekinesis). Both her fiction and non-fiction has been published in seven countries, and her work has been nominated for several awards, including the Hugo Award and World Fantasy award (twice). Recent fiction includes “The Lilith Assimilations: An Ekphrastic Appreciation,” in Carrie Ann Baade: Scissors and Tears (La Luz de Jesus Gallery press) and “The Veils of Sanctuary” in Nate Pedersen’s Sisterhood: Dark Tales and Secret Histories (Chaosium). Please visit https://selenachambers.com, or subscribe to her newsletter My LoFi Write Life, to learn more.