We Are the Pipettes
f the myriad crackpot theories about music I’ve indulged over late-night conversation, long car rides, and obstinate depression, few have thrilled me as much as my friend Sam’s suggestion that the Wu-Tang Clan had read about, but never actually heard, rap before making Enter the 36 Chambers. Granted, I don’t think Sam had ever heard rap before the Wu-Tang Clan, but he’s an English PhD candidate—the ideas come first. I am absolutely sure that the three twinkle-eyed, polka-dotted mannequins in the Pipettes (and their backing band) have heard the original girl group records. I’m also guessing that they’ve heard the 80s new wave/girl group blend of the Belle Stars and Tracey Ullman; and according to their windy, intolerable website “manifesto,” they’re into DNA and John Lee Hooker and want to erase the Beatles from rock’s back pages—to all of which I issue a hearty what-the-fuck-ever. The point isn’t whether or not they’ve heard these records, just like it wasn’t Sam’s point about Wu-Tang. The point was that both Wu-Tang and the Pipettes somehow juggle some of the basic symbols of their respective genres but end up with a different final product. It’s like aphasia: the Pipettes might mean to say “I am going to walk the dog,” but all that comes out of their mouth is “walk dog.”
But the Pipettes don’t even mean to say “I am going to walk the dog,” they just mean “walk dog,” which is why I’d hesitate to simply call them a neo-girl group despite the obvious retro elements of their shtick. A lot of girl group material reached for the same teenage itch that the Stooges tried to get at: intense, dirt-deep passions with no voice in the cruel world of parents and teachers; feelings left to curdle into fucked-up insecurities. That the Stooges added a clause about destroying everything around them to prove their own existence only goes to reinforce the huge tensions in the girl group sound—the emotional currents never broke to run above ground. Girl groups were racially mixed in personnel and in sound, throwing in black American gospel with the mongrel of early rock ‘n’ roll, the pristine commerciality of 50s radio pop, and a penchant for Wagnerian melodrama. Phil Spector’s ultra-romantic Wall of Sound style remains the most common model for the girl group period because it’s the sonic equivalent of the songs’ emotions: throbbing, indistinct, and huge.
We Are the Pipettes doesn’t hold pretensions to the same feelings: it’s clean, crisp, meticulous, and light on soul. Whereas Ronnie Spector was part black, part Spanish Harlem, and part Carnaby Street; the Pipettes are part sexy librarian, part slumber party nymphet, a smidge of attitude reminiscent of the Raincoats, and very, very white. Blondie’s cover of the Shangri-las’ “Out in the Streets” is only laudable because it somehow puts every trace of the original’s feeling on ice, but if you’ve ever had your hand under extremely hot or extremely cold water, you know that the sensations are more or less the same. The Pipettes are an ever-tolerable lukewarm-to-cool. The Shangri-las once said “He’s good bad, but he’s not evil”; the Pipettes say “He’s kind of tall and he’s kind of shy.”
But their ability to flirt without tipping their beehive makes them weirdly intriguing. Sure, they’re a put-on. Sure, they’re made-up and declawed. They dance in unison and don’t blink, but they’re not campy; their voices aren’t amazing by any stretch, but their sound glitters with self-satisfaction. They’ve tried to overcome the swoon in the girl group sound by forcing it as some postmodern pop exercise, and it’s as uncomfortable as watching a pre-teen struggle with her first strut in high-heels. If the record has to have a manifesto, it’s the seductively indistinct “Because It’s Not Love (But It’s Still a Feeling).”
Outwardly, We Are the Pipettes is fun, sweet, and attractive. If you hang around, it starts to feel brittle, frigid, bitchy, and weird. So by the time you digest the final-track suckerpunch of “I Love You,” it’s easy to not take them seriously. But there’s something overly frantic about it—maybe they actually mean it? It sparks a certain kind of sympathy, because under the makeup, the Pipettes sound confused; they’re bathed in glitter, chirping “walk dog, walk dog.”