Dum Dum Girls and the aesthetics of rock
by Mish Way
August 8, 2013
Dee Dee Penny, of Dum Dum Girls, knows style's not just about clothes; it's about art direction.
This article was supposed to be a transcribed discussion between the Dum Dum Girls’ Dee Dee Penny and I but we got to talking, drank white wine, and the recording messed up so all that I actually got was us gushing over how much we love Liam Gallagher. Instead, I wrote this essay.
The first thing I ever noticed about the Dum Dum Girls was their powerful aesthetic. It was classic, and intimidating: black leather, black hair, heavy eye make-up, lace, and carefully selected vintage that mirrored the subtle roughness of women like the Shangri-La’s Mary Weiss or Destroy All Monsters singer Niagara. Dee Dee Penny, the Dum Dum Girls’ pioneer and frontwoman, is a modern kingpin of this dark, feminine elegance. I was slightly afraid of her at first. And I’m rarely afraid of anyone.
As people do now, Dee Dee and I got to know one another over the internet before we even shook hands in real life. “I feel like I already know you,” she said when we met up on a corner on Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn. She was dressed in a silk navy dress, black shawl, and big, dark sunglasses that shaded her small face. I felt like a disaster. Having a core of common musician friends and already communicating relentlessly about our shared love for ImPRESS stick-on Manicures, I felt the same. Both being intentionally pale, we crossed to the shady side of the block and walked towards the Wythe Hotel.
On the walk, Dee Dee told me about her new record she has been working on. She explained a full aesthetic overhaul she is currently undergoing. With the help of her good friend and fellow artist Tamaryn (http://tamarynmusic.com/), she has completely reworked the Dum Dum Girls’ signature look into a “more mature” palette. It’s not just about clothes. Aesthetic is art direction. It’s everything from lights, to photo shoots, to music videos, to album art, to every manipulated detail that resides in the spaces between the artist and their actual music. It’s what makes the package complete. As Dee Dee and I sat down at the bar and ordered wine, she swiped her finger across her iPhone and showed me some stills from a series of teaser videos her and the band (and Tamaryn) had recently shot. Dee Dee, sullen, sitting in all black with her guitar on her lap while a thin, aqua-neon light in the shape of a heart cast a glow on her face.
Dee Dee’s stage persona has a dark, cold elegance, but in reality she’s sweet, careful, and nervously graceful. As she talked about the concept of the Dum Dum Girls and her growth as an artist, I realized her archetype was an extension of the self she always imagined she could be. She told me that she was always attracted to strong, uniform aesthetic: The Ramones, Grace Slick, David Bowie. She started on drums in a then-boyfriend’s band. In the early 2000’s, on tour with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and unhappy sitting behind the drum kit, Dee Dee invited Karen O to come shopping with her before the show. At the store, Dee Dee spilled her guts to Karen about her unhappiness and, as Dee Dee puts it, Karen laid some “serious zen shit” on her. “She said, ‘Little risk, little reward,’” Dee Dee described, pointing her finger in my face and mimicking the phrase like a prophet. “It really stuck with me.” Dee Dee quit her boyfriend’s band, started the Dum Dum Girls, and released her first recordings on her own label, followed by a seven-inch with Captured Tracks, and then, a debut LP on Sub Pop.
“I’m ridiculously shy,” she admitted to me, even though she did not really have to. I could tell. “I mean, when I started I didn’t even want people to know my real name or who I actually was.”
That’s kind of the beauty of the stage: you can embody everything inside of you that you cannot be in your daily life. It’s part fantasy, part extension, and manipulation. It’s taking this portion of yourself and teasing it until it’s totally powerful, then you can project it through a guitar, a scream, whatever. You let it out. You become it. That’s performance. That’s art.
Throughout my twenties—and especially now, being a frontwoman in a band—I always struggled with my aesthetic. My appearance—clothing, make-up, everything I put on my body—creates extreme highs and lows within my psyche. How I move within the world is often deeply affected by my aesthetic, especially on stage, and this is mostly because I often reduced aesthetic down to just clothing. If you asked me five years ago about fashion I would have opened my make-up-less mouth, wiped the sweat from my brow on my dirty, oversized men’s tee shirt and said, “I don’t care about fashion.” But I was posturing. I did care and did enjoy fashion, but I didn’t know how to fit it into my stage persona.
My beginnings in punk and hardcore messed with my relationship to my own femininity. It sullied my femaleness because I felt this need to reject the stereotypes of my gender to be taken seriously by my male counterparts. Maybe I assumed caring about my looks would discredit me? I realize now that was silly and, perhaps even more, damaging, because I allowed that frustration and conflict to own me. I allowed myself to give into what I thought I should be instead of just being exactly what I wanted. I crushed the girl inside myself. No woman should ever do that if they do not wholeheartedly want to.
As Dee Dee and I drank and got to know one another I felt totally enlightened by her approach. Her exterior and persona had intimidated me, but underneath, the real woman—not Dee Dee Penny, but Kristen Welchez—was just a girl like me who used the stage to embody a part of her she was too nervous to express without the shield of music. Something clicked. There’s this really great thing that happens when you realize that creating art, in any form, means you express whatever you want.
This article originally appeared in the August 2013 Issue of AUX Magazine.
Download and subscribe for free in the app store.