She's A Rebel, She's A Saint: Dancing Paradoxes of the American Woman

Amanda Sieradzki

This paper delves into the process of choreographing 'fangirl & the liner notes,' an interdisciplinary performance that combines poetry, music and movement and is advertised as a one-woman rock show. Sitting at the crux of femininity, teenage angst, and rebellion, the show unpacks the identity of the American Girl who becomes a Woman through an auto-ethnographic reflection of the music that shapes us during our formative years. 'fangirl & the liner notes' collaged my practices in writing and dance, and established a common language between concert dance and the music industry. By choosing alternative venues to premiere the work, I sought to make the movement accessible for viewers and open the door for them to engage with the content's deeper questions.

A One-Woman Rock Show
The Warehouse was packed to capacity: 150 people, standing room only. Walking through the front door, several pool tables and the stale smell of smoke greeted the audience. Through another set of double doors, they entered a back room with a bar in the corner, a small wooden stage, and a rickety sound booth. In this space, everyone knew how to dress, how to act, and what to expect from the room. All that was left was the content, which they were more than willing to leave as an enticing and perplexing surprise given the ease with which they could show up, be carded and wrist-banded at the door, enjoy the music blaring through the speakers, and chat about this local “band” they knew nothing about.

fangirl & the liner notes was the headlining band. In actuality, it was an interdisciplinary performance combining poetry, music and movement, advertised as a one-woman rock show. The show engaged with the process of unpacking identity, telling a mess of stories about the American Girl who becomes a Woman. Through the lens of a white, cis-gender, able-bodied, female choreographer and writer, I questioned who this figure is in terms her multiple characterizations across popular culture. What does she look like? How does she move? In unpacking the multitude of identities tied into the American Woman, I questioned how I could create a performance space where these characters co-exist, interact, and engage with the audience.

fangirl & the liner notes

fangirl & the liner notes is a performance that sits at the crux of femininity, teenage angst, rebellion, and release. The experience of teenage angst is a turbulent and undeniably visceral time in life. It is when we most fully question our identities while simultaneously remaining vulnerable to media that molds our personal tastes and beliefs. The work turned an autho-ethnographic eye inward as I looked to the pop-punk—Blink-182, Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco, Green Day—that soothed my hormonal rage with a pulse that held my body at attention. I explored how my ballet- and modern-trained body stood at odds with an inner moshing, elbow-throwing thrasher, and considered how teenagers seek refuge in music. I took a magnifying glass up to energetic, and at times misogynistic and provocative, pop-punk lyrics, and reflected on my own experiences “fangirling” over musicians of the early 2000s, both at concerts and alone in my bedroom.

Researching the American Girl/Woman

fangirl & the liner notes originated from re-listening to Green Day’s She’s a Rebel. The song describes a simultaneously rebellious and alluring character—she’s intimidating and domestic. Her pseudonym is “Whatsername,” a stand-in for everywoman. Thematically, North American music across all genres and time periods has its own version of “whatsername,” shown in music scholar Virginia Cooper’s study of feminine images from 1,164 popular song lyrics. Cooper’s findings reveal this faceless figure as evil, mothering, a sex object, delicate, child-like, on a pedestal, attractive, in need of a man, and supernatural.1

Music, and the society where it’s produced, dually defines femininity and holds women accountable for fulfilling every role. Marion Meade’s 1971 New York Times article synthesizes the incongruities present in rock music’s rebellious aesthetics, exposing the paradox of women in rock lyrics as “insatiable, sex-crazed animals or all-American emasculators.”2 Simultaneously, the converse expectation is that these same women exist only to serve and enhance the lives of men. This contradiction doesn’t exist solely in rock music, but in society’s general understanding of the American female’s persona and how she operates. The book, Pretty in Punk: Girls’

Gender Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture, dubs this “the femininity game,” which begins in adolescence where the rules of girlhood, as constructed by a white man, are learned by every Western female regardless of class, race, or age and utilize heterosexual, middle-class white women as the model.3  The femininity game is especially important during adolescence, where skewing the roles of masculinity and femininity results in rebellion.

Rock genres have codified rebellion, yet, maintain women as insubordinate and submissive. Influenced by my parents’ classic rock, I was continually exposed to “the dominant catechism of rock where women are both attainable and containable.”4  fangirl & the liner notes reflected on my teenage music preferences and how I constructed my own image in relation to Green Day’s fictitious American Girl. Researcher Gayle Wald notes the use of “girl” rather than “woman” as an important moment of contradiction within youth and contemporary music and a conscious choice in light of 1990s girl culture. Appropriating the innocence and ambiguity of girlhood, this movement resisted “patriarchal femininity” by caricaturizing the “trivialization, marginalization, and eroticization” of women in rock music.5  These satirical representations of the ideal American Woman combined with popular culture’s opposing expectations became problematic as I began to define womanhood.

Making the Band

In creating fangirl & the liner notes, I focused on interpretations of pop-punk’s music, lyrics, videos, aesthetics and movements that shaped my notions about the identity of the American Girl. I was interested in the strain between her binaries and explored what Whiteley describes as, “the opposition between pure/impure, controllable/uncontrollable [and] active/passive,” prominent in her various descriptions within rock music lyrics. By illustrating these tensions in movement, I hoped to unify instances and images of passivity, control, and the “uncontrollable.”6

At first, I took the traditional dance concert approach to this material and spent a year playing with embodiments of the American woman with a cast of five undergraduate students at Florida State University. Naturally, the first discussion with my collaborators centered on beauty standards, as well as racial and gendered stereotypes. While lyrics across all genres tended to superficially describe this girl, I clarified my motivations to uncover her hidden layers. As a result, I asked my dancers to focus on the American Girl’s actions and the assumptions one might make about her based on those actions as a way of embodying her heart instead of her skin. She is a mask and a costume, an idea that anyone, regardless of age, race, or background, could find herself thinking about or rebelling against.

I worked with a composer to deconstruct the pop-punk music, placing white noise behind the sound score, abstracting the choreography against a black backdrop, and fitting the work for a proscenium stage. While the end result represented my research questions, it didn’t resonate. Fangirling over music is an intimate and widely understood experience, as is teenagedom. So, I went back to the root of where it all began—my thrashing body suspended inside a moshpit.

What started out as cast of five dancers became a solo show featuring one other collaborator. Together, we unpacked what it meant to exist in a paradox, being both a solo and duet form, physicalizing the friction held within our bodies. Often we talk about contradictions as either/or binaries, but Green Day’s use of one particular lyric in She’s a Rebel revealed to me a different kind of demarcation: “she’s the salt of the earth and she’s dangerous.” My collaborator and I delved into this lyric while playing our physicalized version of the femininity game. She can be this and that. There’s momentum in the “and,” which fueled further breakthroughs as music served as a fundamental anchor.

I collaged my own practices in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, and sought common language, making fangirl a setlist instead of a score and conveying an embodied “album.” For some songs I kept the lyrics, and in others, I overlaid my poetry and asked the audience to sing, clap, stomp, and scream. In my script, I gave the audience permission to engage with the work as a rock show goer instead of a theatergoer. I borrowed from another discipline’s venue, promotion, and content to give a no holds barred, honest to god, rock concert. This way of working built a world around my work, immersing the audience into a familiar, but newly invigorated environment, where they could connect with dance in a way that they may never have before.

I began studying the concerts I had attended in the past to get a better feel for a rock show’s structure and adopted it into the context of a theatrical production: What were the roles of roadies and security? How did the lead singer engage with the audience, tell stories, ask questions throughout the set? What common practices in a mosh pit could I transform into a movement score? Moreover, it was important to me to choose an alternative venue that would evoke the world of the concert and set the tone for audiences.

The Performance

fangirl & the liner notes premiered at The Warehouse in Tallahassee, which hosts music concerts and open mics. The owner, Jay, imparted that there were over one hundred years of dust and history gathered in its wooden rafters. fangirl’s second iteration took place a year later at the Atlanta Fringe Festival at 7 Stages, a venue inside the city’s punkiest, grittiest borough, Little Five Points. In choosing venues for the work, part of my artistic challenge was to make the dancing accessible to viewers so they could feel comfortable interacting with it, yet were stimulated enough by the content to engage with its deeper questions.

For the event’s promotion, I released footage in the vein of MTV’s Behind the Music, created Spotify playlists that acclimated the audience ears for the experience, and borrowed from other bands’ viral marketing campaigns to release photos and excerpts from my poetry. At the show we tossed out spray painted t-shirts emblazoned with our “band name.” Audiences received a CD booklet as a program and physical memento from the show, so they could read my liner notes and hear them in conjunction with the movement onstage.

fangirl & the liner notes told non-linear stories about feminine identity. It lip-synced. It asked everyone to sing along, stand up, walk away, laugh if they wanted to, heckle if they desired. It asked audiences to engage with their own identities, and by participating in this intimate process, the work created an equally as intimate experience. As a choreographer who prioritizes audience engagement, I am excited by the prospects that participatory environments provide where audiences can come to value and understand contemporary dance in new contexts. I am ready to pack more venues to capacity, and to help more people through the door.

1. Cooper, Virginia. Women in Popular music: a quantitative analysis of feminine images over time. Sex Roles, Vol. 13: 1985.
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2. Meade, Marion. “Does Rock Degrade Women?” New York Times. March 14, 1971; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: pg D13, D22. back to text

3. Leblanc, Lauraine. Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture. NewBrunswick, N.J.:RutgersUniversityPress, 1999. 135-154 back to text

4. Whiteley, Sheila. Women and popular music: sexuality, identity, and subjectivity. London; New York: Routledge, 2000. Pg. 34
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5. Wald, Gayle. Just a Girl? Rock Music, Feminism, and the Cultural Construction of Female Youth. Signs, Vol. 23, No. 3, Feminisms and Youth Cultures (Spring, 1998), pp. 585-610 back to text

6. Whiteley, Sheila. Women and popular music: sexuality, identity, and subjectivity. London; New York: Routledge, 2000. Pg. 53 back to text