Suburban Auckland, mid-1980s
I don’t remember when The Gossip played Auckland. Maybe six or seven years ago. But frontwoman Beth Ditto commanded our attention by force of voice and personality. Towards the end of the gig, Ditto announced it was a girl-in-the-audience’s birthday. Ditto said something along the lines of, “Here’s my birthday present: some money to buy a Slits record”. The words, ‘buy a Slits’ record’ were said with reverence, like valuable information passed down to children. I knew what Ditto meant: you could learn something listening to The Slits.
I grew up in a coastal suburb of Auckland. When I return there I think how lucky to spend my childhood and teens in such a place – ocean views, beaches, tidy houses and tendered gardens. Although, these things I hold comforting and secure as an adult, I viewed differently as an adolescent.
During my teen years I thought my pleasant home suburb was insipid, safe, and stupid. I felt stuck. Of course I wallowed in my misery. If the movie Groundhog Day had been released in the mid-1980s rather than 1993, I would surely have identified with Bill Murray, doomed to repeat the same day, every day.
Unbelievably, things weren’t all bad. I knew a big exciting world beyond mine existed. This world was alternative music, which I found via the university student radio station. This was where I first heard Typical Girls by The Slits. I thought it sounded raw, unpredictable, like nothing I heard before. It was the sound of the song that got me.
It took longer to figure out the lyrics. Who’s a typical girl? Not me. I added typical girls along with my safe suburban home to my hate list.
I also used the song as a sort of guide on how not to behave. For instance, hearing the line, Typical girls buy magazines, made me think, OK, so now I’m never going to buy a magazine again. And I interpreted the line, Typical girls get upset too quickly, as an edict to harden up.
Most of the time I didn’t know what to think or how to act. I was always grateful when musicians or anyone else I looked up to could provide a few pointers. Or better yet, provide some strong opinions I could pass off as my own. Not all the lyrics provided immediate guidance. There’s a whole verse about female commodification, Here’s another marketing ploy. I didn’t think too much about that – I took what I needed.
I figured the song must have been written by a female. I couldn’t imagine a guy writing lines like, Typical girls worry about spots, fat/ And natural smells, stinky fake smells. Yet despite not wanting to be a typical girl, I did feel a sense of affiliation to the above lines.
None of my friends had heard of The Slits and the band were something of a mystery to me; we were so ignorant, pre-internet. I knew a few other Slits’ songs and I knew the band were females. This wasn’t just based on the song lyrics. I had seen the album Cut with the infamous cover, featuring the three band members wearing only mud and grass skirts.
I didn’t know they had disbanded by 1982. And for a while I almost forgot about them, they became a memory like my groundhog teenage suburban years.
But when Ditto mentioned The Slits I did feel smug in a yup-I-know-what-she’s-talking-‘bout kind of a way. And I’m sure Ditto’s idea of listening to The Slits entailed noble sentiments of female empowerment, unlike my idiosyncratic teenage interpretations. But you know, Typical girls are so confusing.