photo and text by Hilary Stohs-Krause
The first record released by The Mynabirds, the project for Omaha transplant singer-songwriter-activist Laura Burhenn, was warm, soulful and introspective. The promo photos featured Burhenn with soft curls in a long-sleeve blue and white dress with a brocade pattern, framed by brick walls and a solemn church sanctuary.
Two years later, she’s traded the curls for heavy bangs, the brocade for headwear shaped like wild animals and the church for stark minimalism. The imagery shift mirrors the music’s shift: If 2010’s What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood aimed for Motown mixed with Neil Young, the aptly titled GENERALS aims for soul music channeled through Bikini Kill.
GENERALS is feminist pop art. It’s tricky melding politics and pop without sounding preachy or insincere, but Burhenn’s passion manages to transcend disbelief, creating an innate sense of kinship in the listener with her cause.
But after my initial listen, I was hard-pressed as to exactly what that cause was.
The title track urges women — generals, lawyers, revolutionaries — to get their warpaint and black boots on: “Let them know we’re out for blood.”
But who are we revolutionaries supposed to be fighting?
You could pick from a myriad of movements, and she touches on several throughout the record, including the political process, war and the economy; but it took me a few rotations to get to the heart of Burhenn’s message.
It’s pretty obvious, in hindsight: She opens and closes the record with tracks that repeat the mantra, “I’d give it all/for a legacy of love.” The snappy “Body of Work” is an ode to individual creativity and self-determination, inspired (in Tilly and the Wall fashion) by suicide. Even “Generals,” arguably the most militant and blatantly political track on the album, includes a call-and-response wherein men and woman pledge to love each other.
My idealist core is admittedly colored by cynicism — I grant you that — but even so, it was a bit … disappointing … that this fiercely feminist record is centered on something as simplistic as the idea that love can change the world. I suppose I expected something more concrete, something more radical.
Then again, Burhenn’s point is that simply loving each other is truly radical. And despite the best efforts of my 21st-century disillusionment, I found myself believing.
I get a lot of requests on my "X-Rated: Women in Music" radio show to play music from the Riot Grrrl movement, because people are hungry for music that resonates with our experiences and that channels our frustrations and ambitions — and presently, women (and enlightened men) are realizing how overwhelmingly our agency is being trampled; and as the onslaught on our rights escalates, we find that we’re mad as hell, and we aren’t going to take it anymore.
Enter “Buffalo Flower,” a song dedicated to the women of the Plains: “Oh my man / Your hour’s up / So we’ll march up out the road, out the valley / Build a town tall / At the top of the hill.” Despite the struggles that we face — politically, socially, economically — we modern women are forces to contend with, Burhenn tells us. We are strong. We are vital. And as she so effectively urges us, it’s time to fight back.
Whether that’s through art, politics or some other means is up to the listener, but it’s clear what path Burhenn has chosen. As she sings in “Body of Work,” quoting Jean-Paul Sartre, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
Which, really, is pretty radical.
Hilary Stohs-Krause is looking forward to the next X-Rated: Women in Music showcase this Sunday, June 17th, at 9 p.m. at Duffy's Tavern in Lincoln. Black Cohosh, All Young Girls Are Machine Guns, Field Club and the Betties are playing. Hilary gets her local music fix through HN and as a cocktail waitress at Duffy's. For more on Nebraska ladies making music, tune into the "X-Rated: Women in Music" radio show every Thursday from 1:05 to 3 p.m. CST at 89.3 FM KZUM in Lincoln or streaming live at kzum.org. Find "X-Rated" on Facebook at facebook.com/xmusicnebraska.