Maria Elena Buszek: How Omaha ignited lifelong commitment to music, art and feminism | Q&A

Maria Elena Buszek has worn many hats over the years: deejay, curator, journalist, performance artist, record collector, scholar, punk. By today’s standards, they would all be colored pussyhat pink—crafted out of deep feminist conviction, DIY spirit and punk rock attitude. If we unraveled them, we’d discover another common thread: an upbringing immersed in Omaha music.

Now a professor of art history at the University of Colorado Denver, Buszek teaches and researches at the intersection of pop culture, art and feminism. In her first book, Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture (2006), she explored the 150-year history of the pin-up, arguing that feminist artists have shaped the genre from its earliest days. Her forthcoming book, The Art of Noise, investigates the history of art and music hybrids since 1977; think Talking Heads, Sonic Youth and DEVO, but don’t limit yourself to them.

I caught up with Buszek at this spring’s Pop Conference in Seattle, Washington, to discuss how her formative years in Omaha (1984-94)—interviewing bands for KRCK radio, going to shows and working at Dirt Cheap Records—shaped her burgeoning feminist awareness and sparked a lifelong commitment to feminism and the arts.  

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CY: When did you move to Omaha? What were some of your initial impressions?

MEB: We moved from Detroit, Michigan, in 1984 when I was 13. Omaha seemed much safer to my parents, and so my brothers and I had freedoms we wouldn’t have had in Detroit. The biggest among them was the freedom to explore. I was attracted to Omaha’s arts community; it was small, vibrant and willing to let kids be creative, no matter how weird we must have seemed.

For example, I remember walking into Rose LeVan’s office at Cultural Arts Together—a project of the Bemis Center—and telling her that my friends and I were starting a performance art group and needed a place to practice and perform. Rose was like, “Really? Okay.” And just like that, this bunch of kids calling ourselves Bewlay II (after David Bowie) had space in the Bemis Bag Building.

Omaha’s music scene of the late 1980s was a fascinating convergence of worldliness and working class. It seems odd to think that polka halls opened themselves up for punk shows, but that was Omaha. My favorite venues included Sokol Auditorium and Dannebrog Hall, the Neon Hair Basement, The Lift Ticket Lounge (where Nirvana first played in Nebraska and where the Waiting Room is now) and, later, the Ranch Bowl, Peony Park and the Cog Factory.

CY: You deejayed on the short-lived, local cable radio station KRCK. What was that like?

MEB: KRCK was this pirate radio station started by Paul Kriegler that featured underground music, which you didn’t hear anywhere else. He’d broadcast until the cops or FCC figured out his location; once they’d shut him down, he’d move to a different part of town and start again. When I was in high school, rumor was that the station was somewhere in Dundee, so my friends and I would drive up and down the residential streets trying to pick up the signal. We eventually found the house and I asked him if I could deejay. He said yes, and so at age 16 I started hosting a radio show. At the time, KRCK was being hosted in Rick Galusha’s (of Homer’s Record Stores) basement; Paul or Rick would leave the backdoor unlocked, and we’d roll up at all hours and go to the basement and broadcast.

I loved getting free records (my dad had introduced me to record collecting when I was nine), but I really loved meeting and interviewing bands. My first interview was with the Meat Puppets. KRCK was pretty bare bones—there wasn’t much space for interviews and we didn’t have fancy equipment, so the Meat Puppets and I piled into my Chevy Citation and I recorded our conversation on a cassette tape in a boom box, which I then edited live and played on the air during my next Sunday morning shift.

Later I became interested in photography, and I started taking pictures of some of the bands I’d met through KRCK for their press kits. Some of my favorite local groups included Digital Sex, RAF, Apathy, Mousetrap, The Darktown House Band, Sleez Kangs, Mercy Rule and The World.

Maria Elena Buszek on air at KRCK radio, late 1980s | photo by Renee Ledesma

CY: You started collecting records when you were nine?

MEB: My family didn’t have much money, so used record shops became our source of entertainment (remember, this was the pre-internet 1980s). My dad was a musician and record collector, and he made my brothers and me a deal: We each had to write a list of albums we wanted, and then on the weekends he’d buy us a used record of our choice, provided it was on our list. Those lists made us think critically about music—what we wanted to hear, and why.

CY: What were your favorite Omaha record shops?

MEB: As a family we’d go to Kanesville Kollectibles in Council Bluffs and Dirt Cheap Records in the Old Market. In high school I worked part-time at Pickles Records & Tapes and during the summer of 1988, I got a job at Dirt Cheap. In addition to used vinyl, Dirt Cheap had a back room full of nearly two decades’ worth of old rock magazines—back issues of Rolling Stone, Creem and Crawdaddy, as well as the Village Voice and a bunch of imports. I was tasked with organizing and pricing them so they could be sold to collectors. I ended up doing a lot more reading than sorting.

CY: That sounds like rock n’ roll summer school…

MEB: Yeah, I read a lot of Lester Bangs that summer. Throughout his career, Bangs wrote in and out of rock history; he’d write about critically-acclaimed, big-name musicians as well as obscure, avant-garde artists. And all his writing came from a very unapologetic, personal place. Reading Bangs put me in tune with my own critical voice; it prompted me to start thinking about self-awareness, and where, as a young woman, I was positioned in relation to the music I was listening to.

CY: So, was this when you began to develop an interest in feminism? Because of Lester Bangs?!

MEB: Honestly, I’d started calling myself a feminist after serving exactly one Mass as an altar girl when the Catholic Church made a call that girls couldn’t be altar servers. I asked the inevitable question: “Is it because girls aren’t as good as boys?!” and of course, all the grown-ups were like: “NO! Of course not!” But no one could give me a non-bullshit answer that suggested otherwise. So, in the third grade, I was like, “RRRRRAAAAAWR! I am a feminist!”

By that point I was becoming interested in music and was already encountering that sexist culture of early ’80s record stores—which became worse the more deeply into adolescence I got. (Because it’s cute when a 13-year-old girl asks you what that Butthole Surfers record sounds like, but awkward when she wants to know if it sounds like Redd Kross.) So, I developed a desire to do something about the anti-girl sexism I was encountering early on.

Maria Elena Buszek at Dirt Cheap Records, ca. 1990 | photo by Renee Ledesma

CY: Who did you look to as early feminist role models?

MEB: Thanks to the pop music I grew up with, I discovered a diverse range of women to idolize. Earlier generations had literary figures and activists like Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis, but I found my feminist role models in pop and punk music: Dale Bozzio, Poly Styrene, Lydia Lunch, Joan Jett, Grace Jones, Siouxie Sioux, Alice Bag.

Then there was Riot Grrrl, which began when girls around my age started to combine their interests in pop culture with feminist thought and express themselves in new ways. That definitely spoke to me, even though I wasn’t actively involved with the movement when it was happening. Though Omaha had a Riot Grrrl group, and they hosted a 1994 Riot Grrrl convention…

CY: Who were the women in local music at the time who inspired you?

MEB: Omaha’s record stores were filled with amazing women music fans, some of whom were musicians: Reneé Ledesma (of The Darktown House Band) who also worked with me at Dirt Cheap and KRCK, Erinn Tighe, Chris Harding Thompson, Kathleen Delehant (of Jimmy Skaffa), Cami Rawlings, Nicole LeClerc and Andrea Butkewicz. I was the only woman at KRCK when I started working there, but by the time I left we’d hired Reneé, Cami, Andrea and Cindi Brusse, among many others.  

Omaha’s music scene was pretty dudely—remember, these were the days of hardcore and early indie rock, which were cluelessly masculinist most of the time. There were amazing rockers like Heidi Ore of Mercy Rule, and singer-songwriters like Mimi Schneider, but for the most part it was a lot of guys, with the occasional woman singer. The tide started to turn a little when all-female and queer bands started to emerge, like Lavender Couch. So, it’s been exciting to see a groundswell of women musicians in Omaha—like the pop music scene in general—in the last couple of decades.

CY: Working in records stores, did you ever feel like you had to prove your music knowledge differently because you were a teenage girl?

MEB: Holy fuck, YES! I’ve always said, “Women in record-collecting circles have to be twice as demonstrably knowledgeable as the men to be viewed as half as smart.” And that was true everyday on the job. Reneé and I used to give new guys at Dirt Cheap a spiel about what to expect from customers, because when faced with one man and one woman behind the counter, pretty much everyone would go straight to the guy with their questions. Or if Renee and I were the only employees in the store, men would wander around looking for a guy to help them. I remember an older gentleman asking a question about jazz, and my (male) co-worker telling him: “Maria’s the in-house jazz expert, you should ask her.” To which the guy gave me a sideways glance and replied: “No…I’m asking YOU.” Though I’d been calling myself a feminist for years by then, these experiences burnished that blade.

CY: Do you think your experiences interviewing bands for KRCK were different than those of your male counterparts?

MEB: I think that Paul and Tony Bazis—another KRCK manager I worked with—asked me to interview bands because, thanks to being a theater nerd, I was good with extemporaneous conversation with different kinds of musicians: Fishbone, Violent Femmes, Black Francis, Meat Puppets, Ride, Pearl Jam (who, by the way, were a last-minute booking and so new that no one had listened to their album from start-to-finish yet, so we did a guest DJ set. It’s possible that KRCK was their first-ever radio interview.) I’d arrive at the studio with a bunch of questions—I always did my homework—and would improvise from there, making for an easy-going, informative interview.

But, I won’t lie: I feel like a lot of the time it was easier to interview a band as a woman, and it was obvious when musicians were really jazzed that a young woman was doing the interview, no matter what range of genders or sexualities comprised the band. I never had an experience where musicians were being dicks because I was a woman—flirtatious, occasionally, but never rude or dismissive (this wasn’t always true for post-show behavior backstage, however). I knew my shit out the gate, which no doubt helped.

Buszek with Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M. backstage before their October 1989 show at Pershing Auditorium in Lincoln | photo by Paul Kriegler, KRCK

CY: When it comes to feminism and present-day politics, we’re living in a bizarre time. In your opinion, what role do art and music play in such a contested political environment?  

MEB: I think people—artists and musicians, but not just artists and musicians—feel moved to speak up and take action. Complacency is no longer an option, and people are moving from being apathetic to being politicized. Trump’s win was a backlash to many Americans, and we’re experiencing a resurgence in feminist awareness because of it. For a lot of young people today, it’s cool to be feminist. Most of my students today identify as feminists; that’s never happened before. For most of my life, to proclaim yourself a feminist was to situate yourself on the fringe, and it’s inspiring to see that move into the mainstream. There’s still a long road ahead, but the movement is compelling.

CY: Who are the artists making music at the intersection of art and feminist thought today that you are most excited about?

MEB: Mykki Blanco is incredible—someone who identifies as biologically male, queer and feminist, who speaks out about being HIV positive, and who makes super-hot, DIY music. Also Savages are great, as is Xaviera Simmons and the art she makes about music, as well as the music she makes as part of her studio practice. I also like Beth Ditto from Gossip and the way she intervenes in elitist spaces, Cody Critcheloe and SSION, Peaches…should I go on?

Keep up with Maria Elena Buszek at mariabuszek.com.

Chelsea Yates is a Hear Nebraska contributor. She grew up in northeast Nebraska and now lives in Seattle, Washington. Reach her at chelseadyates@gmail.com.