Out to Change Minds

Bitch and Animal. It sounds like some dangerous, pro-wrestling chick tag team, but it's actually the name of two musically inclined young women whose stance is much more radical.

The Brooklyn-based underground duo mixes rap, funk, pop, folk and spoken word into frank, sometimes crude and often hilarious songs that zing gender stereotypes, glorify the female body and celebrate pot-smoking.

Despite their unconventional views, the hard-touring pals say they have won over some unlikely listeners, such as the patrons at a Virginia Navy bar and an after-work crowd of bankers in an upscale New England watering hole.

"People are more open than the media makes them out to be," says Animal, 26. "That's one of the biggest things I've learned. The majority of people [at our shows] are younger women, and in the beginning it was a surprise to me when [other] people would show up and like it. But now I'm just excited when I see mixed crowds."

Indeed, given the wide-ranging material on their second album, "Eternally Hard," it would take the uninitiated awhile just to figure out where the pair is coming from. The blithely blasphemous, pro-pot "Ganja" is scarcely more than a lark. But they do seek to change minds with a percussive, spoken-word piece aimed at freeing a popular slang word for "vagina" from its association with the pejorative. And Animal's clever rap about the travails of a well-equipped lesbian playa brilliantly mocks hip-hop's sexual braggadocio.

On the other hand, such broken-relationship songs as "Scrap Metal" and "Six States Away" reflect the raw human vulnerability at the core of B&A;'s work. It's the thing that helps make the sex-positive feminism of "Sparkly Queen Areola" or the gender-bent lament of "Boy Girl Wonder" into universal statements of wanting to be accepted for who you are.

Sitting in their kitsch-festooned RV outside the Silver Lake nightclub Spaceland before a recent performance, the exuberant pair--who worship Joni Mitchell and refuse to divulge their real names--look disarmingly like punk rock Muppets for grown-ups.

They're as strikingly complementary as Bert and Ernie, but much more colorful. Bitch, 29, is tall and curvy, and tends to wear her hair in multiple braids or wild ponytails. A classically trained violinist, she also sings and plays bass. Tiny, boyish, spiky-haired Animal is the rapper and human beat box who plays percussion instruments and ukulele. Like a lot of drummers, Animal often unconsciously taps rhythms on the RV kitchenette's tiny tabletop.

They released their debut album, "What's That Smell?," in 1999, but they gained wider recognition from like-minded audiences after going on the road with feminist singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, who co-produced "Eternally Hard" and released it last fall on her Righteous Babe Records label.

"Touring with Ani definitely put the fire under the pan for us," Bitch says. "It just opened us up to all these people."

Before assuming their noms de rock, Bitch and Animal met at a Chicago acting school in 1994, and their stream-of-consciousness jamming became an antidote to the pressures of school and work.

"We had fun, and it was like communicating in this [different] language, because we didn't have" lyrics, Animal says.

After going their separate ways when done with school, the pair reunited in 1997 to perform at a women's film festival in Detroit.

Just as something had clicked when they first met, so the lightbulb went on for them after that first gig.

"We'd walked into this cafe, and it was filled with these hip girls," Bitch explains. "People were giving us shade. We felt slighted. Then, after we played, people were being nice to us. We [just decided] that our goal in the world was to get people to realize they have to [respect] people instantly and not just wait to be proven to. So we were like, 'Let's go, honey! We're gonna take over the world.'"

So far they've only been able to quit their day jobs, but they do have some grand plans, from recording a new album later this year to making a movie to writing a "top secret" musical. Every step they make is progress to Bitch and Animal, who looked to DiFranco's self-starting, bit-by-bit example long before they met or worked with her.

"She was driving around the country and playing shows," Bitch says of DiFranco's early days. "She wasn't hanging out in New York waiting for her big break. And we were like, 'Oh. We could do that.'"

DiFranco, who first heard about the duo after a Righteous Babe staffer saw B&A; at one of their free weekly gigs in Provincetown, Mass., was struck by the duo's "energy, their humor, their rawness. They're just straight-up, real, fearless performers," she says.

"I had kind of a kinship there with them as just, you know, girls who get away with saying stuff. You can really say anything [if you have] a devious smile on your face."

Still, DiFranco emphasizes, B&A; is not a novelty act.

"Because they have these crazy tunes, there's a tendency for people to reduce them to that, there's much more to it. Their songs follow them through all of their emotions and moods, so it's definitely very human and broader."

Being exposed to DiFranco's audience has been particularly valuable to B&A;, as their opportunities to be heard are limited. Regarding radio airplay, Animal says wryly, "I think our whole CD is banned."

The duo frequently employs humor in its lyrics and stage banter to help compensate for the pain of being viewed as different. Although, truthfully, they're pretty well-adjusted.

Animal says Bitch taught her to be less apprehensive about what other people will think of her. "I used to be so tense, because I got harassed a lot in Chicago," Animal says. Down in the South, where people thought she was a man, "I'd get yelled at for going in the wrong restroom."

But eventually she took to heart Bitch's philosophy of gaining respect simply by assuming people will give it. "I look just as freaky as I always have," Animal says. "But I don't feel like I get harassed as much."

Indeed, that I'm-OK-you're-OK attitude is a major part of Bitch and Animal's appeal. As angry as they can get about the injustices they address, they never let their frustration get in the way of the fun or the message. Which helps keep people's attention, even while putting across some pretty outrageous-to-the-mainstream ideas.

"We're people," Bitch says simply. "Love and heartbreak, it's all the same no matter who the players are."

"Yeah," agrees Animal with a mischievous snicker. "It doesn't matter if you're not a lesbian; you can still like us."

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Natalie Nichols is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

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