From Tina Turner’s shimmying soul to the siren songs of Donna Summer, the jaded desperation of Blondie and the numerous incarnations of Madonna, sexual enticement has long been a staple of female performers. Nowadays it’s perfectly acceptable for a Christina Aguilera to writhe in skimpy negligees cooing about long-lost love, or for Lil’ Kim to bump, grind and brag. Yet few female artists have the nerve to brazenly call the shots in a way that isn’t meant as a beauty contest or a come-on.
Peaches, a Canadian-born, Berlin-based singer and rapper, is a striking exception. She doesn’t hide behind 10 pounds of makeup in a desperate attempt to look beautiful. When she struts the stage in skimpy pink hot pants, she isn’t trying to be sexy. Peaches isn’t trying to be anything but sexual. In witty, explicit lyrics, she merely gives voice to animal instinct, and therein lies her power.
With its pioneering blend of punk, rap and disco, her cheeky 2000 debut album, “Teaches of Peaches,” won her a rabid following among clubbers, punks, ravers and hip-hop fans. Now she’s back in action with a second record (due Sept. 23 from New York-based XL Recordings) that is every bit as raw and hilarious as her first, starting with its outrageously unprintable, incest-themed title and continuing through each wildly suggestive song.
“We’re all libidinous as human beings,” says Peaches, who in the spirit of gender-bending sports a beard on the cover of the new album. “We all have sexuality, and we all have creativity. What I’m doing is about the way I want to do it. I’m saying find your own way and your own level of sexuality.”
As with Peaches’ first record, her follow-up explodes out of the gate. “I Don’t Give a ... ,” built around a sample from Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation,” is less a song than a warning of what’s to come -- a roller-coaster ride of campy, over-the-top innuendo that races from rap to dance to rock.
It’s a deceptively simple formula. But where it’s easy to identify the parts in her music, it would be hard to put them together as compellingly as Peaches has. She’s taken cheesy, dime-a-dozen electronic beats and built them into songs that are dynamic, fresh and danceable, then layered them with playfully blunt lyrics. As she sings on her first record, “I’m only double A, but I’m thinking triple X.”
Peaches is generally identified as electroclash, an underground style of music that fuses ‘80s synth-pop with a punk sensibility and performance art. At last year’s Electroclash festival in New York, she headlined. With her second album, she continues in the same vein, even as she leans ever so slightly toward rock ‘n’ roll. On the primitively catchy “Kick It,” for example, she even has a duet with Iggy Pop.
Like a rock demigod’s, Peaches’ stage presence is physically powerful. She packs a lot of punch into her 5-foot-2-inch frame, posturing like David Lee Roth one moment and strutting like a low-rent prostitute the next, all the while using the microphone as a sort of phallic prop.
“I have a problem when I get out on stage that I have to give 200%,” she says. “I also become really affected by the audience. I can’t make that fourth wall. I just react to people, and that keeps it developing and spontaneous and intimate.”
Her bold, straightforward style has drawn fans spanning numerous musical boundaries, from the club kids who discovered her on the dance floor to the punks and rap fans who primarily heard about her via word of mouth. Pulling an audience from such a wide spectrum is an achievement for any artist, but it’s especially surprising for one who, like Peaches, gets little airplay.
Peaches, who’s a hit on college radio but unknown on commercial stations, thinks she should get more. “All rappers get radio play. My songs are pop songs, they’re rock songs. They’re not way out there. You can tap your feet to them, you can dance to them. It’s totally ridiculous. But I’m a white woman, and I have some dirty lyrics.”
Blazing a trail
She also has the boldness to go where few female artists have gone before, and that’s gotten her in trouble. After a brief relationship with Sony Europe, which signed her to release the single “Set It Off” a couple of years ago, she was dropped, she says, for making a video in which all the hair on her body grew to outrageous lengths.
At 36, an age when many musicians are creatively drained, she finds her career is just beginning to heat up. It’s also a time of life when many female artists begin to feel sexually invisible, as if losing ground to a new crop of teen and twentysomething performers. Yet she is still able to use her sexuality to full advantage.
Peaches adopted her stage name from the Nina Simone song “Four Women,” which includes the line “They call her Peaches!” But peel off her torn fishnets and you’ll find Merrill Nisker. Ten years ago, she taught grammar school in Toronto by day and played in bands by night, beginning with a folk outfit called Mermaid Cafe, then moving on to the avant-jazz group Fancypants Hoodlum and an experimental rock group. She moved to Berlin after visiting her friend and former bandmate Chilly Gonzales, who had relocated there.
It was in Germany that she pioneered her unique brand of sexual synth punk. Rapping over beats she programmed on a Groovebox, she performed solo, spicing up her stage show with libidinous antics. It was a sound and style that worked. When a representative from the small, Berlin-based label Kitty Yo saw her, Peaches was signed on the spot.
“Some people are like, karaoke,” Peaches says. “I just wanted to do it myself.”