Fifteen years ago, the singer Peaches released her breakthrough album The Teaches of Peaches. In 2000, my friends and I, punk rock and feminist to the core, were coming off 10 years of politically infused riot grrrl bands — a movement that captured the psychic and physical subjugation we felt as young women living in a society obsessed with stifling beauty concepts: skinny, white, hairless, "feminine."
We adored Peaches from the start.
She was the raunchy, gender-blurring, sex-positive rock star we'd been waiting for. She wore sparkly leotards and capes. She had transgender backup dancers (backup dancers!) that looked like Amazonian warrior gods. She had armpit hair and wasn't afraid of the occasional beard. She pulled off the ultimate rock 'n' roll swagger, the kind that made our tongues drop to the floor like a dog in a Warner Bros. cartoon. And then, there were her lyrics.
To be honest, I don't remember most of the songs from The Teaches of Peaches. They've been overshadowed by the album's opening track. "F*ck the Pain Away" kicks off with a dark, synth beat, setting the stage for Peaches' raunchy, unabashedly sex-loving lyrics, half-rapped, half-sung. The song got a lot of play at the turn of the century -- in 2003, it featured prominently in the Sofia Coppola film Lost in Translation -- and every listen felt like one step closer to liberation. From what? Mainly, the worry about fitting into some prescribed package of what it meant to be a young woman. Peaches gave us permission to enjoy sex, to own and celebrate our bodies, to blur gender and to wear skin-tight sparkly leggings, if that was our jam. Most importantly, Peaces let us know that engaging in these behaviors wouldn't get our feminist club membership revoked.
As actress Ellen Page writes in an heartfelt essay in The Teaches of Peaches, which comes out next month on Akashic Books: "She (Peaches) is more than a musician, though: she is a true artist, and a prolific one at that. For a 16-year-old gay person, she offered something that I could not find elsewhere."
Alongside written tributes by Yoko Ono and Michael Stipe, as well as Page's essay, The Teaches of Peaches collects 154 color photographs by German photographer Holger Talinski. Taken over a six-year period, from 2008–2014, the book captures a whirlwind period in Peaches' art-fueled life: an 18-month tour for her fourth studio album I Feel Cream, an ambitious staging of Jesus Christ Superstar (renamed Peaches Christ Superstar, of course), the creation of an original electro-rock opera Peaches Does Herself, a debut performance in an original opera singing the Italian male leading role, and a performance of Yoko Ono's dramatic Cut Piece at the Meltdown Festival in London.
"Holger Talinski was there with his camera throughout," writes Peaches in the book's foreword. "He captured all of these moments, both the magic and the realities. Holger shows the exhaustion, the work, the relaxation, the parties, the quiet moments, and the family visits."
For Peaches fans, the collection offers glimpses into both the public and private life of the artist who put feminist electroclash on the map. Peaches led the way, not only for other underground electronic acts like Le Tigre, Ladytron, and Chicks on Speed, but also artists that went on to major mainstream success. Would M.I.A. exist without Peaches? Lady Gaga? In her current iteration, Miley Cyrus?
The collection captures many over-the-top, laser-lit, rock 'n' roll performances (Peaches put on one of the absolute best live shows I've ever seen, in San Diego, 2004), but Talinksi's access to Peaches allows another side to emerge; Peaches sleeping draped across her parents' laps and knees on a living room couch; Peaches on the toilet, red-eyed and looking like she could use a decade's worth of sleep; Peaches in a cloud of pot smoke; Peaches hanging with a fan, who is surrounded by three children; Peaches laughing with friends, her smile open, obviously happy.
Also on display are photos of the rock-star side of Peaches, hanging backstage with famous friends and collaborators: Iggy Pop, Christina Aguilera, Pink, Michael Stipe, Yoko Ono, P.J. Harvey. Peaches enjoying a nice bubble bath with Annie Sprinkle.
In the end, The Teaches of Peaches is a reminder that Peaches, the artist and the musician, didn't go the way of other electroclash acts like Chicks on Speed (where are they now?). She's forged a vibrant, genre-bending career that continues to throb with spirit, transgression, energy, and ambition. And, a lion's share of fabulous leotards, sequins, leather, and lasers.
Peaches talks and signs copies of 'The Teaches of Peaches' at City Lights Books on May 20. She's joined by sexologist Annie Sprinkle and UCSC professor and "eco-sex" advocate Beth Stephens.