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"Sabina Turek, Saskia Hahn, Peaches, Alissa Nicolai & Jewels Good", tour bus party, Berlin, Germany, May 2009Photography Holger Talinski

How Peaches paved the way for a wild woman’s world

Peaches always told us there are no boundaries in self-expression. With a remix album entirely by female and female-identifying producers on the way, it’s time to acknowledge her legacy

When Peaches burst back onto the music scene last year with “Rub”, the title track of her latest album, internet pundits extolled the virtues of her give-no-fucks brand of non-binary sexual liberation. Last month Peaches announced Rub Remixed, featuring 13 remixed versions of tracks from Rub, and is unique in that every single remix is produced by a woman. Peaches notes that this wasn’t intentional, saying in a statement “I wanted to hear how my favourite producers would re-contextualize the songs on Rub. Without even realising it, I had only asked women to produce remixes.” The nonchalance with which Peaches employed only women to the task is indicative that the artist lives as she creates, and that in Peaches’ world, talented women like Le Tigre’s JD Samson, Austra’s Maya Postepski, Paula Temple, and Planningtorock are the norm, not the exception to the rule. It’s a promising attitude in an industry where less than 5% of producers and engineers are thought to be women.

This approach has characterised Peaches’ career since her first album, The Teaches of Peaches. Released 15 years ago, the album was at the time received far more controversially than Rub: her video for “Set It Off”, which depicted the artist with rapidly growing body hair (on her crotch, belly, and underarms), allegedly got her dropped from her label, Sony. The video was a precursor to today’s online art and feminist movements, like Petra Collins using social media to celebrate body hair or Ashley Armitage and Arvida Byström radicalising the female body in its natural state. Peaches’ aesthetic, right from the beginning, was not only non-conformist, it was one that thrust the full force of womanhood in your face. Likewise, on the cover of 2003’s Fatherfucker album, Peaches blurred the lines of gender by posing as a bearded lady, serving full idgaf face for posterity. Far from the waxed, clean, Britney Spears aesthetic that dominated the early 2000s, Peaches was woman as woman is — and sometimes even more.

From this era, Peaches is best remembered for her anthemic, sexually aggressive “Fuck The Pain Away”, which subverted songs like Christina Aguilera’s chart-topping “What A Girl Wants” — a song that symbolised a virginal, almost accidental sexuality that was all about innuendo with ambiguous lyrics like “Whatever makes me happy sets you free”. The answer to what makes a girl happy, of course, was, “Holdin' hands, makin’ plans”, a debutant's chaste desire for romance, and the opposite of the orgasmic state Peaches was pursuing. In this way, “Fuck The Pain Away” completely rejected male fetishisation of sex in order to give active female sexuality (and pleasure) precedence. The song is still the source of the power that Peaches gives us now — the idea that women (and indeed, people of all sexualities and gender identities) can enjoy sex simply for sex.

Peaches continued in that vein through the middle part of her career, as she actively attempted to dispel the myth of “penis envy”. For 2006’s Impeach My Bush, Peaches formed a live backing band for tour fondly named The Herms (short for hermaphrodite, and also a blending of the words “her” and “him”), as a pointed rejection of gender binaries and cis male dominance. Peaches has even said she believes in “hermaphrodite envy” as “there is so much male and female in us all”. With pop stars like Miley Cyrus coming out as genderqueer and Beyonce using a model with muscular dystrophy on her e-commerce site, it’s important to acknowledge Peaches for quietly revolutionising ideas of gender, beauty, and the power associated with those.

But Peaches’ fight against the status quo was a struggle from the beginning. In the wake of Impeach My Bush, Dan Martin wrote for the Guardian that the sexual liberation trope was tired. Peaches, he wrote, “has pushed the sexual warrior princess routine as far as it can go. You can't help but wonder what the results might be if she turned her lyrical flair to some subject other than doing the nasty.” Reducing Peaches’ revolutionary ideas to a “warrior princess routine” showed a reluctance to accept that pop music can be a source of social and cultural change. Martin went on to suggest that Peaches should follow in her male peers’ footsteps: “You might even wonder whether she might benefit from following Jack White's lead in breaking out from his restrictive White Stripes template to show the true breadth of his talent.” The assessment was symptomatic of an era of music criticism where the ultimate authority of rock was vehemently defended as the most ‘authentic’ music both stylistically and in its ability to be politicised, while pop was considered frivolous and disingenuous. Ten years ago, Peaches wasn’t just up against a train of patriarchal thought that overwhelmingly rejected any representation of female sexuality that didn’t fit the dictates of male desire: she was fighting for a whole genre of music to be taken seriously as an agent for cultural change.

Elsewhere, Peaches has targeted the inherent ageism of popular culture: in 2009’s “Trick Or Treat” she asks you to “like my crow’s feet”, in “Show Stopper” she sings, “Never mind my age, it’s like we’re breaking out of a cage,” while in “Mommy Complex” she promises to “fill you mommy complex” while wearing a costume in the style of a vaginal hood. Age can be sources of castration for women in an authoritarian male society that puts an expiration date on not only a woman’s desirability, but on her right to be seen and moreover, to be seen celebrating. Peaches has no time for these prescribed rules of womanhood, and neither should we. Most recently, she told Cosmopolitan that Rub is about “celebrating being comfortable with who you need to be and trying to dissolve a world of ageism too.”

Peaches has been changing music for longer than the mainstream realises — probably because she wasn’t always welcomed with the same open arms that we have for her now. Jessica Hopper writes for Pitchfork that Peaches is gaining such wide mainstream attention now because more than ever, when women’s rights seem under attack from a fundamentalist G.O.P., her voice is something of a warcry for female and LGBTQ sexual equality. “The existence of a record that pulls its power from the female body, genderfucks its way to liberation, and demands respect in the sheets, the streets, and the dancefloor seems especially necessary,” Hopper writes. “After all, what’s more powerful than making people dance to a radical agenda?” It’s an agenda that Peaches has unrelentingly pursuing since The Teaches Of Peaches was released in 2000, even if we’re only embracing it now.

Now that Peaches is back with an album produced solely by women, it’s a perfect time to acknowledge her role in making the celebration of alternative sex and queerness a major topic in pop music, and for reminding us there really are no boundaries in self-expression. Because before your idols were telling you to fuck how and who you want to fuck, to wear your body hair the way nature intended it to be worn, or to make up your own idea of beauty, Peaches was doing it. And she didn’t just teach it — Peaches lived it.