The legendary artist talks us through her raw, rage-fuelled party playlist – inspired by Lolita, drill, Dame Vivienne Westwood and The Book of Genesis
Nicholas Cullinan, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery, asked me to DJ for the opening night of its new revamp, partly because of an initiative I am doing with the Archive of Contemporary Music called From Her To Eternity, focusing on women’s contributions to music. The revamp of this great museum was a mission to enhance female representation in the collection.
It featured women whose portraits were never before seen, from Boudicca to Dame Mary Beard, from the nurse Dame Elizabeth Anionwu and the vaccinologist Dame Sarah Gilbert, to the activist Barbara Lisicki and the abolitionist Ellen Craft. There were also Tracy Emin’s magnificent bronze doors! They have 45 faces of women [on them], staring at us as we enter. I wanted to reflect all that in the playlist.
I changed the name of the playlist from “I’ll Kick Your Ass” to “Dame Westwood!” I couldn’t find the word I was exactly looking for to describe what I wanted to express through the music, but to me, the woman who represented this life force was Dame Westwood, so I named it after her. Fearless. Uncompromising. She breathed punk in its purest aesthetic, to kick against the grain.
Other inspirations came from a podcast I was listening to called Lolita. Hosted and written by a woman named Jamie Loftus, it’s about how Nabokov’s character has got twisted and portrayed in the overculture. Another inspiration is The Book of Genesis: I was reading that Eve was created as an “ezer”, which in the original Hebrew meant “rescuer“, but it served the English 1400s agenda more to say “helper”. Rescuer is heroic, and I embraced that.
So when I was putting the playlist together, I made sure there were NO Lolita songs, no “Daddy” songs, no codependency. No ‘my pussy is so great’. I searched for songs with “the big themes“ but there aren’t enough about those things, so I went for “I’ll Kick Your Ass” type songs, about whoever’s ass they wanted to kick. I say there aren’t enough songs about that, but my friend Julie Panebianco, who is writing my biography with me, had the unenviable task to pare the playlist down from seven hours to 90 minutes! I got a bit crazy with drill – I had about five brilliant women singing drill. I love drill, I love the attitude, I love the themes, I love the energy.
I was originally supposed to play Harley Quinn when Joel Schumacher was going to direct it. He’d just made Batman & Robin, but that tanked, so no one wanted to fund a sequel. In the original by DC Comics, Harlee was the Joker’s DAUGHTER, so I was meant to play Jack Nicholson’s daughter. Now, Harley is the Joker’s girlfriend, and that makes me mad! Anyway, I love the aggro that comes from Harley. Girls can embrace being angry in their music again.
All these themes, incidentally, are things I have been churning up as Julie and I work on the book. The books we are reading range from Recollections of My Existence by Rebecca Solnit and The Biology of Desire, by Marc Lewis to Flea’s book, Acid For The Children and The War For Kindness by Jamil Zaki. We’re also listening to podcasts about Malibu in the 80s, and Bandsplain [a show about “cult bands and iconic artists”].
I chose the Succession theme to open up the floor to the big themes: that song signifies ruthlessness. The song opens up ruthlessness, a villainous or shadow side. “Princess Kate, Embrace Your Shadow” was another name for the playlist.
When I started to DJ, I could feel my original sequence needed some bouncing around, and it was fun to read the room. It was fascinating to feel which songs dragged, so I got into the reactions and sensed where the music should go and where and how to exit. It’s important to know how to exit the room.
The revamp of London’s National Portrait Gallery is open from June 22, 2023