Neither plastic nor weak, Mannequin Pussy is reclaiming a word with music

Header photo by Eva-Carasol

Words by Shaina Joy Machlus

Want to add more energy to a room packed with 700 people, shoulder to shoulder, on a sweaty August Sunday in Barcelona? Throw Mannequin Pussy on stage, of course. The 2017 Primavera Sound crowd was there to catch familiar acts, but a curious name intrigued many as well. Mannequin Pussy was also given the thumbs-up by critics at Pitchfork and NPR, so many waited patiently for the performance—though the uninitiated could not have imagined the power of Mannequin Pussy.

Offering something like a sweat-lodge experience, the group pumped a clashing, thrashing rock, garage rock, noise rock, and pop punk sound that thumped directly to the heart. Their sound is nostalgically characteristic of shows at the First Unitarian Church in my hometown, Philadelphia (from where the band also hails). There were the curdling screams paired with pauses and sometimes sugary, romantic, almost twee vocals; songs that end as fast as they begin; and a lightning bolt of noise energy that left you not knowing what just hit you but wanting more.

The band’s current four-piece formation was a matter of trial and error, but this shifting led to something truly magical. Drummer Kaleen Reading holds back nothing, filling the space with cymbals and just the right amount of percussion to move songs along with unmistakable force. Marisa Dabice throws every atom of herself into every moment, singing and playing guitar, hypnotizing all. Thanasi Paul’s heavy guitar and Bear Regisford’s even heavier pulsing bass hang a cloud of sound over every song.

Listening to Mannequin Pussy’s addictive album, Romantic, is the next best thing to seeing them play live. An album with songs that are so different from one to the next, it’s hard to understand how they somehow make total sense as a unit, yet they do. Tom Tom sat down with the group at the festival to talk pussy.

Tom Tom: Let’s start with the basics. How did Mannequin Pussy form?

Marisa Dabice: Thanasi and I have known each other since we were five years old. We started playing music together about six years ago but didn’t really take it very seriously. It was just kind of like a cathartic outlet.

Thanasi Paul: Yeah, just kind of like messing around, and then when we started realizing that people were connecting with our songs, we’re like, “Oh, maybe we should expand a little bit more.” And then we were like very fortunate to meet Kaleen who brought an immense power to the music that hadn’t been there before. And then, about a year after that, we met Bear and made its final form. Now we’ve been final-form Mannequin Pussy for like two years.

Dabice: Yeah, and we all live in Philly. Bear books an annual 420 show, a marijuana holiday party show, and he asked us to play his show, and that was the show where we met him. But that was before we had a bass player, so it was just the three of us. And then we met him and shortly after that I think I made a Facebook post like, “Does anyone want to play bass with us?” And he was the very first person to respond.

Tom Tom: So it just magically came together! With this help of a little marijuana too.

Dabice: Yeah, we have a great familial bond and are super protective of each other. We’re very family-like.

Bear Regisford: I mean, I spend more time with you three guys than my actual family. 

Ian Young

Tom Tom: I know everyone talks about your name, but your name has an such an impact on people. They’re like, “What? The word ‘pussy’ is in the name?”  

Dabice: We were talking about this earlier, actually. We’ve seen a really big cultural shift in people’s attitudes towards the word itself in like the last couple of years. We started making music under the moniker of Mannequin Pussy; it was like five years ago, but we just grabbed the name.

We were like, “OK, if we ever like really become a band, we’re going to take this name, and we’ll see what happens.” And, back then, I feel like you went, “Oh, you guys, like the music, what’s the name of the group?” I’m like, “Oh, Mannequin Pussy?”  And, they’re like, “You guys might want to change that.” I feel like I had a lot of people who said that: “You might want to change your name.” And now we’ve had people we’ve talked to who are like, “Oh, wow, it’s good to know there’s still good bands, so . . .

Tom Tom: I mean, everyone asks about it!

Regisford: That’s what drew me to the name.

Tom Tom: Do you think your band name is sexual?

Dabice: There was never an intention for it to be, but I’ve definitely learned just how little control we have over how others will interpret it. The two words apart from each other hold such different meanings. One so sterile, plastic, devoid of a realness and the other used mostly as an insult, to insinuate weakness or submissiveness, as well to infer sexualilty. When they come together, though, they take on a meaning all their own. I think the words work well to almost cancel each other out, rendering the name more nonsensical and open to interpretation than anything else.

Tom Tom: Has having an overtly sexual name affected your musical experience in any way?

Kaleen Reading: As far as playing shows, it feels exactly the same as playing shows as a band with a name that can’t be perceived to have a sexual meaning. It does get complicated when I teach drum lessons, and a younger student asks what my band is called. I either just give a vague answer, or use a band inside-joke name—Mannequin Puppy. They’ll find out when they’re older, or if their parents want to tell them.

Dabice: It’s hard to tell. Sometimes I wonder—if we were given more of an opportunity in the beginning to perform and somewhat fail publicly because most people felt we had a “good” band name, if we had been named something that elicited almost no response at all, would people have given us the same chance to grow into the name? Maybe that’s a stretch. A name can be a good place for a musical project to start, but it’s the music that ultimately defines an experience.

Tom Tom: So, I want to ask you guys a potentially poetic question. What does the word pussy mean to all of you?

Dabice: I mean, I definitely have felt you don’t want it to like really feel like a gender thing at all. It’s like very up for interpretation. But, especially being a woman, you have this word that has been used to insult you and others for like my entire life. I’ve seen people use this word to put other people down. And so kind of taking this word across gender lines. Taking this word as a reclamation of it and turning it into a powerful thing, I felt, was important. And maybe in the beginning, it didn’t feel that way. I felt like it came to be defined in that way over time.

Paul: Yeah, I think at first, we were just like, “It’s a funny name,” and now it has taken on more meaning.

Regisford: That’s definitely a word that—growing up as a guy in the northeast—people used in a negative context all the time. In my experience, at least, it was other dudes calling other dudes “pussies” in a way that never really made sense to me. But not saying I’m not guilty in the pejorative way, ever. But, now especially, since I started in the band, especially since playing music with more females, I don’t associate it with what I did when I was a kid anymore.

The power of music! To use music to redefine a word is really cool.

Dabice: You want people to be able to redefine. There’s a very long history of marginalized groups taking back words that have been used to define them, and I think that this has been another area for people to do that. And I hope successfully.

Eva Carasol

Tom Tom: So, for you, “pussy” is power?

Dabice: Absolutely.

Reading: I don’t think “pussy” has one definition. I feel like the band name to me is interesting, because it’s really how someone interprets it. If they’re like, “Oh, that’s so offensive,” it’s like, “Well, which way are you thinking about it?” It’s not supposed to be offensive, so maybe it’s time to reevaluate the word and how you feel about it.

Tom Tom: Has it ever felt complicated to perform under the name “Pussy”? When and how?

Reading: I haven’t personally found it to be complicated. The people booking or attending our shows already know the name, so it’s a space where people aren’t making it weird.

Dabice: It seems more complicated for other people than for us. People tend to have a very strong reaction to the word. I hate to throw men under the bus, but I would say 99 percent of the criticisms I’ve seen of our band name have all come from men. It’s a word that still seems to make the unevolved very uncomfortable. When we first started playing shows, we would sometimes play with other bands who would self-censor when thanking us for playing the show with them. “Thanks to Mannequin P-Word,” was a phrase we heard a lot in those days. It made people so uncomfortable to say out loud.

Luckily though, a lot has changed culturally over the past five years. We’ve seen the public’s familiarity and comfort grow not just with us but with the word itself. It’s been interesting to have been a “pussy” band for five years and watched the societal norms and expectations change as we’ve grown. Shortly after we became a band, members of Pussy Riot were arrested in Russia, and the group became internationally recognized. A few years later, thanks to female comedians arguing with the network, Comedy Central took it off its censor list. Then last year, it appeared again, uncensored when all of America heard the tapes of [Donald] Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. It’s important for me to perform in this space with this name, because I want the power to define the word for myself—not for it to be used as a tool to shame me for my sexuality or femaleness.

Tom Tom: Do you feel your music is connected to your sexuality in any way?  

Dabice: I would say as a musician, no, but as a lyricist, yes. My sexuality plays a part in my experiences, and my experiences continue to evolve and change. And I think the same is true for my sexuality. I understand it more and more as I get older. I understand its fluidity and how important it is for individuals to define these concepts for themselves, that there is no freedom in an outsider telling you what kind of person you are supposed to be.

Reading: They don’t inform each other, but there is definitely unintentional crossover. My mind sometimes wanders when playing drums, and my own sexuality is definitely something I think about enough to be any one of the hundreds of topics that could randomly cross my mind while drumming. To be honest, though, I think about drums more than anything else. So in the same way, it’s more likely that I would be thinking deeply about my own sexuality and then get totally distracted by something like: Can I play a paradiddlediddle between my left hand and the kick drum in a groove?

Tom Tom: Do you feel your music is connected to your gender in any way?

Dabice: I feel more that I’m constantly being reminded of my gender, that I’m a “woman in music” more than I actually think of it myself. While I’m grateful to feel powerful and comfortable in the body I have, gender itself has always been somewhat meaningless to me. I’ve always felt the between-ness, that I carry both masculine and feminine energies inside of me. And while I often feel very female and love my femaleness, I don’t feel it connected to my music. Gender just isn’t that interesting to me. It feels so performative, but it’s a performance that takes place more on the streets than on a stage. When we’re performing together, I feel an energy escaping from inside me, and that energy has no gender.

Reading: It may be connected at times subconsciously just because being female is part of who I am, and playing music is an extension of yourself. I feel drumming definitely encompasses both masculine and feminine energies, and I think that allows it to be more of a genderless thing connected to a wordless truest self.

Tom Tom: What, if anything, do you hope your music communicates?

Reading: When writing drum parts, or even performing drum parts filling in for an artist, I always try to step back and make sure what I’m playing is serving the song. If you take yourself out of the mindset of just an individual drummer and consider what you are playing more in the role of an egoless producer trying to produce the final form of the song to be in its best way possible, it opens up for more honesty with your playing choices. Every fill, kick drum placement, transition, etc., on our record Romantic was carefully considered by the time we recorded the album. Mannequin Pussy tours a lot, so we are left with more time to practice new songs live than in a rehearsal room. This is a great way to finalize song parts, since you play the song one night, are given the opportunity to think about what worked or what you might want to try differently, and by the end of the tour, you usually have a good idea of what you want to play. It’s a blend of analysis and letting things develop naturally. So, if there is anything I hope for, it’s that the song itself was communicated in the best way possible.

Dabice: A cathartic hopefulness.


This article was featured in the Sex issue of Tom Tom. Purchase it online. 


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