Like a gaggle of scenery-chewing cheerleaders fueled by Cibo Matto and the Go-Go's on repeat, São Paulo, Brazil's sextet Cansei de Ser Sexy (CSS to most) have got the beat. Just don't say the group, formed through art school and the internet, natch, bang the drum, at least not in the sociopolitical agenda sense.
"I have political views of many things," says CSS guitarist/keyboardist Ana Rezende by phone after having just landed in New York in preparation for the band's current tour. "But the band, we tried not to get into it; politics are not for our music."
I'm pressing Rezende, because I want, almost need, CSS to be political. An informal survey of friends has found that CSS's shtick—English/Portuguese-dashed, pop-culture-dappled, electro-pop pastiche meets yelping calisthenics session—splits folks fifty-fifty on grating versus ingratiating. So I desperately desire the band's recent live staples—a cover of L7's "Pretend We're Dead" and a mashup of Sleater-Kinney plus Jennifer Lopez ("I Wanna Be Your J.Lo")—to be a riot grrrl feminist statement. Hell, any statement. Just to confront and prove someone, anyone, wrong. No dice.
"Most of our audience, especially in Europe, is under 20, so it's funny that many, many people don't realize it's an L7 cover," says Rezende. "Some older people get really, really happy, so it really is a surprise. I love to watch that; I don't really think about what people think about us when we are covering this song we like."
CSS's breakout track, 2006's bristly bubblegum "Let's Make Love and Listen to Death from Above," seemed achingly now then, with its reference to the since-disbanded Canadian indie grind duo Death from Above 1979. DFA1979 got flack/praise for seeming misogyny; I thought by covering the group, maybe CSS were trying to tip the balance of power across the hard-legged blogosphere. Silly me.
So following my feminist flop, I want to know if the band's current covers are intended to give the group a backstory, show their roots so that no one can accuse them of having merely pandered to music nerds needing a hook for their daily entries. But apparently I'm overthinking again.
"Nothing was ever mentioned of whether it was the right time for 'Death from Above,'" says Rezende. "We just wanted to do a different type of cover for a song we liked. Same with L7 and Sleater-Kinney; nothing is intentional to show anyone whether we're more this or that.
"The most important thing about CSS is that we never intended to be musicians," continues Rezende. "So we don't take ourselves very seriously. We started making music with friends just for fun and it worked out in a weird way that we're traveling the whole world. Doing shows, the best part is that the audience is shouting the songs, jumping. Our main thing in our head is how to make people really happy, because we feel accomplished. We don't know how to do something different. It's very natural."
It feels too easy, too evasive, to have a band presented at such face value. The polemics are still fresh in my mind. It must be growing up with the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video and kinderwhore scene; I just have a hard time believing that when half-Japanese CSS frontwoman Lovefoxxx tugs on a unitard and leads the crowd in punchy dance routines (as she almost always does) it isn't as imbued with activism as Le Tigre's cheers and jeers. Perhaps something is being lost in translation....
But when directly asked about American DJs appropriating baile funk, the Miami bass offshoot that vibrates the Rio favelas (slums), Rezende again skirts the issues. It's clear she doesn't desire to be the poster child for cultural-exchange criticism. She's great with being globalized, not being what people might expect of a Brazilian, or a band, or anything else. She's fiery, but for the funk.
"I think people can have any kind of influences they want. People in Brazil listened to funk, made their thing. And people say we might rip off music from New York. But the best thing about now is music can be a fusion of as much as you like."
Because of that range, CSS have found themselves playing L7 while touring with the "new rave" Klaxons across Europe, where the band play huge festivals and make the tabloids, even as they get their first midsize-club headlining tour in the States. For this tour, the group have tweaked song arrangements to include all acoustic drums and more organic interaction, all as a means to establish that unadulterated rapport with the audience.
"We don't want to confound people, do things to make people think we're weird," says Rezende. "We won't make up names of theme tours or scenes like 'new rave' or write songs to trick people into thinking we are one thing or the other."
At this point I have to remove CSS's feet from the coals. Apparently the constituents want a rump-shaking posse that will provide them with a good sweat but not force them to sweat the details, and CSS can sacrifice the political without losing the party.