Mannequin Pussy, Set Loose from Big Tech Jail

The Philadelphia punk band Mannequin Pussy got its name from an offhand joke that a friend made years ago, now lost to history. The group has always had certain appellative affinities. Two early demos, from 2011, were called “BonerJamz!” and “Meatslave.” (Tracks have included “PissDrinker” and a waltz called “Clit Eastwood.”) The band’s four members were in town for a gig at Rough Trade recently. On their day off, they visited the Museum of Sex, to see the exhibit “Radical Perverts.”

Before entering the gallery, a museum staffer asked them to sign injury-and-liability waivers for the show’s interactive games. “I am extremely litigious, so this is great,” Maxine Steen, the pink-haired guitarist, said. She wasn’t entirely joking. Earlier this year, Mannequin Pussy was deemed obscene by Big Tech. “One day, I woke up and had a bunch of messages from people that were, like, ‘Hey, um, your music’s not on TikTok anymore?’ ” Marisa Dabice, the band’s front person, said. She wore a leather duster coat with fur cuffs. After confirming that typing in the band’s name yielded no results, she had a theory. “I type in ‘Mannequin Cock’ to see what’s up,” she said. “Our music came up!” She didn’t stop there. “I type in ‘Mannequin Dick.’ ” Same thing.

Steen shook her head. On TikTok, it was not hard to find such dude-penned classics as “Fela’s Cock,” “My Dick,” or “Dick in a Box.” “To be feminine is to be profane,” Dabice said sadly.

At around the same time, if you asked an Amazon Alexa to play Mannequin Pussy, the device would shut down. Epitaph, the band’s record label––whose offerings include Noam Chomsky’s recorded lectures and NOFX’s “Punk in Drublic”––contacted TikTok. (“I’m receiving a notice that the phrase ‘may be associated with behavior or content that violates our guidelines,’ ” the label’s legal counsel wrote.) TikTok backed down, and now Mannequin Pussy is back on the platform. “They reprogrammed their algorithms,” Dabice said. “Now the only type of pussy that can be searched on TikTok is mannequin.”

She was enchanted by a museum diorama titled “Iron Hole,” part of a series called “Sex Lives of Robots.” “That’s one thing that people are worried about, right?” Dabice said. “That robots are going to be the only ones who get to make art in the future?”

The band had recently come under fire for using A.I. in a music video for the song “Nothing Like.” (Among the dissenters, the YouTube user @TheEpicBunch12222 commented, “real punks respect copyright law.”) Why did Mannequin Pussy do it? “I only had three thousand dollars and three weeks to make a video,” Dabice said. “There’s an alarmist reaction to what A.I. ultimately does mean, instead of simply as a tool in the hands of a creator.” She went on, “It can be ethical and pleasurable and art.”

They moved on to other works––a dildo belonging to Allen Ginsberg, a vitrine that displayed a leather whip. The gallery was also stocked with religious iconography. Dabice gazed at a Picasso etching of Raphael with his mistress, regarded by an unlikely voyeur. “ ‘The Pope savors the scene from his armchair,’ ” she read from a placard. She felt creatively affirmed. “Artists throughout history have understood that sex is part of our humanity,” she said.

Mannequin Pussy’s new album, “I Got Heaven,” was rated an 8.8 by Pitchfork in its Best New Music listings. Dabice said that her idea of heaven was an oasis where “Weird Al” Yankovic performed an eternal residency.

Colins (Bear) Regisford, the band’s bassist, said that, to him, heaven would be seeing Nirvana in its prime.

“And I could play drums, like, as loud as I want,” the group’s fourth member, Kaleen Reading, who wore a windbreaker, said. She went on, “My cats would live as long as I do. And, uh, I can kiss my girlfriend without having people looking at us.”

“Synthesizers, lasers,” Steen said.

“I want a bacchanal every night,” Dabice said.

For the band, the question of language and profanity is of great importance. “When I sit down to write lyrics, I spend a lot of time really wavering over what those words are going to be,” Dabice said. “They’re not just magazine-flips through obscurity, stringing random words together. There’s an intentional meaning that’s been labored over, because there aren’t that many moments in our life that we get to say something.” She made a Delphic expression. “How often do we actually get to say something?”

She invoked the 1973 court case Miller v. California, which determined that a work is only considered obscene if it “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” By that standard, she concluded, “we’re artists.” ♦

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