In the taxonomy of contemporary music, “alt” can stand for more than “alternative.” For sure, the prefix is commonly used to signify a deviation from a genre’s traditional aesthetics: alt-rock, alt-country, alt-jazz, alt-folk. But “alt” can also mean “anti,” and I know of no instance so extreme as the one of “alt-cabaret,” a genre that has become a sensational vogue in London over the past several years and has recently emerged in New York to attack the entrenched performance traditions of the Great American Songbook. Alt-cabaret is an assault campaign of liberation, merciful but hardly bloodless.
Alternately (but not alternatively) called “kamikaze cabaret,” the genre of alt-cabaret has dozens of practitioners in the London clubs and several of growing prominence in New York: notably, Bridget Everett, an outrageously bawdy transmutation of a 1920s blues queen who provokes the audience by splaying atop their tables with her legs spread, and Cole Escola, a cutesy bulldozer who bills himself as a “white trash girl-boy from the backwoods of Oregon.”
The de facto leader of this movement is the Australia-born performer Meow Meow (née Melissa Madden Gray), who appeared last week in a sold-out concert in the American Songbook series at the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center—a site that would seem to constitute opposition territory. Actually, the American Songbook series began to liberate itself from the orthodoxy of the Tin Pan Alley repertoire around ten years ago, when it started to present music from a range of American traditions: from hip-hop, Mos Def; from contemporary theater music, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey; from country, Kathy Mattea; as well as traditional cabaret acts such as Karen Akers. This programming proposes an alternative conception of the contents of an American songbook. But antagonism is different from alt, and it is much to the credit of the programmers of this series that they booked Meow Meow and welcomed her to burn down Lincoln Center.
Meow Meow did not exactly perform a cabaret show at Lincoln Center. What she did was perform a performance of a cabaret show, and in the second layer of creative interpretation she embedded a critique of the dull glamour and the dim high-mindedness of old-school, old-money cocktail-society entertainment. She is essentially a parodist, and like every great one she has enough proficiency in the art in which she’s dealing to reveal what is silly about it without looking too silly herself. She came outfitted in a baroquely tailored, glittery black gown with a wide slit in the front, all the way from her crotch to the floor. She had a long black glove on her left arm, and in her ungloved right hand she held two stage cigarettes that she kept in her fingers all evening—who knows how.
In her Kaplan Penthouse show, she performed many of the pieces that she has been doing in London, in Joe’s Pub in New York, and elsewhere around the world: Cole Porter’s “Too Damn Hot,” from Kiss Me, Kate, done in German for a gratuitous but funny Weimar effect; some Weill and Brecht, including a hard-edged reading of “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera1; some things by Jacques Brel and Michel Legrand; and a handful of songs by arty contemporary writers such as Laurie Anderson and Amanda Palmer. The show, in its wryly overblown theatricality and arch humor, drew heavily from the traditions of both performance art and drag, and it was both (if not simultaneously) biting and loving, ridiculous and affecting. Like her many predecessors in drag and performance art, Meow Meow has it both ways as an artist: When she’s serious, she can surprise; and when she’s ridiculous, she can hide behind the mask of irony.
What’s she doing is important as a challenge to the hardening of aesthetic conventions. It's effective as antagonism—still, it’s something short of persuasive as an alternative to traditional cabaret. A few weeks before this show, I saw the singer K.T. Sullivan—a master of unapologetic, unwinking traditionalism in song interpretation—in a performance of Weimar music with her fellow singer Karen Kohler, at the Triad theater in New York. Sullivan sang “Pirate Jenny,” too—straight, without affect, but with profound sensitivity to the twisted, murderous impulses of the song, and it made me literally quake in my seat. That is considerably harder to do, and perhaps more important, than burning down Lincoln Center.
This was also sung in German, less gratuitously.