"We don't take ourselves very seriously at all. If we can't laugh at ourselves, what's the point?"
This was the tone set by Ruyter Suys in a recent phone conversation prior to a Jan. 29 show in Albuquerque. Her band, Atlanta-based Nashville Pussy, has been recording and touring for much of the last 15 years, generating plenty of criticism along the way.
It's more than just the name—a reference to a Ted Nugent song titled "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang." Many of the band's songs revolve around the themes of violence, drug use, sex and all the other things that have become staples not just of rock music, but of popular music in general.
Ruyter (pronounced Rider), with no apparent sense of the contradiction implied, calls the naming of the band "a ballsy move," and laughs charismatically. She is a well-known figure in the hard- rock world, having garnered praise and awards from many music media outlets over the years. A host of VH1's That Metal Show once picked her as the second all-time greatest female rocker*, but she shrugs off such honors, saying, "I'd rather be praised just as a guitarist."
This toughness is also present in her approach to what she calls the "boys club" that is hard rock. "It's definitely a locker room kind of feel. You have to stomach a lot of jokes. And you have to be able to hold your own," she says. "I was raised gender- neutral, so I don't pay much attention to it."
Surprisingly, Ruyter was raised not in the American South, where most of the band's fanbase is rooted, but in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was her marriage to Blaine Cartwright of Kentucky country-punk group Nine Pound Hammer that led to her settling in Atlanta and eventually forming Nashville Pussy (with Cartwright, who is the band's lead singer and songwriter).
Ruyter's "gender neutral" upbringing contributes to what I found to be a surprising sensitivity—when we first started talking, she said she expected me to be a girl, then amended her opinion to say she shouldn't assume either way; maybe I was just a girl with a deep voice.
In fact, the more I talked with Ruyter, the more my opinions began to waver. Let me backtrack. When I first considered this article, I was thinking mainly about the difference between bands that use offensive names as a means to exploit, versus those that use offensive names as a means to empower.
One of the most distasteful bands polluting today's music scene is called Dick Delicious and the Tasty Testicles. They are also out of Atlanta, and in fact, Ruyter has been a guest on their most recent recording and tour. The band's lyrics are so repulsive that I can't even include them in an alt-weekly that prints regular semi-edgy sex columns.
Contrast this to Pussy Riot, the Moscow-based, all-female anarchist punk collective. Pussy Riot took the world by storm in February 2012 when they staged a guerrilla performance in a Moscow cathedral. The song, called "Punk Prayer," criticizes the church's connection with Putin. As a result, several of the women were arrested, and two of them are currently being held in prison camps on convictions of "hooliganism."
It would be easy to praise the music of Pussy Riot while condemning that of Dick Delicious and Nashville Pussy. After all, the first group sacrifices their freedom to support the freedom of others, while the latter two groups, in the words of Ruyter, provide "an escape for people who just want to...get rowdy and sweaty and not have to think about anything for a couple hours, and hopefully meet someone with the same musical interests and get laid."
Music can, of course, provide an escape without depicting (and hence celebrating) violence or drug use. However, I generally reject this as an argument for censorship, my own opinion being that music doesn't create cultural attitudes so much as reflect what already exists.
It requires a certain amount of courage to go against the grain of society, especially when one openly says things that the population feels or experiences, but doesn't like to express. To this extent, Pussy Riot and Nashville Pussy have something in common.
However, my ultimate realization was that it's not fair to compare the two bands. Pussy Riot is explicitly activist; but when I asked Ruyter about whether her band was political, she said, "No, I think politics should stay out of music...[the act] of making music is political enough itself."
*Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that Suys was named the second-greatest female rocker of all time by VH1's That Metal Show. Promoter Joe Becker clarifies that Suys was picked second-greatest female rocker by one of the show's hosts, but did not ultimately win the title. SFR regrets the error.