Featured Artist: The Von Tramps and the Gwen We Lost

Last Fourth of July, my best friend's parents were out of town on vacation, so we did what any millennial in their early 30s would do. We came over with our partners, raided their bar, used their massive grill for a cookout, and lounged in their hot tub. For some reason, while the four of us were day drinking in the hot tub, the topic of conversation shifted to Gwen Stefani. One of the guys said that she was their first celebrity crush, but then No Doubt's music started to suffer once they became famous.


The dudes began to casually banter about whether No Doubt "sold out" before Tragic Kingdom or after? I could feel my ears getting hot. I suddenly blurted out, "What the hell are you talking about? Tragic Kingdom is a fucking masterpiece."


My friend's boyfriend countered, "C'mon, even you have to admit that Tragic Kingdom sounds radically different from No Doubt's first two albums. Everything after that sounds nothing like the original No Doubt."


The conversation was quickly becoming more heated than the hot tub. This was no longer a casual talk, this was now a debate, and I was about to school this man. I replied, "No shit! Eric Stefani had creative control of No Doubt until Tragic Kingdom. At that point, he was ready to leave the band. But Gwen needed to write through an earth-shattering breakup. So, her big brother stuck around to help.”


“Okay, but that doesn’t explain why her style changed so dramatically afterwards,” He replied.


“Okay, how can you expect her to be the same person she was at 21? She was blindsided by her seven-year relationship ending and Eric quit the band. Then, shortly after Tragic Kingdom was released, her best friend dies of a heroin overdose. That kind of stuff fundamentally changes who you are as a person and an artist.”


Luckily, my friend's boyfriend, who I consider a consummate music connoisseur, realized that his perspective was skewed. "Oh, damn, I had no idea her best friend died."


"But you did know…because it was Bradley Nowell of Sublime."


***

So what does a conversation from nine months ago have to do with this blog? To understand that, I have to take you back to Monday night's show featuring The Dollyrots and The Von Tramps at Rumba Cafe. I have been trying to see The Dollyrots for a while, but Covid-19 had different plans. So when I found out last minute that they would be in town, I quickly bought tickets. I hadn't decided whether or not I would cover this show and to what extent if I did. Still, I heard that the band opening up The Dollyrots was a ska band from the midwest, and I figured that I should arrive early just in case. Luckily, my intuition, at least when it comes to bands, never leads me wrong.

Much like my experience at the Alkaline Trio show, I quickly realized when we walked into Rumba Cafe that I was a far more casual fan of The Dollyrots than I initially expected. However, I shouldn't have been surprised, especially since the band has been around for over 20 years. They have a small legion of diehard fans that came out in full Dollyrots' regalia. In my experience, bands with this kind of following can be challenging to open for at times. Still, they provide up-and-coming bands with a tremendous opportunity to build their own following. Depending on the day, an opening band may receive a warm response or a rather chilly reception. Unfortunately, perhaps because it was Monday, the Columbus crowd greeted The Von Tramps with unmerited apathy. But that didn't stop the band from giving it their absolute all.

The band had me and most of the other women in the crowd won over by the end of their first song. However, the crowd at this particular show was predominantly male, incredibly introverted, and mostly single. But as I moved through the crowd to take pictures of the band, I heard some incredible praise. Some women compared the lead singer, Jenna Enemy, to the iconic Gwen Stefani. While others compared her to Marina from Marina and the Diamonds and Aimee Allen of the Interrupters.

While this praise was well-earned, hearing it triggered an overwhelmingly pensive sense of sadness, perhaps even grief. Marina's music features lyrics about struggling with bulimia. Gwen Stefani has said that she has been dieting since the age of 13 to maintain her petite size-four figure. The women in the crowd were inspired by Jenna Enemy, who is an average-sized American woman because she looked like us. Even I have to admit it. Seeing a beautifully charismatic, full-figured female ska singer felt incredibly good. In fact, seeing a band that looks like they all could be members of my friend group feels like long-overdue representation. However, I seriously wonder if most of the men in the crowd weren't vibing because Jenna Enemy and the rest of the band weren't commodified for their consumption.

Now, The Von Tramps are still a relatively new band. So, I want to assure you that what I am about to say is critique and not criticism. As of right now, my only critique of the band is that its musicians are currently just run-of-the-mill. They are still mastering their instruments and learning the praxis of music theory. It's way more punk to put yourself out there than wait until you are "good enough." The music industry is not only sexist, but it's ageist too. You can't wait for your big break; you have to pursue it relentlessly.


Chelsea Oxborough is absolutely radiant on guitar, and I would challenge her to bring more of that manic punk energy to her on-stage persona. She looks like she could shred with the best of her male counterparts, and as her confidence builds, she may even put them to shame. Krissandra Anfinson might be the most understated of the band's core AFAB members. Still, her jazzy bass style has a diverse range of doo-wop, bluesy, and funky flavors. If utilized correctly, she could become the band's saucy secret weapon, especially as she grows creatively as a musician.


Unfortunately, female artists aren't allowed to have the same growing pains. The Von Tramps will likely not be shown the same mercy that bands like Anti-Flag, NoFX, Propagandhi, or even Radkey received as they became progressively better musicians. However, The Von Tramps may have a cleaver strategy to overcome the discriminatory apathy they will likely face. Throughout their set, they have embedded humorous references to top-charting hits of our past. At one point, lead singer Jenna Enemy literally pretended to serenade me as I was Rick Rolled. The cheeky tactic eventually got most of the men in the crowd to begrudgingly participate as active audience members

All of that being said, I think The Von Tramps have white-hot potential. While the music business is still incredibly toxic, it is significantly less toxic than it was in the early 1990s and 2000s. I feel like Jenna Enemy could eventually be hailed as the "second coming" by female fans within the ska scene. Not only is this band providing us with the empowering representation we deserve, but Enemy is serving us glimpses of the Gwen we could have had but lost to the culture of celebrity.


Imagine how creative Stefani could have been if she was allowed to be content with herself in her own body. What could she have written if she was allowed to be a person and not just a product marketed for mass consumption? And more importantly, how many talented female artists never took the stage or were overlooked because they were too fat, too queer, too unapologetic?


The world is changing—and for the better—but it isn't evolving fast enough. Luckily, there will always be bands like The Runaways, No Doubt, and—hopefully—The Von Tramps ready to kick down the doors and accelerate us into the future.

Click here to hear the The Von Tramps’ latest single, “Live Fast.”



116 views0 comments