Plenty of Bandwidth (Talk Hard!): Sister Mischief

Review of Sister Mischief by Laura Goode

Candlewick, 2011

by REBECCA, February 13, 2012

In honor of Whitney Houston’s life, here is a book about the power of female musicians to change the world.

characters

Esme Rockett, aka MC Ferocious: “a Jewish lesbian lyricist” and a “smart, sassy, die-hard word nerd”

Marcy aka DJ SheStorm: Esme’s best friend and “the butchest straight girl in town”

Tess aka The ConTessa: the sweet “powerhouse of a vocalist and former super-Lutheran teen queen”

Rowie aka MC Rohini: “a beautiful, brilliant, beguiling desi chick on the stick” (I have no idea what “on the stick” means)

Mary Ashley Baumgarten: Tess’s ex-best friend, a bigoted mean girl for Christ

Pops: Esme’s dad, a super-supportive artisan with a passion for miniature houses and bacon

Drs. Priya and Raj Rudra: Rowie’s parents, mom a lover of food and poetry; dad a disciplinarian

hook

Best friends Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie are Sister Mischief, the all-girl hip-hop group that wants to take Holyhill (aka Holy Hell) Minnesota by storm. Along the way, they find first loves, lyrics, a PA hijacking, 4-H (Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos, that is), and, of course, goats.

worldview

This is a fun book: A group of four really different female friends; how they go through the trials of living in a small, conservative town when they aren’t conservative; the hilarity of that particular brand of hyper-Christian mean-girl; nerdy riffs on music; high school hijinks, first love in a tree house; the use of official media to push a political agenda; an awesome dad who treats his daughter like a real person—really, it’s all here.

“So, it turns out I’m gay, Pops.”

He looks hard at me, not upset, probably just checking that I’m serious. When he doesn’t say anything, I keep talking.

“Definitely a homo. Like, Same-Sex City, population Esme. Just a big gay, gay lesbian.”

He nods.

“Cool with me, kiddo. Eat a sandwich.” (17)

When I first saw the press for this book I was delighted by the juxtaposition of girls from suburban Minnesota throwing themselves into hip-hop, as well as by what seemed to promise a complex treatment of femininity (you had me at “butchest straight girl in town”!). Rather than complex, though, I found the novel . . . inclusive. Many different people and perspectives were represented (Tess’ generous and positive faith, Esme’s confirmation that she is a lesbian, Marcy’s aggressive anti-sentimentality, Rowie’s coping with her feelings for Esme alongside her ethnic identity). These characters challenge the views of their school’s predominantly SWASP (straight, white, anglo-saxon, protestant) population through their hip-hop, and the formation of Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos, a combination of hip-hop discussion group and gay-straight alliance.

Goode takes on high school obsession and righteousness with tenderness and humor (we’ve all been there), and Sister Mischief, like Sister Mischief themselves, is optimistic about the power of music and words to change how people think. It’s not a naïve worldview, just a particularly teenage one. And I mean that in a good way. Esme and her friends are smart and savvy, and this makes their explicit desires to use hip-hop as a tool of change in their small, conservative, religious town laudable rather than laughable. Goode does a wonderful job of allowing them to express their beliefs with a conviction that is believable of thoughtful teens, but not obnoxious.

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

Sister Mischief is totally fighting the good fight. The book didn’t completely blow me away like I hoped it might, though. For example, while Marcy and Tess are well-sketched in the way they talk and act, they are clearly not the focus of the story, which seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity to really get at the complexities of female friendship, small-town shenanigans, and the inspiration behind their music. For that matter, Rowie, who gets far more time on the page, is seen mainly through Esme’s eyes—that is, seen mainly through crush-goggles. Even Esme didn’t feel totally fleshed out, which made the drama between Esme and Rowie less interesting than it might have been.

In truth, though, I think what made many of the scenes that might have been powerful or unique fall a bit flat is their proximity to the truly dynamic scenes about music. Goode, the back cover tells me, is a poet, and this is clear in her rhythmic language and great dialogue. The scenes of Sister Mischief performing build to a frenzy of empowerment and triumph that are truly powerful. Their rhymes are funny, positive, and vulnerable:

“I’ve spent my whole life trying to be bigger than one
Like I could up and make the earth revolve the sun
Something bout that wanting makes a girl feel invisible
Divisible: is it, though?
I wanna get physical
With an unfuckwittable
Visible mistress who
Feels my kind of blue
Listen, I don’t care who
Let’s screw through curfews
Show me who it is soon, is it you, is it you?
Girl of my dreams, cool as the moon
You gotta come soon ‘cause I wanna get with you, boo.
 
 So who says the homos can’t come out and drop bombs?
And who says I gotta look like these Botoxed white moms?
MC Ro and me got anthems to dance with
Wearin’ low-riders low and we got plenty of bandwidth
To transmit these messages you best not be messin’ with.” (341-2)

I’d love to see teenagers take a page out of these ladies’ book: sing and dance their hearts out, splatter the streets with ink, paint murals skyscraper-high, and generally throw their art at the world. And in this, I think, Sister Mischief most delivers on the dust jacket’s promise that we’re “about to get rocked by the fiercest, baddest all-girl hip-hop crew.”

personal disclosure

I often found the slang that Goode puts in the girls’ mouths humiliating, and when I began reading, this highlighted my anxiety that the girls’ passion for the culture surrounding hip-hop would not touch upon the really complicated issues surrounding race and class in regard to hip-hop. Here, however, I was relieved to find, Goode is absolutely aware of how Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie could come across as problematically coopting the historically black culture of hip-hop to rebel against their majority white, affluent suburb. Instead, Goode not only acknowledges this common cultural critique but, further, rehearses arguments for and against it, showing her characters to be not only savvy about the music and culture, but also about the extremely complicated issues of race, class, and gender that intersect in the reinterpretation of that music and culture.

readalikes

Books and movies in which a rag-tag group of sympathetic underdogs go up against an institutional Goliath armed with only their wit, conviction, and art and totally win:

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2010). This book has a totally different tone, but a similar reverence for the power of public art to triumph over bullshit. Check back for our adoring joint review.

Pump Up the Volume (1990).

I am going to say something controversial. I think that folks who like dance movies will like Sister Mischief. Yeah, like Step Up 2 The Streets (yes, that’s how it’s really written) and Stomp the Yard. I know, these movies are usually melodramatic exercises in constructing ever-more ridiculous plots to make excuses for people breaking out into dance. I know, their treatment of socio-economic issues is usually nothing more than the bit of sandpaper used to scuff the bottom of a luxe 4-inch heel. But, like the climax of Sister Mischief, the feeling of triumph when those slo-mo leaps, flips, twists, and dips express the dancer’s passion always wells up in my throat.

Procured from: the library

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10 Comments

  1. Margalit

     /  February 14, 2012

    Sounds like an ambitious undertaking, with lots of potential for missteps, that the author really got right. I *loved* “Will Grayson, Will Grayson”! Review soon, please!

    • Thanks for your comment, Margalit. Actually, Tessa and I will be doing a joint review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson soon!

  2. I’m sort of sad someone already stole The ConTessa as a nom de… performance.

    • dude, if you find a context in which you want to be called the ConTessa i will MAKE it happen!

      • R – There’s a reason that very few people have been allowed to hear my rapping from high school under the name Dorkfly*Q

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