Sitting at Yahoo Music’s studio to perform two acoustic songs with her musical partner Garrison Starr, fearless comedienne, pop-culture provocateur, and all-around badass Margaret Cho is serving ‘90s realness – and not just because her surprisingly serious songs and flowy tunic wouldn’t seem out of place on a classic Lilith Fair lineup. She also frequently peppers her conversation with enthusiastic references to Evan Dando, Superchunk, Fiona Apple, Kathleen Hanna, Linda Perry, Courtney Love, the Gits, and Kim Gordon’s now-defunct X-Girl fashion line. And when discussing her new album, American Myth, she says, “I think a lot of my music is if Juliana Hatfield. Like, time-machine Juliana Hatfield. I want to be like time-machine Belly or time-machine Breeders. That’s my genre of music, very sort of ‘90s, maybe like 4AD.”
One standout ‘90s reference on the album, Cho’s late friend Anna Nicole Smith, inspired not only the album’s name, but also one of its most unexpectedly poignant tracks. “The album title comes from [a line in] the song ‘Anna Nicole’: ‘She tasted like pickles and American myth,’” says Cho. “The song was based on a true story of me going to her house and making out with her, and she tasted like pickles. We had a great time, and it was weird, because I understand all of the addictions that she had and I had the same ones, and so I understood her struggle kind of from the inside. And so the song is really in the tradition of ‘Candle in the Wind.’ It was weird when I was told that she died. I immediately burst into tears; it was such a hugely emotional thing. So then I wrote the song, and it just was healing for me to do, just as a friend and as a fan, and sort of to commemorate her in a more treasured light – as opposed to this idea of her being a trainwreck.
“There’s that American myth that some people are too beautiful to survive, like ‘Only the Good Die Young,’ the Billy Joel song – but it’s also Marilyn Monroe and James Dean and the ‘27 Club’ of musicians who died at 27. There’s this idea that there’s something fragile in these people that’s too perfect for this world. And I sort of look at [Anna] as that. And the album addresses a lot of different kinds of grief and death and loss, and so this seemed to be sort of a mythological thing. So it was the right thing to do. American Myth was the right title.”
Obviously, Cho’s emotionally bloodletting, demon-exorcising album is hardly typical, Weird Al-esque comedy fare. “It’s really about healing, and in a way, songs can get you to a place of feeling good that no other form of art can,” Cho explains. “There’s something that a song can do that’s really pretty magical. It cuts through explanations, exposition, it cuts through biases, it cuts through triggers, whatever – it cuts through to the heart of the matter.”
For instance, there’s “Come With Me,” which deals with sex workers’ rights, inspired by Cho’s own past as a phone-sex operator and her observations of street-walking male prostitutes during a recent trip to El Paso. (“I think there’s so much sadness and heartache and pain in that world of sex work, but when you break it down, it’s like, everybody’s still a child. People have these judgments about sex workers, but really, they’re still a child that needs to be taken care of,” she explains.) Another anthemic track, “Fat P—y,” is “about fat pride and to really embrace it and feel really good. The ‘90s was a great time for feminism, but also not, because the ‘90s was this time where we were Riot Grrls and there was revolution, but there was also the emergence of ‘heroin chic.’ Everybody was so thin, and so you felt like you had to be feminist, but because you couldn’t eat any food, it was really hard to live! It was really hard to stay awake for 120 Minutes when you couldn’t eat anything!… It was like, ‘I do want to find Mia Zapata’s killer, but I’m so hungry!’ Feminism taught us so much – but they were the thinnest feminists! We were not allowed to be fat! So I never had a good time in that ‘revolution.’”
Another song on American Myth, “Ron’s Got a DUI,” may seem lighthearted upon first listen, but it’s really about “all the older gay men I knew in my life that really showed me so much about the world. And for me, being somebody who was abused by men, to finally trust a man, it was a big deal. Gay men in my life really showed me how to love men and trust men, and it’s a huge gift… There’s just a lot of healing that I got from gay men, in terms of my relationships with men.”
And that brings us to the American Myth tune that’s likely to get the most attention, and is the most classically Riot Grrlish in feel: the white-hot fury of “I Want to Kill My Rapist.” The shocking song was inspired by the horrific sexual abuse Cho suffered between the ages of 5 and 12 at the hands of a family “friend” and by her multiple experiences of being raped as a teenager.
“People have been told you have to forgive to get to healing, and I honestly don’t really believe in forgiveness, because I think that the crime of rape is unforgivable,” Cho says bluntly. “I don’t care to forgive, and I don’t want to take the high road; I don’t want to be the better person. I’m fine with the resentment. I’m sure that a lot of people heal in their own way, but my feeling is, I like cathartic rage – I want to cauterize the wound, as opposed to any other method.”
In a Cosby-scandalized age when music stars like Kesha, Lady Gaga, Madonna, the Runaways’ Jackie Fox, and Chrissie Hynde are all speaking frankly about rape, “I Want to Kill My Rapist” is a powerful, if controversial, anthem for survivors. “I had been talking about [my abuse for years], but nobody really cared… I couldn’t figure how to talk about it but I kept trying,” says Cho. “I talked about it in my book, I talked about it before – and it’s an open conversation that’s been going on with my family for 30-plus years. So it’s something that I’m used to talking about, but for some reason it just never really caught on, I guess because people were still really uncomfortable with dealing with that kind of subject. So now we’re much more able to come forward.
“I thought that Lady Gaga was so powerful at the Oscars… It’s a very big deal for somebody to come forward, and so is Kesha. Kesha is very important to this conversation, in the way of like, how a survivor is ‘supposed’ to behave and the court not acknowledging that of course she’s going to try to protect her alleged abuser [Dr. Luke], because that’s another part of the process of getting to the light of being a survivor. So it’s a very hard thing that we need to know more about, so people should talk about it more.”
Now in her music, Cho can tackle this topic, and other serious subjects, in a way she couldn’t via her traditional comedy routines. “That’s what I tend to do with my music,” she says. “It’s very hard to do that in stand-up comedy, you know? It’s very hard to talk about wanting to kill your rapist in stand-up comedy. But in rock ‘n’ roll, it’s very easy… I think music is good to address things. You know, you have the tradition in Americana of murder ballads and everything; you have a lot of catharsis even in very early, early music in America, and there’s always been this sort of fascination with darkness with music. And I love metal and I love Goth and I love all these different genres that are pretty intensely dark that talked about things we would never talk about in life – but that’s always been very, sort of essential to rock. In rock, you address things that you can’t really talk about, but you can really sing about.”
Margaret’s Riot Grrl predecessors would be proud.