Even though it’s only five letters, it’s a big word. It’s not the worst word in the English language (most people wouldn’t even put it in their top 10), but it’s that level of social acceptance that gives the word its power as a derogatory female descriptor. Even its original etymology — a female dog — serves to increase the word’s caustic potency, because it makes the epithet both insulting AND dehumanizing.
So it’s surprising when you find that the nicest woman you’ll ever meet has taken it for a stage name. And not just taken it — lifting it from the charnel house of common insults and doing her part to elevate the word to a position of strength — but she’s outright, balls-deep LIVED it. Until last year, a number of her fans didn’t even know her real name.
It’s Karen, by the way. And though she’s never been billed under her given name, now that she’s “outed herself” (her words), she’ll answer to both interchangeably.
“In the interest of full transparency. A new world,” she said during a phone interview. “Bitch is the name I perform under, but Karen is the one you can use in polite company. Which is what my mom has chosen to do.”
Bitch first rose to prominence in the late ‘90s as one half of the aggro-poetic queercore act Bitch & Animal.
“It was my first foray into writing my own music,” Bitch recalled. “Animal and I had met at acting school. She and I were like a combustion when we met. We just instantly connected and could look in each other’s eyes and make up a song. So we were learning to hone this kind of wild play.”
The pair would eventually cross paths with Ani DiFranco, releasing two albums on DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records. But it was the duo’s first album, the indie produced “What’s That Smell” that would produce their signature track, and the song that would go on to become the leitmotif in Bitch’s career: a sprawling, raucous, feminist anthem called “Pussy Manifesto.”
“I wrote (“Pussy Manifesto”) in 1998,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Sure, this is timely now, but it’s not going to be timely forever.’ But it persists. I’ve even tried to leave ‘Pussy Manifesto’ behind for a while. There were a few shows where I tried not to play it, and people were pissed. People. Were. Pissed.”
The track and its overarching themes have gone on to permeate Bitch’s music, even as she’s gone in directions far afield of where Bitch & Animal started out. This is evident in her new project, a nominally electro-pop duo called BEACH.
“I would say that with BEACH, I’m going back to letting myself kind of radically play,” she explained. “I don’t have the pressure of writing every single line of music like I did in the past. There’s a freedom to that. I’m working with beats that (collaborator Billy Jo Cavallaro) had made. I’d never taken a beat and written a song around it.”
But even here, in a project that sounds like nothing she’s done in the past, the anthem lives: BEACH’s first single, the aggressively overdriven “Ibuprofen,” features a breakdown that includes a line from “Pussy Manifesto.”
Bitch keeps returning to the track for much the same reason that her fans can’t leave it alone. The message comes from a place of empowerment. And empowerment’s a platform that Bitch finds criminally underpopulated, despite the current glut of commercially successful female artists.
“I still don’t think that we have a lot of women singing about taking over their own power,” she laments. “So that’s what I’ve been doing.” CV
Chad Taylor is an award-winning news journalist and music writer from Des Moines.