Sympathy for the Doll

Devil Doll's Colleen Duffy wants you to remember when rock was sexy

Apr 20, 2005 at 4:00 am
Let's not ignore the elephant in the room, okay? Take another long look at that photo. You already checked it out, let out a wolf whistle or a sigh, and finally moved your eyes up to this boring ol' print. Look again; I can wait. Letters strung together to make words have a hard time competing with something like that press pic below. Whether your eyes popped out like a cartoon ("Ah-ooo-ga!") or you shook your head at the gall of it all doesn't matter to Colleen Duffy, lead singer of Devil Doll and the cheesecake featured below. Because now she has your attention.

"The whole mission of Devil Doll is to put the sex back into rock & roll," says Duffy, who sees a big difference between her own pin-up style and the Paris Hilton boob-itude that rules our world. "[Americans are] worshipping pop and pop goddesses," she continues. "Not only do they not know how to play instruments, they can't write a song to save their life. Or they're so young that they are preyed on by the music industry, developed before their times into female icons."

It's the "before their time" part that bothers Duffy, who has no problem with a classic icon like pin-up queen Betty Page. Thus the fishnetted gams below (looking at and listening to Duffy makes you want to spit like Mickey Spillane). Duffy wants to warp back to when sex was, you know, sexy.

"It's not slutty," says Duffy of Page's style. "I do a lot of pin-up photography. It's about when women were real women. Before breast implants, before every other woman on a magazine cover had an eating disorder. That imagery was very cheesecake, very innocent, very fun."

Time shifts as well in the music of Devil Doll, which mixes swing and other old styles with riot-grrl rock or, as Duffy puts it, "sexy/angry music, like if you took '40s-style torch jazz with rock & roll with a punk-rock delivery, you get Devil Doll." Whether in the studio with pianos and orchestration or live onstage with guitar, drums and a stand-up bass (Duffy sometimes straps on an electric bass as well), Devil Doll mixes pain, pleasure and heat like the best of the old lounge singers or the modern-day cabaret of the Dresden Dolls. Ashlee Simpson it ain't.

"What's happening is that the female imagery [in contemporary pop] is just being used to sell sex," explains Duffy. "They're not actually putting sex back into rock & roll; there's no empowerment factor there. There's no 'Hey, I'm actually a self-realized woman, and I'm really sexy and I'm going to tell you the truth, and then I'm going to kick you in the balls.'"

Duffy punts her share of nuts on Devil Doll's Queen of Pain. One song is called "You Are the Best Thing and the Worst Thing"; another, "Liquor Store," features these lyrics: "I just want to drink/and that's it/and I ain't taking no one's shit/so get your hand off my ass/Think I'm a bitch?/Man, you ain't seen nothing yet." She can coo when she wants to, but here she pulls out the gravel and the volume, her voice growing with each word. Bet the poor bastard moved his hand.

Duffy in part defines female empowerment as "women who just don't care," as in, "I just don't care if people don't buy my record, because I own my own label and I put out my own music, and there's no executive can tell me they don't like my music and they aren't going to put the album out."

Duffy isn't a sex object; she's a sex subject. A dame, a femme fatale. She doesn't want her looks to enrich some old man, the way an Indian casino ends up filling the pockets of giant corporations. Her sexuality is her birthright, part of the package she has for getting her music out there.

"I'm lucky, because I'm telling the truth and I look amazing on the eyes while I'm doing it, so men are willing to listen," she admits. "It's not about being angry with men. For guys it's an experience seeing the show live. Men leave saying, 'Wow.' It was sexy and it was inspiring."

But, men being men, meaning men being dogs, she doesn't want to be that inspiring.

"I very rarely leave the house wearing lipstick," Duffy says. "The way I look in photo shoots and onstage is Devil Doll. If I walked around like Devil Doll all day it would be way too much attention. I save it for special moments. Because of the attention and the creepy vibes, I like to downplay it and fly under the radar."

Starting with an all-girl punk band in high school before fronting a ska band for a while (and selling merch for the Toasters), the DIY aesthetic is ground deep into Duffy's bones. Citing influences from Page to original riot grrl Joan Jett to DIY all-star and album factory Ani DiFranco, Duffy is into control, making her extremely wary of the pop combine that chews up sex, digests the money and shits out Lindsay Lohan albums.

"I've seen people have nervous breakdowns because this industry will dictate their worth to them," says Duffy. "And it's fucking un-fucking cool what has happened to this industry. There's always been payola, radio payola, all that stuff, but you always had artist development too. Now that's gone."

Living in an age where selling 100,000 records can get you dropped from a label baffles Duffy. "Imagine if you own your own label and you sold 100,000 records," she says. "It'd be, 'Hello, new house.'"

Her own label also gives Duffy the freedom to put out exactly the music she wants, f-bombs and all. "When I swear, I'm very choosy about where I put those words," she explains. "I don't throw it around like a Sopranos episode. But I also don't leave it out to act like someone I'm not."

It's that odd blend of theatrics and honesty that makes Devil Doll's music and attitude work. Sexy, scary and in control, Duffy's act grabs you cold. There's nothing like a dame, for sure, especially when she has her hands on your throat.