The Teaches of Peaches: the spiritual godmother of 'WAP' looks back on her debut album's 20th anniversary
Peaches: 'People couldn’t even decide if this was music'
People have been doing it since the dawn of time, but only Peaches put a name on it.
"F--k the Pain Away" is the first track on The Teaches of Peaches and it sets the scene for a debut unlike any other in the Canadian music industry — possibly ever, but particularly then.
In 2000, the biggest Canadian hits belonged to SoulDecision, Sky, the Moffatts and other Canadian boy bands climbing the charts. The Teaches of Peaches was explosively antithetical: a sex-positive, body-neutral, feminist, electroclash record that wore its "explicit" warning label with pride.
Twenty years before Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion brought "WAP" to the dinner table, Peaches had earned a spot in Urban Dictionary, rankled rock critics and subverted the male gaze. This is the legacy of The Teaches of Peaches, a record that was so far ahead of its time, we still haven't caught up.
A year before her debut as Peaches, Nisker released her first studio album, 1999's Fancypants Hoodlum. Retroactively, it's easy to see Peaches' sound starting to take its shape from the skeletal foundation of this punk-rock record. But it wasn't until Nisker met her true musical match that Peaches would (sorry/not sorry) bear fruit. Armed with just a drum machine ("the machine," as she calls it), a half-sketched set of lyrics and a background in punk and performance art, Nisker began setting lines to "the machine" and seeing what stuck.
She performed "F--k the Pain Away" for the first time in Toronto. The sound person recorded the performance and sold Nisker a cassette copy for $5 after the show. When she played it back, she realized she had something and put together a demo. From the beginning, "F--k the Pain Away" was the standout.
"Every time I played that song, nobody had any opinion about anything — they just loved the song," Nisker tells CBC Music via video conferencing from a studio in Berlin. "It really proved to me that there's magic in a song. There is also magic in great production and perfect delivery and all that, but there's a magic in a vibe and that's what that was." Nisker opted not to change anything, leaving the demo version of the song as is, and the response still blows her away.
"That is the moment that you dream of," she says. "People can have beautiful, wonderful, creative, awesome careers and that moment may never happen, but it doesn't mean that they're failures or anything. It was just a weird moment. Like, 'Oh my God, that happened. And it works. And that's it.'"
The song, which became Peaches' signature, sets expectations immediately: thumping percussion that echoes through your whole body, then a synth that sounds like it's birthing a tuba, and then Peaches' opening line, funny, filthy and fearless: "Suckin' on my titties like you wanted me."
"If you really listen to the lyrics, there's not really like — it's just kind of so casually direct," Nisker says. "And there's a lot of nonsense too. It's just a combination of silliness and a good punch, you know?"
Humour coupled with candour turned a good punch into a knockout. "F--k the Pain Away" was an all-too-relatable concept. It has been placed in everything from Academy Award-winning fare (2003's Lost in Translation) to television shows like True Blood, South Park and The Handmaid's Tale. Even Miss Piggy found catharsis in one memorable parody video.
And that's just the first track. The Teaches of Peaches starts there and keeps pushing boundaries. "Cum Undun," "Diddle My Skittle," "Lovertits" and "Suck and Let Go" are some of the more overt song titles, while a lyric like "Only double A but thinking triple X" makes a bid for one of the cleverest lines in contemporary pop music.
While some people immediately understood what Peaches was doing, others fundamentally did not.
"I really didn't know how fun the music would be, because for some people it's really angry," Nisker says. "For some people it's not fun, and for some people it's so fun. Some people find it super male-gazey porno. That was so interesting and what fuelled me even more with the performance of it was how polarizing it was. Even between what people thought this album was. Like, 'Is this real music?' People couldn't even decide if it was music!"
I wanted to focus on the lyrics and the human-ness in the machine. Waking you up, not lulling you into something.- Peaches
Even musicians she shared the stage with sometimes didn't know what to make of Peaches. Nisker recalls playing with the Strokes, who were all about a decade younger than her, and apparently had no clue what to expect.
"They're like, 'Grandma, you're scaring the kids!'" Nisker says. "I was 33. 'Grandma?' What?"
Nisker also remembers her first review in Toronto. She didn't know where to play, so she went to a singer-songwriter night. Everyone else had an acoustic guitar; Peaches was carrying her machine.
"'Peaches made her one-woman, hair-raising throw-down, and then we got back to what music is,'" Nisker says, quoting the review. "That kind of woke me up. I did something right. I used that as a quote, 'Her one-woman, hair-raising throw-down.' I took it as a positive and I put it everywhere, even though she [the reviewer] was horrified."
The album reviews are generally more enthusiastic, but even most of them read like a series of toothless, humourless attempts at wrestling back control of the male gaze that Peaches so skillfully subverted. For Rolling Stone, Pat Blashill gave The Teaches of Peaches 3.5 stars, but wrote, "Her rapping sounds like an alternate-universe Lil' Kim who's deadened all of her nerve endings by listening to too much indie rock." Pitchfork's Nitsuh Abebe gave the record 7.5 out of 10, which is a good score for Pitchfork, but Abebe lamented, "the unfortunate thing about Peaches is that she's turned into a one-woman referendum on the worthiness of the genre we'll go ahead and call electroclash: the widespread misconception that this stuff is all hucksterism and schtick can be traced pretty directly back to her lyrics and [electro-clash band] Fischerspooner's stage wardrobe." NME labelled Peaches a "Canadian MC and sometime-porn star." Robert Christgau, infamous American rock critic, opened his B- review with "Not cock-rock, bukkake-rock. And though you may be lucky enough not to know what that means, Peaches had better. Doesn't matter whether she's a performance artist, a concept rocker, a bored schoolteacher, or an expat with a gimmick. 'Come on, hot rod/ give me your wad' etc. is prosex postfeminism for the age of internet porn, in which thousands of women a day prove how cool they are by smiling through their semen facials."
At the mention of reviewers, Nisker laughs and asks for links. "They were confused, right?" she asks. "I remember there was one reviewer from Little Rock, Arkansas. He was talking about how much more offensive I am than someone like Eminem, and then he was like, 'I hope she never comes to Little Rock, Arkansas.' It was pretty funny."
But Nisker says she didn't have an agenda to offend. She didn't know what she wanted Peaches to be at the beginning.
"It's funny because I had no — my sense of provocatorium or whatever, that isn't even a word, but that's a word now," Nisker laughs. Her "provocatorium" was limited in scope at first: at the early Peaches shows, she wore a tight tank under her unbuttoned shirt, and she undid her pants to convey a casual "I don't care" attitude. Interacting with the audience was important to her, but first she had to get comfortable and in command of her machine. Once that happened, the wilder Peaches' showmanship got, channelling the punk-rock spirit she grew up idolizing. She got into peoples' faces, climbed on tables and pressed buttons on her machine with her tongue.
"More and more, it would just unleash itself," Nisker says. "It just brought out the performer and the theatrics in me and costume also really grew. You can see in the first album, I got a really bad bathing suit from Le Chateau on purpose. It was a little tight and a little gross and a little, you know, bad fashion. And then just things started to grow. I didn't want fashion to be sort of like a dressing of like, 'Look how beautiful I can look.' It was more like statements, like, you're wearing a little bathing suit, where people can see the hair coming out. Or you've created an outfit that has, like, five boobs on it. Is five boobs better? Is that what you want? More boob? What is beautiful, what is a male-gaze beauty, what is ridiculous, what is fun, what is reflecting back on our ideas of beauty?"
But it was also a matter of self-confidence, Nisker says, and "probably trying to also find the beauty in myself, like being OK with who I am and so trying it out and finding where my strengths are."
Nisker says she already knew she could sing, so she wasn't trying to prove herself in any traditional sense.
"I could sing very well, but on this first demo, I wanted to make sure that I didn't 'sing-y sing' or that I didn't sing the whole time because I didn't want people to judge my voice. It wasn't a goal of mine to show them how good a singer I am. It was more of an attitude and a style, which doesn't make it less of artistry or make it less of an art at all. I wanted to focus on that, on the lyrics and the human-ness in the machine, and sort of waking you up, not lulling you into something."
The world is still waking up to some of the themes of The Teaches of Peaches. There's still significant stigma around women's bodies as human bodies entitled to autonomy and agency, but there's also been progress.
"Every song right now that's number one is about pussy, which I'm not mad at," Nisker says, pointing out that all of those songs are sung from women's perspectives. Twenty years ago, "there weren't many positive or empowering ways to talk about your pussy or your clit. Like creating 'Skittle,' for example, and then it started to get used more, like in a Beyoncé song. And whether she knew about mine or not, I'm in the Urban Dictionary for 'Skittle' as the clit."
It's a beautiful coincidence that 20 years after the release of The Teaches of Peaches, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion dropped "WAP," their unabashed ode to women's sexual gratification. The song is a spiritual and thematic sibling to most of the songs on The Teaches of Peaches, making Nisker a kind of unofficial godmother to "WAP."
"It's super silly, and it's super smart, and it's super fun," Nisker says, smiling. "It's a number one f--king glorified hit, and it's called 'Wet Ass Pussy.' And I love it."