Twice in the span of four days, San Francisco was the site of giant phalluses, inflated with air for theatrical effect. The first was Sunday night at the Curran Theater during Chapter 4 of Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, where dongs representing the U.S. and U.S.S.R. fought a proxy Cold War set to David Bowie’s “Heroes.” The second was Wednesday evening at the Chapel, where Peaches shot up the place with Silly-String during “Dick in the Air.” Her backup dancers helped unfurl it, and out she stepped, a 50-year-old woman staying upright by treading on her fans outstretched palms and treating the phallus’ interior as a fashion runway before spraying Silly-String through the meatus.
After the show, a friend remarked that Peaches “does everything wrong,” yet her shows are wildly entertaining. There’s too much absurd braggadocio for her music to be a serious feminist statement, yet that’s exactly what it is. She shamelessly rhymes “pistachio” with “Ralph Macchio” and “milk-mustachio” without sounding inane. Her take on gender identity has a rough edge that’s almost more nihilistic than hedonistic. And she name-checks herself a lot, sometimes going on to repeat all her clever lyrics a dozen times or more in a song. Peaches’ music and shows shouldn’t be that good — and every time someone thinks to dismiss her as a one-trick pony, out comes another album with five or more great songs on it. This time it was after a six-year wait, but Peaches remains as cerebrally transgressive as ever.
Born Merrill Beth Nisker, Peaches began her career as a teacher at a Jewish school in Toronto. Not since Sarah Connor went from waitress to slayer of Terminators has a woman had such an sharp career swing.
And “Dick in the Air” was only part of it — although it’s particularly resonant these days. (If you ever see a T-shirt around town reading, “Whose Jizz Is This?” it’s a reference to this song.) Wearing a bodysuit made to look as though she were naked, with exposed breasts, she burned through most of the songs on 2015’s Rub, with “Light in Places” as the encore. The mix of deadly serious hip-hop-inflected swagger and arch electroclash distance translates well to the stage, because at no point does Peaches let you in. The mystique remains intact. We’ll never pierce the veil, but there are danceable songs rooted in Joan Jett-era hard rock, like “Boys Wanna Be Her.” And vaginal iconography remains a key element, particularly when she’s flanked by dancers dressed like vulvas. It’s silly, but also not.
“Fuck the Pain Away” is always going to be the song people most strongly associate with Peaches, and of course, she nearly reproduced the album version, now more than 15 years old. After seeing her at the Folsom Street Fair and the Castro Street Fair, to see her by night in a venue as intimate as The Chapel is a real treat. She’s still the titillatrix, always in full control, never more so than in the dark.