Thick, scuzzy beats and dancers dressed as giant vaginas lured Saturday-afternoon festivalgoers to Riot Fest’s Riot Stage, where electro-punk artist Peaches commanded the growing crowd. In the space of her first three songs—”Rub,” “Vaginoplasty,” and “Sick in the Head,” all from the 2015 album Rub—she’d already gone through her first costume change and plunged into the audience. She shed an oversize furry costume, half Muppet and half abominable snowman, to reveal an anatomically detailed bodysuit the color of her skin, and she climbed over the security barrier to walk atop her fans, standing on their hands while letting out a ferocious, primal scream.
(Heads-up that some of the photos below may not be appropriate for family functions or Sunday school classes.)
To the extent that punk means being free, weird, and confrontational, few better examples exist than Peaches. Though Riot Fest barely booked any electronic-based artists in its early club days, you’d expect Peaches to have made it onto the festival’s lineup as soon as it headed outside and diversified its bookings—her subversive swagger and boundary-pushing aesthetic are punk as fuck. But 2017 was her maiden voyage at Riot Fest.
Born Merrill Nisker in Toronto, Peaches got her start in a folk trio called Mermaid Cafe, but since emerging in her present persona in the late 90s, she’s let her freak flag fly. She now splits her time between Berlin and Los Angeles, and for two decades she’s been charting new territory with a hybrid of rap, electronic, rock ‘n’ roll, and performance art—her transgressive, smart, hella raunchy lyrics celebrate feminism, queer culture, and sexual and personal freedom. She’s toured with Queens of the Stone Age (Saturday’s headliner) and Marilyn Manson, collaborated with the likes of Iggy Pop, Christina Aguilera, and Feist, and influenced countless other artists (Lady Gaga borrowed more than a few notes from the teaches of Peaches in her early days). In 2012, she wrote and starred in a rock opera titled Peaches Does Herself, and in 2016 her song “Boys Wanna Be Her” became the theme song for Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.
Unfortunately, Peaches’ commercial success hasn’t matched her artistic success—her NSFW provocations and bitingly witty critiques of gender roles and beauty obsessions have kept her straddling the line between cult and mainstream. She’s a perpetual outsider, a badass gadfly to the saccharine pop world.
Meanwhile, the themes and messages of Peaches’ music, especially her take-no-shit feminism and her support of gender and sexual diversity, have moved to the foreground of public discourse over the past few years—a cultural shift exemplified by the legalization of same-sex marriage in June 2015 and the Women’s Marches on January 21, 2017. So her Riot Fest debut had even greater potential impact.
Throughout her set, Peaches sometimes focused on her vocal licks and sometimes on her dance moves. She changed outfits right out onstage, not in the wings, and ramped up the energy with rock ‘n’ roll theatrics (“As I like to say, Jesus walked on water—Peaches walks on you”). The simulated sex acts between Peaches and her two increasingly naked dancers weren’t exactly family friendly, but the joy, humor, and sex positivity they brought to the performance made it hard to imagine that anyone, even in such a large crowd, could be offended.
The message didn’t get through to everyone—at one point, I decided to find a new spot in the crowd to avoid some bros loudly discussing which of Peaches’ two dancers they’d rather do. (I hope they liked the trio’s subsequent orgiastic riff on Human Centipede.) But the majority of the crowd was plugged in. When I looked around during the hilariously sophomoric chorus of “Dick in the Air,” I saw several fans waving their own inflatable phalluses overhead—and hardly anyone who wasn’t was wearing an ear-to-ear grin.
Peaches blew the crowd away one last time with a rousing (and literally champagne-soaked) rendition of her most famous song, “Fuck the Pain Away.” After the set, as I walked away through Peaches’ fans—who appeared to span three generations, from teenagers on up—I loved imagining how many lives had been forever changed for the better for having been there.