You are nearing the halfway point of Frenching the Bully, the first of three studio albums by Seattle punk band The Gits. Track Six: “It All Dies Anyway.” The fury of her voice intoxicates you. You imagine she is what an angel would sound like if its throat were caught in barbed wire.
Is death the only way to get attention?
Hearing the line is looking into a mirror. The reflection shows only your own mortality staring back at you. You can barely look it in the eye. The song is coming to an end.
Death is the sickest way for attention.
The mirror is gone, and all that is left is you, the heaviness, and the second side of the album.
Mia Zapata, a Mexican-American woman, was born in 1965 and lived between Illinois, Kentucky, and Ohio before she began singing for The Gits in 1988. Only five years later, at the age of 27, her body was found on the side of a Seattle street. She had been beaten, raped, and murdered.
Mia was an artist, performer, and trailblazer, yet her life is all too often overshadowed by its end. A Google search of her name will bring you to Rolling Stone’s Mia Zapata Murdered in 1993, the Seattle Times headline Singer’s Killer Sentenced to 36 Years in Prison Again, an Unsolved Mysteries page, and Season 12 Episode 7 of Forensic Files. Her murderer’s name is mentioned more times than hers. Her murderer’s name is mentioned more times than hers. People attempt to fit her into their narratives: they call her a martyr for the female cause, evaluate her life by the feminist content of her lyrics, and use this to paradoxically justify the fact that she died at the hands of a perverse man. Her body became public domain, and with it, so did her life.
But I do not want to look at pictures of her gravestone or see a photograph of the man who murdered her. I do not care when he was arrested or when he died, and I am blatantly uninterested in another retelling of her last 24 hours.
Windows of clarity into her life are far and few between, and always come wrapped with layers of mystique, as people interest themselves more with playing detective than with understanding her. There is no interview footage of her available on the internet and very few photos of her or her band. What does exist, though, is her voice. Zapata’s music was personal and inextricably bound to the collective female experience of the 1990s. Her lyrics dripped with anger, self-loathing, blatant sexuality, and blazing hope. She snarled, “You’re full of shit, you sure suck/Here’s to it baby, here’s to your fuck,” with a profundity that shouldn’t make sense but somehow does. The best way I can describe The Gits’s music is urgent. Their instrumentation was simple, concerned more with being compelling than melodic, though moments of intricate guitar work added ingenuity to the characteristic obviousness of punk music. All was left to Mia’s words. Her lyrics were by turns straightforward and obscure, somber and silly, yet her delivery always came with the same urgency. Her unique vocal style–––equal parts piercing ferocity and grave murkiness––was inspired as much by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone as by any punk legend.
“It just felt really slimy. There’s this whole culture of murder porn or crime porn with women that’s been going on probably forever but especially since cable news got involved. And unfortunately, people in America are fascinated with this stuff,” says Ben London, a friend of the band, about the reduction of Mia’s story into television. For a culture as afraid of death as ours is, we love to hear about it. Forensic Files ran 406 episodes for fifteen years. 406 individuals were reduced to a 45-minute mystery entertainment extravaganza, one that ends the moment the viewer shuts off their television. Our cannibalistic consumption of death shows no signs of slowing—see the recent release of Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. But why are we so fascinated by premature death? Why is death truly the sickest way for attention?
But Mia Zapata did not die for the sake of feminist art; she was a feminist creating art who had her life pulled out from under her. It is senseless to look to an elusive 27 Club and search for meaning in destruction. Why is it that her legacy is so entwined with her tragedy? Can we disentangle personhood from posthumous idolatry? Or are we forced to remember Mia only atop her pedestal? Mia wrote “death is the sickest way for attention” years before she would embody that very sentiment, the one she cried out against.
I do not think that is fair to her.