What Peaches Can Teach America Now

11 minute read

Peaches is looking at porn. Not the kind you’d find on a computer, or even a vintage VHS tape—we’re at the Museum of Sex in New York City browsing a dimly lit exhibit about the history of “hardcore” pornography. Illustrations and photographs from the past century and a half line the walls. “That type I’ve seen before,” Peaches says, referring to a drawing of an orgy a few feet in front of us. But one cartoon near the exhibit entrance has caught her eye: a woman riding a giant, erect penis that’s emitting coins the woman’s catching with her purse. “Are we allowed to take pictures?” Peaches asks before whipping out her phone and snapping one anyway. “That picture in particular is pretty hilarious. It’s fun, you know?”

It’s hard believe there’s something Peaches hasn’t yet seen—or at least described in her music—since she arrived 15 years ago wielding DIY electro-punk songs so sexually explicit at times even her euphemisms needed euphemisms. Across five albums, she’s imaged fantastical sex positions, celebrated a smorgasbord of kinks and flipped the script on female objectification. She’s revered queerness in all forms, from expressions of gender outside the usual binary to her insistence on having two guys for every girl. It’s not about shock value, she says. It’s about cutting through the guilt and shame clouding discussions of sex to honor needs and desires rarely articulated in pop culture. “I don’t understand why people are afraid to talk about sex,” she says. “When everything’s gone, that’s what we have: each other and combinations of each other.”

America’s understanding of gender and sexuality has transformed in the past decade and a half, let alone the past few months. Marriage equality for same-sex couples became the law of the land in June. Some of the biggest celebrities in the world are proudly proclaiming themselves feminists. In April, 16.9 million people watched Diane Sawyer explain the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation in an interview with Caitlyn Jenner. “It’s amazing because everybody wants to talk about it,” Peaches says of watching these topics become headline news. “And now all of a sudden they’re telling me I’m important. ‘The things you said would happen are happening now!’”

But Peaches, who grew up in Canada and now splits her time between Berlin and Los Angeles, isn’t interested in taking credit. “Things grow exponentially in all directions,” she says. “Like Kim Davis! That character exists now in 2015, at the same time as gay marriage. Donald Trump exists. You have to be careful that you’re not just saying things are progressing.”

We’re talking just a few weeks before Peaches released her fifth studio album Rub, her first in six years. Full of floor-scraping synthesizers and pummelling percussion, the record’s unflinching toughness is a return to form following the more vulnerable, melody-driven slickness of 2009’s I Feel Cream. Its themes aren’t radically different. Rub is still packed with celebrations of gender and sexual minorities, depictions of bedroom equality and sly pushback against the policing of women’s bodies. But as the conversations that have long been unfolding in her music spill over into the mainstream, Peaches’ sense of humor and willingness to push buttons have made her a shepherd for listeners exploring these ideas. A shepherd that often performs on stage with a fake penis dangling between her legs, sure, but one, her fans say, needed more than than ever in 2015.

“She’s just radically herself with no apology,” says actress Ellen Page, who contributed an essay to Peaches’ photo collection What Else Is in the Teaches of Peaches earlier this year. “When you’re a woman and you want to exist just as a sexual being in the world—which we all are—you want your lyrics to reflect your sexual fluidity or gender fluidity. She’s been at the forefront. I know when I was 16 her music meant a lot to me. I could feel free with it.”

Before she made music as Peaches—the name comes from the Nina Simone song “Four Women”—Merrill Nisker, 46, grew up in suburban Toronto and taught schoolchildren for a decade. She worked as a music and drama teacher, and theatricality has been as essential to the Peaches project as the actual music. In the six-year gap between albums that preceded Rub, Peaches performed a one-woman show version of Jesus Christ Superstar (titled Peaches Christ Superstar), sang in a production of the Italian opera L’Orfeo and staged Peaches Does Herself, a rock opera that told the faux-origin story of Peaches and later become a movie that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012. She probably didn’t look back then like she does on this day, with a partially shaved head, a mane of black and blonde hair and an all-black outfit with a half-transparent top that catches a few eyes from other museum-goers.

She got her start playing in folk and noise-rock bands before programming her own beats on a Roland MC-505 Groovebox. Her early live shows inspired a young M.I.A. to start making music and also caught the attention of German record label Yo-Yo Kitty, which released her debut album The Teaches of Peaches in 2000. The lyrics of the opening track “F—k the Pain Away,” later featured in the movie Lost in Translation, quickly introduced listeners to the profanity, sharp wit and pop-culture references that would become hallmarks of her work.

Part of what makes Peaches’ music seem shocking isn’t the language she uses or the sexual scenarios she lays out, but that she dares to imagine men and women outside of their expected gender roles and bedroom positions. When Peaches commands a male listener to thrust his hips to the sky on one bawdy new track from Rub, she’s not asking of him what isn’t asked of women every day on the radio. “We twerk all the time!” she tells me. In 2003, she named her second album Fatherf—er and appeared on its cover sporting a full beard. “I’m not one to shy away from these obscene terms that we actually have in our mainstream,” she explained at the time. “Motherf—er is a very mainstream word. But if we’re going to use motherf—er, why don’t we use fatherf—er? I’m just trying to be even.”

On Rub, Peaches continues to observe the ways humans have—and talk about—sex with a documentarian interest. The booming Kim Gordon collaboration “Close Up” shouts out dating and hook-up apps like Tinder and Grindr and the impact of smartphone technology on human intimacy. The hip-hop banger “How You Like My Cut” references Truvada, the effective HIV prevention drug that has sparked debates in the gay community about its use. Sometimes her approach serves a dual purpose: the song “Vaginoplasty” is a nod to the rising popularity of labiaplasty surgeries, which rose 49 percent between 2013 and 2014, according to one plastic surgery group. Yet its lyrics instead pay tribute to the body parts women alter and minimize out of insecurity, a topic Peaches has tackled since she defiantly grew out her body hair in the video for her 2000 song “Set It Off.” “So many songs are about your big tits or your big ass,” Peaches explains.

The delivery may be light-hearted, but the shame and stigmas she addresses are not. It’s why she considers her peers to be not just musicians but also female comedians like Margaret Cho, who co-stars in one of Peaches’ mostly not-safe-for-work videos, or Amy Schumer, whose raunchy humor has an undercurrent of biting commentary about society’s treatment of women. “A little bit of humor can push a very important agenda,” Peaches says. “I want the world to be equal, I want people to celebrate differences and enjoy who they are and feel comfortable in their own bodies. That’s really my basic message, not everybody needs to have sex right now! If you need to, good! As long as it’s consensual.”

In the comedy world, the admiration is mutual. “Peaches is just the sh-t,” Schumer tells TIME over email. “I have loved her for so long. She’s the bravest one of us out there.”

The next exhibit we see at the Museum of Sex is dedicated to the sex lives of animals and features video footage of bonobos copulating and more pictures of duck penises than you’d ever need. (Peaches is armed with her own animal trivia, telling me as we browse how hyenas give birth through a pseudo-penis.) When she’s done photographing the sculpture of a deer threesome in the middle of the room, we head to the stairwell, where she asks if our museum visit is over. I tell her there’s a bounce house made up of giant, inflated breasts that we can bounce on, but only if she’s interested—no pressure. Peaches gasps. She’s heard of this before and has been wanting to visit but didn’t realize it was here. She practically starts running down the stairs to get in line, letting out a string of joyful exclamations and stretching out the words bounce house into a short song. She’s so enthusiastic that when the museum employee working as the exhibit’s bouncer asks the visitors behind us if they know what the line is for, Peaches can’t help but answer for them. “For titties!”

When it’s our turn to enter, she hands me her phone and shows me how to take a slow-motion video. “I wish I brought my boob costume,” she says. (Think Lady Gaga’s bubble dress, but with breasts that have dismembered Barbie doll heads for nipples.) After I count her in, she jumps out from one of the massive breast structures with bared teeth—when we watch the video afterward, it looks she’s flying over it—and mimes taking a bite out of the nipple. She thrashes about between the other breasts, then throws herself to the ground and rolls around beneath one just before the bouncer calls time.

The bounce house, according to the museum, “is designed to increase awareness of the body and to create the thrilling possibility of physical contact between strangers.” That’s not far off from what Peaches hopes to accomplish with her music.

“I mean, you come from that place, you suck on that boob when you’re little, I don’t understand why we separate ourselves from our own bodies?” she says of the stigma attached to certain body parts. (You can guess what side she takes in the Free the Nipple debate.) “We just make this fear for ourselves. People see me as, ‘Oh, you’re so hardcore, you must be having sex all the time.’ No! I’m saying direct things that are trying to bring the holes”—she realizes the pun she just made—“literally the holes together and making a more cohesive understanding of ourselves.”

I ask Peaches what goals she has for this album. She doesn’t really keep a bucket list, as the milestones she’s most proud of—South Park using her music, Yoko Ono asking her to recreate her 1964 Cut Piece performance—happened without wishing for them. There is one item, however, that’s still on her to-do list: playing Saturday Night Live. “I grew up with that sh-t,” she says. “That would be one vanity for me. Everything else has already popped into place.”

I tell her I’d love to see the look on the face of the unsuspecting viewer who stumbles upon Peaches dressed in her doll-head breast costume (or whatever NBC would let her wear on stage) while flipping channels late at night. It’s the only time in our conversation that she seems to bristle. “I don’t know,” she says, uncomfortable with the idea of being anybody’s freak show. “Maybe it would just be normal.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com