EV Borman Uses Burlesque Culture to Form Her Modern Feminist Torch Songs

EV Borman is obsessed with pop culture. Old movies, pulp magazines and pulp art all influence the Dallas singer-songwriter, but it's by no means a matter of ironic consumption. In particular, Borman is fascinated by burlesque dancers, which she's parlayed into a musical style that walks the line between raunchy and socially conscious.

Borman, whose first name is short for "Electric Volts," is the singer, bass player and songwriter for Atom & EV, a band known for playing swoony old torch songs. “Torch songs are about fighting and things being shitty,” Borman says. She also sings and plays bass for Justin Longorio, for a sound that is more rock orientated, with looped guitar beats. Obscure 1960s garage rock as well as songs from the '20s and '30s influence Borman; she particularly enjoys hearing female singers cover dirty songs, like Lil Johnson singing “Let’s Get Drunk and Truck.”

It's much the same impulse that draws Borman to burlesque. She sees burlesque dancers as a group that ignores many inhibitions about body acceptance. There is not a focus on age, for example; not only do you see burlesque dancers in their 40s, but there are even some who have been dancing since the 1970s. Some of them started as early as 15, coming from families that couldn’t afford to put shoes on their feet. Borman was struck by the way burlesque dancers conveyed glamour, but historically led awful lives.

All things considered, it’s not surprising that a feminist obsessed with pulp art and making music with dark subject matter would take interest in the I-wouldn’t-wish-my-life-on-anyone lives of burlesque dancers. “In terms of being young and exploited,” she says. “That’s music too.” Indeed, there have been musicians with similar struggles, like drug addictions and awful managers. Borman writes songs that may sound naughty or creepy at first glance. But she uses a hauntingly beautiful voice to address issues that are socially and personally relevant.

One song that Borman recently worote, “Toy Box,” is a good example of her style. It seems unabashedly erotic at first glance, but it’s actually about FEMEN, the feminist protest group originally out of Ukraine. If that doesn’t ring a bell, FEMEN are the feminist protesters who quickly became internationally known after topless protests. “Basically their life choices were you go into prostitution or you’re someone’s wife,” says Borman. 

It's important to Borman to fight to protect women from bodily harm. She remembers relatives being pressured by friends and family to stay in abusive relationships, deterred from getting a divorce or becoming a single parent for fear of social stigma — her grandmother among them. “I remember how hard she tried to please him,” Borman says of her grandmother and grandfather. “She would jump all over the place trying to keep him calm.” Her grandparents had happy stories, like when he was working for a water supplier in Los Angeles back in the '60s and delivered water to John Wayne’s house. But there were unhappy stories too.

Borman was a child of baby boomers. For them, physically abusing their spouses wasn’t socially acceptable. But they have different stories about their own parents. “My mom used to tell me that story,” she says. “The, 'We used to have to pull your grandpa off your grandma' story.” But what really surprised her was that no one did anything about it. It wasn’t so long ago that a man could physically assault his wife without being a social outcast. Being drunk was somehow a sturdy defense.

On the surface, “Lipstick and Rouge” is a song EV wrote about a burlesque dancer, but there are also some references to her grandparents. Throughout the track, she addresses what was underneath that veneer of glamour decades ago. But the lyrics also mention physical abuse from those family stories. “The song is kind of moody and slightly creepy,” she says with a laugh.

But Borman actually sees modern day burlesque as a way for women to take back female sexuality and just have a good time. Something that once existed solely for the desires of straight men is now going off in different directions. She sees these dancers doing what they want: Wearing what they want, playing whatever kind of music they want, perhaps dancing angrily and making faces at the audience. There are also gender bending dancers dressed like male rock stars and male burlesque dancers.

Borman started attending burlesque shows after being pleasantly surprised by the environment. “There might be one or two gross dudes in the audience,” she says. “But everyone else seems to understand that these women don’t dance because they have low self-esteem or daddy issues.” To her, burlesque dancers are taking back ownership of their sexuality and laughing in the face of efforts to slut-shame. “Of course there are a lot of feminists who argue about what is important,” she continues. “But this is important.”

For Borman, this is a cause that extends to making music: With a sultry voice, she conveys issues of sexuality that may have been missing from older waves of feminism. “We have a lot of pioneers,” Borman says. “Women being sexy and coming out. But we’re still fighting that ownership battle and being judged.” 

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