You know that Brian Eno saying about the Velvet Underground? The paraphrasing varies a little, but it more or less goes: 'hardly anyone bought the Velvet Underground's records, but everyone who did formed a band.' The VU were to the 1960s what the Pixies were to the 1980s: anathema and ignored, their effect was felt only in the respective following decades and their significance recognised slightly thereafter, Or, put another way, they're two classic examples of unpopular popular music until hindsight (and a few celebrity endorsements) salvaged them.
It might be possible to see Peaches in the same way: a lesser known artist in her own time, one of those 'difficult' 'musician's musician' who doesn't even have to wait for the next generation for her influence to be felt – her effect on her contemporaries and collaborators has already taken some of them to far greater heights of fame (M.I.A., Feist – not so much musically but Feist credits Peaches with teaching her the valuable lesson of strong stage presence; I've even known some to say they think Peaches' arranging style of backing beats and sequencing can be heard in several mainstream artists, including Britney Spears and Pink).
However, Peaches is hardly a relative unknown like the Velvet Underground or the Pixies were in their time. She's got a strong core audience, regularly tours, and has an international reputation which can attract attention from a number of media outlets when, say, the copyright holders of Jesus Christ Superstar don't want to grant her permission for a one-woman performance of the musical (which she of course then got). Not to mention that she has several celebrity fans of her own (Pink, Iggy Pop, Madonna, Bjork). While her non-standard sexual themes and expletive laden lyrics have prevented much of her work from entering mainstream broadcasting channels, she may have found a sufficient reach-around to a wider audience with numerous song snippet placements in hit TV shows and films such as 30 Rock, Mean Girls, and Lost in Translation.
So, alright, Peaches is a well-established either as an alternative cult figure or a boundary-pushing provocateur, but what about what came before her? A lot, obviously, but I'm thinking specifically of Karen Finley in the late 80s and early 90s.
An American performance artist, Finley is perhaps most (in)famous for a snafu surrounding the National Endowments for the Arts' (NEA) grants. In 1990, she and three other artists had their funding vetoed based on decency grounds which were eventually upheld by the Supreme Court. Consequently, the NEA was gutted financially since, according to Newt Gingrich, it was 'the right of the American people to not pay for art that offends their sensibilities.'
I'll admit, Finley's probably better known than I realise, at least among people who were paying attention to such things as arts funding scandals in the 1990s (I was too busy watching British sitcoms). But when I first heard Finley's few forays into music, I was genuinely surprised that there hasn't been a tonne already written about the similarities between her and Peaches' work. All I found were some passing references to the connections: Jim Farber of the NY Daily News has described Peaches as 'the Karen Finley of rap' and 'Iggy Pop meets Karen Finley.' Various bloggers and commenters have said Peaches is 'the Karen Finley of the 2000s' or simply noted the resemblance.
Let's put the lack of lengthier consideration another way: if you google 'karen finley peaches' you'll get more hits about Finley inserting actual peaches into her body cavities than you will hits making comparisons between the two artists. (I should mention at this point that a lot of Finley's stage performances involved various food items.)
As well, Peaches is not just a mere musician – her stage shows have their own important extra-musical performance elements. And certainly on an ideological, thematic, and tactical level there's a lot of similarities; the use of shock effects is paramount in exploring themes of sexuality, gender, social mores and taboos. But the music itself has a lot in common, at least if we're comparing Peaches first album The Teaches of Peaches with Finley's main musical work, The Truth Is Hard to Swallow (which also contains some spoken performance pieces): electro/disco beats, lyrics that are delivered in anything but a singing style, and subversion/disruption of the standard pop song verse/chorus/bridge structure (especially in Finley's case, less so with Peaches). The best examples of these are Finley's 'Tales of Taboo'
and Peaches' 'Fuck the Pain Away.'
I've yet to find a source that decisively shows that Peaches was influenced by Finley, and short of somehow asking her myself, I doubt I'll find out. In the end, I'm not sure if a definitive answer really matters. Given that Finley's extensive performance art career has only contained a handful of musical works, her influence on popular music has likely been limited to non-existent. Further still, Finley's music has little variation as the focus is on the text (see this interview, where she talks about deliberately using standard disco to create a sense of alienation or disconnect between the music, lyrics, and the dance club-going audience hearing her work).
Peaches, on the other hand, even if she used Finley as a starting point for The Teaches of Peaches, has gone in various directions as she plays around with the familiar genres of rock, rap, punk, dance, and metal and such experimentation has of course led to critics to indulge their much-loved hobby of trying to coin a new genre label (electroclash). Viewed cynically, this genre invention is another example of music journalists trying to look prophetic in their descriptions of current music and its trajectories. On the other hand, while I think genre coining is usually taken on far too eagerly, perhaps in Peaches' case it's a way to grant her a greater significance or generic space that she is otherwise denied by the musical mainstream. And, like Finley, she's much more effective on the outside than in.