White women’s problems

This year, three new albums found their way into my constant rotation. One is EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, which is the strongest debut album I’ve heard so far (feelings I share with Lindsay Zoladz and Stacey Pavlick). Erika M. Anderson’s spare acoustic-drone psychodrama is all peroxide and rusty razor blades. It’s an interesting stylistic counterpoint to one of last year’s great debuts, Glasser’s Ring, where Cameron Mesirow encrusted her electro-feminist musings with barnacles and jewels. 

PJ Harvey with her autoharp; image courtesy of goldminemag.com

Merrill Garbus and her crew at SXSW 2011; image courtesy of imposemagazine.com

The other two albums are huge artistic leaps forward. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake reminds people who only casually listened to her after Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea that she remains one of rock’s most vital artists. These tend to be the same people who wish she revisited Rid of Me, not knowing that she did in 2004 with Uh Huh Her, which is seething and vital on its own terms. tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l is the other one, and a beast live. Here, Merrill Garbus proves the Blackberry ad wasn’t a fluke and that her debut album’s lo-fi set-up was less an aesthetic choice than a pragmatic necessity. Like Kala, w h o k i l l foregrounds propulsive drumming and struts and shines like a pop record. Both have been met with near-unanimous critical acclaim. They’re also two of my favorite records of the year so far. No contest.

Thematically, they have much in common. Put simply, they’re albums about forging and contending national identit(ies) in countries that have or continue to define themselves by war, a point Harvey articulated about England in her recent Fresh Air interview. They also quote from other artists to locate and conjure their country’s musical heritage. w h o k i l l‘s dazzling opener, “My Country,” references “America” and “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone, the country’s first prominent interracial, mixed gender rock band. It also champions the United States’ problematic multicultural spirit throughout, with liberal quotations from cultural imports like ska and reggae and Garbus’ omnipresent ukulele. England‘s “The Glorious Land” samples the Police’s “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.” The saxophone and trombone in “The Last Living Rose” sound like a Kinks flourish. “The Colour of the Earth,” an elegy to a dead soldier, barrels along like a pub anthem. Two of the album’s showcased instruments, the autoharp and the zither, echo the lush stringed instrumentation that made 4AD the nation’s home for dream pop in the album’s three-song centerpiece, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” “All and Everyone,” and “On Battleship Hill.” It’s as much a British album in sound as it is for its interest in the First World War and England’s involvement with the ongoing crises in the Middle East.

And while I don’t want to compare Harvey to Kate Bush, another dark-haired musician/lady genius with a complicated obsession with her homeland, I do marvel at how Harvey uses her voice as genderfuck. For an album largely about war and living with its atrocities, I agree that using a breathy tone destabilizes the directness of her words. In its way, it reminds me more of Armando Iannucci’s staggering In the Loop, a piercing satire about Anglo-American politics and the Iraq invasion. Harvey uses her voice to offset and deepen the tragedy. Iannucci and his writing team use comedy to illustrate the stupid, careless banter of ambitious civil servants, career politicians, and military personnel who use words and protocol to kill people and destroy nations. Has anyone synced up “The Words That Maketh Murder” to any scene in that movie on YouTube? It’s intuitive.

But let’s face facts. They’re albums by white women. Of course, we’re a homogenuous group amongst ourselves and these two albums are their own entities. w h o k i l l is an album about being a white woman with a complex interiority. Garbus opines about gentrification on “Gangsta,” fantasizes about making love to the cop who is arresting her brother in “Riotriot,” mourns the loss of a loved one by police brutality on “Doorstep”, and tries to unlearn ingrained body hatred in “Es-so”. While she may be embellishing or fictionalizing at times, she is certainly singing from her peer group’s perspective, specifically the vantage point of relocated urban white hipsters (Garbus recently moved to Oakland). Harvey plays with gender, assuming the role of a traumatized male soldier or embodying a degendered narrator, and her ability to morph into these characters connotes white privilege. Garbus’ play with ebonics (using words like “gangsta,” “powa,” “killa,” and, on her first record, “fiya” for “gangster,” “power,” “killer,” and “fire”) suggests the same thing.

This gets at issues of appropriation. “England” samples Said El Kurdi’s “Kassem Miro” and “Written on the Forehead” lifts Winston “Niney” Holness’ “Blood and Fire” while employing an omniscent narrator to reflect on the cultural richness and war-wrecked blight of some unattributed Middle Eastern country that Harvey has revealed to be about present-day Iraq, even though several countries still use dinar as currency. These songs gesture toward England’s history as a brutal colonizer, as well as its migratory musical and cultural heritage. They are my favorite songs on the record–elliptical, searching, imaginative. But as is often the case with sampling, that doesn’t mean they’re racial politics aren’t troubled.

In the middle of “Killa,” seemingly an ode to female self-empowerment, Garbus asks “would you call me naive and an idealist if I told you I am disheartened that in this day and age I do not have more male, black friends?” It’s a question imbued in white female privilege. But it’s also an interesting and productive question white people don’t like to ask or think on very often. Best of all, it’s also a question with an answer. It’s why Merrill Garbus was able to study African folkloric traditions while attending a liberal arts college, smear paint across her face, and cite Fela Kuti as an influence. It’s why Glasser’s backup singers put on conical hats for Jimmy Fallon without explanation and no one cries foul. It’s why Kate Bush is allowed to use black people to “color” a music video. It’s why the very concept of eclecticism in popular music is racially loaded and lousy with class signifiers that would make Bourdieu put down his tea cup and furrow his brow.

Feathers and face paint? Over it; image courtesy of stereogum.com

Conical hats? Never was into it; image courtesy of latenightwithjimmyfallon.com

It’s also a question I could ask to get at why my friend Kristen was one of the few black women in our grad program at UT. It’s a question that gets at the heart at why I didn’t think to introduce her to Cassandra, another black woman in my friend group constellation–because I didn’t want to seem racist for assuming that my black girlfriends would like each other. It also gets at my embedded racism when I sent panicked text messages to them about some pushback I got from my Alicia Keys post. I wanted confirmation that I was racially sensitive and, once I realized what I was doing, immediately apologized for trying to force them into the role of wise black female cultural arbiter when they probably just wanted to sleep or watch television or eat ice cream. It’s why Maya Rudolph’s bridal party is comprised of white ladies. It’s why seeking out a black Zooey Deschanel may be a fool’s errand and thus why it may be more productive to champion Web series’ like the nuanced, hilarious The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl instead. Because class, race, and white cisfemale privilege color all of this, and like Harvey and Garbus, I directly benefit from it.

When I started this blog, it was out of a personal need to highlight female musical contributions. Now sometimes it just seems like I’m just championing white ladies–hence the delay on a post I’ve been writing in my head for a few months. Nowhere is this more evident than in looking at my record collection, which also proves that fetishizing an eclectic mix of genres across identity categories means having the disposable income to do so (or at least deciding not to buy a car or make a baby with it). And as much as I recommend Georgia Anne Muldrow, pump Betty Davis, put Chavela Vargas on mix CDs, laud Cibo Matto and OOIOO, seek out acts like the Lost Bois, celebrate Jean Grae’s new effort, breathlessly await Psalm One’s next album, and agree that white women shouldn’t only listen to artists that reflect their own identities, it probably reads as either defensive or self-congratulatory for being down. Scratch that, it is being defensive and self-congratulatory. That doesn’t mean I’m only going to make mixes with white ladies on it. I just refuse to take credit or feel good about myself for including Ebony Bones or the Bags on a mix CD.

Not that Betty Davis was a perfect text either, but she was superbad and defiantly horny; image courtesy of amoeba.com

I’m a feminist because I believe there’s value in aligning with an ethos that’s committed to dismantling the patriarchy and celebrating a transinclusive notion of female identit(ies), even when I have to fight for it to be equitable, acknowledge when it isn’t, and help work toward creating a system of -isms that includes all my sisters (even the ones who don’t want me as their sisters). So I’ll keep trying to be an ally, always call race into question when I’m talking about gender, and assume I have much more to learn than I do to teach. I love music because it transports me both within and outside myself and provides me with sites of identification and something to do on a Saturday night, and then forces me to consider the implications of such mental travel and hive formation. I love writing about it because it clarifies my opinions, opens up a dialogue, and holds me accountable. I love Let England Shake and w h o k i l l, because they are angry, varied, and gracious. And it’s because I love them that I have to question why I do.

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9 comments

  1. L. Sing

    First, I love your work. Thanks for it! And next – some thoughts –

    Just wanted to point out that all ‘white women’ are not the same… it is such a reductionist category. So dead. We have class, we have religion, we have relative privilege or not depending on zip code, if we are employed, or educated, or healthy or not, or able bodied, or pretty or ‘ugly,’ if we have abuse histories or not, if our families are white or not, if we have confidence or not… certain privileges apply when you walk into the local Walmart, if you have okay clothes anyway, and all your teeth, and that is something for sure – it IS, but we are NOT all one big privileged mass – though we are easily and equally despised by just about everybody including, or especially, ourselves.

    ‘White privilege’ comes in different sized packages, and yes, sometimes that package is very small and does not save your life – in fact sometimes it is nothing more than an illusion that your humanity is intact… though yes, it is still something, and the richer you get, the more of a something it may be, though you are still in danger of rape or elder discrimination or…. etc. In other words, it is not a monolith or a pass to a meaningful or safe life –

    I would like to beg you to challenge yourself on one thing – and nobody does this as far as I can tell… and they oughta –

    Listen to some women musicians over 50… especially ones that are not famous – women of ALL ethnicities and races. THEY ARE BEING IGNORED and especially at that age they have something to say. Fascinating that women, on reaching that power age, are so often erased from public notice (in the arts and music especially – the creative professions that think they are so very avant garde but, in fact, are often so conservative, sexist, racist, and retro it makes my skin crawl.)

    And about strong women versus white women:
    Why are people afraid of a strong, powerful high voice – especially for some reason on a white female, speaking of race – strong, but NOT breathy, not what I call either a heroin-chic voice or an anorexic waif voice? Why does a genius like Kate Bush have to sound/act like she is 12? Why does a genius like Bjork have to sound/act like she is 12 (add in some crazy so we can pretend that is not what is happening.) We can name any number of women singers of the moment in the same way. Why do women have to dehumanize themselves in one way or another – thrust their power into question – in order to be non-threatening enough to get heard? And yes I put Gaga in this category too.

    Of the white women musicians who DO get heard – they are mostly of a certain type of white lady. Sexy, young, pretty at the very least, young, hip and cool, usually thin, usually scantily clad – or ready to be and able – though not always always, and young… did I say young?

    Why do white women have to do certain things that I see over and over again to get heard at all in other words – let alone be taken seriously – but of course, never TOO seriously. And why, unless they were massively famous and really cute in the first place, while young, do they get disappeared so fast – and laughed out the door if they start late? I mean all those scores of old rockers still out there with their 18 year old back up singers (who sing better than they do…) Yet, older women? I can count them on one or at most two hands – and the exceptions we can name do not disprove the rule. And I know there are hundreds of great older woman musicians, wearing clothes in the trenches – with valuable contributions to make. I WANT TO HEAR THEM AND HEAR OF THEM!!!!!!!

    We can’t be feminists and ignore older women. We need to hear them – all of them, from all backgrounds. And we sure need to look at how and when women are heard and how and when they are not.

    And did I say, I love your work? Bravo! I hear you!

    • Alyx Vesey

      Thanks so much for your comments, L. Sing. You’re totally right that not all white women are the same in terms of class, education, personal experience, health, able-bodiedness, etc. I was speaking about a very particular kind of white woman–the sort that basically can check all the privilege boxes except the one. You’re also right that only certain white women get heard–the young, hip hot ones. It’s weird to think that PJ Harvey is 41 and has come back at least twice in her career (I’d gauge Stories From the City and Let England Shake), but has lived through several periods where critics, fans, and casual listeners thought she was irrelevant (I know more than a few folks who lost interest after Rid Of Me, which is nearly 20 years old). I also think Harvey is a good example of someone who plays with her voice, bridging masculine and feminine, guttural and breathy.

      I especially like your point about listening to some women over the age of 50. It seems like we as a culture only care about these women when they die–Blossom Dearie, Mercedes Sosa, Hazel Dickens, Teena Marie–making their contributions past-tense and removing them from their contemporary context unless they’ve influenced other generations. In other words, their contributions are trapped in amber instead of incorporated into the larger ongoing conversation. An exception to this might be someone like Vashti Bunyan, who experienced a late-career revival and recorded new music back in the mid-2000s. Exciting as that was, the obscurism afoot in her revival made me a bit circumspect (also, she was championed by artists associated with freak folk, which had its own issues with white appropriation). But I still get chills when I hear Marianne Faithfull (did you hear her cover Neko Case?), Patti Labelle (did you see her cover “Purple Rain” at the BET Awards?), Mavis Staples, Wanda Jackson (who I saw two SXSWs ago), and, since I just read a concert review from her current tour, Sade. I used to wish older female musicians a happy birthday on this blog (like when Siouxsie turned 52) and maybe I need to revive that.

      What are your thoughts on younger white dudes who work with more established female artists (i.e., Jeff Tweedy with Mavis Staples, Jack White with Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson)?

  2. Laura

    i really have no idea how pj harvey being able to put herself in the place of a traumatized soldier suggests white privilege. is the suggestion here that all soldiers are white?? that it is only white people who can write from a soldier’s perspective?

  3. Pingback: What I did on my winter vacation « Feminist Music Geek
  4. Mac Kinnison

    Don’t allow your ego get too all-around your position, to ensure in case your position gets shot down, your ego doesn’t go along with it.
    If there is something that a guy are able to do well, I say allow him to do it. Supply him with an opportunity.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Wait, what are you arguing here exactly Mac? That men should be allowed to do things? Also, don’t worry about my ego. It’s fine.

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