Last summer, I helped teach a music history workshop for Girls Rock Camp Houston. At least one of the counselors was a fan–I think actually was wearing a Best Coast t-shirt at one point. As a music instructor to young girls, the band’s appeal makes sense. Coast front woman Bethany Cosentino writes catchy songs that are easy to teach young instrumentalists. “When I’m With You” employs four simple chords–G, E, C, and D. If you have a guitar, I could probably teach you how to play it in ten minutes and I’ve been playing for almost a year. Also, Cosentino’s a belter. If you’re trying to get pre-teen girls comfortable with their singing voices and help them project it to a crowd of strangers, she’s a good model.
Cosentino’s appeal translates beyond the pedagogical. I remember when one of my friends was single, she mentioned that she could relate to a lot of Best Coast songs. Often her songs are about going on dates with people you’re not really into while waiting for a phone call from the person you do like (ex: “The End,” my favorite song on the band’s debut album, Crazy For You). I’ve been with the same person for over seven years, so I never did the bar scene as a single woman. But I certainly think Best Coast songs are cathartic. Imagine bellowing “I hate sleeping alone!” to your empty studio apartment after last call. Feels good, right? It also leaves a lump in your throat.
Cosentino’s booming voice is also an interesting contrast to her stoner persona. I totally believe her conviction when she sings. I was mounting this comparison with a friend recently, who sensed detachment in Cosentino’s delivery that negates the persona I put forth. While her image and hipster following presumes a blasé attitude, her vocals suggest otherwise. I think she means it, the same way that Shangri-Las’ leader Mary Weiss means it when she sings that “nothing in this world can tear us apart” when she promises her boyfriend she’ll break up with an old love on “The Train From Kansas City.” Maybe the bangs, sunglasses, and bong smoke just hide the tears.
But as I’ve said before, I wish Cosentino would write more songs about getting high, having the munchies, and hanging out with her cat, Snacks, who she’s savvily positioned as an Internet personality. While I like singing these songs in my car, I’m always aware of how much boys–particularly boys who don’t reciprocate–inform her lyrics. Part of this is music snobbery. I liked Pocahaunted, her project with Amanda Brown that was heavy on the drone and drugs. But Cosentino possesses pop sensibilities and can write just as effectively in economic, commercial song form.
A bigger part of my weariness speaks to my protectionist feminist impulse toward young girls. Best Coast songs are easy to play. They probably also speak to pubescent romantic angst, and convey it with more brevity than the Twilight series. It’s not surprising the band get invited to play quinceanearas. I’m more comfortable with girls singing and playing along to songs about cats and weed than whining about boys. You know, switch the script. But I sang “Lovefool” to the yearbook photo of my junior high crush throughout eighth grade and I turned out fine. I even discovered that the Cardigans were a lot darker and cooler than their big hit. Maybe I should just have more faith in girls.
This is ultimately my ruling on Swift, who I think shares similarities with Cosentino. Sure, Swift is ultimately more alpha than Cosentino. As Molly Lambert brilliantly surmised, Swift is a Jack Nicholson who is a virgin who can’t drive. And frankly, maybe the reason I prefer Cosentino–apart from kneejerk, shallow indie identification–is because I have deeper empathy for beta females. Yet both women pen songs about unrequited love in blunt, conversational language bolstered by mammoth hooks. Their regard for other women isn’t always great, though Cosentino tends to just compare herself unfavorably toward the girl who’s got her honey. But this isn’t particular to them. Both women are informed in some way by the girl group tradition. As was Black Tambourine, a Slumberland act recently plucked from lo-fi obscurity by a great reissue of their narrow catalog. Their biggest hit proposed throwing a girl off a bridge so the singer could get the guy. Clearly that’s what Swift wanted to do to Camilla Belle.
Swift and Cosentino’s boyfriends have been factored into interpretations of their music and persona. Again, this isn’t particular to them, as this is how most female entertainers are (mis)understood. Read Sheila Weller‘s book on Carol King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, which detractors could rename How We Felt About James Taylor. Like Carly Simon before them, Swift and Cosentino have a knack for making people wonder who their songs are about. Swift has gotten lots of publicity for speculation around which songs are about John Mayer, Taylor Lautner, or Joe Jonas and when she’ll dish the dirt about Jake Gyllenhaal. The press is interested in casting Cosentino’s on-off relationship with Wavves’ front man (and tour mate) Nathan Williams as this generation’s Sid and Nancy. Both retain some agency through cultivating their persona and marketing by demonstrating fluency with social media.
There’s also a backlash against both women, sometimes perpetuated by other women. I’m part of that number with Swift, though I side with Julie Zeilinger and hope that she’ll adopt feminism. Cosentino has gotten it from folks like Marnie Stern, though I’m more than a little suspicious about how competition is being ginned up by the press. Both are pathologized because of their gender, whether or not the issue is made implicit. Swift, a career woman at heart, gets derided for being ambitious. Cosentino gets mocked for being a cat lady.
So maybe comparing them is a pointless exercise. Maybe they need to stop whining about boys and come together for some huge crossover project. Both have the chops. I hope Swift’s not allergic to cats.