Last summer, I watched I Am Love and broke my weakly held resolve not to watch Tilda Swinton movies. I briefly attempted to boycott the actress’ work following her decision to stand with Roman Polanski in 2009. I can’t justify the revocation. But I remain invested in her career, as well as her sartorial choices, musical collaborations, and commitment to global cinema. While I’m disappointed that Swinton (among folks like Martin Scorsese) signed a petition demanding Polanski’s release from Zürich, I think she makes cerebral professional choices and is one of the most compelling screen presences of her generation.
I was interested in I Am Love for a few reasons. For one, I love passion project collaborations between friends. Director Luca Guadagnino spent several years trying to get the project off the ground and Swinton was instrumental in getting the film made. Also, she speaks Italian in the thing. To add a layer of complexity, her Italian is inflected with a Russian accent, as her character Emma escaped the Soviet regime through marrying into a wealthy Italian family who made their money in textiles. Also, after reading Stella Bruzzi’s Undressing Cinema, I have renewed critical interest in costume design for film. Thus, I also have an investment in the ongoing discourse surrounding the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ inattention toward achievements in costuming beyond period films (an argument in conversation with critical pushback against the Academy’s definitions on what constitutes an “original” film score), I was interested in how designer Antonella Cannarozzi dressed the film.
Though I Am Love takes place at the turn of the 21st century, and is thus ultimately a period film, it challenges Molly Lambert’s assertion that, in the 90s, European fashion foregrounded excess while American clothing design privileged simplicity. While some of her extended family may take to lavish high couture, much of Emma’s wardrobe consists of minimalist shift dresses and twinsets. The exceptional fit and versatility of a garment seems to justify its cost rather than its opulent detailing. Given German designer Jil Sander’s involvement in I Am Love, we might need to complicate our assumptions about how clothing designers use clothes to signify material wealth and nationhood. Though it seems as though Emma looks toward American society wives like Jacqueline Kennedy when she puts together an outfit, we might want to remember the First Lady’s obsession with French designers. However, just as with everything else in Emma’s life, her clothes confine her as much as they announce her station.
Many people describe the film as a story about a woman breaking free from societal restriction. They would be right in that summation, though short-sighted if they solely attribute her awakening to taking a lover. True, Antonio is an important figure. He’s a chef and of a lower class position than Emma. But while much has been made of the “prawnography” scene and the sequence where Emma finally pursues her desire, all of Emma’s decisions are motivated by the understanding that her daughter Elisabetta is as a lesbian. This bit of news–and the implication of her daughter’s rebellion against her mother’s life decisions–seem to initially disturb but ultimately transform Emma. If her daughter can follow her heart and own her desires, why can’t she? This redefines their relationship and places Elisabetta in something of a mentorship position for her mother, who is only finally learning how to love after taking to her daughter’s example. As an adult woman whose mother just turned 65 yesterday, I take enormous comfort and pride in how she seeks to learn from me as much as I do from her.
This brings us to the scene where Emma discovers her daughter’s orientation. Emma finds Elisabetta’s copy of Arto Lindsay’s Salt, a token from an ill-fated affair with another woman. She keeps this album as a reminder of what they shared and a means through which to process her grief and find catharsis. Lindsay’s status as a post-rock avant-garde composer may now be a signifier of affluence, as Krin Gabbard argues as jazz’s function in American film after the 1970s in Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema. Lindsay drove Caetano Veloso from the airport during the Brazilian musician’s first trip to New York. This may have represented a reassertion of a fringe or outsider identity in the 1980s, as Lindsay and Veloso were associated with politically reactionary musical subgenres like no wave and Tropicália at the time. But twenty to thirty years later, it may also just mean that more rich people can throw on a Caetano Veloso record for a dinner party. However, I don’t think those affiliations necessarily presume a degradation in quality or emotional significance for the listener. What’s more, subversion can happen in a concert hall or a boat party as surely as it can in a punk concert in someone’s basement.
It should not be ignored that Lindsay’s Salt uses a Kara Walker piece as its cover art. As many recognize and I discussed elsewhere, Walker’s confrontational body of work is loaded with rich, complicated, and troubling assertions and surreal reimaginings of America’s racist cultural history. Thus it might be just as upsetting that Emma’s daughter has an album with a cover that appears to have an image of a man examining and invading a black woman’s anatomy. What’s especially disconcerting about this image is its ambiguity–is the woman helping or controlling her examiner? Agency is not clearly established here, nor are power relations fixed. This conscious decision to position the art within the abject and play with societal boundaries would seem just as upsetting to a woman who built her life on being the perfect mother, wife, and hostess. These are the imposed borders through which Emma traverses. Her daughter, along with Lindsay and Walker, provides a compass.
Last month, Ann Powers celebrated Madonna’s 53rd birthday by collecting her 53 favorite songs from the Material Girl. She posted suggestions on Twitter and I provided my picks along with several others. This went live shortly after Ellen Copperfield’s musings on Madge for This Recording and preceded Carilynn27′s Persephone post that twined Madonna’s music with autobiography and fandom. It also follows a sustained narrative of (predominantly white) women (and girls) taking about, listening to, and playing with Madonna. Lots of media studies criticism in the late 80s and into the 90s sought to understand Madonna as screen subject, fan object, and feminist star text. All of the stuff that will be written about Gaga will have to be built upon this body of work.
I came of age during this time, and remember listening to Madonna with my mother, a fan who didn’t think that allowing me to watch the video for “Like a Prayer” would make me a Satanist. Actually, it clued me in on Madonna being something of a racial fetishist. I also developed my nascent Madonna fandom during my pubescent years through my stepmother. I was fascinated by her outspoken love for Madonna, especially since it seemed so closely tied to adult sexual expression. As a ten-year-old girl, coming across a copy of Erotica was better than any of the Updike or Nin I snuck off my dad’s bookshelf at night. You can’t dance to Rabbit, Run. I also purloined my stepmom’s copy of Sex, which she tucked into the back of her closet.
Erotica was well-received critically, though underrated. Some thought Madonna ran out of ideas, or was just trying to shock people, or simply wasn’t sexy. A few critics claimed Erotica was too cold and calculated to be sexy. I think they miss the point–mediating an image of sexiness usually takes the sex out of it because sexuality tends to operate (and be obfuscated) at a subliminal level. Openly subverting expectations of feminine sexiness and reconfiguring what signifies as sexy for women causes a lot of discomfort. Power is an aphrodisiac, as long as it isn’t actually wielded by women. Many of the scenarios in the “Erotica” video are trite and regressive–lipstick lesbianism, celebrity friends, S&M, problematic assumptions about black sexuality. But I can’t imagine many contemporary pop stars exploring erotic menace or foregrounding explicitly queer images of sexuality in a mainstream context as Madonna did with Erotica, which was released during a time when AIDS casualties and HIV prevention were more greatly emphasized. Plus the album has “Rain” and “Bye Bye Baby,” which are two of my favorite songs. It also has “Did You Do It?,” which, as with all song where Madge raps, you should skip.
Gaga may come the closest to fulfilling Erotica‘s potential. There’s no question that Jo Calderone owes hir existence to Ralph Macchio, Annie Lennox, Andrew Dice Clay, Danny Zuko, and Lenny Bruce. But what I appreciated about Gaga’s drag performance at the VMAs was her commitment to it. She didn’t make any costume changes during the night to re-establish her femininity. She kept her breasts bound throughout the ceremony and didn’t wink at the camera. Sure, she was boorish for trying to kiss Britney, whose trembling bottom lip seemed to simultaneously telegraph “Is this a trick?”, “Should I?”, and “I don’t think my manager will approve.” But if you compare Gaga’s performance alongside Katy Perry’s egotistical assumption that a song like “Firework,” which vaguely addresses queer closeted identity by celebrating individual perseverance, is doing something good for the world when it merely aligns herself with a lucrative niche market, Gaga might be moving closer toward pop progress. But I hate “Born This Way” as both a pop song and a political message, so I’m actually hoping Janelle Monáe brings the sex and politics back to pop music. Androids need love too.
But if we’re talking about pop music’s ability to inspire exciting sex, I can’t discredit an album I like a great deal more than Erotica. Sade’s Love Deluxe slunk into American record stores on October 20, 1992, the same day that Madonna’s fifth album initiated controversy. Janet Jackson’s janet. came out the following spring and is more potently erotic than Madonna’s offering, but I think that album requires its own post and a review of Poetic Justice. While many contemporaries sought reinvention to stay relevant, Nigerian British torch singer Sade Adu and her band continue to release reliably warm, enveloping jazz-pop for quiet storms, yacht rides, and power outages. I bought Love Deluxe on tape in junior high as a compromise. I wanted to see Indecent Proposal but my parents were like, “Ummmmm, absolutely not!” “No Ordinary Love” featured prominently in the trailer, so it sufficed until I finally saw Adrian Lyne’s sexist glamorization of kept women and poor business decisions at a girlfriend’s house. The scene in the kitchen is pretty hot, though. But “Kiss of Life,” “Cherish the Day,” and “I Couldn’t Love You More” are way hotter.
I don’t want to set up a racist, misogynistic binary wherein white female pop stars are cold sexbots and female pop stars of color have erotic energy coursing through their veins. Nor do I want to overlook that Sade’s songs assume heterosexual coupling. But Sade’s articulation of sexuality is predicated on the assumption that these forms of expression are something people do together. Also, sexuality isn’t the only lens through which Sade explores empathy and human connection. Despite the luxe atmosphere Sade’s music often seems to cultivate, many of her songs focus on poverty and the struggle for basic survival. Two such songs on Love Deluxe are “King of Pain” and “Pearls.” The latter track, which is about a poor Somalian woman, always makes me tear up a little. It may be a bit paternalistic in its storytelling, but it’s no less effective.
Thus, I think Sade’s articulation of the erotic is at least as powerful and enduring. Others seem to agree. Molly Lambert recently saw Sade in concert and raved about the performance, Sade’s enduring sexiness, and the sense of community the event created. Ms. Adu turns 53 next January. Let’s remember to wish her a happy birthday.
I’ve never cared for Alicia Keys. “Fallin’” may be the song that launched her career and got butchered at countless American Idol auditions, but “frontin’” is the verb I associate with her. Yet articulating these feelings means checking any impulse to serve as the race police. Where does a white southern girl get off calling a New Yorker of mixed racial heritage a phony?
A few months ago, I was tipsy in my house. The Grammy nominations were announced, and I went on a rant about the Arcade Fire. Deeming them Grammy bait, this dovetailed into me yelling about Taylor Swift and then, as if the heavens parted, I announced that Alicia Keys is exactly like Swift. My reasoning was that they both project an air of authenticity that I think makes them even more artificial. They also let Grammy voters feel really progressive for championing young women and artists of color, even though both artists do very little to upset traditional notions of gender and race. Also, it don’t hurt that they’re pretty and align with conventional (re: white) beauty standards. Or something like that. You’d have to ask my partner what I actually said. He thought I had a point and should explore it in a post, but he probably also thought the drunk lady needed a nap.
Shortly thereafter, I attended a bachelorette party. Back at the hotel, one of the guests put on As I Am as we were getting ready to throw lingerie at our friend (I bought a gift card to a local fetish boutique; I’m liberated, but I’m not the friend who buys you drawers). “Superwoman” came on and one of my friends mused “I really like this song.” Given the proceedings, and that the honoree was a friend from the college feminist group I was involved in, it was somewhat in the spirit of the evening. I think I gave said friend a reassuring nod and poured myself a margarita.
In theory, I like “Superwoman.” It’s got a nice message. I thought it was cool when Keys performed it with Queen Latifah and Kathleen Battle at the American Music Awards a few years back. As a feminist, I should like it. But I just can’t get into Keys. I’m bracketing off her film career, though I do want to see Smoking Aces and The Secret Life of Bees at some point. I do like one Keys song, which is also off As I Am. “Teenage Love Affair” is pretty catchy. But my enjoyment has much to do with “(Girl) I Love You” by the Temprees, which Keys’ hit generously samples from. The strings, groove, and backing beat all inform Keys’ track and make it irresistible. Keys’ vocals fluctuate between gleeful innocence and carnal grit. The lyrics, though trite, suggest expressions of teen female sexuality too complex and conflicted for the virgin/whore binary.
But I’m not fond of the video, which repurposes Spike Lee’s School Daze. The source material is a disquieting film about the political life and troubling race and gender relations at a historically black college. The clip is a sweet love story between two college students (played by Keys and Derek Luke). Luke’s character registers as sensitive because he leads demonstrations for AIDS relief in Africa (he also lines up with Keys’ charity work). Vaughn Dunlap’s anti-aparthied efforts in School Daze didn’t suggest he was an enlightened male. Like many progressive males, his activism often engendered deeply ingrained chauvinism, misogyny, and elitism.
People treat Keys like a Serious Artist when I think she’s silly. When the press dubs certain musicians as Serious Artists, I’m automatically incredulous and looking for threads to pull (I did come around on Joanna Newsom and Antony Hegarty, though). Molly Lambert recently compared Keys to fellow New Yorker Billy Joel in a write-up on “Un-thinkable,” which placed 64th on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Tracks last year. I get the comparison–they’re piano-playing balladeers with an Empire state of mind. It’d be pretty cool if Keys had a defunct metal band in her closet, though I’ll take her Cosby Show cameo.
More than anything, Keys reminds me of world-class showboater Céline Dion, who is completely artless about how her big dumb feelings play out on stage. Keys’ scenery-chewing performance of “Adore” during the Prince medley at the BET Awards? Totally a Dion move. Actually, I’d really like to see Dion roll around on a piano. Wait, no I wouldn’t. Okay, yes I would. Keys doesn’t have Dion’s pipes, but she pumps love songs with such empty bombast that it becomes ridiculous. Maybe I just filter too many things through irony. Or maybe I think there’s something hollow about her performed earnestness. It’s probably both. Back me up, Maria Bamford.
Not that Billy Joel is above being a silly goose. What is boomer pablum like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” if not dead serious and, thus, sublimely silly. Damn you, Cola wars!
There’s also something insidious about the racial politics of Keys’ critical success. Upon arrival, I was always suspicious that the press and music industry embraced Keys in response to Lauryn Hill’s rapid artistic decline. In 1999, Hill swept the Grammys. By 2002, Hill went into hiding and Keys was the lauded newcomer. Both dropped out of Columbia, won Best New Artist, and had the burden of model minority status to deal with. But Keys was the one with a steady career. She latched on to political causes that relied on institutional reform rather than radical action. Hill made one of the best records of the 90s and then promptly got branded as crazy, in part for questioning a racist music industry. One fit in, the other dropped out. Given her status, Keys was able to assert an urban black female identity, so long as it was diluted and palateble to a white audience. She did this largely through sartorial choices and in generic identification that could accomodate a mass audience.
I would imagine the presence of Keys’ white mother eased some people’s concerns. It certainly seemed to give her allowances. When she wed Swizz Beats, who was married when they got together, few raised an eyebrow. The rumor mill was not so kind to Fantasia Barrino. But I’m not making any pronouncements that Keys plays up her blackness or projects a studied black authenticity. I will say that I think it is a performance, and one I don’t particularly care for, but will leave it at that. Stronger claims are dangerous. I have no right to assume how Keys conceptualizes her identity.
Furthermore, I don’t know how one negotiates mixed heritage and issues of passing and representing. Having seen friends work through it, I can gather that it’s a fraught ongoing process but refuse to offer judgment over something I can never experience. Nor am I intending to blame Keys for benefiting from institutional racism, as I’m sure she could tell me some stories. What I am saying is that there’s something profoundly unsettling about a music industry that treats talented black women as replaceable. I am also saying Keys has benefited from this system. As has Beyoncé, an artist I like but gave me pause after she donned blackface and performed for Hannibal Gaddafi.
I don’t have a tidy conclusion to offer. I’m still struggling with why I don’t like Alicia Keys and what racist underpinings might inform my disdain. I’m tempted to chalk it up to having little regard for a competent musician championing love one bland pop song at a time, but I know it’s never that simple.
Note: As of July 12, 2011, the comments thread to this post is closed. I’m done talking about Odd Future, and frankly, unless you’ve got a constructive argument or a fresh take on them, you should be too.
Last week, Odd Future made an indelible network debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The prolific L.A.-based hip hop collective has been generating a lot of hype. I started hearing about them last fall. Music critics began latching on to their work and started following leader Tyler, the Creator’s Twitter feed, and comparisons to Kool Keith, Eminem, the Sex Pistols, N.E.R.D., Bad Brains, and the Wu-Tang Clan soon followed. Dutifully, I listened to some songs. The group is best recognized for their distinct sound and image, which features an austere production aesthetic and an obsessive focus on, among other things, all the ways people can rape each other.
I think I was supposed to be shocked and offended but frankly I was too bored to make it through more than a handful of songs. However, like many emotional states, boredom is variegated.
Primarily, I’m bored with the hype machine. Critics get duped. Occasionally I’m no different. And we all have a lot of things to reconcile before making any ruling, which informs Zach Baron’s Village Voice profile and Mehan Jayasuriya’s Thought Catalog post on the group.
But ya’ll, these Wu-Tang comparisons are lazy. The only things they share are spare beats and being a gaggle of black men (given Tyler’s recent signing to XL, I hope they also share a keen business acumen that allows them to exist as one entity for a label while allowing themselves to be free agents as solo artists). I think some music critics always find groups of black musicians as exceptional, perhaps because they never encounter more than one black person at a time. Living Colour is a black rock group?!? Even though African Americans helped invent rock music by integrating raced musical forms like country and the blues? WRITE IT DOWN. I can draw a sketchy parallel between Tyler and Method Man’s charismatic presence and conversational flow, but some other members have yet to prove themselves as singular personalities the way Wu-Tang did. Maybe Hodgy Beats is Ghostface Killah. Maybe drawing a comparison between Tyler’s cult of personality and fellow West Coast punk Darby Crash’s would wake me up. I can go a little further with the Keith comparison, though don’t think the group has yet to harness their free associative revelries with the comedic impact and verbal prowess that Keith does. Maybe drawing parallels is a stupid, baseless exercise that belittles all parties.
The second kind of boredom was informed by hipster incredulity, which is why I remain skeptical about MF Doom’s skills as an emcee. Odd Future’s iconoclastic punk spirit is exactly the kind of thing cool kids who don’t actually listen to much hip hop would champion. Odd Future may seem like a rank fart blast of fresh air if you aren’t familiar with, say, the talent on Doomtree or Rhymesayers’ rosters. Granted, their recent performance on Fallon’s show represented something of a passing of the torch. Roots’ drummer Questlove encouraged the booking, which scans as a kind professional gesture. And I agree with Tyler’s recent assertion that people who want Odd Future to stay underground aren’t real fans because they don’t want them to succeed. This tension is kind of fascinating, because it seems to me that Odd Future’s core audience is peopled with hipsters, who as a group skew white and of middle- to upper-middle class origins. In short, they can afford to drop out and stay obscure. Odd Future want mainstream success. I don’t want to make some racialist, classist assumption and say they need it, but they want the mass appeal that stretches past being a blogosphere curio. They want power. They might want endorsement deals too. Too bad they’ll lose a Super Bowl invite to Arcade Fire.
However, as a feminist I’m leery of hipster appraisal. This doesn’t necessarily stem from not wanting to be identified as part of the group. If you think I’m a hipster, fine whatever. Some of the nicest folks I know and some of the worst people I’ve encountered could be labeled hipsters. IDing them as such seems both irrelevant and relativist.
But let’s be honest: hipsters tend to carry a lot of liberal white guilt with them, especially true among the most (pseudo-)intellectual. A group like Odd Future can prompt unwarranted discussion about how their bleak world view dovetails nicely with the United States’ economic recession, which seems like a way for these people to congratulate themselves for constructing an illusion of racial sensitivity. I think this is problematic for two reasons. For one, this is a facile attempt at explaining their cultural relevance that requires greater political nuance. Steve Hyden recently argued that nü metal predicted the cynicism and maverick posturing of the Bush administration. It sounds great, but seems too easy to me. For another, isn’t it insulting to assume the economic recession and Odd Future have anything to do with one another? Doesn’t the assumption that urban-based youth of color are always associated with socioeconomic collapse seem . . . racist?
My surreptitious attitude toward hipsters extends well past my generation. It’s old news that hippies and beatniks sublimated chauvinism and misogyny because straight white guys set the terms. This hasn’t changed radically despite an influential feminist blogogensia. In fact, sometimes I think we haggle over progressive or subversive readings of this stuff when we should probably set all of it on fire. Anyway, I knew some hipsters would rationalize or justify Odd Future’s hate speech, because in this regard we are no different from the suburban smug marrieds we assume we have cultural capital over. I recently overheard one guy describe Tyler’s proclivity for rapping about holding women hostage in basements as a “motif” at a Marnie Stern show. Hooray, your liberal arts education allows you to justify rape in the same way generations of men have before you. I gave him the biggest scowl I could summon, but I wasn’t surprised. How can you be disappointed when you’re already disappointed?
I also share this boredom with my mother. When I was seven, I read Ramona the Brave. The first grade is stressful for Ms. Quimby, as is her mother’s new job and her family’s inattention toward her. At one point, she flies off the handle and starts swearing at her family, who allow her vitriol. Her blue word of choice: “guts.” What I gleaned from this book, as a wiser second grader to parents who then strove to keep a fledgling print shop afloat, is that I would like to start swearing too. Since I absorbed vocabulary from after-dinner conversations and stints in day care, I knew the right words.
My mom bargained with me, perhaps because she shares my belief that swearing children are comedy gold (for a contemporary example, watch Bobb’e J. Thompson steal Role Models from Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott). I was allowed to curse a blue streak, but only at home and never at anyone. I could only apply swear words as descriptors. But after a week of me employing “fuckin’” as an adjective, mom flipped the script! She told me that smart people know how to use curse words sparingly and draw from a larger vocabulary. “Fuckin’” remains one of my favorite words, especially when I’m angry and therefore southern. But she’s right. And that’s how I feel about Odd Future’s rhymes. It’s clear they play with complex language, but a lot of times those S.A.T. words, humorous observational asides, and left-field cultural references are obscured by swear words. And rape jokes. And homophobic epithets. I really don’t want to compare this group to the Family Guy writing staff but both should try harder.
This brings me to the major source of my boredom, which emanates from being too grown for this nonsense. I don’t think Odd Future are subversive. I think they need to grow up. I would like them to broaden their scope, hone their skills, and diversify their lyrical content. I don’t necessarily think they should get into message rapping or “elevate their people” or any of the other things white liberals ascribe to young black people who make them uncomfortable. I also think that some folks’ objection to the group’s rape narratives stem from the racist myth of the black sexual predator, which the group may be responding to. However, I think I’m meeting people more than half-way on that one. Because I never, under any circumstance, find rape funny. I also cannot abide by any of their casual homophobia and jokes about ass rape.
To me, there’s little difference between the intent of many of their rhymes and what the kid who sat next to me in the first grade was trying to accomplish by flipping his eyelids. Or what a high school acquaintance was after when he said that girls who get raped should just lay back and enjoy it. Or why young men (Tyler among them) develop obsessions with A Clockwork Orange (I recommend they read Gary Mairs’ critique of its legacy before donning bowler hats). Or what a group of homophobes are up to when they wail on a couple of gay men leaving a bar. It’s supposed to seem bad and cool, but it’s just childish and frequently awful. And please don’t tell me that as a feminist I have no sense of humor. I do. I’m also really funny when I go off on a rant or spill queso on my shirt. I’m just not laughing because you aren’t funny. You can do better. Odd Future can do better, but I’m not willing to give them the mantle of the new big thing until they do.
However, I have some learning to do myself. Recently Molly Lambert Tweeted about how Syd tha Kyd’s involvement challenges racist notions of the group’s preoccupation with rape (apparently her mom also mentored her in a high school music program–yay, cool moms!). Frankly, I’m somewhat unclear how a female producer accomplishes this outright but I do think Lambert is right to identify Syd’s role. Music producers tend to be men, both within and outside of hip hop. I’m curious about how Syd conceptualizes her role, but I’d imagine asking her what it’s like to be a female producer within a predominantly male group is insulting to her for both personal and professional reasons.
Syd’s participation is particularly exceptional to me because her beats are what I respond to most favorably. Her production aesthetic is minimal to the point of inducing claustrophobia but prone to disorienting passages. The beats bring the ultraviolence to a horror movie where the black kids aren’t always the victims (though I can’t celebrate their ugly tendency to victimize). This is what really gives Odd Future its sense of sonic terrorism, as Syd foregrounds their rhymes by having the voices dominate the mix while giving the listener grooves too slippery and slight to hold onto. It also makes the group distinctive, as they don’t use samples. For this reason Syd is as important as the group’s breakout star, and why I also hope she gets her own contract.
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.