The other night, I met up with Carla DeSantis Black, creator of ROCKRGRL Magazine, who moved to Austin late last year. We share some mutual friends and some obvious interests, so it was a natural meeting. I talked about the blog, school, and other things I’m working on. She talked about some projects she’s getting off the ground. We talked about facilitating workshops for Girls Rock Camp and the current state of women in music.
One thing that she brought up that I found especially interesting was the recent crop of female artists using pseudonyms instead of their given names. I hadn’t really thought about it much, but indeed it’s a phenomenon–Glasser, tUnE-yArDs, Bat for Lashes, St. Vincent, Noveller, Circuit des Yeux. Many of these women either started out or continue to write, record, and tour as solo artists. Black is encouraging female artists who record under aliases and do much/all of their act’s writing, recording, and performing to use their given names in order to claim ownership of their work.
Of course, adopting a nom de plume is standard practice in popular music. Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara. Erica Wright renamed herself Erykah Badu to honor her African roots. In the grand tradition of drag artists, Christeene Vale was born Paul Soileau. The Donnas and the Ramones created a group identity by sticking to one name. David Bowie was born David Jones, but didn’t want to be confused with the Monkees’ front man. Given hip hop’s inclination toward nicknames, Kanye West’s decision to record under his given name is damn near revolutionary and certainly political. My presence is a present, kiss my ass.
The process of renaming is as old as the entertainment industry. A-list aspirants continue to lop “ethnic” surnames, use middle names, or invent stage names. Reinvention is intrinsic to constructing a persona. Often, a performer’s decision to adopt a stage name says a great deal about racial and ethnic identity and the politics of assimilation. In music, which is tied to fantasy and the imagination, it may also say something about artistic creativity, the desire for metamorphosis, and a need for creative release shared between performer and fan. Actors often use stage names to seem more relateable to an audience. Musicians often use them to trouble relatability, if not transcend human existence entirely.
But what does it mean when female musicians use a moniker instead of their given names, especially white women associated with indie music? Is it a defense against being reduced to a chick musician or singer-songwriter? Do aliases subvert expectations and provide artists more space for play? Is it particular to female artists already prone to musical abstraction who eschew traditional instrumentation, or are we seeing it elsewhere? Can we apply these concerns to female MCs, deejays, and electronic artists, who usually go by nicknames and aliases as well? Does it obscure their individual efforts? Is it political? Is it anti-feminist? What do you think?
Last week, I did a quick round-up of some new releases I’ve enjoyed. In that post, I mentioned that upon occasion friends and acquaintances familiar with my blog will ask what I’m listening to. When they ask this question, the tacit assumption I make is that they want to discuss current recording artists. There’s always a few up-and-comers I champion, but any time someone asks “who are you listening to” it’s usually an older act I’m investigating. This year, if you asked “what are you listening to” my answer is “the Cocteau Twins.”
At this point, it’s hardly incendiary to proclaim oneself a fan of the long-defunct Scottish dream pop act. For one, there’s not much to hate. It seems detractors profess indifference rather than contempt, deeming their music pleasant but inconsequential. The worst insult I’ve heard was that there’s little difference between their sound and the pan-global efforts of 4AD labelmates Dead Can Dance and new age artists like Enya and Enigma. These artists sound good as background noise at a bougie dinner party. Pass the quinoa.
Though their releases always clutter discount bins — no doubt jewels from the reject piles of former high school goth kids’ CD collections — contemporary acts like M83, Warpaint, Phantogram, School of Seven Bells, Sleep Over, and even Linkin Park cite their influence. While folks like Madonna and David Lynch noted their interest in the band early on, it’s only recently become “fashionable” to like them. In 2005, there was unsubstantiated talk of a reunion at Coachella. In 2008, the band received a Q Award for their contributions to popular music, a rare accolade Fraser noted for an otherwise undecorated band.
In the past few years, I’ve entered into more conversations with people who like them, along with the work band members vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, guitarist-producer Robin Guthrie, and bassist Simon Raymonde did with This Mortal Coil, especially Fraser and Guthrie’s contributions on It’ll End in Tears. Like M83’s Anthony Gonzalez, a lot of us are in are 20s and too young to directly experience the group’s 80s heyday. So I’m going to guess many of us came to our fandom through other portals, perhaps exploring the reference Patton Oswalt makes in his bit about KFC bowls in Werewolves in Lollipops or listening to the haunting score Guthrie and composer Harold Budd created for Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin.
I first remember hearing Cocteau Twins on the radio in 1994. The song I heard was “Bluebeard,” the lead single to their penultimate album Four Calendar Café. I liked it fine and noticed they already enjoyed a long career. I suspected Sarah McLachlan might be a fan based on songs like “Fear” and “Vox,” the latter of which was originally released on her 1988 debut Touch but received some airplay following the success of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I seem to recall that she opened for the band at some point during this time, but can’t confirm this.
In 1998, I remember hearing Fraser on Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” which may be where many fans in my peer group first heard her. The song is still mesmerizing to me and continues to appeal to others. House incorporated the song as its theme, though regrettably without Fraser’s vocals. Friday Night Lights used José González’s cover this season to underscore a heartbreaking scene where Matt Saracen learns of an unexpected death in his family. I later found out that Fraser was recording the song when she heard that her one-time confidant Jeff Buckley drowned. Fraser considered the song as something of a tribute.
During graduate school, I read Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’s nebulous The Sex Revolts, wherein Fraser’s opaque vocals were linked the womb and the abject. As with much of that book, I wished the authors limited their focus to something less amoebic than gender fuckery in popular music and didn’t crutch so heavily on Gilles Deleuze to support their claims.
I highlight these points to emphasize that the Cocteau Twins were in my periphery for some time, but only recently a band I claimed for my own. I knew of them, but felt their catalog and devoted fan base to be rather intimidating. I started actively listening to them in winter 2008, primarily because Bat for Lashes, Gang Gang Dance, and M83’s “80s album” garnered comparisons. I liked what I heard (I went with 1984’s Treasure as a starting point), but then went about my business. But earlier this year, I reinvigorated a long-dormant obsession with Jeff Buckley. Out of feminist disdain for having a male musician occupy my mind, I turned toward the female musicians in his life. I listened a bit to Rebecca Moore and Joan Wasser’s work, but the Cocteau Twins left a more immediate impression. I dove back into Treasure and went deeper into Blue Bell Knoll, Head Over Heels, Aikea-Guinea, Love’s Easy Tears, Victorialand, and Heaven or Las Vegas. I’m still “in it” and see no reason why you shouldn’t be plunging the leagues with me.
Like many, I was taken by Fraser’s voice. A lover of Björk, Kate Bush, and Siouxsie Sioux, who Fraser recalls in her lower register, I champion beautifully strange female voices. Fraser’s dramatic style is often dialogued with her lyrics, which are usually inscrutable and laced with references to obscure words, gibberish, and slang endemic to the band’s origins (i.e.: “aikea-guinea” is a Scottish term for “seashell”). Though seemingly nonsensical, many fans embue meaning in their attempts to decode what Fraser is singing. But I concur with Jason Ankeny that what makes Fraser’s mouth music resonate with listeners is her emphasis on “the subjective sounds and textures of verbalized emotions.”
This speaks to Fraser’s ability to subvert language, project strength, and demonstrate control, qualities for which I don’t think she gets enough credit. Critics pay particular attention toward her voice’s beauty. Indeed, Fraser possesses an opera singer’s virtuosity, chewing on words’ dexterity, skipping through complex rhythms, and leaping octaves and strange intervals. But her work tends to be described as “ephemeral,” “ethereal”, or “gossamer” to ultimately argue its frillery as being conventionally feminine. But I think there’s something to be said for a woman who writes indeciferable lyrics to songs with names like “Cico Buff,” “Sugar Hiccup,” and “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” and taps wells of emotion using these words. It could be profoundly embarrassing for both the singer and the listener, but Fraser finds the pith surrounding emotions’ ultimate intangibility.
But as this year for me is also defined by picking up a guitar, Guthrie’s contributions cannot be overstated. Fraser created a vocal style a host of UK female artists would come to emulate. Similarly, Guthrie rivals few beyond The Smiths’ Johnny Marr in the cultivation of a distinct guitar sound for its time that many would later attempt to replicate. This is evident in how younger artists on 4AD like Lush called upon Guthrie to produce their albums, no doubt aware of and indebted to the Twins’ involvement in forging a distinct pop sensibility for the label. I think it’s also noticable in Kevin Shields’ work. While some like to suggest My Bloody Valentine’s blissful, feedback-laden guitar drone and androgynous vocals were created in a vacuum, I suspect the band took notes on the Twins composing and recording processes.
Guthrie’s guitar sound also speaks to me directly. As a guitar player, I have little interest in the monster riff foolwangery many nurture when they pick up a Fender Stratocaster in the hopes of becoming Stevie Ray Vaughn. Instead, I like how the guitar can be used to conjure atmosphere and mood, however fleeting or mutable. Like Guthrie, I’m also a fan of seventh chords, which destabilize the triad and create a sense of irresolution. Thus this music tends to shift expectations of how it’s supposed to sound, requiring listeners to pay attention in order to process superficially beautiful but compositionally complex music. I suppose this sense of mastery ultimately puts Guthrie in the position of guitar god, though his indifference toward conventional melody and reliance on Fraser’s voice, Raymonde’s sleepy bass, and an omnipresent Roland 808 potentially shift expectations of the band’s sound and his role in helping create it.
We could dwell on Fraser and Guthrie’s former relationship, the daughter they share, his former dependence on heroin and alcohol, the couple’s estrangement, and the band’s disintegration. I’m not especially interested in it, however. But like many UK post-punk acts, I am fascinated in how the band developed such a dreamy sound out of their surroundings. In the documentary Made in Sheffield, Human League frontman Phil Oakey talked about his band’s desire to break away from the tedium of work with the hope of maybe making it onto the Top of the Pops.
I’ve never been to Grangemouth, but I’d anticipate its distinction of housing a large petrochemical plant speaks to post-war industrialism and the assumption that its citizenry would work at the factories and refineries. A trio of spotty kids opting to spin gorgeous, incoherent post-punk inside a basement with their eyes toward heaven? I think it’s worth remembering.
A lot of people have been talking about Janelle Monáe, myself included. I wrote about her look and sound here and here, as well as her music video for “Tightrope” during my recent stint at Bitch. Her album, TheArchAndroid Suites II and III, was released last month and many wonder if she represents the future of pop music. Showcasing an eclectic blend of genres and references to tell the story of a futuristic messianic figure named Cindy Mayweather, Monáe channels her love of science fiction to create music that’s entrenched in the past, yet remains fresh and singular. Not since perhaps David Bowie’s incarnation as Ziggy Stardust has high-concept pop music sounded so fun.
Some critics note Monáe’s indebtedness to a myriad of popular influences. In a recent Culture Gabfest podcast, Jody Rosen rattled off seemingly disparate folks who inform her sound like Fela Kuti (evident on songs like “Dance Or Die”), jump blues pioneer Louis Jordan (“Faster,” “Come Alive,” “Tightrope”), 60s British psych folk (the verses to “Oh, Maker”), and 80s punk and new wave (“Come Alive”). Obviously James Brown factors prominently here as well.
I point him toward the artists I mapped out in my Bitch entry and raise him Astrud Gilberto (“Sir Greendown”), Simon and Garfunkel (“57821”), Wendy and Lisa (“Wondaland”), and Prince’s psychedelic inclinations (“Mushrooms & Roses”). There are notable pairings with Saul Williams in “Dance or Die” and Of Montreal on “Make the Bus.” There are even direct references to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Rodgers and Hart’s “With a Song In My Heart” , and Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune.
The emphasis on musical reference and hybridity also links The ArchAndroid to artists like Beck, Cornershop, and mentors’ OutKast who anticipated the iPod on shuffle approach ubiquitous to pop music during the 90s. I detect kinship between Monáe and Gnarls Barkley in “Cold War.” In its embrace of concept and musical extravagance, I note a tenuous connection with Gorillaz and Bat for Lashes as well. And strangely enough, I also sense an unexpected affinity between The ArchAndroid and Helium’s The Magic City, the sophomore release of an indie rock band whose leader Mary Timony wanted to channel her love of prog rock into an album full of varied sonic atmospheres and rich storytelling. In short, there’s a city’s worth of ideas in Monáe’s head, as the album cover suggests.
If this list suggests that the music contained within The ArchAndroid is derivative, belabored, unformed, or tedious, it’s to the album’s credit that it certainly doesn’t sound that way. In fact, save for the extraneous (“BabopbyeYa”), I marvel at how the 18-track album simultaneously works as a collection of singles and as a cohesive album with considerable buoyancy. I’d wager that one could go in without knowing about the story or any of the reference points and gladly navigate its varied pop terrain at home with headphones and on the dance floor.
Some believe Monáe’s artistic ambitions exceed her grasp. But I’ll gladly champion a young artist bored with the limitations of a genre that she’s assumed to align with because of her race. Like Gnarls Barkley, she demands to be insinuated in pop music’s cultural history in order to reclaim black people’s obscured role in the creation of the form and I applaud that.
It’ll be interesting to see how Monáe and her audience will evolve, as she captures much of the same white hipster fanbase as OutKast, Kanye West, tour mate Erykah Badu, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. But I have no doubt she’ll negotiate it with aplomb. With her focus as forward as her trademark pompadour, she’s hardly “just another weirdo.”
At lunch the other day, Kristen at Act Your Age and I got on the subject of music videos, as we are wont to do. We were talking about instances where artists play multiple characters in clips, which brought to mind this entry on Beyoncé and Bat for Lashes. We could only come up with female artists, though my partner also brought up OutKast’s “Hey Ya” and The Foo Fighters’ “Learn To Fly.” I’d point out that the former seems to only be possible because Andre 3000 had already established himself as an eccentric, feminizable fashion icon though I wonder if any women — besides ex Erykah Badu, who directly referenced “Hey Ya” in “Honey” — has played an entire band. I also have to say that the latter showcases regressive stereotypes of girls, homosexual man, and fat women. Yikes!
In Jennifer Lopez’s “Get Right” she plays pretty much every character: the club deejay, a bartender, a dancer, a clubgoer trying to dance away her heartache, her friend, a celebrity, the celebrity’s nerdy (and potentially queerable) fan, and the video star projected on the club’s screens. She also appears to be playing outside her race at times, inhabiting white characters as well as Latinas. Oh, and fun fact: the girl playing the deejay’s kid sister as actually Lopez’s stepdaughter Ariana. Click on J.Lo’s name to watch.
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker” recycles the played-out good girl-blonde/bad girl-brunette binary, but I like that she also gets to recreate the “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” scene in Grease and that there’s an animated version of herself that both characters watch at the movies.
Mariah Carey featuring Jay-Z
Directed by Brett Ratner
Britney Spears — who has put on multiple aliases in “Toxic” and “Womanizer” — also brings out the blonde/brunette binary for “Gimme More.” However, I find it interesting that blonde Spears is at a strip club with girlfriends and is watching brunette Spears perform as club talent.
Directed by Jake Sarfaty
Today’s post is a review of Debi Withers’s Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory. I’ve actually been holding onto it for a while, as Withers was good enough to have her publisher HammerOn Press send me a copy (my hunch is that a previous entry on Bush’s The Dreaming, wherein I cited her essay on Lionheart, got me the free wares). I read it a little over a week ago but amid all the SXSW revelry, didn’t get a chance to review it. I wanted to have a clear head when drafting an appraisal, so here goes.
For those unfamiliar with her work, Withers is an English queer feminist cultural studies scholar who focuses on music culture. She also puts theory into practice as a contributor to musical projects like Drunk Granny and Voice Tribe. Much of her scholarship has focused on Kate Bush, out of which this book was formed.
Adventures is a fun read that embraces feminist and queer theory while making it accessible to folks who haven’t gotten down and dirty with Luce Irigaray. As someone who doesn’t consider herself much of a theoryhead and always looks for a practical application when reading such works, I appreciated that Withers provided such an interesting subject to attach theoretical abstractions to. Importantly, Withers makes clear that she will not be talking about Kate Bush the musician, but rather Kate Bush the personae, which she refers to throughout as the Bush Feminine Subject (BFS). While I think the term potentially turns the subject into something of a monolith, the distinction must be made and the use of the musician’s given name cannot suffice. As Withers is astute to point out, there’s a big difference between Kate Bush and “Kate Bush.” Never a strictly autobiographical writer, Kate Bush penned songs about girls in incestuous relationships with male siblings, Houdini’s wife, unborn babies, Wilhelm Reich, Karen from The Red Shoes, Peter Pan, Catherine Earnshaw, burglars, aborigines, gay bon vivants, and mothers of dead soldiers. “Kate Bush” embodied them, often modifying her own singing voice to do so. She often recorded and performed these characters with a flair for the dramatic and drama’s inclination toward camp.
Withers cherry-picks from Bush’s catalog, forming a life cycle out of thematic elements in The Kick Inside, Lionheart, Never For Ever, The Dreaming, and The Red Shoes, as well as the final movements of Hounds of Love and Aerial. According to Withers, Kick represents the birth of the BFS, along with coming-of-age preoccupations like menstruation (“Strange Phenomena”) and young love, whether doomed (“Wuthering Heights”) or forbidden (the title track). Lionheart is a showcase for the artist’s preoccupations with performance, disguise, camp, maturation, and sexuality, which all often take on queer associations. Never For Ever marks a transitional period, demonstrating at once her interest in costume and mistaken identity (“Babooshka”) while at the same time insinuating a politicized awareness toward modern life, best exemplified with “Breathing,” a song delivered by a fetus who is aware of the nuclear fallout its mother is trying to live through.
From here The Dreaming comes to represent the artist’s ongoing personal evolution. Withers argues this is attained through politicized awareness of other cultures (the title track), the reinvigorated investment with one’s own (“Night of the Swallow,” which acknowledges Bush’s Irish heritage), the commitment to being receptive to knowledge (“Leave It Open”), as well as struggle (“Sat In Your Lap”) and resistance (“Get Out Of My House,” an anti-rape song that draws The Shining, turning the house into a metaphor for the female body). In addition, The Dreaming is also concerned with the process of metamorphosis, most often involving people turning into machines. As this was Bush’s first sole production credit, this theme takes on personal connotations about the artist’s relationship to her work. Finally, Withers argues that The Red Shoes (and Bush’s accompanying short, The Line, The Cross, and The Curve) symbolizes the suicide of the artist, drawing from the lore of the Hans Christian Andersen tale as well as the 1948 movie by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (for an in-depth reading on the movie, Matthew Dessem’s essay for Criterion Contraption is as good a place as any to start). As Withers argues that artistry transcends mortality, the subject is reborn with Hounds of Love‘s “The Ninth Wave” and disappears with Aerial‘s “A Sky of Honey,” the final movement off Bush’s most recent album, which was released twelve years after her previous studio offering, The Red Shoes.
I’m not sold on structuring the artist’s work this way, as I think that at times Withers pushes the interpretation of the life cycle onto Bush’s work, though I do understand from working on a master’s thesis that the process of organizing a larger body of work to fit a document is a problematic one. And while I understand why Withers wants to focus attention away from Hounds of Love, Bush’s best-known album, I feel she does a disservice by glossing over certain albums. The omission of The Sensual World is particularly troubling, as Bush believed it to be her most feminine work. Furthermore, it contains songs like “Deeper Understanding,” which is concerned with the potentially humanizing and dehumanizing connotations of digital interactions and fits nicely into Bush’s work on The Dreaming.
As subjectivity is a key theme in Withers book, I’m pleased at how she unpacked the identity politics evident in Bush’s ouvre. Withers is quick to point out Bush’s interest in camp, performance, and ambiguity, as well as the matter of vocality, all of which suggests elements of queerness in her work. Vocality is a particularly interesting matter, as Bush often sang as multiple subjects and tended to sing across age ranges, gender and sex catagories, and orientations depending on her subject in any given song.
In addition, it’s important to note that Bush has a big queer following. Men like Rufus Wainwright and Alan Cumming have professed their fandom, as have publications like Out. More importantly, Withers brings in her own sexuality into the discussion and argues that lesbians also have quite an affinity for Bush, a fan base and culture that Bush acknowledges and celebrates in certain songs and music videos.
I also appreciate Withers interrogation of race and nationality and how Bush’s position as a middle-class, white British woman is a problematic one. At times, Bush is something of a fetishist and voyeur of the other (particularly of East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and African/African American culture). Given her country’s problematic history with colonialism, this obsession takes on even more troubling dimensions. The matter of the nice white lady is a problem I run into all the time as a feminist (and nice white lady). It’s a matter I brought up when discussing Joanna Newsom’s latest album and it’s an issue that informs my ambivalent feelings toward other white feminist icons like Liz Lemon (for more recent offerings on her, I’d recommend reading Sady Doyle and Amanda Hess’s recent conversation following Doyle’s Tiger Beatdown piece on the subject).
While I enjoyed Adventures, I wish Withers would’ve contextualized the subjective nature of Bush’s fame. In the UK, Australia, and parts of Europe, Bush is a pop star of considerable renown, achieving commercial and critical success I’d estimate somewhere between Björk’s slightly-left-of-mainstream status and Madonna’s superstardom in the states. But in America, Bush is strictly a cult phenomenon. She did receive some recognition for minor hits like “Running Up That Hill,” “Cloudbusting,” and “Rubberband Girl.” Early videos like “The Man With The Child In His Eyes,” were a part of MTV’s original rotation schedule. “Don’t Give Up,” a duet she recorded with Peter Gabriel, has been featured in television and film and has been covered extensively. Similar things can be said of “This Woman’s Work.” Maxwell’s cover of the song was used in a routine for So You Think You Can Dance? that was meant to raise awareness about breast cancer.
Yet, Bush never really crossed over in the United States. She may have been on Top of the Pops but she was a hardly a fixture on the American late night talk show circuit. She never landed the cover of Rolling Stone, much less been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many people may not have heard of her, though her influence has carried over to contemporary acts like Tori Amos, Bat for Lashes, and Joanna Newsom. In short, she’s a cult figure here.
Thus, when reading the book, it was hard for me to take Bush’s celebrity as a given. By putting such a focus on the albums and what they suggest about the BFS’s trajectory, I kept wondering about the actual Kate Bush behind it and how such an eccentric, challenging musical figure was so widely accepted in her home country. While Withers acknowledges the anomalous conditions that allowed for Bush’s success, I was left wanting to greater sociohistoric context. What other artists were popular at the time? How was Bush able to produce her own material? What was her recording contract like? Who did she work with? Did early supporters like Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour sway the buying public? How were her videos received, and how did they intervene as the musician became more reticent to grant interviews and tour following the release of Lionheart? Did her unfounded reputation as a reclusive madwoman sensationalize her and thus make her a (shudder) hot commodity?
Also did much of Bush’s fame rest not only on her ability to meld feminized forms like piano-based folk singing with the masculinized practices of punk’s commitment to DIY ethics and confrontational sexual politics, but also with her clear indebtedness to glam? It’s no coincidence that she studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, who worked extensively with David Bowie, most notably during the Ziggy Stardust era. Yet like Bush, glam was far less ubiquitous in American popular consciousness in its time than it was in Great Britain. While Withers does provide some context, I think she presumes her reader to be British. Thus, I wonder how accessible this book would be to other audiences outside of Western Europe.
That said, for those who are die-hard Bush fans, nascent appreciators, or life-long feminist theorists, this book is one to add to the shelves. Open the book, throw on a record, and let the debate continue.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve long been on the fence about Joanna Newsom. I remember playing “Bridges and Balloons” from The Milk-Eyed Mender once when I was still at KVRX. Her name had been bandied about in hushed, reverent tones by fellow deejays and I had to find out who was causing this kind of fuss. Upon first listen, I promptly thought to myself, “what is this art school pixie nattering on about? Is this some Nell shit? More like Joanna Nuisance.” Immediately after the song finished, a female listener called to thank me for playing the song, espousing its beauty with complete sincerity. Yeesh. Point taken, sister. I took a little more time with Ys, but wasn’t converted.
My flippancy might seem unjustified given my professed adoration for Björk, and I recognize that. Bottom line: I respected that Newsom was a rare talent, but I didn’t get her appeal. In theory, I’m down with Lisa Simpson playing a harp, but actual listening didn’t beget actual enjoyment.
So when I found out Newsom’s long-awaited follow-up would be a triple album, I was like “ho boy, that’s going to be a lot of obscure words and ululating.”
It is, but in a great way.
I’ve since spent the last week listening to her new album, Have One on Me and feel like I need to check back in with Ys. For smart criticism on Have One on Me, I’ll gladly refer you to reviews from Ann Powers, Jonah Weiner, and Mark Richardson. Oscillating almost exclusively between it and Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code, that’s a lot of time with two smart women’s words. It was a week well spent and has carried over into this one. I’m certain that these two albums are the ones I’ll treasure from this year.
One reason I was able to warm up to Have One on Me is because it’s “accessible,” at least comparatively speaking. Some might interpret this as a taming of Newsom’s sound. Her voice is more controlled. Her arrangements, though spare in a way that recalls The Milk-Eyed Mender, are approachable and gorgeous. They even suggest a pop sensibility that gestures toward a potential connection between her and Carole King and Joni Mitchell’s work in the early 70s. I think all of this does a service to what are ultimately straightforward songs about the complexities of adult relationships. She’s not accessible so much as she is direct.
In addition, I think my attitudes toward pretension have changed since I last considered Newsom. I’ve spent some quality time with Kate Bush and Elizabeth Fraser, post-punk’s grand-mères of affectation. Song cycles about drowning? Lyrics pieced together out of gibberish, abstruse terminology, random words, and antiquated names? Hello.
These considerations have prompted me to stretch back toward Mitchell. They’ve led me to reconsider favorites like Björk, PJ Harvey, and Neko Case. I celebrate contemporary artists like Bat For Lashes, Fever Ray, Antony Hegarty, and Julianna Barwick with renewed vigor. I even volley contradictory opinions about Lady Gaga. In fact, after Newsom I should revisit Patti Smith and Tori Amos to see if my opinions of them have changed. I might want to see who this Amanda Palmer person is all about too.
I’m interested in how these artists use pretension for two reasons. For one, I like the effrontery of female musicians whose work seems to bellow, “I’m an artist with a capital A. My music is really important and great. If I need my work to be excessively florid, doggedly conceptual, or sonically challenging, then you can deal. If there was room for prog rock, there’s room for me too. In fact, I am prog rock. No, I have eaten prog rock, along with the book Roan Press published that exalts my genius.”
More to the point, when pretension is used in the service of songs about female experiences, it seems as though there’s potential for the mundane yet particular realities of being female to contain artistry, fantasy, and perhaps even transcendence. In Newsom’s case, as the record is teeming with reflections on motherhood, the pressures of couplehood between creative people, and the struggle for women to maintain autonomy as they mature, the pretensions feel earned.
That said, my threshold for pretension is slanted by my gendered purview. Newsom stretches odes to break-ups, possible abortions, empty rooms, and the West Coast well past the three-minute mark here and I listen. When it’s Decemberists’ leader Colin Meloy, I want to stab him so he’ll quit singing or reaching for his thesaurus. “Forty-winking in the belfry,” indeed.
Of course, while I may approve of female pretension, I also have to check it. Here’s where Annabel Mehran’s album cover seems necessary to consider. Newsom is draped across a chaise, suggesting an archetype in portraiture known as the Odalisque. Strewn about her are knickknacks from a decadent bohemian lifestyle — shawls, rugs, lamps, pelts, stuffed animals, antiques, a peacock.
To me, the image composition most clearly brings to mind Henri Rousseau‘s “The Dream.” Erté may also be an influence, as Newsom is fashioned a bit like his “Scandinavian Queen.” The political implications of these artists’ styles, and their respective involvement with Post-Impressionism and Art Deco should not be overlooked, particularly with regard to race. The former was notorious for its problematic, first-world fetishization of its own notions of primitivism. The latter poached quite a bit from Japanese woodcuts, thus perpetuating Orientalism. Indeed, when you juxtapose Newsom’s alabaster complexion against her exotic surroundings, the racial implications of female pretense become troubling. Who is afforded the time to ruminate? Who gets to lie in repose?
With that said, the cover, like the contents of the album, are beautiful, troubling, and revealing. They demand considerable examination and they’re getting it from at least one listener.
At the risk of sounding aloof, I’ve been ignoring Taylor Swift for some time. Readers might notice that I haven’t said a peep about her beyond an observation about how she might be a continuation of the girl group tradition after she hosted SNL. When the VMA debacle happened, I didn’t care. I thought Beyoncé was classy about it, and I thought Kanye was right in his opinion, if wrong in execution (seriously, “Single Ladies” is one of the best videos of all time, and perhaps the most iconic of its decade). I thought Swift seemed a little unnecessarily entitled when she was gave her acceptance speech later in the broadcast, but other than that I thought very little about it.
For a while, I actually didn’t know who this Taylor Swift person was. First I thought she was on The Hills. I work under the assumption that any famous white person on MTV is a Hill.
Then I saw her take some Southern kid to the prom on MTV. Then I found out she was a country singer from Pennsylvania who loved Def Leppard and covered Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” which didn’t help her cause. Then I heard the pop version of “You Belong With Me,” promptly motivating me to listen to the slightly twangier original. From here, I reduced her to “country Avril” and went about my business.
Swift, not unlike Depeche Mode in their own way, may be a good gateway artist into more interesting and challenging music. Being a pre-teen Depeche Mode devotee led me to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, and Nick Cave’s various incarnations (admit it, DM fans: your band is at best a singles act; only Violator and maybe Black Celebration are essential in an otherwise mediocre catalog). Likewise, Swift might lead fans to The Dixie Chicks, Neko Case, Rosie Flores, Janis Martin, and Wanda Jackson. But my opinion of Swift is, “fine, she’s young and plays a guitar and writes her own songs (with Liz Rose) . . . but I’m totally bored by her.”
Kristen at Act Your Age and my friend Asha forwarded this Autostraddle article to me. Asha asked me what I thought about it, and an outpouring of opinions bubbled up. Apparently I can get my screed on over a musician I have no personal investment in. But as I watched her wide, ordinary Grammy performance with Stevie Nicks (who sounded ridiculous singing “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” BTW) and yelled at my television when she gave her folksy “we’ll tell our grandchildren about this” Album of the Year speech, I discovered that I do have a personal investment in her fame. So here we go.
I’m pretty much in line with the writer and have brought up Swift’s privileged upbringing, pedantic songwriting, normative femininity, her handling of the VMA debacle, and inauthentic authenticity when talking to other people about her.
I agree with the writer about how there wasn’t really anything to hate about Taylor Swift until she started racking up important awards. I get her appeal, but I have no personal investment in her career. She writes inoffensive love songs you’d hear on the CW or romantic comedies women are supposed to love (like Valentine’s Day, which stars Swift and features her music).
Above all, Swift’s music is inoffensive to the point of offense when you factor in its success. When I think about Swift’s age alongside the teenage output of acts like Schmillion, Roxanne Shanté, ESG, Mika Miko, Björk’s work in KUKL, and some girl in her bedroom whose music I have yet to hear, I’m far more interested in that music. It’s weird and flawed and brave and inspiring. It’s really easy to forget about Swift when this music is also available. I wish more people would take the time to find it.
I’d like to point out that the Album of the Year Grammy isn’t as important as the writer suggests, nor should it be to you. In the grand tradition of award ceremonies and canons, the Grammys have long esteemed mediocrity and blandness. Sure, some cool people have won. But lots of boring and past-their-prime people have also won. And some great artists haven’t won Album of the Year but continue to make enduring music, as a Jezebel writer pointed out at the end of a recent article.
I can also counter the writer’s closing paragraphs, which are pretty hyperbolic. I’m not sure how much of a punk Lady Gaga is, or what, for that matter, the value of the word “punk” means when you can apply it to Vivian Westwood couture, coffee table books, and Hot Topic. That said, I too am inspired by mainstream female pop stars who explore and own the complex dimensions of their sexuality, particularly P!nk, Janet Jackson, and Christina Aguilera. I only wish there were more of them, or that Gossip’s Beth Ditto or M.I.A. sold enough records to qualify.
I don’t really take issue with Swift being a weak singer, in that I don’t think evaluating singers in terms of their technical abilities is always a fruitful exercise. I’d be happier with her being a weak singer if she did something interesting with her voice, but I basically feel like she’s doing karaoke when she sings. This could have a charm to it if her phrasing and sense of dynamics weren’t also really obvious. And she often acts out lyrics in a way that I find insulting to the audience. Sure it’s a continuation of the girl group tradition. But do you really need to mime picking up a phone to let listeners know that you’re talking on the phone with some boy? Is it your way of helping out your international fan base? Or is just so you can remember the exact words that comprise the trite rhetoric you’re selling?
Thus, if we have to make problematic either/or value judgments, I think it’s better to evaluate singing not as good or bad, but as present or absent. Lots of artists lack technically proficient or “pretty” voices, but get you with their commitment to creating sound and the feelings behind it. Likewise, lots of singers have pleasant voices, but sound like they’re thinking about checking their e-mail or getting on a plane. So, I actually take issue with how removed Swift sounds from her music. And then I really take issue with how she sings about romance with a disingenuous approximation of sustained wonder. For me, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard does something similar and it drives me up a tree. Add some faux-authentic lyrics about ripped jeans, pick-up trucks, sneakers, and faded t-shirts and I don’t think you’re emoting so much as lying.
That said, I think this quote is a little insulting: “Swift simply hasn’t had the life experience and doesn’t inherently possess the emotional maturity to create great art.” It smacks a bit of “she’s just a girl; she hasn’t experienced life yet.” As women who work with girls, Kristen and I include Swift in our music history workshops. We don’t do this as fans, but because we know she means a lot to many girls, some of whom are just learning how to play music or are picking up instruments for the first time. Some of you might be reading this now, and I totally respect your preferences and value your opinions. You may be die-hard fans, or you may grow out of her music and find something else. You may believe in the kinds of fairy tales Swift trades in, though hopefully you’ll come to them with a revisionist bent like Lady Gaga, Bat for Lashes, or St. Vincent.
Whatever you choose, all I hope for as an older, cranky lady who doesn’t like Swift’s music is that you never stop discovering new sounds as you develop your own. And I promise never to bore you with stories about how awesome and progressive my pop idols were in comparison to your music, because no text is ever above inquiry. Swift is problematic, but so is Björk. As I have faith in your awesomeness, I have no doubt that you’ll come up with something that’ll blow me away. And if you wanna bitch about Swift and turn that rage into something completely new and original, I’ll be here to listen.