The Music Club, 2012
Entry 14: Grimes, Angel Haze, and other women fighting back against condescending sound guys and misogynistic rappers.
Photograph by Simone Joyner/Getty Images.
Thanks to all for the insight and recommendations; I think the list of albums (and books) I now need to check out is long enough to keep me busy until whenever it is that we’ve rescheduled Doomsday. (I seem to recall a Mayan prophecy mentioning Justin Bieber’s 21st birthday?) Having a lovely holiday, but happy to take a break from carousing with the fam and making a yule log (OK, eating a yule log,) to try and tie a ribbon on some final thoughts.
Jody, perhaps 2013 will be the year we see #WADS (We All Die Someday) trend worldwide on Twitter (or at least adorn a hit T-shirt), but either way, when you mentioned #YOLO’s photonegative sentiment, my mind went immediately to Angel Olsen. She’s a Missouri-born, Chicago-based songwriter who’s been a mainstay in Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s occasionally beret’d backing band The Cairo Gang, but this year she made good on the promise of her debut solo EP Strange Cacti and proved herself to be a formidable and unique songwriting talent in her own right. Her 2012 record Half Way Home is absolutely bewitching. Her voice has this quivery power that reminds me of Linda Perhacs or Buffy Sainte-Marie, but vocally she’s more of a Roy Orbison-style crooner than a folkie. Her songs are spirituals interrupted with dark blurts of mortality; in the middle of what’s ostensibly a love song, she’ll sneak a disarming line like, “I thought this time last year I’d be dead/ It’s quite strange the thoughts that pop into your head/ When you’re busy smiling, surrounded by your closest of friends.” #WADS indeed.
Olsen also has a knack for giving her songs an intimate, confessional feel but while blowing their emotions up to a cosmic scale. The centerpiece of the record is “Lonely Universe,” a wrenching seven-and-a-half minute narrative about watching the life slip from the body of someone you love. “Goodbye, sweet mother earth,” she sings. “Without you, I’m a lonely universe.” Like San Francisco’s Jessica Pratt—a young talent with a crackling, old-soul voice, who released a melodious whisper of a self-titled debut this year—Olsen is someone who’s internalized the eccentric aesthetic of what we were calling “freak folk” a few years back, and found a way to express it in a way that seems not self-consciously kitschy but deeply, harrowingly personal.
And hey, speaking of cosmic despair, 2012 will be forever marred in my memory as the year I actually had to engage with the phrase “legitimate rape,” thanks to Todd Aiken and the Foot-in-Mouth Boys (which would either be a great or terrible name for a riot grrrl revival band). As Jason noted, we’re “at war in the United States over whether we should honor women’s reproductive and economic rights.” And as troubling as this was has been for a lot of women, I did find some kind of relief in the music that—whether directly or indirectly—took up this particular cause. This fall, upstart Brooklyn rapper Angel Haze –the commanding video for “New York” is a good crash course for the uninitiated—released a mixtape featuring “Cleaning Out My Closet,” a song that revealed in graphic, unflinching detail the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. It’s hard to listen to—but that’s the point. “Disgusting, right?” she spits, “Now let the feeling ring through your guts.” In a year when elected officials were spouting vague euphemisms and flat-out lies about the realities of sexual abuse in this country, the song’s documentarian grit felt that much more powerful. And beneath the airy, cotton candy ambiance of Grimes’ “Oblivion,” lurked another commentary on sexual violence. In a recent interview with Spin, Claire Boucher said that the song is about the fear and paranoia some women feel “going into this masculine world associated with sexual assault.” The song’s got a hypnotic pop heartbeat, but this interview put a new, chilling cast over its refrain, “See you in the dark night.” According to my iTunes playcount, I listened to “Oblivion” more than any other song this year (it was also Pitchfork’s No. 1 song of 2012), but when I put it on after reading this interview, I felt like I was hearing it for the first time. I’m excited to see what’s ahead for both Angel Haze and Grimes—in their music and in the stance they take in interviews, they’re seizing important ground in their respective genres, both of which are still plagued by a lot of anti-feminine stereotypes. Their presence is powerful, and I hope it’ll ripple out. Condescending sound guys, misogyny in electronic music and hip-hop, cringe-inducing terms like “femcee” and “feminem”? As the saying goes, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down.
Unlike some people, I get pretty excited when I get books for Christmas, and the best thing waiting for me under the tree this year was Jacqueline Warwick’s Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s (thanks Mom!). Reading through the introduction this morning, I was particularly struck by Warwick’s observation, “If we accept the idea that girlness exists as a social construct and concur with Mary Russo that ‘to put on femininity with a vengeance suggests the power of taking it off,’ then it becomes possible to understand girl group songs as potent rather than simply passive and reactionary.” She’s writing here about The Supremes, The Crystals, and The Ronettes, but I heard so much music this year that fits into—and updates—this theory, from Kitty Pryde’s viral hit “okay cupid,” to the girl-talkin’ bridge of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” to the toxic bubblegum of one of my favorite singles of the year, Nicki Minaj and Cassie’s “The Boys.” Jody, in last year’s Music Club you put forth a Take Care conspiracy theory—“there’s no way Drake is having such a bad time banging groupies.” Cassie, it seems, agrees. Her snide chorus on “The Boys”—“You get high, fuck a bunch of girls, and then cry on top of the world”—sounds like a pretty pointed Drake diss to my ears, or maybe just a female response to the cloud of ennui drifting over a large swath of the hip-hop world right now. “The Boys” has not only some of my favorite 2012 Minaj verses (in a year when it was particularly hard to choose on that front), but also one of the best videos of the year. If Beyonce and Gaga’s “Telephone” video was Generation GIF’s Thelma & Louise, “The Boys” feels like the candy-colored feminist utopia we all know they went to instead of heaven right after the credits rolled.
And with that, time to drive this thing right off the (fiscal?) cliff and bid the Club a fond farewell. Wishing you all a happy, safe, and tuneful 2013. It was a pleasure swapping observations with you all; would love to do it again sometime. Call me, maybe?
Lindsay Zoladz is a contributing editor at Pitchfork.