Let's Hear It for the Not-Boys Club: Reviewing the Rock of 2015
Illustration by Arturo Torres of the Village Voice
"For the first time in my life, it's starting to feel like rock music is a girls' club," Sadie Dupuis, lead singer and guitarist of shredders Speedy Ortiz, recently wrote in a Pitchfork feature. "2015 has me most impressed with the femmes who are shouting their everything." While femmes and butches alike have done just that since our primal ancestors learned to yell, Dupuis's observation zeroes in on rock's thunderous and recent tidal shift: Female and non-binary rockers spun the most colorful yarns, thrashed the hardest, and told the most crucial stories in 2015. From Speedy Ortiz's Foil Deer to Sleater-Kinney's No Cities to Love and beyond, the slew of excellent records released this past year — far too many to examine in a single essay — prove this, and demonstrate that rock can still be an arena for progress.
Given that Courtney Barnett's funny, frank confessionals on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit snagged her a Grammy nod, and Torres's meditative Sprinter now sees her performing alongside Garbage, it's mind-boggling that the efforts of women who write, engineer, and create music have historically been reduced to the subcategory of "women in rock." The condescending label conflates gender with genre, rarely granting women the same baseline neutrality their male counterparts automatically receive. In November, Interscope and Beats Music co-founder Jimmy Iovine drew well-deserved ire for saying in a television interview that women "find it very difficult to find music," let alone create it. And, earlier in the year, the thousands of harrowing responses that Jessica Hopper received after asking on Twitter, "Gals/other marginalized folks: what was your 1st brush (in music industry, journalism, scene) w/ idea that you didn't 'count?' " were a sad reminder that women's contributions to the rock canon are still often reduced to the roles of groupies or girlfriends.
But luckily, in 2015, listeners craved something more immediate, visceral, honest, and different from prototypical cockslinging rock — even within the internet's endless web of content- and music- sharing platforms. We can't get no satisfaction any longer, and we broke on through to the other side long ago. In our sick, sad, and occasionally beautiful world, we must now grapple with more gnarled questions: How are we supposed to go about the usual business during America's gun violence epidemic? Can we still foster true intimacy with one another instead of "connecting," "liking," and "sharing" online? How do we keep a semblance of a private life when rogue government agents have revealed that everything we hold dear is subject to public scrutiny?
The masterminds behind the year's best rock 'n' roll albums don't explicitly talk about shootings, or whistleblowers, or sweet GIFs. But they do speak frankly about critical social issues, not limited to inequality, violence, exclusion, and abuse, all while digging at the most salient anxieties we face in this time of upheaval. Instead of balking at uncertainty, the likes of Aye Nako, Courtney Barnett, Colleen Green, Torres, Speedy Ortiz, and Sleater-Kinney harnessed the sound of confusion and extracted an unexpected power from these emotions, wielding frank words and fuzzed-out riffs as their weapons of choice. This revolution rock is about survival, and it shattered longstanding notions of performing gender in society while smashing through the status quo and reminding us that, no matter what, we are not alone in this world.
Twenty-fifteen's unofficial ethos is hereby culled from Speedy Ortiz's pummeling "Raising the Skate," in which Dupuis declares, "I'm not bossy, I'm the boss." In an era where silence is encouraged, and docility even more so, her assertive mission statement hits the ear as radical. Dupuis, who has an MFA in poetry, isn't shy about anything in her angular lyrics, especially when referencing the pervasive violence that women grow up shielding themselves against. Dupuis has said that the album's poignant "My Dead Girl" was written directly about an experience she had one Fourth of July, when she felt threatened by a group of men who began harassing her on an empty road. "I'm not the dead girl you wanted," she croons. Perhaps it's a nod to (or jab at) the infamous Edgar Allan Poe quote: "The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world." Careful, Ed. As Dupuis warns on the album's opener: "Watch your back, because baby's so good with a blade."
Cut to Courtney Barnett, the deft Australian songwriter who ran 2015. Bearing a knack for spitting droll confessionals and nimbly shredding on the guitar, Barnett's music values the pursuit of making peace with flaws in a culture that demands we adhere to the molds of the fitter, happier, more productive, more sanitized versions of ourselves. On "Debbie Downer," she tackles unsolicited requests from strangers on the street for false happiness. If you're depressed or bored, why mask true feelings? What's most resonant on Sit is Barnett's commitment to depicting identity as fluid, as she does in "Small Poppies": "I don't know quite who I am, but man I am trying," she insists. "I'll make mistakes till I get it right."
It's evocative of our continuous struggle to carve out concrete identities when it's getting more difficult to discern what's real and what's a hoax. Identity politics was perhaps rock music's most dominant theme in 2015, especially on Aye Nako's exceptional EP The Blackest Eye, which poses the critical question: How can we belong in a place where the odds are stacked against us? While the Brooklyn queercore group elects to identify with the gender-neutral pronoun "they," and not "she," Aye Nako stands out in last year's camp of sensational artists crafting the crucial music helping to build a world where gender is no longer a point of contention.
The group does this by penning, in their words, "sad punk songs about being queer, trans, and black" and bringing issues of representation, lack of diversity, heteronormativity, and solidarity to the surface in mighty songs like "Sick Fuck." In it, vocalists Jade Payne and Mars Ganito contend with how tough, and fraught, it is to be yourself when, sadly, they "already know what you'd say" in the face of difference.
The taut songs collected on Colleen Green's exceptional I Want to Grow Up oscillate between the extremes of identity-formation: apathy and activism, innocence and experience, violence and peace against and with the self and, in turn, others. The one-two punch of "Things That Are Bad for Me" (I and II) finds Green identifying her Kryptonite; in "I," she vows that "the first thing I'll do is get away and stay from you," only to follow up with the metal-leaning "II," which brings out the "energy inside my brain, set to self-deprecate." It's the wrenching "Deeper Than Love," though, that lacerates ears and hearts. "Is there anything stronger than biology? Is love being ruined by technology?" she asks, anxious for the phantom connection we're all aching for (is the URL intended to bring us closer together actually causing us to splinter away from each other IRL?).
Perhaps all we can do now is commit to knowing ourselves — even if we question everything we have faith in.
Mackenzie Scott, who records under the moniker Torres, probes the perils of belief in her gripping second album, Sprinter, a collection of unholy howls, effigies, and praises. Scott, who describes herself as a "Christ-following mystic," doesn't eschew her potential disillusionment and lunges towards it instead, unafraid to expose religious and internal hypocrisy in that search. In it, she learns that self- reliance is at once a necessity and a defense to quell doubt. "I was all for being real, but if I don't believe then no one will," she growls on "Strange Hellos," a confession so painful that she gasps and wheezes the words out.
Mercifully, this past year also saw the return of rock 'n' roll superheroes Sleater-Kinney, who resurfaced after eight years to bring us the pummeling No Cities to Love. Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss have crafted a necessary — and truly ass-kicking — rumination on the changing face of the places we've left our hearts in. They document formative moments of loss, victory, enlightenment, learning how to let go with scintillating lyrics grappling directly with social injustice, capitalism, and unease. Sleater-Kinney may not have saved 2015, but they reminded us that even if "there are no cities to love," we've still got something to fight for.
We have to keep fighting, because the battles fought in 2015 for inclusion and justice are far from over.
On the institutional level where top decisions are made, women are far from equally represented (know many female or non-binary a&r pros?). Yet the conversation is shifting: It starts at the level of the listener who will no longer tolerate inequality or exclusion, to say nothing of these magnificent musicians, who are at once writers and world-builders. So many artists released formidable rock albums this year — Bully, Chastity Belt, Childbirth, Dilly Dally, Downtown Boys, G.L.O.S.S., La Luz, Palehound, and Sheer Mag among them — that inspired us to pick up a guitar and start building something bigger than ourselves. Questions of gender aren't a consideration, violence and abuse ceases to exist, misogyny is but a bad memory, and the people creating critical, engaging art are just that: people.
In her acceptance speech for the Woman of the Year honor at Billboard's Annual Women in Music event, Lady Gaga brought up a crucial point: "Women provide a wisdom to music that is very unique and special. It is a perspective that no other person can have, because we bear life." She's right. Women bear life — yet they shoulder a lifetime of ingrained marginalization. Not all rock music made by women is capital-F feminist, nor does it all necessarily have to do with being a woman — yet this outsiderness is intrinsic to the female rock experience, and it's central in the non-binary experience, too. There's resonance, and power, in extracting these anxieties to overcome obstacles and gender bias on a daily basis, in a career field that, statistically, is still heavily male-dominated. It takes courage to get back on that stage night after night, hoping that strangers will accept you on the merits of your lyrics and lickety-split riffs — that the woes and worries and occasional wonders you've meticulously whittled into song resonate with someone else. Boys' club, consider yourself stormed.
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