On Default Genders, Dead Girlfriends, Politics, and Imagination
In the middle of summer, when the Internet is starved for something to gawk at, even the smallest of controversies can make some noise. So it was last week with the release of "On Fraternity" and a subsequent self-titled EP by Default Genders, songs that provided just enough grist for the content mill to get to churning. See also: How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide
Default Genders--formerly known as Dead Girlfriends--is the new project of James Brooks, formerly of Elite Gymnastics, and currently of Grimes' boyfriend-dom. Brooks has a tumblr, on which he muses about various subjects, from the politics of the music industry to sexism. He attributes inspiration for the project to the work of Andrea Dworkin, a radical feminist thinker who The Guardian credited with "symbolizing women's war against sexual violence."
Dworkin is one of the first influences named on Brooks' tumblr "list of heroes," a fashionably eclectic roster that also features Jim O'Rourke, noted feminist Taylor Swift and Lil B. It is Dworkin's subject of interest that Brooks takes up as his own on Default Genders, and his championing of that subject that has garnered attention.
Were it not for the gender politics, the EP might have been snidely dismissed, or ignored entirely, as undercooked chillwave, ironic given Elite Gymnastics used to self-define as members of the scorned subgenre. (Only to be told that they weren't actually all that chillwave, natch.) The music is glitchy and delicately pretty, but without the kind of substance that has elevated Toro y Moi and Washed Out past the pejorative genre tag with which they were first saddled.
The instrumentals themselves are so thinly developed that it's clear that the import of Default Genders rests almost entirely with the lyrics. Like Brooks' tumblr, the tracks here are DIY constructions on which to place unwieldy manifestoes, which suggest a man attempting to formally renounce the trappings of rape culture.
The closest Brooks gets to any kind of specific detail kicks the record off in promising fashion on "Words with Friends," as he quickly sketches a portrait of a proud woman who has been abused. But the well-drawn characterizations of the first four lines soon give way to sterile clichés about pain and love, ones which the record, for the most part, continues to spit out.
The other two songs here, "Stop Pretending" and "On Fraternity," have their rewards, particularly the former, in which Brooks delivers what he might intend as the record's thesis, an assertion that he does not belong to a society of rape enablers: "if people talk shit and say you're not one of us, I guess we can stop pretending now that I ever was." That kind of male renunciation is troubling as a political statement, but it makes for a good lyric and the bridge of brass and woodwind that follows is the record's most touching musical moment.
But there's no getting away from the ideology. Even "Omerta," a gauzy, somewhat lifeless instrumental, engages in political messaging through its title, as a comparison between the mafia's fabled code of silence and (to hazard a guess) the complicity of men who perpetuate rape culture.
People might argue Default Genders are worthwhile as an unlikely source for a conversation about the ubiquity of rape culture. But credit doesn't automatically fall to Brooks for that, just as an earnest intolerant person like, say, Fox News reporter Lauren Green, shouldn't get plaudits for kick-starting a dialogue about religious intolerance. Not to mention that Brooks' attempt to recuse himself from patriarchy, to throw up his hands and say "not me, I don't condone this," is a way to forsake the responsibility that thinkers like Jackson Katz have advocated for so strongly.
Critiques of Brooks' perspective though, have taken issue the very best thing about the record: its imagination. Stereogum's Claire Lobenfeld found "Stop Pretending," particularly irksome, calling it "mansplaining" (when a man, intentionally or otherwise, uses a condescending tone to explain something to a woman that she already knows) at its most egregious."
I find it worrisome that in today's hypersensitive cultural world, the very act of imagining yourself to be something that you are not is so readily criticized. I always found, for instance, Lena Dunham's reluctance to "render an experience she can't speak to accurately" to be a form of artistic cowardice; an essential part of art is the empathy that it takes to imagine yourself to be something that you are not.
Brooks has obviously attempted that kind of empathy--if he's to be faulted, criticism should be based on whether he's succeeded in what he's trying to do. To dismiss the legitimacy of Brooks' very attempts establishes a precedent which jeopardizes artists' abilities to take imaginative risks. It also creates an uneven framework for debate--how can a man explain that he's not trying to mansplain without mansplaining further? Should a male artist never again attempt to write from a woman's perspective?
But Brooks has subjected himself to this criticism by constantly framing and reframing the release so as to shore up the context of its reception. Art can afford artists a free space to explore ideas they might not otherwise be able to. But Brooks' lack of faith in his own art--and the too-explicit politics therein--is evident and in each of his defenses he reinforces the idea that he is a guy poking his head in where it has no place being. He doesn't seem to trust that the messages ensconced within this flimsy music are capable of standing on their own, as either politics or art. And the problem is, he's right.
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