Merrill Garbus had to get over being stared at this year. “I’m amazed at my capacity to look at myself in pictures and see myself on YouTube and not do to myself mentally what I used to do,” she said in November. But if Garbus proved anything in 2011, it’s that she’s able to plow past her insecurities when faced with a larger mission. Like a motherfucker. “Women . . . need to see a woman doing more on her own [and] being really weird and bizarre and loud.” Thanks to w h o k i l l, the 39th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll #1 album, lots of women (and men, too!) saw and heard Garbus doing exactly this, but you know, virtuosically. More than any artist this year, male or female, Garbus reinserted the body back into body politic, crafting a feral feminist manifesto that refused to bow to the binaries framing pop discussions about gender, sexuality, and power.
“I gotta do right if my body is tight, right?” At the end of each verse of “Es-So,” Garbus’s voice splits into two to ask this question, a sharp bit of soft psychosis masquerading as self-help and a stark shift from the soulful, high coo surrounding it. But she doesn’t stop at body image; she aims much higher. Think of the song’s title as both a play on Esso, the trade name for Exxon Mobil, and “is so,” a statement of assumed fact implying “Of course, that’s the way things are.” When she confesses, “I run over my body with my own car,” she parallels the junk we put in our bodies with the war-starting crude shit that powers our automobiles.
Equal to its political force, pop music has always been about the human body: its capacities to create music, to register and display the effects of that music, and its sui generis potential to narrate all of this while it happens. 2011 indeed was a remarkable year for the pop body in all of its beautiful, ugly, complex, and grotesque forms. w h o k i l l might be the best of the bunch, but Garbus has contemporaries who crafted career highlights out of the corporeal. PJ Harvey both has and hasn’t come a long way since daring a lover to rub it until it bleeds nearly two decades ago. On the stunning Let England Shake, which finished a strong second to w h o k i l l, Harvey floats over the English battlefields of the 20th century’s first Great War, reframing her penchant toward unflinching accounts of bodily extremes to address the blunt impact of political conflict. Less expressly political but not lacking in force was Strange Mercy, on which Annie Clark forcefully challenges the archetype that her demure physical appearance suggests by finally perfecting the self-reflexive form of musical theater she has created as St. Vincent.
While Harvey, Clark, and Garbus pushed ideas of the body in new directions, and Occupy Wall Street’s human microphone displayed the capacity of lungs and larynxes alone to circumvent public noise regulations, the most prominent musical narratives were marked by more traditional tropes. Adele’s curvy frame and Beyoncé’s “baby bump” (is there a less humane phrase for a nascent human?) were translated into evidence of these ladies’ ostensible “realness,” while upstart chanteuse Lana Del Rey’s noticeably engorged upper lip was given as state’s evidence to the contrary. It took the cocky come-on “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten'” to elevate the pigtailed Harlem rapper Azealia Banks to her first taste of stardom after years of label limbo. When she wasn’t paralleling her heartbeat to a dude’s trunk rattle on “Super Bass,” Nicki Minaj was detailing the myriad virtues of her own lady parts. Then there was the fashionable misogyny of Kanye West and Tyler, the Creator—the former joined in his gothic mansion by many dead models dangling from chains in the long-delayed video for “Monster,” while the latter unleashed his goulish, boyish id on Goblin, which detailed, among other things, the pleasures inherent in punching pregnant women.
Then there was this line, which topped them all: “I’ve seen bodies fall like lumps of meat/Blown and shot out beyond belief/Arms and legs were in the trees.” This terrifyingly mundane account of war, which could have been drawn from a soldier’s journal at any time over the past five centuries, is perhaps the most powerful single lyric of 2011, delivered by PJ Harvey in her highest vocal register and buffeted by a ghostly autoharp on “The Words That Maketh Murder.” Let England Shake might end with a moving ethnographic portrayal of Iraq’s more recent life during wartime, but the album needs little current context to register powerfully. England poetically captures a visceral reality that applies to all armed conflicts: They are waged not only between competing ideologies of nation-states but also between human bodies and the technologies we design to destroy them.
Harvey’s 10th album is notable for exposing the bodies we don’t see. Her words ring so true because the imagery—limbs dangling from trees, verdant European hills sown with the blood of young boys, the smell of rotting flesh covered over by thyme—lists the human remains that are carefully cut from war nostalgia. Official accounts of war are about validating and protecting life, not the decomposing corpses left in the wake of battle. Yet Harvey cuts England‘s stark reality with an aching sense of beauty—even wonder—at what she opens herself to. She splashes and laughs in the fountain of death, finding a morbid poetry amid the brutality of war.
“Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you?” Annie Clark wondered on “Cruel,” a fitting obituary for a year in which bodies were pulled in every direction at once, for pleasure and pain, life and death. Clark’s word choice is strategic: She’s addressing not sentient beings (or “My Country,” as Garbus does), but the assemblages of flesh and bone that are prone to inhuman actions. On “Surgeon,” Strange Mercy becomes a salacious soap-opera hospital, and the invasiveness of surgery is conflated with the act of lovemaking. The song starts off dreamily, as if succumbing to a local anaesthetic, before building to the sort of orgasmic climax for which Prince should get residuals. Clark’s repeated plea “Best finest surgeon, come cut me open” could emanate from a desperately injured person or one seeking a tabula rasa for her outward appearance.
Yet it remains. Even the smartest critics were taken aback by the sight of Clark’s tiny frame slashing through Big Black’s “Kerosene” at the Mercury Lounge in May, recasting its dark, nebbish machismo as something they didn’t have language for, as if the Y chromosome alone contains the predisposition to fucking shred. In their own virtuosic manner, Garbus’s remarkable live performances extend her body’s built-in capacities with a simple loop pedal, collaging her own utterances to create an organic funk foundation with a fiercely primal urgency—the tribal face paint doesn’t feel like an affectation.
w h o k i l l is at its most compelling when Garbus unleashes her most primal desires—the “jungle under my skin,” as she calls it—particularly those that don’t jibe with stereotypical understandings of bodily empowerment. On the sultry slow jam “Powa,” she confesses her preference for ceding control in the bedroom, punctuated with the confession “my man likes me from behind,” before collapsing into a gorgeous orgasmic wail. She one-ups even this on “Riotriot,” admitting an erotic attraction to the Oakland cop she watched handcuff her brother. It’s a quietly stunning moment to hear an artist, especially a woman, so bluntly admit the most repressed form of desire: that which arises when encountering a source of power well beyond your control.
Garbus opens w h o k i l l by speaking truth to state power. By nicking the first two lines of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” she twists that song’s claim—that America is made up of sacrificed human bodies—by boldly asking, like Harvey, if that’s necessarily a good thing. As tribal drums layer atop one another, Garbus extends the metaphor of country as human, acknowledging her discomfort in her native land’s embrace, its misdeeds in her name too egregious to overlook. She can’t see a future within America’s arms, but Garbus’s own body politic will incorporate anyone. Most importantly, sacrificing one’s body isn’t required. The only rite of citizenship is answering in the affirmative to the question Garbus is known for yelling out in concert: “Do you wanna LIVE?!”