Thoughts on the Music I Heard This Year (Part Two): “The Music Industry is Lying to You”

You might get the impression that a lot of music pissed me off in 2013 and while it is true that lots of music (and many other things) got my ire cranking during the last year, there was a lot of really great music this year and I’m happy that I got to listen to some of it.

This is not a countdown of my favorite albums of the year because I hate those. I don’t believe that nine or nineteen or 49 albums are measurable and precise intervals worse than my favorite album of the year and I think it’s silly to pretend they are. How the fuck do you calculate that, of all the albums released on the planet this year, How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is precisely the 72nd best? You don’t, because that would be silly.

Yes, the new Future of the Left album is my favorite album of 2013 and my other favorites are all albums that, like How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident, thrilled me to the point of distraction. So rather than some artificial countdown, think of this as “If you only had to hear six or seven albums from 2013, these are my recommendations.” But think of it with the following grain of salt – you might totally fucking despise the things I like and that is absolutely your right.

So what do I love so much about How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident? First off, I love how it came into existence – Future of the Left announced a PledgeMusic campaign in the spring which, understandably, hit its goal in short order. I was able to send some money to the band so they could make this album and in return, I got a signed copy of the album, a T-shirt, and a digital copy of their Love Songs for Our Husbands EP. The band asked for help from their fans and then made an excellent and sincere show of gratitude. Oh yeah, and they made an album full of all the things I like from Future of the Left – sarcasm,  yelling, pounding drums, crunchy guitars, and kazoos. Okay, the kazoos are new but they really tie “Things to Say to Friendly Policemen” together:

The Pitchfork review of this album pointed out How to Stop Your Brain‘s implied critique of macho asshole behavior but then kind of chided the band for providing “no model for a better society” which I find a little bit odd. This is a website that chose the new Vampire Weekend album as the best album of 2013 and if there is a vision for a better society in that band’s music, I haven’t heard it. Forgive me, but I don’t see how a society where everyone endlessly plagiarizes Graceland is any better than the one we have now. Besides, Future of the Left has never been what you would call “solution-focused” (unless you count their suggestion that we “re-imagine god as just a mental illness” on Travels with Myself and Another). Andrew Falkous’s sarcasm, wielded with a skill and precision that cannot be taught, is probably indicative of a certain amount of hopelessness. Mind you, I don’t know the guy – maybe he’s a wide-eyed idealist like me but I doubt it. So why would a guy like me listen to such (on its surface, at least) negative music? There’s a certain catharsis inherent in the sharply barbed wit of Future of the Left’s music and what I love about How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident in particular is that the two minute bursts of catchy-yet-snide stuff (“There’s nothing like a military coup,” sings Falco on “Johnny Borrell Afterlife” before adding, “The clothes are great / and everybody loves a curfew”) are occasionally offset but things like the opening line to “I Don’t Know What You Ketamine (But I Think I Love You)” which goes like so: “One day/ Soon/ Let’s talk about love/ like we talk about food: Generously/ and then/ without irony.” Cheeky title notwithstanding, the song opens with an honest (and, to my mind anyway, laudable) sentiment. Plus, I’m just generally in favor of doing things without irony. 

Obviously, Future of the Left isn’t for everyone but you probably didn’t start reading a music blog called Bollocks! to hear about stuff that might be for everyone. That said, I’m pretty sure most people who like music and/or joy will find something to love about Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady. 

One of the great things about life now is that, if you have the privilege of access to the internet and leisure time, you can find the music of pretty much anyone that your friends recommend to you. I read about Monáe when her first full-length, The Arch-Android, came out in 2010 but didn’t get around to listening to her until this year. I tend not to describe a lot of music as being “a revelation” but that’s what The Electric Lady is – it’s a truly thrilling, surprising slice of science fiction-infused soul. All of Monáe’s recorded output of which I am aware takes place in this sort of alternate reality (maybe the future?) where androids are marginalized and abused by mainstream society. But they are led in resistance by Cindi Mayweather, the ostensible alter-ego of Janelle Monáe. In 2011, Monáe told the London Evening Standard“I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘other’. You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman … What I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the ‘other’ to connect with the music and to feel like, ‘She represents who I am’.” 

I can’t, as a heterosexual white guy, connect with Monáe’s music from a standpoint of marginalization – just like I can’t connect with, say, Bikini Kill or Curtis Mayfield in the same way that women and people of color do. It would be dishonest, not to mention a bit foolish. Where I strongly connect to Monáe’s work is as 1) someone who loves a good R&B record (and The Electric Lady is a great R&B record) and 2) someone who can quite easily imagine a world where people aren’t chronically fucked over because they are viewed as “less-than” in the eyes of the dominant culture (indeed, I can quite easily imagine an end to “dominant culture” – I told you I’m a wide-eyed idealist). Like a lot of the music I love (Mayfield, Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, Bratmobile, Public Enemy – I could go on), The Electric Lady offers ironclad proof that we never have to choose between style and substance. We can have music that is aesthetically astounding and demands liberation at the same time. Isn’t that what all good art should do?

Writing about and thinking about Janelle Monáe and Future of the Left all morning (it takes me longer to write this stuff than it used to) has led me to a pretty happy conclusion – these are probably the two albums that I have listened to the most in 2013 (and they both came out in the last half of the year) and they both suit different sides of my personality. How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is loud, sarcastic and (somewhat) diagnostic while The Electric Lady is bombastic, stylistically diverse, and (somewhat) prescriptive. In terms of hopelessness and hopefulness, they kinda balance each other out in some way. It may not work for you, but it does for me.

Those are only two of my favorites from 2013 – I guess you’ll have to wait until 2014 to read about (if you want to, that is – we don’t force anyone to read blogs around here) some of the others, which include albums by Neko Case, Aye Nako, Hilly Eye, The Julie Ruin, and probably some others I’m forgetting.

In the meantime, here’s a link to “Dance Apocalyptic” from The Electric Lady: 

Happy New Year!

The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Bikini Kill

It should go without saying that Bikini Kill would be at the heart of a Summer of Badass Women, or any season of Badass women for that matter. After all, Bikini Kill is a large part of the inspiration for the Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women, which I dreamed up as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Riot Grrrl, a movement whose peculiar spelling actually came from Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail fucking around with feminist spellings of the word “women” (i.e. “womyn,” “wymyn” and so on). So there.

The women of Bikini Kill were Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox, and Tobi Vail (they were joined by Billy Karren on guitar) and as a group, they were about as badass as you can be. Hanna, according to legend, was advised by Kathy Acker to start a band because that would be the best way to for Hanna to have her voice heard. The music scene in Olympia, Washington (home of Evergreen State College, the alma mater of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, all three women in Bikini Kill, as well as Futurama creator Matt Groening) was pretty fertile for experimentation to begin with and it wasn’t long before Hanna was in a band called Amy Carter, which used to play before exhibitions at Reko Muse, the feminist art gallery Hanna had started with some friends. After Amy Carter came Viva Knievel and then, at long last, Bikini Kill, named after a zine Hanna was working on with Tobi Vail (who is still chronicling the northwest feminist punk underground to this very day) and Kathi Wilcox. The three pinched Billy Karren from a band called the Go Team (not to be confused with twee British group The Go! Team) to play guitar in their band and that’s when shit gets really awesome.

While giving Le Tigre’s self-titled debut the Great Fucking Albums treatment, Zac mentioned that Bikini Kill – and not the more singable, dance-able Le Tigre – was the band that should’ve sent your jock-prick ex-boyfriend back-pedaling as far from Riot Grrrl music as humanly possible and my esteemed colleague has a point. It’s easier to enjoy Le Tigre more on purely musical terms but let me tell you something else: on purely musical terms, I totally fucking love Bikini Kill, especially the gritty early shit on the The CD Version of the First Two EPs. But then, I also like to work out to Minor Threat’s Complete Discography (which you can almost listen to in its entirety in a thirty minute workout).

You might be tempted, when listening to a song like “Double Dare Ya” to ask, “What’s all the shouting about?” Well, I’ll tell you. Bikini Kill was providing the soundtrack for a movement that, dog bless ’em, wanted a brand of feminism that reflected their aesthetic ideas as well as their political ones (indeed, I would argue that Riot Grrrl didn’t make much of a distinction between the two, given their frequent – and spot on – attacks on the way women’s bodies are portrayed in the media) and that movement was infused with a punk spirit that a lot of mainstream “punk” music had (and still has) lost. Tobi Vail pounded the drums like she was in the fight of her life and Kathleen Hanna was a hurricane on stage, whirling, screaming, and occasionally flashing the audience. Vail has compared Bikini Kill shows to a war, and for good reason: as I mentioned in my review of Sara Marcus’s excellent Girls to the Front, men came to Bikini Kill concerts specifically to try to menace the band, something that doesn’t happen at Blink-182 shows (although it probably should) (I kid) (mostly).

But it’s not just the sound of their music – which, by the way, was the sound of liberation – that makes Bikini Kill badass. If I had to choose one word to describe all of their albums that I own (and I think I own all of them), that word would be “exhilarating.” If you like raucous, real punk music, you should definitely listen to Bikini Kill. But what they accomplished goes far beyond just playing loud, angry music. The Riot Grrrl movement was already under way when Hanna, Vail, and Wilcox got the idea to play in a band together, but they galvanized it and give it arguably its loudest, proudest voice.

And it wasn’t fuckin’ easy either. They were harassed, shouted at, and called all manner of horrible name just for daring to make their grievances public. Do me a  favor and ask yourself this, dear Bollocks! readers of any and all genders: why is it that we are always ready to approve of some angry dude – like your Clint Eastwood movie types and all those blowhard political pundit fucktards on the TV – but when a woman, any woman, gets upset because she has to have more education to make less money at the same position as a dude, people instantly accuse her of man-hating? Never mind the fact that the men Bikini Kill supposedly “hated” – men who relentlessly belittle, objectify, abuse, and rape women – are men that everyone should hate. I don’t hate the sadistic fuck who raped and murdered Mia Zapata because he’s a man; I hate him because he’s a fucking rapist. Likewise, I don’t hate Fred Phelps because he’s a man or even because he’s a Christian – I hate him because he’s a bigoted asshole who thinks that a being intelligent and creative enough to make (from scratch!) everything there fucking is has the same prejudices that he has.

There’s a reason you can’t have a serious discussion about Riot Grrrl without mentioning Bikini Kill and here it is: they brought the spirit of Capital-P Punk to that movement (which already had quite a bit of a punk ethos to it). For those of you who don’t know, Punk is “punk” with a purpose. It’s the kind of punk Joe Strummer was even when he wasn’t playing punk music. When the Handsome Furs snuck into Burma, played a secret show, and donated all the proceeds to their friends in a Burmese band, that was Punk. Hell, any band trying to make music under the boot of an oppressive regime is a Punk band. Bikini Kill were Punk because they played songs of liberation with reckless abandon, right in the faces of those who wanted to shut them up (or worse, physically hurt them). And they were badass women because they stood their ground and inspired a generation of young women to do the same.