The controversy a month ago about “On Fraternity,” a new song James Brooks (formerly Elite Gymnastics) released under the moniker Dead Girlfriends, took Brooks by surprise, probably both because he was painfully naive about how his song would be interpreted (especially in conjunction with the name “Dead Girlfriends,” which comes from a quote by the feminist Andrea Dworkin), and also that he wasn’t expecting criticism from the feminist community that he wants to be a part of. Before Brooks unleashed a series of annoyed posts on Tumblr correcting the narrative, “On Fraternity” was regarded as a song about women fearing sexual assault, specifically because of the line “In their opinion you were always kind of asking for it, all along.”
The posts by The Remix Baby and Spin calling Brooks out could be seen as a sort of long-coming backlash against how male musicians handle sexual assault in their lyrics. With the prevalence of thinly-veiled rape fantasies in modern music and movies (this is something that really seems to get worse with time, instead of better), the idea that we should be grateful for any sort of recognition takes precedence. This mindset is patronizing at best, and legitimately harmful at its worst. The problem with tackling rape is that, even though it happens to both men and women, it’s laughable to say that the average man has the same experience with gendered and sexualized violence as the average woman.
A mostly glossed-over track on DELS’s 2011 album Gob, “Droogs,” is a graphic tale of the rape of a young girl. “She can’t fly because her confidence cape is gone” DELS laments, as he goes on to describe how her life has been spoiled.
On the surface level it’s a sad song about a common tragedy, but the element of voyeurism is palpable. There’s something to be said about entertainment value, about how rape and sexual assault are an easy trope to get listeners to feel a grief (or worse, titillation) that diminishes the experience for those that have encountered it. From the gruesome rape-revenge film I Spit on Your Grave to Aerosmith’s cornball “Janie’s Got a Gun,” the gut-wrenching auto-response of morbid fascination makes light of what nearly one in every four women will encounter. While “Droogs” might seem to speak with more gravity, DELS detachment speaks volumes: this is a sad story. This is real, but not real for me.
Fugazi’s “Suggestion” is often held up as a model example about how men should write about sexual assault, taking the perspective of both the woman (“Why can’t I walk down a street free of suggestion?”) and, more powerfully in this case, the male onlooker (“We blame her for being there, but we’re all here. We’re all guilty”).
Much like 2Pac’s “Baby Don’t Cry” (“Sheddin’ quiet tears in the back seat, so when she asked me,”What would you do if it was you?” Couldn’t answer such a horrible pain to live through”), “Suggestion” acknowledges a lack of understanding men have with the realities of sexual assault. Both songs give prominence to the feelings of women, and the culpability that men have in using their lack of experience with gendered attacks to explain away their continued silence.
Even better, though, are the songs by the women themselves. Tori Amos’ “Me and a Gun” is an a cappella heartbreak, a modified (she was attacked with a knife, not a gun) account of her trauma before she became famous (And later, a spokesperson for RAINN). Contrast the solipsistic ‘this-poor-girls-life-is-over’ of “Droogs” with Amos’s line “I haven’t seen Barbados,” and the narrative changes, even though the songs are purportedly about the same thing.
Similarly, Angel Haze’s “Cleaning out My Closet” is just as graphic and horrifying as any rape revenge film, but there is no voyeuristic pleasure to be had here. “Disgusting right? Now let that feeling ring from your guts” says Haze as she gives a detailed account of her repeated childhood rape. It’s shocking because it’s the uncomfortable truth, not a sterilized-yet intoxicating third-person account that acts as a stimulant for easy emotional response.
Last month Pitchfork praised “On Fraternity” by (formerly) Dead Girlfriends as being “ideal in 2013– a white male artist with a direct feminist message that can speak freely with anyone, that will get under your skin if it’s not already there in less poetic terms.” The words that stick out are “speak freely,” because, in Pitchfork’s review they (intentionally? Not sure) acknowledge that Brooks’ words will be given more gravity because he is a white man.
Women have been speaking just as freely. It’s just unclear who is listening.