When Women Kill

Dixie-Chicks

A couple of weeks ago, Chelsea wrote about the proliferation of murder ballads, and their tendency to fetishize, in the narrator’s perspective, the destruction of “something beautiful” – a woman. She was prompted to explore how male musicians like Nick Cave view their female subjects after listening to this response song by Hurray for the Riff Raff:

I want to present a different take on murder ballads, and showcase different types of songs performed by female artists. Two broad categories emerge: in the first, the woman is the killer. In two of the most famous country songs of this type, she kills in response to unrelenting domestic violence with no help in sight from society – but she also kills for revenge. In the second category, the woman sings the story of her own death. Misogyny is pervasive in these stories; they reflect our culture’s lack of value in women and sing stories back to us that very loosely mirror what so many women have faced. If dead women could sing, would Deanna Cook’s song sound like one of these?

Before diving into heavier stuff, there’s a more comedic response to traditional murder ballads that you might remember from its video’s heavy rotation on Country Music Television and other outlets. The Dixie Chicks, now infamous for their criticism of George W. Bush and the subsequent fall from country music grace, survived this controversy before Natalie Merchant’s words in London sparked outrage.

“Goodbye Earl” flips the narrative. Songwriter Dennis Linde weaves a tale of two women that support each other from girlhood to burying Wanda’s abusive husband – who they poisoned black eyed peas. Wanda is portrayed as a victim who seeks a legal solution, but when the law fails to protect her, she and Mary Ann cook up a scheme (literally) to get rid of him and live happily ever after. The women are never caught, unlike the narrator of the quintessential murder ballad, “Delia’s Gone,” who laments his tale to his jailer.

The music video highlights the comedy; a sleazy lawyer and Keystone cops round out the cast of absurd characters, and a dance break at the end features zombified Dennis Franz. Of course, conservative country radio had a problem with it. While the song peaked at #13 on the Billboard Hot Country chart, many stationed refused to play it (or at least had it in a very light rotation), and plenty turned to their listeners and asked if they wanted to hear it. Contrast this with “Independence Day,” penned by Gretchen Peters and sung by Martina McBride earlier in the decade: while domestic violence is the catalyst for for both, with neither woman getting help from society, there’s no comedy in Peters’ story.

Some postured that the song sent the wrong message – murder is okay, and taking the law into your own hands is justified. KRTY, a country station in San Jose, California, aired a phone number to a domestic violence hotline each time the song was played.

But “Delia’s Gone,” interpreted by many but most famously performed by Johnny Cash, didn’t face the backlash of Goodbye Earl, and I don’t think it’s because Delia’s killer ended up in prison, while Mary Ann and Wanda walked away scot-free to sell strawberry jam. Cash’s persona was the polar-opposite of the Chicks. He was the Man in Black, a hard-drinking, prison-playing, home-wrecking outsider. The Chicks were pop stars and counted many young girls in their fan base. The refusal to play “Goodbye Earl,” and the questioning of its appropriateness at all, makes one statement: women can’t sing about killing their triflin’ lovers, but men can.

Never mind that “Earl” is entirely fiction and born of black comedy. Never mind that Delia was a real person who was killed at only 14 years old. The thought of female singers altering the story to perpetuate violence themselves is enough to make country station programmers clutch their pearls and worry children will get the wrong idea – that women can fight back.

In other songs, they have. They’ve also perpetrated the violence without any pretense of self-defense. Many fans of “Goodbye Earl” and “Independence Day” may not know of “Murder in the First Degree,” performed by Victoria Spivey in 1927. Like Delia’s killer, she croons from the jailhouse. She tells the judge she killed her cheating man, but she deserves to go free – he is the one who wronged her.

Of course, Victoria Spivey would never be as well-known as her male counterparts, nor would her music be fresh on the minds of country music listeners when another song featuring a killer woman topped the charts twice. Vicki Lawrence first recorded “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” and Reba McEntire covered it twenty years later. Tanya Tucker also sang a version, but its lyrics differ from the original. Like Mary Ann and Wanda, the narrator is never caught – her brother is punished for her crime. This murderess counts two victims under her belt, and proudly claims the law will never find the body of her sister-in-law.

Most of these songs were written by men, indicating that even when the overt motivation of the character has nothing to do oppression, the patriarchy is still dictating the plot. In the second type of murder ballad, a man wrote one of the most well-known figurative versions. “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” was written by Sonny Bono for Cher, whose version has been eclipsed in the past decades by Nancy Sinatra’s haunting take.

While the singer isn’t shot or strangled or buried in the woods, the imagery deliberately evokes death. At least Mary Ann and Wanda are active participants – here, Cher or Nancy can only react to her baby’s decisions. Florence + The Machine recently recorded a song of this type, and it is much more literal. Unfortunately, it does not subvert any cliches in the way that “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” or “The Body Electric” does. The video even features the faceless killer stepping on Calla lilies – the funeral flower.

I’m appreciative of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s response to murder ballads in “The Body Electric.” This song directly confronts the fetishization Chelsea discussed, without painting her victim as incapable, or a scorned or battered woman seeking revenge. Songwriter Alynda Segarra manages to humanize both the victim and the killer she’s working to do exactly what she sings: settling the score.

I think Segarra’s song also reflects potentially positive shifts in our society. While rates of violence against women are still disturbingly high, and state and federal legislators unrelentingly go after women’s rights, some laws are making it easier for victims to escape, get help, and start their lives over. A California law went into effect this year to allow domestic violence victims to break leases quickly and more easily, and the state recently became the seventh to provide protection for abuse victims from employment discrimination. Seven out of fifty isn’t such a great number, each gain is helpful. Of course, I would be more satisfied if all states had these laws, or if they were implemented nationally more quickly, but I’ll continue to cheer each progressive step.

[You can find Katherine P. Hudson on Twitter.]

It’s Hard Out Here For Lily Allen

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In 2008 Katy Perry described herself as a “thinner version of Lily Allen,” a peculiar jab that turned out to be an amalgamation of what caused Allen’s rage at the music industry. In her earlier years with the release of Alright, Still, Allen’s weight and “unconventionality” were talking points (and in some cases, selling points) to an extent that when she lost weight around the time of her follow-up album, It’s Not Me, It’s You, she sarcastically swiped back on her hit “The Fear” with “Everything’s cool as long as I’m getting thinner.”

Allen has always been acutely aware of the shelf-life of women in the music industry, a beauty and youth based package that, inevitably, would leave her behind. In “22,” Allen relates this to non-singers, a catchy pop tune bemoaning the plight of an aging woman. (“It’s sad but it’s true how society says her life is already over.”) It almost seemed like Lily Allen had taken this to heart and was going to retire from music for good, until the announcement earlier this year that she was working on her third album.

And lo, it’s “Hard Out Here” for a bitch.

In Lily Allen’s New Video Probably Went Over Your Head, Kathy Iandoli summarizes the difficulties of Allen’s life following her departure from music:

The years that followed for Lily Allen were pretty brutal. She miscarried more than once, met with tweets from “fans” who said things like “I’m glad your baby died” and other pleasantries. When she finally gave birth (twice), she was called fat a number of times and accused of “falling off.” She changed her name to her married name, Lily Rose Cooper, and was called a kept woman. So she brought it back to the née status and was accused of going through another divorce. It truly is hard out here for a bitch.

The “Hard Out Here” video, a satirical pop culture send-up of music industry misogyny, begins with her manager bemoaning her post-baby weight gain, until a newly-liposucked Allen makes a comeback of sorts in a cartoonishly over-the-top music video. Besides the obvious swipes at Robyn Thicke with lines like “who will tear your butt in two” and the glorious balloon display of “LILY ALLEN HAS A BAGGY PUSSY,” the majority of the video satirizes the self-objectification of young singers, notably Miley Cyrus.

I’ve said this about Miley before, but her sexually liberated front is really a carefully calculated appeal to the most basic straight male fantasies, and I couldn’t help but think of that when Allen’s manager tries to teach her how to twerk in the “Hard Out Here” video. The twerking, along with the white woman (Allen) objectifying her women of color dancers in order to assert her dominant sexuality, seems pretty familiar to anyone who has seen or read anything about Miley Cyrus in the past year. This is an interesting point on Allen’s part, but the execution is very flawed.

Allen’s got a bit of her own internalized misogyny that she’s dealing with, notably in the lines “I don’t need to shake my ass for you because I’ve got a brain,” which I’m sure the many brilliant ass-shakers of the world take issue with. The idea that overt sexuality and liberation are mutually exclusive is just flat-out wrong, and I would counter that with Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” video.

Allen’s use of women of color backup dancers as a Miley slam mostly ends up feeling awkwardly racist. The close-up shots of butts twerking and bottles popping aren’t something that Miley invented (duh), and in fact, it’s her appropriation of those signifiers that got people talking about Miley to begin with. There’s a lot to critique about how young women singers are marketed, and at points Allen is spot on (The part where she makes a dancer pose for Polaroids, a la Terry Richardson, is fucking brilliant), but at some point she ends up perpetuating sexist views of what, exactly, makes a woman empowered.

Sports, Music, and the Cocky Black Male

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys

[I’d like to welcome another guest post, this time by Jaime-Paul Falcon, who can be found at the Dallas Observer, among other places.]

With forty-six seconds left in the second quarter of Sunday’s game in Detroit, Dez Bryant made the catch of the year. Down 7-3, Tony Romo took a snap, dropped back, and fired a back shoulder fade to a covered Bryant, who leaped into the air, reached behind himself, trapped the ball with one had, corralled it against his helmet, and managed to stay in-bounds as a second defender came charging at him in hopes of laying a blow that would dislodge the ball from Bryant’s hand. Note that I say hand, singular. It’s a play few people can make, a play that Dez Bryant makes look almost routine, a play that was overshadowed by his actions later in the game.

Twice on Sunday, Fox cameras cut to an emotional Bryant yelling aggressively at his teammates. Reports from the Cowboys camp say that Bryant was just trying to pump his teammates up; Bryant himself said he was yelling encouragement, however, much of the media chose to run with the story as yet another example of Bryant’s immaturity.

Ex-Ravens coach Brian Billick remarked on Bryant’s argument with Tight End Jason Witten, chiding Bryant for “…pulling his spoiled-child routine again.” Within minutes, social media, especially amongst the people in Dallas, the state of Texas, the US, and that weird land where anyone can say what they want, erupted in outrage over Bryant’s behavior, with many commenters being taken aback that Bryant would dare shout at Witten.

The language of the outrage is similar to how Kanye West is discussed both by culture critics and the general public. West is constantly derided for what’s seen as an extreme ego run wild, and much like Bryant, it feels like the criticism is levied so heavily because of the color of his skin.

Director Spike Lee once discussed how he never felt more uncomfortable during film then while watching one of the Rocky films. He noted how general excitement over the film turned dark when Rocky made his charge against Apollo Creed – Lee said he felt that it wasn’t the audience rooting for the underdog, it was the audience rooting for the brash African-American athlete getting his comeuppance. The director has made a career of holding up a mirror to audiences to show that society is uncomfortable with the success of the young blackmale, and therefore does everything it can do to attack them, and bring them down. Anything young black men do is automatically magnified and scrutinized to death, because of society’s need to keep the status-quo, to keep people of color in their place. So when people so gleefully attack any missteps by Bryant or West, they’re not saying, “Look at this guy being an idiot!” They’re shaking their heads scoffing, “Who does this guy think he is?”

And it’s not as if others aren’t pointing this out. After Sunday’s criticism started to amass, Grantland’s Chris Ryan took to the site’s Monday recap of NFL events to write about how maligned Dez is. He listed six points, ranging from an incident where NFL GM questioned Bryant over whether his mother was a prostitute, to Bryant’s banning from a posh Dallas-area mall for his fashion choices. During this time period, former Texas Ranger Josh Hamilton was having publicized relapses with his drug and alcohol addictions, and the support in the Dallas area for Hamilton was almost universal; the scorn for Bryant, almost the same.

In a piece published last week, Flaunt Magazine editor E. Ryan Ellis made an aside noting that in college, Bryant was suspended by the NCAA for part of a season for having dinner with his mentor Deion Sanders. Current Texas A&M quarterback, Johnny Manziel, received just a one game suspension for allegedly receiving payments for autographs.

These pieces are comparable to an essay on Kanye written by Kiese Laymon, in which Laymon discusses Kanye’s social impact with his step-grandfather in Mississippi, his friends in New York, a cab driver, and finally, a class at Columbia. While rightfully critiquing West for his feminist failures, Laymon contextualizes his place in the world as a voice for the modern young black man – one who scares the modern white man.

Kanye-West-Yeezus

In his review of West’s latest album Yeezus for the New Yorker, music critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote of the artist, “Why are so many people fond of being mad at Kanye West? Is it his lack of control, his self-absorption, his boastfulness? Complaining about a surfeit of ego in a celebrity performer is like going to Barcelona and bitching that the locals eat dinner too late.” It’s a brilliant opener to a review-turned critique of how we as an audience, and more so as a public, view Wests’ work based on the audacity of his antics and less on the merits of his work. Sounds pretty familiar to how Dez Bryant is being treated at the moment, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s one and the same. This critical reaction has not improved since Muhammad Ali was maligned by the white press in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ali was far above his peers in both talent (Bryant) and his ability to divide people over his comments (West). As he aged, matured, and moved away from the fire of his youthful antics, Ali eventually became loved by the his critics, the public, his country, and the world. Time will tell if either 24 yer-old Bryant or West will be able to reach the heights of adoration like Ali, while not succumbing to the lows they’re constantly brought down to.

An example of someone who did not survive this sort of criticism raised his head on Sunday to defend Bryant’s actions. The much-maligned ex-NFL receiver Terrell Owens was run out of the league when his antics were deemed too detrimental to teams when compared to his on field production. Owens, who has been out of the NFL since failing to catch on with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012, raised the question if there was a double standard with Dez Bryant’s antics, and New England quarterback Tom Brady’s much publicized sideline tantrums with teammates earlier this year. Speaking with Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman, Owens summed it up simply: “Why is Tom Brady showing passion when he screams at players, but Dez is out of control?” I don’t want to say it, but I do wonder if race plays a part in the double standard. Why is Brady treated one way, and Dez another?” Salient points from someone who went through something very similar.

Time will tell if these things will change; West is still dealing with blowback from his post-Twitter rant appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, and has suffered criticism from his extravagant proposal to fiancé Kim Kardashian. The week of endless stories concerning Bryant’s behavior just kicked off, and one has to wonder how the media storm will affect his play this coming Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. However, one thing is for sure; in the wake of a weekend dominated by Halloween costumes that not only featured the racist use of blackface, but also the decision by a couple of young adults to go as Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, it feels like we’re not that removed from the days of racial strife that existed 50 years ago. It just feels like we’ve found different ways to couch the indignant language, and found different figures to attack.

Race, Gender, and Fan Harassment

chvrches2

In a widely-republished and quoted article by Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES titled I Will Not Accept Online Misogyny, we’re given a wearying glimpse into the type of sexually explicit messages directed at Mayberry, the only female member of CHVRCHES. Despite the “YOU TELL ‘EM, GIRL!!” collective reaction of the Internet, Mayberry’s piece is less an excoriating screed against fan misogyny, and more of a tepid plea for it to cease. “I identify as a feminist but subscribe to the pretty basic definition of a feminist as ‘someone who seeks equality between the sexes'” Mayberry hedges, “I am now, and have always been, in bands with smart, supportive guys, and have many amazing men in my life as family and friends. For that I am incredibly grateful.”

She goes on to ask “Would you condone this behaviour if it was directed at your mother/sister/daughter/wife/girlfriend?”, the go-to response to men who lack the capacity to sympathize with women with whom they have no relation. Mayberry’s piece is important, but almost every point is underscored with “This isn’t too much to ask!” and “No, I don’t hate men!” It says a lot that Mayberry felt it necessary to qualify that.

For the most part, Mayberry’s plight with fan harassment is being taken seriously. It’s so familiar for women (especially if you are the only woman in a band) to receive gendered and creepy solicitations that, while they are no longer surprising, it’s not a stretch to believe that it’s a problem. The contrast to this is an article that was published on the same day as Mayberry’s Guardian piece, posted at Gawker titled Danny Brown Admits That His Onstage Blowjob Wasn’t Sexual Assault.

For those that don’t remember, earlier this year rapper Danny Brown’s show in Minneapolis made headlines when a fan pulled down his pants and began to perform oral sex. Danny’s tourmate, Kitty, wrote in Vice that Brown was sexually assaulted, adding “It’s obvious that the reason nobody cares is because a girl did it to a boy.” Brown himself remained relatively quiet about the matter, until Pitchfork quoted him as saying “I look back at it and see that it takes two to tango. As much as it was [the young woman at the concert’s] fault, it was my fault, too.”

In conjunction with a quote from Complex where Danny says “It shouldn’t be a big deal. I just felt embarrassed because I wasn’t all the way hard yet,” the Gawker piece gleefully jumps to the (implied obvious) conclusion that Danny Brown wasn’t sexually assaulted. But why is it so hard to believe that a man could be sexually assaulted, or even that he would have trouble admitting it if he was?

“Everyone wants the option of blaming it on Danny, because people can’t accept the fact that a white girl raped a black dude in front of a bunch of people” writes Kitty, getting to the crux of the racial and gender dynamics of the incident and how that shaped the public’s reaction. Masculinity, and the perceived invulnerability of black men are the reasons why Kitty’s piece was met with widespread skepticism, and the gleeful I-Told-You-So taunts from Gawker illuminate the fact that if we are so unwilling to consider the possibility that Brown was assaulted, there’s no reason to think that it would even be an option for him to come clean about it.

Brown’s situation is just as much about fan entitlement as Mayberry’s. Both Brown and Mayberry were put in sexual situations that they did not ask to be a part of, but only Mayberry can be the victim. Female victimhood is expected because of publicly-scorned-yet-widely-practiced behaviors, and therefore inevitable. A man, especially a black man, being the victim of sexual assault challenges gender existentialist views of strength and power. As Gawker illustrates, people don’t want to let go of those views.

Baby Don’t Cry (Don’t You Want an Ally?)

deadgirlfriends
[Trigger Warning for rape]

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.

This Might Be Problematic

When I was a pre-teen my mom bought me a Def Leppard jacket. This might be surprising to people who aren’t familiar with my background, but when you grow up in rural Oklahoma and Texas, you don’t really have the same access to record shops and independent music that those in larger cities do. Instead, the omnipresent pull of classic rock, culturally validated by VH1 specials and the Supernatural soundtrack, would dominate my early years.

A writer for Grantland recently published a piece excusing his love of music that’s made by abusive men (notably the singer of Surfer Blood, R. Kelly, and Chris Brown), but that Def Leppard jacket (which I believe I still own, somewhere) that I proudly sported for a few years in the early 2000s reveals that I have consistently dealt with reconciling the fact that I love music that often doesn’t love me back.

YOU HIT ME LIKE A BOMB, BABY COME AND GET IT ON

YOU HIT ME LIKE A BOMB, BABY COME AND GET IT ON

Def Leppard was featured on one of those VH1 specials that I mentioned, and I remember the really callous way the group (who were, during the interview, middle aged) would speak about their female fans. They reveled in stories about groupie culture, blowing through women, and behaving like a bunch of spoiled jerks. It’s a tough pill to swallow, realizing that the people who created something you identify with are the same people you don’t identify with at all.

That Grantland writer can wax poetic about problematic music as a thought experiment, but if you don’t live your life on default (straight white male aka “easy mode”), chances are these are things that regularly occur to you. It occurred to me when I was drunkenly dancing to Surfer Blood at a festival in Dallas two months after the singer was arrested on domestic battery charges. It occurred to me as a college freshman, when my then-boyfriend burned me a copy of The Moon and Antarctica and I found myself wondering What if Issac Brock really is a rapist? It occurred to me when I reblogged a gifset of Miguel singing “How Many Drinks?” on my Tumblr.

Feminist relationships with problematic media have been widely explored, because let’s face it, we aren’t all bumping Ani DiFranco and dog-earring the reissue of Cunt. Even celebrated feminist groups like Le Tigre have their own sort of problems, from the blinding whiteness of post-riot grrrl to the scene’s exclusion of trans women. We recognize that there are no true safe spaces, and adjust our reactions accordingly. Those that don’t spend a lot of time on feminist blogs (Oh hey! You’re reading one now! Welcome, comrade.) might not understand that they are a source of near-constant media critiques and evaluations. This is what Not a Neophyte was created for. This is what I, and many others writers, do.

Ethical listening, just like the wider ideal of ethical consumerism, is a flawed solution for problems much more deeply culturally embedded. Refusing to buy from Wal-Mart doesn’t change the archaic capitalism practices that make Wal-Mart the only option for a lot of people. Purchasing conflict-free diamonds only illuminates the fact that the problem is so widespread that it’s even a selling point that nobody died for your jewelry. Similarly, bands can refuse to tour with Surfer Blood, but domestic violence remains largely ignored by lawmakers. It’s our responsibility to hold ourselves accountable, sure, but it’s also our responsibility to hold those with more power accountable.

We don’t need to, as the Grantland piece suggests, disassociate art from the people who create it in order to enjoy it. This largely misses the point. Def Leppard isn’t a band that just happens to be full of misogynists. They are a band that continues to be widely celebrated for it, in a music industry that is still predominately male. Chris Brown’s continued success isn’t a sick outlier, but sadly a reflection of just how many men there are who remain unscathed from any sort of punishment for their actions. Placing the onus of responsibility on the listener makes it easier for those with actual decision-making power to excuse themselves, citing “this is what the people want,” and creates an unfair dynamic for those most affected (women, people of color, queer people) to shoulder the brunt of the work in raising public consciousness about problems in media.

As far as ethical listening goes, the key is awareness. The more that music is talked about and dissected, the more likely we are to get to a place where record labels, music promoters, and the artists themselves are held accountable for their content.

The Unique Loneliness of Feminine Depression

[Trigger Warning for talk of suicide and mental illness]

You might remember that a month ago, Vice published a fashion spread of models reenacting the suicides of famous female writers. In it, Sylvia Plath stares pensively at her oven, Virgina Woolf serenely wades into a river, and Sanmao delicately adjusts the stocking that’s wrapped around her neck. As horrifying as it is to process what is being shown — the beautification of feminine suicide — after looking at the perceptions of these deaths for so long, it sadly doesn’t feel like so much of a jump. However messy, uncomfortable, and volatile their lives were, that simple image of Plath viewing her oven is the take-away. Quiet and beautiful, even in death.

sylviaplath

Part of the reason why, when I broke down about three years ago, I didn’t take comfort in Yellow Wallpaper-esque stories or Sylvia Plath’s poem Daddy (which was a favorite of mine as a teenager), is that I couldn’t relate. The truth, painstakingly documented in personal works, would not have the same effect on public consciousness as the idealized woman that Vice tried to portray in their ill-advised photoshoot. Publicly, we are only comfortable with one kind of feminine depression. The kind that is somber, gorgeous, and above all else, silent.

So if you are a woman who suffers from mental illness, the amount of spaces in which you feel comfortable expressing that are quite small. I remember my extreme discomfort at the public shaming of Britney Spears when she shaved her head, as that sort of overblown, compulsive behavior was something that I identified with. While Spears was clearly demonstrating that she was not OK, the punchline, as it always is for feminine behavior that pushes the envelope of respectability, was that she had “gone crazy.” The great irony is that the stress from keeping quiet as expected can lead to this sort of massive breakdown.

The danger of being labeled “crazy” as a woman is far more extreme than it is for men. Typically, “crazy” is used to diminish real expressions of anger and grief, the emotions that collectively society doesn’t understand how to deal with in women. When normally expressed emotions are written off as crazy behavior (largely why you should always run from anyone who says “my crazy ex girlfriend”), where does that leave women who actually do suffer from mental illness?

Part of my frustration about this is caused by the reaction to Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos, who has recently become a sort of figurehead for mental illness in the music industry. It’s admirable that Angelakos continues to work to de-stigmatize mental illness in public consciousness, but the reality is that the consequences of him outing himself are far less severe than they would be had he been a woman. The Pitchfork cover story that initially revealed that he is bi-polar is fraught with romanticizing, right from the subhead of “Inside the brilliant and troubled mind of Passion Pit leader Michael Angelakos.” From the story, Angelakos’ mental illness is sort of a creative boon, giving him inspiration and insight for his music. I don’t know if Angelakos would agree with this characterization, but the story does little to humanize him, instead making him the most recent version of “mad genius” that the music industry loves to celebrate.

angelakos

The most troubling part of the story is when Angelakos talks about his girlfriend, whom he is now married to.

“If she had left me, there is no question that I would have killed myself. I don’t remember anything I did– which is terrifying, because now I have to live with this guilt.”

I was a little startled with how abusive this statement seems, how he lays the responsibility of his life and well-being on his girlfriend. Even more than that, his remorse is not caused by the actions that he doesn’t remember, but the guilt that he feels as a result. Men are allowed to act up, be irrational, and do cruel things (especially if they are artists or musicians), but the most accepted role for women is what Angelakos’ partner seems to occupy, which is the caretaker.

I think this is why Poly Styrene and Lauryn Hill have never been characterized as mad geniuses. For Styrene, her mental illness was little more than a footnote in her obituary, either because it wasn’t a big talking point for her, or because we still aren’t comfortable with mental illness in women. Lauryn Hill (who has not been diagnosed as far as I can tell, but is largely derided for being “crazy”), who, as a black woman, would not be able to fit into the Sylvia Plath depression narrative anyways (sad, pretty white women), is mostly a subject of ridicule for her tax problems and court ordered counseling. Meanwhile, Michael Angelakos receives an award for erasing the stigma of mental illness.

The key to ending the more prevalent stigma of female mental illness is to be free to talk about it. And for this one, Angelakos is not allowed to be our spokesperson.