Where Do You Go At Night?

Austra’s song “Home” is infinitely relatable to anyone who has ever had a partner stray.

The lines “My body can’t rest unless you’re sleeping by my side/ You know that it hurts me when you stay away all night/ What is it that keeps you there?” are a pretty bare-boned plea for the lover to come home, because she can’t sleep or have peace of mind without them. The subtext of the song is that she’s worried about what her lover is doing, although it’s unclear what the particular worry is. Instinctively I would say that the concern is about infidelity, but the line “You know it hurts me when you can’t see straight at night” could indicate that the lover is out on a drug or alcohol binge. Either way, it’s a sad reminder that it’s often women who are left home to worry while their partner exerts the freedom not to be concerned about that particular heartache.

When women hook up with a male partner (The gender is ambiguous in the Austra song/video, so I’m going to project here) there’s a pressure to not be “that girl” that is perpetually nagging or making life a living hell for some dude with the dream to live out his life in excess. I think that’s sort of why these situations kind of strike a nerve, because the desire not to be the shrill, sitcom harpy is at conflict with the natural human desire to be treated with respect.

It brings to mind Melanie Fiona’s “4 a.m.”

Here, Fiona doesn’t mince words: “It’s 4 a.m. and my lover won’t answer/ He’s probably somewhere with a dancer/ Sippin’ champagne while I’m in his bed.” In this case the infidelity is clear, as she knows she’s being disrespected while her lover attends to another woman. Fiona’s anger and embarrassment (“It’s 4 a.m. and I think I might lose it/ This motherfucker thinkin’ I’m stupid”) are followed by her lamentations that the relationship ultimately will not work out because of his disregard for her (“I don’t deserve this life/ I’d make the perfect wife”).

Like Mad Men’s Betty Draper cooling telling Don “I waited for you” after he returns early in the morning, or countless other women (Probably a good chunk of the reason why so many women scream in excitement when Bernie burns her unfaithful husband’s clothes in Waiting to Exhale) who’ve had the same experience, there’s not a whole lot of dignity being left behind, or begging for respect from a partner. It’s both interesting and sad that that’s so easy to identify with.

Banned Love

I’m calling this post “banned love” because this video was insta-banned from YouTube (to be fair, unsurprisingly), but itis thoroughly NSFW NSFW NSFW NSFW so if you are in a public space I suggest you bookmark the video and watch it when you’re away from eyeballs that don’t belong to you.

“Mindfuck” is the first single released from Brooklyn R&B artist Ian Isiah’s upcoming LP, and the video is certainly a mindfuck if gender normativity is something that’s really important to you (Not a Neophyte is firmly in the “roll your own” category when it comes to gender, for what it’s worth). The video is overtly sexual, watching two lovers engage in extremely intimate moments – so much so that it almost feels invasive on the part of the viewer.

Ian Isiah is bejeweled and wearing false eyelashes on a bed with a sheer canopy, getting close with boychild, a gender non-conforming performance artist. boychild’s gender identity is purposely and famously ambiguous, but Isiah appropriates feminine signifiers (like the jewelery and makeup) to muddy his own as well. The result is what could be your typical love scene in a romance movie, with the exception that the roles of man and woman (or man and man/ woman and woman) are indefinable.

Lipstick for Everyone

Remember Lemuria’s “Lipstick”?

Sheena sings “When you wear lipstick I always want to kiss you/ but you use your lipstick as an excuse not to kiss me.” It’s not entirely clear if she’s singing to another woman or not, but regardless there is a subversion of the traditional heterosexual love narrative. What’s incredibly interesting is the lyrical simplicity — there’s something to be said about having an uncomplicated song that has complicated undertones about homosexuality. Sheena’s lover’s main trait, besides cosmetics, is the inability to engage in physical affection, and the gender of her lover is left purposefully ambiguous to focus on the troubled relationship. The cosmetics are a feminine indicator, so either her lover is a woman or a person who is engaged in feminine activities. Either way, the role of the lipstick in the song is downplayed as a signifier of the lack of desire on the part of the lover, instead of being a focal point of gender significance.

Pretty cool, right? I’m hard-pressed to find a lot of other songs at the moment that are both heavily gendered and, at the same time, ambiguous like “Lipstick,” but there are a good amount of gender-neutral love songs that could be interpreted beyond heterosexual bounds.

Boys Will Be Boys

I just recently downloaded Cassie’s new mixtape, so in quasi-celebration of that (I’m a fan), I thought I would crank out a few long-sitting opinions about the video she and Nicki Minaj made for “The Boys.” The song is a typical narrative but from a different perspective — some nameless dude uses his money and power to bag a bunch of women as his prizes, but because it’s told from the perspective of women onlookers, the male braggadocio is something to be scorned, instead of praised. (“Your lipstick stain smells like a cheap hotel/
Diamond watches and a gold chain can’t make my frown turn around.”)

The video is also cartoonishly feminine, which is a common trope for Minaj, who frequently refers to herself as “Barbie.” Nicki commands a group of men dressed in bright pink, then enters a salon, which we see from the beginning will turn into a crime scene. There are surface-level comparisons to the video for Beyonce and Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” which also prominently features a crime scene perpetrated by the singers, but “The Boys” is less an avenue for random chaos and more a story of control. Cassie is dressed in bright, feminine colors, but still postures herself in a masculine way, sitting with her legs spread and tossing money in mocking imitation of the men she sings about (“You get high/ fuck a bunch of girls / and then cry / on top of your world”). The murder of the men is a gendered revenge, a more gruesome role reversal, as it’s often women who suffer violence at the hands of men.

Walking the Tightrope

I was originally going to write a post about androgyny in music videos, but when I was trying to use Janelle Monáe’s video for “Tightrope” as an example, I felt that it would be unfair for me to only spend a marginal amount of time on it.

There’s a distinct intersection between race, mental illness, femininity, and discomfort that all come to play in the span of a three minute video. It starts by declaring that it’s set in “The Palace of the Dogs” an asylum where “dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.”

The dancers inside the asylum are all wearing tuxedos– a head-nod to the lack of identity in such institutions, as well as a subversion of the subordinant dynamic. Instead of a drab uniform, the tuxedos are an indicator of rebellion – a hold of dignity that the mentally ill are often stripped of. The fact that everyone in the video is wearing a tuxedo is the tribute to sameness; there’s still lack of individuality (which could also be read as “we are all in this together” ), but the identifier takes on a higher class level of dress (though the suit is still a signifier of servitude, instead of wealth).

In Sounding Like a No-no: Queer Sounds & Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era, Francesca T. Royster looks at the racial implications of the asylum scene:

“In “Tightrope,” Monáe reminds us of the many ways the prison industrial complex infiltrates our lives by means of surveillance and the heightened fear of black bodies in motion.”

The fact that the dancers in the video are all black is not a coincidence – as Royster says, it’s a reaction to the fear of black bodies, specifically those that don’t “behave” (in this sense, behavior is tied in with the correct behavior or an asylum patient: the rebellion is the dance and celebration in an otherwise solemn venue). The joy that the dancers exhibit is contradictory to the purpose of the institution, as it has “[a] tendency to lead to magical practices,” which could also be read as racialized fear of the unknown, as the white majority exhibits a general distrust and unease about practices it’s not familiar with.

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Monáe’s choice to wear a suit is, in her own words, an examination of (and tribute to) class:

“When I started my musical career I was a maid, I used to clean houses. My parents—my mother was a proud janitor, my step-father who raised me like his very own worked at the post office and my father was a trash man. They all wore uniforms. And that’s why I stand here today in my black and white and I wear my uniform to honor them.”

As a successful musician she has moved beyond the suit (or uniform), but continues to wear it as an acknowledgment of where she came from. There’s a parallel between the invisibility of the mentally ill and the invisibility of the working class — the uniform worn by the working class is both meant to make them distinct (to those who require their services), but also very easy to ignore (by those who don’t). The same could be said of patients who are actually in asylums (or as they’re presently called, Behavioral Health Centers), as they’re typically noted for stripping patients of identity, individuality, and agency.

Monáe’s video simultaneously acknowledges this lack of agency and playfully subverts it. The dancing-as-rebellion can’t be done without agency, so even though she and the other dancers are similarly clad in work clothing, they’re participating in behaviors that aren’t allowed. It’s the type of rebellion that goes on in secret — when the faceless guards walk by, Monáe and her crew act as though they aren’t breaking any rules.

Where My Ladies At?! Conscientiousness and Putting Women in Your Band

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I’ve talked a bit previously about getting more women involved in the creation of music (to put it simply, get more women in your band), and some of the reaction that I’ve gotten was that that’s simply not an easy thing to do. I can’t really discount that, but I never said it would be easy. The process for filling vacated spaces with women is a very conscientious process, a deliberate acknowledgement of the fact that there aren’t enough women in music, and an effort to rectify that.

I was reading an interview with The Knife on Catch-Fire where Olof acknowledges making those same considerations:

“We worked with mostly male technicians on the tour and only male video directors. These were not necessarily people who worked with feminist issues either – they were into other things that we thought were interesting, but now we want to work with feminists and mostly women. So we’ve put together a great collective in Stockholm that is working with us on the live show and put together a predominantly female tech crew for the tour and I think that’s one really big difference from how we worked 7 years ago.”

The Knife collaborating with mostly women (feminist women, no less) is a deliberate act of solidarity, meant both to increase female representation and also endorse an ideology. It’s important to note when this happens, because it illuminates how much thought is typically put in to these decisions. Bands will continue to default to men, not out of deliberate maliciousness (hopefully), but because male musician is the norm. Acknowledging that is an important part of changing it.

The Knife aren’t the only ones who deliberately look for women to tour with. I can’t really talk about female touring bands without mentioning Beyoncé, who is perhaps the most influential and visible example. Her band, The Suga Mamas, were specifically auditioned to create a woman band, and she was very clear about why she chose to do that:

“When I was younger I wish I had more females who played instruments to look up to. I played piano for like a second but then I stopped. I just wanted to do something which would inspire other young females to get involved in music so I put together an all-woman band.”

sugamamas

Beyoncé and The Knife are far from the only ones to acknowledge this process. Kate Nash, who is very, very clear about she feels about feminism (strongly!), tours with a band that is exclusively women. It’s not limited to women, though. For his “What Part of Forever” tour, Cee Lo Green assembled a lady backing band called Scarlett Fever (Scarlett Fever would later open for Prince, and give charity performances at female-centered events), and Jack White played with a band of women, the Peacocks, for some of his Blunderbuss tour. (I have a lot of caveats about the reasons I believe Jack White chose to tour with women, however.)

It’s a lot easier to point to self-selected groups to show the conscientious addition of women, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t happen elsewhere, although that’s hard to quantify without the cover being blown on how that process works. Knowing about it is a good thing, mostly because it illuminates the fact that the rectification process is actual work, instead of chance.

I Wish He Was My Boyfriend

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I’ve been thinking a bit about Colleen Green’s new album, and sort of parsing my opinions about it. There’s a lot of Young Girl Feelings in there, and for me at least, that’s territory that I tread very carefully on. When you look at songs like that it’s especially important to think about the Willis Test and how that relates. For those of you that don’t know, the Willis Test is sort of an answer to the Bechdel Test, but for music. It’s a simplistic way to determine if the song is sexist, but it’s oddly effective (It’s also worth noting that this only works for heterosexual relationships). Just simply switch the genders of the person who is being sung about and if it makes no sense, that song is probably sexist (a good example given is that it’s hard to imagine a lady singing “Wild World” to a man, but the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” is easily transferable to a woman’s perspective).

I don’t bring up the Willis Test because I think there’s sexism in Green’s lyrics, but because I think that reversing the gender of the singer and subject in her songs is pretty illuminating. Innocent songs about love and boys are easy to scoff at, but generally only when it has to do with the feelings of a girl. Men sing about having crushes, feeling insecure, wanting a relationship with a particular woman all of the time, so what’s so particularly surprising or notable about women doing it?

From her song “Every Boy Wants a Normal Girl” : “Sometimes I wish I was a normal girl / like the ones at my school/ popular and so cool/ they always agree and do the things that normal people are supposed to.”

The song doesn’t really mention boys, but it’s implied (and specifically mentioned in the title) that the desire for normalcy is related to desirability. Normalcy in this song isn’t really “normal” in the typical sense, it’s about being beautiful, loved, and well-liked. So being a “normal girl” is actually being the ideal girl.

It’s pretty reminiscent of Best Coast’s “Boyfriend” (The other girl is not like me/ She’s prettier and skinnier / She has a college degree / I dropped out when I was seventeen/ If I could only get her out of the picture/ Then he would know how much I want him”). I remember when I first listened to the album that was on– Crazy For You— I hated it. I had just joined college radio and feminism was something new to me that I was excited about, and an album with heavy weed/cat/boy themes was something that didn’t translate well with me. I’ve thought about it since then (The Willis Test helped), and it’s actually a lot more relatable than I gave it credit for. Insecurity and longing are central to both the Best Coast and Green songs, and the gender of the the singers is a nice switch on the classic “boy pines over girl.”

Sex as “Sacrilege”

I woke up this morning to the gut-punch that was the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ new video for their song “Sacrilege.”

The non-linear storyline starts with a woman (British model Lily Cole) being burned with a lover while the town watches. The story rewinds and we see the capture of this man (a preacher) by the townspeople, moving back even further to show the woman having sexual relationships with the people in the town one by one, until it ends (or rather, begins) at a wedding in a church, officiated by the same preacher that she was burned with.

The hypocrisy of the townspeople for punishing the woman for something that they themselves were complicit in is a critique of small-town Christian values. She is punished in the same way that “witches” were in the past by being burned alive, a result of religious condemnation and vindictiveness. The final straw for the townspeople was the sexual relationship with the preacher, a Scarlet Letter relationship that ruins both of them.

What’s interesting is that this video isn’t about the relationship between the woman and the preacher, but the woman and the townspeople – shifting the narrative from religious purity in the context of the preacher being brought down by a woman – into something much more poignant. It isn’t about infidelity or star-crossed lovers, but the ownership and control that the townspeople felt that they had over the woman. She is a possession, passed between them until they feel it’s necessary to discard her– using the preacher as an excuse. Woman-as-commodity is heavily tied into more fundamental aspects of Christianity, and the relationship between a woman’s sexuality and who possesses that woman is central to the video. Purity in women is valued on the surface, but the relationships the townspeople develop with the woman show that they have a different standard when it has the potential to benefit them. Nobody lives up to the idealized standard because everyone is sinning, yet the woman (and the preacher by association) are the only ones to pay the price.

Sex-as-sin casts the woman as the temptress, responsible not only for her own purity but of the men (and other women) around her, and when she fails she is punished. The inevitability of that failure is not closely addressed in the video , but slut-shaming as a hypocritical and gendered concept is. I’m a fan about how this video combines guilt and the feelings of entitlement that the townspeople have about the woman. As a sign of their own sins she must be eradicated, but even more than that, the fact that she cannot be possessed troubles them. With her value being so closely tied to who owns her, she becomes damaged goods – therefore discardable.

The Knife and Female Dominance

A friend of mine recently showed me this video by The Knife for their song “A Tooth For an Eye,” and pointed out the interesting gender dynamics that the music video displays.

What’s cool about it is that the a small girl, dressed as a referee, conducts a group of older men in a gymnasium. The fact that the girl is leading the men subverts traditional gender roles of teacher and student, especially in a masculinized setting like a gymnasium. Part of why this is interesting is age and size, two factors that frequently hinder women in public settings and are physically interpreted as signs of submission. So when the control goes to the small girl (especially a small girl of color), it subverts that traditional dynamic that dictates that older white men are the leaders.

Another noteworthy aspect of the video is that the girl is leading the men in what appears to be a dance. She’s not dominating in the traditional sense of strength and power, but is leading them through a series of feminine movements.

Gender-Bending and the “Walk of Shame”

This might not be the most timely post since the Perfume Genius video for “Take Me Home” came out about five months ago, but it’s something I think about from time to time.

When you watch the video you’ll notice that Perfume Genius (Mike Hadreas), is wearing an extremely femininized pair of high heels and walking alone in the streets of Seattle. Hadreas blurs gender in a very interesting way: the juxtaposition of the pink high heels and glitter-jewelry with with the football jersey is a startling contrast between hyper-masculinity and femininity. What stuck out to me the most, though, was the way in which Hadreas used the heels to channel a particularly female experience – the walk of shame.

“Walk of shame” is usually applied to a woman who is returning to her home the morning after going out and getting drunk/messed up/having sex. It’s a term that is heavily rooted in sexism- the idea that women doing these things are inherently more shameful than if a man does them. In the video, Hadreas clearly has spent some time that night doing something that messed him up. He starts off in the middle of the road sleeping, only waking up at the approach of a car. From there, he walks alone in the streets of Seattle in a pair of high heels – sans pants.

It’s eerily similar to a video that Diamond Rings made a few years ago:

Both musicians utilize feminine clothing in conjunction with partying (which is something that is mostly interpreted in Hadreas’ case) and being alone to convey an isolation and level of shame that comes with being a woman on her own after burning out. I see women portrayed like this so frequently that it almost doesn’t register anymore, but when male artists like Perfume Genius and Diamond Rings channel it, the double standard becomes more readily apparent.

It’s notable that both artists perform their interpretation of the walk of shame in order to convey loneliness and misdirection. The very specific way that those feelings and experiences are gendered in these scenarios are indicative of how closely they are tied.