Pitchfork Continually Surprised by Talented Women Musicians

Pretty, pretty princess who you maybe could possibly take seriously, i mean, if you're into the earth mother goddess sort thing, dude.
Pretty, pretty princess whom you maybe could possibly take seriously, i mean, if you're into the earth mother goddess sorta thing, dude.

Like many music enthusiasts in the world, I have a love/hate relationship with Pitchfork. My most exhilarating encounters with music criticism occurred while reading Brent DiCrescenzo’s outrageous (yet emotionally stirring!!!) reviews while I was still in high school. Pitchfork has informed the way I conceptualize music; it created the first paradigm for richly informed, detailed, obsessive music criticism, thereby driving the blurb-driven snark machines of Rolling Stone and Spin into the bitter, bitter dirt of irrelevance.  Also, Pitchfork has contributed to my vision for a blog like this one, in which I deconstruct a Beyonce single in like 1000 words.

Back in 2005, DiCrescenzo wrote a column chronicling various indie prototypes created in Pfork’s reviews, among them an intellectual female artist known as “The Stef,” and the freak-man-boy known as “The Sloth.” In it, he describes Pitchfork writer’s analyses (both underlying and upfront) of women musicians:

Specifically, writers paint Fiona Apple and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall as hormonally capricious victim-savants and read all their lyrics like Psy.D parents unlocking a daughter’s pink diary, while Devendra Banhart’s jabberwocky skews as fecund genius.

and later…

When convenient, male songwriters slip into omniscient skin to amuse and illuminate, while female songwriters meddle in their first-person emotions, unable to escape the black hole of their romantic astrology. Naturally, emotional analysis always overshadows technical musicianship in Stef reviews.

In other words, reviewers focus on the emotional qualities of women artists’ work, while they are more generous with men, granting them agency over their identity.

Too bad no one ever heeded his words over at the magazine. Despite Pfork’s “Best New Music” section featuring a larger proportion of women-led acts than perhaps ever before, the language of the reviews stirs in me a reaction similar to that of feminist bloggersresponses to The New Republic’s recent profile of Sonya Sotomayor. (That’s a whole ‘nother controversy, but one that revolves around the reading of a female subject through a lens of motherhood and unhinged emotionality.) Do a close, or fuck, a distant reading of some of these reviews, and all the acceptable feminine identities are neatly rolled out in a matter of four goddamn sentences, then the woman artist in question will be shoved into each and every niche, until she is a sex symbol, a princess (!!), a mother, and an earth-goddess.

So, czech out the latest example, from the review of St. Vincent’s Actor.

Annie Clark, the musician otherwise known as St. Vincent, projects an aura of eerie perfection– beautiful, poised, good-humored, and well-adjusted to a degree uncommon for rock performers, let alone ordinary people. She’s clearly not oblivious to her disarming qualities. On the covers of both her albums, her wide eyes and porcelain features give her the appearance of a cartoon princess come to life, and in the songs contained therein, she sings with the measured, patient tones of a benevolent, maternal authority figure. The thing that separates Clark from any number of earth mother Lilith Fair types, however, is her eagerness to subvert that effect. Her album covers may showcase her pretty face, but her blank expression and the tight framing leave the images feeling uncomfortably ambiguous. Her voice and arrangements are often mellow and soothing, but those sounds mainly serve as context as she exposes undercurrents of anxiety and discomfort hidden just beneath a gorgeous façade.

Clearly, St. Vincent has an authoritative presence; but the critic here qualifies her assertive vocal tendencies as “maternal,” for no reason I can tell other than Ms. Clark has a woman’s voice. And, Lilith Fair? I don’t hear much 90’s lesbian music going on here; St. Vincent is more akin to those indie musicians pushing the classical envelope. Again, the only thing I imagine would conjure such a comparison would be her womanly voice.

Also, she’s a pretty pretty princess.

If Dicrescenzo is arguing that critics assume an insulting lack of agency on the behalf of women artists’ identities, this review pats St. Vincent on the back for being shifty; she has stealthily avoided all the traps pfork has set up for her.

Behold:

With that in mind, the album is perfectly titled, as Actor proves St. Vincent as an artist capable of crafting believable, complicated characters with compassion, insight, and exacting skill.

“Thanks, guys! I am capable!” I’m certain that’s what Ms. Clark was thinking when she read that.

You know who else is capable? Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan. Check out the last sentence of the recent review of Two Suns:

Not only does Khan hold her own, there are moments when she holds his, too [on the song The Big Sleep]. That she’s capable of doing so is evidence enough that we should be paying attention.

Apparently Pfork needs a lot of proof from the women artists they review. I find it uncanny, not to mention lazy, that these two reviews end almost identically. Furthermore, the fact that Khan “holds her own” with a man is supposed to prove to us we can pay attention now? Thanks for the permission.

Then again, I am relieved that the critic even came to that conclusion, given his best efforts to totally undermine the seriousness or aesthetic worth of Bat For Lashes in his opening sentence:

Natasha Khan likes pretty things: fur, gold, melody, the moon, feathers, things that sparkle, chords that resolve.

The thing I am most shocked about is the weird lack of awareness running through these articles. Aren’t these music critic dudes at all sensitive to the potentially cringe-inducing usage of words like, “capable” or “pretty” or “maternal?” Didn’t these hip young men ever take a gender studies class? Don’t their girlfriends get annoyed with them? Have they ever talked to a woman?

I am not proposing censorship, I am proposing a little sensitivity. I am delighted that women artists are being reviewed favorably by Pfork, but I won’t be satisfied until they apply the language they use in reviews of dude bands/acts to the womenfolk.

Star Trek: The Feminist Generation

I'm understanding, but I'm capable too. Don't fuck with this.
Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.

The XX Factor, Slate’s feminist blog and one of the Internet’s foremost feminist blogs, recently ran an interesting analysis of the show Battlestar Gallactica, and asked if the show is indeed as feminist as it is purported to be.

The post veers off from Battlestar and does a spot-on critique of women’s role in the genre of science fiction. However, I’ve got a bone to pick with their mention of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which seems to me an all-too-quick dismissal of the show based on the attire of Deanna Troi.

To fans, this show is simply known as TNG, and I will refer to it as such here on out. I think now and will think forever that TNG is the most politically progressive thing ever shown on television. For those who have not had the pleasure of watching it, please understand that TNG is not about shooting lasers at aliens or fantastic battles in space (well, most of the time). The show is a sincere study of the questions of the universe, including but not limited to: What is being? How do we define humanity? What is the ultimate goal of human existence? It grapples with the delicate balances of interpersonal relationships. It examines the role of humanitarian intervention and asks how best to proceed with interplanetary diplomacy with concern for cultural difference. In short, this show is deep.

As for its take on gender, an old friend once pointed out to me that all the main women characters have jobs that could fall into a stereotyped category, such as care-giver (doctor) or feelings-examiner (counseler).

And as XX points out, Deanna is quite scantily clad, at least in the first season (she is wearing a rather 60’s looking mini-dress), but this omits the fact that Tasha Yar is the CHIEF OF SECURITY in the first season. That’s right–a woman is the pre-Warf head of security! And she’s not just a man in a woman’s body–she can be sexy if she wants to and her toughness is derived from escaping the rape gangs on her civil war-torn home planet. One of the most feminist episodes has to be “Code of Honor” (although, unfortunately, this episode is rather racist, employing stereotypes of macho tribal cultures to heighten our sense of the Enterprises’ progressive attitudes toward gender). When the macho leader of the planet arrives on the Enterprise to discuss giving the Federation a much-needed vaccine, he becomes enchanted by Tasha Yar’s strength. He explains that on his planet, women aren’t in positions of military power.

So he kidnaps Tasha and plans to make her his lover. On the macho tribe planet, Tasha goes to battle with leaders lover (and financier) and she TRIUMPHS with weapons she’s never even practiced with before! Jean Luc Picard politely explains to the leader that where he is from, people believe women are just as strong and smart as men. Other characters snicker about the barbarism of a people who could possess such an antiquated attitude.

Too bad Tasha is portrayed by terrible, humorless actor Denise Crosby (who, after being kicked out during the first season, mysteriously returns a few years later to play a Romulan [who turns out to be Tasha Yar’s daughter in a parallel universe, or something like that]). ANYWAY! If you’ve seen nearly every one of the 178 episodes, explaining the plot begins to be a problem.

TNG also tactfully avoids sex and romantic entanglement beyond the PG-13 rating. All characters prioritize their careers above romance, including the women. Women are also to be observed in the highest ranks of Star Fleet, thank you very much.

Finally, the beloved Deanna Troi, though something of a sensitive, new age 90’s stereotype of a person, is a lovely character who derives strength, wisdom and even power from her emotional prowess. We are supposed to value her for her mind, not her bod. In later seasons, Deanna even decides to train in order to captain the ship, if need be. She learns all the technical stuff women aren’t supposed to learn and even trains in combat, all while maintaining her rather feminine mystique.

In other words, TNG is not sexist, but a nuanced portrayal of a team of characters. Most of the time.

Cathartathon

Feel it in your heart now.
Feel it in your heart now.

So, I used to love the Smashing Pumpkins.

What I am about to say embarrasses me, but so few people look at this blog that the security factor is approximately the same as writing this to myself in one of my journals.

When I was in high school, one of my most transcendent and religious experiences occurred not while I prayed with thousands of “pilgrims” at the feet of JPII, not while I pondered the meanings of the universe via Mr. McCurry’s philosophy class, not when my mind got blown after reading Tuesday Lobsang Rampa’s weirdass Buddhist/science fiction book, “The Third Eye.” Religion be darned, the only altar I ever knew was rocknroll’s. Billy Corgan once said that rocknroll was like god to a 15-year-old, and I concur wholeheartedly. Thus, my most transcendent experience occurred while listening to the song Thru The Eyes of Ruby, aka track 7 off “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” that 2-album long bombast of Billy Corgan and friends.

The wind was blowing through my open window. It was March. Ruby is on the blue disc of Mellon Collie. Blue (Twilight to Starlight, as it was called) stood for night. And sadness. Infinite sadness. The pink disc (Dawn to Dusk) was for the day-time. Get it? All the rockin’ singles were from the pink disc (Bullet with Butterfly Wings, Zero). All the contemplative songs were from the blue one (Thirty Three, 1979).

So, Thru the Eyes of Ruby isn’t about much of anything, unless you’re into hardcore Billy Corgan mythology. Who is Ruby? Doubtless someone in the self-indulgent world of Billy: a codename for a lover or a mother, probably. What does the song sound like? Like a prototypical rock epic from the 90’s. It’s a little psychedelic, a little metal, a little emo. I can be callous about it now, but this song pulled at my heart-strings good and long. There are lots of sweeping crescendos and decrescendos, serpentine guitar lines and then slow building to the CLIMAX OF ROCKPOCALYPSE!!!

In other words, I was a sucker for Wagner operas condensed into rocknroll formats. And I still am.

So, for you listening pleasure (and pain!), and hopefully also mine, I am compiling a list of the most cathartic songs (for me). Once the songs are compiled, the subsequent playlist would clearly be called “Catharathon,” as is, a marathon of catharsis.

Thus far I have thought of these tracks.

1. Hounds of Love (Kate Bush)

2. Solitary Man (Neil Diamond)

3. Daniel (Bat For Lashes [I know this is a new one so it is not tested by time. But clearly, it’s a great song for all time.])

4. The Rat (Walkmen)

5. Sunday Bloody Sunday (u2)

6. Jesus Walks (Kanye West)

7. Hey Joni (Sonic Youth)

8. How Soon Is Now (The Smiths)

9. Black Swan (Thom Yorke) [or, Radiohead’s I Will, Pyramid Song, Street Spirit {remember that one?!}, etc]

You get the idea, right? These are the most classic songs from pretty much the most classic people. There are hundreds of other songs that have made me weep a tear of empathetic sadness, shake a fist in empathetic rage, rejoice in emphatetic delight, but these are perhaps the ones who helped me have the most meaningful cathartathons.