With “Dancing on My Own,” Robyn Made the “Jolene” of the 2010s

It’s been a roller coaster of a decade, even on the pop culture front. With the dominance of social media, the rise of streaming platforms and increasingly smarter phones, how we discover, ingest and interact with music has changed drastically. In an era where new hits can have the shelf life of a trending topic and a 40-something year old Dolly Parton song can come back as a meme, Robyn unleashed a tune that would withstand a decade of fast-paced trends and dramatic shifts in technology and culture. With “Dancing on My Own,” the Swedish singer didn’t just give us a song to help define this decade, she gave us the “Jolene” of the 2010s.

Robyn did this with devastating lyrics, a voice that articulates a mess of emotions and a beat that places you inside the club that is the setting for this scene. While ’70s disco and ’80s synthpop are clearly an influence, “Dancing on My Own” is no throwback. Instead, it retains a timeless quality with a sense of musical restraint; the beats and synths never compete with her voice and words. In less than five minutes, Robyn takes the listeners on a ride through embarrassment (“Yeah, I know it’s stupid, I just gotta see it for myself”), frustration (“I’m right over here, why can’t you see me?”) and resignation (“I just came to say goodbye”). In the process, she created something for the dance floor, the karaoke stage, the car and the shower. She made a song that can bring people together for collective solace and one that can make you cry when you think no one is watching.

“Dancing on My Own” takes its cues from the history of sad club music, but at its core, this song has more in common with Dolly Parton’s 1973 country classic. They tell completely different stories. With “Jolene,” Parton sings a plea in an attempt to stop the heartbreak before it happens (“My happiness depends on you”). In “Dancing on My Own,” Robyn sings of pining for a love that has already moved on to someone else (“Somebody said you got a new friend”). Both songs, though, create incredibly vivid scenarios of the gestures people make to try and hang on to a love that might already be long-gone and the pain that results from that. They tap into these visceral emotions so skillfully that you can’t help to sing and dance, even when it hurts to do so.

“Jolene” may not be Parton’s biggest hit, but it’s an enduring one. Over decades, it’s been covered numerous times by an eclectic array of artists that includes ’80s goth-pop duo Strawberry Switchblade, The White Stripes and Miley Cyrus. In recent years, it’s fueled a slew of memes, including a riff on the “distracted boyfriend” image that was shared on Twitter by Parton herself. Meanwhile, “Dancing on My Own,” still less than a 10 years old, is on the trajectory to classic status.

At the dawn of the decade, Robyn was already one of the hippest indie pop singers around. She had flirted with the mainstream in the 1990s and early ’00s, but eschewed that route and launched her own Konichiwa Records for the release of her 2005 self-titled album. Her mix of emotional synthpop (“With Every Heartbeat”) and fun dance tunes (“Konichiwa Bitches”) earned critical acclaim and garnered her a new legion of fans. By 2010, Robyn’s next move was anticipated and she responded with the Body Talk series of releases. “Dancing on My Own” was initially featured on Body Talk Pt. 1 in June of 2010 and reappeared on the full-length Body Talk album in November of that year.

But, that all seems like the distant past now. “Dancing on My Own” harks back to a part of the decade when Barack Obama was only a couple years into his presidency and slogans like “hope” and “change” permeated American culture. Binge-watching TV shows on Netflix had yet to become a major pastime and Instagram was in the midst of its birth. “Dancing on My Own” is, in some ways, a link to the ’00s, when dance floor-friendly indie artists with their genre-blending influences ruled everywhere from nightclubs to music blogs. But, it’s also a song that grew as the ’10s progressed.

Sure, “Dancing on My Own” had some chart success in multiple countries upon release and, yes, it was often praised by critics. However, its stickiness increased with appearances on television shows, like Gossip Girl (2010), RuPaul’s Drag Race (2012) and Girls (2013). No doubt, it benefited from streaming too. To date, the video has been viewed over 52 million times on YouTube. On Spotify, it’s Robyn’s most popular track, with over 150 million plays. By the middle of the decade, “Dancing On My Own” had gained a second life with a cover by Calum Scott that originated on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent. While Robyn has continued to make excellent music over the decade, including her 2018 album Honey, “Dancing on My Own” has become her signature song.

It’s a song whose magnetism has grown with time. You can see that in the way “Dancing on My Own” still draws people to the dance floor. They’ll lip-sync (or, sometimes, even shout) the lyrics. Their dance moves might mirror the song – “Stilettos on broken bottles/I’m spinning around in circles” – or they might move with a faraway look in their eyes, like the song is life right in that moment.

However they groove, it’s with an intensity you no longer typically see for the music of the early ’10s. It’s the sort of response you’ll see for the latest hits or songs that have already aged into the category of forever jams, but really, “Dancing On My Own” is neither. It exists in an in-between area where so many other songs might fade into semi-obscurity until their home decade becomes the subject of a revival. That fate, though, has not hit “Dancing On My Own.” Like “Jolene,” its impact is still profound. These are songs that can leave you huddled in a pool of tears by their end. But, they’re also cathartic, providing the release we need when the world is crashing around us. It’s a rare moment in any decade when artists can do that.

Can You Still Feel the Pull?: A Decade of Now, Now

Cacie Dalager and Bradley Hale of Now Now, circa 2017. Photo by Sam San Román.

Now, Now pulled many of us into the 2010s—right out of the Hot Topic era and into the brave new world of adulthood. Formed in Minnesota during the early aughts by frontwoman Cacie Dalager and drummer Bradley Hale, when the two were still in high school, the duo spent their first seven years honing their sound, refining their line-up, and coming of age before releasing their Neighbors EP in 2010. Throughout their music, a melancholy keyboard anchors guitar and drums that pay homage to emo forbears like Sunny Day Real Estate, American Football, and Paramore. Now, Now was a bit of a forgotten stepchild of the “scene” era, but for those who bought in, they were both vessel and balm for emo angst.

Dalager’s moody charisma lies in her velvety voice, paired with the drama of Tegan-and-Sara-esque syllable breaks. The band’s Neighbors EP burst like a firework into the new decade, just a year after their meandering debut album, Cars. After the instrumental intro track, the aptly-named “Rebuild,” electric guitars and drums weave a shimmering web that eventually nets the song’s soaring coda. Darkly-plucked guitars and plaintive vocals buoy the rest of the album through “Roommates,” “Jesus Camp,” and the title track, and through two emotionally-charged acoustic versions. All of it is about young crushes, restlessness, hometown ennui. “Tell them when they’re older / how you miss the neighbors / standing in the front yard / telling all your secrets / like they were theirs to tell.” Each song finds the listener staring Dalager in her huge, haunted, green eyes, spellbound by her lightly veiled tales of loneliness and longing.

Two years later, their cult-favorite album Threads dropped, a melee of fuzzy guitars, wide-eyed melodies, dark chords, and sharp drums that earned them a modest but diehard fanbase. This is the one most emo kids will cite: the moody guitars layer over and over and over, the ideal soundtrack for throwing a hood over your earbuds on a bus to anywhere. It begins with haunting opener “The Pull,” and ends with lyrics on “Magnet” that implore, “Can you still feel the pull?”

Now Now circa 2012, with former guitarist Jess Abbott.

The album peaks on track four in the stripped-down strums of “Dead Oaks” — perhaps the band’s most beloved song. Though it’s less than two minutes long, “Dead Oaks” offers the effortless and infectious “Oh oh oh oh oh I’ve been up and oh oh I don’t sleep enough” that present-day fans will still echo at the top of their lungs.

From 2012 to 2017, Now, Now went pretty much silent. That summer, they rewarded their faithful fanbase with new single “SGL,” an electric ode to front-seat love that was satisfying, hot, and catchy as hell. Next came shimmering “Yours”: pop mastery that echoed the ‘80s and seemed radio-ready. “AZ” and “MJ” followed, showing off more emotive synths and charming, breathy Dalager vocals. A little under a year later, Now, Now released Saved, their final full-length album of the decade. Saved is fuller and punchier than their first two LPs, but the sharp vocals, piercing melodies, and compelling drums boomerang to 2012. 2010, even – “Back to the heart of it all.”

The last decade saw pop intensify and rock retreat, and Now, Now followed suit; yet, they remain emo kids at heart, along with many of us who still feel the pull. As the opening line of “Threads” incants: “Find a thread to pull / and we can watch it unravel;” their lyrics are hollowed out with longing, from 2010 to 2019 and back. Throughout the 2010s, Now, Now has remained a trap door out of adult life—a promise that you can always retreat into your hoodie’s sleeves if all else fails.

2010s IN REVIEW: Kesha’s ‘Rainbow’ Saved Me From Myself

TW: The following contains the author’s recollection of childhood sexual assault.

I remember the day only in fragments – like my head is broken. The sweet spring air rustled my short blonde locks, and white-hot sun peeked through the piney overhang. We were standing there on the grassy knoll. I was four, and he wanted to play soldiers. “You be the woman,” he said. Wide-eyed and hungry for adventure, I happily obliged. The next flash is an M-80 going off. I’m lying on my back. The sofa was a froggy kind of green, and a Carolina blue cotton sheet decorated with soft yellow petals rubbed cool against my skin. His whispers played as burning sapphires in my ears, compact and scalding, and he took off his pants.

In truth, I must have packed that day away as you do all of your trauma. It’d been tucked away between my father’s abuse to my sister and my mother’s own personal tragedies – and me, still somehow just a child, dangling in a purgatory somewhere in between. I was suspended in that moment, innocence both destroyed and forever dancing on my eyelids. When I first heard Kesha’s power piano ballad “Praying” for the first time, I bawled all the pain down upon my chest. It came back like a waterfall had just been turned on for the first time or a tidal wave had crashed through my front door.

I initially wrote my confessions here, and it was the very first time I shared my story of abuse in a public forum. Two years later, I’ve realized details I got wrong. Memory is like peeling a giant red onion. Its pungent odor has a kick every single time, and you can never be ready for it. Emotional senses never erode; they might lie dormant for a time before a smell, a touch, a sight, a sound will trigger it again.

Details are clinical. The color of his skin. The smell of his chestnut brown hair. The way his glasses rode the tip of his nose. It’s detaching and cold to think in detail. I was a ghost, out of body, peering through the sands of time, the details slipping away with each passing minute. The trauma was there, and it’s always been there. Honestly, I had never considered my molestation as sexual assault. I was always comparing it to other more brutal traumas that I couldn’t even fathom – but you can’t assign value to trauma. Trauma is trauma.

My relationship with my body, around my identity, and to the trauma never fully registered until 2017. Kesha’s Rainbow had just arrived in the world, and its themes of abuse, retaliation, redemption, forgiveness, and rebirth were fresh on my mind like bubble gum on the bottom of sneakers, sticky and pink. My wounds had been reopened, and I was confronted with the past in a way I had never thought possible.

“This record, quite literally, saved my life,” the pop star said at the time. “It talks about me personally going through something very hard, lots of very hard things, making it through, not giving up, and finding empathy on the other side — which is incredibly hard sometimes.”

The defining record of the 2010s, an underdog comeback that saw Kesha liberated from her demons, Rainbow saved me from myself, too. In my ignorance, perhaps blissfully tragic, I was consumed by the assault; its lingering effects had eaten away at my ability to hold relationships, how I viewed the duality of identity and sexuality, and any sort of understanding of that afternoon at all.

Songs like “Praying” (the blood-curdling battle cry “and you said that I was done / well, you were wrong and now the best is yet to come” pounding against my rib cage) and “Learn to Let Go,” a fervent, woodsy prayer, were and still are cathartic. Listening now, I’m cleansed further with their healing, peace-bearing power, and the past quickly becomes another time or even another existence. “I think it’s time to practice what I preach / Exorcise the demons inside me,” she persuades on the latter. Her vehement empowering of others – often at the expense of her own well-being – serves her well as a patriarchal-defying suit of armor. She soon emerges victorious, howling, “The past can’t haunt me if I don’t let it / Live and learn and never forget it / Whoa, gotta learn to let it go.” She learns that her words don’t mean anything unless she allows herself to heal, too.

The title song is another vocal statement piece, predominantly of piano, string work, and a growling bass harmonica. “Yeah, maybe my head’s fucked up / But I’m falling right back in love with being alive,” she coos – the symphony swelling beneath her. “Rainbow” contains a starstruck lullaby quality, as if to say she’s finally accepted her trauma in its many, serpent-like forms. There’s a finality to the performance, too. She’s journeyed through the “darkness” and a “heartless” existence, an unimaginable depression wrought of true pain, and it was during the aftermath that she came to this realization: “You gotta learn to let go, put the past behind you / Trust me, I know, the ghosts will try to find you.”

“Woman” is a pillar of great female power for me. “I’m a motherfucking woman, baby, alright / I don’t need a man to be holding me too tight,” she slaps on the hook. It’s a devilish, proudly ravenous performance, polished with The Dap-Kings’ brilliant horns. I grew up in a very strict Christian community, with a super-macho father, so boys were supposed to be boys. I could never express my femininity without feeling ashamed for it. Kesha freed me from that.

Then, with “Hymn,” a hippie puff of psych-pop euphoria, I ventured through myself to accept my goof-ball eccentricities (I whole-heartedly believe in ghosts, for instance). “Pretty reckless, pretty wild,” the soul-child offers. Later, “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)” (a song her mother Pebe Sebert co-wrote) stars the biggest queer icon of all time, the one and only Dolly Parton. The collaboration, sashaying from the past to the present, gives clearance to let your heart guide you in a totally bonkers, uncertain world.

It is, perhaps, on the (very Kacey Musgraves-esque) country-inflected closer “Spaceship” that Kesha reaches complete enlightenment, marrying her new-found self-worth with her wonderfully endearing infatuation with aliens. “I knew from the start I don’t belong in these parts / There’s too much hate, there’s too much hurt for this heart,” she warbles on the second verse. Her gaze returns to the cosmos, stretching out like a wondrous, firefly-flecked blanket, and her body floats outside of itself to wash it all away. “Lord knows this planet feels like a hopeless place / Thank God I’m going back home to outer space.” Only in forgiveness – of yourself as much as your abuser – can you find the kind of heavenly escape and psychological freedom you deserve.

Rainbow – not without plenty of cheeky badassery (“Bastards,” “Hunt You Down,” Godzilla”) – remains an exhilarating manifesto. As I listen to it now, the lyrics and vocal performances hit me all over again, and I can’t help but cry – not in pain, but because I made it through another decade. Because I confronted my own demons and slayed my ghoulish, fang-toothed, blood-sucking monsters. I haven’t named my abuser publicly, but for me, it is not necessary that I do. Trauma does not define me. Rainbow does.

How Kylie Minogue Became Part of Pop’s Pantheon With Aphrodite

“Dance, it’s all I wanna do, so won’t you dance?” Kylie Minogue asks at the start of “All the Lovers,” opening her 11th studio album, Aphrodite. Taking her cue from the goddess of love, the Australian pop star began this decade with a 12-track celebration of dance and romance that became one of the finest moments of her career. Aphrodite was a commercial hit, debuting at the top spot on the British charts and becoming her second highest charting album in the U.S, and spawned the successful Aphrodite: Les Folies/Aphrodite Live tour.

In 2001, Minogue kickstarted the sound of the ’00s with “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” A rousing piece of synthpop that hints at an ’80s influence, it reflected what was going on in indie electronic music at the turn of the century (Ladytron and Miss Kittin and the Hacker come to mind), but became a global phenomenon. At the Brit Awards the following year, she performed “Can’t Get Blue Monday Out of My Head,” bringing together her hit with the New Order classic and putting mashups, still an underground trend at the time, on a much more visible stage. With “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” the accompanying video and the “Blue Monday” mashup, Minogue created a mood board for the first decade of the new century that both established and rising pop artists (Gwen Stefani, Madonna, Rihanna, Lady Gaga) would follow.

Minogue is well-known as a pop artist who is unafraid to experiment (as on the 1997 album Impossible Princess), but her skill as a tastemaker is woefully understated. With the release of Aphrodite in 2010, she played up on what was influential about her work in the ’00s while subtly foreshadowing what would become the next-big-thing in first half of this decade.

Aphrodite was a creatively successful album, its impact more apparent now at the end of the decade. It’s a stylistically eclectic collection of songs. Tunes like “Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love)” and “Closer” pump the disco vibes with which Minogue has long excelled. “Cupid Boy,” a standout on the album, plays up the New Order-influenced indie dance groove that she helped bring to mainstream popularity nearly a decade earlier. “Better Than Today” gives a little taste of the country-dance style she would delve into on her 2018 album, Golden. Aphrodite pits Minogue as more than a pop goddess capable of inspiring love on the dance floor. Here, we see the full extent of her power, from the influence she had on pop music in the first decade of the 21st century and how that would continue in the second.

In an unusual move for Minogue, she enlisted an executive producer to oversee the direction of the album as a whole. As a producer and remixer, Stuart Price was integral to the sound of dance music in the ’00s. His remixes of artists ranging from The Killers to Royksopp to Gwen Stefani, released under various names, permeated nightclubs. Moreover, he was a producer for Madonna’s landmark 2005 album, Confessions on a Dance Floor. Minogue and Price hadn’t worked together before – in an interview, Minogue mentions that they connected via mutual pal, Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters – but their aural aesthetics were strikingly similar. In fact, back in the late ’90s, Price (under his Les Rythmes Digitales moniker) remixed Bis’ club hit “Eurodisco” with a Depeche Mode vibe that was a precursor for the synthpop revival Minogue brought to the mainstream with “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.”

Under Price’s watch, a slew of collaborators brought Aphrodite to light. They included some names recognizable to indie music fans of the time. Shears (who previously worked with Minogue on the 2004 song “I Believe in You) co-wrote “Too Much.” Tim Rice-Oxley of Keane helped pen “Everything Is Beautiful.” Richard X, who made a name for himself during the initial mashup craze and went on to work with artists like Annie and M.I.A., was a writer on “Can’t Beat the Feeling.”

Aphrodite also benefited from the work of a few up-and-comers who would see their own careers blossom in the following years. Calvin Harris, who co-wrote “Too Much” with Minogue and Shears and produced the track, was a rising star who had collaborated with Minogue on her 2007 album X. However, it would be another year before his collaboration with Rihanna, “We Found Love” became a monumental hit. He would go on to spend more than half of this decade as the world’s highest paid DJ. Meanwhile, “Cupid Boy” was co-written and co-produced by Sebastian Ingrosso, who was right on the cusp of superstardom with his pals in Swedish House Mafia. Sisters Miriam and Olivia Nervo (you might know them best by just their last name) co-wrote “Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love).” They were already acclaimed songwriters, but as this decade progressed, they became known for their own dance hits and DJ sets.

In some respects, Aphrodite was an incubator for the artists who would go on to mold the sound of dance music in this decade. But, it also foreshadowed what Minogue would do in her own career. In 2015, she appeared on Nervo’s debut album, Collateral, alongside Shears and Nile Rodgers on the song “The Other Boys.” In 2018, she merged country and dance music on Golden. At the time of that album’s release, she told Billboard how Aphrodite played a role in the development of the songs, thanks to a “Dolly Parton litmus test” that she and Price had developed. In the summer of 2019, she played the Legends spot at Glastonbury. BBC reported that her set drew the highest viewership in the festival’s broadcast history. When this decade started, Minogue cast herself as part of the Greek pantheon but, by its end, she became part of the pop pantheon.

Jenny Owen Youngs’ Transmitter Failure Still Provides Inspiration a Decade Later

Jenny Owen Youngs photo by Tucker Leary.

It was the spring 2009, and I had a leisurely day off, getting ice cream and going to see a tribute event to the Brothers Quay. I rode the subway back to Davis Square, checked my voicemail, and panicked. I knew I was interviewing Jenny Owen Youngs for Venus Zine that day, but I had miscalculated time zones and missed her call. I sat on a bench behind the subway station and called her back, super flustered and apologetic.

I’d only been writing music journalism for a few months and had yet to make a dime off it. But it felt like my dream collision of music and writing, far more akin to a true calling than my dreary day job of trademark research. I couldn’t believe I’d done something as stupid as forget how time zones work.

My memory jump cuts from that anxiety to laughing a lot as she put me at ease, joking about how often she’d been described as “angry” after people heard her song “Fuck Was I” in Weeds. Which was extra funny considering it’s a ballad with strings and self-indicting lyrics that happen to include the f-bomb. I remembered that and how she kept saying she wanted to melt faces and how palpable her love for her new record Transmitter Failure was.

At the time, I’d been working too much and taking on way too many interviews and reviews. I’m mortified by a lot of things I wrote. I hate it that my review of a Peaches album is referenced several times on Wikipedia pages. I hate a lot of the dumb, pseudo-clever things I had to say then, but I stand by the Jenny Owen Youngs interview and a lot of things I wrote in a review of the album.

There were a lot of things I didn’t know when I talked to Jenny Owen Youngs that day. Like that ten years later I’d be on disability, but bringing in income as a freelance writer. Or that I’d be living far from Boston. Or that Transmitter Failure would have only grown on me more after all these years.

I’ve always loved the album cover, how Youngs looks like a science student attempting to fix a radio. To fix something that’s broken. To literally make music. And, just as I wrote back then, I love how the songs are diverse but still cohesive. The barroom stomp of “Clean Break” sits alongside the tenderness of “Here Is a Heart,” yet both are fairly bitter songs, lyrically speaking. “Clean Break” wishes for a breakup to happen via surgery. “If I come to and still feel you/creeping in my skin/It’s back, I lie under the knife/and start over again,” she promises. On “Here Is a Heart,” she willingly delivers her heart “battered and braised/grilled and sautéed/just how you like it.” Youngs’ skill at archiving manifestations of broken-ness is undeniable.

The album hit me hard when I started painting in 2013. I needed to express things that words couldn’t get to, so I took it up with the same ill-informed but enthusiastic approach with which I’d begun music journalism. I attempted a lot of ridiculously over-conceptual paintings that I lacked the skill to pull off. But, as with music journalism, I gradually learned to find confidence that my own ideas had a place. To slow down and let art speak to me the way music did. To ask the canvas questions the way I interviewed musicians.

“Clean Break.” Alcohol ink painting by Erin Lyndal Martin.

Of course, selecting a good art soundtrack was important. I wanted to have feelings without drowning in them. I wanted music that helped me trust in my process, not chase down some perfect crystallization of rage or sorrow. Once again, I found a friend in Transmitter Failure. Youngs uses a light touch to maneuver the songs from section to section, and I needed that in my art. If I have a night I need to turn off my ringer, clear my head, and hunker down with paint and ink, it’s Transmitter Failure I put on. Sometimes I try to paint what the songs look like to me – so far I’ve painted “Clean Break,” “Dissolve,” and “Here is a Heart” in watercolor and acrylic ink. I hope to paint the rest and then do them all again.

“Here Is A Heart.” Watercolor and acrylic ink painting by Erin Lyndal Martin.

Back in 2009, Youngs invited me to a concert she was playing near Berklee College of Music. The show made me feel contemplative, and I took my time walking to the subway. I put on an hour-long piece of piano music and listened as I walked to the subway, rode back to Davis Square, drove to my apartment, and fed my cat. I wrote a friend saying how I didn’t know how one song could hold so much.

Of course, I also didn’t know that the songs Youngs played that night would hold ten years of growth, change, and inspiration. Not bad for an album about things falling apart.

“Dissolve.” Alcohol ink painting by Erin Lyndal Martin.

Jenny Owen Youngs released an EP this year called Night Shift. Follow her on Facebook for ongoing updates.

2010s IN REVIEW: Coming of Age With Car Seat Headrest

I graduated high school in 2010, which means I have been an adult for the entirety of the decade, according to “society.” I spent six of those months in high school, three and a half of those years in college, four of them working at an office job that I thought I’d never leave, and the past year and a half freelancing and making small amounts of progress toward my creative goals. I spent approximately nine of these months absolutely heartbroken, those same four years in that office vacillating in and out of anxiety. I also started doing improv and quit doing improv, and it took about seven years to figure out that I am not a natural performer.

Will Toledo began Car Seat Headrest in 2010, recording alone in his parents’ car, lest he be heard by anyone. He recorded four albums named for four numbers, two whose album art is a picture of – you guessed it – a car seat headrest, and diligently uploaded them to Bandcamp. He went to college, didn’t get out much. One more album after those four, and one college transfer later, Will Toledo wrote Twin Fantasy, an album about being absolutely heartbroken. Then he signed with Matador, and produced two more albums, had a well-publicized legal issue with The Cars’ Ric Ocasek, and then recorded Twin Fantasy again, and did a whole lot of touring, which is basically a day job.

I think Will Toledo and I are about the same age. Millennials get a lot of crap for their extended adolescence, though it’s the economic collapse of our actual adolescence that eventually made it harder for us to grow up. Well into my twenties, I put my entire trust in the fact that the adults around me knew exactly the right thing to do. In reality, nobody has anything figured out! Nobody! There is no clear answer to anything in life. Time is linear, but life is not always. You can change a lot in a decade.

Of the albums Car Seat Headrest recorded this decade, it is Teens of Denial that speaks generationally. Released in 2016, Teens of Denial was the first fully new Car Seat Headrest album since signing to Matador in 2015. It was also my personal album of the year. Two years out of college and the world had never seemed crueler. Certainly globally so, but also on an individual level. In your darkest hour, everything feels like a personal attack.

Teens of Denial is a straight-up rock album, but it isn’t about sex (well, sort of), it isn’t about drugs (only kind of), and it isn’t about rock and roll (Ric Ocasek almost stopped this album from being released, but Dido didn’t mind being quoted). And with regards to personal attacks, the protagonist of Teens of Denial is accosted by Jesus himself. Jesus calls him “the scum of the earth,” on “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem).”

The internal world of Teens of Denial is vast and complicated, often contradictory. On the dense and percolating “Vincent,” the protagonist laments, “If I’m being honest with myself / I haven’t been honest with myself.” “Vincent” was the lead single, a non-obvious choice, but one that functioned as an introduction to the album’s headspace: over seven minutes long, and obliquely about the protagonist’s mental state (“In the back of a medicine cabinet / you can find your life story / and your future in the side effects”).

Toledo stopped hiding behind vocal distortion on this album. He’s here, voice cracks and all, and ready to shout about how people talk down to him: “You have no right to be depressed! / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it!” The arrangements are huge and full; the production is so much clearer than even his previous Matador release, Teens of Style, which compiled some of Toledo’s best Bandcamp cuts.

If it weren’t evident enough already, Teens of Denial has a wicked sense of humor. The scrapped version of “Not What I Needed” started with The Cars’ “Just What I Needed” riff and ended with the straight-faced first few lines of its lyrics. Like a coming-of-age movie, it’s this levity that counterbalances the album’s big emotional payoffs. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” starts steady and unassuming, but crescendos to the big declaration of “It doesn’t have to be like this.” And it doesn’t! “It doesn’t have to be like this” can mean a lot of things. In the context of the song, it’s the protagonist making a decision that would keep him from danger. To realize he’s too drunk to drive and so, “get out of the car and start to walk.”

Earlier in the decade, in 2011, Will Toledo released Twin Fantasy under the name Car Seat Headrest. In 2018, he released the same album, re-recorded with a full band, under the name Car Seat Headrest. This isn’t a case where hindsight is 20/20: it’s more that hindsight brings out new dimensions. Matador states the difference thusly: “he no longer sees his own story as a tragedy.”

Yes, you can have second chances. It’s called artistic growth! Look it up! Twin Fantasy (2011) is rough around the edges in that way that evokes desperation, a need to throw your heart at the person who hurt you. It rules; as someone who lives and dies by lo-fi, I was a fan. 2018 Twin Fantasy, now titled Twin Fantasy (Face to Face), sounds clearer, but the lyrics are left emotionally unpolished, teenage in their sentiments. To admit flaw is to admit humanity.

A newfound confidence runs through Twin Fantasy (Face to Face). Car Seat Headrest, the band, shines on every single track. The sprawling “Beach Life-In-Death” benefits greatly from frenetic drumming. Guitars lacerate and bring teenage Toledo’s wobbly infatuation to life. A newly audible bass line caresses the melody of “My Boy.” The band builds gloom on “Famous Prophets” and brings finality on “Twin Fantasy.” Where the old “Bodys” had the detachment of being too cool (or too awkward!) to dance, the new track gradually crescendos, careening like an underage drunk. Suddenly, this story is cinematic. Suddenly, this story has a heartbeat, and muscles, and arms to be held in. It’s the sound of someone feeling less alone than they felt seven years earlier.

Because what’s a coming-of-age story if you haven’t come of age yet? The protagonist of Twin Fantasy (Face to Face) repeatedly sings “The ocean washed open your grave.” This story still hurts. It always will. But he’s made peace with it now. After looped vocal reverb, the spoken word part of the last track alludes to the “fantasy” part of “Twin Fantasy:”

This is the end of the song, and it IS just a song. It’s a version of me and you that can exist outside of everything else, and if it is just a fantasy, then anything can happen from here. The contract is up, the names have been changed. So pour one out, whoever you are. These are only lyrics now.

In my own interpretation, Twin Fantasy is about falling for the idea of a person, rather than an actual person. That distance and circumstance may keep you apart–you may never meet again, but you can always sing his first name aloud, trying to make it fit in with the lyrics of “Ana Ng,”a song about falling for a person living very far away from you. This last spoken word monologue is the album’s movie disclaimer, the “any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental” blah blah blah. These are only lyrics now. The credits roll, the lights come up, and Twin Fantasy is a story in past tense.

Car Seat Headrest, now a full band. Photo by Mikeal Beland.

This December, we’re going to act like ten years isn’t a really long time, but it is. You can change a lot in a decade. I certainly stumbled back onto my own path. I think Will Toledo did too. Car Seat Headrest began the decade a solo act, and ended it a full band, signed to Matador. The Twin Fantasy tour welcomed the band Naked Giants as additions to live Car Seat Headrest, arrangements stretching to create new contexts for old songs. Will Toledo ditched the guitar for most songs, embracing his role as a performer. This year Will Toledo also produced Stef Chura’s fantastic record, Midnight. That’s a world’s difference from recording Twin Fantasy in your bedroom (or your parents’ car).

This isn’t a scenario where someone older than you is telling you exactly what to do about jobs, or heartbreak, or how you’re feeling (“Get a job / eat an apple / it’ll work itself out”). It’s a scenario where someone your own age is saying “hey dude, me too.” It’s so much better to realize we’re all lost sometimes. To quote the song quoted in “Cute Thing:” “And the truth is, we don’t know anything.”

Ten years is a long time. Ten years can hold artistic growth, and periods of despair, and love and stress alike. Not necessarily in that order. Get out of the car and start to walk.

The Decade’s Best Books by Women in Music

If I hadn’t read Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, I wouldn’t be a rock writer. It was 2013. I had recently graduated art school and was dividing my time between three retail jobs: a liquor store, a grocery store, and a clothing store. One of my friends had recommended it to me, and even though I didn’t think of music as a big part of my identity anymore — something I’d felt pushed out of because I didn’t have the right taste or the correct opinions or the appropriate body of knowledge — I suddenly found myself reading about music a lot.

Maybe it’s because I was hanging out with female DJs. Or I wanted to ably push back when men told me everything that was wrong with what I listened to in break rooms. After four years of honing how my eyes took in information, it’s possible I was trying to improve my ears, too. But when I read Marcus’ 2010 release on long bus rides between cash registers, something in me changed.

Girls to the Front blends passion with criticism, betraying Marcus’ clear love for and intimate experience with riot grrrl while carefully laying out its many skeletons. Male critics love to trot out the feminist punk phenomenon as evidence they remember women play music, too: “I’m not sexist; I’ve heard of Bikini Kill!” But Marcus declares the movement as an important part of music history worthy of critical scrutiny — and hardly a beginning or end point for women in rock. Reading her book turned on a light in me I didn’t realize existed, and made me want to build on her work.

I don’t think I was the only one to react that way, either. In many respects, Girls to the Front anticipated the next 10 years of music books. 2010 to 2019 was a banner time for publishing women writing about rock. And I’m not just saying this as someone who was so inspired by a book about ladies’ sweat-stained expressions of rebellion that I made a slow professional shift; I have the receipts. Not only did this decade give us more women’s stories, but we also witnessed small but meaningful strides in the kinds of stories prioritized (memoirs from the likes of Kim Gordon, Liz Phair, Carrie Brownstein, et al became so ubiquitous they didn’t even fit into this list). What follows is a roving, incomplete list of books — one from each year — that marked small but powerful shifts in the rock ’n’ roll landscape.

2010: Patti Smith’s Just Kids

The 2010 debut from ’70s punk-poet icon set a new standard for memoirs well beyond the rock pantheon. In lyrical prose, Patti Smith describes her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe — its evolution from friendship to romance to creative wellspring. Even more than a eulogy for one of her most formative friendships, though, it’s a love letter to her influences: Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud, William Burroughs, and so on. She gives longform life to Rainer Maira Rilke’s romantic ideas of art as a calling. And because of this title’s wild success — it was a bestseller that garnered numerous awards including the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction — Just Kids opened the memoir floodgates for everyone from Kim Gordon to Ani DiFranco.

2011: Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music

Ellen Willis is probably best remembered as a feminist cultural critic who touched on everything from decriminalizing drugs to antisemitism on the Left. Somewhat lesser known is that she began her career as a music writer. In 1968, Ellen Willis became the first pop music critic at The New Yorker — the first ever music critic to write for a national audience. Despite influencing writers such as Griel Marcus and Ann Powers, Willis died in 2006 never seeing her music criticism get its due. In this tome, her daughter, Nona Willis Arnowitz, brings together writing that, while very of its time, was a hugely important landmark for music coverage.

2012: Alice Bag’s Violence Girl

Before she was releasing Christmas tracks about punching nazis or clacking away on typewriters alongside Allison Wolfe and Kathleen Hanna, Alice Bag was screaming with The Bags. She first cemented her punk legacy with a cameo in Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization, but Bag has long proven her stay power. In her book, she describes growing up Latinx in L.A.; unlearning the violence she grew up surrounded by; going hip-to-hip and lip-to-lip with both men and women; and how these experiences shaped her life’s work as an activist, educator, and musician. Early L.A. punk was queer and brown, and it had so many women — and Alice Bag will not let you forget.

2013: Evelyn McDonnell’s Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways

I do a women’s rock history podcast, and my first season is on the Runaways; there may be some heavy bias in this choice. But I’m letting it stand because Evelyn McDonnell has long written about the varied and important ways women have contributed to popular culture, and to me, this is her magnum opus. Queens of Noise provides cultural context while separating fact from fiction for one of rock history’s most storied, undervalued bands. In 2015, the Runaways’ bassist Jackie Fox revealed she was raped by the band’s manager and producer, Kim Fowley. While McDonnell’s book hints at this, she resists outing Fox or even letting Fowley’s predatory, abusive behavior define the band’s legacy. The book is not about what was done to these women; it’s about what these women did for themselves.

2014: Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

While Viv Albertine’s memoir tells the story of being an influential musician at the center of 1970s British punk, it’s also an account of everything that comes after that: marriage, motherhood, cancer, divorce — even relearning how to play the guitar. Among other things, Albertine reveals shrinking her musical past to emotionally accommodate her husband and fighting with her publisher to forego a ghostwriter. Thank the stars she won that fight, because her voice is strong, insightful, and intimate. One of the simple elegances of Albertine’s autobiography is how she marks time in a way familiar to so many women and femme music lovers: what she was wearing in that moment, what she was listening to, and who she was dating.

2015: Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

When I initially saw this in a bookstore, I actually scoffed. At the time, I was regularly reading so much excellent music criticism from women that my brain couldn’t yet wrap itself around the bold and unfortunate fact of the title. Highlights include Jessica Hopper’s essay on emo (“Where the Girls Aren’t”); Hole fact-checking Wikipedia during an oral history of Live Through This; and an interview with journalist Jim DeRogatis where Hopper unpacks her initial instinct to separate R. Kelly’s art from his abuses and admits that was a mistake.


2016: Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny

Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace uses diaries entries dating back to the third grade to open up about transitioning, which makes it a landmark trans memoir. But beyond what the book means for transgender visibility, Grace also talks about what led her to punk and anarchism; being part of one of the most celebrated punk bands of the aughts; and reconciling her DIY punk past with finding commercial success — and what it meant when early audiences rejected Against Me! for “selling out.”


2017: Jenn Pelly’s The Raincoats – The Raincoats (33 1/3)

Stories of ’70s heroines really came of age this decade, but so did the critics raised on them. If contributing Pitchfork editor Jenn Pelly’s articles are like singles, here was her first LP. Drawing on glimpses into the Raincoats’ personal archives and using interviews from bands such as Sleater-Kinney and Gang of Four, Pelly provides a tender, collage-like account of the Raincoats’ self-titled debut and how its influence lives on. But perhaps as important as the book was its New York launch party, which bridged multiple generations of music. In attendance was a veritable who’s-who of women in rock, and it led to Bikini Kill’s reunion tour.

2018: Michelle Tea’s Against Memoir

Against Memoir is exactly what the title suggests: it’s not a memoir, but it’s not NOT a memoir, either. Which also to say, it’s not a music book, but it’s not NOT a music book. Some writers observe things like how music is made or who it’s made with; Tea chronicles what happens after it’s heard, sandwiching it between myriad other cultural observations and self reflections. The result is a piecemeal queer history of music that resists historicization. Highlights include her “Transmissions from Camp Trans” — Camp Trans being the trans-inclusive music festival that sprung up across the road from trans-exclusionary Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival — and her history of HAGS, a ’90s San Francisco dyke gang orbited by Tribe 8 who kept bands like L7, Lunachicks, and 7 Year Bitch on heavy rotation.

2019: Shawna Potter’s Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot

Drawing on over 20 years of experience fronting the hardcore band War on Women, Shawna Potter has been an active voice for improving physical and psychological safety for marginalized people in music spaces. She’s led trainings at large clubs and tiny DIY venues alike, and now she has a book of actionable advice for minimizing and responding to harassment. Potter takes the conversation beyond acknowledging the aggression targeted at so many people in music, especially women and gender-nonconforming people, and declares, “Here’s some things we can do about it.” This, like so many other titles on the list, gives us a glimpse into what the next decade (hopefully) holds: a more inclusive future for women in rock – musicians, fans, and writers alike.