Wrestling with “Sad Girl Indie” and the Limits of Rawness

Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

Earlier this year, in a March listening party following the release of her acclaimed third album Little Oblivions, Julien Baker sat down with NPR columnist and host Jewly Hight and Mackenzie Scott (who performs as Torres). Their conversation revealed an uncomfortable undercurrent of the way today’s booming female indie musicians are framed in popular media: the ever-present discourse of “rawness” and emotion that accompanies critical reception of their work.

“Sure, call it ‘raw’ because it was totally spontaneous,” Torres remarked sarcastically; the term hardly applies to Little Oblivions, Baker’s first release with a full studio band and released after a lengthy reckoning with her creative persona. “It’s just a journal entry. Right.”

Hight describes this “raw” characterization as a misplaced focus on “purging as opposed to craft,” and once identified, it’s easy to see how often that lens is focused on the performers who comprise the loose umbrella of contemporary “sad girl indie.” The term “raw” has not only been used for Phoebe Bridgers’ debut Stranger in the Alps, but also her 2020 release Punisher, which was praised by NME for its sonic experimentation and Stereogum for its “biting, hilarious” lyrics. It’s been bounced around to describe Lucy Dacus’ Home Video, featuring “Thumbs,” a track so layered and personal that Dacus spent years refining and reconsidering it in live show performances that she asked audience members not to record. Last month, she released another version of the song, too, with additional instrumentation.

“Raw” is an odd term for the intimate, candid work of these musicians. It implies a certain undoneness, a lack of artistic focus resulting from ecstatic emotional clarity. It also connotes an ancient, patriarchal idea that art created by women is taken directly from personal experience, rather than the filtration of creative vision and process. Conor Oberst, for instance, a longtime influence and current frequent collaborator of Phoebe Bridgers, has largely escaped seeing his music called “raw” — except when he’s specifically sought it out

“When people hear ‘sad boy music,’ they don’t assume it’s a heartbreak,” Audrey Neri, who releases music as Cherry Flavor, points out in Marissa Matozzo’s zine Sad Girl Indie: The Genre’s Relevance in 2021. In contrast to “rawness,” men like Oberst, Christian Lee Hutson, and King Krule – who create music on the same emo-folk-indie pop spectrum that “sad girl indie” comprises – are seen as philosophical troubadours, engaging with emotion on an abstract level. Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier, who lays claim as Christine and the Queens to unabashed, public female sadness in “People, I’ve Been Sad,” put it this way in a recent conversation with Crack magazine: “even in art, women are refused the apersonal.”

Linked to “raw,” the term “sad girl indie” occupies a complicated gendered space in contemporary pop culture. It’s been cited as a space of solace by New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino, and claimed as a moniker of feminist community and genre by fans and certain artists. But it’s also been lambasted by Dacus, who doesn’t even consider most of her songs to be sad — as well as Bridgers and Baker, her fellow members of supergroup boygenius, who joined forces after being relentlessly pigeonholed and compared to each other as members of the “sad girl” set. These recent criticisms have led some to argue for abolishing the categorization altogether.

The question of who gets to be in the “sad girl” club has also been raised. Though sad girl indie has been praised for its queer narratives, transfemme musicians like Ezra Furman and Ethel Cain are rarely included in the conversation, to say nothing of the “girl” moniker’s implicit exclusion of nonbinary musicians. Discussions of Black and Indigenous artists like Arlo Parks, FKA Twigs, Black Belt Eagle Scout, and Indigo de Souza are also rare, though de Souza recently offered a compelling perspective on “sad girl indie” hagiography in the Michigan Daily podcast Arts, Interrupted. As TN2 Magazine points out, the women of color who are included under the “sad girl indie” umbrella (typically Mitski, Jay Som, and Japanese Breakfast) have been tokenized and ascribed troublingly-racialized descriptions like “feral,” in addition to the old standby of “raw.”

Of course, effusive emotion has always been a double-edged sword for women in the public eye, dating back to Victorian diagnoses of hystericalism, or even the dismissal of medieval “madwoman” mystic Margery Kempe for her public, psychosexual devotion. Reclaiming this patriarchal notion and finding strength in intense, uncomfortable vulnerability has been a hallmark not only of contemporary “sad girl”-ism, but also the musical forebears who influenced it. 

Take Joni Mitchell for instance, who Brandi Carlile recalls dismissing for being “too soft” before listening to Blue at the behest of her wife, which forced her to “reconsider what ‘tough’ is.” Proto-“sad girls” like Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, and those that followed in the ‘90s feminist punk and singer-songwriter scenes used the aesthetics of emotion to construct artistic spaces in a world that refused to listen to them, giving voice to complex narratives ranging from unwanted pregnancy to systemic poverty, environmental anxiety, and queer desire. This is echoed in today’s “sad girls,” whose music reckons explicitly with abuse, addiction, and mental health concerns.

The potential strength of sad girl indie, however, is diluted by the critical presumption that its artists’ songs are “raw,” unprocessed “journal entries,” rather than artistic acts of ownership and cultivation. It’s also vastly diminished by the exclusion of trans and BIPOC artists, for whom the reclamation of the complicated, ruminative emotions so key to the subgenre’s success is even more urgent. 

There may be hope for “sad girl indie,” if it can escape the “raw” paradigm and be considered expansively as a springboard for artistic community. At the very least, moving on from “sad girl indie” may offer a chance for something new to rise from its ashes: an evolved understanding of the queer and feminist undercurrents of today’s musical landscape, one that appreciates the complexity and artistry of its performers outright.

MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Abba, Joni Mitchell, Body Unltd

Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

The songs of ABBA are like comfort food — and that’s meant as a compliment. On the one hand, you can say it’s safe and predictable. But on the other hand, it leaves you so happy and satisfied. That’s probably partially why ABBA’s return with a new album, Voyage (Capitol) — their first in 40 years — was greeted with such rapture; after the past two years of uncertainty and stress, anything delivering a dose of feel-good familiarity is most welcome.

ABBA never officially announced they were breaking up after the release of The Visitors in 1981, but as the years passed they gave no indication had any desire to release new music. What changed that was their involvement in a high-tech live show, opening next year, where they’ll be recreated as “Abbatars.” They so enjoyed recording new songs for the show it was easy to make the decision — why not release a whole album?

Voyage (Capitol) picks up where The Visitors left off, at least in sound. But it’s an older and wiser Agnetha Fältskog and Anna-Frid Lynstad singing the songs; a bit bruised by life perhaps, but with ABBA’s trademark optimism nonetheless intact. It’s something nicely summarized by the line “I’m not the one you knew/I’m now and then combined” (“Don’t Shut Me Down”). Or consider “Keep an Eye on Dan.” If this was ’70s ABBA, the title might make you think of a boyfriend with a wandering eye. But on Voyage, it turns out to be Fältskog’s instruction to her ex-husband as she drops their son off for the weekend.

In short, don’t expect the giddy spirits of “Bang-A-Boomerang” or “Take a Chance on Me.” This is a more reflective ABBA. The lush “I Still Have Faith in You” can be viewed as a song of two people overcoming adversity, or an assessment of ABBA’s own legacy. “Bumblebee” is a quietly restrained song about climate change. The Gaelic-flavored “When You Dance With Me” takes a relationship that failed to take off as a means of contemplating the passage of time.

The music (all songs written by the “Bs” in ABBA, Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus) are as toe-tappingly catchy as ever. And if some think the sentiments get mushy at times (e.g. the Christmas song “Little Things”), the album closes with the yearning “Ode to Freedom,” a prayer of hope for the future. As ever, ABBA, thank you for the music.

Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971) (Rhino) takes a deep dive into Mitchell’s breakthrough period as a recording artist. The first volume in the Archives series covered the years 1963-1967, before Mitchell made her first record. The new set offers a look at the work that went into creating her first four albums: Song to a Seagull, Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon, and Blue.

Though a number of tracks are outtakes from studio sessions, most of the songs are drawn from other sources: home demos, radio sessions, and live performances. She’s heard putting together the track listing for Clouds at the New York City apartment of her friend Jane Lurie; “Instead of being such a personal album, this isn’t nearly as personal an album as the last one,” she observes, as she reminds herself to add “Both Sides Now” to the album.

While there are alternate versions of songs that were later released — such as a lovely version of “Ladies of the Canyon” with cellos — it’s especially interesting to hear the songs that might have been. Like poignant ballad “Jesus,” another demo recorded at Lurie’s apartment, Mitchell accompanying herself on piano. Or “Midnight Cowboy,” a melancholy portrait of the would-be hustler Joe Buck, written but not ultimately used for the film of the same name.

Among the live recordings is a March 19, 1968 performance at the Le Hibou Coffee House in Ottawa, Ontario recorded by an unlikely tape operator — Jimi Hendrix. A big fan of Mitchell, Hendrix had arrived at the club after his own gig in the city, bearing a reel-to-reel tape deck and asking if he could record her. She agreed. As a result, 53 years later we can delight in hearing Mitchell promoting her soon-to-be-released debut album, and the poetry of “Michael from Mountains,” “The Pirate of Penance,” and “Sisotowbell Lane.” Archives Vol. 2 is a fascinating look at a songwriter in the midst of her artistic development.

Genevieve (self-released) is the debut offering from self-described queer electro-noir twosome, Body Unltd (Irene Barber and Vox Mod). The six-track release has the clean, crisp sound of electronic devices pulsating like a metronome. But the warmth of the human voice tempers the chill, singing of desire, of the need to make a connection.

The songs evolved with Mod first creating the instrumentals, then sending them to Barber who added further music and lyrics. The words of “Coasts” touch on the isolation we’ve all felt during in recent times: “How was the long weekend?/Was it with friends, or you alone?/Is it okay I’m doing very well?” It’s not surprising that desire results from all that pent up emotion. “Where You Want to Go” is a seductive invitation to push past all your boundaries (“I give you all that I am/I got soft hands….”), but are you being taken for a trip or for a ride?

The vocals are beguiling, luring you in on “Pathways” and “Arrival.” There’s a sly humor at work too, on “Helluva Light,” an encounter with Lucifer’s daughter, who doesn’t seem that menacing; she’s just looking to have a good time. And ageless “Genevieve,” a shining star inviting you to join in the celebration and dancing until dawn.

ONLY NOISE: A Case of SXSW – James Blake Instigated My Sneaky Crimes in a Changing Austin

All images courtesy Katie Wojciechowski.

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Katie Wojciechowski relives the SXSW she spent sneaking around to see James Blake in 2011, before she – and her hometown of Austin – underwent some major changes.

I was only 19 in March of 2011, but I was already a seasoned South by Southwest attendee. I grew up in Austin, and even after leaving for college, the festival kept me in its orbit several years in a row. In the days leading up to SXSW, I scoured Twitter for updates on all-ages venues my target artists were playing – not as tough a search as it might sound, since SXSW transpires in restaurants as well as bars, on makeshift hotel lobby stages and in the corners of record stores – even, a few times, in Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop. For me, SXSW meant a glimpse into the action of the music world I so desperately wanted to be a part of – and it meant a moment to breathe freely outside the stale air of my private school environment. Each carefully-researched buzz artist I saw (or snuck in to see) was a prize I wore like a medal on my camera’s memory card. And this year, the prize on everyone’s radar was James Blake.

Gracing the coveted Fader Fort bill, named “the breakout star for dubstep and a new standard bearer for electronic music itself” by NPR Music, and hyped by all the music blogs and sites I scrupulously followed at the time: Blake was my must-see. He was the indie darling of the festival that year, playing just a few secretive shows, many of them badge-only-and certainly 21+. The only all-ages James Blake show would be happening at the French Legation Museum, whatever the ever-loving fuck that was (I would never have said ever-loving fuck at the time). I’d already snuck into several other exclusive, albeit all-ages, events that year (for instance, a media brunch with the now-defunct Civil Wars that I just walked into with a big camera; no one said a word). Nabbing a few low-level shows of bands only I cared about was one thing, but I would feel defeated and left out if I didn’t catch James Blake while I was in Austin. This media favorite would be my prize kill.

I was a moderate James Blake fan and, more importantly, a devotee of the blogosphere. I kept a manically close pulse on what I perceived to be the cutting edge of musical trend. Blake’s esoteric first album piqued my curiosity with its more melodic singles, like “The Wilhelm Scream.” His music helped me study, accompanied me next to dewy coffee shop window condensation at the college town’s late-night cafe. I was blogging about music then, passionately and often, painting the world in grossly broad strokes. But there was something about the way it made me come alive that I look back on with fondness.

In truth, I liked James Blake’s self-titled debut, but I wouldn’t really fall in love with his music until I heard his acoustic piano-only cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You” in 2013. It’s a song that would accompany me through the rocky start of a first and only love, and would lead me to its original – which I didn’t like at first, because Blake’s cover is so god damn good – as well as its composer, one of my life’s guiding lights. But for a while, there was just James, constant as a northern star.

I’d assumed that a mid-day show would have a meager turnout, but when I arrived, panting and sweaty, at the French Legation Museum, the line stretched around the block. As it turned out, many others were after a glimpse of the boy wonder. I felt the rush of a challenge, of rebellion, rise within me. Rock ’n’ roll would not accept defeat, and if there’s anything I’d learned over the last few years attending the festival, it was that a determined, wily teenage music nerd could circumvent pretty much anything but a bouncer.

I took a turn about the corner. The stone wall around the park, a block in area, was about five feet high. Giving myself no room for hesitation, I clambered over, taking care that my Nikon D5000 didn’t get bashed against the limestone. The rush of terror that someone would spot me was soon supplanted by relief: miraculously, no one witnessed my tumble onto the French Legation’s lawn.

Little miracles like this one were the bread and butter of my SXSW adventures. In a religious private school world defined by boundaries, I thrived on the once-a-year chance to prowl downtown, alone and unbridled, hopping fences and performing little crimes of sneakiness. The rush of these victimless crimes sustained me, the staunchly sober youth group teen who would never dream of drinking underage, let alone dabble in sex or drugs. With the big sins off the table, rock ’n’ roll was all I had.

In later years, I’d try a wall-hop with my now-husband. It wouldn’t go so well. Actually, we were interrupted mid-hop by a fussy attendant asking if we were there for J. Lo’s party. Obviously, we said yes. And obviously, our names weren’t on the list. We were shuffled out. It was my first real taste of an Austin I now know well, where East Sixth is a turf war for startups and A-listers get first dibs on any South-by showcases worth seeing.

On this day, though, the ebullient currents of fortune sustained me. My luck continued as I edged my way past people I really shouldn’t have gotten in front of, until I was standing at the very border of stage right, waiting for James Blake, my camera poised. He arrived suddenly, dripping sweat and schoolboyish good looks. He was tall. The photos I took of him as he navigated the sparse landscapes of his keyboard came out really well; I think I could have been a pretty good photographer, though never a great one, if I had cared enough to keep it up. Something like Tibetan flags fluttered in a colorful frame around the stage, and due to my unusual positioning at the very corner, I was looking out of the frame, not into it.

Blake’s solemn face stared down at his keys for most of the show, belying the throbbing emotion at the core of the set. His more abstruse songs came first: “Unluck,” “Lindisfarne I & II,” massive basslines welling up and buoying the event tent’s energy until the whole space seemed to pulse. The crowd was silent, hypnotized. By the time the set crescendoed into his singles, most notably the Feist cover “Limit To Your Love,” the collective swooning of the audience was palpable. At the end, they erupted into a raucous sea, ravenous for more. Blake politely declined.

After the show (short, like most SXSW showcases), I nervously waylaid him for a photo, my third and final stroke of luck for the day. With a mumble, he politely obliged. He looks so sweaty in the photo, so confident, like a real rock star. After that show, I knew he’d really be one, and in 2019, with his most recent release Assume Form, he sort of is.

Not all my teenage predictions came to fruition, though. It’s strange to think that it’s been years since the twilight of “Keep Austin Weird.” A decade ago, in 2009, downtown buzzed with life as I reclined on a grass bank with a couple of friends; we reveled in the sunshine after a rainy, chilly two weeks in Europe with our classmates (for me, a miserable test of my social skills). Now, free in shorts and short sleeves, our gratitude to the city that raised us swept over us like a warm breeze. This was home. Later that day I’d venture out to Red River Street, half-assedly attempt to sneak in a few music venues, and relish the freedom of wandering the streets alone. Forever in this city would be a long time, I reassured myself. Long enough to get into a few venues by and by. The warm asphalt beneath my toes, as I toted my shoes down South Congress, assured me of that.

Today, I happily live in Portland. I haven’t lived in Austin for nine years. I would like to again someday, but there’s grief in the knowledge that it won’t really be the city I grew up in. I most recently went to South by Southwest in 2015, but by then I already knew it was over. Austin was J. Lo’s playground now, not mine.

My heart falls when newer Austin citizens quote staple eateries I’ve never heard of, or when I see haughty New Yorkers tout their badges via Instagram during their sponsored spring break jaunt. We shout about the places we’re from because we’re afraid of the conversation outpacing us. Austin is in my blood like holy wine, so bitter and so sweet.

James Blake just won a Grammy – somewhat ironically, for Best Rap Performance. But SXSW was always about catching somebody on the cusp, before all of that. And now, I realize, it was about myself, before most things, on the brink of life. Before bills, before legal drinking age, before marriage, before home for the holidays, before New Austin, there was just me, jumping over a wall, taking photos at a show.

ONLY NOISE: Lost and Found

I take the same path to the same coffee shop every week. Down DeKalb Avenue, a right on Franklin Avenue, a left on Greene Avenue, and a final right on Bedford Avenue. My gait is calculated and mechanical. A determined trudge. There is nothing romantic about this habit, and while I’d like to applaud its efficiency, I haven’t actually done the math to prove that this course is the fastest. In truth, I take this route because it is the one I first took to the coffee shop. It is repeated out of reflex and muscle memory and stubbornness. It is firmly rooted in a strong longing for routine.

This path is so engrained that my body dictates every step while my mind is free to think – something I do best while in forward motion. Walking puts me in a trance – alert enough to dodge oncoming vehicles, but rapt in layers of thought. So rapt, that I nearly missed the fat Fela Kuti box set propped up against a wrought iron gate on Greene Ave one Spring day. I stopped abruptly three feet past where the box of vinyl rested, then ambled slowly backward looking left to right to see if anyone was watching me. This I am sure, did not look suspicious at all.

The box was over an inch in depth. It was black and white with a banner of teal across the front reading “FELA” in block letters. I couldn’t help but crouch down and open it immediately, praying that its owner wouldn’t come bolting down the stoop of his brownstone to reclaim it. Perhaps an angry lover had left it on the sidewalk along with other prized vinyl from his collection…like, that Fat Boys LP right next to it…and, that…Kajagoogoo maxi single…

Ok, these records were probably left out on purpose, but I still couldn’t believe it. Lifting the box’s slightly scratched lid I found an alarming amount of Fela Kuti records. I was expecting three, maybe four LPs, perhaps with some booklet taking up a majority of the box’s real estate. Instead I found a seven record pileup, each one opened yet minimally played and well cared for.

There was Zombie, Fela Ransome-Kuti and The Africa ’70 With Ginger Baker Live, Roforofo Fight, He Miss Road, Alagbon Close, Ikoyi Blindness, and Everything Scatter – a glorious heap of his recordings. I was in shock; seven intact, fabulous albums, the collective price of which would have been well over $100. It felt as though I’d stumbled upon a treasure trove, but I couldn’t understand why anyone would ever abandon it.

I grew paranoid again, remembering a time when my dad and I found a handsome sack of toys in the woods behind our house. At seven I was overjoyed at this discovery, but also puerile and hesitant, imagining the sad kid who’d lost their bag of wonders. My dad assured me that finders were keepers, and it was on our property anyway. To ease my concern he assured me that if the toys’ proprietor came looking for them, we could hand them over.

And that’s just what happened. The neighbor girl was ecstatic when reunited with her pink satchel of toys. I felt devastated but virtuous by returning it. To this day I cannot remember what was actually in the sack – just the absolute thrill of stumbling upon it in our mossy forest.

By the time I was halfway down the block my paranoia had dissipated, but I still clutched the Fela Kuti box tightly to my chest just in case. My sense of elation was difficult to unpack – I am by no means a believer of fate or the “universe” gifting me anything…but I surrender to the sensation of it from time to time. I have come across some of my favorite things this way – finding them while looking for nothing.

I first discovered Will Oldham because a neighbor left a stack of CDs in the hallway of my apartment building a few years back. It was in one of many fruitful “free piles,” a name my roommate and I thought we’d coined. The album was an oddball EP recorded with Rian Murphy called All Most Heaven. It had one of the worst album covers I’d ever seen, but something about it shouted “What the hell? Take me home!” It was eccentric, no doubt, but I loved it nonetheless. Its four twangy songs eventually graced a small road trip to upstate New York one summer (our car only had CD capabilities). Opening its jewel case now, the silver disk is nowhere to be found. It may still be in that car, but my only hope is that it has found a way into the music collection of anyone who would bother adopting a stray CD in 2017.

In our age of Spotify Discover Weekly and record subscription services and pre-programmed radios and playlists tailored to every hyper-specific situation we can dream up, coming to music organically and spontaneously is uncommon. It seems rare enough to exchange music between two people in the same room, let alone find one of your favorite records in the street. I wouldn’t suggest the scavenger lifestyle as anyone’s sole source of musical discovery, but I will say there is a taste of destiny in it. I don’t believe in destiny either, so anything that conjures a sense of it feels pretty damn nice, if not fleeting.

The other week I had finished my book and was looking for a new one to read. I had just spoken to a friend about how I’d oddly never read Hunter S. Thompson, which is strange as he fits the profile of my favorite writers (depressed, debauched, wry). Days later I walked through my basement, past a stack of books an old roommate had left three years ago when he moved out. I was drawn to a turquoise spine peeping out from under a couple of Bret Easton Ellis tomes. It was The Rum Diary, Thompson’s first novel. I am enjoying it tremendously, and can’t believe it has been waiting silently under my nose for three whole years.

Come to think of it, it was that same roommate who provided me with another bout of serendipitous discovery. When he moved, I upgraded to his bedroom after five years in the windowless cavern next door. His room had not one, but two windows, and he’d left his superior mattress and an enormous credenza that was far lovelier than anything I’d ever allow myself to buy.

I took my time moving in – I set up my haphazard bookshelf. I stuffed my 500 pairs of underwear into one of the credenza’s many drawers. I arranged my desk with reference books and a quantity of pens that would suggest I was deeply concerned about a imminent global pen shortage. After deciding that all of my portfolios from college would go in one of the credenza’s large cabinets, I opened the door and found around 80 forsaken vinyl records leaning against one another. I believe my mouth truly dropped open. This pile of albums ended up doubling the size of my collection, and included some true gems. There was Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love, Roxy Music’s Manifesto, Prince’s Controversy, Talking Heads’ 77, Joni Mitchell’s Ladies Of The Canyon, Blondie’s Parallel Lines, Lou Reed’s Transformer, and dozens more. It seemed like luck, or at least something like it, and I took it as a good omen – something I also do not believe in.

I hauled the LPs I didn’t love (Donovan, Heart) to the nearest record store and swapped them for a $25 dollar credit, which I used to pad my collection with bizarre French funk punk records, Peel Sessions, and anything I could find by Prefab Sprout. Puzzled by my fortune, I still couldn’t understand why someone would desert a collection that had clearly been accumulated over a few years…but I was more than happy to give it a new home.

ONLY NOISE: Only The Lonely

When Beyoncé so wisely instructed “All the single ladies” (ALL the single ladies) to “put your hands up,” it was a different time. It was 2008. A year of innocence. We had elected Obama. Beach House had released Devotion. And single ladies everywhere felt empowered by Queen B’s anthem for autonomy. I’d just moved to New York, 18 and wet behind the ears. I couldn’t wait to have my own fashion line, a loft in Soho, and to party with The Strokes – all of which happened in rapid succession. (#AlternativeFacts.)

Back then, 99% of my friends were single, and we relished in seasons of not giving a fuck about it. Our lives were spun of work, college, fun…and the impending recession. But still! Life was good. Lovers came and went like party guests. Some stayed longer than invited. Others left before even taking their coats off.

Nearly ten years on, paradigms have shifted, and rightly so. People met cute and moved in. People got married. Some got babied up. Hell, even Beyoncé, Ms. Single Lady herself, got married to Jay-Z – and I hear it’s going really well!

Naturally, my single friend percentage declined. It is in the single digits these days…like, in the 1-3% range. Which begs me to entreat: “All my single ladies (All my single ladies!) Now put your hands up!” All six of them. All six of your combined hands. Put them up, for the love of god. I guess with my hands we have eight. Strength in numbers.

Did anyone ever stop to ask: why are we putting our hands up?? Maybe Beyoncé wanted all the single ladies to put their hands up – because they were about to be shot by a firing squad? Maybe that’s what that song is about…elimination of the single ladies. She did marry Jay-Z that year after all. Perhaps it was meant as a kindness…to put us single ladies out of our perceived misery.

Ok, that’s a bit extreme, but I can’t help being wry. As we approach Valentine’s Day – the preferred holiday of single people everywhere – the commodity of coupling up can be oppressive. The polyester teddy bears lining shelves at Duane Reade. The lingerie ads. 50 Shades Darker.

Valentine’s Day is perhaps the most polarizing commercial holiday; the holiday that cruelly bisects the population into those with, and those without. Those who will dance together in the kitchen to Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You” – and those who will sob to it over a box of self-gifted Russel Stover’s. Those who shall feast upon prix-fixe dinners of lamb chops and heart-shape chocolate cakes – and those who SHAN’T!

Parks and Recreation may have given us stags “Galentine’s Day,” and I’m sure Pinterest is rife with “fun alternatives” to drinking an entire bottle of wine in front of the mirror while cry-singing Cat Power, but I say fuck that shit. We don’t need alternatives. The single ladies don’t need saving. I don’t wanna go to the club with “gloss on my lips/a man on my hips,” as per Bey’s example.

Instead, all my single ladies: let’s dwell. Let’s lament. Let’s feel the pain. Love does hurt after all, and so does its absence. But that’s all right. This shit makes the world go ‘round. This Valentine’s Day, I want you to imagine all of the songs that have ever been written. Yup, all of ‘em. How many of those do you reckon are love songs? A pretty big portion I’d say. Finally, think about how many of those love songs are happy love songs, versus the ones that spring from raw, unbridled agony.

You see my point.

Would Roy Orbison ever have written “Only the Lonely” if he were just peachy and happily married? Would Stephin Merritt have written any songs, ever? Would I have any sad bastard music to listen to at all?


Some of the best music comes from good old-fashioned anguish. So when you’re feeling unbearably lonely, remember that you’re in good company – albeit the miserable kind.

I admit: there is a time to “put your hands up” and feel emboldened by solitude. I do it every day, when I eat my lame yet efficient dinner of sandwich meats, mayo, and hot sauce wrapped in a plume of romaine lettuce. Standing up. By the sink. I celebrate the fact that I can make the decision to do so without the democratic process. Without having the “What are we doing for dinner?” conversation. I can eat my sad lettuce wrap in peace. Blaring Pulp and singing along, still chewing. There is always a time to champion sad salad wrap singing, and 2am laundry doing, and in-bed pizza eating. And there is also a time to pour yourself a carafe of merlot, put on a depressing record, and be alone with everyone who’s ever written a song.

This Valentine’s Day, let’s get dismal. Just for one night. No one will even notice! (Because they will be on a date!)

Let’s start with Morrissey’s “Please Help The Cause Against The Loneliness.” A bubblegum number to the uncaring ear; but listen closer: sweet, sweet isolation! Leave it to Moz to wax desolate – this bouncing tune scrutinizes the pity cast upon the unwed…and who better to scrutinize than the infamous asexual himself? “Please help the cause against the loneliness,” Moz croons, as if there is a charity handout for our kind (if only!).

Next turn up some Liz Phair, who knew that you could still be completely alone while lying right next to someone. Phair’s snarky “Fuck and Run” is the quintessential opus for bad decisions. A sloppy, pitchy, honest, pathetic, undeniably brave song. This is diary caliber realism – all about that forbidden bed you keep crawling back into. Phair really hits it home when she asks the simple questions, like:

“Whatever happened to a boyfriend/The kind of guy who tries to win you over?/And whatever happened to a boyfriend/The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it?/ And I want a boyfriend /I want a boyfriend/I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas.”

While we’re reveling in emotional immaturity, let’s listen to “I Don’t Want To Get Over You” by the barons of broken hearts – Magnetic Fields, the band that truly did “make a career of being blue.”

As we’re discovering, a bit of wallowing can be cathartic. Despite all of the song’s clever imagery, one line says it all for me:

“I could leave this agony behind/Which is just what I’d do/If I wanted to/But I don’t want to get over you.”

And haven’t we all been down that dark hallway?

If love’s impact on the history of music, film, art, literature, and war (I’m talking to you, Helen of Troy) isn’t making you feel at one with your solitude – may I throw but one last metaphor at you?

A friend of mine recently returned from a trip to Paris: the city of lights and love and innumerable sauces. She regaled me with tales of part-time lovers and fine meals. At the end of one such fine meal, she chose a dessert to cap off the perfect dinner. She chose framboise surprise. Raspberry surprise. Ooh la la! To append an American dish with “surprise” usually suggests catastrophe (tuna surprise), but the French weren’t gonna fuck this up! It would be exquisite; mountains of frothy pink mousse encasing shortbread and sorbet, the whole thing crowned with gold-dipped sugar lattices. Quelle surprise!

When the dessert was gently placed on the table, raspberries there were. The surprise however, was missing. It was 12 raspberries, up-ended on a plate. 12. Fucking. Raspberries. That’s it. C’est tout.

My point is: sometimes love is all that frothy pink mousse and more. Sometimes a relationship is a rich and mysterious and delicious dessert, worthy of all the pain, paintings, opuses and arias. And sometimes – it’s 12 fucking raspberries on a plate. That you just paid 10 Euros for.

Either way…there’s bound to be a song about it.

ALBUM REVIEW: Lindsay Kupser “Quiet Songs”

Lindsay Kupser

Vancouver singer-songwriter Lindsay Kupser recently released her new record Quiet Songs. A Berklee College of Music graduate, Kupser created five tracks that walk the line between poetry and lullaby, with a fitting description “quiet singer-songwriter” from the artist herself. While at Berklee, she studied jazz composition and performance. The album begins with the raw lyrics of “All of my Bones Broke on Thursday Evening,” a song composed of brutally honest and direct observations on love and heartbreak paired with calm and relaxing guitars. Immiedetely the listener understands why Kupser’s style has been compared to idols such as Sufjan Stevens, Joni Mitchell, and John Mayer. It is stripped down, and while still developing, strives for an exploration of turning one’s anguish and demons into relatable and lovely folk lyrics.

The stripped down soundscape continues into “Couldn’t Move to Brooklyn” where Kupser waxes poetic about her current backyard and decision not to follow suit of so many young artists and make the trek to Brooklyn. While the 23-year-old singer-songwriter may not see Brooklyn as a fitting home, we’re sure that her album will find its way into the ears of many Brooklyn residents. Brooklyn is a noisy and busy city, with sirens blaring and the hubub of bar conversation continuously spilling into the streets. If the landscape of her current location of Vancouver works for Kupser, the romantic artist might as well stick with her current locational muse.

“I’m not afraid of the light or the pain” sings Kupser on “It Is My Turn,” a mournful yet elegant track and our favorite of Quiet Songs. On “Tough Country” we get a peak into Kupser’s childhood memories, as she describes sitting on a floor of the home she grew up in unpacking and observing old photographs.

At times, the rough simplicity of the tracks leave the listener wanting more, and wondering what will come next. She is a skilled poetic writer with a lovely voice and an ear for a calm melody. Such a young artist, the women of AudioFemme look forward to keeping our eyes on her and what the future holds for Lindsay, even if she never does move to Brooklyn. The five-track Quiet Songs concludes with “Everything Feels So Hard Always,” an elegant and simplistic musing into the difficulties of big life decisions all young adults, in particular artists, grapple with.

The minimalist recordings of Quiet Songs feature Alec Watson of Absolute Paradise and Ethan T. Parcell of Vesper Chimes. Previously, Kupser released “The Boston EP.” Quiet Songs was released on March 14, 2015 and self produced and mastered by Alan Douches. Listen to “It Is My Turn” below. For more Lindsay Kupser, find her on Facebook, Twitter, and visit her website.

PLAYLIST: Christmas Songs That Don’t Suck

Merry Christmas Baby (Please Don't Die)

Anyone who’s worked in retail can tell you what a headache Christmas carols can be.   You’re working eight hour shifts surrounded by irate customers who forgot the meaning of holiday cheer in a rush to get presents for their shitty boyfriends and picky sisters.  These people have no regard for the fact that you’re stuck in a mall neatly folding the pile of t-shirts they just demolished instead of out getting sloshed with your friends or exchanging gifts with your loved ones.  And all the while, that awful Mariah Carey song is just blaring.   Over and over and over again.

I’m of the opinion that not even David Bowie could save “Little Drummer Boy” from being the most annoying piece of music ever composed, and that “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is basically a rape-carol.  But that doesn’t mean the whole Christmas catalogue is a lost a cause.  There have been a handful of songs (usually lesser known and therefore less  overplayed) that can still manage to put me in the holiday spirit instead of making me want to gouge my eyes out with a nutcracker.  These are my personal favorites.

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Merry Christmas Baby (Please Don't Die)
Dee Dee of Dum Dum Girls & Brandon Welchez of Crocodiles teach Santa to rock on their single “Merry Christmas Baby (Please Don’t Die)”

The Kinks – Father Christmas: Somewhere along the line, I stopped asking my parents for gifts around the holidays and started requesting practical things instead: a trip to the dentist, a gift card to Target, rent money.  These things would keep me alive whereas candles from the Dollar Store would not.  So I am not sure if I side with Ray Davies or the antagonistic children who mug him while he was playing Santa, but choosing sides isn’t the point.  On the one hand, threatening violence is not cool, children can be terrifying, and machine guns are not appropriate gifts.  But what these kids really want is jobs for their dads or the cold hard cash that will allow them to survive their harrowing, impoverished existences, rather than dolls or blocks or whatever.  They’re just trying to check some volunteer Santa’s privilege (and ours) by reminding us that there are plenty of folks out there who can’t put food on the table at Christmastime (or any other time).  But this isn’t some depressing ballad; the message comes in a catchy rock ‘n’ roll wrapping, its riffs Xmassed up with some cheery chimes that make a nice foil for Davies’ ragged snarl.

Sufjan Stevens – Christmas Unicorn: The thing about Sufjan is that all of his songs are about 10,000% better if you just imagine he’s a singing unicorn.  And from the first line of this song, he presents himself as not just any unicorn, but a Christmas unicorn, with a mistletoe nose and a shield and a gold suit.  Sounds cool right?  But wait: Sufjan as the Christmas Unicorn is actually a symbol for American hypocrisy, out-of-control consumerism, Christians adopting Paganism, Baby Jesus, drug addiction and insanity.  But this outlandish gem from last year’s epic (what isn’t epic with Sufjan?) Christmas-themed limited edition six LP vinyl boxset Silver & Gold doesn’t stop there.  It goes on for twelve minutes and gets so weird it needs a play-by-play.  After the introductory takedown of hodgepodge Anglo-American Christian-Pagan ideals, there’s an expansive instrumental break that falls somewhere between swirly space rock and something you’d imagine playing over loudspeakers at a Ren-faire, flutes and all.  About halfway through, the meandering melody grows pegasus wings and starts flapping around all wildly a la those choruses from “Chicago”.  And eight minutes in, it becomes a Christmasified cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.  This song is the best kind of holly-jolly trainwreck.

Joni Mitchell – River:  Easily one of the most gorgeous songs in Mitchell’s oeuvre (and of all time, pretty much), the power of “River” lies in Mitchell’s ability to evoke nostalgia via her contemplative lyrics and her timeless voice.  She’s alone on Christmas due to perceived failures on her part, ruminating on a recent breakup and feeling detached from the festive mood of the approaching holiday.  It’s an anthem for any adult’s first Christmas away from home, the first holiday where those carefree childhood days have faded and you can no longer escape all the grown-up responsibilities you have in the simple act of lacing up a pair of skates and taking to the ice.  Extra points on the shout out to all the evergreens slaughtered  for the sake of Christmas spirit.

The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping:  The Waitresses had two songs.  One was the theme song for  “Square Pegs” which famously starred Sarah Jessica Parker (before she was famous).  And the other is this Blondie-esque narrative about a semi-Scroogey girl having a frustrating holiday/life.   See, all year long she’s been bumping into this cutie, and because of her first world problems (like sunburn – ugh!) she’s never actually able to connect with him.  The daily stresses keep piling up until she just, like, can’t even with Christmas.  I mean, her turkey was all in the oven and she forgot cranberries!  But in a fateful trip to the only all-night grocery, she finally finds love; her crush is in the check-out line, having also totally fucked up his grocery shopping.  Bright brass and zippy guitar lines are the perfect accent for this tale of bitterness diminished by serendipitous Christmas magic.

The Sonics – Don’t Believe In Christmas:  While it seems like any number of bands (especially those on the Burger Records roster) might write a song like this today, it was released in 1965, a decidedly un-scuzzy era for rock n’ roll.  It’s snarky and skeptical and goes beyond greedy to straight up entitled, moving about a mile a minute all the while.  When you don’t get cool presents or kisses from the ladies, there’s simply no reason to celebrate.  Ironically, the single finds its home on an Etiquette Records compilation entitled Merry Christmas, also featuring The Sonics’ singular contemporaries The Wailers and Galaxies.  Most of the songs are brilliant originals completely overlooked every December.  It makes sense that they don’t play The Wailers’ scathing anti-consumerist romp “Christmas Spirit???” in Saks Fifth Avenue but “She’s Coming Home” and “Maybe This Year” evoke melancholic hope with a slightly psych-tinged execution.  That sound carries over into the Galaxies’ unique covers of Christmas favorites.  Elsewhere on the record, Santa stiffs The Sonics once again; lead singer Gerry Roslie asks the titular Claus to bring new guitars, money and babes in his sack but gets “Nothin’! Nothin’! Nothin’!”, according to Roslie’s embattled cries.  Looks like not believing in Christmas didn’t stop the guy from trying.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Happy Xmas (War Is Over):  Shortly before the rest of The Beatles started recording Christmas fluff, John Lennon furthered his anti-Vietnam War protest efforts by releasing this 1971 single featuring Yoko Ono and Harlem Community Choir.  Lennon believed that coating the political content in sweet, sugary Christmassiness would make his message easier to accept (his Christmessage?).  It was not an instant classic, but endures today as a reminder that we should all just get along.  It also reminds us that the English say “Happy” instead of “Merry” which shouldn’t fuck with my head as much as it does.  The track was produced by Phil Spector (who certainly did not get along with Lana Clarkson, the actress whom he murdered).  If you’re going to listen to traditional carols, though, you can do no better than 1963’s A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records on Spector’s label.  There’s even a bearable version of “Frosty the Snowman” by the Ronettes.

The Everly Brothers – Christmas Eve Can Kill You:  It’s not just the twangy pedal steel that gives this song its melancholy mood.  Its emotionally devastating lyrics are narrated by a sad hitchhiker trying to catch a ride on a frigid Christmas Eve, ignored by drivers in a hurry to get home to their families.  The moral of the story is that you should really be kind to your fellow man, especially in the winter, and even more especially on holidays.  But let’s also be real – it’s actually dangerous to pick up hitchhikers; they can kill you too.

The Fall – (We Wish You) A Protein Christmas:  Okay, so this bizarre offering from The Fall is way more cryptic and terse than say, “Dashing Through The Snow” – what is a Protein Christmas anyway?  We may never know.  It’s a reference to (and a rewrite of) “Proteinprotection” but, just like a previous episode of Lost, we had no idea what was going on the first time around either and were basically left hanging without answers to the mystery.  It might have something to do with DNA, or aliens, or both.  But Mark E. Smith’s atonal poetics and Scizophrenic laughter punching through meditative, repetitive bass rhythms make for a great debate winner with your punk friends who think they’re too cool for Christmas.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – There Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects:  No one’s gonna make a fool out of Sharon Jones.  Least of all her mother, with that trifling explanation of how presents wound up under her Christmas tree.  Replete with a jazzy sax solo that revisits “Jingle Bells”, this groovy soul number from the prolific funk revivalists takes a cynical look at all the continuity errors in the Santa myth while simultaneously pointing out economic inequalities that don’t simply end with a lack of fireplaces in housing developments.

The Flaming Lips – Christmas at the Zoo:  In this hazy, lazy jam from Clouds Taste Metallic, Wayne Coyne sings about freeing animals from the zoo Brad-Pitt-in-12-Monkeys style.  Zoos are sad fucking places, it’s true, but something about listening to this song is akin to flipping through and filling in a coloring book with your most psychedelic crayons.  Rubbery guitars waver like the bars bent back on peacock cages, trumpets sound like liberated elephants.  Coyne’s Christmas obsession didn’t fizzle after the release of the song in 1995; they released a secret Christmas album in 2007, re-recording one of the tracks (“Atlas Eets Christmas”) four years later with Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band.  And then there’s Christmas on Mars, a film Coyne wrote, directed, and starred in with other members of the Lips.  It debuted at Sasquatch Festival in 2008.

Joey Ramone – Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight):  This is the only worthwhile selection on Joey’s 2002 Christmas Spirit… In My House EP.  It’s got to be one of the few Ramones-related songs that separates “want” and “to” instead of using the stylized “wanna”; I was under the impression that the Ramones had no idea such a thing could be done.  Yet here it is, right at the intersection of Christmas cheer and heartfelt pleas to your significant other to end the bickering for once.  The reason this song is listenable when the others on the EP are not is mainly because it hearkens back to Ramones glory days, only trading a bit of the usual grit for some shades of Doo-Wop and festive jangle.

Crocodiles/Dum Dum Girls – Merry Christmas Baby (Please Don’t Die): Dum Dum Girls’ collaborated with Crocodiles in a 2009 all-night recording session that resulted in this Yuletide look at love and mortality.  Christmas, no joke, is a time when a lot of people struggle with depression, and this song is particularly sweet in that it addresses a lover who seems to have fallen prey to those demons.  Real-life couple Dee Dee and Brandon Welchez take turns spreading the cheer in this garage pop jam, which should be enough to rouse even the saddest bopper.

Kishi Bashi – It’s Christmas, But It’s Not White Here In Our Town:  In this short and swoony number, the multi-instrumentalist with a heart of gold longs for an idyllic, frost-covered wonderland, the reflections as dreamy and romantic as a tape on rewind.  Kishi Bashi’s vocals are extra angelic, layered airily over sweet strings.  It could have been a great opener for one of those claymation Christmas specials, maybe one in which the protagonist has to fight to save the town from a snow-less winter.  But in a real-life heroic move, the musician donated all proceeds from sales of the snowflake-shaped flexi-disc to Ear Candy, a charitable organization that provides kids with used instruments.

The Pogues – Fairytale of New York:  There really aren’t enough Christmas songs with the word “faggot” in them.  JUST KIDDING, THERE’S ONE TOO MANY.  Kirsty MacColl’s cavalier use of the epithet almost disqualified it from the list, but this song is a fixture on so many lists already because all anyone associates with it is ending up in the drunk tank on Christmas and those triumphant “And bells were ringing!” chorus declarations from Shane MacGowan.  I considered including Wham!’s “Last Christmas” or The Vandals’ “My First Christmas (As A Woman)”, decided that the latter did more harm than good and that the former represents the kind of annoying things I hate about Christmas songs in the first place.  Incidentally, there is no such thing as the NYPD choir.  According to the song’s Wikipedia entry, the NYPD does have a Pipes and Drums unit but they didn’t know “Galway Bay” when they appeared in the video for “Fairytale”, playing the Mickey Mouse Club theme instead.

So there you have it.  These songs go above an beyond the cloying carols dripping with good tidings.  Whether political or personal, they represent a more thoughtful, far less narrow view of what Christmas is about, embracing the controversial and updating the conventional.

In other news, Iggy Pop wants you to have a happy holiday, or go swimming, or cuddle with his cockateel, or something.