I can’t remember the last time I watched an awards show on television. There was a brief period in my twenties when I enjoyed the glitzy fashions that took place on the red carpet, the cameras zooming in on extravagant jewelry or the intricate beading of a gown that cost more than my rent. The GRAMMYs were no exception. At the time, I was working in the entertainment industry and scoffed at the idea that a musician’s merit lie in an institution that seemed to reward popularity over talent. I didn’t hate all of it, though: I enjoyed Little Richard’s performance in 2008, Daft Punk with Stevie Wonder in 2014, and who could forget the soy-bomb incident during Bob Dylan’s performance in 1998.
On Sunday night, minutes before bed, I did my usual doomscroll through Instagram (I do not recommend this) and read that Megan Thee Stallion had performed a medley for this year’s GRAMMYs. As usual, the comments about her performance jumped out at me first: “I pray for our daughters!” “Disgusting” “Train wreck of a performance” and my personal favorite, “What am I supposed to tell my 12 year old?”
While we can only hope that woman told her 12 year old about body autonomy and the rigorous schedules and training of background dancers (let’s not hold our breath), nothing about these responses were a surprise; the outrage, as always, is as punctual as a clock. Out of curiosity, I watched the clip, expecting to see something blasphemous, criminal.
And then I nearly fell out of my bed. A reference to the Nicholas Brothers!
At three minutes and fifteen seconds in, two women tap dance, side by side, on a white staircase that seems to be a nod to the Nicholas Brothers dancing during Cab Calloway’s ‘Jumpin Jive’ in the 1943 film Stormy Weather. They descend down the staircase, one by one, hop over each other and end in the splits position before Megan Thee Stallion continues singing her hit, “Savage.” Granted, these two female dancers were not, as Mindy Aloff writes, “catapulting themselves over each other’s heads” quite like the Nicholas Brothers were wont to do. But even the set, a grand staircase lit beneath large lighting fixtures, further cements the nod to the famous tap-dancing duo, whose high-flying performance in Stormy Weather was filmed in one take.
Considered to be the best tap dancers of their day and “one of the most beloved dance teams in the history of dance,” it’s thrilling to see their influence spread into other genres of Black music and performance. Yes, Megan Thee Stallion’s sexuality is often at the forefront of her music. It’s not for everyone. But if we’re so laser-focused on empty outrage, we are going to miss out on the references and nods she is giving to former legends, an homage to Black ingenuity and talent that electrified audiences for years, a piece of history that too many have forgotten. Now that is a conversation to have with your 12 year old.
The murderous mother. We’ve seen her face before, splashed across the front pages of newspapers and magazines. On television she’s the headline story, viewers captivated by the image of a woman seated in court, usually stone-faced, in an orange jumpsuit. A figure born to sell tabloids, a monster ready to be crucified by the public.
For me, two faces come to mind: A tearful Susan Smith on the cover of TIME, an apathetic-looking Andrea Yates on the cover of USA Today—both with headlines questioning their motives, their sanity. There’s never a clear-cut reason, of course, for their crimes. Mental illness, depression, a troubled marriage, religious zealotry—the list is long and complex, just like the women themselves.
In middle school, I learned of Susan Smith’s crimes. It blared from the car radio when my mother picked me up from school, it jumped out at me from every television in the house. What I found most shocking was that she had invented a Black gunman on which to pin her filicide. “I can’t sleep, I can’t eat,” she said, crying, “I can’t do anything but think about [her children].” In her home state of South Carolina, one can imagine how this false allegation affected local Black communities. When it became clear that she had murdered her own children, the outrage set in, and the nation was sent reeling, terror and bewilderment sweeping into the collective consciousness.
A homeroom teacher, sensing unease, brought up Smith as a point of discussion. After a few minutes of silence, someone raised their hand and said parents murdering their children isn’t anything new—it’s in the Bible, too. A cacophony of voices shot through the classroom. Angry students explained that passages from the Bible require proper examination, an impossibility if one cannot acknowledge the cultural and historical framework in which the scripture was written. But employing context, it became clear to me then, was a feature not available to just anyone. So what do we think of Susan Smith?, our teacher asked us, again. This time, voices were calm, conclusive: A monster, a villain, a demon. Death, we all agreed on, was the only ending suitable for someone like her, someone like that.
I didn’t think of Susan Smith again until college. There I learned of Procne, Medea, Agave. Of course the world of myth has their fair share of misbehaving mothers. As the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, I have long been terrorized by the story of La Llorona. I am careful, even now as an adult, not to wade too long in dark shallow waters, lest I be dragged and drowned by a screaming banshee.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Procne learns of her husband’s assault on her sister, and in retaliation kills their son, chopping up his little body and serving it to her husband as a meal. For Procne, revenge is a dish best served piping hot and heaped onto a plate. And Medea, too, kills her children to exact revenge on her cheating husband, Jason. The act of filicide is not without its troubles, however. In Euripides’s version, Medea laments in her opening speech that her husband’s abandonment has left her with “no fatherland, no house, and no means to turn aside misfortune.” Having left her family years ago to marry Jason—and enraging her father in the process—she is now without a husband, stripped of her roots, and has no recourse to reassemble her family unit.
For ancient audiences, this speech in the play would most likely be “a reflection of Athenian social conditions,” as classicist Bernard M. W. Knox writes, a life where women “were confined to the home” and had little agency outside its walls. That said, women today would have no problem understanding Medea’s pain behind her husband’s infidelity. What we might not understand was her eventual decision to kill her children. “With the death of her children,” Elizabeth K. Markovits writes in Future Freedoms, “the Athenian woman has no meaning left, no purpose.”
With Medea, that lack of meaning generates a new one: Children now dead, she is neither a wife nor a mother, has purposely severed the social contracts that once made it so. She is free. At the same time, Markovits also reminds us that Medea is “not simply a deviant, horrifying mother,” that in the end, her capacity for violence is what allows her “to overcome all pain to re-establish her honor.”
Absolutely no one would say the same of Susan Smith. Rumors swirled that she had killed her children in order to be with her lover, Thomas Findlay. In this sense, her affair likens her to Jason. But part of that rumor bleeds into a Medea-esque line of thought: One cannot be a wife and a mother with a crumbling marriage and a lover on the side—for a woman in this position, something has to give. Jason left his family to start over with someone else, but for whatever reason, Smith was not willing to do the same. In court, Findlay shared that Smith had “a secret affair with her stepfather,” a man who was rumored to have molested her when she was a teenager. With a backstory ripe with taboo and abuse, it seems Smith had no house and no ‘fatherland’ to come home to, either.
Prosecutors were quick to shut down the ‘abuse excuse’ for the reasoning behind Smith’s crimes. Like Medea, she was painted as no victim. And like Medea, that made it all the more difficult to define her. “A vixenish adulteress…a frightened wife, a skillful liar and a doting mother,” were the varied descriptions from witnesses. She admits, on that day, she had driven around town for awhile, initially planning on taking her own life instead. Medea, too, grapples with her own decision, asking herself if she can go through with committing a “most unholy deed.” In fact, Medea questions her motives repeatedly, making her seem, at times, more human than Smith.
Nearly 27 years later, Smith is still a topic of interest. A TV movie of her life aired in 2000; she was the focus of an American Justice episode in 2004. In 2015, she wrote from her cell: “I am not the monster society thinks I am.” Monster or not, mothers have long been characters that people find fascinating, especially in fiction. Rachel Mans McKenny, in an article for Electric Literature, writes that a recent trend in literature “makes the mothers themselves the locus of horror,” often due to “mothers…trapped within their walls, with little opportunity to escape.” Two millennia later, those Athenian social conditions pop up and still ring true.
When motherhood appears in fiction, we are given the space to focus on maternal themes, analyze female characters and ruminate on their behaviors. With myth and fiction, we can move “away from reality,” as Mans McKenny points out, and move closer to “better understand [the reader’s] world.” With myth and fiction, we have a fuller story, a bigger picture. It’s what allows us to sympathize with Sethe and leaves us pitying Agave. Like my schoolmates once intimated, context is a gift.
If literature is a catalyst for dialogue, how do we then talk about women like Susan Smith? Why does it feel like we are given more dimensionality on the page than in the flesh? It’s difficult when we consider that literary narrative and media narrative are two separate things. The latter can often rely too heavily on headlines whose purpose is to shock, enrage. Even before the Internet, headlines on Smith were steeped in clickbait-like fashion: DOES SHE DESERVE TO DIE?, Susan Smith’s Lawyer vs. the Electric Chair, Staring Into the Heart of the Heart of Darkness. It is these stories and articles that render Smith into a mythical beast, bigger and scarier than Medea herself.
I thought of Smith again when I became a mother. Thinking back to her crimes, I found myself disgusted by her in a way I wasn’t before. I worried her brand of monstrosity was contagious, or worse, genetic. What I found was that motherhood was just as much a struggle outside my home as it was inside. In public, people told me my son was too skinny for a baby—some asked if I was feeding him. (Yes, really.) When I shared that I had stopped breastfeeding, I was chastised. Never was there a need to ask for parenting advice—it was flung at me like a dirty dishrag (which, some will insist, should be made only of organic cotton). There was no reason to tell anyone that I decided to go back on antidepressants: Parenthood begets judgment. On Facebook, I was told by a stranger in the comments section (note: never read the comments section) that I was a bad mother because my son was vaccinated. In the throes of my new-mom exhaustion, I thought maybe stories like Medea’s aren’t really about filicide and whether or not we have contempt for these acts but rather, the ways in which women are able to seek retaliation, regain power, recapture a sense of self.
I want to be clear: I do not think Susan Smith should be freed from prison, I do not think she should be pitied.
But while we might never learn why mothers like Smith make their fateful choices, we should acknowledge the dialectical elephant in the room. There is a problem in the gendered response we give to these women—mythical or otherwise—by claiming they failed at the one job they were expected to value most. We wag a finger, we shake our heads. And we feel, deep in our bones, that we have every right to do this. And maybe we do. But I do think we can begin to address motherhood in the same way we let it breathe through fiction: Women who, as Mans McKenny writes, are allowed to be “eely,” mothers who struggle with “mental health care and child care and sexual satisfaction,” mothers whose identities do not begin and end with childbirth, and that giving birth does not spackle every crack in our psyche, does not fulfill our every need. We can be good, bad, everything in between—more than cautionary tales of monsters lurking in the dark.
Last week’s blog post on Tina Turner got me thinking more about cover songs. Specifically, cover songs recorded by women and originally written by men. How do these songs change? Are they any different in composition, instrumentation? The questions go on.
Before I ever saw her play live, what I knew of Cat Power—singer and songwriter Chan Marshall—had little to do with her music. There were rumors of panic attacks during performances, where she sometimes forgot, or misremembered, her own lyrics; there were stories of her weeping into the microphone mid-song, running offstage as she abandoned her set, her guitar, her audience.
At the time I had only one record of hers, 1998’s Moon Pix, an album of slow-burning emotion laid bare by simple acoustic guitarwork, piano, and a voice that sounded like a somber sexpot on her fifth glass of gin. When she came to town and was the opening act for a band whose name I can’t even remember, I wondered if I would bear witness to a catastrophe. Thankfully, no—cigarette in hand, Marshall seemed relaxed, in good spirits.
As is the case for opening acts, she was mostly ignored by patrons who sipped on beers and smoked and talked while she sat on a cheap folding chair, face beginning to freeze in fear. Under shit-venue lighting, she mumbled something incoherent, placed a few fingers (that looked like they had been run through the garbage disposal) onto the fretboard, and began to play a song I knew but could not place: “When I’m driving in my car / And that man comes on the radio..”
I remember smiling, not because I figured out she was covering the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” but because not once had she sung the chorus—that famous and familiar line we all know, and is also the song’s title. This omission felt revelatory, almost illegal.
In 2000 she released The Covers Record, an album full of, you guessed it, covers. Marshall’s selections are solid and logical given her range, including folk tracks you’d expect of her (“Kingsport Town,” “Salty Dog,” Dylan’s “Paths of Victory”), late 60s-era rock (Moby Grape’s “Naked, If I Want To,” The Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason”), indie-folk from her own contemporaries (Smog’s “Red Apples”), a Louisiana-born love song (Phil Phillips’s “Sea of Love”). She even covers herself with a piano-laden re-recording of “In This Hole,” from her 1996 album, What Would the Community Think.
The Stones cover opens the album, situates the listener. It seems too obvious a choice for why it’s my favorite, considering the track has been covered to death. (And it reminds me of a Snickers ad from my youth, for God’s sake.)
Adding no supplemental instrumentation, Marshall doesn’t really give us anything new on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” There are no background vocals courtesy of an up-and-coming chanteuse, no accompanying music video to be found on MTV. Just Marshall, her voice, and her guitar.
For it’s not just the simplicity, in and of itself, that makes Marshall’s rendition so remarkable. It’s the way she strips it bare, castrates the swagger and buries it beneath the floorboards. Just like the live performance I heard, Marshall’s recorded version omits the immortalized chorus, instead plucks a melancholy variation of that famed fuzz riff from her acoustic guitar, patient for the next verse. And that voice. It’s viscous in its sorrow, pensive in its pleading. “Can’t you see?” she sings, dejection and misery detectable, “I’m on a losing streak.” While Jagger is singing about dissatisfaction, Marshall is feeling it.
Stark and sad and soft and tender, it’s easy to fall into the trap that Cat Power’s rendition is somehow made feminine. With the male bravado of the original gone, Marshall’s innovation lies in deconstructing one of the best-known rock and roll songs of the twentieth century, and reshapes it into her own folk melody. For a song that supposedly moans of sexual frustration, Marshall’s take is as intimate as ever.
I first learned of Tina Turner at twelve years old, when, on a dare one summer, my best friend and I snuck into a sold-out screening of What’s Love Got to Do with It at our local cinema. Not the first R-rated film I had seen as a preteen, yet it was one that stuck with me for days and weeks afterward. The Turner’s lopsided marriage in particular, as there are plenty of scenes that display Ike’s brutality. In the film’s final scenes, an uninvited Ike visits Tina backstage, just minutes before she is to perform. He pulls out a gun. And then she reminds him that an audience awaits her and her alone—a room full of people have “come to see me,” she says, emphasizing her presence and talent can both exist and thrive without him.
It’s a good film, though one that a twelve year old has no business watching. And whether the film relies too heavily on creative liberties is another discussion. But in the days of Sam Goody and Tower Records, I was on a hunt to get my hands on what I could of Tina’s music. My family was no help. “Private Dancer,” my father told me, “Are you asking about that song?” No, no, no. The legs, I told him. The river. The job in the city. How to say this without admitting I snuck into an R-rated film? It seemed we had different versions of Tina.
On a bright day, riding my bike through an alleyway, I discovered a discarded mound of cassette tapes. On the spine of one was written “CCR.” Illegible handwriting dotted the insert. I took two tapes, brought them to a friend’s house. With a nose ring and blue hair, the friend’s older sister scoffed as we tried to decipher the lettering. “CCR is Creedence Clearwater Revival,” she said, and shot me a look of pity. We played it, loud, on a Sony boombox, and there it was: the job, the city, the man, the wheels, the river.
Much has been written about Ike & Tina Turner’s rendition of “Proud Mary,” which in 1971 went to number four on the Billboard charts—their biggest hit as a duo. It was Tina who heard the original first and fell in love, enough to suggest the band record their own take. Ike wasn’t sold (or open to suggestions), but Tina got her way. By 1970 they had been performing the song on the road and finally got to recording their own version.
Often, cover songs are cheap imitations, so we relish when they transcend the original into a new and inventive interpretation. What makes Ike & Tina’s “Proud Mary” so revered is what strikes us from the beginning—Tina’s voice, smooth and controlled, ushers us into a story, warns us, like the captain of a ship, of a bumpy ride ahead—she and her band “always do it nice and rough.” At the helm of the song’s movement, she also steers its creative control, summoning layers of backup singers and guitar and bass and horns, all of which give the track texture and depth, a feature that befits her raspy vocals.
In a 1993 Vanity Fair cover story, Tina is described by the late Bob Krasnow as someone who “could be your girlfriend, your sister, your best friend—she can fulfill all these emotional niches,” but during a performance, “she has the power to stimulate you…” In the same breath he describes a time when he visited the Turners in Los Angeles and was surprised to find Tina “in the kitchen with a wet rag, down on her hands and knees wiping the floor, wearing a do-rag on her head.” Bless his heart, the man had one version of Tina in mind—the sex symbol onstage, not the mother mired in domesticity.
But it’s easy for me, as I’m sure it is for others, to hear a multifaceted Tina in her work, especially in “Proud Mary,” where she functions as the guide, the lead singer, the performer in a short dress with her trademark legs at play, a sonic fury whose physical presence elevates the song’s arrangements, alters its context. Like Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Respect,” Tina’s rendition feels like a bespoke incantation for women, a piece of music to lift, authorize, propel one of our own to the front of the room. Not someone who is there to fulfill anyone’s emotional niches, but there to let us watch her fulfill her own. A petite figure of legendary proportions from the state of Tennessee. But even women in myth face adversity. And to think Tina performed with such alacrity like she did on “Proud Mary,” night after night, on album after album, when her personal life and well-being was holding on by a thread.
It’s not that I think CCR’s “Proud Mary” isn’t good, or great—certainly, it has the legs to stand on its own. Yet when I listen to Tina sing—about leaving behind the familiar, working to make ends meet, finding a community of hope—the song strikes me as less of a cover and more of a personal journey through life that she understood, lived through, and emerged anew on the other side.
2020 is over. And what a mess it was. But the year did bring us some musical gems, some of which I’m playing on repeat into the new year. Amanda Petrusich from The New Yorker writes that she gravitated toward music in 2020 that “immediately sounded meaningful.” I understand her point, but I mostly sought out tracks that just made me feel something—good, bad, angry, alive. All of it. In no particular order, here are a few songs that kept me going
Note: Due to embedding issues with WordPress, I am only able to link to these tracks, but clicking on the song titles will take you to Spotify. ❤
Backed by slow-going percussion and swimming in synth, “I Live At Night” begins with a confession:
I often tremble with the truth
I’m almost always out of use
The emotions don’t build and explode, however—vocalist Maria Lindén maintains a cool and serene composure, her vocals light, airy, yielding to a one-string guitar riff that curves throughout the track. There’s enough reverb to bathe in, and when the song ends, you’ll want to jump back in for a soak.
Released in April of 2020, Fetch the Bolt Cutters seemed to be the album most of my music-loving friends gravitated toward during quarantine. “I Want You to Love Me” is only one word away from being the title of a Cheap Trick hit, but Apple’s lyrics are unavoidably salient, relevant, begging you to pay attention:
And I know none of this will matter in the long run
But I know a sound is still a sound around no one
And while I’m in this body / I want somebody to want
In an interview, she explains these lines: “I exist whether or not you see me. These things about me are true whether or not you acknowledge them.” Two minutes and seventeen seconds in, the drums flutter, the bass thumps alongside her thundering voice, which now no longer sounds as sweet, yet remains just as vulnerable.
From Spain, Mourn was formed by a small group of high schoolers, now grown up and a band of three young women. I stumbled upon their self-titled debut a few years ago, and every release since then has been solid and consistent. I’m a bit tempted to compare them to Sleater-Kinney, but that feels lazy. Mourn does write catchy post-punk, and their harmonies are pleasing and pair nicely with their feverish guitarwork, but they are something all their own. “This Feeling is Disgusting” is one of their poppiest tracks, and opens their latest release, Self Worth.
Who hasn’t yet heard the clip of Cardi B shouting, “Coronavirus!”? It became a 2020 slogan, a meme, a viral sensation (no pun intended), and eventually, a remix that made it onto the Billboard charts. Likewise, Cardi B’s music tends to inhabit her boisterous ego and spunky personality. “WAP” is no different, and chances are you are familiar with the acronym, and if it offends you, well, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion don’t have time for your shit. Yes, it’s a sexually explicit song, and yes, its themes come with an adult rating. But the two are having fun here, rapping about their proclivities, exploits they demand on their terms. In fact, the most offensive thing about this song is its video, specifically the scene where a certain white woman—whose family is known for siphoning off Black culture from the masses and injecting it into their bodies and bank accounts—sashays down a gleaming hallway. But I digress. “WAP” is entertaining, it’s buoyant, and it’s addictive. It passes its own kind of Bechdel test, one where two women sing explicitly about sex in total absence of a male voice.
It’s difficult for me to think of PJ Harvey’s 1995 album, To Bring You My Love, without envisioning her sleek black hair, eyelashes thick and long like spider legs, swipes of electric-blue shadow across her eyelids. Which is why I love the stripped-down demo of “Meet Ze Monsta.” She’s equally great in both the demo and the album cut, but it’s a treat to hear an in-the-studio peek at what these tracks sounded like before their final polish. The track opens with a burst of ’80s-sounding drums, playful and biting, a welcome mat to Harvey’s rollicking guitar and raw vocals.
Okay, technically this album was released in 2018, but I only discovered it last year. The rhythm in “Toy” is needling, uncomfortable. It maintains an energetic trot as we as listeners run to keep up with singer Alloysious Massaquoi:
I’m chasing shadows in the gallows
Collecting what was stolen from me
From Scotland, Young Fathers have garnered critical acclaim since their 2014 debut album, Dead. The title of 2018’s Cocoa Sugar, they explain, is “an amalgamation of how we see the world.” Amalgamation is right: The album showcases their unique style of electronica, rap, hip-hop, and vocal arrangements that are nothing short of extraordinary.
Sometimes, you need a punch in the gut. “Invisible Wall” is just that in sonic form, a post-punk romp with drums recorded to perfection and a blast of guitars you can feel in your chest. The lyrics are disjointing, a sense of violence lurking around the corner:
One more invisible wall
Thrown up against the edge
I feel its power flex
When I first heard this song on KXLU, I was certain it came from a band on the now-defunct SST Records label, but no, while Stuck’s aesthetic has a familiar dissonance that reminds me a bit of Polvo and Shellac, Change is Bad is the band’s debut album. And clocking in at twenty-nine minutes, it’s a quick and blood-pumping listen.
2021. Even typing it feels surreal, far away. Yet here we are. Here I am, anyway, alive and well and writing a blog only I read. I kind of like that. It’s like a diary hidden beneath the bed, except there’s no lock or secret code, and its contents are of interest only to the writer. So I suppose it’s true what they say: Sometimes, you have to be your biggest fan. (And critic, but we’re all naturally good at that, right?)
Since the beginning of quarantine, I have been dreaming about New York City, my one-time home. It’s been a few years since I’ve visited, but unlike other cities in which I’ve lived, New York always felt like home in ways my birthplace never did, never could. Night after night I dreamt of walking down Houston, ordering falafel at Mamoun’s, eating bagels from Kossar’s, eyeing the comical bronze sculptures at the 14th Street station, elbowing my way through Grand Central, staring, longingly, at the shoes and coats in the windows of Bergdorf, thumbing through dusty novels at The Strand. Even the East Village streets that smelled like piss in the heat of the summer when everyone’s scalps burned like hot plates and it was impossible to dry off after a cool shower…all that I missed, too.
Scenes of daily life that other people, especially family members living in California or the Midwest, could not fathom. They would wrinkle their brows as their faces soured. New York was too expensive, too hostile. The latter was always on their minds. Aren’t New Yorkers, like, so mean? they would ask, cold beer in hand. There was a shirt for sale I would see somewhere in the Lower East Side, a tank top with the phrase in block letters, FUCK YOU YOU FUCKIN’ FUCK. Twenty three dollars! And yet they were always sold out. I never had the guts to buy it, let alone wear it. Oh my god, your mother would so kill you, one cousin said. I believed her.
There were, of course, certain things I did not understand about New York life. Even when I surpassed the ten-year mark of living in the city, I still did not consider myself a “real” New Yorker. (Whatever that means.) Never would I say “on line” instead of “in line,” never would I order a meal “to stay” instead of “for here.” I lacked an accent, a mental toughness, a sense of direction. (Don’t tell me it’s a grid system.) To present myself as a true New Yorker felt fraudulent, the kind of deception old-schoolers could sniff out in seconds. It didn’t matter, though—I would always have its architecture and piss-smelling streets; its citizens could define me however they wanted.
But although I cannot visit New York City right now, Netflix’s Pretend It’s a City has kept my spirit alive and in tact, one cantankerous quip at a time. The quintessential New Yorker, Fran Lebowitz was someone I always wished was my own mother, or at least someone I wished I knew. She wasn’t just a citizen of New York, she was New York. And like the city itself, she was seemingly everywhere at once, synthesizing a part of its culture from the fringes and the mainstream, at times rough and biting, other times tender, but always impossible to escape.
She talks about her friendship with Charles Mingus, who, after an argument, chased her down whole city blocks in a fury and then asks if she wants to go eat. And then there’s the snippet with Spike Lee where she admits, rather proudly, that she hates sports, and then later mentions that she was in attendance for the first Frasier/Ali fight at MSG in 1971. A “wonderful fashion and cultural event,” she describes it. “Unfortunately, there was a fight in the middle of it.”
And then, in the last episode—“Library Services”—there’s the business of reading. In a conversation with Martin Scorsese (who also directs the series), Lebowitz says she’s not the type of reader who seeks representation on the page: “A book is not a mirror,” she argues. “It’s supposed to be a door!” The topic of the “common reader” emerges in a past conversation with Toni Morrison (who is simply not featured enough in Pretend It’s a City), and Lebowitz concludes that the common reader has been replaced by “the common writer.” It’s a retort that receives laughter from the audience, and Morrison agrees that there are readers who hope to find “some replica of their lives” in novels.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? Throughout her life, Morrison defended her work constantly from criticism that she was not writing enough about white people. “I am the reader of the books I write,” she explains to Lebowitz. Here, a book is both a door and a mirror. And though Morrison once said, “I’m writing for black people,” she welcomed readers beyond her intended audience. “Invite the reader in,” she tells Lebowitz, who responds, “But I don’t want to invite the reader in!”
Once again, Lebowitz basks in the glow of her curmudgeonry, but through different approaches, both women wrote—for others, themselves, perhaps a bit of both—with a sharp social eye on the world in which they lived, amplified the voices and topics that interested them most. True, one is more than happy to tell you her opinions, while the other would encourage you to self-reflect. It would seem they made an odd pairing, but their years-long friendship is not really much of a surprise: Lebowitz revered the literary giant, and on-camera their camaraderie is engaging, sometimes playful. I love that Pretends It’s a City ends with an episode that features two celebrated authors who to this day inspire any writer to pick up a pen and get to work—native New Yorker or not.
Kim Gordon is like cilantro: she’s that one musical ingredient in Sonic Youth that people either want to be the star of the show, or the element that should be thrown out altogether. Sometimes, it’s her vocals: they can squeak and grate, and worst of all, when the band is grooving through their more melodious riffs, “she’ll just grunt and scream over it” (Pitchfork). But on songs like “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Halloween,” she is ethereal, even sexy, her voice a “breathy near whisper” (Rolling Stone). Other times, it’s her lack of training: whether she’s strapped with a bass or a guitar, Kim is more interested in generating her own brand of dissonance than flexing any technical prowess often reserved for the Angus Youngs and Joan Jetts of the world. But when Kim and bandmate Thurston Moore announced their divorce in 2011 after 27 years of marriage (sidenote: I cried less when my own parents divorced), it was easy, if not selfish, for us Sonic Youth fans to wonder how their breakup would affect the band’s future solo projects. Would she cut her hair, move to Sedona, and record a folk album? Or would she move to a remote village somewhere in Europe, open an art gallery, and never make music again?
Two years later, in an interview with Elle, Kim shared that after her husband moved out of their Massachusetts home, she listened to a lot of hip-hop and rap to deal with the pain, these genres being “really good when you’re traumatized.” Whatever images I had of Kim in despair—flannel pajamas, weeping into bowls of cereal, The Cure and Morrissey blaring from the living room—were dashed. Instead, she found solace and strength in hip-hop tracks like Gang Starr’s “The Planet,” the late ‘80s hit “It Takes Two” by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, and 2013’s “Wendy N Becky” by Joey Bada$$ feat. Chance the Rapper.
So when Matador Records announced the release of her debut solo album, No Home Record, it was no surprise to learn that the music that carried her through divorce was not only still in heavy rotation, but also an influence on her new material. During the songwriting process, she toldVogue, “I did want to do things with beats, but obviously not a hip-hop record…that would be just…weird.” And thank God for this sense of self-awareness, because without it would leave us with an album full of dreadful rap attempts bordering on cultural appropriation and embarrassment.
Nowhere is the hip-hop influence more obvious than on “Paprika Pony,” arguably the album’s best track, with its minimalist, Gucci Mane-esque backdrop of percussion. And yet, it works: the opening lyrics, “What am I?/ Just not a girl/ A woman” are sung in a near whisper, her voice a layer of softness over a steady shuffle of beats. It isn’t until nearly halfway through the track when she breaks character and asks hurriedly, “What’s the last thing you said?” before reverting to a delicate murmur, an indication that perhaps she’s seconds away from getting you by the throat. On “Cookie Butter,” a thunderous beat—courteous of a drum machine borrowed from a friend—pulsates beneath an onslaught of simple phrases: “I eat/ I drink/ I forget/ I buy,” a nod to her fascination with consumerism. The song finishes with a clamor of guitars that sound like buzzing chainsaws.
And though the use of a drum machine finds Kim in new territory, No Home Record still contains the kind of songwriting we’ve come to expect from her. With a chorus reminiscent of 2000s-era Sonic Youth, “Air BnB” is a punk romp with a brilliant bass line. (The video is fantastic, too.) And the guttural punch of “Murdered Out” is Kim in concentrated form, a cacophony of ear-piercing guitarwork that could serve as the soundtrack to a horror film. In fact, both “AirBnB” and “Murdered Out” hit harder than any Sonic Youth song recorded within the past twenty years. Maybe it’s not fair to compare, but as I listen to No Home Record, I find myself asking: What would Sonic Youth have sounded like without Kim? Would their music have been as abrasive, experimental, unique?
We will never know. But as far as I’m concerned, you can put cilantro on everything.
Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers — “Don’t Come Around Here No More”
In an Atlantic article published in 2017, it is pointed out that for many people, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was their first introduction to Tom Petty’s music. As a child of the early 1980s, this is certainly true for me, as it’s the first Petty tune I ever heard, and it’s still my favorite track on Southern Accents. While the song’s instrumentation differed greatly from his earlier radio hits like “American Girl” and “Refugee,” the accompanying music video made it that much stranger: As Petty is up to no good as the Mad Hatter, the Alice in Wonderland backdrop is deliciously creepy and weird, especially when we see Alice lying on the dinner table, her flesh turned into a frosted cake that Petty slices and serves to his bandmates. It’s a great song with an equally great video.
But there’s a moment in the music that has always felt a little out of place to me, a moment I have always relished. It’s at the two-minute mark, when Petty’s voice begins to quaver. As he sings, “I don’t feel you anymore/ You darken my door,” the sitar no longer sounds as playful, the percussion no longer feels as buoyant. It’s a line one could say to their lover, mother, best friend; coupled with Petty’s unique vocal style, (I won’t say limited vocal range—he lacked nothing) it feels that much more melancholy. And the “darken my door” phrase could easily find itself at home in a John Milton sonnet. In fact, I thought for sure it was lifted from Shakespeare, but no—according to An American Glossary, Volume 1, its first known usage was by Benjamin Franklin. And while Petty may or may not have been aware of this, of course it was Benjamin Franklin, because it just doesn’t get more American than these two.
Broadcast — “Corporeal”
Trish Keenan, the vocalist for the British group Broadcast, passed away in 2011 after contracting pneumonia, just a few weeks after contracting swine flu. “Corporeal” is how I like to remember her best: a steady, low-pitched voice singing of life’s fragility, layered atop a twangy guitar riff and undulating distortion.
It is a track so textural you can feel the hum of her voice in the back of your throat, the pluck of the guitar on the fleshy pads of your fingers, the harsh buzzing of the synth in your teeth. It’s a song of the body, for the body. Nearly two minutes in, Keenan’s vocals stretch and rise, the reverberation doubles and thickens her voice into a viscous honey. And here is where I always thought she sounded like an angel. Or at least, the kind of angel who would be assigned to look over someone like me. Rest in peace, Trish.
Sonic Youth — “The Sprawl”
“The Sprawl” is the third track on Daydream Nation, the 1988 album that garnered Sonic Youth rightful territory on the indie-rock map. Inspired by William Gibson, bassist Kim Gordon takes its title from Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, where the Sprawl is an enclosed metropolis stretching all the way from Boston to Atlanta. But in her memoir, Girl in a Band, she writes that the lyrics were influenced by Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, a novel that centers on nuclear fallout survivors: As she penned the lyrics, she was “thinking back on what it felt like being a teenager in Southern California…feeling all alone on the sidewalk…the sun and good weather so assembly-line unchanging it made my whole body tense.”
This tension has always made sense to me. Growing up in Central California, I remember how oppressive the heat could be, at times the rows and rows of palm trees and dirt roads formed a searing, static landscape, where nobody dared to walk around their neighborhood or run errands on foot when the car could get you there faster—and with air conditioning.
(In Camus’s The Stranger, the protagonist, on trial for murder, explains to the judge why he killed a man: the sun was really hot and in his face. Everyone in the novel laughs at this admission, but had the trial taken place near Death Valley in California, I’m sure the judge would’ve understood.)
No matter Sonic Youth’s New York roots, I love this song because it’s so California, so Kim. Her Los Angeles imagery isn’t Hollywood or the beach: it’s a shotgun house, a river, old machinery; a city in jeopardy from becoming an overdeveloped site of commerce—inevitable once she spots a “big sign down the road.” At the two-minute mark, the song begins to build in shimmery layers of guitar and cymbals, allowing her space to craft her storytelling as she sing-talks about her childhood. “The Sprawl” is the perfect title when you consider it clocks in at 7 minutes and 42 seconds—the longest track on the album. It’s a song that seems to point out consumer culture (“you can buy some more and more and more and more”) but isn’t interested solely in condemning it, either. Instead, Kim places us within her youth and invites us to consider our surroundings, guiding us through the past and into a future we might not want to live in.
It’s fitting that a write-up about Hole’s 1994 album, Live Through This, would be my first blog post, considering this year marks the 25thanniversary since its release. And today is also Courtney Love’s 55thbirthday, so why not? The truth is, I’ve been trying to write something for months about this record—an album that served as a soundtrack for my awkward teenage years, a time in my life when I felt both isolated and undesirable, before I realized that I could find solace, even acceptance, in music.
In the spring of 1994, it seemed there was no escaping the publicity machine and accolades behind the record—Rolling Stone and the Village Voice placed it at the top of their year-end lists, and Entertainment Weekly jokingly called Courtney Love the “brattier sister of Johnny Rotten.” But as a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in a conservative area of California with few friends, I was convinced that every piece of music on this album was written just for me. And it made sense that only other young girls my age would be able to discern which lyrics were meant for girls like us and which lyrics were meant to offend those who were probably too old and boring to appreciate or understand their meaning (translation: our parents).
But who exactly were “girls like us”? Or girls like me, for that matter? That summer, I spent most days in my room with the radio blaring, head on the pillow and fingers tapping to the beat on my kneecaps, all while thumbing through magazines like Sassy and Vogue. I would make snacks of flour tortillas and jalapeños (don’t ask) and sometimes, when the 100-degree heat became intolerable, I would suck on ice chips and watch music videos on MTV.
And there it was, as I turned on the television and sprawled onto the couch—the music video for “Miss World.” An alarmingly pale woman with blue eyes appeared onscreen, powdering her face and décolletage with such intensity that at some point you worried she just might disappear under a haze of white dust, a pool-blue barrette clinging to her bleached locks and a pout of thick red lips the only features that remained visible.
And what exactly was she singing? That she’s a girl who cannot look anyone in the eye, is sick, and lies and lies and lies? It was strange and disorienting, and yet there lurked a lesson in there somewhere, as though she wanted you to recognize her blanching herself with a powder puff the size of a dinner plate was nothing more than an exaggerated performance of femininity, and if you concentrated solely on her excessive primping, you might not hear her voice swell with ache and despair. If some feminists believe that the higher the heel, the more repressed the woman, then Courtney’s morphing into a mid-thirties Baby Jane Hudson forced me to consider the absurdity of what women felt they needed to do to look and feel beautiful, be seen. The absurdity of whatever it was my mother implied when she reminded me to be a “lady” in social settings, the absurdity of my grandmother’s horror at seeing young women braless at the mall, the absurdity of stuffing my blouses with tissue so the world would see me as a woman, not a girl.
In the coming days, I would turn on the television and immediately change the channel to MTV while my father was preoccupied in the kitchen, a burning hope inside me that “Miss World” would flash across the screen so I could press the record button on the VCR; if I could pull this off, I could watch it over and over until each frame lined up in succession, a reel that I could burn into my brain and keep on loop, even after I left the house. But that hope never materialized, though on a family trip to Los Angeles later that summer, I finally struck gold: After a long car ride, my father stopped and parked our black Ford Bronco into a parking lot on Sunset Boulevard, the circus-like red and yellow lettering of TOWER RECORDS hovering above us.
We had stopped to eat, not record shop, but I asked, as casually as I was able, if it would be such a big deal to just look inside Tower Records. And there inside I zoomed through every aisle until I found a cassette of Live Through This, sandwiched between albums by Billie Holiday and Buddy Holly. (Don’t fret, I came to appreciate those artists eventually, too.) I don’t remember asking my parents if I could buy it. Certainly the album’s cover art—a winning beauty queen clutching a bouquet of flowers and sporting a tiara—was not threatening enough for them to deny me my newly found treasure. And success! My wish was granted.
On the car ride home, I gleefully studied the liner notes, absorbed every image and photo included in the artwork, and vowed to always keep its condition pristine. To misplace or dirty the cassette would be akin to injuring myself, and no matter how many other copies existed in the world, I knew my tape was special because it was meant just for me. I was going to keep it safe.
Nearly every night from then on, I would shut my door and bury myself beneath the covers, gingerly inserting the tape into my cassette player that I would cradle against my chest, the volume raised just enough to drown out my parents fighting in the living room. No moonlight ever made it through a crack in the blinds, but this way, with Hole’s music on repeat, the dark became a respite, an escape, my own little bearable hell.
There’s one track on this record called “Softer, Softest,” that I would always skip. By this time I had upgraded to a Sony CD Walkman, one of those portable devices with a smooth, silver sheen that had a row of buttons on one end, so that when I placed the Walkman face-up in my small purse, I could easily access the play/pause button. And without fail, when the simple guitar strum of “Softer, Softest” began, I would slip my fingers into the front flap of my purse and hit the skip button, eager to listen to the next track. I can’t remember why I disliked the song so much. Perhaps it was too slow for my liking—by this time I was seeking out the fast-tempo tracks of punk bands like X-Ray Spex and Black Flag. Plus, the album already had what I considered a ballad: “Doll Parts,” a tune of longing and self-doubt that became the album’s second single, and comprised of only three chords.
But on Valentine’s Day in 1995, Hole was invited to play an acoustic set on MTV’s Unplugged, a special series where artists were invited to perform a stripped-down set of their music in front of an audience. The acoustic renditions of “Miss World” and “Doll Parts” were particularly beautiful and engaging, yet here was where I learned to appreciate “Softer, Softest.” Introducing the song, Courtney explained, “This is a song about the girl who always smelled like pee in your class. She was me…”
And she was me, too. There is a line in the song that directly precedes the chorus, a line that saddened me: “Pee Girl gets the belt,” which sounds as though Pee Girl were a young female superhero whose special power was simply wetting the bed, a skill that subjected her to lashings by whom I assumed to be her father. Watching Courtney talk about “Softer, Softest,” I understood for the first time that Pee Girl was none other than herself. And why didn’t I realize this sooner? So much of her work is largely autobiographical, and yet I never made the connection. Maybe because it was so personal for the both of us, considering that I wet the bed until I was nearly nine years old. In second grade, I remember secretly removing my white tights behind the blue handball court, hoping no one would smell the urine that had run down my legs because I waited too long to use the restroom during recess, flinging the tights into the trash bin, looking over my shoulders for any classmates who might catch me in the act. And my friend’s parents, who would wrap their daughter’s mattress with plastic sheeting whenever I would spend the night, lest I ruin the bed, a cacophony of crinkles beneath my small body as I tossed and turned in my sleep.
These were the memories that pushed me to keep “Softer, Softest” on repeat, a new appreciation developing with each listen. The track contained so much of what made Live Through This a kind of handbook for displaced preteens: themes of anger, loss, the desire for beauty and the struggle for acceptance. Courtney’s references to milk are especially pronounced in “Softer, Softest,” where milk has the power to comfort or destroy: it can be a life-giving force (“your milk turns to cream”), a rotten, contaminated substance (“your milk has a dye”), or a sexual threat (“your milk has a dick”).
But as poetic as I found the song to be, it became clear that Courtney’s persona was beginning to eclipse the music. She seemed to land interviews in every major entertainment magazine, and she was never out of things to say. I tried to keep up with the band’s television appearances as best I could, and what little allowance money I had was spent on magazines where the band’s music was reviewed.
At a garage sale I came across an old issue of SPIN where Live Through This received a high rating. Of course, the review began by mentioning Courtney, namely her acting stint in 1986’s Sid and Nancy. But even if Courtney was playing a role, she was still the biggest character of them all: the music critic likened her part in the film to “a Hole song,” the kind of tune that most would assume to be “about Love piping up for girls with bad reputations.”
I paused. Was this true? I wasn’t stupid—I knew her reputation preceded her, and she never made a secret of her demons and legal troubles. But I wasn’t a “bad” girl with a “bad” reputation: I was scared, timid, quiet, and uneasy in my own skin. I remember my mother asking, “What the hell do you see in this woman?” pointing to Courtney on the cover of a 1995 issue of Rolling Stone, a mop of yellow straw on Courtney’s head, her midriff exposed. The words Hole is a Band was splashed across the front, Courtney Love Is a Soap Opera printed directly underneath. I considered those words may have been true, but I didn’t want to fully divorce the music from the creator. I appreciated Courtney’s antics, I understood her rage, I accepted her faults. Why did everyone seem to think rebellious, wild young women were the only ones who could appreciate her music? I knew she could speak for us inhibited types, too.
Still, once I reached high school, nobody understood why I taped a picture, about the size of a Polaroid, of Courtney playing guitar on the front of my binder. It was an image of Courtney onstage that I ripped out of a magazine, she lying on her back during a performance at some music festival, her seafoam green guitar resting across her belly. “Tit shot!” a boy in my math class would always yell whenever he’d grab my binder, greedy for a closer look. Couldn’t he see the anger, frustration, or sadness in this image? There was beauty in the positioning of her body; she appeared uninhibited yet tender, passionate yet emotionless. But he only wanted to see her breasts. You just don’t get it, I would think. And that made me feel surprisingly at ease. It was like the image contained a special language, and only I and other girls like me could hear it.
A year later, after my parents divorced, I started my senior year at a new high school in a different state. I kept the binder with the torn out image of Courtney, but it acted more as a signal for other students to avoid me. During the second week of school, I walked past a girl with platinum blonde hair, carrying a binder like mine, except she had taped a large black and white photo of Courtney to the binder’s plastic sleeve. My mouth opened but no words escaped. I felt like I had finally found someone I could talk to, but we continued to pass by each other day after day, saying nothing at all. Sometimes she would smile at me in the halls and keep walking, and I always made sure that my binder and the image of Courtney faced outward, so she would recognize me, like our little secret code. I liked to imagine that she went home and listened to Live Through This after school, as I did, and that she too knew every word to “Softer, Softest.” Although I never learned her name before the end of the school year, we had established a connection based on our shared interest—a friendship that, although unspoken and fleeting, was nonetheless a camaraderie that offered us a respite from the outside world, a reminder that no matter how many times we felt ugly or out of place, we knew we were never alone. I’d like to thank Courtney for that.