Archives for category: Music

Hilary Crowe and Kristen Powell discuss the possibilities of intellectual and creative strap-ons.

Kristen: So, Hil, I introduced you to Odd Future a couple days ago. Since I broke my foot a few weeks ago I’ve been trapped inside reading the Internet, and you have been leading a more exciting life as an academic with really, really cool things to do. What did you think of them off the bat?

Hilary: Well, my intro was the video posted on their website, “Yonkers,” where Tyler, the Creator raps over one of the most interesting beats I’ve heard in a while. And eats a cockroach, vomits, and talks about raping women and murdering Bruno Mars until he ends it all and hangs himself. It was minimalistic, formalistic, and actually quite beautiful and interesting to watch. And to hear. And offensive! I think I gasped with every line and frame change. But you couldn’t deny his talent, and the visual intelligence of the video. In short, I was impressed and upset.

You’ve been aware of them longer than I have. What do you think about them, assuming you’ve had some more time to digest what’s going on?

Kristen: I don’t know, honestly. I listen to them a lot. But it would be inaccurate to say that I don’t get upset by what’s being said. The Bruno Mars thing? It shows up a lot, along with some digs at B.o.B. and that girl from Paramore who sings on “Airplanes.” Tyler’s super critical of what he considers homogenized mainstream music. A lot of what Odd Future does is about shock value.

Also, those killer beats? That’s only girl in Odd Future, Syd tha Kid. She’s AWESOME.

Hilary: Is that her voice on “Slow It Down”?

Kristen: I’m not sure. She doesn’t rap, and the only song that she actually did everything on was “Flashlight.” Her brother is also in OFWGKTA.

Hilary: About being shocked and upset by their music: I think it’s a good thing, and perhaps an admirable endeavor as an artist. In my own research, I’ve been thinking a lot about spectacle, and Guy Debord’s notion of the Spectre of the Spectacle—how fascination with one artistic creation and consequent over- reproduction leads to a depletion of its original meaning. Which I think gets to Tyler’s frustration with mainstream music. I’ve been nostalgic for spectacle, asking myself, “What is spectacle?” today, and whether anything can be truly spectacular again. Perhaps “upsetting” is the new “spectacular”?

Like, my eyes almost popped out of my head when I heard “Yonkers.”

Kristen: I mean, it’s not like being offensive for the sake of being offensive is new in music. The group’s gotten a lot of comparisons to NWA but Alex Vesey at Feminist Music Geek compared Tyler to Darby Crash. And damn, that’s apt. What Odd Future is doing, to me, seems to have a lot in common with punk. I mean, maybe I’m biased because I’m a huge punk devotee, but how is what Odd Future is doing that different from, say, the Sex Pistols?

Except Odd Future is talented.

Hilary: I totally agree. It’s that deadly combination of talent and knack for spectacle (and the DIY self-promotion that goes along with it). But punk was spectacular theatrically, if unsophisticated musically. Odd Future is like a throwback to the truly spectacular, like Victorian-era spectacular. I guess I was thinking more along the lines of the fact that these guys are young, intelligent, led by an extreme talent, and know how to present themselves to maximum effect/affect. I think it’s because of all of that, and their strong sense of self-determination and focus, that I think they break with punk. Also, a lot of punk was political, while I think Odd Future, at least from the interviews I’ve read with Tyler, is more social-political, specifically analyzing issues of race and class as it affects their (again, I guess I mean Tyler specifically) experience of being educated, pretty well-off, black kids. In an interview Tyler did with The Drone (posted on their Tumblr), he talked about how he dressed like a goth kid, listened to Good Charlotte, and was shit on for it. Basically, he’s angry, obviously, and he’s doing something productive and creative with that anger.

I guess I’m more fascinated with them from an art criticism perspective. Can and should we evaluate music based on content or form? I think this is why I have problems with the music: I love the sound, I hate the message. What’s a girl to do?

Kristen: Their level of spectacle, you’re right, is remarkable. It is interesting too, that Tyler was mocked for being into Good Charlotte and ended up choosing a mode of expression usually associated with young black men (like him). It reminds me of Harry Belafonte bringing calypso to the masses. Except opposite. Belafonte used his status as a “privileged exotic” to make a traditionally political music form seem safe, which was really subversive. Odd Future totally does the opposite; they use the medium expected of them to surprise and stretch the boundaries of what’s acceptable.

And I totally agree with with the form/content issue. I also showed you Lil B in the same breath as Odd Future, and what a huge difference.

Hilary: GOD, Lil B is so untalented, and I don’t think the form is that interesting.

Kristen: In particular, I showed you “Ellen Degeneres,” which we both found pretty offensive. But in “Sandwitches” Tyler also kind of puts Ellen down.

Hilary: I mean, sure deconstruction, as you mentioned, whatever. But really, it’s been done before, and done better.

Kristen: Exactly! They’re hitting some of the same points, but I’m definitely giving Odd Future a pass. Because they’re interesting. I think it’s kind of impossible to divorce the message from the medium, since the medium kind of is the message.

Hilary: I agree. But, then, what is the effect of this discourse—this unbelievable catchy, viral presentation and circulation of Tyler’s rape-crazy cultural commentary? I guess I’m concerned with how his words circulate and contribute to the visibility and social compliance with rape culture. Even if he is supposedly writing from the perspective of a serial killer, or so he claims about “Yonkers.” (I really freaking love that song, clearly.)

Why is it that when a man writes about rape, documenting the horror of it (as if he can imagine), it’s viewed as upsetting and important, it’s talked about, while when a woman writes about it, she’s being predictable, it’s boring, and nobody—except other feminists—bats an eye. Let alone devotes a lengthy Pitchfork deconstruction of the artist’s importance in culture. Are women just inept at choosing an effective medium? Or are women’s words so devalued that they can’t be recovered, even by a rap prodigy? Has a woman tried to do this? I am ashamed I’m not even aware of that possibly having happened.

Kristen: Honestly, Tyler’s obsession with rape is pretty indefensible. (Note: I kind of hate how we’ve reduced Odd Future to Tyler.) I would love for him to move on. I mean, I know, he’s what, 19? Young dudes love being shocking in the basest way possible. But, also, on “Bitches Brewin‘” (a Miles Davis reference no less!) he talks about losing his virginity to a twenty-six year-old. That’s interesting! That’s worth talking about! Guys never talk about losing their virginity, especially not in rap songs. That kind of stuff is ACTUALLY subversive. It’s not the musical equivalent of drawing a dick on a bathroom wall. Rap is already filled with assholes talking about bitches and hoes and whatever. Writing a song about rape is like drawing a dick over a urinal: there are already dicks everywhere. What I’m basically saying is, I’d like to see Odd Future use their powers for good.

Hilary: I mean, that still doesn’t get to my question about women as cultural producers of a discourse that runs counter to the musical equivalent of bathroom dick graffiti. Why do we ask dudes to mature and move on from their juvenile rape focus (not that we and they shouldn’t)? Why don’t we hold women responsible for creating a counter argument?

I think it goes back to the idea of the privileged position of cultural producers. These dudes did it themselves. DIY, and he got his video on MTV. Plus, I mean listen to those beats. He’s pretty fucking talented. But the bigger issue here, and I would venture to say also related to Lindsay’s post about women in film, needing strong characters: Okay, are we as women going to write those characters and make those films ourselves, or are we going to write about how someone else needs to make those films? Are we going to use our agency to complain or to create? Odd Future, I’d argue, uses their agency to do both—he calls himself “Tyler, the Creator” for God’s sake! If we don’t like it, time for us to talk back.

Kristen: Amen. Even the song I referenced before that Syd wrote all of is basically a ballad. Where are the subversive women in rap? Moreover, is there an acceptable way for women to talk about rape that would work in music?

Hilary: I would venture to say that yes, there is. Women could express the anger and violation they feel about rape perfectly in rap. Also, not that I agree with violence for violence, but why couldn’t women rap about murderous retaliation against rape? Tyler raps about killing his dad because he left him alone. Why not rap about someone who harassed the shit out of your body? I think a lot of times rape survivors are painted as passive, at fault, and unsympathetic because they are reluctant to report the violation. As if there are no consequences to rape for rapists. Or to rapping about rape. A bloody rap about revenge, I think, might make people rethink the passivity of survivors. (Or will it be ignored, because it’s expected/feminist, etc.? Not if it’s offensive enough!) And I would say that it’s possible these raps exist. I mean I think/hope they’d have to, but maybe the women who create them aren’t as good, or aren’t as good at self-promotion. I think it gets to issues of spectacle, gaze, and empowerment.

I’ve heard the argument that women aren’t confident enough to step into the role of cultural producer because they have no role models, or are cut down, or are worried and taught to worry about what people will say about them, always conscious and subject of a panoptic gaze (including that of other women). But the role model thing, I’m beginning to realize is partly bullshit.

I still don’t really have a woman I look up to, it’s all dudes. (Though I’ve recently struck Iggy Pop from that list.) None of them went to college (or at least finished college). They just did it. We could talk about the androcentric environment that contributed to their success, and not a woman’s, but the fact is we are a lot freer now and could theoretically do it. But either we’re not doing it or we’re not doing it as well, with as much conviction, bravado, or knack for spectacle (maybe because we are tired of being looked at?). But maybe I never did it like Ian MacKaye or John Waters because something in me placed just enough distance between what I saw in them versus me. Like the length of a penis.

Kristen: I see a lady call to arms in there. I think you just proposed a dick-measuring contest we could win.

Oh, come on.

Oh hey, guys, it’s me, Lindsay. You remember, I’m the one who has to stop what I’m doing and write up a little critique every time a writer coins a new, fake musical genre in an attempt to explain the puzzling, out-of-nowhere trend of women singing about sex. Which leads me to ask: Hey, music writers of the world. Can we cool it a little bit? Because I’m getting sick of having to stop what I’m doing and write one of these posts every other day. I have some grocery shopping to do.

Yesterday a reader sent us David Hajdu’s New Republic article “Lykke Li and the Rise of Porn Pop” (and I should mention that he sent it with simple and fitting commentary: “Sorry.”) Upon reading the title of that article, astute Canonball readers will have a particularly sore nose-and-forehead area from where their palms just made impact with their faces — as they probably remember my post about Lykke Li last week, in which I quoted her saying of the music industry’s response to her last album, “It seemed like people weren’t listening to what I had to say. I just felt like I must be some kind of porn dream or something because all they seemed to listen to was my high-pitched voice.” Well, girl, only one word springs to mind: “Sorry.”

But isn’t Hajdu doing us all a handy favor in coining this term? We’re busy people (as I’ve already indicated: I buy my own groceries!); we certainly don’t have time to carry on nuanced discussions about these performers’ divergent messages regarding female sexuality. If only we had one quick, pithy term that could encapsulate all of this so we didn’t have to waste time talking about it! Two syllables at most. And alliterative, if that’s not asking so much. And it would save a lot of time if it referenced a cultural phenomenon that connects it with a go-to signifier of male-defined fantasies and desires, because I really can’t be bothered with a conversation that discusses the multivalent perspective points of contemporary feminisms. Oh, what’s that? “Porn pop”? Perfect!

I think immediately of hip-hop, and specifically of Nicki Minaj, a gifted performer who has escaped the dance-cage prison of status as a “video ho” to assert a less submissive identity as the best thing in Kanye West’s “Monster.” I think, too, of Ke$ha, the white-trash princess of “Tik Tok,” though the two women are riffing on the cliches of service as sex objects to practice different kinds of politics.

What’s particularly insidious about Hajdu’s appraisal of “porn pop” is that he presents this “trend” and a discussion of it as a demonstration of empowering, post-feminist politics. But he fails to miss the bigger picture: there’s nothing empowering about a reading of these performers that fits both their messages and their desires safely within the boundaries of cultural novelty. Sorry, dude.

Lindsay crusades against lazy “Scandinavian ice princess” metaphors.

Because you’re a woman, the music industry puts you in another corner. I want to be fighting with the men.
– Lykke Li

On her first record she was the submissive. Now she’s the dominant. I know massive success is going to happen. When? I’m not that clever. I just know it will.
-Atlantic Records U.K. Chairman Max Lousada

Lykke Li recorded her first album, Youth Novels, when she was 19. On it, the Swedish singer introduced herself as an introspective, honey-voiced wallflower who found pop music a means for communicating her feelings; “Couldn’t possibly tell you/How I mean but I/can dance dance dance” went the standout track, “Dance Dance Dance.” The maudlin ballads on Youth Novels were balanced out with punchy pop anthems like “Breaking It Up” and “I’m Good, I’m Gone,” on which she offered up a few choice words for the haters: “If you say I aim too high from down below/Well say it now ’cause when I’m gone/You’ll be callin’ but I won’t be at the phone.”

Though Youth Novels found Li trying out a variety of different personas like so many oversized ponchos, the “honey-voiced wallflower” (or, to quote her US label exec Lousada, “submissive”) image won out in the media depiction of her. This was perhaps due to the context in which many were introduced to her terrific and sultry breakout hit, “Little Bit:” soundtracking Heidi Klum’s pensive wanderings through a windblown glass elevator in this inspired Victoria’s Secret ad. Li then won over more new fans when Degrassi‘s own sultry dude Drake sampled it on his breakout mixtape So Far Gone.

Li and Drake’s words meld together seamlessly on the chorus of his reappropriated version of “Little Bit,” but plenty of writers responded to Youth Novels Li was in terms that you’d never see in a Drake review. In Spin, Sean Fennessey called Li “an adorable little thing” and attributed the triumphs of Youth Novels to Li’s producer Bjorn Yttling, praising him for “keep[ing] things from ever getting too cute.” (If that’s what a producer’s there for, shouldn’t we offer up similar thanks to Yeezy for cutting all those references to rainbows and unicorns in “Find Your Love”?) Also, good luck finding a review or an article about Li of her that doesn’t contain the word “beautiful,” “sexy” or make some sort of comment about her looks.

As she began work on her second album, Li started to speak publicly about this particular variety of bullshit. “It seemed like people weren’t listening to what I had to say,” she said in a November 2010 interview with Pitchfork. “I just felt like I must be some kind of porn dream or something because all they seemed to listen to was my high-pitched voice…I just wanted people to listen to what I have to say instead of focusing on anything else. And of course, there are a lot of things I’m angry about.”

Her recently released second album, Wounded Rhymes, channeled that anger into an even more confident and assured sound. Songs like “Youth Knows No Pain” and “Jerome” pack an even harder punch than “I’m Good, I’m Gone,” and the single “I Follow Rivers” is a mesmerizing and deeply felt ode to devotion. The album’s talking point, though, has been “Get Some,” the sexually assured lead-off single on which Li sings in the chorus, “Like a shotgun needs an outcome/I’m your prostitute/You gon’ get some.” It’s a confrontational line, deriving power from its forthrightness about the nature of female representation in the music industry — and its ability to jar the listener. But Li explains it’s not necessarily about sex: “It’s about this power play in the war of the sexes…If [women] say, ‘I’m your prostiute,’ they mean, ‘I’m the power.'”

Most of the reviews of Wounded Rhymes have been positive and — better yet — free of the kind of brash sexism that often plagues discussions about women in the industry. But, alas, by “most” I mean “not all.” Spin’s review of the album seeks to contain Li’s expressions of sexuality into to neatly defined, male-gaze curated stereotypes, calling the Wounded Rhymes “equal parts seething ice princess and lonely snowwoman.” If you didn’t get the whole “woman asserting control over her sexuality = ice princess” trope, allow them to beat you over the head with this sub-headline: “Ms. Freeze: Steely vamp turns heartbreak into a chilling spectacle.” And perhaps just for the sake of squeezing one more tired, female stereotype into a two paragraph review, the piece concludes, “So much for the the cutie pie routine.” Drowned in Sound takes subtler, though no less confounding approach, criticizing Li through the lens of that trusty meme of pseudo-enlightened cultural relativism, the “first world problem.” (Do the people who use this hashtag all the time really not get that complaining about “first world problems” on their Twitter feed or tumblr is fast becoming the most quintessential first world problem there is?) Adam Johns’ review classifies the historically feminized thematic of “problems with romance” as a petty “first world problem” (and he does it with this zinger of an opener: “First world problems are a bitch.”) and reinforces the notion that Men’s Problems are Important and the things that women tend to sing about are trivial, petulant and insignificant. And, as you’ve probably assumed by now, Hipster Runoff found occasion to drag out the ol’ slutwave dead horse for one more thwack. How…incisive.

Perhaps the article that’s most emblematic of the tricky power dynamic Li now finds herself in is the cover story for Spin‘s February 2011 Next Big Things issue. The cover is indeed devoted to her, but the finer points of its Maxim-esque staging are also echoed in the text of the story, in which writer David Marchese fawns over Li’s mysterious sensuality and gives us such journalistic gems as “Lykke, by the way, means happiness, which proves ironic, and is pronounced Likk-ya, making her name intriguing to me on at least two levels.” I think for once I can purport to speak for all femalekind when I say “Barf.”

Wounded Rhymes and its reception represents an interesting moment in Li’s career: in some ways it presents itself as a brash (though, to be sure, not too brash) reclamation of female sexuality, but it seeks success in an industry obsessed with defining, manipulating and boxing in all expressions of feminine desire. Li’s public comments about sexism and the evolving power dynamics in her music attest to a performer interested in staying one step ahead of the status quo — but for any female performer, that’s a difficult dance to pull off.

Katrina Brown studies Womenʼs History and Queer Theory for a living.

I have been thinking a lot about Eminem since his “Imported from Detroit” commercial dropped during the Superbowl. I love him, you see. Not just “love” in the way people “love” songs that make them bob their heads and get up and dance. His music is deeply inspiring to me, for reasons I will expound upon in a moment. I have a playlist of about 15 of his songs from various albums whose lyrics I have memorized. At this point, given how long and consistently Iʼve been listening to these songs, I swear that at least one whole wall of my soul is built out of his words. I cannot hear the beats on “Imported from Detroit” without my stomach flip-flopping from joy. I also harbor a secret fantasy of us being best friends someday!

When I divulge these facts, I am usually asked to defend my position. People ask me how I – an outspoken, unapologetic feminist – can reconcile my adoration of him with all his misogynistic lyrics and the abusive pictures he paints in some of this songs. The truth is, I canʼt really reconcile the two, and I donʼt know if I want to even try. I want to talk about my love of Eminem here, even if it is controversial and irreconcilable, because I can attest that his misogyny isnʼt the whole story of his cultural impact. There is also my story, which speaks to at least one real, concrete life that has changed for the better because of his music. So here it is:

The age of 17 found me in very bad shape, psychologically speaking. I had been cutting myself four to seven times a week for the better part of three years. I had more than flirted with suicide, though had been intercepted before any true attempt. I was on the cusp of falling into an eating disorder. I was close to dropping out of high school and had literally no idea or substantive care regarding where my life was heading. I wanted nothing more than to be dead: I prayed every night for God to uncreate me, to erase my soul from existence because being alive and existing at all didnʼt make the first bit of sense to me. My very being just hurt. I wish I had a David Foster Wallace-sized vocabulary that I could draw on to try to communicate the complexity and depth of that pain, but I donʼt. Hurt is going to have to suffice for now.

Eminem taught me how to say “fuck you,” in a very clear, and pointed way. And under the tutelage of his music I learned the beauty, catharsis and overall productive nature of a well-placed “fuck you.” I saw that he and I had comparable amounts of anger, but his was pointing in a completely different direction than mine was. He taught me how to be angry at something other than myself. A lot of other somethings, actually. When I saw him spitting lyrics and murderous venom at the world around him, it made me realize that I had been turning all my murderous venom on myself – but that that wasnʼt my only option. He made me feel understood and like I had a partner and teammate in my fury and despair. When I started listening to his music, it suddenly felt like I had someone in my corner, cheering me on. The world as he spoke it became so many pointed metaphors about my world. I cannot communicate to you how profound and important that was to me then.

2002 was the year I “discovered” him. It was the year of the movie 8-Mile, which was my first true exposure to his music, as so much of what I had known about him was filtered through my conservative Christian living environment. The lyrics of “Lose Yourself” quickly became my mantra: “No more games, I’ma change what you call rage / Tear this mothafuckin roof off like 2 dogs caged / I was playin in the beginnin, the mood all changed / I been chewed up and spit out and booed off stage…another day of monotony / Has gotten me to the point, I’m like a snail / I’ve got to formulate a plot fore I end up in jail or shot / Success is my only mothafuckin option, failure’s not.”

Songs like “The Way I Am,” in which he speaks about his public role, taught me about a self that exists independently of the self that everyone else puts on you, and his self, in particular,not bowing to what the media made of him in his early years: “So I point one back at ’em, but not the index or pinkie or the ring or the thumb / it’s the one you put up / when you don’t give a fuck, when you won’t just put up / with the bullshit they pull, cause they full of shit too. I thought he was so brave to be able to just say “fuck them, they don’t know me,” and it made me want that attitude for myself.”

But the sorts that made the deepest impact were lyrics that made me feel like fighting back against all the shit would get me to a better place in life overall: “I’m a show you what, you gonna feel my rush / you dont feel it then it must be too real to touch / feel to touch, i’m about to tear shit up / goosebumps, yeah i’m make your hair sit up / yeah sit up, i’m a tell you who I be / I’m make you hate me cause you aint me…I just got to beat this clock / fuck this clock, i’m make them eat this watch / don’t believe me watch, i’m a win this race / and i’m a come back and rub my shit in your face / bitch I found my niche, you gonna hear my voice / till you sick of it you aint gonna have a choice / if I gotta scream till I have half a lung / if I have half a chance I grab it rabbit run.”

I realized that if my life continued as it was going, I wouldnʼt be around long enough to develop or deliver my own personal “fuck you” to the world around me. If I dropped out of high-school like I was planning to, and kept cutting myself, and kept starving myself, and followed through on killing myself I would, in essence, be letting my “enemies” win. All these self-destructive acts were me capitulating and agreeing with the belief that I should never have existed in the first place because of what a pathetic, hated, disgusting and worthless creature I was. My 17 year-old self decided that, if these things were truly what God and most everyone else in the world thought of me (and I really believed that this was the truth), then the most effective way to say “fuck you,” would be to stick around and do some damage to the fabric of everyone elseʼs existence.

The externalization of my anger took me in a completely different direction. I stayed in high school. I showed up at a teen crisis center and demanded counseling and anonymity. It took a few years, but I eventually learned how to live without cutting myself; by age 22 you wouldnʼt have known how deeply anorexic I had been. At 19 I decided that suicide was not an option for me anymore. The constant weighing of if I was “supposed” to kill myself or not was exhausting, and I found I could live with the feelings more if I took the “choice” of the matter off the table. At this point, I donʼt think Iʼve even begun “doing damage to everyone elseʼs existence,” but I feel like Iʼm finally healthy enough to start thinking about how to do that in good, productive and feminist-oriented ways rather than destructive ones.

But Iʼm not here to crow about how amazing I am, or to prescribe Eminem to everyone who feels hopeless. Eminem probably wonʼt work for everyone. I honestly donʼt think Iʼm that amazing, and I have had an unquantifiable amount of help along the way. But large amounts of anger does crazy things to people. Everyone knows that when one is full of red-hot rage they can accomplish some unbelievable and unreal feats.

Now you know a little bit of where I am coming from when I tell you that I love Eminem and I hope you will believe me when I tell you that I cannot appreciate the breath in my lungs right now without attributing the fact of its existence, at least in part, to Eminem being a stubborn, controversial, angry ass of a person and a damn good artist.

I think the tension of my relationship to Em is an important tension to illuminate; it brings us to an oft-ignored observation I have made of what it means to be feminist or politically and socially conscious in this world. The world is not split into pure Good Guys and Bad Guys. I know that people try to draw lines like that, but those lines strike me as artificial and forcefully imposed to try to make ourselves feel better or more secure about who we are and where we find ourselves in our lives. I donʼt believe in pure Good Guys and Bad Guys at all. I think we are all just “guys,” for better or worse (forgive the gendered colloquialism), stuck in a world and in lives that teach us all kinds of gross and inaccurate things about the value of ourselves and those around us. Those things that we learn are the rules by which we live; it just so happens that most of those rules are fucked up, and result on some level in abuse, oppression and exploitation.

I don’t think that any of us are exempt from this particular tragedy of existence. However, it is true that some people have more power and influence and thus the negative effects of their fucked up rules are way bigger than those that some of us “little” people live by. Eminem is probably one of those people, and his words and collusion with oppressive ideas and forces do deserve critique. I donʼt want my love of him to let me excuse him or “let him off easy” or when it comes to misogyny and oppression. As a feminist I have made a commitment to critical inquiry and analysis of the world around me. I will not exempt Em from that, and I donʼt think anyone else should either. I just want to make sure that the positive, inspirational and brilliant aspects of his work get a little feminist ink and that he knows – should he ever read this – that at least one feminist in the world is much, much obliged to him.

Mia hopes you’re ready to rediscover City High.

One of the most embarrassing and revealing parts of my online history are the top videos that come up when you type youtube into my browser. You might get the impression that I only listen to The Dream’s “Rockin That Thang (Remix)” and “Wild World,” as performed by the cast of Skins (like I said: embarrassing!). But slowly climbing up the ranks of my most-watched videos is this clip by Canadian rapper Shad (lyrics here – if you’re like me, you’ll get a little weepy when he raps about his sister being “way too smart”). It’s sort of hard to go back to a Juelz Santana verse on a Dream remix after that, right? So I’ve been on the hunt for more lady-friendly rap, and I’ve asked a few folks for help. This’ll hopefully be an on-going project, so send your suggestions our way.

Arrested Development

Arrested Development was an alternative hip hop group from 90s when gangsta rap was getting really huge. Their album 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of… was one of the first hip hop albums I remember owning (I think I stole it from my older sister). I liked it because it was positive, non-violent and groovy. A lot of the songs, like “Mama’s Always on Stage,” are also pro-woman:Can’t have revolution without women/ Can’t have revolution without children.” – Audrey Mardavich

Rye Rye

If there’s one thing I love, it is a good time girl. And Baltimore-based, M.I.A. protégé Rye Rye is a hardcore girl with a strong streak of ebullience in her rhymes and her style. Open and honest to discuss why female camaraderie is a rare entity in the hip-hop community and how motherhood doesn’t define her existence, expect good things for women from this femcee. She also knows how to take a pop tart’s summer hit and give it a fresh rebut better than the original. – James Worsdale

City High

City High’s “What Would You Do?”, the chart-popping classic from 2001, offers a rare glimpse into the life of a young single mother involved in prostitution as a means to pay the bills and feed her baby. Claudette Ortiz, the trio’s lone female member, defends the allegations from her male counter-parts, “Girl you know you aint the only one with a baby/ that’s no excuse to be living all crazy” through careful explanation of the hardships which led her to their choice encounter at a Real Wild Party. She hymns, “The only way to feed him is to/ sleep with a man for a little bit of money /and his dad is gone/ somewhere smoking rock now/ in and out of lock now, / I ain’t got a job now /so for you this is just a good time, but for me this is what I call life.” This song is an empowering dose of reality, particularly when Claudette emphasizes “Every day I wake up/ hoping to die”. Like many popular anthems of the early 2000s, “What Would You Do?”‘s catchy beat was tragically co-opted. Dr. Dre, MD makes use of the male refrain for his seminally seminal video for “The Next Episode”. – Iliana Berkowitz

Jean Grae

When I was in high school, I was depressed. Like, meds, psychiatrists and all that. That coincided with my discovery of 1980’s rap, including female rappers of the time. Listening to them was like an escape, I remember using words like “innocent” and “winsome”, completely ignoring the fact that most of these rappers had grown up in the roughest sections of pre-Giuliani New York City. To be fair, only a few of them mentioned any problems they had, besides feuds with other rappers. Then I discovered Jean Grae. On her album This Week, she’s all over the place, from nihilistic alcoholic (“competing with wino heathens to squeeze into a coffin”) to paranoia (“they hacked me/tracked me/ somebody’s gonna get me”) to being madly in love (all of “Supa Luv”). As skilled as she is on a technical level, her inner strength from track to track, her ability to stare her demons right in the face and conquer was a huge for me. It changed the way I viewed female emcees, and was an important early step to becoming a feminist. – David Grossman


Kalae All Day is a New York-based artist who I recently discovered on a list of female emcees not named Nicki Minaj compiled on Colorlines. All I can say is that I’ve been addicted to this song since I first heard it and can’t wait for her to get big, as I honestly feel is an inevitability with her embracing of her own complexities, her musical innovation, and her vibrant look. We may not know much about her yet, but after hearing the above, I’m sure we’re all waiting to know more. – James Worsdale

Audrey Mardavich does not regret that candy, Internet friends and The Anniversary dominated a large portion of her adolescence.

This flowchart represents how Rose Melberg came to be one of my favorite female musicians.

Red=what I deem to be important connections and pink=Melberg moments in time. [Click to enlarge.]

Melberg’s Music

Tiger Trap: “Puzzle Pieces”

The Softies: “I Love You More”

Go Sailor: “Silly”

Gaze: “Bob Again”

Rose Melberg Solo

In an interview with David Greenwald of Cokemachineglow, Melberg says

I was just so into music as a teen. Just obsessed with records and going to shows and sneaking in and y’know, having the faking ID not even to drink but to get into bars to go see bands. I really didn’t have much of a desire to be a musician, I just wanted to be in a band. So it was really more of this idea of my friend Angela and I, it was like, “we have to be in a band.”

We didn’t really have idea of what we would actually do or what we would actually play or what we were able to play, it was just the idea of something we had to do. I just wanted to be a part of the thing I loved so much, it wasn’t so much about the craft of songwriting or anything like that. That really evolved over time, my whole approach to that and being more thoughtful about how I wrote songs. In the beginning, it was just like, we had to have something to play, so I guess I better write some songs. And that’s why a lot of the early songs are just really really dumb because we had no idea what we were doing. It’s a great way to learn, it’s a great motivator.

Rose’s music came to me when I needed her most—when I was learning about love and hers was that voice singing the songs I wished I could be singing. She sang about feeling embarrassed and shy, about loving someone so much that you knew it was sort of messed up but you did it anyway, and also about the importance of friendships with other women (who doesn’t want to be in a band with their best friends?). It was perfect music for a nerdy adolescent girl. Twee and indie pop musicians (especially female ones) have been accused of playing naive, foolish music—but Melberg’s music isn’t silly—it’s emotional and authentic.

In an interview with Chris Zieglar in the L.A. Record:

Zieglar: Jen from the Softies said someone has to really hurt her before she’ll write about it. Are you the same way?

Melberg: In the old days I was like that. A lot of the songs were coming from that place. My song writing has evolved a bit in that I don’t only write from pain or anger. But it does quite a bit come from… not necessarily sadness but those parts of you that don’t feel complete. Whether it’s confusion or a sadness or concern—those things that feel undone or unresolved. That’s why you write the song—you put it into place and you make sense of it. I also feel a need for a little bit more privacy when I write now. I have a family—I have a child that when he’s grown-up, I don’t want him to see our whole life spelled out for everyone to see. And yet these are still the things that I want to be writing about because it’s my sadnesses and my concerns. These things are still what make me sit down and write a song against my better judgment.

I still listen to all of Rose Melberg’s bands. I go to them when I want to feel good and hurt. I’ve learned a little bit more about love and friendship and being a woman since I was 14 years old buying a Go Sailor CD but, even her oldest songs still hold up. Maybe it’s because this is the music I fell in love to or fell asleep to or X-nostalgic thing, but it resonated with me because it’s great pop music. It’s sweet and sad and SO IS LIFE.

Rose Melberg is in a new band called Brave Irene. Check out their new record coming out in March from Slumberland Records.

No one is surprised that James Worsdale managed to work a Dream Girls reference into this convo.

Mia: Friends, Romans, countrypeople! And others! Lend me your ears, for I am joined by James Worsdale — Canonball contributor, friend and pop culture expert — to talk about “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes,” a 2006 documentary about masculinity, violence and misogyny in hip hop culture. The film, which was directed by “anti-sexist activist” Byron Hurt, is available here in its entirety, and I strongly encourage hip hop fans and/or feminists to view it because, as our conversation will hopefully reveal, there’s a lot of fascinating, important stuff going on in it. A taste:

James: Well, Mia, I must start by admitting that the topics around intersections of hip hop and patriarchy are thoroughly covered and ones that, as two white people, we need to admit our perhaps biased position in addressing.

I think that first and foremost it’s important to ask ourselves whether posing questions about feminism’s hypothetical use of hip hop as a political device is missing a greater point. Are we participating in some sort of neo-colonial analysis, already wrapped in the exoticization of black American culture, by criticizing it as a genre of music driven by ideas of violence, hegemonic masculinity, objectification of women, homophobia etc.? Which is to say, hip hop is not the problem, but systemic tendencies and capitalist markets dictating the messages that inhabit the sphere of hip hop are. And as articulated in the documentary: as much blame lies in white American culture, as in black American culture.

Mia: Exactly. And it’s like bell hooks said: in our critique of hip hop, we’re holding rappers to higher standards than we’re holding the rest of capitalist society. But, of course, our society is violent and misogynistic, and a lot of mainstream hip hop is merely a really vivid reflection of that. Someone in the documentary notes, “Hip hop is pure Americana,” meaning that its glorification of violent masculinity is derived from this American mythology – created mostly by white men, by the way – of the cowboy or the frontiersman.

James: Right, it’s this embracing of this very white idea of patriarchal masculinity – the John Waynes of the world. The primary motivators being money and pride (and oftentimes pride from money), which connect so much to hooks’s relation of the genre’s core problems being inextricable from core problems of capitalism. This makes me think, does the way to carve a space for feminist messages in hip hop music simply come down to supporting political hip hop artists by buying their music?

Mia: This is such an abstract question for me, considering I haven’t actually purchased a CD since, like, 2006. But I think the approach has to be two-pronged: it’s important to support artists who are saying substantive non-sexist, non-homophobic things, but I think it’s equally as important to vocally critique artists who ARE being sexist or homophobic. Which is such a monumental task.

While I’d like you all to think that I’ve been a feminist since the cradle – and I’d like to argue that I have been – I didn’t really start thinking critically about this stuff until about two years ago or so. And, as I began to realize how pervasive patriarchy was, I realized that there would come a time when I’d have to stop consuming a lot of media that I used to consume. And I was so CONCERNED about not being able to listen to a lot of hip hop. I thought it would be so hard to avoid misogyny. But I’ve found that I really have no desire to listen to things I find offensive anymore. And I’m more than comfortable explaining to friends why certain songs or artists aren’t acceptable to me anymore.

James: This is true. I also spend a lot of time thinking how I wish Lauryn Hill would write another album! Or that there could be some sort of feminist reincarnation of TLC that is NOT Destiny’s Child!

But I agree that that criticism of hip hop artists who perpetuate negative social forces is integral to the reclamation of the genre as a political tool. And I think that with the internet it’s become increasingly accessible to do so. For example, the frequently, and justifiably, attacked Twitter feed of overly entitled man-child Chris Brown. Despite his out-of-touch non-apology-apology (which is the only apology I think that boy is capable of), his statements were unacceptable and rightfully scathed.

It’s a frustrating issue, this pervasive misogyny in a genre that holds so much capability for radical reformation. Why can’t we have more Immortal Technique and less 50 Cent? When will the frustrations so wonderfully articulated by J. Victoria Sanders and Gwendolyn Pough, among so many others, spark a change in the mainstream hip hop community? Is it possible that that casual recognition by Jay-Z of his lyrical shortcomings of female dignity are indicative of the beginnings of a shift?

Mia: That Jay-Z quote filled all us feminists with such hope!

And speaking of 50 Cent, I’ll say that, even though this documentary is only five years old, it IS already a little dated, considering that no one’s too concerned about what 50 Cent and Nelly are doing these days. Which leads me to question if we’re moving away from the hyper-violent, naked lady-studded hip hop of the early 2000s. And, if Hurt was making this documentary now, which rappers would he focus on? And I don’t think I’d be going out on a limb to say that he’d probably focus on Kanye West, who is really excellent fodder for an examination of masculinity in hip hop.

On one hand, I really admire Kanye for expressing vulnerability and emotion in a way that is generally not acceptable for male rappers. And for being really style-conscious in a way that our culture doesn’t usually let straight men get away with. Also, he wrote an entire album about heartbreak! On the other hand, there’s still a ton of misogyny and posturing in his lyrics. It’s like, instead of masking his insecurities by filming videos with a bevy of sexy ladiez, as Nelly may have done, he masks his insecurities with a bevy of expensive suits.

James: This is true. I did think that maybe we had, since the making of the documentary, made some sort of progress (or maybe just a shift, but who could know?). And maybe the future of hip hop is headed further towards a more super-stylized, metrosexual aesthetic and feel. I’m thinking now about everyone’s gushing over Drake’s sensitivity, and I feel like I’ve seen Kid Cudi in as many fashion magazines as I have music blogs! Wouldn’t that be nice?

Mia: A softer, gentler hip hop? I wouldn’t hate it! Though sometimes it’s when we think we’ve made progress that we let our guards down and stop thinking critically. It’s like how people think misogyny doesn’t exist in progressive-leaning indie music. It does! It definitely does! But I digress.

James: And it doesn’t answer the problem of the female emcee so well-articulated by Lindsay.

I refuse to think that “Pink Friday” is the best Nicki Minaj can do, as both a rapper and a feminist symbol (which, as a mainstream female voice in hip hop, I think she is whether she intends to be or not).

Mia: Yeah, I feel like women – self-identified feminists or not – are putting a lot of their hopes for female rappers on Minaj. And I struggled with this issue when I was first introduced to her music and personae: I wanted so badly for her to be a feminist icon who would speak for me. And, of course, I was a bit let down. And I thought maybe I was being too hard on her. But I don’t know – to what extent do you compromise your hopes? When do you say, “Well, this is the best we’re going to get”?

James: Rich from fourfour wrote a piece on the burden of being a female rapper awhile back, mainly focusing on the necessity that you also sing. He’s really critical to Minaj’s apparent comfort in misogynist roleplay. Is Minaj the best we feminists can get? I tend to doubt it.

I think someone like up-and-comer Kalae All Day‘s brand of loving yourself and your complexities is more feminist than Minaj’s brand of obsession with herself and her sartorial stunts.

Mia: There’s this part in the documentary where Hurt is interviewing aspiring rappers, and they’re all spewing this awful violent stuff – not because that’s necessarily what they want to rap about, but because, as one of them points out, the record labels don’t want to hear their righteousness. And I feel like that’s true. “Righteous” rappers aren’t really marketed aggressively, especially not on the radio or to teenagers who would probably embrace unifying, meaningful messages. And the problem is, as Hurt says, that these record labels are controlled by white male executives who have a very specific idea of blackness that they’re selling as acceptable.

James: Right, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe this is an irrelevant anecdote, but this whole conversation kept making me think about the movie Dreamgirls. We really should be hearing more Effie Whites but they just keep selling us Deena Jones!

Mia: More Effie Whites please! Canoneers: let us know about your favorite non-sexist, non-homophobic rappers in the comments!

In which Lindsay block quotes Eminem; ready your gag reflex.

I don’t know that I’d have made it out of bed most mornings this month without the help of Nicki Minaj’s aptly titled self-empowerment anthem “I’m the Best.” I’m at that point in the East Coast winter doldrums where it takes more than usual strength to get out the door and face another day, but the first track on Minaj’s debut album Pink Friday has been doing the trick. Opening in a gloriously overblown flurry of synthesized fanfare, “I’m the Best” is the decade-and-a-half-late female answer to Biggie’s “Juicy:” an earnest narrative of the emcee’s sudden rise to the top, a celebration of the newfound luxuries of his/her fame and, most crucially, a gleeful fuck-you to all the people who doubted him/her along the way. “See you told me I would lose, but I won” isn’t exactly the most impressive line Minaj has ever spit, but in the context of the song its unexpected simplicity and candor just destroys me. And then at the end of the second verse, she gives us this:

I ain’t gotta get a plaque, I ain’t gotta get awards

I just walk up out the door, all the girls will applaud

All the girls will commend, as long as they understand

That I’m fighting for the girls that never thought they could win

Cause before they could begin you told ’em it was the end

But I am here to reverse the curse that they live in

Especially in the last decade, you’d be hard pressed to find a verse on a mainstream hip-hop track that so directly addresses the female listener — let alone one that actually acknowledges an understanding of the contradictory “curse that she lives in” (the verse ends “To all my bad bitches, I can see your halo”). Pink Friday opens with the promise of being a radical departure from the familiar, misogynistic perspective exhibited in most mainstream hip-hop. Unfortunately, you’ll only make it to the next song before realizing it doesn’t completely follow through.

The second track on the album is “Roman’s Revenge,” a collaboration with our old friend Eminem. Embodying her male alter-ego Roman Zolanski, Minaj comes out of the gate seething, “I am not Jasmine/I am Aladdin” and continues to complicate her hyperfeminized image by literally embodying other figures of male power (“I call the play, now do you see why? These bitches callin’ me Manning, Eli”). Awesome, right? Well, yeah, it all feels pretty empowering until Slim Shady unzips and pisses on the party (no homo!):

Every last woman on Earth I’ll kill off

And I still wouldn’t fuck you, slut

[…] Bygones will never be bygones

So won’t be finished swallowing’ my wad

I ain’t finished blown’ it, nice bra

Hope it’ll fit a tough titty, bitch

Life’s hard, I swear to God

Life is dumb blonde white broad

With fake tits and a bad dye job

…there’s more (upon anticipating what comes next after a line that ends in “maggot,” you think, “Really, Em? Still?”), but you get the point. As someone engaged in the familiar struggle of being a hip-hop fan and a feminist, my issue with Eminem’s verse is one I’ve had countless times before: I can appreciate his virtuosity on certain parts of this track, but on a gut level I’m totally repulsed by it. As a female listener, I don’t even feel the possibility of address in this verse; I feel lumped in with the generic grouping of “every last woman on Earth” that Em would render extinct just for the sake of a played-out punchline. But coming immediately after “I’m the Best” (arguably the most directly feminist track she’s ever done) and even Minaj’s gender-bending verse on “Roman’s Revenge,” Eminem’s brutish intrusion is even more disappointing. The contrast between these two tracks is a pretty clear embodiment of the “curse” that Minaj and other female rappers live in: the more mainstream success they aspire to, the more they feel they have to compromise or dilute their feminism. “Roman’s Revenge” is a reminder of the rules of the mainstream rap game from which Pink Friday could have been a welcome escape — and a reminder of who and what Minaj will have to to align herself with if she wants to continue winning.

Before the long-awaited Pink Friday was released in November 2010, Minaj had built her reputation on a couple of mixtapes and more than a few scene-stealing guest verses on other artists’ tracks. Her most famous guest spot was on Kanye West’s maniacal epic “Monster.” On the track, Minaj — the only female among the many guest rappers on West’s acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — spits the best verse of her career: following none other than Jay-Z and making his lines seem utterly forgettable in comparison, Minaj addresses her critics with pure, theatrical fury (“If I’m fake, I ain’t notice ’cause my money ain’t”) and, by many accounts, steals the whole album in a little over a minute.

That Pink Friday doesn’t live up to the hype surrounding the irresistible weirdness of her “Monster” verse isn’t a huge shock: the bar was set unbelievably high. But when Minaj was still just one of the most sought-after guests on other people’s tracks, there was a sense of mystery surrounding what her own album would sound like — and what the rules would be like on her turf. Pink Friday‘s disappointment is that it finds Minaj playing it safe rather than playing to her confrontational strengths. The album’s singles have been saccharine, radio-friendly songs  (“Right Thru Me,” “Your Love”) celebrating her man (even though she’s made the point in countless interviews that she’s too busy to date; when Out magazine asked her about her sexuality, Minaj described an attraction to women but says she doesn’t date them, before adding, “I don’t date men either”) or songs that feature guest spots from popular male emcees like Drake and — perhaps the least confrontational dude in mainstream hip-hop — Right before Pink Friday‘s release, Minaj told Rolling Stone her five-year plan: “a film career, a perfume line, a clothing line and possibly records that feature her singing as much as rapping.” As we all know, women don’t usually achieve that sort of mainstream world domination by sticking to a particularly radical or confrontational feminist message; Audre Lorde, as far as I know anyway, never got to see her face on a bottle of perfume. But if that’s what Minaj wants, then who’s to say she owes us something else?

Well, Jasmine Mans, for one. Mans, a slam poet and University of Wisconsin student, made a stir with a video of her performing “The Miseducation of Barbie,” a poem about Minaj (seriously, you need to watch this). A lot of people have misunderstood Mans’s intention: a Google search of her name comes up with such catty explanations as “Jasmine Mans vs. Nicki Minaj” or “Jasmine Mans disses Nicki Minaj,” but “Miseducation” is a critique of the systemic ills of women in rap rather than an attack on Minaj herself. It’s also a challenge: “I dare Nicki Minaj to be a PHENOMAL WOMAN and not a phenomenal Barbie,” Mans has written about the piece. Given the contradictory standards to which women are held in the industry and the narrow pathway to mainstream success, Mans’s dare will be difficult to meet. But in her poem, she speaks to that yearning we’ve all felt for an articulate female voice in the mainstream rap game: “Girls like me have been waiting for centuries/For a woman like you to stomp stiletto on history.” Time will tell if the shoe fits Minaj, or if we’ll have to keep waiting.