Yet another woman to whom she won’t get through: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters

I went into Fiona Apple’s first in 8 years, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, expecting to like it because everyone around me expects me to like it — not me specifically, but me demographically, as a millennial woman who identifies with feminism. I did like it — it’s a funny, warmhearted album with a number of super-catchy songs. My favourites were “Shameika”, “Cosmonauts”, “Relay”, and “For Her”. But I didn’t find it particularly memorable or revolutionary beyond that. 

The day it premiered, Pitchfork rushed out a perfect 10 rating for it with a review that failed to convince why it deserved a perfect 10 (although Pitchfork isn’t an arbiter of good taste either); it made me guess that they were always going to award the album a perfect 10 anyway, no matter what it sounded like, simply because of Apple’s cultural cache in building up the canon of “sad girl” music and because of the surrounding climate of #MeToo and #TimesUp. 

I don’t know much about Apple beyond being aware of her iconic status among women the world over. I’ve tried to get into her in the past, but never embraced her totally beyond a few very well-written songs. Listening to FTBC the day it came out, I think the fact that I will never be a fan of Fiona Apple finally crystallised and I’ve accepted that it’s ok.

The album has some catchy percussions and vocals from Apple, but some unremarkable work with average lyrics as well. The Pitchfork review praised its lyricism, highlighting in particular the line, “I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure” on “Relay”, a line which they believed “[offered] a critique of our hyper-socially-mediated world so savage it practically demands a standing ovation”. A reach if there ever was one; others have dissed artificial self-presentation in punchier ways. For disses that give you a genuinely soaring feeling inside, just turn to rap/trap music. Off the top of my head, I’m reminded of Jay-Z’s “all these little bitches, too big for their britches, burning their little bridges… Fucking ridiculous!” on “So Appalled”, off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which Pitchfork had also rated a perfect 10. It’s not exactly of the same tenor as Apple’s line, but a greater diss if we’re comparing them purely on the basis of being disses. It’s possible that my ear is not trained enough to be properly discerning with music, but it’s jarring contradictions such as these between the hype and what I’m actually hearing that make me suspect that the hype around Apple’s new album is more “obligatory” than genuine. 

The insurmountable barrier of Fiona Apple for me is the same thing that a lot of people love her for, which is her stringent identification as Woman. From what I’ve observed growing up on the Western-centric side of the Internet, the “sad girl” canon seems to identify womanhood, especially heterosexual womanhood, as a kind of eternal burden. The “sad girl” theme tends to be characterised by assumed universally-shared experiences of gender-based neurosis / “craziness” / wretchedness born out of guilt and self-doubt born out of patriarchal condescension and institutional oppression; and also by conflicting relationships to men and pain, to beauty and appearances, and towards other women. The “sad” part of the “sad girl” theme often involves some degree of masochism, unclear fault lines, and inexplicable self-destructive and self-harming behaviour, especially when it comes to men and sex. 

In an interview with New York Magazine, Apple talks about various details from her personal life which informed the production and writing behind FTBC. She brings up her experiences of sexual assault, experiences during her schooling years of popular girls who never accepted her within their cliques, experiences of being both cheated on and knowingly being the mistress of married men. The power of these experiences at times coalesce into warm and touching songs, like “Shameika”, and knock you over with the full force of their rawness as on “For Her” (not about Apple’s sexual assault). Other times, their specificity jars because we’re being presented not just with someone’s art for our aesthetic judgement, but also with their personal experiences and decisions. On “Ladies”, she writes about not being able to surmount a male-imposed divide between her and another woman (her lover’s wife? Her lover’s other lover? Her ex’s new lover?). The conclusion drawn here is that heterosexuality is a helluva drug that makes women hallucinate each other as the enemy while hallucinating that the man between them is worth fighting over; but an affair often takes two to tango — the man is cruel for cheating, but getting into a relationship knowing that their actions could lead to someone else being hurt is a cruelty too. This isn’t a judgement, just a statement. 

As someone who incurably operates within the textual tradition, I analyse a lot of music just based on their lyrical content. So I can’t help but wonder if Fiona Apple’s songs could have more impact if she just dispensed with these feminism-lite topics and lines that easily endear her to a general audience. In songs like “Under the Table”, “Newspaper”, and “Ladies”, there’s something about the lyrics that feel unpolished and overly obvious while striving to be poetic — sort of like slam poetry open mic nights, where performer-poets try to straddle the fine line between straightforward, rhythmic performance and the poeticism that would elevate it beyond mere “dramatic talking”. It’s difficult to achieve and cringe to listen to when it fails. Certain lines in FTBC feel laboured in the same way, like the hiking boot lines in “Under the Table” or the “fucking propaganda brochure” one. 

The most momentous song off the album is undeniably “For Her”, with superior lyrics-writing and a snarling rage in the second half that rips through the fluttery, a cappella singsong-ing of the first half. The other songs, despite their energetic percussions and vocals, would like to be as raging as this one is — and indeed there is a lot of growling and howling on this album — but their lyrical content is not consequential enough for them to hold up. These growls, snarls, howls, and sighs, once expressions of explosive female anger, don’t have the same bite as they used to. 

I respect the “sad girl” locus of identification for women; I’ve been through it myself. Exploring this mode of woman-centric thought enhanced my capacity for empathy and taught me to identify suffering within cruelty. However, I no longer identify with this, perhaps because the thing I could never whole-heartedly identify with is being A Woman or any other arbitrary social identity. Some have used womanhood as the basis to form solidarity and aid networks, which is admirable, but the notion of womanhood was something I ended up withdrawing from instead. I only want to be a “woman” in the strict demographical or statistical sense and no other…

In the past, I’ve mostly only written about music that I really love and seldom about music that I think is just alright, but I wanted to tackle Fiona Apple’s music because I think the hype surrounding her latest release is symptomatic of a dying liberal culture. (Note here that I specify the hype surrounding the album and not the album itself; the degree to which Apple is able to “read the current mood” and “pander” to it is not something I care enough about to consider either.) This dying culture is one wherein the political content of music gets confused with artistic quality, wherein certain figures elevated to “iconic” status by their past accomplishments are able to generate clout for their new work purely on the basis of nostalgia, wherein the sheer act of a woman singing about her experiences — regardless of what those experiences were, or how well she articulates them — inherently deserves praise. The phenomenon of categorisable, identity-based art obfuscates critical discussions about the quality of the work. In the past few days, I’ve been listening to a lot of Joy Division and The Beatles, and as fucking corny as it is to say this, I wonder why the music of decades ago still manages to sound startlingly new and original even now, when here I am in the 21st-century being told that Fiona Apple’s new album is revolutionary when it reminds me so much of Regina Spektor’s music from years ago… Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a perfectly fine album but not a perfect 10 by a long shot.

Lana Del Rey as cowboy, cowboy as in love

I’ve read the recent resurgence of the cowboy as symbol as a pastoral desire to return to “better” times. Like Gatsby chasing after the lost world of the green light, the second coming of the cowboy is a generation’s yearning backwards at an ancient myth, rather than history. Everyone knows, rationally, that nostalgia is a dangerous drug, and that the past isn’t as romantic as the movies make it out to be.

Well, Lana Del Rey never made the past out to be romantic, per se. She’s been accused of romanticising violence, which means romanticising America, but when her music has appealed to me, it hasn’t been because I start believing that men are better than me or start victim blaming women. No, Del Rey doesn’t romanticise violence if romanticising it means I start to yearn for it — I never yearn for violence through her music. I never understood, either, the concept of Del Rey as sex symbol, even though she is undeniably gorgeous, with her old world Hollywood charm. Del Rey’s voice is too solid, too masterful, for me to regard her as pathetic or otherwise lacking agency. Especially when she is read against her superstardom, LDR is for me cowboy.

But “cowboy” in the sense that Mitski meant it on Be the Cowboy, not whatever superficial idea Lil Nas X and yeehaw emoji culture peddle. I mean “cowboy” in the same sense as Rick Dalton’s character in the film within a film in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, another throwback to an old world that came out a few months before Del Rey’s latest knockout album, Norman Fucking Rockwell! The Tarantino film is a celebration of a Hollywood of dreams, a golden age of Hollywood in the 60s, a Hollywood that was, or wasn’t, I can’t tell, having not been born at the time and having no real interest in it. But it’s besides the point whether it truly existed or not, just like how nostalgia isn’t really a desire for a past time, but rather just a backdrop for fantasy.

If the cowboy is the male version of the mythological lost past, as exemplified in Rick Dalton’s character, then the character of the perfect angelic starlet seems like the female version, as exemplified by Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, or Lana Del Rey’s Lana Del Rey. (Even the three-part name seems like a throwback to a golden age where it wasn’t pretentious yet [think JFK, FDR, LBJ…].) The cowboy is noble, self-sacrificing, handsome, and unafraid. The perfect maiden is the same, with the caveat that she is all these things for love of the cowboy, while the cowboy is allowed to be all these things for some “higher”, manlier pursuit, such as Honour, Justice, The Truth, etc.

In music critic Ann Powers’ review of Norman Fucking Rockwell! for NPR, she summarised the album in such a way as directly struck me in my deepest insides: 

‘The album’s dominant story line describes an affair with a fellow artist in which the power roles never solidify, a situation Del Rey depicts as unsustainable but clarifying. Addressing this bohemian deadbeat, she upends the gender roles she’s so often fetishized, trading in her kitten heels for kicks that allow her to keep walking. She cusses at her “man child,” demanding that he grow up; she describes herself as the more active breadwinner (“you write, I tour, we make it work”). At one point, in a sonic nod to Leonard Cohen, she simply announces, “I’m your man.”

It’s the trope of the self-sacrificing maiden but supplanted into 21st-century reality, out of the movies and far from the cowboys. What Powers’ review points out is, despite it all, despite how “woke” we’re supposed to be now, there’s still something compelling and highly relatable about this unliberated female figure who sets the feminist movement back by decades. The princess who wraps her arms around her man, who wages everything on him, who has never stopped indulging in the clichés of 2011’s Video Games, Del Rey’s first major hit. Heaven is a place on earth with you.

Powers’ review confronts this question: in the age of #MeToo and #DumpHim… what if bright, young, smart women fall in love with problematic men, and it’s no one’s fault? Del Rey is relentlessly a conservative heterosexual. You can say that, or you can say, as Ann Powers did, that Del Rey is relentlessly pursuing ‘what she still guilelessly calls “love”.’ Norman Fucking Rockwell! is a love story. 

I’m afraid to suggest that heterosexuality probably is a protracted power struggle. All intimate relationships are probably, however subtly, a protracted power struggle, but heterosexual ones most of all. Del Rey doesn’t denounce this or try to change this in any way, and there lies, at least for me, NFR!’s most compelling quality. In another recent album I loved, Mitski explored various “personas” of a cowboy (or approaching the cowboy) in Be the Cowboy, released just last year. Among the songs, she takes on personas that are similar to that of the cowboy archetype, being cold and rigid when it comes to sex and intimacy; leaving before the opportunity to get hurt. The album is polished, tightly-wound, well-executed, each song perfectly self-contained within its 2-3 minutes. Within this perfection of sound, she explores yearning and romantic delirium, and there’s one song, Me and My Husband, that explores the yearning of domesticity, a yearning that stretches into the endless horizon.

I wonder if Mitski would think that Del Rey’s NFR! has attained to the cowboy. If the cowboy is the figure who perpetually, perhaps naively, yearns towards the unattainable, the perfect ideals, then yes, the figure of the woman in NFR! is cowboy. However,  where certain personas in Be the Cowboy seem to turn away from love in order to follow the true path of the cowboy, the persona in NFR! fixates on love as the ultimate ideal. LDR’s persona is committed to her “man child”.

The album begins with the lines (indelibly imprinted in my brain), ‘God damn, man child. You fucked me so good that I almost said I love you. … Your poetry’s bad, you blame it on the news.’ Brash, disgusted. But the album ends with songs of hope and quiet persistence. Happiness is a Butterfly is the one that a colder person might say “I told you so” to (as a lot of us straight females have un-self-consciously said to many other girl friends, or at least thought to ourselves while watching them sob [I will never love like that, such a stupid thing could never happen to me]), as it recites pleas of hurt over and over again. It’s a sparse song, relying on the strength of Del Rey’s voice and her piano. 

Don’t be a jerk, don’t call me a taxi 

Sitting in your sweatshirt, crying in the backseat 

I just want to dance with you… 

God, it’s so childish. At least Mitski’s Two Slow Dancers had a bit more sophistication to it, at least it wasn’t so desperate, at least it wasn’t crying, at least it didn’t have such a hackneyed title like “happiness is a butterfly”, which, in another context, you could imagine as typed in some terrible font on a cheap notebook in the stationery section of a bookstore that’s been making losses for the past few years. In any other mouth, in any other hands, NFR! is an album of songs that the modern woman might cringe away from, but isn’t it another cliché that clichés capture humanity’s most basic and universal truths. 

Del Rey’s unique quality is that she wrenches all the terrible clichés and terrible beliefs out from our hearts where they’ve continued to reside this whole time, and, with the album, presents them back to us as the beautiful things they’ve always been. With all this talk about cowboys and who has the more perfect ideal, what I really mean is I’m glad she’s given us Norman Fucking Rockwell!, an outlet through which to believe. I’m glad she’s saying all the things I’m too scared to say, for fear of being thought weak. I’m glad a bright, young, talented woman out there is still singing about love, and falling hard, because I, too, continue to make the non-decision of falling terribly in love.  

♫: “Otis”, Kanye West and Jay-Z, ft. Otis Redding

It’s been a while since the release of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s collaborative project, Watch the Throne, and an even longer while since streaming platforms came to dominate the way we listen to music. Since the album’s release, it’s only ever been available to stream on Carter’s own Tidal platform. At the time that Watch the Throne came out, I naïvely considered it one of my most-loved rap albums, because I barely knew any rap albums at the time. It was a time when people still used to say “swag”.

I was thinking about Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness today, and when I heard that descending piano key I remembered the way it acted as the “bass drop” point in a Watch the Throne song, except I couldn’t remember which. (Incidentally, how funny that for most people around my age, their first introduction to various modern classics like Otis Redding are through the samples on contemporary rap music. It’s only through rap that I discovered Redding, Gil-Scott Heron, James Brown.) For the past few years, I’d been almost exclusively listening to all my music on Spotify and ignoring everything that wasn’t on it. I’d forgotten the days of downloading music illegally, of not having the entire musical world at your finger tips; the days when you could listen to an album on repeat for weeks straight for no other reason beside that you just hadn’t downloaded any new music recently. The days when discovery took a bit longer, but music was allowed to seep in a bit deeper. When I looked up Otis on Youtube for the first time in years, I couldn’t help a big grin spreading across my face in public at the memory of lines like, “They ain’t see me ‘cuz I pulled up in my other Benz / last week, I was in my other other Benz.”

A couple years after Watch the Throne came out, it would soundtrack Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Two black men deep in 21st-century American decadence soundtracking the decadence of white Americans in the 1920s. It seems odd that this album is now almost a decade old, odd that there’s such distance between now and a time when West and Carter would make music videos as simple and honest as the one for Otis, in which they’re smiling, revelling in their own excess; a time before Carter became more art-house following Beyoncé’s footsteps, a time before West went a little more off the rails in his success. They were still Gatsbys in the way they flaunted their wealth, not yet the Buchanans they are now.

The album, so deliciously, arrogantly titled, was my first introduction to decadence-rap. I hadn’t discovered trap music yet, in which everything –love, politics, anxiety — is put into the service of flaunting wealth. Maybe if I’d stopped at this album, allowed it to fade peacefully into the ether of not-on-Spotify, I might have been saved from discovering everything else that came after, all the Youngs, the Yungs, and the Lil’s. Watching the video now is a surreal retrospective realisation of how naïve we’d been, and by “we”, I mean me, but also West and Carter. How naïve I’d been to think this was the best/worst it could get, how naïve of West and Carter to think that one luxury car was enough, even if it did have suicide doors.

*Please read all my writing on rap music with a heavier dose of irony than usual.

(Do not) Kiss the Cowboy

Some notes on kissing in Mitski’s latest album.

Do you remember when you had your first kiss? Actually, instead: do you remember how significant the kiss was to you, before you had your first kiss? Did you ever agonise over when you’d get it, and create endless fantasies about how it would feel? In Mitski’s Be the Cowboy, the significance of the kiss reverts to the bubbling, manic significance it has for children, who only know of it as this mythical moment, and then throw all their pubertal desires into anticipating it. However, the difference is that, in Be the Cowboy, the kiss regains this significance through knowing too much of what comes afterand so, out of fear, or resignation, the kiss remains as the only legitimate form of tenderness.

In wider culture, there are many famous examples of the kiss. There’s Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece, “The Kiss”, of a couple dripping in gold, the man’s lips pressed to the cheek of a woman who is turned away with her eyes closed, but her desire evident in the way her hand clasps his at her face. Then there’s Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, two novels in which the kiss is a pivotal moment around which the character’s lives are changed forever. When they first kiss their beloved Odette and Daisy, Swann and Gatsby irrevocably give these women their lives, causing both men to spiral into confused fantasy. Then, there’s also Richard Hugo’s poem, Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg, with the famous lines, ‘You might come here Sunday on a whim. / Say your life broke down. The last good kiss / you had was years ago.’ Here, the kiss is the only form of tenderness remembered amidst desolation. 

The Kiss, Gustav Klimt (detail)

The kiss is the first step towards consummation, but sex has the potential to become messy and traitorous. The kiss then becomes the only form of consummation. It ends where it begins.

Kiss me and leave me / The kiss as self-deprivation 

In Be the Cowboy, the kiss symbolises, at one and the same time, a desire that’s both too big and too small. Mitski’s voice in her album wants only a kiss, but she wants only that because it means too much to her already. The fame and pervasiveness that history has afforded Klimt’s painting perhaps speaks to a deeper, more fundamental and universally-shared truth: there is something sacred about the kiss. The kiss can be unbearable. 

Mitski uses the kiss as a form of self-deprivation; she wants nothing more except ‘one good movie kiss’. One argument is that the self-inflicted deprivation results from fear; as we see in “Lonesome Love” and “Washing Machine Heart”, the consequences of loving without being loved back to the same extent can create an agonising, depressive state. Please, hurry, leave me. On the other hand, perhaps the deprivation isn’t an act of self-defence but rather of acceptance—acceptance of the eventual diminution of love’s passion and romance, acceptance that love in its full form resides only in the humblest, every day acts, such as in “Me and My Husband” and “Two Slow Dancers”. As in Hugo’s poem, only the kiss is worth remembering. 

In an interview, Mitski was asked to name “one good movie kiss” as an example, and she answers, ‘the only thing that’s popping up in my head is The Notebook.’ Across time and space, across marriage, war, and illness, Allie and Noah’s eventual reunion against the odds spurs the legendary kiss in the rain, allowing Allie to throw off her engagement and reaffirm her suppressed passion. 

The thing that distinguishes the women of The Notebook, The Great Gatsby, and Swann’s Way is that they are all utterly, financially dependent on the men in their lives. We are made to believe that the tragedy befalls the man whose love is scorned, but the real tragedy is the woman who cannot ever sincerely choose for love. Mitski wants only the kiss, without the subsequent dependency upon a man. 

In the interview, Mitski continues, ‘[The kiss is] Something that’s just utterly romantic, and in the imagination, but not in real life.’ 

Everything is sex, except sex, which is power / The kiss as a forfeit of sexual power / Throwing down one’s gun 

In “Lonesome Love”, Mitski’s character intends to take revenge against a halfhearted lover, but it’s only a superficial revenge through looking good (‘spent an hour on my make-up to prove something’) that of course fails for the very reason that it was intended to succeed. It succeeds because the lover desires her, but in the morning, Mitski is returning home in a taxi cab, ‘so very paying for…’ As a sharp contrast, “Washing Machine Heart” is all upbeat and delirious, as she sings sycophantically, ‘Baby, won’t you kiss me already? / and toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart / Baby, bang it up inside.’ The two extremes—one that manipulates the man’s desire, one that fully indulges it—are both tactics that sacrifice self-respect for still positioning the man as the main subject; both tactics are losing ones. 

There’s something a little bit deranged about desire. Something a little bit crazy, something that throws everything a little bit off-balance. Suddenly, without conscious choice, your whole happiness rides on another person; even in love’s happiest state, total union with the other necessitates the disintegration of the self. The danger for a heterosexual woman is that every opportunity for love is an equal opportunity to be fucked over. 

In Mitski’s discography, she knows that men often do not, will not, and cannot care for you. In “First Love / Late Spring” off her third album, Bury Me At Makeout Creek, she sings, ‘Please hurry, leave me, I can’t breathe / Please don’t say you love me,’ and one of her most famous song, “Your Best American Girl” off Puberty 2 is a fight against her own desire to be desirable. There would be nothing to fight against if we weren’t so sure of disappointment, and the doom of being a scorned woman, left alone, tending to our own ruin. Heterosexuality is a cage, and women trapped in it all rub themselves raw against its bars, trying to become desirable, or at the very least regrettable in the superficial way that “Lonesome Love”’s character tries to be regrettable, or in the way a post-breakup Instagram hoeing-out post tries to be regrettable. 

The kiss becomes the final consummation—the only consummation that matters, before she needs to draw back and regain control. The kiss on its own can retain the promise of love, without going far enough to confirm love’s absence. 

Love and death are so close. For Gatsby and Swann, the kiss sealed their doom. The heart aches in love as it does in loss, because the heightened state of love always means that much greater a fall. In “Pink in the Night”, Mitski’s character is crumbling over love, ‘blossoming alone over you,’ replaying the kiss that sealed her fate over and over again. 

‘I know I’ve kissed you before, but I didn’t do it right, can I try again and again and again? And again and again and again?’

The kiss signals the beginning of disintegration. 

Resignation and the forfeit of romance / The kiss as the last good memory 

As Richard Hugo wrote in the aforementioned poem, ‘Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss / Still burning out your eyes?’ Hugo’s Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg paints a desolate landscape of a city, in which ‘the principal supporting business now / is rage.’ Mitski’s album, the cowboy’s home ground, is a bit like that desolate city. Her characters have suffered through love’s diminution, heterosexual disillusionment, have known what comes (or, rather, doesn’t come) after the first kiss, and all they’re left with are the facts of the matter. The choice is theirs as to how they want to move forward, but sometimes even that can be limited for a woman.

In “Me and My Husband”, Mitski takes on the persona of the suburban American housewife, who stands in the corner, resigned to watching her life go by, but still consciously affirming it. ‘At least in this lifetime, we’re sticking together,’ she sings of her relationship with her husband, counting the small, minute, domestic checks and balances that contribute to love in a relationship at the end of the day. Many songs in her album explore the contradictions between love and death, passion and control, delirium and choice, and this song offers a breather in which both extremes can sit side by side. Just as she made a conscious choice, with her songwriting on this album, to step away from the more infatuated and adolescent themes of her previous work to focus more on striking a balance, this song forsakes high emotion for the sake of affirming the banal every day with all its contradictions and hardships.

The album closes with “Two Slow Dancers,” a ballad celebrating this hard-earned mediocrity. The ancient kiss still burns out your eyes, and ‘it would be a hundred times easier if we were young again’, but the present moment still remains as it is, and it would be more sinister to regret, or to seek to regain time past, as Swann and Gatsby do. 

The Hugo poem ends, ‘Say no to yourself. […] The car that brought you here still runs. / The money you buy lunch with, / no matter where it’s mined, is silver / and the girl who serves your food / is slender and her red hair lights the wall.’ 

The kiss is crystallised as the last good memory of tenderness and sincerity.

Let them into one another sink 

So as to endure each other outright. 

—from “The Lovers” by Rainer Maria Rilke 

“I know no one will save me, I just need someone to kiss.” 

For Mitski’s character in “Remember My Name,” her desire extends over all logical semantic boundaries. When she says she wants someone to remember her name, she doesn’t just mean it simply—of course people will remember Mitski’s name—instead, it takes on a larger significance, something ‘bigger than the sky’.

It hurts to want so much. It hurts to know how much you want, and how poorly the other person is capable of giving; the poverty of men in turn intensifies the desire of women. Be the Cowboy is Mitski’s most patient, structured, thought-out album, and yet it’s still bleeding with desire. The kiss is the symbol of simultaneously wanting too much and too little; the kiss is the conscious restriction of one’s desire. In “Nobody”, 

I’ve been big & small & big & small & big & small again / And still nobody wants me / Still nobody wants me / And I know no one will save me, / I’m just asking for a kiss / Give me one good movie kiss, and I’ll be alright.

Desire becomes disgusting. Or I mean: a lover’s desire becomes disgusting when the other stops wanting to take responsibility for it. The hollow echo: nobody, nobody, nobody. Nobody can ever give you what you want, because you want too much, your desire bleeds over all logical boundaries. A fragment from Richard Siken: ‘Love, for you, / is larger than the usual romantic love. It’s / terrifying. No one / will ever want to sleep with you.’ 

The kiss is the attempt to reach a compromise with desire. 

Be the cowboy

Mitski titled her album “Be the Cowboy” as a joke, referencing something she tells herself, to ‘be the cowboy you want to see in the world.’ Subverting the role of women in typical Westerns, in which the woman only supplements the cowboy by adding the excitement of sex and romance to his story, the album’s title instead urges women to be the cowboy himself. Be the cowboy, with the swaggering way he rides into town and leaves destruction in his wake; be the cowboy, with his life of self-restraint and instability; be the cowboy, with his worldly knowledge and his reliance on himself alone; be the cowboy, for whom love doesn’t exist; who rides horseback through the desolation of America’s roads, searching only for one good kiss, and nothing more. 

*For the sake of coherence, this essay takes for granted the lyrical content of Mitski’s past and present work and assumes that she is heterosexual. This is an asterisk to acknowledge that she is her own living person, with her own private life, that I would never claim to know anything about. 

Cover image: Screenshot from the music video for “Washing Machine Heart”.

My 2018 in Songs

Happy new year. As usual, I’ve procrastinated yet again—it’s already a whole week into the new year, and the deadline for this post was so far back as to not even be all that relevant anymore. Everyone’s already come out with their end-of-year lists, and are eagerly focusing now on analyzing the year to come. But time isn’t so easily discarded, and sometimes the things we think we’ve left behind, contained within an arbitrarily-dated year, only show their effects on us a lot later. Sometimes, like wine, some things need to mature with you.

I think the celebration of New Years, and thus the celebration of the idea that there can be “breaks” between one year and the next, that time can be so easily compartmentalised, can be a helpful thing because it gives people the energy to move on from painful experiences, but it is also deeply untrue. I don’t think 2018 (or any of the years that have preceded it) is the past, nor would I want it to be. I want, as Antonio Gramsci has said in his diatribe against New Years, to reckon with myself every day. I want to try, always, to seek out the continual chain of meaning that links every present action and circumstance to its history, thus also allowing us a sturdier ground from which to predict the future.

I had drafted a typical “favourite albums of 2018” listicle like everyone else, but I’ve chosen instead just to focus on specific songs, because I think that’s generally how music works for everyone. Whole albums can impact people, but more often than not we get fixated on specific songs, or even just specific lines of songs, because they speak to all of us differently. Focusing on songs allows me to be a bit more personal, I think. Sometimes you can think an album is just OK, but be really obsessed with a song from it. Sometimes a single line from a single song can inform the way you think for a long time after hearing it.

Anyway. Happy new year. Here is my list of songs (I only chose the ones that were released in 2018, otherwise this post would be much, much longer) that formed the way I thought, and soundtracked moments in my life in 2018. In order of their release throughout the year.

“Famous Prophets (Stars)”

(off Car Seat Headrest’s Twin Fantasy: Face to Face

To write about Twin Fantasy now, after almost a year since its re-release, makes me a little bit sick. It makes me sick, because to remember the album is to remember the person I was when I first heard it, and the places I’ve been while listening to it. Memories are really difficult to live with: in the tedious, fast-paced life that most of us are used to under capitalism, we don’t become attached to memories anymore and instead allow life to pass us by. Sometimes remembering is unbearable, and obstructs you from moving on.

But this album meant a lot to me because it meant a lot to Will Toledo. Through his return to an album he made when he was younger, and when the feelings were much rawer, he showed that self-confrontation can also be a creative process rather than just pain and sadness. The confrontation with one’s past can produce something beautiful and touch the lives of others. This kind of commitment to vulnerability and personal growth, in a music industry in which artists mostly seem to grow more disassociated from their selves over time, means a lot to me. 

“If You Know You Know”

(off Pusha T’s Daytona)

For the forward of the 2006 edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers compared Wallace’s book to Sufjan Stevens’ project of writing an album for every state in the United States of America. I’m going to take that one step further and compare Stevens’ project to Kanye West’s exaggerated announcement that he was going to release an album for every week of 2018. So far, Stevens has only got as far as Illinois and Michigan, but West managed to get as far as five weeks out of 52.

The first track of the first album of West’s endeavour came out blaring with loud sirens and a weird voice that just seems to be going, “BA BA BA BA BEE BA BA BA” over and over again. At the time, I had just quit my first job to go travelling for a month, then still full of doubt as to whether that had been the right thing to do, or if I was just being stupid and impulsive as fuck. I was also very anxious during my travels, because it was the first time that I travelled so extensively on my own. Back then, I was someone fresh out of a job, someone who’d quit her job just to travel. I was alone, a lot, but I was also often with people who I knew then I would never see again. I often thought about my privilege to be able to travel, but also of the uncertainty that would be facing me when I came back, and it created this weird thing where I felt like I wasn’t being adventurous enough considering my privilege to be able to travel in the first place, but also guilt at living so recklessly sometimes, because I knew that I would have to return eventually, and confront myself eventually.

The regularity of West’s collaborative releases, which coincided with this same, odd, uneven time of my life, helped to ground me. I spent many long train rides listening to Push’s Daytona, West’s ye, and the Kids See Ghosts album. Anticipating the release that I knew would come at the end of each week also helped me keep time. Five (well, more accurately for me, four) strange weeks out of 52.

Ghost Town” (off Kanye West’s ye)

and “Reborn” (off Kids See Ghost’s Kids See Ghosts

The soft nighttime beat of “Reborn” reminds me of a wind-up lullaby toy I used to have when I was younger. And like a lullaby, this song and “Ghost Town” have been the songs I’ve turned to during times of intense disillusionment this year. 

This year, I’m more than a year graduated from university, after a whole lifetime of following formal schooling straight without any breaks or deviations. This year, I’ve taken risks and made choices that I’m still not sure about. Things seem to be going good, dream-like, but I’m suspicious that my choices have yet to exhaust themselves of their consequences. They may still raise themselves to bite me in the back further down the line. 

In the last verse of “Reborn”, Kid Cudi has a moment of confusion as he asks, “which way do I go?” while in the background his own voice echoes the refrain, keep moving forward, I’m moving forward. The combination of Cudi’s soft, muttering voice with the descending piano key undermines his claims of progress. It sounds more like a song of a lost boy trying to reassure himself that he’s OK, rather than a song from someone who’s really OK. Similarly, I’ve been trying to convince myself that I’ve been reborn through my choices–that I am no longer that lost girl of my late teens, that the years of my early 20s, fresh out of university, are bright and productive, but I can’t quite keep the doubt out of the song either. 

In “Ghost Town”, West similarly slurs the proclamation that, “some day we gon’ set it off,” but follows with the warning, “baby don’t you bet it all, on a pack of Fentanyl.” Fentanyl being the opiod that killed both Prince and Lil Peep. All of his promises of greatness and mental well-being are asterisked with that “some day”. Like with “Reborn”, the whole song sounds more like a song about doubt rather than the successful flaunting of the Kanye we’re used to. Cudi adds his vocals to the song in the plaintive refrain, “I’ve been trying to make you love me, but everything I try just takes you further from me.” 

After his final refrain in the song, it immediately breaks away into 070 Shake’s, “Whoa. Once again I am a child.” That jarring realisation that never fails to sneak one over you, again and again, no matter how old you are and how well you think you’ve “figured it out.” Turns out that doubt is a state you have to live with for the rest of your life. Turns out that your choices do matter, and regret only gets harder the older you get. Turns out that this is true for everyone, even Kanye West, and that I’m not alone in this. Turns out that knowing this only makes things better marginally. 


(off Travis Scott’s Astroworld)

Trap music offers a kind of retribution that no other genre of music offers so forcefully or so menacingly. Trap music offers this retribution alongside an attitude of total blaséness that sounds as if it’s not even a big deal, but rather the only logical outcome. 

The start of this year was marked by beef between Pusha T and Drake, and, I guess, Kanye West, who probably just likes to sit back and stoke some fires when he’s bored. So as a response to both Push and Kanye, Drake jumped onto Travis Scott’s song to produce one of the most well-loved and well-banged-out songs of the year, “SICKO MODE”. Many have speculated that Drake’s second verse in the song details his steps through his neighbourhood into the Kardashian-West residence to take his revenge on Kanye by having an affair with Kim.  While an amusing rumour, I don’t really care to speculate on the song’s real-life allusions; I’m more concerned with the very act of detailing one’s revenge in a hit song. Drake literally listed out all his moves down the block, complete with left- and right-turns. 

For all my doubts, this year was also a year of a lot of outwards anger and resentment. Doubt producing the anger at the external world for being so precarious. For making me feel used and screwed over but not allowing me to express that directly at the people who make me feel that way—because I want to keep my job, because of social niceties, or maybe even because they’re just people who are trying to make it just like me and that kind of mutual screwing over is inevitable. “SICKO MODE” is the dream of a revenge that is clean, direct, and, what’s more, something you can dance to after it’s done.

The entirety of Mitski’s Be The Cowboy

and “thank u, next” (Ariana Grande) 

I guess it’s unfair to pick out an entire album by Mitski in a list that’s supposed to be anti-album for the sake of specificity and personalization, but this will be the only exception because her entire album matters. Also… it’s my blog!

Mitski’s album came as a severe warning at a time when that’s the exact and only thing I needed. I feel like she’s staring me directly in the eye and piercing me to the core when I hear her say, “I know no one can save me.” 

This year has been the year that gave us the “big dick energy” meme. People have joked wondering whether their mcm or other male faves have “big dick energy”, but for me, big dick energy is the same energy as Mitski titling her album, “be the cowboy”. A lot of the songs chart a [heterosexual?] woman’s loneliness, but in so doing they also insist that a woman’s loneliness can be her source of strength instead of a sickness. Rather than identifying with the abandoned lover in typical Westerns, left to look longingly at her cowboy’s silhouette disappearing into the burning sunset, the album instead insists on us to identify with the cowboy. The cowboy is a lone ranger, not lonely. 

I haven’t been in love for a long, long time. And it’s not because I haven’t “found the right person”, it’s because I don’t want to. As the fight against the patriarchy and heteronormativity continues, sometimes the most powerful way that a straight woman can cultivate big dick energy is to choose not to fall in love. This goes beyond smilingly telling inquisitive friends and relatives that “I just haven’t found the right guy yet”, but enters the terrain of saying, with a dead serious face, that I’m not interested in anyone except myself. It’s not me, it’s most definitely you. For so long I played the game thinking that happiness and safety could be found in the arms of a man, until Mitski rode into town and told me to be the cowboy I want to see in the world.

Or be the 6’3” guy with the 10” dick you think you’re going to marry. The “big dick energy” meme arose from a joke Ariana Grande made about her ex, but then she pulled out “thank u, next,” proving perhaps that her own big dick energy goes beyond what can be measured by a ruler. This song isn’t exactly on the same wavelength as Mitski’s album, but it still offered to me a more liberating way of speaking about heterosexual relationships than what we’re used to from pop songs. It’s a break-up song with the twist that there’s no bitterness, or false bravado in the face of hurt; instead, “thank u, next” acknowledges that Grande’s past relationships have meant a lot to her, and even bettered her in many ways, but ultimately still insists that she’s choosing herself above everyone else. It manages to be catchy and upbeat but also sagely reasonable. “I love you. I love you, but I’m turning to my verses and my heart is closing like a fist.” (Frank O’Hara.)

“Mo Bamba”

(off Sheck Wes’ Mudboy

Prior to “Mo Bamba”, I hadn’t ever heard of Sheck Wes. It seems these days that trap has one of the fastest cycles of stardom and prominency. Like, has anyone heard from Desiigner lately? But just like Desiigner’s “Panda”, “Mo Bamba” was easily one of the biggest, littiest songs of the year. Just hearing that 20-year-old breakout rapper who already has deals with both Travis Scott and Kanye West, shouting, “Fuck! Shit! Bitch!” makes me feel more confident. Trap seems like one of those machine-produced industries, in the sense that trap artists don’t need to expend much effort to make a hit song and rake in royalties. They can have the stupidest, emptiest lyrics (FUCK! SHIT! BITCH!) with the same style of beats, and end up being played at clubs for a whole year straight. 

There’s something to be said about pushing generic boundaries and experimenting with one’s craft, but there’s also something to be said for following an established tradition but being able to pull it off to a T. In this list, I’ve featured songs that I feel opened up my ears to new creative possibilities, but there’s also nothing quite like a good fucking trap banger. All our endeavours are in the pursuit of giving less fucks, and trap music takes the fastest route there. 

“Nowhere2go” (off Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs)

and “E.Coli” (ft. Earl Sweatshirt, off The Alchemist’s Bread)

Earlier this year, I bought tickets to the annual Field Day festival in London, solely because I thought it would be the only chance I’d get for a long time to watch my favourite rapper, Earl Sweatshirt, perform live. And then he cancelled on the morning of the day itself. I found out while I was peeing in a McDonald’s, yet I wasn’t even surprised, calmly returning to my seat and telling Jesse (who I was attending the festival with), “He cancelled.” 

I was disappointed, but I’d also expected it from a rapper who had teased releases without ever committing to any full-length drop, multiple times, over the past three years since his 2015 album I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside. Earl Sweatshirt has always been kind of elusive, even back in his Odd Future days, but that’s maybe the most appropriate way to be when you reach an intense level of fame when you’re still a kid. 

Earl Sweatshirt came back with “Nowhere2go”, which was finally followed with his third full-length album, Some Rap Songs. He sounds incredibly different, but you probably could have already predicted the path of maturity that he would follow. In the past couple years with the sporadic drops he’s granted us, he’s shown his propensity for collaborations with more unknown, but willingly experimental, producers, such as The Alchemist on “E. coli”. He’s also slowed down his rap flow, preferring to substantialise his words rather than falling back on his reputation as a child prodigy with a quick flow. 

As someone whose rap literacy literally matured alongside Earl Sweatshirt—besides Kanye West, he was probably the rapper who got me into the genre and all its accompanying sub-genres—it makes me happy to be allowed to follow the progress not only of his music, but also of his person. The Earl on “Nowhere2go” is a lot more chilled out and reflective. The impression is of a guy sitting back in his chair and rolling out sage lines without thinking too much about anything, perhaps belying the amount of emotional turmoil, self-reflection, and self-imposed isolation that he must have gone through in the preceding years to finally arrive at this zen-like state. I’m happy for him.