by Rebekah Goode-Peoples
Earlier this year, I made my high school students listen to “Cheerleader” by St. Vincent during a free writing exercise. They were supposed to write anything at all while trying to match the tone of the song. As I listened with them, I realized that almost without exception, I’d been exclusively listening to this song for months—different female vocalists, different lyrics, different instrumentation, but the same tone, same song.
I’ve recognized many images and pieces of my own writing from the past year in these songs: wells, water, boats, waves, divers, lighthouses, ghosts. In more romantic moments when I mix metaphors with abandon, I feel like we’re all mirroring something to each other, a form of musical smoke signals or Morse code. Square by square, I’m watching a quilt of our collective unconscious come together to keep us warm in the night.
But those are my more romantic moments.
Seven of the Billboard top ten albums last year featured solo female artists, and this year is shaping up similarly. While airplay on commercial radio stations has been dominated by the likes of Katy Perry, Adele, Rihanna, Pink, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and, god forbid, Ke$ha, fans of more independent artists were often exposed to more status quo fare—four guys with unkempt hair and tight sweaters.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a fine appreciation for musical boys (see: the guy I’m married to), but I believe musical variety makes everything sound better, more itself.
While female artists have always been on my radar, the last time my musical landscape radically changed from listening to albums by women was in 1992-1994, the roaring years of Tori Amos’s “Little Earthquakes,” Bjork’s “Post,” PJ Harvey’s “Dry” and Hole’s “Live Through This.” Though a newly minted teenager full of stereotypical angst, it is no coincidence that I started writing in those years. Notebook after notebook, I found I had something to say.
Now, twenty years later, I feel a similar awakening.
From Fiona Apple and Emily Wells to St. Vincent and Bat for Lashes, I hear strong, non-babygirl vocals, sonic experimentation, poetic phrasing and playful imagery. Listened to as a group, I get a strong sense of women coming into their own. Emerging from the shadows of big boys, big loves and big troubles. Trying to piece out just who they are and just where they belong. Knowing brokenness but forging ahead.
On St. Vincent’s “Cheerleader,” she simply states, and then radiates, “I don’t know what I deserve…I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more” while Emily Wells lilts in the hypnotic lullaby “Passenger,” “I’m a passenger, I’m a passenger/ Give me the keys I wanna drive.” But it’s not all floaty wisps of empowerment.
These ladies do not shy away from the barbaric yawp on their latest releases. Their stark, guttural growls and piercing wails take us right into the ugly bits. On “Deep Sea Diver,” Bat for Lashes expresses their comfort with going vulnerable and raw.
You came running out of the dark
With the tears in your eyes
This time I’m not afraid
Cause my heart’s in place
Baby let your scream come.
Most of these stepping-out and see-me-now sentiments are closely balanced with lines of fear and self-doubt. These aren’t perfect people. They are sometimes needy, crazy, antisocial and sappy (read: normal) and completely up-front about it. Unlike many of the commercial stars, there is no perfect package or the expectation of one. There is consciousness and reality in all of its sparkling starlight and dangerous dinge.
The combination of wild and wooly woman-talk, tribal rhythms and fierce, reaching vocal arrangements fill me with a real sense of anticipation. Of being on the brink of a brilliant dive. Of being a little afraid of it too.
It’s scary to branch out, to be something new or create something new and your own, but lately I’ve had the urge to create more deliberately for myself. There are many factors contributing to that urge: a need to cleanse a palate overwhelmed by social-media but lacking in real human connection, a need to redefine my identity post-marrying and breeding, and the realization that while I’ve always been a pretty terrific nurturer, cheerleader and advocate for others, I’ve never really been those things for myself.
I can’t help but think that the music I listened to this year opened the door.
And maybe similar doors are opening up for others. Maybe something is in the water.
I read the posts of dreamwarrior women on Facebook who want to start making music together, to just gather and play like the boys who find it a matter of routine to gather in basements, garages and barns to jam. Or Anna Chandler, co-founder of the now-defunct Savannah band General Oglethorpe & the Panhandlers, who wrote recently in a blog post (personal album of the year: Live through This, Hole), “I pushed myself to write more openly, to break out of my standard of cryptic, hiding lyrics and be blunt. I didn’t want to sing quietly, I wanted to wail, to howl and seethe, and suddenly I could. And I did.” And my bold-as-hell daughter who sits in her car seat belting out every single word of Fiona Apple’s “Every Single Night,” her tiny throat straining to match Apple’s rolls and calls, a giant smile on her face.
All of that feels like a promise. Like the one I’ve made to myself.
And though a year of self-discovery and voice-finding wasn’t easy, I had Sharon Van Etten whisper in my ear that “I’m All Right/ It’s ok to feel/ Everything is real.”
In no particular order, except for Apple who was certainly number one for me, here are eight albums that opened the door for me this year.
Fiona Apple “The Idler Wheel…”
St. Vincent “Strange Mercy”
Emily Wells “Mama”
Bat for Lashes “The Haunted Man”
Sharon Van Etten “Tramp”
First Aid Kit “The Lion’s Roar”
Julia Holter “Ekstasis”
Tune-Yards “W H O K I L L”
Rebekah Goode-Peoples is a mother, teacher and writer in Atlanta, GA where she lives in Grant Park with a bunch of superfreaks: Ryan, Sebastian, Izzy and Johnny Cash, the family chihuahua. You can find her at @goodepeoples and her band, Oryx and Crake, at @oryxncrake.