Men and Music B-Side Project

To celebrate the 1st birthday of my poetry collection, Men and Music, this series will share "b-sides" not included in the collection but written during the same period, as well as the stories behind the poems. Check back each Monday for a new poem!

In an early draft of what would become Men and Music, "Chick Rock Guy" was going to be the title poem and open the collection. I wrote it after my first few dates with the guy who would eventually become my boyfriend, and the excitement of new love inspired me. This joyful time was about five years before I finished the book, and as the book evolved, the poem never quite fit, in part because I wanted the collection to start in a darker place and then conclude with light. However, I kept going back to "Chick Rock Guy" because I wanted to make it work for the book. In the end, it was a better piece by itself.

Swift Trouble: the Problems of Self Victimization and Abusive Rhetoric

I rarely write about music I don't like on this blog, but Taylor Swift's latest single, "Look What You Made Me Do" troubles me so much I cannot ignore it.

Taylor Swift has long cast herself as a victim in the press and her music. The narrative of Swift as the sweet, delicate princess harmed at the hands of lovers and haters has sold a lot of records. However, the longer she has stretched this passive-aggressive arc, the more problematic it has become. Music journalists have carefully tracked this troubling trend in Swift's career, as well as how it intersects with racism and class-ism. I recommend both of these articles on the topic: "How Taylor Swift Played a Victim for a Decade and Made Her Entire Career" by Ellie Wood,  and "If Taylor Swift Wants to Address Her Bad Reputation, She Should Start by Condemning Donald Trump" by Katie Cunningham.

"Look What You Made Me Do" escalates Swift's already toxic perspective on feminism and empowerment. The title and hook for the song take the star's usual victim narrative and further corrupt those waters with emotional abuse. "Look what you made me do" is a cliche in abuse narratives (there are a plethora of Lifetime movies about domestic abuse that use those very words), but those words have become cliche because they are a common tool of emotional manipulation weaponized by abusers. I had an emotionally abusive boyfriend who often used this concept to not only excuse his abuse, but also to make me feel culpable for his misconduct.

To use this phrase as self-defense is not just cringe-worthy; it is dangerous and shows how out of touch Swift is with anyone outside of herself. Perhaps Swift has never denounced Donald Trump because they are cut from the same cloth; he always fails to see himself as culpable for his own missteps and blames his mistakes on other parties, especially liberal politicians and the media. We have seen how dangerous that kind of thinking is on a national scale over the past eight months, and now Swift is selling this same abusive rhetoric to her listeners in an effort to pass the buck.

In an age when we need to empower young people, women, people of color, and the LGTBQIA community to stand up for their rights in the face of adversity, we cannot entertain the harmful ideas in "Look What You Made Me Do." Instead, we need music that lifts us up, pushes us to forgive, and motivates us to be the heroes in our own lives and in the community at large. Because I believe in the power of music to change our thinking, I want to close this post with three brilliant songs from Kesha's new album, Rainbow, that speak to the healing and strength we all need to persevere. Enjoy them, dear reader, and have hope.

We Need to Talk About Kesha and Girl Power

She's back and better than ever. After a long hiatus from solo recording due to legal battles with her former producer, Kesha has returned in a big way, releasing some of the best music of her career in celebration of her forthcoming third album, Rainbow (released August 11th). Rainbow's two promotional singles, "Praying" and "Woman," mark not only a creative rebirth for the singer/songwriter, but they also represent a larger trend of female empowerment for this year's pop music.

Kesha released "Praying" as the first song for this new creative era, and it is an impeccable choice. On the surface, the tune is a somber ballad about heartbreak, but the track gets more and more complex as it progresses. It does not cater to a victimization narrative--woe is me, someone hurt me--but rather positions Kesha as the bigger person who has been hurt, but realizes that healing comes from channeling anger into forgiveness. She builds on this idea with themes of independence ("I had to learn to fight for myself / and we both know the truth I could tell") to such expert effect, that the song's crescendo in the last minute (that whistle tone!) is easily one of the best pop music moments this year.

Though Kesha is in a self reflective state of mind, that does not mean she disowns her past as pop's party girl. In recent interviews, she owns each state of her career, and this is an important message for young women, who are often told to reject their hedonistic glory days in fear of being labeled "nasty women." Kesha has no time for this heteronormative misogynist rhetoric on Rainbow's second single, "Woman," which matures her party girl image from the 20-something who brushes her teeth with a bottle of Jack to an independent woman who doesn't need a man to foot the bill for her good time. Just like on "Praying," the Kesha we hear on "Woman" is a powerful creature who can take care of herself.

Of course, Kesha is not releasing music in a vacuum. Perhaps because of our heightened political and social climate, her peers are working with similar ideas. Katy Perry's Witness works as an interesting counterbalance to what we've heard of Kesha's Rainbow. While Kesha's new "woke" period is marked by a more organic sound, Perry has bolstered her messages of strength with a wall of icy electropop. Take her latest single, "Swish Swish." Like much of Witness, it's aggressive and muscular. It's also easy to dismiss the song as a dis of another pop star, but the song's growing audience belies something deeper and more interesting. When you listen to the tune alongside the political awareness of "Chained to the Rhythm," you can also hear "Swish Swish" as a glitter-drenched display of female power. Just like on Kesha's "Woman," the Perry on "Swish Swish" does not need a man to pick up the tab; she can fight her own battles.

We could go on and on about the empowered pop of this era. For example, we haven't discussed Leann Rhimes' pro LGBTQIA messages in "Love is Love is Love" from her under-appreciated new album Remnants, Lorde's ode to lesbian love with Melodrama, Miley Cyrus' hippie politics on "Malibu" and "Inspired," or Betty Who's sexually empowered The Valley. All of these strong, interesting, and creative women are showing listeners how to stand up and be themselves. Kesha has joined this growing narrative, and we are blesssed.

Honoring 90s House: Katy Perry's Witness and Madonna's Erotica

On Friday, Katy Perry released what is likely one of the biggest records of 2017: her fourth effort, Witness. After two high fructose pop albums (Teenage Dream and Prism), the diva has retooled her sound and released an album that celebrates early 90s house music. Witness's closest reference is Madonna's Erotica (1992), another brooding house album about self exploration and female power. Like Madonna's album, Witness  has an icy surface and may challenge listeners, but it works as a lyrical and sonic unit--textured, aggressive, and revealing.

Three teaser singles hinted to Witness's preoccupations: the social concern tune "Chained to Rhythm," the stiletto stomp ballroom track "Swish Swish," and the salacious "Bon Appetit." However interesting these tracks may be, they only anticipate the stronger material here. For example, "Roulette" borrows the girl-power hater take down of "Swish Swish" and escalates the formula with a larger, hookier chorus. Similarly, "Pendulum" builds on the social consciousness of "Chained to Rhythm"  but trades subdued satire for an anthem on karma, responsibility, and empowerment; it is one of the best tracks on the album.

Perry is not in a cheerful state of mind for most of the record, reflecting on self doubt ("Witness"), needing attention ("Deja Vu"), finding purpose ("Bigger Than Me"), and heartbreak ('Miss You More," "Save as Draft"). In some ways, it's disheartening to hear everyone's favorite California Girl sound so down, but nine years into one of the biggest music careers of the 21st century, listeners and critics have to expect some variation in Perry's sound.

That brings me back to Madonna's Erotica. Released nine years after her debut, the Queen of Pop's house record challenged perceptions of her pop brilliance. Erotica is a cold, harsh, and masterful exploration of sexuality and gender in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. Madonna is not cheerful on Erotica and none of the singles from the album have the hook of a "Like a Virgin" or "Express Yourself," but the album succeeds because she is questioning, political, and often brutally honest. Critics and listeners took time to unpack Erotica's themes; two of its singles reached the Top 10 (the title track and "Deeper and Deeper"), but they were not runaway hits. (Not to mention, Madonna's best ballad, "Rain," peaked at 14--a crime, as far as I'm concerned.) However, time revealed the thoughtfulness embedded in the dance beats and dark themes.

It's hard to tell if Perry's Witness will face a similar reception. While Perry is not as controversial as a Madonna was in 1992, Witness also arrives nine years after her pop debut, has a chilly house sound, and focuses on downbeat subject matter; these parallels are too strong to ignore. What I can say is that Witness works as an unusual creation, and it is all the more interesting for its unexpected tone and restless lyrics.

2017 and the Big Pop Music Chill Out

As we head into the heat of summer, you've probably noticed how chilled out pop music sounds these days. The Billboard Hot 100 is less about four-to-the-floor bombast and more about light disco and singer-songwriter fair. Perhaps this year's charts owe as much to the 1970s as they do to the evolving trends put forth in 2016 by Justin Beiber, Zayne. Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, and the Chainsmokers, among others.

Here are three songs that represent this growing trend for laid-back pop.

"Bon Apetit" by Katy Perry

Katy Perry is a key player in pop's evolution. The first single from her Witness era, the excellent "Chained to the Rhythm," launched "woke pop" with gentle dance beats and satirical lyrics. Her latest tune, "Bon Apetit," builds on that trend to include sexual politics, especially when paired with its official video. The video's revenge cannibal feminism is both a campy and ballsy move. Perry makes pop music a more interesting art form, and her new album will be a game-changer.

"Malibu" by Miley Cyrus

After all of her hip-hop posturing on Bangerz and the nonsensical drug ramblings of Dead Petz, Miley channels Carole King on "Malibu." The most direct homage to 70s singer-songwriters on this list, the song could easily play along side anything on King's Tapestry (not to mention both are heavily influenced by the California landscape). There may be some balking at Cyrus's sonic 180, including valid claims that she used black culture for her own gain on Bangerz and then ditched it when it was no longer useful to her. That said, "Malibu" sets a new artistic benchmark for the star, stripped of her previous obsessions in favor of strong craft.

"The Cure" by Lady Gaga

I stopped listening to Lady Gaga a long time ago. With the pandering and artistic cribbing of "Born This Way," she lost me, and Art Pop followed by Joanne did nothing to regain my attention. However, her latest tune, "The Cure," is an exception. Working with a light disco sound similar to Perry's latest, "The Cure" is back to basics for Gaga, and her music hasn't been this pleasing since "Bad Romance."Again, what I like here is the lack of posturing in favor of clarity--a positive change for Gaga's music.

Pop music always changes to meet the public's needs. Singer-songwriter music and disco took hold after the political turmoil of the late 60s and a slew of rock star tragedies. Carole King, Joni, Mitchell, James Taylor, Donna Summer, Cher, and their peers eased those ills with soft rock and fun dance music, as well as explored the evolving social mores of their generation. 

Similarly, Perry, Cyrus, and Gaga are working in response to the upsets of 2016--a horrific election season, Brexit, anti LGBT violence, and racial tension. These events empowered Perry to get political, while Gaga and Cyrus seem to be turning their attention back to love. It will be the combination of these two complimentary approaches that reshape the music landscape. 

Stellar 2017 Singles: Lorde, Kygo, and the Chainsmokers

While we face political and social stress, 2017 has provided the comfort of great art. This year is a renaissance for the pop single, as musicians like Kygo, Lorde, and the Chainsmokers are invigorating the Hot 100.

Lorde's "Green Light" is 2017's masterpiece thus far, perfectly marrying alternative music and dance pop. I was not a fan of Lorde's first record, but this single has captured my interest. The singer/ songwriter reminds me of the energetic 90s alternative female artists (namely Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette), and I think 2017 will be her year.

Kygo's collaboration with Selena Gomez, "It Ain't Me," also works as a dance pop wonder, playing with hipster malaise to delicious effect. It's inspiring counter-programming to the soggy ballads that diluted 2016 radio.

Last is another collab: the Chainsmokers' track with Coldplay, "Something Just Like This." While it's another variation on the duo's formula, Coldplay brings their own style to the tune and refreshes the sound. I know some pop fans are suffering "Closer" fatigue, but the Chainsmokers are having their pop moment--a moment that will likely where out over the next year. However, it's worth celebrating their accomplishments as "Something" and their equally sharp tune, "Paris," are defining the Top 10.

Protest Pop: Katy Perry and LeAnn Rhimes

In the wake of a conservative boom in both the US and Britain, pop stars have turned their art into a platform for equality and protest. Of course, this cycle has recurred in popular culture (perhaps most famously in the 60s). In celebration of freedom of speech, let's chat about two divas fighting the good fight with their music: Katy Perry and LeAnn Rhimes.

Perry's chilled out protest dance pop tune, "Chained to Rhythm" is already a hit, debuting on the Hot 100 at no. 4 after a solid premiere performance at the Grammy's and its official video release. Though it has a smooth surface, "Chained" works as a satire of complacency and criticizes a nation that has become a zombie to technology. Perry's message about the false sheen of the American Dream is made clearer in the tune's video, where her character visits a theme park called "Oblivia." If you watch the video a few times, you will see both her wit and the expansive vision of her protest.

Of course, "Chained" works as a pop tune. A few critics have criticized the track's polish, but Perry is not a punk artist; she's a mainstream pop star, and crafting a catchy tune with a message is a logical and socially responsible move for the singer.

In general, audiences and critics alike have embraced the new "woke" Perry and commended the political messages in her new material. Her 2017 Grammy performance is also the best of career. Though Perry has never won a Grammy (despite many nominations), I predict that these tides will change with this new creative era. 2017 has great things in store for Perry, and her forthcoming new record is going to be a game-changer, both for the sound of mainstream radio and for Perry's position with critics.

In contrast to Perry's splashy pop rebirth, LeAnn Rhimes made a quiet return to the charts with the US release of her new record, Remnants. The album made a modest debut on the Billboard 200 at no. 88, which is a shame because it's a solid soul record in the 70s tradition. Mixing stories of personal romance (like an excellent cover of "The Story") and social politics, the album has a lot in common with the work of artists like Marvin Gaye.

I want to zoom in on one song in particular: the catchy "Love is Love is Love." The tune is light and frothy thanks to the soft handclaps that provide percussion and Rhimes warm vocal. While Perry plays with camp and satire to deliver her message. Rhimes directly schools us in equality, singing, "We know the times are changing. Let me shout it to the whole world: love is love is love... Let's start a revolution."  I hope Rhimes decides to release the tune as a single, because it is the kind of music we need right now, and it would be perfect for early Spring radio.

Sadly, there is no video for "Love is Love is Love" on YouTube, but maybe this video for "The Story" will peak your interest enough that you will grab a copy of Remnants to get the tune:

So, dear reader, what are your favorite protest pop tunes? Why do you love them? Let's chat about it.