YOUR BEST AMERICAN GIRLS – Post-Grunge’s 2 Perfect Moderates + U
by Oliver Rose and Billy Brooks
Increasingly, I find myself struggling with political correctness – particularly its militant application to the quest for broader equality. Like any sensible liberal thinker, I have a real chip on my shoulder about the disparity with which minorities (and even sometimes, majorities) can be treated; inexcusably and almost always without proper sentimental consideration. I can’t, however, condone the ‘six of one…’ response to prejudice – because when did legislatively condemning broadcasters of prejudice ever change their defect? Making the antithesis to someone’s thinking illegal doesn’t stop them.
With this in mind, I (and my co-writing like-mind here, Monsieur Brooks) would like to introduce you to two very special emerging artists from the alternative rock sphere – Mitski and Charly Bliss. One is a spiritually homeless Japanese-American feminist, whose rugged, self-taught bassist songwriting combines the savagely downtrodden with the beautifully optimistic. The other is a neon-spattered bubble-grunge band, excitedly navigating a rainbow-coloured asteroid belt of oddball relationships, from nervous self-aware first-timers to lovers afflicted with Westermarck syndrome. Both artists ultimately manoeuvre their songs around systems of fairness. They’re concerned with their own problems, sure, but it’s never selfish enough that they’ll shout over the oppressors, or deny themselves the ‘contradictions’ that their hard-line peers so angrily condemn (case in point: a vocal desire for heterosexual romance, despite thoroughly feminist values). In short, these artists have mastered moderateness without compromising their art. In fact, in our view, it’s this that makes them so damn good.
Without further ado, then, I give you Mr. Brooks and his introductory features on the excellent pair…
First, to Mitski, whose music is a lot like your favourite cocktail. When it’s done adequately, you enjoy it, and sample it in sensible measure when the mood hits you. At its best though, it puts you in danger of becoming a non-functioning alcoholic faster than you can say “white Russian”. While her most recent album was characterised by music I’d call harmless fun, there were two standout tracks – predictably, the singles – namely, Happy and Your Best American Girl. These tracks exemplify her finest lyrical techniques, both of which she’s expertly honed to make her audience at once hugely empathetic, and markedly uncomfortable.
Happy engages in a long Mitski tradition of extreme openness, twinned with a self-sexualisation that, done any less poetically, could seem crass, or distasteful. After the character Happy manipulates her into a sexual encounter, and leaves without saying goodbye, Mitski surveys the “cookie wrappers and empty cups of tea” they’ve left in the living room, and simply opines, “again, I have to clean”. This line alone seems mundane, but in the context of an extreme physical and emotional connection that ends in a tacit rejection, it serves as a potent expression of the feminist struggle, and only renders the song’s brazenly sexual opening all the more uncomfortable:
“He laid me down, and I felt Happy come inside of me, He laid me down, and I felt Happy”.
The funky guitars and rough-and-ready sax line strangely displace Mitski’s Brechtian gambit. The song’s finest moment is the line
“If you go, take my heart / I’ll make no more use of it / when there’s no more you”.
This is a vital and exciting message to hear in a love song, and is profoundly feminist. It is not one of failure, sadness, or disappointment, but comes with the implication that Mitski is more than strong enough to handle heartbreak.
The video accompaniment is not only artfully directed, but intelligently deals with race relations in America. The protagonist of the piece is a Japanese woman, in an unhappy relationship with a neglectful, unfaithful American war vet in the ‘50s. The oppressive white male partner’s behaviour, which turns out to be murderous rather than just rude and hurtful, is made only more potent hen we pit this video in relation to the implied historical context of the horrific end to the war in the Pacific Arena with the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and also the cultural context of works like Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
Happy is a successful experiment in audience discomfort and dissonance. It’s certain to remind the devoted Mitski fan of two other gems in her treasure-trove back-catalogue: Liquid Smooth, and Last Words of a Shooting Star.
Liquid Smooth appears on an EP released to Bandcamp before Mitski hit the big time with Bury Me at Makeout Creek (quote from Milhouse Van Houten of The Simpsons fame). Its instrumentation and harmony are in the vein of songs like Nature Boy, or Strange Fruit – very minor key extensions played unobtrusively on a piano – and the vocals they underpin are excellent, both melodically, and lyrically. Mitski declares:
“I’m liquid smooth, come touch me, too And feel my skin is plump and full of life I’m in my prime … I’m at my highest peak, I’m ripe, About to fall”.
This invitation has its message both ways. Mitski almost ticks all the requisite boxes for a figurehead of millennial liberalism. She’s second-generation Japanese-American, battles with acne, and sings about feminism. The only catch is that she’s unashamedly open about her heterosexuality. Close, but no cigar, Mitski…
Therefore, this lyric can perhaps be taken very literally. However, to interpret it thus would be unbecoming of my analytic skill as an English student, and I must point out that while her music tends towards almost diary-like honesty and personal subjectification, here, Mitski dehumanises herself. She’s a fruit, begging to be prodded and judged and enjoyed as nothing more or less than a source of aesthetic and physical pleasure. So, while on its own, this song could be taken at face value, in light of her entire oeuvre, that would be shortsighted.
Last Words of a Shooting Star, the beautiful closer to her beautiful first studio album, features one of the finest examples of Mitski’s ability to remind the listener succinctly and subtly that she is a person, with sexual desires, and real emotions.
And what a person it takes to write the lines
“You wouldn’t leave till we loved in the morning You learned from movies how love ought to be You’d say you love me, and look in my eyes But I know, through mine, you were looking in yours”.
Many people will meander through life without thinking about any subject in the depth Mitski addresses love, sex, and the narcissism of her generation, and all in four simple lines. Count the syllables. It would be monosyllabic but for ‘wouldn’t, morning, movies, and looking’. William Blake would weep for joy if he could read this.
In Your Best American Girl, Mitski confronts her tricky relationship with her Japanese heritage, and her upbringing, which had her balance with one foot in the Japanese camp, and one in the American. She uses her Japanese roots in other songs. In First Love / Late Spring, she includes the line
“Mune ga hachikire-s?de”
This roughly translates to ‘I feel like my chest is about to explode’. In American Girl, Mitski laments the way that her Japaneseness puts her at a disadvantage in the already taxing world of dating. There’s no road map for that territory, but from what she has to say about it, Mitski lacks even a reliable means of conveyance over its rough terrain.
“Your mother wouldn’t approve Of how my mother raised me … You’re an All-American boy I guess I couldn’t help trying to be Your best American Girl”.
Mitski’s struggle to assimilate a huge dimension of her family life with her desires in a totally different arena of life go unresolved – though she does decide that despite the fact this All-American boy’s mother would not approve of her upbringing, “I do, I finally do”. This at least is a fine take away from a song dripping with yearnings for more in the face of disappointment and frustration.
Just from these few examples, I hope I’ve been clear in conveying how important Mitski is. She’s a rare talent, yes, but what’s more, she’s indispensible to the liberal as a mixed-race, well-lettered young woman who’s ready, willing, and able, and in the most beautiful of terms, to be crushingly honest, and critical in addressing personhood, society, and love.
And now, to quote Monty Python, for something completely different.
It’s here at last: Guppy by Charly Bliss, the Brooklyn-based progenitors of bubble-grunge and all-round badass rock outfit. We’ve had four singles since last year’s EP, The Soft Serve Trilogy, and everything they’ve released has bordered on faultlessness. This is a bold claim, but in a climate that not only tolerates, but awaits with bated breath the next few shovelfuls of Kanye West’s steaming cum, it is necessary to acknowledge who is truly doing the most valuable work in music today. Though comparatively unknown, Charly Bliss are the heroes we need, even if they are not the ones we deserve.
Their sound is at once abrasive, and pleasantly accessible – hence the genre name bubblegrunge. Like Mitski’s sound, it underpins a masterful wordcraft, which is unforgiving in its assessments of self and surroundings. There are some examples to flag up, and I will begin, with that anthem of anthems, Ruby.
N.B. If you haven’t already, watch the video for Ruby. It won’t take much time out of your day, and you won’t regret it.
Ruby is an ode to Eva’s head-shrinker, who helped her manage a debilitating phobia of fainting. The nuisance the phobia causes is detailed in the second verse, in which Eva begrudgingly admits
“I guess I need a ride I’ll check with my boyfriend, and see if it’s fine.”
I know what you’re thinking: does the patriarchy know no limits? This poor girl is obviously the victim of a micro-dictatorship, helmed by an overweening boyfriend. She must be liberated!
Well, think again, motherfuckers.
Eva’s boyfriend (whom she’s unable to go three songs without mentioning, such is her admiration for him), is Spencer Fox, ultimate solid geez and band mate. Therefore, the lyric is of course ironic.
Eva’s her own woman, who snaps the Knowles-Carter fierceitude scale in half. If she needs a lift home, ain’t no man getting in her way.
But wait, isn’t this the same woman who just described the unpleasant scene, featuring herself ‘passed out on the subway with blood in my hair’? Perhaps this changes things. If my girlfriend described this tableaux to me, I would want to look after her to the best of my abilities, and I would deem it irresponsible, if, out of a sense of feminist pride, she refused to keep friends and loved ones in the loop on her toings and froings, where necessary.
So it’s not a gender thing at all, it’s just safety first. The beauty of Eva’s lyrics, and even her demeanour and stage presence, is found in the way that they so often dabble in a delicious moral ambiguity. Like all good art, Eva doesn’t often preach her take on these issues from the musical pulpit, but instead leaves it to the audience to decide. There is a notable exception to this, however.
Brooklyn is a rough neighbourhood, and fainting isn’t the only danger lurking around every corner for Miss Hendricks. Oh no, there are creepy dudes (she calls them demogorgons), intent on ruining Eva’s day by following her around, propositioning her, and professing their new-found love for her, like it’s going out of fashion. Well,
“In your dreams, turd!”
Eva yells in reply on the follow-up to Ruby, the marvellously named Turd. Consider the audacity of the band to release a single whose chorus hook revolves around the word. Charly Bliss’s sense of humour parallels Father John Misty’s, and Slaves’. The audacity, in light of Turd then, to record a music video for Percolator, their most recent single, in which Eva, in the role of boxer-by-day, superhero-by-night, pulls on a skin-tight leather suit to fight crime. It is again annoyingly easy to imagine people whining about this – why is she needlessly pandering to the male gaze? Why does she think she can do this, and get away with the sentiment of a song like Turd?
Cause she’s Eva motherfucking Hendricks, that’s why. She’s so in charge of her own sexuality and emotions that she can go from singing very seriously and with an adept control of poetic irony and pop allusions about the extremes of emotion in Percolator, to calling people childish names for bugging her on the street as if there was no difference between the two. As she cries in the chorus to Glitter, the second single from their upcoming debut, she’ll
“have her cake and eat it, too”
And there’s precious little you can do about it.
One thing about Charly Bliss’s brand of feminism – which is pervasive – is that it comes from a quartet of white, and, as far as I can tell, straight, middle class, musicians.
Their ethnicity, sexuality, and class, of course have essentially nothing to do with their politics, or with the sentiments of their songs. In the way that Mitski’s ethnicity is central to her music, Eva Hendricks’ songwriting is largely unconcerned with race. This is, I recognise, a facet of pre-determined racial politics. If Japanese ethnicity was accepted as well as white ethnicity was, Mitski would have at least a different set of topics to write about, if not a smaller one. Such quibbles inevitably ignore the quality of output.
In a world which constantly pushes the liberal backward, toward a state of infantilism and hyper-empathy in which no one is allowed to offend, and people receive participation medals, we need to recognise that these vital examples of modern liberalism in contemporary music are worthy of our congratulations and admiration due to the fact that they manage to be incredibly feminist, forward-thinking, and ideologically outstanding, and that they do all this, unlike other artists I could mention, without the artist tattooing it on their foreheads, dressing in the garb of the black panthers, or performing in front of the word ‘feminist’ in size ten-million font.
Write songs with these messages by all means, but do it well, and do it with subtlety and artistry, or expect me to lampoon and criticise you for clumsy lyricism that will never do your subject matter justice.