2018 was the year rock prioritized tenderness

While rock music has always explored vulnerability, this year female artists added a updated definition to the genre's lexicon.

December 14, 2018

On “Nobody,” the New York musician mononymously known as Mitski sings, “I’ve been big and small/ And big and small/ And big and small again/ And still nobody wants me” over a lush, disco-infused melody. The track off her stunning fifth record, Be The Cowboy, is a mesmerizing whorl of personal confession. Though melodically playful, her lyrics emphasize a darker realization about loneliness. “Nobody” is an excellent example of how pervasive rock’s new wave of young female artists have changed the genre’s narrative with raw—oftentimes uncomfortable—admissions over epic guitar riffs.

From the lonesome hymnals of Waxahatchee, Angel Olsen, and Allison Crutchfield; to the intimate, experimental anthems from Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast and Vagabon, the surge of women emerging from indie and DIY scenes to nearly mainstream attention—this year, Mitski earned an opening slot of Lorde’s Melodrama tour—has been a joy to watch. But the increase in introspective women taking up space in the genre, cultivated through precise emotional work, negates the fact that rock has always provided room for music by woman, for woman. Joni Mitchell. Courtney Love. Patti Smith. Poly Styrene. Kathleen Hanna. There are so many examples.

Yet, more than half a century after its inception, the genre still has an abundance of misconceptions. Perhaps the most prevalent among them is not only the assumption that women are “extraordinary” for pursuing a male dominated career, but that approaching their music through a diverse emotional lens delegitimizes their work. What is in essence a right—the agency to chose to be publicly exposed emotionally—can be a tall order in the music industry. Often, threaded throughout conversations about these artists is an interest in normalizing their music; the fact that their feelings have a right to be sung, loudly, and positioned next to any singular man given acclaim for doing a modicum of the same work.

Rock music isn’t devoid of empathy or tenderness, even in life’s grim and most inconvenient moments, like Sufjan Steven’s dulcet tones devastatingly working their way through your system on his death and loss epic, Carrie & Lowell. For women in the genre, this year these truths converged remarkably. During a year that most of us will be happy to see end, we were privy to the necessity of tenderness to their emotions when both new and seasoned indie rock musicians ripped open their chests to show us their beating, aching hearts.

They spoke of kept secrets, stories, and personal, devastating revelations—allowing for us to relate, and decompress. These included Mitski’s sprawling narrative of a repressed woman unravelling, Soccer Mommy’s soft musing about romance and loss, Snail Mail’s youthful, undiluted exploration of love, Ellis’ fuzzy bedroom recollections of isolation, and boygenius’ gloomy analysis of the human condition.

There’s a subtle, detectable strength to landing in the safe place of melancholy, while you’re tethered to other emotions unwilling to let go.

While the ability to identify, and receive tenderness is universal, in 2018, each artist that utilized its mechanisms approached it differently, and, in the process, developed their own definition of the word. It’s somehow equally remarkable (and not), that these artists are young—most under 30. There is no better opportunity for us to understand tenderness and vulnerability than from young women. From young people in general. No cynicism imprinted yet on their still-raw wounds.

Throughout Lush, the acclaimed debut by Maryland band Snail Mail, Lindsay Jordan grapples with love and loss with the shrug of a teenager because she still is one. Tender on Lush looks like the red pigments of an aura bleeding onto the white edges of a photo frame. She is powerful and astute. On “Pristine,” Jordan urges for clarity from a nameless crush with a shrewd self-awareness: “If it’s not supposed to be/ Then I’ll just let it be/ And out of everyone/ Be honest with me.” Jordan refuses to pull back on the crushing, all-consuming blow of unrequited love, and enormity of that devastation the first time it happens.

Elsewhere, the thundering drums on Ellis’ “Frostbite” grieves for her own broken heart: “Blame it on being young and dumb / wanting so badly just to love someone/ poured it out and you drank it all / you grew big and I grew small.” Soccer Mommy, too, goes through the motions of a palpitating heart for a beloved with no response. The record is paced slightly slower, humbling, reaching a sharp point with “Your Dog,” where singer Sophie Allison subverts a legendary Iggy Pop lyric (“I want to be your dog”) to “I don’t want to be your fucking dog.”

These tracks admit that while it’s inconvenient to explore the complicated dynamics of vulnerability, that’s exactly the point: there’s a subtle, detectable strength to landing in the safe place of melancholy, while you’re tethered to other emotions unwilling to let go. A few weeks ago, I read a story about an “emotional cold, something that occurs without warning and is as similarly burdening as a common cold. You sit with it, and let it pass through as you heal, building up resistance for the next time you encounter the virus. Emotions aren’t as invasive as bacteria, per se, but it fits. The process, the emotional cold as it were, is not perfect, or completely without its faults, but resting in the place of ennui has a generous, lasting benefit thereafter.

An expansion in emotional output was the goal for indie supergroup boygenius—less driven by the goals of their male contemporaries when forming such projects (bigger sound, louder and crunchier guitars, a display of collective technical skill, etc.) Even calling themselves boygenius was a private joke with profound reverberation. In an interview with the New York Times, Lucy Dacus explained that they arrived at the name after considering the gendered juxtaposition applied to artists; the genius of men being prioritized in rock, and the often forgotten, genius of being kind to the tenderest of wounds. “We were just talking about boys and men we know who’ve been told that they are geniuses since they could hear, basically, and what type of creative work comes out of that upbringing.”

What we saw and heard this year in rock music isn’t new. It’s not a trend. It’s an inevitable propulsion.

The three women who make up boygenius—Dacus, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers—bring the unique perspectives of their individual work to the collective, becoming something undefinable or precise to pin down definitively—a transcendence through six meticulously sculpted songs. An uneasy endeavour that boygenius prioritize on their EP is the concept of being still with yourself: Of facing the ugly contours and revelations that reside inside of you following moments of internal reflective self-growth. Their release, perhaps, was the ultimate example of women in indie rock revealing the pure, cleansing power of emotional release in art—that the collective power of women’s work is capable of recognizing the power and potential of being explicit about pain, and the solace derived from the practice.

Personal confessions seem cliché now. Also, redundant. Isn’t everything personal, or a sort of confession? Isn’t a confession, by nature, personal in some sense? This qualifier, personal confession, is often applied to the music made by young women, saying that what they write is akin to a diary entry. But so much of our online experiences can be categorized as confessionals: logging onto social media, we’re faced with statements as broad as musings about daily thoughts, to unpacking traumas in a way that unburden the sharer and comfort others who can relate. What we saw and heard this year in rock music isn’t new. It’s not a trend. It’s an inevitable propulsion. For this year’s leading women, they examined their intimacies, stories, hurt, and beauty with a tenacity that demanded our attention.  

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