I remember the night I told my best friend that music writing was stupid.
It was a hot August night in Allston, Massachusetts. She was writing a story about Lady Lamb the Beekeeper and I was freaking the fuck out.
Summer of 2011 was the summer we both graduated from journalism school. As befitting recent graduates, we were both going through existential meltdowns. Throughout college, we both took baby steps, usually together, in the direction of music journalism: we co-hosted a late night college radio show, we co-wrote a music blog, we each picked up internships at local alt-weeklies. Music was how we became friends -- we went to shows together, we worshipped at the lyrical altars of "sad dad songwriters" -- Craig Finn, Matt Berninger, John Darnielle, Paul Westerberg. Music had always been a thing that we loved. Now it was becoming a thing we could maybe build careers around.
But it didn't feel quite right.
As I stood in her doorway, sweating in the unventilated hallway that separated her room from mine, I told her that music writing was stupid. I told her that it was downright irresponsible to spend time and effort on music writing when there were so many terrible things in the world that we could be putting our energy towards. I told her that the whole music industry was totally fucked, that it was just a circle jerk of cultural capital and cred-based one-upsmanship dominated by self-congratulatory white men. I told her it was classist and hollow. I told her that there had to be a better use for words than to describe guitar sounds. And when it was clear that I had really hurt her, I jumped on my bike and took off down Harvard Ave.
Biking usually helped me clear my head, but this time it wasn't working. I took a detour from my usual route and headed instead towards another part of town, to meet up with a guy I had been seeing.
He met me at a corner and we walked up to a park by his house. Hanging out was always easy - we drank whiskey, lay on the damp summer grass, and talked about music, which was the common thread between our otherwise disparate-seeming lives.
I had grown up listening to early aughts pop-punk and was then spending most of my nights at alt-ish indie rock shows. He had grown up listening to nineties hip-hop and was still active in hip-hop world. Our lives followed similar trajectories, but within Boston's genre-segregated music landscape, our scenes rarely crossed paths.
Somehow, that night, we got to talking about the Warped Tour. I told him about how excited I had been to see Rise Against and NOFX, how the first circle pit I had ever seen was at an afternoon Billy Talent set.
He told me that the Warped Tour had a lot of hip-hop roots, and back in the day it was actually pretty hip-hop heavy -- Ice T, Black Eyed Peas, Eminem.
I remembered that the first hip-hop artists I ever got into in a big way were Atmosphere and Sage Francis, both of which came to me via a Warped Tour compilation.
"Maybe the Warped Tour was actually a sort of utopia," I joked, referencing the ridiculous West Side Story nature of our subcultural affiliations. "The only place where hip-hop and punk could live in harmony."
He widened his eyes in mock confusion. "But what about NU-METAL?"
Of course, beyond mainstream stereotypes, hip-hop and punk aren't actually that different from each other.
The biggest appeal of punk, for me, had always been the politics.
Cliche as it is, listening to bands like the Clash, Anti-Flag, and Bad Religion was my gateway to learning about globalization, class inequality, and anti-corporate activism long before college courses could fill in the details.
Even before I caught on to the lyrical content, I was won over by the politics of how the music was made. Punk felt inherently working class -- imperfectly produced but passionate - anthemic and ritual-oriented in a way that made it easy to build communities of practice, which could then be developed into communities of resistance.
Hip-hop of course also has an unfuckwithable legacy of being a medium for resistance and cultural affirmation. It was cool to talk to people who had witnessed artists like Dead Prez, N.W.A, Wu Tang and Public Enemy were bringing police brutality, government negligence, and the effects of drugs on communities into mainstream discourse. It was even cooler to learn about local artists who were currently doing that work - something I wasn't hearing much about from many otherwise omnivorous music people.
Both genres were vehicles for marginalized populations to speak out and retaliate against major injustices as well as daily microaggressions. They weren't afraid to be ugly, and as a result, produced art that spit in the face of the pristine veneer of polite professional society.
This was why hanging out together mitigated the unease I felt when hanging out with many of my classmates. Boston -- at least the largely segregated, college-educated, upwardly mobile, generally wealthy part of Boston -- embodied a society that needed shaking up. Whenever I felt anxious about assimilating into that culture, it was reassuring to be around someone else who could call bullshit.
But, it wasn't all whiskey and nu metal jokes.
Where our music tribes fell in line on class issues, they differed wildly when it came to gender.
I remember one night I was hanging out with him and his buddies, when they casually started singing "Ain't No Fun."I used have no problem liking songs despite their fucked up lyrical content - I would even sing along, in part to demonstrate that they held no power over me. But something about hearing it within this context made it too real. When they got to Nate Dogg's verse, I felt physically sick.
"When I met you last night baby / before you opened up your gap / I had respect for you lady / but now I take it all back."
I wanted to throw up.
He didn't understand why I was so upset.
Later, I tried to explain how the song was an example of slut shaming, why slut shaming was problematic, how sexual double standards hurt people of all genders and created inauthentic, manipulative relationships.
I couldn't bring myself to tell him how gross it made me feel to hear a person I was involved with sing about losing respect for a woman after sleeping with her. I didn't mention that I felt unsafe hanging out with a group of grown men while they sang about passing a woman around to their buddies, fucking her because they didn't give a fuck about her.
My anger seemed to genuinely take him by surprise. It didn't seem like anyone had ever raised those concerns to him before.
From then on, whenever we hung out, he mostly stuck to singing Lauryn Hill songs.
Something that felt even more frustrating, in a way that felt even harder to explain, was how conceptions of gender affected our interactions. He would always say things like "well, but, you're a girl..." and "sure, but you know girls don't..." dismissing important conversations and guessing at how I would respond to situations by working off of a cartoon model of gender. I had no idea what a girl was or did. I just wanted to be treated like a person. But whenever I suggested that relating to people this way was ridiculous, I felt like I was crazy, or just really naive. This was by no means a new phenomenon or even exclusive to this relationship -- gender policing was something I was all too used to, something I assumed I would just have to deal with forever. But it was finally really starting to get to me.
Then, in the spring, three albums came out that affirmed my suspicions that another world was possible.
EMA's Past Life Martyred Saints, tUnE-yArDs' whokill, and Wye Oak's Civilian.
Erika M Anderson, raw and devastating, sang "you were a goth in high school / you cut and fucked your arms up," then admitted, "I have the same scars you see". She spoke to a sense of self harm and body horror and dysphoria that I hadn't heard acknowledged musically in such a powerful way since Live Through This; snarled "what's it like to be small town and gay" over waves of harsh noise. Merrill Garbus, rocking face paint and an Oakland mullet, mixed life-affirming ("You Yes You") and sex-positive ("Powa") songs with songs about gentrification and police violence ("My Country," "Gangsta," "Doorstep"). Jenn Wasner claimed power while acknowledging vulnerability, summarizing existential anxiety in one deft line: "madness seeking mastery."
All at once, I had three angels on my shoulder communicating alternative narratives of how one could be. Here were three female-identified artists expressing their visions of being in the world, and not only were they radically different from any two-dimensional ideal, they were different from one another. They created images I could relate to, and even if I did not identify with them 100% of the time, they opened the door for even more images to be created.
Meanwhile in real life, I kept being called out for not fitting an archetype that was created by people who did not share my history or my body or my experiences. It didn't add up.
It was the summer of 2011 and, although I didn't know it at the time, everything was about to explode.
Boston's first SlutWalk and first Smash It Dead Fest both happened that May. Permanent Wave wouldn't coalesce til the following summer and Rookie wouldn't launch until September but music writers had slowly begun to unearth riot grrrl, and to call into question the underrepresentation of women in music. Le1f and Mykki hadn't even dropped their first mixtapes yet, but in response to [the decidedly hetero] Lil B calling his album I'm Gay, XXL ran a piece called "Break It Down: Homophobia in Hip Hop" in their July/August issue which declared, under the guise of progress, "while violence, misogyny and materialism may be with hip-hop for a long time, there are signs that the culture's attitude toward gays may be changing."
As summer ended, so did that relationship, but less than a full month later I would find solidarity and resistance in so many other places. Soon I would be living with amazing people well-versed in Judy B and Jack Halberstam who would back up my intuitive critiques of gender normativity with years of solid academic work. Soon I would be spending all my days at Occupy Boston, biking five deep in a leather-jacket-clad girlgang between Allston and Dewey Square, then spending all my nights trying to catch Speedy Ortiz and Parasol at basement punk shows or else dancing at queer nights where DJs gleefully dropped samples of a triumphant pre-Twitter-beef Azealia Banks proclaiming "I guess that cunt getting eaten."
I think about that summer a lot now.
In 2014, we think nothing of merging music writing with cultural criticism. Pop critics call out Miley for cultural appropriation, debate the merits and downfalls of bell hooks criticizing Beyonce, and are as eager to discuss racism, rape culture, and privilege as they are to drop new albums and Instagram pictures of their cats. It feels like the conversations that had then just started bubbling up in the feminist music press are finally shaping larger discourse both in the alt presses and the media at large.
It's not perfect. It fucks up a lot, as do we all. There is so much to learn and unlearn.
I know now that hip-hop is not any more misogynist than sensitive "nice guy" indie rock, or than the pseudoromantic martyrdom in the emo music I used to worship. I know that setting up a gangsta rap / conscious rap binary is problematic. I know that it's not unusual for subcultures to replicate hegemonic structures of oppression. Plus, as rockism dissipates, borders between scenes and thus scene-based identities are falling away more and more. These conversations are evolving, and they are so easy to find now that it's easy to take them for granted - it becomes easy to forget how isolated and desperate I felt then.
Three summers later, EMA, tUnE-yArDs, and Wye Oak have all simultaneously released new albums again. They are good albums. They are not life-changing. I no longer need them to be.
Looking back on that night in particular, I can laugh at how ironic it was. I had told my friend that it was pointless to pay attention to music, but music was everything.
Music is the dominant cultural form of the time, and so the prevailing medium for ideas to be exchanged and culture to be negotiated. The narratives transmitted through music culture shape our ideas of what is expected of us and what is permissible, and then help to push those limits. Further, since music is marketed as a "young person medium," music writing and music-making has become the most accessible entry point to media production, and thus a Trojan horse for weightier conversations.
These conversations are so easy to find now, it becomes easy to forget that they still represent a minority opinion. Just because we can find successful female/queer/POC identified musicians doesn't mean that everything is solved -- even a quick glance at YouTube or Brooklyn Vegan comments shows how much hatred and violence is out there every single day, which only goes to show how important this work is.
Visibility is powerful. It is vital to keep claiming space, to represent the things we don't see represented, to keep writing yourself into the world, to declare that you exist, to make space for others to exist as well.
This essay originally appeared in Issue 51 of The Miscreant, a zine edited by Jeanette Wall of Miscreant Records. The entire zine is available to read here. For more info about The Miscreant and Miscreant Records, check out miscreantrecords.com.