“Working Class Woman” is a Complex and Funny Self-Portrait

When I put myself in the shoes of an artist who has some level of popularity, I always think the most awkward part of it would be realizing that some of your fans are idiots. Marie Davidson explores that idea on “Your Biggest Fan,” the lead track on her new album, Working Class Woman, and it’s probably the funniest song of the year. In a mocking voice, she impersonates the dumb questions she gets after shows and the sexist assumptions people make about her: “Why are you so strange? Do you play in a band? Do you really need to carry all that gear with you? Is this album about taking risks?”

Davidson’s dark industrial electronic sound, which she’s developed over the last few years, adds some dread and horror to the comedy. Eventually, the funniness of “Your Biggest Fan” gives way to a sense of anxiety and despair as the annoying voices turn into paranoid whispers. It’s an ideal tone-setter for this album, which feels like a complete dive into Davidson’s psyche as an artist. At the end, I possibly knew too much about her sense of humor, her anxieties, and how she feels about her life as a traveling musician.

This dancey electronic music isn’t something I listen to much, but Davidson puts a spin on it that is compelling. The second track, “Work It,” is a good example: taken at face value, it resembles a typical electronic song with a pulsing club beat that someone might use to motivate them while working out. Taking on the voice of a deranged fitness coach, she uses the familiar language of empowerment, talking about working to be a winner and working until you sweat. Read another way, it’s a satire of her musical genre, her workaholic nature, and the values our society has that makes someone define themselves by work.

The ambiguity in tone is very intentional and part of what makes the album captivating. The protagonist of Working Class Woman is complex and difficult, which stands out among one-dimensional portrayals of women in other media, which are often either misogynistic or purely fantasy wish fulfillment with little in between. Davidson isn’t necessarily brave or heroic for working hard and dealing with weird fans — it’s just a part of her life that is portrayed, like everything else on this album, with brutal honesty.

My Favorite Albums of 2018

It’s December, which means it’s year-end list season and a reminder that music (and art in general) is a bloodthirsty competition. All year long, musicians put themselves out there, presenting the public with their latest work — not in hopes of expressing themselves or articulating insights about the human condition, but because they want to make it to the top and be the best. That distinction is administered upon them by bloggers and critics like myself, who understand the art form in a way that average people can’t even fathom. While artists everywhere dream of having that “1” or even “8” next to their name at the end of the year, the reality is that only a select few can make it into this privileged group. To the artists who weren’t chosen: I’m sorry that your work was an abject failure, but hopefully it can be used as motivation to be less bad next year.

The following were the only good albums of 2018. Any album not on this list is not worth listening to.

15. Tender Age – Becoming Real Forever

There is a national surplus of lo-fi, noisy rock bands out there, and Tender Age don’t necessarily distinguish themselves on the surface. This is where I’m supposed to explain why they’re different, but they really aren’t. I just really like these songs, which find the right balance of heaviness, chaos, and light, plus some Sonic Youth attitude in the vocals.

14. Peel Dream Magazine – Modern Meta Physic

If nothing else, Modern Meta Physic proves the value in stealing from the right artists. Joe Stevens’ band is very up front about how it is borrowing from past bands like Stereolab, who themselves were up front about borrowing from groups like Neu, and so on. Rather than try to reinvent the wheel, Peel Dream Magazine put themselves in that lineage, and this album plays as an earnest and thoughtfully crafted homage to the history of gentle psychedelic music.

13. Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore – Ghost Forests

By some margin the prettiest music I heard this year, this collaboration between the two folk artists conjures up woodsy, psychedelic imagery with Baird’s guitar, Lattimore’s harp, and ethereal vocals. The lengthy, spacious compositions function as their own little worlds that prove how two artists can strengthen each other’s sound through collaboration.

12. Julia Holter – Aviary

With its 90-minute run time and gloriously excessive, lush arrangements, Aviary functions as something like a meta-critique of the music listening process. While not necessarily an album I looked forward to listening to start to finish, I really enjoyed exploring all of its nooks and crannies and trying to figure it out. I’ll be honest: I still don’t know if I actually like it, and maybe I never will. But Holter’s project is a work of great purposeful ambition that raises more questions than it answers, and listening to it was a very different experience than any other album I heard this year.

11. Afrirampo – Afriverse

After eight years apart, Afrirampo picked up where they left off with Afriverse, providing an alternate vision of rock music where spontaneity, chaos, and fun take precedent over brooding and tired societal commentary. While their music undeniably seems random, there is real craft in its pacing and the use of dynamics, not to mention the technical ability of Oni and Pika, who both rip on their respective instruments. Sometimes music doesn’t need to be more than two talented people making a lot of noise.

10. Infinite Void – Endless Waves

Endless Waves is one of those albums that never really got a chance, given it was released by a band from Australia that already broke up. The world missed out, as it usually does. This is post-punk songwriting done at a high level with fantastic rhythms and dark imagery. I love music that sounds forceful but dreamy at the same time, and Endless Waves pulls that off.

9. U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited

In a Poem Unlimited was my favorite topical album of the year because it didn’t seem intended to be. While many artists pander to critics and listeners with lyrics that resemble Facebook posts, Meghan Remy grounds her arguments in storytelling while not shying away from hard truths. Her album outlines the feelings of distrust and abuse people face in different situations and puts these complex narratives in the shell of catchy, noisy pop that has a punk edge.

8. Nun – The Dome

Nun has a sound that, for lack of a better term, is very cool. The throbbing synth sounds create a dystopian atmosphere of dread typified by the album’s title, which is married with legitimate pop hooks. Meanwhile, Jenny Branagan’s half-spoken singing style puts them more in the punk realm and makes this a band that doesn’t really sound like anyone else.

7. Beach House – 7

A few years ago, I thought Beach House were stuck in a rut where they were repeating themselves too much and had nowhere else to go. Sometimes it’s a pleasure to be proven wrong. On their last two albums, they have evolved while maintaining a sound that is uniquely theirs, with a layer of darkness and introspection that wasn’t there before. I wasn’t as obsessed with 7 as Thank Your Lucky Stars, but it’s another gorgeous album by a band that feels revitalized.

6. Wax Idols – Happy Ending

The fittingly titled Happy Ending brings an end (hopefully a happy one) to a strong run from Hether Fortune’s band, which again showed its knack for goth-rock songwriting that gets into heavy, emotional material while being very listenable. This one focuses on death and loss, but as was typical with this band’s work, it’s not content to just wallow in misery. It finds nuance and catharsis in life’s darkest moments.

5. Marie Davidson – Working Class Woman

Abrasive in both its sound and the personality of its protagonist, Working Class Woman is a darkly comic trip into the mind of Marie Davidson or possibly a character resembling Marie Davidson. Her deadpan singing and ironic lyrics make it hard to tell what is serious and what is a joke on the album, which takes no prisoners in mocking herself and the perceptions other people have of her as a woman in the male-dominated club scene. Its sound varies between subversive club jams like “Work It” and the pure industrial-noise terror of “The Tunnel,” with the unifying link being Davidson’s relentless, refreshing honesty.

4. Free Cake For Every Creature – The Bluest Star

A throwback in the best sense, Katie Bennett’s band plays music that is in the true original spirit of indie pop, with an honesty and authenticity that eludes many more widely acclaimed artists. On The Bluest Star, the band’s scrappy, winning appeal is combined with something resembling ambition, resulting in a sprawling showcase of heartfelt songwriting and detailed character-driven storytelling. The sheer likability of Bennett goes a long way: she doesn’t need much more than some reverbed guitar and her near-whispered lyrics to connect with any listener.

3. The Green Child – The Green Child

This collaboration by Mikey Young and Raven Mahon arrived in January to little fanfare and set a bar for 2018 that only a couple artists matched for me. While not outwardly ambitious, The Green Child taps into all of the best parts of psychedelic music, with introspective retro-futuristic arrangements, ambiguous, thought-provoking lyrics, and Mahon’s understated vocals. It also boasts the song of the year in “Her Majesty II,” a dazzling, timeless mix of swirling synths, harmonies and guitar with lyrics that reflect on current events with a welcome touch of subtlety.

2. Melody’s Echo Chamber – Bon Voyage

The world of shoegaze and dream pop is full of artists trying to sound like their heroes from the past. Bon Voyage shows the power of sounding like no one, as well as the risk. Full of bizarre tempo changes and quirky diversions, Melody Prochet’s album is intentionally alienating and strange, the product of an artist with too many ideas and arguably not enough editing instinct. But the flaws of Bon Voyage end up being its great strength — its overstuffed aesthetic represents genuine unfiltered imagination, the kind rarely heard in music.

1. Emma Ruth Rundle – On Dark Horses

Emma Ruth Rundle is making music I always wanted to hear: something that has the massive sound of metal, the intimacy of folk, and the hooks of straight-up rock. On Dark Horses continues her evolution into a genreless force who can make relatively simple quiet-loud alt rock songs sound unlike anything else. Her 2016 album, Marked for Death, was a breakthrough; the sound, the confidence, and the emotional conviction of On Dark Horses cement her as an artist who has no peers.

Becky Lynch is Making Wrestling Real

Wrestling fans are used to hearing people tell them “you know it’s fake, right?” My rebuttal to this is to point out that all TV shows are fake. It’s like asking a fan of Game of Thrones if they know that the dragons in the show are CGI. If anything, wrestling is much more real than other things on TV, including heavily edited “reality” shows. It has predetermined outcomes, but the physicality is more real than most people assume and the storytelling is often tethered to reality in a way that other scripted shows aren’t.

I think wrestling is at its best when it has that connection to reality and gets viewers to forget that they’re watching characters. But these days, with social media and WWE’s branding of itself as a “sports entertainment” company, wrestling is probably the least immersive it’s ever been. The talented wrestlers are often stuck delivering overly scripted, inauthentic promos and too many matches feel like choreographed ballet routines instead of a fight. While the show has moved away from larger-than-life characters like The Undertaker (a dead guy), it is still hard to get emotionally invested in what’s going on because a lot of the wrestlers aren’t allowed to truly show what they can do.

This all ties into why the last few months of Becky Lynch have been so satisfying. I already wrote about her feud with Charlotte Flair, which culminated in Becky keeping her title at Evolution, WWE’s first all-women’s pay-per-view, in an epic last woman standing match that was my favorite in WWE this year. Since then, Becky’s star has continued to rise: I don’t know if she is literally the most popular performer in the company, but nobody is getting the reactions she does, and her character is connecting with the audience in a way that few ever have. And much of it is due to how her character feels real, how it intertwines with her actual self, and how she tells stories in a way that creates maximum immersion. It’s to the point that when Becky is on TV, I actually do think wrestling is real for a brief moment. I want her to win, I feel happy when she gets cheered, and I hate her opponents. I’ve always tried to keep an ironic distance from wrestling because it’s “cooler” to watch that way, but I’m all the way in this and there’s no getting out. I’m a “mark,” as they say, and it feels great.

After dispensing with Charlotte Flair, whose father once famously said “to be the man, you gotta beat the man,” Becky has christened herself The Man in a clever post-gender angle. It’s her character showing confidence while also acknowledging the reality that she’s on top and is genuinely the most exciting thing in wrestling. WWE tried to portray this new-found confidence as villainous, but it resonates too much with people who feel like they’re not getting what they deserve and lack Becky’s ability to do something about it. While most people are stuck without real options in scenarios where they feel undervalued, Becky’s character lives in the wrestling reality where you can beat the crap out of your co-workers and show you’re better than them. It’s very cathartic, and I think fans are living vicariously through Becky as they witness someone who they perceive as being underrated by the company climb all the way to the top while taking no prisoners.

Becky has created this unique connection to the audience in part by showing a deep understanding of her character and staying true to it in publicity appearances and on social media. When she explains why she calls herself The Man, it’s part Becky Lynch, part Rebecca Quin, and the line between the two is blurred in a way that only happens with wrestlers. Observe how she toes the line in this interview for an LGBT news outlet, touting her accolades from the wrestling world while also making real-world points she actually believes about gender/sexuality equality.

Now established as The Man, Becky entered a feud with Ronda Rousey, WWE’s current biggest star in terms of mainstream appeal who has proven to be a natural at professional wrestling. They exchanged barbs for a couple of weeks, with Rousey notably mocking Becky for taking odd jobs and retiring from wrestling for awhile while she was dominating in UFC. Lynch’s response to this was up there as one of the best babyface promos I’ve ever seen, as she described her real-life upbringing and struggles as an independent wrestler as a contrast to Rousey, who she perceived as being bred for greatness. It was character-defining in establishing Becky as someone who worked her way to the top, never got handed anything, and developed an authentic connection with the fans in spite of how she was often portrayed. Wrestlers are rarely thought of as artists by the general public, but there is real artistry here in her choice of words, the delivery, and the way she connects her real-life self to her on-screen character.

But, as has happened a weird amount of times in this storyline, reality intervened. On the Monday before her big match with Rousey was scheduled, Lynch led an “invasion” of her show, Smackdown, on Raw. They do this every year and usually I find it to be contrived nonsense. But this became a prime example of how the real world and the wrestling world can merge to create unmatched serendipitous drama.

While the wrestlers were randomly brawling, Becky took a legitimate punch to the face from Nia Jax, the giant of the women’s division. Now, I’ve never been in the ring (surprising, I know), but my understanding is that a lot of the strikes, while not being completely fake, are done in a way to protect the opponent and cause no real damage. The top goal in this choreographed play-fighting is to make sure no one gets hurt while still putting on a show that appears realistic. So what Jax did was an egregious blunder: nobody is supposed to just land a full punch to someone’s face or it creates what happened here — a serious injury and a lot of blood.

Becky went down briefly, and had what is later described by WWE as “a severe concussion and a broken face.” But then she got back up and finished out the show with blood all over her face and hands. She hit Rousey with a chair and then taunted her from the crowd, completely owning the entire scene while bleeding profusely and I’m sure being in a tremendous amount of pain (not to mention being concussed). She looked like the coolest person who ever lived and I knew I was witnessing an iconic wrestling moment.

If there was any doubt, this cemented Becky as a legend and a character unlike anything wrestling fans have seen. It was also when I realized that the women’s division in WWE genuinely feels like the most important and coolest thing on the show, which was always her goal. The downside to the moment is that, well, she had a severe concussion and a broken face. And that meant she wasn’t able to actually have the match with Rousey, which was likely going to be main event the show and be a huge moment for women’s wrestling in WWE.

One of the narratives running through Becky’s story has been the idea that the company has “held her down,” which was basically true as she was booked to lose a lot for multiple years. But somewhere during this push, I think she has opened the eyes of people backstage and it feels like the machinery is totally behind her now. A good piece of evidence was this mini-documentary they did on her finding out that she wouldn’t be able to wrestle Rousey.

Out of all of the reality/fiction-blending things involving Becky recently, this is the most impactful. It’s mundane in how it shows her going through a fairly bland real-life routine of calling her mom, checking her phone, and eating. But then she receives the gutting news and there’s this moment where she is simultaneously Becky Lynch and Rebecca Quin. She wants to have this match to kick Ronda Rousey’s ass, but she also wants this match because as a performer, she’s spent years working up to this point, building all this momentum, and now she feels it could slip away because of a co-worker’s careless mistake. It’s heartbreaking to watch and as real as it gets.

The silver lining to all of this is that if Lynch recovers (which isn’t trivial given a concussion), she could be in line to main event WrestleMania, the biggest show of the year, against Rousey, which seemed unthinkable a few months ago. Women have never main evented that show and I honestly never thought they would — not because they weren’t capable, but because I never felt like the company would get behind it. But Lynch has given the company little choice with the artistry of her performances and the way she has rallied fans behind her organically. As a performer and character, she is making wrestling feel real, and it should lead to her finally getting what she deserves: the biggest match of the year, on the biggest stage, with thousands of people chanting her name.

Afrirampo Return to Make Wonderful Noise on “Afriverse”

Creepily dedicated readers of the blog may remember Afrirampo from some posts I made a few years ago where I celebrated their crazy and enthusiastic brand of rock music, especially as it contrasted to the increasingly dour state of indie rock. In 2010, the duo of Pika and Oni broke up after the release of their masterpiece, We Are Uchu No Ko, but they left the door open for a reunion by leaving their English-speaking fans with this very normal message: “If our mother of monster say ‘PLAY!PLAY!together!!’, then we will play.”

Fortunately, that (whatever it was) seems to have happened, as Afrirampo reunited this year and in September released a new album, Afriverse, which I then spent days trying to find a download of in dark corners of the internet because it wasn’t remotely accessible to Americans. I’m happy to say that I have the album, my laptop hasn’t melted yet, and Afrirampo are still the same delightful band they always were, even after eight years of not playing together.

It’s a little pointless to try to analyze Afriverse, because I can’t understand the lyrics (and I suspect a lot are nonsense anyway) and there aren’t really songs on it. Instead, what you get with Afrirampo is a certain energy that no other band has. I feel the state of music and music appreciation has become even more dull since Afrirampo were last together. A lot of artists make very self-consciously serious music and it’s treated with a boring sort of solemn respect by writers, to the point that people forget that music is supposed to be a fun thing to enjoy and talk about.

Amid this landscape, Afrirampo’s music is once again a much-needed burst of color and joy. It’s rock music that has a really simple elemental appeal, where it sounds like two artists who love making music together that are having a blast. It doesn’t really need to be more than that for me. I just enjoy hearing Oni’s bursts of guitar noise, Pika’s thunderous, technically sound drumming, and all of the silly call-and-response vocals.

It’d be easy to write off this music as just two weird people making random noise. It would also be correct, mostly. What makes it listenable is that they have a sense of dynamics and are capable of some semblance of restraint in the form of quieter passages, which adds to the impact of their noisy freakouts. There are also a lot of sneaky melodies and pleasant sounds within all of the chaos they’re creating. More than maybe any other band, Afrirampo can go from zero to ten at any second, which makes listening to them kind of like being on a rollercoaster with a blindfold on.

At least some of my love for Afrirampo is contextual: I wouldn’t want every band to sound like this, but they are a great escape from “normal” rock music that is so concerned with structure and takes itself so seriously. Their joyous playing captures the true spirit of rock and roll in its spontaneity and freedom. No other band could really sound like Afrirampo, but many could learn from them.

I’m Still Obsessed With a WWE Storyline

A lot has changed in professional wrestling since I started watching as a kid in the late 90s. Back then, WWE was in the midst of its renowned “Attitude Era” when characters like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin were at their peak and the show was geared towards young men, which resulted in a lot of car crash TV techniques, bizarre outlandish storylines, and a high level of violence. Today’s WWE is different: it’s now a publicly shared company and about 10 years ago shifted towards family-friendly PG fare, with a deeper focus on in-ring athleticism. But by far the biggest change in the company in my time as a fan is the portrayal of the women.

Back in the Attitude Era, women were essentially objects. They were run out there to titillate the crowd and were often featured in “bra and panty” matches, mud wrestling, and various other degrading activities. While there were always a couple women who could actually wrestle, they were overshadowed by the slew of models WWE signed for their looks and then trained into mediocre/bad wrestlers who worked sloppy 2-3 minute matches.

In the last couple years, WWE has undergone a “women’s revolution,” where they’ve started recruiting women who are real wrestlers and put them in more high profile matches. This charge was led in part by Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch, first on their developmental show, NXT, and then on the main shows Raw and Smackdown. With the addition of former MMA star Ronda Rousey to the division, WWE has finally put some effort into some semblance of gender equality and has by far the deepest women’s division it’s ever had.

Despite this, some residue from the previous era lingers. Vince McMahon still runs this company and has made a habit of booking cute blonde women as champions, regardless of their in-ring ability. The women get more screen time, but they still rarely feel like complete characters, usually falling into a couple broad archetypes: the heels are Regina George mean girls while the babyfaces are just happy to be chasing their dreams and are always hugging each other and crying. I’m about 99% sure that WWE doesn’t have any women writers on its staff, and it’s evident in the way many of the characters are portrayed.

Meanwhile, WWE has gleefully marketed and hyped its self-proclaimed “women’s revolution,” but the only reason it needed to happen is because they were so shitty in the first place. Fans largely catch on to this, and I think it’s part of what is fueling this Charlotte/Becky storyline that I wrote about last month. Because Becky doesn’t really fit WWE’s mold for a champion: she’s kind of quirky, she’s attractive but not in the very specific way Vince McMahon likes, she’s got an Irish accent and an unusual speaking voice, she’s not blonde, etc. All of this fan resentment over the direction of the women’s division is now coming out in the Becky character and the crowd’s response to her.

When we last left off with our hero, she was chasing Charlotte’s title after “turning heel” at Summerslam, and was in an ambiguous character direction where she was acting heelish but getting huge cheers. To WWE’s credit, they’ve stayed the course with this and are finally writing a storyline that is worthy of the women performers that isn’t draped with their “look at what we’re letting the women do!” sloganeering. At the Hell in a Cell event, Becky reversed one of Charlotte’s moves for a surprising fair win. On the next episode of Smackdown, she celebrated in grand fashion in one of the best promo segments on the show in a long time.

If it wasn’t obvious before, this segment made it clear that in WWE’s mind, Becky is unambiguously a heel. She’s gloating, rubbing her win in Charlotte’s face, calling her a bitch and then beating her up. The announcers fall over themselves defending Charlotte and portraying her as sympathetic (which, to be fair, she kind of is). But the fans are still purely behind Becky, because this is an exciting character we’ve never seen before: a woman who simply doesn’t give a damn. After so many obnoxious heels and flat, goody-two-shoes babyfaces, it’s refreshing to see a woman character who has an edge, who is brazen and does what she wants, the way men like Stone Cold Steve Austin did at the height of the show’s popularity.

And Becky has real depth as a character, in part because Rebecca Quin is such a good performer. Sometimes in WWE, it feels like a flip is switched and someone becomes a totally different person when they change their heel/face alignment. This is the same character the crowd loved before, but she’s gained a new focus and has stopped caring about what anyone thinks of her. And now that she’s champion, she’s very proud of herself and is lording it over everybody while egotistically basking in the fans’ love of her.

I want to talk about Becky saying “bitch” at the end of this promo. Because to someone over the age of eight years old, it shouldn’t be a big deal to hear the word, and I’m sure if anyone who doesn’t watch wrestling is reading/watching this, they’re wondering why the crowd is gasping at it. Part of it is that WWE has been in this very safe, corporate PG era for a long time now, so any swearing has become somewhat unheard of. But also, wrestling has this effect on you where it sort of turns you back into a little kid when it really works, so in the moment I was like “OH MY GOD SHE SAID THE B-WORD. THAT’S A BAD WORD. THIS WOMAN IS OUT OF CONTROL.”

And as ridiculous as it sounds, WWE letting Becky say “bitch” might be the clearest sign that the company is fully invested in her now. The only other people I’ve heard say the word on TV recently are Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar, who are the two top stars in the company. It’s trotted out on serious occasions when they want a character to look badass. When the guys did it, it just came off as tryhard and misogynistic, but Becky being a woman and delivering it with perfect comedic timing made it work in this instance.

WWE is not a very admirable company and I’m loath to give them too much credit for a story that has been partially told by accident. But this story is sneakily pretty progressive compared to a lot of other media. How many other TV shows have a storyline between two women that isn’t about a man, where both characters feel real, have flaws, and their motivations make sense? Not very many, and I hope WWE sees the success of this feud and does more of this, because they have the talent to do so. This is what a “women’s revolution” actually looks like.

Emma Ruth Rundle Delivers Another Masterpiece With “On Dark Horses”

My favorite album from 2016 was Emma Ruth Rundle’s Marked for Death. My favorite album from 2018 will be Emma Ruth Rundle’s On Dark Horses. I say this with confidence because it’s that good. It’s so heavy and beautiful, with emotion and intensity oozing out of every note. Nobody else I’ve heard is making music that is this immersive with such a balance of intimacy and raw power.

Rundle stands alone at the intersection of about 30 different musical genres. Sometimes she sounds like dream pop, other times she’s metal, or alternative rock, or post-rock. She often gets called folk, which I kind of get, but it just makes me think that it’s futile to try to describe her in simple genre buzzwords. It’s music that resists easy labels because nobody else has ever made it before. There are a lot of reference points and influences, clearly, but I consider her a true original with no real comparisons. She sounds like everything else and nothing else at the same time.

Rundle’s arrival at this distinct sound was one of my favorite parts of Marked for Death: more than any artist I’m a fan of, she naturally evolved her style from record to record until reaching what felt like a pinnacle. At the time, I was tempted to call it her masterpiece, and the only thing that stopped me was the thought that she was possibly capable of topping it. With On Dark Horses, she has.

Like her last album, On Dark Horses is all about the slow burn. The songs are methodically paced, which creates space for Rundle to do what she does best: create a mesmerizing atmosphere with her guitar. Her songs tend to simmer and then boil over, the quiet verses giving way to loud choruses and powerful dramatic climaxes. This is basic alternative rock quiet-loud stuff, but the way Rundle executes it feels very different. It never feels like a formula; it’s just the natural path the songs go down as Rundle expresses herself. She balances the quiet and loud aspects of her sound perfectly, creating maximum catharsis in every song.

As a singer, Rundle has the versatility to match her guitar. She and her instrument are always intertwined, and she is capable of singing lovely quiet songs, like “Races,” and also belting out some massive rock choruses like the radio-ready hook on “Dead Set Eyes.” It’s crazy that a few years ago, she was doing instrumental music or burying her voice under layers of guitar. Now she is singing with confidence and seems to know how good she is. That never quite manifests itself in conventional rock frontperson swagger, because that isn’t her style, but it’s a feeling that I get listening to it. If the non-music story of Marked for Death was her finding her sound, the story of On Dark Horses is her expanding on it with complete self-assuredness.

That confidence also translates to her lyrics, which may be the biggest shift from her last album. The words on On Dark Horses are more direct and tangible while retaining the poetic ambiguity that they’ve always had. They also play off some of the expectations formed by Marked for Death, which possibly led some to pigeonhole her as another in a line of tormented doom-and-gloom songwriters. “Light Song” is a love song about her husband (who sings and plays on this album) while “Darkhorse” is an encouraging song to her sister, with the lyric “in the wake of weak beginnings, we can still stand high.” Of course, this album still isn’t peppy or upbeat by any stretch of the imagination, but there is more nuance in it than it might get credit for.

But really, I’m not all that concerned with breaking down the lyrics and trying to figure out the “meaning,” because I think the power of Rundle’s music is in its gray areas and the way it washes over the listener without compelling them to feel a specific way. It fits Rundle’s whole style, which exists outside of all of these artificial borders that get ascribed to artists, where they’re expected to fit into certain invisible categorizable boxes. Over her last couple albums, she has created her own genre, and right now it’s my favorite.

Look What You Made Me Do

Last week I decided to drive to work downtown instead of taking the light rail because it was a Friday night on a long weekend and I figured there would be light traffic at most. Minutes later, I’m waiting in a line of cars just to get into downtown and I realize something horrible is happening. I look out the window and see an endless line of semi trucks outside of U.S. Bank Stadium emblazoned with Taylor Swift’s face. She’s staring at me, judging me, while she makes me late for work.

It is a fitting incident because Swift is the one pop star I can’t seem to get away from. While I am generally like a 90-year-old man when it comes to being up on current pop music because I just don’t care, Swift sticks in my mind more than I’d like to admit. I have an entire list of grievances towards her: she was born a day before me so I always hear about her birthday on the eve of mine, my college roommate played one of her albums non-stop, and I absolutely despise her music in an active way despite knowing I shouldn’t have an opinion on it. I hate her, in a weird way I kind of admire her, but more than anything, I fear her.

As I type this, I am terrified of Taylor Swift. Because I know that if any massive pop artist were to ever find a random blog post like this and sue me for slander, set her fans on me, or possibly pay to have me killed, it would be her. Nobody in the music industry is more cutthroat and ruthless than Taylor Swift. I believe her life ambition is to make every single person on earth a fan of hers, and she’ll squash anyone who stands in her way like a bug. She once put her music back on Spotify just to get people to listen to her instead of Katy Perry’s new album. Cursory research indicates that she and Perry have “mended their friendship,” but it’s likely just a prelude to Swift’s final unexacted revenge.

Much has been made of Swift’s penchant for writing vengeful songs at various exes and the general sense of neediness that comes out in her lyrics. I view it all as an extension of her weird pathology that requires everyone to love her. While most pop stars have no interest in me listening to their music, Swift badly wants me on her side. Even in the face of massive popularity, she remains obsessed with her “haters” and she writes lyrics about boyfriends who like “indie records that are much cooler than mine.” No success she achieves will ever be enough to satisfy her ambition and ego. A more warmhearted person than I could probably have sympathy for Swift and her inability to be satisfied with anything, but I find everything she does too grating to have any sense of compassion.

The Swift empire isn’t built on any kind of musical ability, but on a carefully curated brand image and the presentation of the character Taylor Swift to the public. Her business acumen is far more interesting than her music, which I find to be dull even by pop music standards. It gets overlooked because Swift is a cute young woman, so people underestimate her and make the sexist assumption that a bunch of men are probably controlling her career. But I think much of Swift’s success is due to her own knowledge of how to play the pop music game and her ability to take advantage of people who underestimate her. She is always in control of her own narrative, and every move she makes is calculated.

The moment that always sticks out is at that one Video Music Awards, when Kanye West stomped all over Taylor Swift’s moment, setting forth the narrative that Kanye is an egotistical dick and Swift was the put-upon and maligned girl next door. You’ll never convince me that this wasn’t a scripted plan, executed like a professional wrestling angle, and it influenced the way people perceived both celebrities. Swift has spent the rest of her career playing off that image of the nice girl who always gets mistreated, partly because it blandly appeals to the most people possible.

It’s fitting that one of Swift’s most famous songs is “Blank Space,” because that’s kind of what she is as a musician. Her music is apolitical, it doesn’t inspire the imagination, and it doesn’t really show any kind of prodigious musical skill. It’s just a series of sounds that exist to advance Swift’s image and narratives about herself. It’s an approach that I find utterly loathsome and antithetical to everything that makes me love music, but I have some begrudging respect for how Swift doesn’t even pretend that her music is about anything but making money. If the concept of capitalism became human and pursued a career in music, it would take all the same steps that Swift has.

Swift’s ability to become one of the most popular musicians on earth while possessing little to no musical talent is a testament to her true genius as a marketer and businesswoman. Maybe this is a misanthropic viewpoint, but I don’t think the actual music really matters anymore when it comes to being a pop star. It’s all about marketing yourself, having an image, and probably paying certain people to do certain things. Once you’ve established a fanbase, you can do pretty much do whatever the hell you want in today’s era of creepy, cult-like fandoms, and through years of shrewd machinations, Swift has built an army of people who will defend anything she does, even if it’s “borrowing” a hook from Right Said Fred.

Swift understands all of this because she’s smart, and she’s figured out that success in today’s climate isn’t about music. The songs I heard from her last album were so half-assed that for a moment I almost thought it was some kind of Lou Reed anti-art thing. But it’s more Swift realizing that all she needs to do is get the internet buzzing for her, positively or negatively, and that means having some vaguely controversial lyrics and tinkering with her image/persona, not having actual good songs. All of her detractors, including me, got their zingers about those songs in on social media, but as always, it was Swift who had the last laugh: Reputation was the best-selling album of 2017, she sold out both of those shows at U.S. Bank Stadium, and she made me late for work.