In a post last year, I mentioned how My Bloody Valentine’s “Loomer” sounds exactly the way I want all music to sound due to its contrast of heavy guitars and light, feminine vocals. This playlist is a collection of songs that feel similarly to me and are the basis of my theory that “Loomer” spawned its own micro-genre of music that falls somewhere between shoegaze and metal. The songs range from artists that are doing essentially My Bloody Valentine tributes (Fleeting Joys) to bands who push the principles in “Loomer” as far as possible to explore more adventurous musical ground (metal groups like SubRosa and True Widow).
For most of music’s history, loud guitar noise has been strongly associated with machismo and was considered ugly or abrasive. I love this style of music because it twists those preconceptions with the vocals, resulting in songs that have fascinating dualities: they are ugly and beautiful, strong and fragile, masculine and feminine. These themes all get blended together in the music and start to blur these arbitrary gender lines. (I just read The Left Hand of Darkness if you can’t tell.)
On a less academic level, listening to these songs always makes me think of the apocalypse. The image the sound creates in my head is of a lone voice singing while the world crumbles around them.
It’s no secret that music culture is obsessed with youth: blogs and review sites often center around “break-out” or “rising” artists and are usually targeting a young, often college-aged demographic of hip listeners. Music is often linked to image and coolness, and young people are decidedly better-looking and cooler than old people. This is accompanied by a similar mini-backlash against older artists, who are frequently dismissed as something like “dad rock” or have their current work ignored in favor of their classics from when they were the young people being covered by the press and listened to by the cool kids.
When I made my albums of the decade list a few weeks ago, I noticed that the top of the list was dominated by older, more experienced artists. PJ Harvey is 45, Fiona Apple is 37 and has been releasing music since she was 19, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine is 52, Björk is 49, Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses is 48, Kate Bush is 56, Mary Timony of Ex Hex and Wild Flag is 44. This wasn’t a conscious attempt to zig while everyone else zags — they were just the albums I liked the most from the last five years.
The common theme with all these artists is that they’ve been around for awhile. Most of them have released several albums worth of material, often fading in and out of popularity as they continued to follow their various muses. There is also a general perception with all of them that they’ve already “peaked” with albums they made when they were younger. Their albums on my list all were well-reviewed, but they weren’t appearing on the cover of magazines or whatever the equivalent of that is now in 2015. The statement my list ends up making (largely unintentionally) is that these artists still have something to say in their work, and it’s often overlooked in favor of less interesting bands that either drive more traffic to a website or can be built by whoever is hyping them.
A lot of this feeling comes from my own background as a self-proclaimed “wannabe writer.” At age 25 now, I’ve yet to feel like I have any sort of deep perspective or statement to make in anything I write, because I just haven’t lived enough — I’m still trying to figure everything out. When I write, it’s in an effort to improve my craft, and I feel with each essay or story (regardless of quality) I learn something and get better. I don’t think writing random blog posts is directly comparable to making music, but the general concept of honing the craft and constantly improving is something I think often holds.
Nearly all the albums at the top of my list had that feeling in them: they were works that the artists had been working towards for several years, and often synthesized elements of their earlier work in a satisfying way. Let England Shake tied together so much of PJ Harvey’s music, and felt like something only an experienced artist who knows exactly what she’s doing could make. The Idler Wheel… was Fiona Apple’s most confident album, a distillation of what has made her such a popular musician. M B V was the result of an over 20 year odyssey, and drew on both My Bloody Valentine’s past while also hinting at their potential future. I’ve written enough about Vulnicura, but it goes without saying that a much younger artist couldn’t have made an album that was drawing from years of love and heartbreak.
Purgatory/Paradise is an album that was almost entirely ignored, but was really ambitious, taking Throwing Muses’ classic sound, smashing it up, and re-imagining it. Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow had incredibly deep storytelling, and was a vastly uncool piano-based album with songs that stretched past 10 minutes in length. It was a real crafted work made by someone who takes their art seriously and is good at it. Maybe the most interesting example is Mary Timony/Ex Hex: it was my favorite album of 2014, in part because I felt it sounded young, even though Timony is in her mid-40s. It was an energetic, fun rock album, made by someone who simply knows how to write a great song, a case of an older artist beating the youngsters at their own game.
My appreciation for these albums is part of a type of fandom that I fear is getting less common, which is being a huge fan of an individual artist and following them on their journey from album to album. I always see their careers as being like a story, and albums like these as compelling chapters in them. As the internet bombards listeners with seemingly infinite music and new artists keep being recycled to feed the hype machine, this context starts to get lost — it stops being about the artists and starts being more about whatever sells day-to-day. Each album is just used to feed discussion for a day or a week (if it’s good) and then is forgotten about because something else comes along so quickly.
It is hard to make this sort of argument without sounding jaded at “the kids these days,” and taken too far it can get into the absurd Rolling Stone territory where dinosaur rockers consistently crap out “five star albums” into their 90s. But I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen a young band get talked up, only to instantly recognize that it has nearly nothing to do with the music — it’s either because they look like a cool band or they fit whatever story a site is trying to sell. They make the “albums of the year” list once, then are forgotten about two albums later, because some other young band has taken their place.
All of this has instilled me with a lot of skepticism for any young hyped-up band, and an appreciation for artists who have proven they make music that can endure. Youth is often exciting, but in terms of actual artistic statements or expression, it’s hard to buy that so many people my age are actually making worthwhile, memorable work. Sure, there’s prodigies like PJ Harvey, who made Rid of Me when she was 24, but that’s not normal. There’s something to be said for the artists who have been honing their craft for years or even decades, like PJ Harvey now, and are still creating music that has real thought and feeling in it.
Whenever music comes up as a subject, I inevitably end up mentioning that I mostly listen to female singers (as if I just listen to all females who sing indiscriminately), which is often met with something like: “Oh, really? Well then, you should check out [woman folky-pop singer that is actually nothing like the music I listen to]!” It’s always a bizarre conversation, because you’d never hear this: “I mostly listen to male vocalists.” “Oh, really? Well then, you should check out this band called U2. They have a great male singer.” This is indicative of a problem with how women in music are discussed: bands with men are just bands, but bands with women are defined by their gender.
As someone who listens to predominantly women, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “female as genre” issue and how to reconcile it with my listening habits and preferences. It’s really obvious that “female” isn’t a genre: women perform all kinds of music –some good and some bad — just the same as men do, and even though my collection is mostly women singers, there’s a ton of variety in there. I get really annoyed when two bands with women singers get compared when they have absolutely nothing in common except a non-dude singer.
At the same time, the fact that I enjoy women singers so much more than men (on average) says something, and sometimes I wonder if it makes me complicit in the “female as genre” thing. I think a lot of my earlier posts on this topic did feed into that, because I couldn’t explain why I liked women singers so much and ended up thinking more about the lyrics and rooting it in some trendy misandry, like “men are boring, “who cares about what dudes have to say,” etc. That all may be true, but it didn’t really get into the heart of the matter, which is the music.
The explanation I didn’t consider is possibly the most obvious one: I like the way women sound more than men. Instead of being about politics or some weird psychological complex, maybe women are simply more suited to the kind of music I like listening to. The song that caused this light bulb to go on was “Loomer.”
“Loomer” is my favorite song on Loveless, and is probably the closest of any song to achieving what I would consider the perfect sound. Its defining characteristic is the low, heavy, almost metallic guitars which contrast with singer Bilinda Butcher’s higher pitched, dreamy vocal, creating an effect where it feels like Butcher is floating above the music, just avoiding getting crushed by the guitars. A lot of the music I like falls into the “loud guitars and higher-pitched vocals” zone typified by “Loomer,” and I think it has to do with that contrast. Something about it just appeals to me for reasons I can’t fully explain, much like most matters of preference/taste in music.
Given that what I love about “Loomer” is the contrast between the guitars and Butcher’s vocals, a sensible (yet maybe controversial) conclusion can be reached: if a man with a typical lower male voice sang this song, it wouldn’t be as “good,” or at least would feel different enough that it would no longer fit my “perfect sound” mold. Depending on your taste, the opposite could be true. Another song on Loveless is “Sometimes,” which has similar guitars and Kevin Shields providing vocals instead of Butcher. On “Sometimes,” Shields’ lower voice blends in more with the guitars, making for a more monochromatic song, which couldn’t have been achieved with Butcher’s vocals. Even though I like “Loomer” more because I prefer the voice/guitar contrast, I wouldn’t change anything about “Sometimes” and recognize that the right singer was picked for each song given what the band was trying to do.
What I realized about looking at the music this way is that what makes me prefer Butcher’s vocals isn’t necessarily that she’s a woman, but that she has a higher voice, which sounds different and evokes different emotions than a lower voice would. It’s possible that I don’t really love “female vocalists” as much as I prefer various characteristics that are naturally more common in women singers than men. In this sense, gender isn’t really a factor in the music itself, because the human voice is just an instrument, like any other. Butcher doesn’t sing on “Loomer” because she’s a woman: she sings because her voice was the right instrument for that song.
This isn’t to say that gender can or should be ignored entirely — men and women have different experiences that likely inform their art in some way, and some music has undeniably feminine or masculine themes that should be a part of the conversation around it. I just think I tended to overrate how big of an impact gender had on music I liked — that just because the common denominator of so much music I loved was “woman singer,” that didn’t mean I liked all of it because they were women. And when I praised those artists on here or elsewhere, my focus should have been on the music, not on the fact that it was women making it.