A Year in Music: Amber Bravo

December 19, 2012

Summing up a year listening to music is kind of like trying to talk about all the times you tied your shoelaces. Still, six editors at the FADER tried. Read what deputy editor Amber Bravo had to say about 2011 here and 2012 below.

At some point, many years ago, my good friend Aaron decided that I was a “Man’s Woman,” a person he defined loosely and jokingly as woman who easily hangs with the boys, tends to be pretty funny and is generally off-put by “girly” things. I accepted the label proudly, throwing myself headlong into many nights of just kicking it with a bunch of dudes, including my boyfriend/s. Aside from being a funny, young-20s memory, in retrospect, it seems it was also a very formative moment, one in which I absolved myself of whatever anxieties I might have about actually being a woman and retreated into my own, private female realm, without having to cohabitate with the other people who dwelled there. A darker read might be that it was a way to not have to see myself in other women, because, even in 2012, I’m not often confronted with portraits of women in whom I can. It’s a matter of basic empathy, I guess, but when I started to think back on this year, and on the music that I personally spent the most time with, I was surprised to find that, for the first time since my adolescent romance with the 1997 Lilith Fair roster, a large portion of the music I ended up loving most was made by solo female recording artists. Thinking about what that meant to me outwardly, as an authority of sorts, and what that meant to me personally, I found there was a disconnect; there has been so much talk and solipsistic critique about women in the music industry this year, but I’m not sure how much of it was actually about the music itself.

To tell this story more fully, I really need to go back to 2011, and the first time I heard Claire Boucher. My coworker Sam had posted about her music project Grimes a couple of times on the site, and I subsequently posted a fan video for her song “Vanessa,” and I think I tweeted that “it was a jam,” which Schnipper teased me about it because I never tweet. Later that year, FADER invited her to play a cosponsored event, and I got to interview her before the show. She answered my questions engagingly, doing entertaining send-ups of imagined male hecklers—”where’s your band, bitch?” It was the kind of comment she had undoubtedly experienced many times when she was starting out, but the way she shrugged it off with a “fuck ‘em, let’s talk about me” attitude was refreshing. She was quirky but confident, a little awkward in her skin but clear-eyed and pretty, feminine in a way that seemed to totally disregard mainstream sex appeal. She seemed to me to be, for lack of a better term in my personal lexicon at the time, a man’s woman: easy to be around, funny, not caught up in “girly” things. Somehow, I felt I could hear that in her music. I appreciated that it was her goal to be a female musician that did everything herself— the producer and the diva, the artistic mastermind as well as the face. But what’s really striking to me about this interview is how many questions I asked her about being a woman in the industry, and more particularly, in a genre that’s been historically dominated by men.

I was as surprised as anyone this year to witness Grimes’ meteoric rise to pop stardom, and at first I was thrilled by it, charmed that everybody else was charmed by my little diva weirdo, and that maybe it meant that the world, at large, was learning to love a certain type of woman a little more. It’s hard to talk about 2012 without acknowledging that it was, in many respects, a banner year for women, and I would be remiss not to give a nod to the Lena Dunhams and Hannah Rosins of the current cultural landscape and their hapless yet sexually liberated twenty-somethings and baby-making, name-taking, 40-something executives. At the cusp of 2013, it seems that we are, if not better empowered to harness change, then at least more comfortable talking about our struggles and perspectives candidly. I’d be lying if I said it isn’t cool when society as a whole suddenly seems to be knocking at your clubhouse door, asking you to hang out, soliciting your opinion—but it also feels somehow more dangerous. That potential for being judged equally on what is still a deeply uneven playing field places that much more pressure on the artist trying to create: it seems that just being a woman adds a layer of responsibility that, in my opinion, is completely irrelevant to the medium. When I watch my interview with Grimes back in 2011, I’m proud of how far she’s come, but I cringe at that “female dialogue” I so readily opened up.

I’ve always felt that women can often be women’s harshest critics, but I think that’s less an inherent trait than it is a learned behavior. Too often, it feels like whatever little parcel in the landscape we carve out for ourselves is so rare and so scarce that we need to constantly be mindful of someone encroaching on it, staking a claim. This reduction is even more pervasive in the music industry, where when women when cast their die, they're inevitably casting them into tiny, prescriptive boxes. They’re given progressively more room to push boundaries, but still, the legroom is pretty tight. What’s left is limited space and ruthless jockeying to retain relevance in the endless drive for something new—a new Adele in Jessie, a new Lana in Sky, a new Nicki in Azealia. Is the world really that small? Or is it just that our minds have so little room for nuance?

This may sound silly, but recently I bought and read a book based solely on a quotation from it I’d read in another book. It goes like this:

The truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes overflow in utter vapidity of language, for none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

Maybe it’d been a bad day, or maybe my blood sugar was low, but something about those lines seemed to sum up the struggle and utter futility of everything I could possibly hope to accomplish as a writer and as a human being, which obviously, is a tremendous bummer (and naturally, why I ran out to Barnes & Noble to buy the book—I will follow a tragic thought to its end, and then reread it for pleasure). But the reason I was drawn to this idea, I think, was because the feeling it describes is laid out in terms so specific to my life. I am in the business of qualifying and interpreting, in words, another person’s efforts to create something of himself—to make music that will, if not “melt the stars” then simply impel other people to listen to actual music. But in music today there seems to be an inverse relationship between the volume of vapid talk and the amount of thoughtful consideration it’s actually given, and I can’t help but wonder how much further away from actually understanding any of it we are.

I’ll be the first to admit my mind seems to have less and less room. I very nearly missed out on some of the music that came to mean the most to me this year simply because it’s so easy to distrust the hype. I’ve almost reflexively become suspicious of industry buzz simply because I haven’t got the heart or the stomach for the short-lived zeal, and this is especially true, I think, for women, because we ask so much of their celebrity. They cannot just be superlatively good performers; they must also be superlatively good women. Or “bad” women, or “alternative” women, or “sassy” women, or whatever reductive qualifier we want to assign to them. Because Grimes became such a sweeping success, the chatter around her swelled and the qualifications about her refreshing unusualness became so trite, that her music was inflated and just as quickly laid to waste. But why? She was achieving exactly what she’d hoped (and what I’d hope) she’d achieve back in 2011. She was becoming a star, and her album Visions, really did warrant praise. So why did even I, an early adopter, seem to be experiencing a change of heart?

I think writ into Grimes’ rise to fame is an inevitable fall, and in that fall the inevitability of being subsumed by another composite, Grimes-like character. I’m reminded of a line from The Weeknd, another much-hyped star whose every word (or silence) was valued at pop gold in 2011, and depreciated to a pittance this year when he finally released a label-backed album: So this my only chance and when I’m over only pray that I flow from the bottom/ Closer to the top/ The higher that I climb/ The harder Imma drop. Since it’s inevitable that a new Grimes will come along, I can’t help but feel that my initial love for her has been cheapened; because of the collective pressure we put on her as a female artist, on top of that, I feel a little ashamed.

It also might explain why this year, I was especially drawn to female musicians whose music sometimes takes a third or fourth listen to even remotely appreciate—music that’s a little hermetic or abstract and therefore slightly protected. I like this music more, I think, because I feel like it has less a chance of being ruined by the pressure and reduction of being a popular female (and don’t even get me started on Lana Del Rey). If Holly Herndon continues to cite obscure computer languages as informing her house-infused vocal explorations, in other words, then maybe I will be able to continue to admire her without having to think about what her outfit is “saying” about being a uber-smart composer woman. And if Julia Holter continues to inhabit that liminal space between art and pop music, maybe I’ll have fewer crossover fans to fear sullying my read. Or if Twigs continues to set achingly slow, crescendo-less R&B to oddly aberrant, Grace Ladoja visuals, maybe she’ll maintain her cultish appeal and if Angel Olsen continues to write beautiful, structurally classic folk songs while occasionally turning her warble like a knife in your earlobe, then maybe I’ll only have to share her with the few others who’ve acquired a taste for it, too. Maybe each can continue doing her thing without having to speak to something greater.

Rihanna may have been “unapologetic” about her recent breakup album, but I do not believe anything I see hear or see in her tissue-boxed, in-depth Oprah interview; I haven’t forgotten that over the course of their hour-long tete-a-tete, both the interviewer and interviewee have uttered words so disturbing, I’m left shaking my damn head even as they whip around Barbados in a Jeep. Life is not that clean, and absolution does not come in the form of a network-manufactured jump-shot. To me, it was Laurel Halo, who released the most raw and truly unapologetic breakup album of the year with her LP Quarantine. Her voice was plaintive to the point of actually being abrasive, and it was wrapped in house music that was sometimes cold and complex, sometimes warm and uplifting . Listening to it, you actually feel the pain and gradual thaw of a traumatic event, of losing and slowly getting over someone. These are the women who have inspired me to be a little less fearful and a little more honest, and in whom I would be proud to say I see a little something of myself. Our heroines needn’t be so tragic, and they shouldn’t have to triumph at such a great cost.

It’s worth noting that when I finally encountered the quote for which I’d read that entire book—the one in which “we long to make music that will melt the stars”—I nearly missed the passage completely. Because, within the full context of the story, which just so happens to be about one of literature’s most notoriously tragic heroines, Emma Bovary, it takes on a different cast entirely, sandwiched within Emma’s lover’s justification for leaving her. He reasons that he’s heard the word “love” uttered so many times, in so many questionable contexts, he cannot really take her feelings too seriously. Moreover, in the version I was reading, Lydia Davis’ 2010 translation, that passage doesn’t end on nearly as poetic note; no “music” is made, and no stars are “melted.” Davis accepted the arduous task of retranslating Flaubert’s masterpiece for the bizillionth time because she found that the previous versions had been filled with so many mistruths and authorial elaborations that Flaubert had never intended, and also because she believes there’s room for multiple translations. In Davis’ version, the grandiloquence of that sentiment is stripped away to reveal something undoubtedly more honest and nuanced and true to Flaubert’s original critique: “as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to inspire pity in the stars.” For Davis, the emphasis lies in our humanness rather than our imagined greatness. Unsurprisingly, it took a certain kind of woman to set the record straight.

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Read more:

  • Matthew Schnipper on accessible rock and romantic comedies.

  • Emilie Friedlander on falling in love, again.

  • Naomi Zeicher In defense of falling apart in public.

  • Duncan Cooper on Taylor Swift, Lil B and loving Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

  • Alex Frank calls Rihanna his woman of the year, for better or worse

  • A Year in Music: Amber Bravo