Mitski’s fifth album is called Be the Cowboy. The title, she says, is “an inside joke with just myself,” a piece of advice the 27-year-old musician would recite in her mind whenever she needed a confidence boost. From the outside, it might seem like Mitski Miyawaki has had a lot to feel confident about over the past couple years—a string of critically adored albums including 2016’s blistering Puberty 2; a recent opening slot on Lorde’s Melodrama arena tour. But she is also working in a historically male-dominated industry and exists in a society that has for centuries made anyone who is not white and male feel unimportant, Other, and small. “I mean the ideal swaggering Clint Eastwood cowboy,” she told an interviewer, talking again about the title of her new record. “In my daily life I tend to be the quintessential Asian woman so I thought, ‘What if I was a tough white cowboy?’”
Like so many Westerns, Be the Cowboy has at its center a stark, lone figure who chooses, instead of a conventional life, a private moral imperative that is invisible and a bit mysterious to everybody else. But while a Clint Eastwood or a John Wayne character’s devotion might be to his internal code of outlaw justice, Mitski’s is to her music. “You’re my number one, you’re the one I want,” she sings on the pyrotechnic first single, “Geyser,” “And you’ve turned down every hand that has beckoned me to come.”
It’s an incredibly romantic declaration, but Mitski has admitted that most of her love songs are not about other people so much as they are about “music and trying to pursue it and not feeling loved by it. A lot of the ‘yous’ in my songs are abstract ideas about music.” On “A Pearl,” she tells what seems this time like a human “you”: “Sorry I can’t take your touch.” The problem is that she’s been through a war that “left a pearl in my hand and I roll it around every night, just to watch it glow.” And so our heroine rides solemnly into the sunset, away from the world of flesh and into the realm of creativity, art, and ideas.
At times on Be the Cowboy, Mitski questions whether her stance is as subversive as she believes it to be. “Maybe I’m the same as all those men, writing songs of all they’re dreaming,” she sighs. But in a recent interview with The Guardian, Mitski said she did believe the record was “inherently feminine.” I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this quote:
When I say feminine album, immediately the perception is that it must be soft and lovely, but I mean feminine in the violent sense. Desiring, but not being able to define your desire, wanting power but being powerless and blaming it on yourself, or just hurting yourself as a way to let out the aggression in you. It’s a lot of pent-up anger or desire without a socially acceptable outlet.
As gender distinctions blur and evolve, I have been trying to avoid terms like “feminine,” to bleep such f-words from my vocabulary, or at least think good and hard about what it’s doing in a sentence when I do use it. “Feminine” is often used to describe something surface-level and aesthetic (“a false thing; a repository of the cosmetic” writes the author Rachel Cusk of the term “female”), which in itself is misleading and historically myopic: Boys used to wear pink. Here is a picture of baby Ernest Hemingway in a dress. On certain days I have not believed “feminine” to be a word worth saving from the pyre, and felt perfectly content leaving it behind in the heap along with all those other words that have outlived their use and all told have probably added more pollution to the atmosphere in the long run. But what Mitski described—feminine in the violent sense—felt to me both precise and true, a way to talk about a shared connection between anyone living under patriarchy who is not identified as male, the invisible thread weaving together so much of the music that has felt most vital to me this year, and the localized fires it seems to be starting in the many people listening to it.
Georgia “Maq” McDonald warned us that the next song would be a slow one, and that it might even make us think. Perhaps attempting to thwart such a tall order with comic relief, a guy in the crowd hollered out for Maq to pose like the thinky-face emoji: “Put your fist under your chin!” A loud man near the front of a stage yelling out something unfunny is so common a concert-going experience that my brain barely registered it, but Maq responded with an instinctual force: “No man tells me what to fucking do.” The crowd roared. I felt like I was witnessing the death of a certain cliché. I was curious to see what new experiences would occur in its absence—who would get to speak in this new silence, and what they might have to say.
That night Camp Cope had sold out the Bowery Ballroom. Helmed by Maq, an outspoken, banshee-throated 24-year-old songwriter, the Australian trio played songs from their searing second album, How to Socialise & Make Friends. The first song on that album is called “The Opener,” a melodic compendium of grievances large and small, personal and political, long endured in silence and finally, loudly, not taken anymore. Its lyrics are partially a collage of things disbelieving men have said to Camp Cope over the years, about how their success was the result of luck rather than hard work, about how they should book a smaller venue because they might not be able to fill up the room, about how promoters aren’t the ones at fault for booking all-male shows because there “just aren’t that many girls in the music scene.” Drummer Sarah Thompson was astonished at the breadth of the song when Maq sent her the demo: “I was so impressed … Georgia literally rhymed all these things.”
“If I was hungry, then you were starving,” Maq sings to some guy, the kind who inherently believes his experiences of the world are more important, more extreme, more correct than any girl’s. (Our old friend the Cowboy.) “He was so sick, but you were dying,” Maq continues. Some of the most wrenching parts of the record are about her father, the Australia-famous radical folk singer Hugh McDonald, who died of cancer in late 2016. And so Maq seems to be summoning a fuck-you spirit even larger than herself as she scorches the earth with that last line of the chorus: “Now tell the DEAD MAN that you’re the one DYYYYING!!!!”
It was exhilarating to hear that song in a huge, packed room (full of people screaming along, “It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up the room!”) as it must have felt in the Sydney Opera House, which Camp Cope had headlined a few weeks prior. But something else that struck me was how many men were there, almost all of whom were behaving more respectfully than Mr. Thinky-Face. There has long been an assumption that—just as some executives assume that men don’t like watching female-led movies—female musicians appeal primarily and even exclusively to female audiences, and that any music that could be described as “feminine” is inherently alienating to men. (Never mind the fact that by default most women grow up consuming art made by men, and that only a killjoy would suggest that that is somehow “alienating” for us.) The audiences for shows I’ve seen in the past few years headlined by acts like Camp Cope, Soccer Mommy, and Waxahatchee have come surprisingly close to gender parity. It makes sense—all of these acts are bringing new perspectives to their music, and wouldn’t the widest possible audience want to hear something innovative, new, and alternative to the norm? Isn’t that what punk and indie rock have always claimed to be about?
“A lot of the music that I grew up on was very heteronormative, confessional stories told from a man’s view,” Sadie Dupuis—the frontwoman of indie rockers Speedy Ortiz, who also plays solo as Sad13—told The New York Times last year, speaking of a shift she was witnessing. “The things that are most exciting for me are introducing narrative elements that aren’t atypical but just aren’t part of the canon—things that are normal to my experience as a feminine person. So I’m obviously the most psyched when I meet with a 13-year-old girl who reminds me of myself. But it’s also awesome when I see a 45-year-old guy who probably likes Pavement and Sebadoh and Guided by Voices, but is now connecting to a narrative outside of what was the onslaught in rock for so long.”
The members of Camp Cope, too, have observed this shift, and they believe that playing to audiences that include many men gives them a unique opportunity. They’ve explicitly called upon their male listeners and peers to participate in things like their #ItTakesOne initiative to promote concert safety, and when they played Australia’s Falls Festival earlier this year, they made a run of anti-sexual-assault T-shirts and tried to distribute them to as many prominent (and male) musicians as possible. “We were deliberately asking men,” bassist Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich said. “Julia Jacklin’s crowd aren’t punching each other in the face.”
In that same interview, though, she reminded the interviewer and the reader that it is a burden when female musicians are the only ones expected to talk about these issues; it can feel like a second job. “Ask the next 10 bands as well,” Hellmrich added. “If it turns out they don’t think racism and sexism exist, that’s good to know.”
Back at the Bowery Ballroom, the song that Maq was introducing when she’d been interrupted was about—wouldn’t you know—the consequences of male entitlement. “The Face of God” is one of the most devastating songs the band has ever released, and although Maq wrote it before the #MeToo movement, the recent onslaught of similar stories gives the song a new power. “I had to leave because I had to say ‘no’ and ‘stop’ more than once,” she sings. “You just kept trying to change my mind.” The man in question is a fellow musician, and in the chorus Maq documents the disbelief she encountered when telling people about him—the exemptions made for “talented” people. “Could it be true?” she sings. “You couldn’t do that to someone. Nah, not you. They said your music is too good.”
Across town, about a month after Camp Cope headlined the Bowery Ballroom, the comedian Louis C.K. surprised an audience at the New York club the Comedy Cellar when he did a short, unannounced set working out some new material that he likely wants to continue refining in front of audiences in the near future. Less than a year prior, he had admitted to a pattern of behavior that involved masturbating in front of at least five nonconsenting women over a decade-long span. Still, it was reported that he was greeted with “an ovation,” because it is easier to sum up a room’s response by the loudest person in it, not the most sullenly silent. The next day, though, a female audience member gave an interview to Vulture about her “uncomfortable” experience at the show. She said that it was “tense to watch C.K. make jokes in a room so obviously welcoming of him.” What she said next haunted me in its banal familiarity: “You hear this big, loud guy sitting next to you yelling, ‘Oh, it’s so great to have you back, Louis.’ … Our voice is definitely not going to be prioritized in that space. … How do you think the women in that room felt?”
In the coming days I kept typing Louis C.K.’s name into Twitter, in the probably vain hope that, if he did another unannounced show in New York, I could get in a cab and be there quickly enough to heckle him. A summer of listening to Camp Cope had made me feel brave and reckless and wonderfully rude. I wanted to raise my voice as loudly as Georgia Maq’s. I wanted to let everyone know that the battle isn’t over.
When Sophie Allison was first experiencing the feelings of depression, alienation, and defiance that she would capture on her debut solo album, Clean, she was also in her first year studying music business at NYU. “I definitely learned stuff like advancing a show, what percentage I should be paid, what’s going to be in a contract I’m going to sign,” she said later. “The whole time I was thinking, ‘Oh, so this is how they’re going to try to fuck me over.’”
Although the now-20-year-old, Nashville-born Allison had been playing guitar her “whole life” and every summer attended the Southern Girls Rock Camp, where she was free to unleash her inner rockstar—“Every year I would get my hair done up in a mohawk, full-on teased and sprayed up”—she did not feel emboldened to share her songs with other people until college, because she “didn’t feel like people would take it seriously.” But within a few years recording under the name Soccer Mommy, that has proved untrue. She was one of the most buzzed-about acts at this past year’s SXSW, her debut was crowned Best New Music by Pitchfork, and after a summer opening for her childhood heroes Paramore she will, early next year, continue to play some of the largest stages of her career when she opens for the iconoclastic country star Kacey Musgraves.
“I guess I’m only what you wanted for a little while,” Allison sings in a voice that is at once nasal and sweetly husky, like a cigarette with a sinus infection. Her songs are often about diminishment, doubt, and abjection, embodied so fully that these states of being become, paradoxically, a source of power. “Maybe it’s just a flaw that I’ve been having all along,” she sings in a wilting voice on one of the record’s quietest songs. It makes me think again of that Mitski quote about feminine violence—“blaming it on yourself, or just hurting yourself as a way to let out the aggression in you.” But at other times, Allison summons the strength to sneer at the whole wide world. “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog,” she sings, a rebuttal across time to Iggy Pop’s masculine masochism.
At its most raging, Allison has said that the record is about “that feeling of wanting to be perfect but not being perfect.” Her songs are alive with the energy of a young woman realizing, after so many years of being constantly told otherwise, her faults are not her fault. “These issues have been caused by the patriarchy: suffering from trying to be appealing or pleasing men in your life, the validation you’ve been wanting since you were a kid,” Allison has said. “But I’m honest about the fact that even though I am against the patriarchy, I still feel the things that it’s given me.”
This is incredibly honest, and a nuance lost in the one-dimensional you-go-girl sloganeering of empowerment feminism (the kind that is usually just trying to sell you soda or taxed tampons or low-calorie yogurt). But one of my favorite songs on Clean offers an alternative, if not a way out then at least a detour in the maze. “Cool” is a lovingly wrought ode to a girl who eats men like air. “Mary has a heart of cold, she’ll break you down and eat you whole,” Allison marvels, as friend-crush-struck as Kathleen Hanna is in “Rebel Girl.” “I saw her do it after school—she’s an animal.” Allison sings the song to a boy, but they’re linked in their mutual awe of Mary: “I wanna know her, like you.” It’s the most romantic song on the record.
Lindsey Jordan gravitated toward songs like this one long before she understood why. Then, later in her teens, she realized she was gay. She reacted to this epiphany with endearing enthusiasm: “I was always a huge fan of songs about women—it’s such a great topic! So when I discovered that was who I was interested in, I was like, can’t wait to just start writing songs about women.”
Some of those songs comprise Lush, the fantastic and fearless record that 19-year-old Jordan released earlier this year with her band Snail Mail. The songs, she’s said, form “a nice mix of not giving a fuck and giving a fuck,” which feels like as good as any a description of what’s required for a girl who’s alive in the United States in 2018. The album’s closer, “Anytime,” she has elaborated, is about “really giving a fuck.” The propulsive “No Control,” on the other hand? “No fucks.” Its chorus revolves around a mantra of self-sufficiency and general okayness that Jordan sings like a battle cry: “Full control! I’m not lost! Even when it’s love, even when it’s not.”
What a noble slogan for anybody, regardless of gender. I’ve been covering music for long enough to remember when people would try to talk about a band like Snail Mail as if they were a niche concern singing about niche feelings, since their frontwoman and songwriter is a teenage girl. But the other day I saw a grown man on the subway wearing a shirt with Lindsey Jordan’s face on it. A few weeks ago while visiting friends, our host—a guy in his mid-30s—walked over to the stereo and put on Snail Mail’s Lush. He let it play all the way through twice.
A long, sweltering summer is finally coming to a close. In a trenchant essay published in the middle of it, the political columnist Rebecca Traister dubbed the season “the summer of rage.” In the news—which has become unavoidable these days, a rank, omnipresent thickening of the air—immigrant children were being torn from their parents, their cries played over and over again on the 24-hour news channels. An old white (er, orange) man with active disdain for the female body had somehow become in charge of our most intimate decisions about it, and because of the politically charged moment in which another old man had decided to retire, our most basic reproductive rights now hang in a precarious balance. Some of the powerful men who had been accused of sexual misconduct all seemed to be stealthily plotting “comebacks,” while one of the only powerful men who had risked anything in standing up for the survivors and looking critically at his own behavior succumbed to depression and took his own life. A bishop groped Ariana Grande’s breast on television at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, and every time I so much as checked my Twitter feed this weekend I had to look at a picture of it 10 more times, to be reminded that even in 2018 no woman is famous enough to be treated with respect. To top it all off, Aretha Franklin is still dead. It was a long summer. Somewhere between 30 percent of the time and all of the time I wanted to scream.
I wondered a thousand times while writing this whether I was doing these artists a disservice by discussing them together. Decades of lazy “Women in Rock” articles have polluted the atmosphere so thoroughly that it seems impossible to talk about more than one female artist together without conjuring images of wind machines gently mussing tresses, leather pants, and god-awful adjectives like (shudder) “kick-ass.” I don’t want to suggest that all of these bands sound alike, or that they are the only exciting female artists making rock music (see also Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and/or their newly formed supergroup Boygenius for four more examples of many), or that female is ever, under any circumstance, a genre. No, no, and no. But I have noticed a shift happening, and to not even try to talk about it, however imperfect the language, feels like doing it another kind of disservice. After that Camp Cope show, a friend—who also came of age at a time when there were hardly any visible women in bands— and I talked about how much we wished a band like them had existed when we were 14. But I’m glad all these artists are making music when somebody out there is 14. I have a feeling we’ll be feeling the ripple effects of this shift for some time to come.
Maybe it is never productive to make statements like “Rock’s Not Dead, It’s Ruled By Women,” even when it’s sort of true. Maybe there’s no such thing as music that’s “inherently feminine.” Maybe the only thing these artists have in common is a looming, omnipresent enemy. All I know for sure is that I was a woman alive in the summer of 2018 and somewhere between 30 percent of the time and all of the time I wanted to scream. Or cry or flip someone off or maybe just find a group of like-minded people who wanted to help each other forget about those things for a little while. On the bright side, there was music for that this year, and plenty of it to go around.
Due to an editing error, a photo caption in an earlier version of this piece misidentified Lindsey Jordan as Sophie Allison.