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The Entire History of Female Pop Music in One Woman

The sneaky power of Meg Remy’s U.S. Girls

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The night that iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe was taken—you know the one: stilettos on a subway grate, billowing white dress—Monroe and her husband Joe DiMaggio got into a screaming match. The fight was partially about the photo itself: While shooting The Seven Year Itch, the studio had savvily leaked Monroe’s whereabouts to the press, and by the time Billy Wilder was ready to roll camera on what would become the most notorious scene in the movie, several thousand onlookers had shown up to watch. (They were almost all men, but I hardly need to tell you that.) DiMaggio was there, and he wasn’t too keen on what he took to be his wife’s public exhibitionism. When she showed up to set the next morning, Monroe’s hairdresser applied foundation to hide fresh bruises. She filed for divorce from DiMaggio before The Seven Year Itch wrapped.

“We’re constantly presented with this smiling Marilyn,” says Meg Remy, the singer and eccentric creative mastermind behind the band U.S. Girls. “But for some reason, when you have all the information, it just feels so heavy.”

I should mention that Remy is speaking into a headset, as she drives a rented, 15-seat van deftly through the streets of Manhattan. In anticipation of the release of U.S. Girls’ new album In a Poem Unlimited—the most ambitious and, as it happens, best album of Remy’s decade-long career—her label suggested a listening party for fans and members of the press. Remy asked around enough to learn what a listening party was, and, ever the DIY-minded eccentric, then decided it just wasn’t her style. What she came up with instead was this: a van tour of “sites of injustices in New York City,” written and narrated by Remy herself, while we listen to the new album in the background. And so here I am, on a chilly February afternoon, seat-belted into Meg Remy’s darkly surreal universe. “Got some giddy-up,” she says approvingly over a tour guide’s headset, as she puts the van in drive.

As we approach Marilyn Monroe’s subway grate on Lexington and 52nd Street (“Monument to the Male Gaze,” as it’s identified on our pamphlets), we have already visited the city’s sole historical plaque that acknowledges Wall Street was once a slave market, and the luxury hotel next to St. Patrick’s Cathedral that was built on land owned by the Catholic Church—land that it is petitioning to mortgage to JPMorgan Chase so it can compensate some of the victims of the Church’s sexual abuse scandal. Remy also wanted to take us to the Upper West Side apartment where Norman Mailer stabbed his wife, but she didn’t want to take up our entire afternoon.

A cynic might hear about this stunt and accuse Remy of taking advantage of a moment when branding oneself as a crusader against “injustices” (particularly of a radical feminist bent) carries a certain kind of cultural cachet. That cynic would, in doing so, reveal himself to have never listened to Remy’s music. What a shame. For well over a decade, U.S. Girls (which began as a cheekily titled solo project, but has since expanded into a kind of rotating artistic collective with Remy at the center) has been making gloriously dirty DIY pop music that explores the dark underbelly of Americana—like David Lynch, if he sang in the bubblegum croon of early ’80s Madonna.

I first fell for Remy’s music in 2011, when she released an album on the small German imprint KRAAK (the album was called, appropriately, U.S. Girls on KRAAK). That record combines abrasive sonic collages, slinky tunes with titles like “State House (It’s a Man’s World),” and the most fucked-up cover of “The Boy Is Mine” you are ever likely to hear. As if she is making a point about the ruptured nature of female identity in late capitalism, or just as likely because she couldn’t find anyone else to duet with her, Remy sings both the Brandy and Monica parts.

As Remy’s lyrics have become increasingly somber, though, something odd has happened: Her sound has become increasingly more buoyant and accessible. The new one, In a Poem Unlimited, is, on its surface, an ecstatic pop record—Young Americans with ABBA as backup singers, plus a few Robyn-ready synths to keep things in the present tense.

“I’m embedded fully in the avant-garde and the difficult and the complex,” she tells me. “I wanted to work with the pop form sonically so that I could hide the weird shit and the dark messages within it, almost hoping that they would go unnoticed.”

The album’s first single, “Pearly Gates,” is one effective example: It’s a shimmering, roller-disco vamp that, when you listen closer, turns out to be an unsettling tale of a woman seducing St. Peter because she’s heard that submitting to his sexual advances is the surest way to get into heaven. (“For one chance to be an angel in his eyes / Seemed to be the safe bet,” she croons, “so I closed my eyes / And I opened my gates.”) The sumptuous “Velvet 4 Sale” toys with the imagery of the rape-revenge fantasy (“Instill in them the fear / That comes with being prey”), while “Rosebud,” the latest single, is about digging deep within one’s psyche to find the root cause of emotional problems. It’s centered around a catchy refrain that had already lodged itself in my head before I realized what Remy was saying: “It’ll hurt. It’ll hurt, I promise you.” (In the van, Remy cued up “Rosebud” to begin at the exact moment we drove past Trump Tower, because she believes its namesake could stand to do some of the kind of emotional work it describes. “I’m all for taxes going to therapy for him,” she said into her headset.)

Not Remy’s taxes, though—she now lives in Toronto with her husband, Max Turnbull, who makes music as Slim Twig. As the name “U.S. Girls” implies, Remy’s music often interrogates ideas about American identity, and she tells me that moving beyond its borders has given her a fresh perspective on her home country. “I’ve just been able to be in remove and look at America as an outsider,” she says. “I think it’s made me be more bold and take more risks and just be realer with what I’m saying, because I feel safe where I am.” That boldness was apparent on her excellent, Juno-nominated 2015 album Half Free. She sang the mournful single “Damn That Valley” from the perspective of a war widow, and filmed a video for the song in which the narrator raises a defiant fist to the White House.

When I ask what, in her view, Torontonians think of what’s going on in the U.S. right now, she minces no words. “Everyone just thinks that everyone down there’s fuckin’ morons,” she says. “But unfortunately, there’s another side to that. … Trump has given all the world leaders a bit of a gift in being such a creep. A lot of citizens in other countries feel happy that they don’t have Trump and are just content with that. There’s probably a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that these citizens wouldn’t approve of either, if they were looking. They don’t have to look at themselves and their own governments then, because at least it’s not Trump in America, you know?”

One upside of living in Toronto is that it’s helped Remy link up with a growing cadre of collaborators in the local experimental music scene. The full sound of In a Poem Unlimited comes from Remy’s backing band on the album, the avant-garde jazz collective the Cosmic Range. After years of DIY toiling, it’s a thrill to hear Remy’s voice backed by such accomplished accompanists: the brooding “Rage of Plastics” features a wild saxophone solo, while the epic finale, “Time,” is a Remain in Light–esque freak-out. “I was lucky to learn early on that help is a good thing,” Remy tells me. “The first record I made completely on my own, the second record I had a couple people play on, and then it just kind of went up and up from there, gathering more people around me to support me and help me translate my ideas.”

“Music can be cutthroat, especially for women,” she says. “We’re taught inadvertently, there’s only so much room for you. There can only be one blonde one, there can only be one queer one, you know what I mean? Space is limited. But I think collaboration is a good way to squash those kinds of notions. Getting everyone to help each other, I have people all around me and that’s how it works. Instead of it being a competition, it’s a communal effort. We’re all just trying to make stuff, we’re all just trying to get by. We should support each other in that.”

Remy’s music has a sneaky power: It often uses the comfort of familiarity to subversive ends. One of my favorite releases of hers is Free Advice Column, a 2013 girl-group-homage EP. The songs are produced to sound exactly (almost eerily) like unearthed gems from the ’60s, but their lyrics take on the kinds of things that girl groups never explicitly sang about—even as sex and relationship violence was an insistent undercurrent in their music. U.S. Girls’ “Incidental Boogie” (which Remy re-recorded for In a Poem Unlimited) is an unsparing look at an abusive partnership, while “28 Days” is an upbeat tune about … the menstrual cycle and family planning. The Shangri-Las could never. (Unfortunately.)

None of this would work if Remy weren’t such an expert songwriter and compelling vocalist, or if her homages to the past weren’t so lovingly done. The video for “28 Days”—all bouffants and swinging-armed group choreography—was “loosely inspired” by the music video for the Exciters’ 1963 hit “He’s Got the Power.” But Remy’s tributes also shine light on the troubling power dynamics and questionable imagery that’s always haunted pop music, even the kind that’s less overtly subversive than hers. Like, “He’s Got the Power”? What a sad, chilling name for a love song. As Meg Remy is always aware, when mining the history of American culture, you often don’t have to look very far below the surface to see Marilyn’s bruise.

As the van tour winds down, we crawl down 14th Street, en route to one of our final stops, the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a 1911 tragedy in which 123 female and 23 male garment workers died because of conditions that labor unions had already been protesting. It’s now an NYU biology building, with no visible plaque commemorating the fire.

While Remy’s waiting to make a right on Broadway, one of the passengers spots some very cute cats out the window. “Kitties!” he cries. The dark, contemplative atmosphere in the van is momentarily broken; everyone lets out a relieved laugh. “I think we all needed that,” someone says. But then a quiet settles over us: The cats belong to a homeless person begging for food outside of the bustling Union Square Whole Foods. We sit for a moment in awkward silence. Remy, steady behind the wheel, doesn’t seem surprised.