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Look At Me! (Looks At You): How Identity and Music Connect in a Cis, Male World

VerÌ_nica Del Valle

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With clarity, I remember the day my relationship with music changed permanently.

In a crowded high school cafeteria, one of my friends paged through my saved albums on Spotify. These were the days of The Front Bottoms and Modern Baseball. I went to concerts full of polarized crowds: burly twenty something-year-old men and teenage girls who were barely sixteen. These were also the days of feeling special because of the music I listened to, though I was just mimicking the patterns of other teenagers who pretended not to like Top 30 while also listening to One Direction in private.

My friend, who had indulged my mild superiority complex for too long, mentioned that all the musicians I listened to were, in fact, men.

The girl I was in late 2013, steeped in the language of internet feminism, was insulted by the idea that I wasn‰’t doing enough to further heart-shaped girl power in the music I listened to. From then onwards, it became my mission to pay more attention to people other than men.

Identity didn‰’t play a part in my relationship with music until a year later. I was frustrated and sad, newly seventeen, when Hop Along became a part of my life. I had spent the greater part of a year trying to justify myself as a woman who loved music. In conversations with other people, particularly cisgendered men, I constantly felt incompetent. I didn‰’t know who Slint or Have A Nice Life were, I didn‰’t care about Pavement; I was a teenage girl who didn‰’t understand why teenage boys refused to listen to me. Hop Along‰’s Get Disowned was something individually mine during that time.

Frances Quinlan unapologetically tackles the depths of emotion on Get Disowned. She meditates on death, loss, and trauma in the soundscape synonymous with the Philadelphia music scene. While Quinlan addresses subjects more complicated than I ever knew as a teenager, the way emotion and indecision are so entrenched in her lyrics felt akin to the hormonal mess that junior year of high school was. On “Trouble Found Me‰Û, a track where Hop Along addresses fleeting mortality in the aftermath of an accident, Quinlan croons “Trouble found me sleeping / So I followed it downstairs.‰Û

I had not yet been anywhere near death, but that lyric was the backdrop to long, sad high school nights that I still remember. Quinlan balanced being a woman with being outwardly emotional. Yet, there was nothing fragile about her feelings. I wanted desperately to be like that. I wanted men to respect music that echoed those same emotional undertones. I wanted the men in my life to respect music by women. 

To me, Get Disowned is one of the most important albums of the 21st century thus far. It demonstrates that a woman could dominate punk to my ears for the first time.

For queer people and gender-based minorities, this musical eureka can be life-changing.

I talked to three WVAU members about their favorite albums by queer musicians or gender-based minorities to find more examples of perfectly clear moments where people saw the complexity of identity reflected in music.

Maria Carrasco, Web Director

Verünica: What‰’s your favorite album by a queer or gender-based minority musician?

Maria Carrasco: I would have to say my favorite album by a queer or gender-based minority musician would have to be Bury Me at Makeout Creek by Mitski, but honestly Puberty 2 is a good second contender. I just really love Mitski and I think she’s so under-appreciated.

V: How does it make you feel?

MC: These albums made me feel normal or at least that I wasn’t alone. I don’t know, it’s a weird feeling. Like I remember the first time I listened to “Your Best American Girl” and feeling like wow, she just nailed what I’ve felt forever. For reference, I’m a Chilean immigrant so I’ve never felt fully part of my native roots or this new American culture. I always felt like I was in a standstill. I guess I still do. And that hit even harder when she released her music video for the song. This disconnect from my roots to my new American culture has played such a huge role into my relationships. It hurts but it’s true and no one, I repeat, no one has hit that feeling for me like Mitski did in this song. I still cry to this song or music video whenever I hear or see it.

V: Do you have any concrete memories tied to this album?

MC: I’ve seen Mitski live twice so definitely seeing her have been great memories. I remember the first time I saw her, it was November 2016 at the Black Cat, right after the presidential election. I went by myself to the show because none of my friends were into her and honestly, I was so happy I did. I arrived super early and got front row and during the show, I was in front of her the entire time. It felt like she was just singing to me. And when she sang “Your Best American Girl” I remember crying.

The second time I saw her was when she sold out the 9:30 Club in July 2017 and that was amazing too. It was special to see her sellout the venue and see all the people appreciate her and her artistry. I’m seeing her this April when she opens up for Lorde, so I’m definitely excited to see her again.

V: Has this album impacted your life in any greater ways?

MC: I mean for Bury Me At Makeout Creek and Puberty 2, they’re both definitely two of my favorite albums of all time. I prefer Bury Me At Makeout Creek but I think “Your Best American Girl” from Puberty 2 is my favorite song. I just really love her and I think I’ll always support Mitski.

V: Do you think that the given identity group of this musician, gender or sexualiy wise, has impacted how you see yourself? To provide an example, if the given artist is a woman, has it impacted how you interpret womanhood/patriarchy/femininity in your own life?

MC: Mitski is one of the most badass women in music, but she’s also so tender and soft, especially in her lyrics. I think that’s important to note. Mitski really shows what it’s like to be multi-dimensional and she brings that in her music. She’s soft but she has an edge. And to some degree, I’d like to believe that I’m the same way.

V: Is there anything else you think is essential for me to know about your understanding of this album and how it relates to you as a person?

MC: I mean, I’m an immigrant. I was born in Concepciün, Chile and my entire family, for as long as my family’s history is concerned, is Chilean. So my parents moving to the U.S. was a big shift in dynamics, both on my mother’s and father’s sides. I moved to the U.S. when I was four to Chicago and lived there for most of my life.

Emily Shelton

Verünica: What‰’s your favorite album by a queer or gender-based minority musician?

Emily Shelton: There are plenty. I‰’ll go with Sleater Kinney‰’s self titled album/demo.

V: What do you like about it? Is it sonically impressive or lyrically amazing?

ES: The album is in no way refined or even nice to listen to. Honestly, it‰’s a pretty standard third-wave feminist album from the 90‰’s. The lyrics are so abrasive and unapologetic, and women aren‰’t expected to be so sonically brash or explosive, but I can‰’t help but love it.

V: How does it make you feel?

ES: This album is my ultimate thrashing playlist. When I have to get somewhere fast, I listen to this album. When I feel angry or helpless, I listen to this album. It‰’s so incredibly empowering. Wow.

V: Do you have any concrete memories tied to this album?

ES: I remember listening to this album driving in the car with one of my best friends (who I would consider a sister, really). By the end of the album, we were both weeping (in a good way) because of the raw power of the last song.

V: Has this album impacted your life in any greater ways?

ES: Oh, definitely. The Riot Grrrl movement introduced me to a whole new mindset towards feminism when I grew up in a conservative small town. Also, I found this band right around the time that I finally came to terms with my queerness, and at a time that some abusive men determined my self worth. So fuck that. I deserve to be treated with respect.

V: Do you think that the given identity group of this musician, gender or sexuality wise, has impacted how you see yourself?

ES: Both Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker are out as bisexual, which is also my sexuality. On top of that they are both women. I felt very alone in middle school and early on in high school, where very few people also identified as queer openly. And I was closeted to my friends and family for years, but bands like Sleater-Kinney gave me some confidence.

V: Is there anything else you think is essential for me to know about your understanding of this album and how it relates to you as a person?

ES: This album is only 10 short songs, but it is truly 22 minutes of bliss. I‰’m generally a pretty gentle, but that doesn‰’t mean I‰’m emotionless. Some people have a drink to take the edge off, but I always know I‰’ll have Sleater Kinney.

Sonya Pritsker

Verünica: What is your favorite album by a female or trans or nonbinary or queer musician? Any of those, it doesn‰’t have to touch all of the above?

Sonya Pritsker: Any of them? Alright, I‰’m going to choose female. I‰’m going to talk about Lily Allen‰’s Alright Still.

V: Let‰’s get at it. Why do you like either of those albums or both of those albums? And what do they mean to you?

SP: Lily Allen‰’s Alright Still is very… it‰’s more classic pop. She‰’s very blunt about her own sexuality and the problems she comes across in terms of dealing with other women, other guys, relationships– just how she lives her life. She talks about how women are looked at once they turn thirty and how they interact in environments like bars, how life isn‰’t as easy for women as people might believe it is. I think that‰’s one of the greatest ways to do it [in pop], this kind of light-hearted manner.

V: More questions– who would you rather see in concert? What experience do you think would be cooler or you think [Lily Allen and Courtney Barnett] would both be interesting?

SP: Lily Allen would be an homage to twelve-year-old Sonya, who had just heard about sex and drinking and doesn‰’t know what anything is, but loved this whole new world.

V: What are specific memories tied to either of those albums? How do they intertwine into your everyday life?

SP: I think that I have more genuine connections with Lily Allen, mostly because my sister introduced me to Lily Allen, and I remember being thirteen, eleven, twelve-years-old, sitting on the bus and going back home to Jersey on her iPod, listening to the song “Knock ‰Em Out‰Û, which is still one of my favorite songs. I thought that this girl was so cool, because she was talking about ditching guys or not wanting to hook up with them in this empowering way, and that‰’s kind of stayed with me forever.

V: Do you think that Alright, Still influenced your identity as you got older, then? 

SP: Oh, completely. It was this very subliminal form of feminism that I identified with but didn‰’t completely comprehend. But, I still understood that women were treated differently and had complicated exchanges with men.

V: You brought feminism into this, how has your relationship with it shaped your perception of both music and the world?

SP: I try not to let it affect it my relationship with music, because for me, the point of music is having a good time. But, for me, there comes a point, when you‰’re listening to a song and realize that men shouldn‰’t be talking about me and my body in a specific way that makes me uncomfortable. In those moments, the feminism definitely comes into play. Feminism has this really unique way of empowering me, letting me listen to that music, and still letting me think of myself as a complete human being who deserves to be treated with respect. 

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Look At Me! (Looks At You): How Identity and Music Connect in a Cis, Male World