Kicking and Screaming: the Rejection of Tired Tropes by Indie Rock’s Next Generation of Women
Rock music has always been a strange place for women. They are at once venerated muses of hardened musicians and the subject of critical contempt. Even when they have more than stood their ground — Heart, Joan Jett, Janis Joplin, Shirley Manson, Kim Deal, Kathleen Hanna, Kim Gordon, PJ Harvey, Skin are only a drop in the ocean of prominent examples —, those vixens are too often considered mavericks, instead of legitimate players, right up there with the behemoths of the genre.
I grew up listening to powerful women sing about love, death and everyday life, wondering why they weren’t being given the same credit as their male counterparts. But above all, I grew apprehensive that eventually, those legendary women would be considered obsolete, and that the newer artists who walked in their steps would not be granted the same occasion as the new male-fronted bands ascending to glorious heights in the early 2000s.
Already, Arctic Monkeys were being hailed as the next best thing, Bloc Party was breaking records worldwide, while most of the focus on The Strokes, Queens of the Stone Age, Interpol, The Black Keys, etc., rested on their respectively charismatic frontmen. In all that cacophony, I prayed that the women would not be erased from the conversation.
Years later, I am relieved to have been relatively wrong. In hindsight, the aughts have found women in rock at their absolute superlative; Sleater-Kinney has continued to confound with their hypnotic music; Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs continues to kick ass and take names; Jenny Lewis, Florence Welch and Brittany Howard spill their hearts out in the vein of Joni Mitchell and Sinéad O’Conner, while Leslie Feist, St. Vincent and Beth Ditto walk boldly in the footsteps of those defiant, unapologetic misfits who have always sung their truths from the sidelines.
In the latter years of this decade especially, there has seemingly been a curve toward the raw, confessional tone in songwriting, with more and more underground artists soaring to recognition on the strengths of their brutally honest takes on life as a 21st century woman. This is surely not coincidental, as the world’s bigotry and intolerance has reared its ugly head with even more gusto, of late.
Accordingly, songwriting has once again taken an intensely personal focus, with women rejecting the tired tropes of love and patriarchal notions of propriety, and embracing sexual freedom and emotional integrity, sometimes at the detriment of being liked or even understood — and considering that women have been historically expected to be nice, this is important.
In this sea of promising women who have taken the mantel from their glorious predecessors, five women in particular stand out. They are not heartbroken, but the breakers of hearts; they are uncompromising and honest; they do not try to soften their imperfections, or parrot tired ideas of self-love, preferring instead to peel the curtain back on all their ugliness, and proclaim to the world how much the world, and the people in it, has damaged them.
Kandle Osborne, daughter of Neil Osborne of the 54-40, did not simply follow in her father’s footsteps and mimic his career. Her voice is her own, as are her words and experiences. The Victoria native’s solo career began in late 2011 with her self-titled EP, and she has since captured the indie-rock scene with her acerbic, arresting songs about madness and loss.
Kandle’s angelic voice is matched only by her striking appearance — but make no mistake. This is a haunting and haunted woman. She sings about love like it’s a harbinger of terrible things to come, in a way that screams authenticity and wisdom instead of self-absorption. She throws convention away by embracing a “mean girl” attitude, and by never apologizing for the way she feels.
There’s a cool, retrospective quality to most of her songs; one gets the feeling that she analyzes misfortunes past and relationships buried, having moved on from them and onto the next scintillating thing.
As such, it’s not surprising that one of Kandle’s first, and most celebrated songs was a cover of The Rolling Stones classic “Play With Fire”. Under Kandle’s deft hand, the song was upended, losing its slightly condescending, gently chiding tone in favor of something much more caustic and threatening. If this song was a sign of what to expect from the musician, she did not disappoint.
In “Not Up to Me” and “So Bad”, Kandle continues the momentum of those trajectories, taking back her control in relationships that have gone sour. Both songs showcase contrasting emotions: the latter is an assertion of her sexuality, her right to her body, her right to own her emotions and her individuality, things that have long been denied to women.
In the former, something even more remarkable happens: namely, Kandle standing up for herself in a relationship that reeks of toxicity and codependency. This is especially remarkable considering that we women have long been relegated to the role of caregivers, and are made to feel responsible for the men in our lives: so that when we seemingly “fail” to do so, to mother grown men as if we birthed and raised them, we suddenly become unwomanly and inadequate. In the face of that, Kandle proudly proclaims that it’s not her part to play, that it’s not up to her.
“Knew You’d Never“ is a deceptive song, in that it at first seems like a “why don’t you love me?” lamentation:
I knew you’d never
Keep chasing me forever.
Yet, a closer look reveals it’s much more complex than that: indeed, she acknowledges that she is no longer cherished, and that love has died, for reasons out of her control. But that is just the first part: in the resignation of her tone, in the almost casual way she says it, one hears something else, something almost resembling wisdom. She’s not saying: “why don’t you love me?”, she’s saying “of course you don’t, because that’s what you do”. Kandle is in fact calling out hollow romance, the cheapness of the chase, the romanticization of women. We are symbols most of the time, which belies the truth, namely that we are just human beings with flaws as wide as gaping gaps. “Knew You’d Never” is an acceptance of the fact that she is no longer an object of desire, which society tells women is all they are. She acknowledges it, accepts it, and moves on.
I only break when I begin to care
Try to save something that isn't there
I knew you'd never
Keep chasing me forever.
Similarly, Alexandra Savior is seemingly easy to dismiss: a protégée of Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner, and strongly reminiscent of 60s rockers à la Nico and Françoise Hardy, she looks like the kind of girl who would pine about romance and heartbreak. But peel away that layer, and you will find the same acerbic twang that permeates Kandle’s music. In fact, hidden between every seemingly twee line about passionate trysts and affairs of the heart, is a steeliness that belies something much more sinister.
At times, Savior’s songs are disarmingly candid, the way most rock songs rarely ever are anymore (“Vanishing Point” is an excellent starting point), but when she sings about love, rather than when she simply sings love songs, her true feelings start to show. Love, according to Alexandra Savior, is harder for women when they let their guard down, and it can be ugly: and refreshingly, she is not afraid to go to that very ugliness. She does not try to play it cool (“Mystery Girl”), subverting another of the conventions women are boxed into, especially in rock music: she is neither totally “hysterical”, nor is she composed. In this song, she owns her wrath and paranoia about being mistreated and replaced by a lover, with clinical perseverance.
“Cupid” finds Savior at the same level of clarity: the song is the embodiment of her cynicism regarding love, “Knew You’d Never” if it was laced with retro elegance. The aforementioned cynicism is tinged with a weighty, weighty sadness, batting-eyes idealism be damned (although she doesn’t completely toss it away). Instead of “adopting” a stance that mocks the notion of vulnerability, she recognizes that it might be her who has lost the necessary perspective to be happy again:
How it ought to feel
I don't know what to do
It's a whole lot
To hold back
You know that
Cupid shoots to kill.
Alexandra Savior is not all doom and gloom however: she also explores heavier topics with an almost mischievous tilt. “Mirage” is a nimble critique of the objectification of women, of the superficial way we are portrayed in pop culture, of the way the female body is manipulated, but never really understood. But instead of simply protesting this, Savior takes that power back and asserts it. She takes on many names and identities, seduces men and tells them what they want to hear, lets them believe they are the ones in control; when she is done she changes again, and moves on to the next one.
We sing songs about
Whatever the fuck they want
… Push me down another rabbit hole
Touch me like I'm gonna turn to gold
She's almost like a million other people
That you'll never really get to know.
“Mirage” is the embodiment of Savior’s elusive persona, of the chameleonic way women cope with the pressures and expectations by becoming many people, by playing with what people demand of us, and by throwing it back in their faces.
On the other end of that spectrum, we have Miya Folick, who took the concept of vulnerability and bolted with it. In the tradition of PJ Harvey, Folick’s songs explore the full gamut of what it is to be a woman looking not to the past or the future, but to the very real, very palpable present: the good, the bad, the horrendously ugly. The rawness of her songs is inescapable. It is like peeking into the pages of one’s innermost diaries. It’s as if Folick has decided to remove the top layer of her most pulsing abscess of pain, and lance it with all she’s got — and in doing so, unveils the importance of our stories, the strength and depth of women’s experiences, and most of all, the imperfection that lives in all of us.
“Trouble Adjusting” is perhaps the best example of this. In it, Folick explores the messiness of being young, of being lost and having no clue which direction life is supposed to take you. Again, this is remarkable because women and minorities are seldom afforded the same room to fail and to try again: we have to work thrice as hard to get the same level of recognition as our peers. Folick stands in that vulnerability, wearing it like a badge of honor.
This is echoed in “Oceans”, in which she further throws away the assumptions made about women:
You think that I was born to be
A tender rose beneath an oak tree
But I never loved roses
I think I should let myself breathe
I think I should leave myself be.
In “What I Have To”, she confronts the pressure and inferiority some women are made to feel regarding men, even when we know they are not good for us, even when we know we should not try so hard. She also rips into the damaging romantic stereotypes that dictate that unkind behavior and flirtation should go hand in hand:
I think you're real groovy, baby
You think I am dumb and lazy
Maybe I will show you how well
I can write a song
That's how the guys all get the ladies
Don’t they? Or does it work the other way?
When she understands all this, she realizes that it does not — and should not — have the power to dictate her life. We are more than the people we fall in love with, in short. Once again, Miya Folick finds herself butting against the ”Cool Girl” stereotypes, digging deep into her insecurities and coming out on top, because she is human, more real than anything she could merely pretend to be.
If “Deadbody” is the only song Folick had ever written, it would still have made me fall in love with her. When the entire world is steeped into the permission of violence against women, songs like these are beacons of light. It is simply a powerful, breathtaking, unflinching look at the ugliness of sexual assault; it is also a powerful confrontation of the assaulter, and by extension, of everyone who’s ever abused people through power, sex, money or privilege.
Don't want your money for my silence
I don't care who knows your name
… Over my dead body
… I’m free, I'm floating over my body on the floor
I grab me, and I tell myself, "don't be ashamed anymore”.
This song is a must listen for anyone who cares about uncomfortable issues, a must listen for those who want to better understand assault from the viewpoint of those affected, a must listen for anyone who wants to witness an artist’s raw, unfiltered emotion. It’s a must listen, period.
Marika Hackman is a wrench in the gears of those who still think that rock music belongs to the straight white male. Most of her songs explore queer love, throwing antiquated notions about women squarely under the bus. Hackman is intensely sensual, and this sensuality permeates everything she writes, even when she is not writing about love and sex. She explores all of its facets, with the same level of candidness that is accorded to her straight peers: the beautiful (“Violet”), the not-so-beautiful (“So Long”), and the in-between (“My Lover Cindy”).
Hackman is always unafraid to get brutally honest and heartbreakingly personal, but she also has another set of weapons at her disposal: tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, scathing wit, and the darkest sense of humor. All three are a fixed presence in her songs, as evidenced by the title of her latest album, I’m Not Your Man, which suggests so much with so little.
“Boyfriend” is the pinnacle of that scathing playfulness. In it, she sings about stealing another man’s girlfriend, which he is too oblivious to notice. Throughout, she pokes fun at the fact that she is a better lover than him, which he will never even suspect because he is so focused on himself and his own pleasure. She listens to the man’s girlfriend, is nicer than him, and is great in bed — all the things he doesn’t know is making him lose his girl.
In subtle ways, Hackman not only takes down toxic masculinity, she also aims for society’s myopic attitude toward lesbian relationships, how it downplays them, when they are as legitimate. This, she does by playing with those very stereotypes:
No one takes us seriously
Just because I wear a dress
It's fine 'cause I am just a girl
“It's just a dream”
A woman really needs a man
To make her scream.
This song is also interesting because it boldly embracing cheating, which would not usually be celebrated, but the fact that she embraces it, the way another man would, makes it that much more funny. Like Kandle, Hackman does not care that she is not nice, rejects what one would expect from her with a playful chin check.
“Ophelia”, like Alexandra Savior’s “Cupid”, takes a look at doomed romance that isn’t cloying. But this is no mere lamentation of love: Hackman sings from the perspective of a woman who’s been romanticized in literature since the dawn of time, and in that way also condemns the way women pining and dying for their lovers has been subsequently glamorized. She cuts through all the noise with a simple, conclusive statement:
They who walk alone in life
They are of sound mind
We can only get hurt by things we've heard
And lovers are unkind.
“Good Intentions” also cuts through the fluff and noise of romance, and while it’s directed to a woman in particular who’s hurt her, the lyrics take a universal meaning:
I don’t want your good intentions
I’m not your man, and I can
Sense your bullshit from my bedroom
It’s driving me mad, I'm not sad.
With a nod to the album title, she casts away this idea that as a lover and a woman, her only value is utilitarian, performative. She is not kind and patient and forgiving, nor does she want to be.
“Deep Green”, similarly, reverberates that sentiment, but also brings to mind Miya Folick’s “Deadbody” in that it not only asserts the notion of consent and boundaries, but also the right to stand in one’s own neuroses, without painting a pretty picture of it to make the other person comfortable.
Just because I love your skin
Doesn't mean I'll jump in
… I heard that you like to swim
Doesn't mean I'm gonna jump in.
Like Kandle, Elle King comes from an artistic family, but also like Kandle, her voice is entirely her own. The musician wears her heart on her sleeve, in the vein of Stevie Nicks and Kate Bush; she is a powerful songwriter, one who never chews around the truth. Love always takes center stage in her songs (her first major album, Love Stuff came out in 2016), but this is deceptive: her songs absolutely eviscerate her lovers past and present. Interestingly, King, in the process, never fails to excoriates herself as well.
“Ex’s and Oh’s” and “I Told You I Was Mean” call to mind the other women on this list, in that the songs embrace the qualities people refuse to associate with women. King wears her sexuality as a badge of pride; she gives herself permission to go against the grain, and be the kind of woman others would look down upon. She doesn’t care what you think about her — on the contrary. She proudly proclaims that she leaves the men who love her, flipping the script on rock tradition in which women are clingy assholes, when they are not objects of desire.
“Man’s Man” also lambasts toxic masculinity: King berates her ex-husband, who seemingly only adheres to the macho persona when things are going smoothly for him, when in reality she is more of a hardass than he is. She cops to some very ugly things like cheating, exposing the raw, pulsing heart of their marital breakdown, and doesn’t try to make up for it by cloaking the song in innuendos and half-allusion:
You said I had to blow somebody
But you blend it on cocaine lines
Oh, and by the way
While you were away
I fucked somebody on our one year wedding anniversary day
A real man's man
What's your mama gon' do
When she find out what you're into?
Conversely, “It Girl” seems at first to be overflowing with self-loathing: King describes her many misadventures with love and sex, and the way she has used her body in the past to get favors and admiration from other men. But this is just a smokescreen: the song is actually a denunciation of the ease with which men will objectify women, and of how women are able to leverage it back, and use it as a twisted sort of superpower of their own. It’s “Mirage” with thorns, if you will.
So, next time they talk some shit
All you gotta do is blow … them a little kiss.
The resulting candor is a measure of how layered and arresting women’s experiences can be for those songwriters brave enough to remain unflinching.
These five women are merely a sample of a new wave of artists who are thriving in a genre that has historically been unwelcoming.
Kandle and Elle King embrace her right not to care and be callous, and not to act the way a woman conventionally should. And while it’s debatable whether this is a good thing for any person to do, it’s refreshing that a woman is espousing feelings society only allows men to proudly display. And for that, they are a breath of fresh air.
Alexandra Savior and Marika Hackman carve their own spaces in which to be as brash, as frightening, as crazy as their counterparts, and not be shamed for it.
Miya Folick stands as the forceful reminder that after all this is said and done, women are still allowed to be vulnerable and sensitive, open and optimistic, and are no less powerful for it.
On the cusp of their amazing budding careers, I am confident in stating that the future looks bright for rock music, as it stands. These are no shrinking violets.