As anyone with ears, a decent record collection, or a passing familiarity with Sister Rosetta Tharpe already knows, that’s a pretty silly notion, as old-fashioned and blinkered as the equally predictable cycle of “Rock Is Dead” headlines that surface every few years. While male-fronted rock has indeed undergone a bit of an identity crisis in the last few decades, women have continued to turn out brilliant, emotional, entertaining-as-hell rock — and pop and hip-hop and rap and jazz and folk and country and on and on. This isn’t a new phenomenon. It isn’t a trend. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth celebrating.
Looking back over some of the female musicians that the Village Voice has profiled over the last twelve months offers a pretty good snapshot of the current state of women in music. Among them are the indomitable Princess Nokia, the effervescent Maggie Rogers, the fragile Julien Baker, and the insanely brilliant SZA. They are all talented, wildly creative artists who’ve produced music we put on repeat and songs we can’t forget. Oh, and they happen to be women.
For Vagabon, Indie Rock Is About Creating a Voice and a Community
“Women of color exist in this scene. Just not many.”
Gray and ceaseless rain has made it a terrible time to be in midtown Manhattan during a Thursday rush hour, but a perfect day to be with Sophie Allison, known as Soccer Mommy, who makes melancholy music that sounds just right in bummer weather like this. “I call my songs ‘emopop bangers,’ ” she says over pizza and a slice on Eighth Avenue, about twenty blocks above and a few avenues over from where, until last year, she lived in a Union Square dorm as an NYU student. The Parkland shooting debate was raging on TVs around us, with high schoolers not much younger than her fighting for their lives on gun control, a reminder of how powerful and powerless you are when you are young: fueled by passion but not always permitted to use it to change things. “Everyone is depressed. Not everyone can relate to getting fucked-up, not everyone wants to drink, but everyone feels these things, so everyone can connect,” she says. “Kids are just sad.”
Rainy days and national strife aside, with her “emopop bangers,” Allison expresses just how frustrating and exciting it is to be an adolescent, no matter where and when you are one. The twenty-year-old musician (not a kid, not yet a middle-aged adult) with chipped purple-black nail polish is back in town from Nashville, Tennessee, where she has lived with her parents in her childhood bedroom since dropping out of college last year, and being here stokes memories of isolation, the grist of the Soccer Mommy music that she wrote right here in her dorm, just her and her guitar. “I hated New York the first year. It’s so lonely and so overwhelming that you get depressed,” she says. “I didn’t go out a lot. I never went to parties. I spent a lot of time indoors in my room. But I was working on music all the time.”
There’s something noble about songs on Soccer Mommy’s new album, Clean, in which she explicates what so many of us do but would be embarrassed to admit to: comparing oneself unfavorably to a partner’s past romances. “It’s strong to admit, ‘Yes, I have issues. I’ve suffered too,’ ” she says. “Not to be strong by lying, but to be strong in admitting it.” She has been dating the guitarist in her band for about a year and a half, and when she stands onstage with him, she’s often singing about their life together, the twists and turns her mind has gone through, particularly when they were first dating. “I feel like the reason I can do that is because there is a broader audience,” she says. “If I had ten people listening to my music, my boyfriend would be like, ‘Uhh, what’s up?’ It’s less personal when there are thousands of people.”
The idea of thousands of people (or at least 500, about the crowd size she’s been playing to on tour as the opening act for Phoebe Bridgers) staring back at her while she plays is new: Soccer Mommy was born in 2015 as a bedroom pop project with releases online, but it took her until the summer of 2016 to play live shows. “I was in school, and I wasn’t trying to do a tour,” she says. Allison had been used to making music privately and personally, coming up with melodies and lyrics since she can remember, starting when she picked up a toy guitar at age five and wrote a silly song called “What the Heck Is a Cowgirl?” She was so young that her hands weren’t big enough yet to always make the sounds she wanted to. “It was hard to stretch to a C chord,” she says.
She began to take lessons, graduating onto a baby acoustic, and even started a band called Chemical X with a neighbor in fourth grade. “I started getting good at twelve,” she says. “I just always liked it — I didn’t want to play piano. I wanted to be a rocker.” She was an Avril Lavigne–obsessed tomboy who grew up in Belmont/Hillsboro, a college neighborhood (her dad ran a lab at a Vanderbilt University) in Nashville, and would go to Southern Girls Rock Camp — an incredibly fruitful resource dedicated to nurturing young women — every summer. “Every year I would get my hair done up in a mohawk — full-on teased and sprayed up,” she says. “I knew that I would play music my whole life.”
When high school ended in 2015, nerves led Allison to the safe path of college — hoping for a degree in music business — instead of creative pursuits. “I always had it instilled in me that I would go to college, and I have terrible anxiety, so if I didn’t, I would have been like, ‘Am I going to die of poverty?’ ‘I’m going to die’ is what would happen in my mind,” she says. But right before she left for New York, she also uploaded the first Soccer Mommy songs to Bandcamp. “It felt good,” she says. From the beginning, she displayed an adept hand for quiet rage (she calls it “apathetic anger”) and lyrics that use metaphor and symbolism to address her own problems in a way that others can relate to, like on Clean’s “Your Dog,” in which she admonishes herself for being a puppy always at the beck and call of a past boyfriend (a guy from high school), while also detailing her efforts to overcome this predilection for subservience in her newer relationship. “Metaphor makes it stronger: I don’t want to be an animal that you drag around, like a pet,” she says. “In a relationship, I want to pamper someone and I don’t focus on myself. Just being a dog: lovey and there when you want it, but when you wanna go out with your friends, the dog sits home all night.”
She developed an audience online over her freshman and sophomore year, big enough toward the end that she felt confident in her decision to drop out of school, though success and visibility have presented their own problems. “It’s horrible for anxiety — my anxiety for body issues is at an all-time high. I ask fans, ‘Please don’t make comments about how I look.’ It’s always a compliment, but it makes me aware that I’m being watched all the time. I’ll see a picture of myself that a fan posted and I’m just like, I look terrible,” she says. “I deal with it. I’ll keep doing it until I die. It’s a constant struggle, trying to be OK with not being perfect, between wanting to keep this confidence that I somewhat built up while also going through this period where I’m being judged constantly.” Her songs, as introspective as they are, have also caused her to discover some unpleasant realities. “The album is about the period I went through finding myself, and it’s terrifying that I did because I found a monster. I found a crazy person trapped inside my body,” she says, laughing. “No one is going to fix you as a person. I’ve had so many therapists, and none of them worked — they can’t crack me. Because I’m so fake to them. I go in and I don’t tell them.”
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Still, it’s radical to see a young woman stand onstage and sing her sadness, which Allison knows because of how inspired she herself has been by other women’s strength in vulnerability. “I love the scene in movies where the woman goes insane. I feel like I’m going fucking crazy and it feels so liberating to see a woman be fucking crazy,” she says. “Like Britney Spears shaving her head. That’s such a great moment, because she was this beauty icon and she was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to shave my head off and you’re all going to call me crazy but then you can’t control my body anymore.” Though as a kid she loved TRL-friendly contemporaries like Britney and Avril (and Taylor and Paramore!), she later evolved to bands from before her time, like Nineties-ascendent Pavement, Sonic Youth, and Neutral Milk Hotel, who were important to her when she was going through much of what she writes about on Clean and, in their subtle skill at channeling angst and ennui, are nostalgic touchstones for her music now. “Even though I discovered it on my own time, even though I didn’t see it get released, it reminds me of high school,” she says.
She also feels a sense of camaraderie — or at least a sense of place—in an indie moment that has increasingly come to be led by not just straight white men, but acts like Mitski and Vagabon and Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, as well as Phoebe Bridgers, the woman Allison is currently opening for. “I’ve never met an indie female artist or female-identifying artist or nonconforming artist that has been rude to me. At all. Ever. Just supportive, or at least just nice,” she says. “People are connecting with us now because it’s more emotional. It’s more honest and it’s more crushing, especially if we are being honest about that feeling of wanting to be perfect but not being perfect.” She’s become increasingly political about where her stresses come from. “These issues have been caused by patriarchy: suffering from trying to be appealing or pleasing men in your life, the validation you’ve been wanting since you were a kid,” she says. “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.”
Lately, driving around the country in a Subaru Outback with her backing band (she alone is Soccer Mommy, but she tours and plays live with her boyfriend, Julian Powell, on lead guitar, Nick Brown on drums, and Gabe Wax on piano, the four of them taking turns behind the wheel and listening to horror story podcasts on YouTube to pass the time), she’s taken more control of her own circumstances, with an increasing success that has allowed her to, among other things, stop eating junk food. “Now we get $15 a day per diem, so we can get good stuff like Thai and sandwiches.” She’s also had to take more effort to preserve her throat so she can use it every night, though she admits she can make do with whatever comes out of her mouth: She tells me that many of the vocals on Clean were actually recorded when she was really sick with sinus problems. You’d never know that was the case considering how compelling she sounds on the album, but she doesn’t always hear it that way. “I hate my voice. When it’s crisp it sounds good, but other times it’s just a little weak,” she says. “My voice just gets weak.” Maybe that’s not always a bad thing.
This past year — the year of mainstream reckoning with toxic masculinity; the year a racist with a history of sexual assault took office — demanded we pay closer attention to the outsiders, punks, and poets who’ve long been holding a microscope to all sorts of societally empowered men: cops, politicians, bosses, bandmates. In some of the best independent songs of 2017, outside of the pop machine, we heard voices raised against the imbalances of power that define our world,ones that decide whose histories are remembered, whose humanities are denied, who survives and why. Emerging from the ground up, these are songs that offered perspective through another year defined by walls and binaries; class war and state violence; gender inequity and more.
When I reflect on the past year in music, there are three songs that feel like a 2017 time capsule, a trifecta of opposition to capitalism, complicity, and authority: “Pink White House” by Priests, “A Wall” by Downtown Boys, and “Meet Me in the Street”by Sheer Mag. These are three bands with roots in interconnected punk scenes that have since attracted higher profiles; at their live shows last year, it felt meaningful to watch their messages resonate more widely and with new audiences. On Nothing Feels Natural,Priests expanded their palette of influences to draw on funk, pop, and jazz, and single “Pink White House” tore at our culture of instant gratification and hollow “puppet shows” that make Americans feel like they’re participating in political processes: “Consider the options of a binary,” repeats singer Katie Alice Greer, fervent and rhythmic. Lodged in my head are two particular 2017 performances of this song: on inauguration night in D.C., and when the band played Brooklyn on the same night as the protests against the Muslim Ban at JFK.
On “A Wall,” Downtown Boys offered a refrain that was passionately shouted back by crowds all year: “A wall is a wall/A wall is just a wall/A wall is a wall/And nothing more at all.” Equally important, the song reminded us of those whose actions or indifference led us to our current fucked reality: “And when you see him now/I hope you see yourself/I hope you see yourself.” Sheer Mag’s “Meet Me in the Street” was written while the band reflected on last year’s J20 protests, channeling its 1970s hard rock into an anthem about “battling on and on and on,” “throwing rocks at the boys in blue,” and the articulate truth that “no friend is the hand/that points and commands.”
The prolific artist and collaborator Camae Ayewa, who spent much of the year touring the world as Moor Mother, remained a most singular voice and vision in 2017. She released two records: One was Crime Waves, a collaboration with fellow Philadelphia producer Mental Jewelry. The second was with the improv free-jazz quintet Irreversible Entanglements, on whose self-titled album her spoken-work poetry on systemic racism, Black trauma, survival, and power grew emboldened by horns, drums, and basslines from Luke Stewart, Keir Neuringer, Aquiles Navarro, and Tcheser Holmes. The nine-minute “Fireworks” is one of the year’s most searing songs: “You see them fireworks last night? We was up on a hill, I found myself thinking about war and outta nowhere we was dead, like ten bullets traveling throughout the city killing nothing but Black people.… We are post–World War III and everyone is dead or at home deleting the human parts of themselves. Control, alt, delete, backspace, escape, escape, escape…” It’s a recording that demands attention. There was nothing else like this in 2017.
Erika M. Anderson, also known as EMA, released Exile in the Outer Ring, on which the native Midwesterner confronts the people and places she came from: the hopelessness and poverty that pervades Middle America. Exile portrays a specific strain of the margins, the areas on the edges of cities where folks of varying ideologies might end up as a result of crushing inequality; along the way, she sings about isolation and destruction, of “kids from the void” and the dark parking lots, casinos and big-box stores. Anderson’s world of sound and poetry is filled with criticisms — “Aryan Nation” contains one of its most immediate lyrics: “Tell me stories of famous men/I can’t see myself in them” — but there is also empathy, a type of music where soaring hooks always find a way out from aggressive industrial noise and blown-out guitars. On “Down and Out,” one of the album’s highlights, she speaks directly to some of the systemic inequities suggested elsewhere: “Everyone thinks you’re worthless when you’re down and out…Think that maybe you deserve it/If you’re poor.”
On the personal-political side of the spectrum, there were ballads against male ego and fragility, about finding and trusting your own voice. In a culture where women artists are still interviewed about what it’s like to navigate the male-dominated music world, a quicker way to find answers might be to just listen to these songs. Take Waxahatchee’s Out in the Storm opener, “Never Been Wrong,” a razor-sharp goodbye channeling that constant walking-on-eggshells feeling one gets around an entitled man. Or Vagabon’s “The Embers,” an enormous song about being made to feel small, about a person trying to delegitimize your art and self-worth, about pushing back against that.
One of the year’s most moving songs came from Hurray for the Riff Raff, the songwriting moniker of Bronx-born Puerto Rican folk singer Alynda Lee Segarra. “Pa’lante” is a three-act epic piano ballad that reflects on Nuyorican identity and fights cultural erasure; it looks back to understand the history from where it came, and yet the title quite literally means “onwards, forwards.” The song comes from Segarra’s sixth full-length, The Navigator, a semi-autobiographical concept record starring a street kid named Navita; through her story, Segarra reconciles her own childhood and identity, sense of home, and the gentrifying city. The title “Pa’lante” is an allusion to a newspaper by the same name, published by 1970s Puerto Rican activist group the Young Lords. And the song includes a sample from “Puerto Rican Obituary,” Pedro Pietri’s 1973 poem: “Dead Puerto Ricans who never knew they were Puerto Ricans…Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Olga, Manuel.” Next, Segarra sings to these names: “From El Barrio to Arecibo, ¡Pa’lante! From Marble Hill to the ghost of Emmett Till, ¡Pa’lante! To Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Manuel, ¡Pa’lante! To all who came before, we say, ¡Pa’lante!” Released in March, it’s a song that only grew more necessary as the year progressed.
In Segarra’s songs, there is a crucial passing along of personal lived experience in historical context, the type of reclaiming and culture-shaping that reminds us one of music’s great purposes, that it can be a site where history itself begins to be rewritten.