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Phoebe Bridgers “Punisher” Album Review

Phoebe Bridgers is the poetic and sarcastic indie folk musician whose songwriting abilities have garnered comparisons to the likes of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Her debut album “Stranger in the Alps” was dubbed “an emo-folk masterpiece” by Rolling Stone in 2018, and her sophomore album “Punisher” is an instant bleak and fatalistic classic.

“Punisher” was originally slated to be released on June 19, but Bridgers decided to put it out a day early, stating on her Instagram that she wouldn’t be postponing the release. With the fragile state of the world with COVID-19 and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, having music and art as a release is incredibly necessary, and this album is a smorgasbord of sorrowful, sarcastic tunes with Bridgers attempting to make sense of the dark future that it feels like this generation is headed towards.

Bridgers’ enlists the help of frequent collaborators and bandmates from side projects on this album including Conor Oberst of Better Oblivion Community Center, and Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker of boygenius. Bridgers’ songwriting on this record was influenced lyrically by Joan Didion, and sonically by Elliott Smith and Jackson Browne. The sound on the album conjures up visceral pangs with lo-fi production on tracks like “Garden Song,” and heavy instrumentation on the track “Kyoto,” complete with mellotron, autoharp, twelve-string guitars and synthesizers.

Bridgers’ dejected and cynical lyrical overtones are the most transparent on dystopian folk-pop tracks like “Halloween” a song about an ill-fated romance that closes out with a duet between Bridgers’ and Conor Oberst repeating the same couplets as they sing of inevitable doom (“Baby it’s Halloween/I’ll be whatever you want”). “Chinese Satellite” is about her nihilistic view of life and a lack of faith in the world or in herself (“I want to believe/Instead, I look at the sky and I feel nothing/You know I hate to be alone/I want to be wrong”).

“Punisher,” “Moon Song,” and “Savior Complex” all find Bridgers dealing with her nurturing instincts getting the best of her as she grapples with the pain of caring too much for somebody with self-destructive tendencies and low self-esteem who cannot reciprocate, which ends up draining her of all her energy. The lilting, emotional folk track “Graceland Too” contains a banjo, a fiddle, and ethereal background vocals by Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus.

The album comes to a close with “I Know the End,” with Bridgers making peace with the uncertainty of her future and the world coming to an end (“A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall/Slot machines, fear of God/Windows down, heater on/Big bolts of lightning hanging low”). The final instrumentation mirrors the album’s intro and builds until it reaches an orchestral climax with strings, primal animalistic hissing and guttural screaming reminiscent of an apocalyptic horror film score.

“Punisher” is an amalgamation of emotional highs and lows and dry lyrical wisecracks that paint a picture of a world in decay. What’s even more impressive is that Bridgers manages to make the listener laugh at the same time as she spits out lyrical prose that comes as a visceral punch to the gut.

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How Paramore Revolutionized Pop Punk: The Enduring Legacy of RIOT! Thirteen Years Later

Thirteen years ago today, Nashville pop punk outfit Paramore emerged from the underground and shook the world. The band had signed a joint deal with Atlantic Records and Fueled By Ramen two years prior, and the release of their critically-acclaimed sophomore album “RIOT!,” signaled a massive shift in the scene.

As a kid who was raised on pop punk and emo, this album has been highly influential throughout the course of my life from adolescence into early adulthood. But I never realized just how revolutionary it was for its time and what it did for women in pop punk, a scene where the representation of frontwomen on a mainstream level was incredibly sparse until Hayley Williams emerged and shattered that glass ceiling.

Pop punk has a complicated legacy. The sweaty basement shows and the summers at Warped Tour definitely provided a strong sense of community for teenage outcasts, but it also received heaps of criticism for setting back the progress of ’90s political punk and the riot grrrl movement, trading male feminist solidarity on Nirvana and Fugazi records for sappy heartbreak tunes that were dripping with male tears and thinly-veiled misogyny.

By 2003 the scene had transformed into a breeding ground for passive-aggressive fragile masculinity and songs about men wishing death on their ex-girlfriends. Fall Out Boy’s “Take This To Your Grave” was essentially musical revenge porn. Brand New, Dashboard Confessional, and New Found Glory are just few of the many all-male groups who built their whole careers off of slut-shaming and bashing young women who had the audacity to say no to sleeping with them.

In 2003, Jessica Hopper lamented how “emo [had] become another forum where women were locked out, observing ourselves through the eyes of others,” in a scathing article titled “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t.” This felt like a signal to the universe to send something major to disrupt this nightmare, and the meteoric rise of Hayley Williams four years later felt like an answer to that call.

Williams’ killer vocals and flaming charisma made her so magnetic that it was impossible to look away, even for the most skeptical spectators. Watching her yowl and thrash around on stage with her cutoff jeans, Doc Martens, and pastel-colored hair was a revelation for kids like me who didn’t grow up adhering to conventional stereotypes of femininity.

As a kid who grew up queer and didn’t always feel safe around boys my age, it was extremely cathartic to listen to Williams belt out lyrics that mercilessly chided men for their inexcusable behavior and mistreatment of women on songs like “That’s What You Get” (“No sir/I don’t wanna be the blame, not anymore/It’s your turn to take a seat/We’re settling the final score”).

But this didn’t shield the band from criticism. Although seeing Williams smash through these barriers was huge for women in these spaces at the time, her image also received a lot of backlash for perpetuating the “not like other girls” trope. The song “Misery Business,” also had elements of internalized misogyny in the lyrics (“Once a whore, you’re nothing more/I’m sorry that will never change”) which eventually lead to Williams’ decision to stop playing the song.

Despite their faults, it cannot be denied that Paramore started highly important conversations in the pop punk/alt community. Williams was singing about mental health, anxiety, self-reflection, and depression so openly at a time when not even the World Health Organization would take it seriously.

The Paramore fanbase was also incredibly diverse. They had pop stans, metalheads, queer emo kids, and punk veterans all flocking to their shows. And everybody involved in online alt communities is aware of how intensely passionate and vocal black fans of Williams are, even penning articles and composing twitter threads about why Paramore is so beloved by their community.

“RIOT!” also contains so many timeless records. The grating guitar riffs and the alternation of William’s earth-shattering range and controlled drawbacks on the opener “For a Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optimistic,” are so emotionally jarring that it’s impossible to finish that track without feeling haunted by her palpable anger (“I put my faith in you, so much faith/And then you just threw it away”). The infectious drum strikes on “crushcrushcrush,” the gritty bassline on “Fences,” the rumbling percussion on “Born for This,” and Hayley’s towering vocals on “Hallelujah” and “Let the Flames Begin,” are all tracks that transcend space and time.

In many ways Paramore was pop punk’s lifeline, because they brought a fresh perspective to a genre that was getting stale and overwrought with male aggression. They brought new life to a scene that was dying and gave it a blood transfusion.

We needed a woman in that particular scene to take the world by storm and unapologetically let the girls know that they don’t owe it to anybody to constantly put on a happy face and abide by societal norms, and there’s no shame in being angry or depressed. Hayley Williams paved the way for the onslaught of women who would rise to prominence in her respective scene such as Lynn Gunn of PVRIS, Sofia Verbilla from Harmony Woods, and Bethany Cosentino from Best Coast. And the most incredible part is that people are finally listening.

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Charli XCX: “how i’m feeling now” Album Review

Charli XCX was officially declared the “savior of pop” by music blogs and pop connoisseurs everywhere after she shook the globe with two highly-acclaimed mixtapes, “Number 1 Angel” and “Pop 2” with bubbly sludge production by SOPHIE and A.G. Cook from the PC Music collective. In September of 2019 she released a full-length album, “Charli,” and now she’s back to reflect on her life during lockdown with a new record, “how i’m feeling now.” The album tackles a wide range of issues in her life, such as romance, isolation, anxiety, and the trials she’s facing while she’s stuck at home with her significant other.

In true Charli fashion, the album opens with a brisk, hard-hitting industrial beat with ear-splitting synths on “pink diamond.” With production by alternative R&B artist Dijon, Charli hits the listener over the head with her effortless flow and charisma. “forever” and the Dylan Brady-produced “claws” are both inventive love songs that have tonal similarities. However, “claws” is more of a look inside her brain during the honeymoon phase of a relationship where everything feels new and there’s still an edge of uncertainty, whereas on “forever” she’s unwavering and confident in her dedication to her partner and is ready to dive headfirst into commitment.

Lyrically, Charli always has the upper hand. Throughout the album she maintains her signature blend of stabbing confessions on tracks like “detonate” (“Switch your faith and leave you so low/Hurt me, know you’ll never hurt me”), and the witty, playful jabs on songs like “7 years” (“Oh yeah, I really, really love you for life/Without the Holy matrimony, I’m wife”) that are always done with a wink. One of the biggest reasons people flock to Charli so easily is because she’s a creative thinker who never takes herself too seriously, and those aspects of her personality shine through in her lyrics.

One of the main themes on the album, aside from Charli’s relationship, is the juxtaposition of her life in quarantine with her regular life, which often involves touring and frequently going to raves. “party 4 u,” is a song that tackles the painful yearning to see somebody who isn’t in the same place as her, which was written in 2017. However, looking at the current state of the world, the song seems to have aged fairly well.

On “enemy” Charli opens up about her hesitance to let people in due to fear that it would give them the power to hurt her the most. The interlude is a recording of a phone conversation she had after a therapy session, laced with raw and unfiltered emotion. “I kept thinking about how if you can have someone so close to you, does that mean that one day they could become your biggest enemy? They’d have the most ammunition,” she stated in an interview with Apple Music. On “i finally understand,” Charli sings about the the emotional highs and lows that being stuck at home brings, along with sleek pop production by Palmistry and A.G. Cook

“c2.0” is a somber follow-up to her most-recent track with frequent collaborator Kim Petras, “Clique,” with a section of Kim’s verse on the initial track (“I’m next level so legit with all my clique-clique-clique, yeah”) looped throughout the song and pitched up to a cartoon level. The lyrics go, “My clique running through my mind like a rainbow/I miss them every night,” which shows her giving a nod to her adoring fanbase, collaborators, and comrades in the LGBTQ+ community. “The community that I’m surrounded by has always been the LGBTQ+ community… that is a community that has embraced who I truly am and made me feel less afraid to be myself,” she stated in an interview with the Fader last September.

“anthems” is a power-pop banger that she wrote about feeling stifled by lockdown regulations, wishing for a night out to blow off steam. “I get existential and so strange/I hear no sounds when I’m shouting/I just wanna go to parties/Up high, wanna feel the heat from all the bodies,” she sings. These are visceral lyrics that bring to light a universal desperation to turn off your brain.

When it comes to closing out an album, Charli is no stranger to ending on a note of sorrow and discombobulation, and the final track, “visions,” perfectly captures that tone. The initial part of the song has lyrics that deconstruct the impossibility of knowing where she’s headed after this record, and at the very end the song is catapulted into a polarizing beat-switch that carries the listener off into an uncertain future with dark, menacing synths that are abruptly cut off.

Charli XCX is leading the charge, pushing pop forward along with Robyn, Kim Petras, and Carly Rae Jepsen. Her expert songwriting, innovative sound always makes for the perfect album that adds so many layers to pop. With everything she’s managed to achieve in the past year, it’s quite clear that this is Charli’s world and we are all just here along for the ride.

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Hayley Williams: “Petals For Armor” Album Review

Hayley Williams, leader of the Nashville-based pop-punk turned synth-wave outfit Paramore, has officially made her solo debut with “Petals for Armor,” which was produced by fellow Paramore groupmate and frequent collaborator Taylor York, and released in three-parts; the first act in February, the second in April, and the project was released in its entirety yesterday with five closing tracks (“Pure Love,” “Taken,” “Sugar on the Rim,” “Watch Me While I Bloom,” “Crystal Clear”).

Williams has stated that writing and recording the album was a form of catharsis for her after going through a divorce and suffering from clinical depression. The result is a Björk/Radiohead-influenced indie pop album that reads as a form of rebirth for Williams after a year of healing and coming to terms with her current state.

The lead single “Simmer” is an up-tempo track about her parents’ divorce and the abuse that many of the women in her family have endured, with lyrics that go “If my child needed protection/From a fucker like that man/I’d sooner gut him/’Cause nothing cuts like a mother.” The track comes to a close with Williams singing “wrap yourself in petals for armor,” a lyric that she revealed in an interview with Beats 1 was a metaphor for the idea that “being vulnerable is a shield.” The remix was produced by synth pop veteran Caroline Polachek, former leader of the band Chairlift.

On “Creepin'” Williams sings about legends of folklore, using vampires, holy water, and witches as metaphors for expressing how she’s fed up with negative people who try to leech off of her energy (“Poor little vampire/Don’t you know?/That I’m a moon in daylight”).

“Over Yet” sounds like a 2020 revamped edition of Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” overlaid with thick synth baselines and Williams encouraging resilience in the midst of depression (“If there’s resistance/If there’s resistance/It makes you stronger/Make it your friend”).

“Roses/Lotus/Violets/Iris” is an ode to individuality that celebrates female strength, rebirth, and divinity. Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus from indie pop trio boygenius are featured on backing vocals. Throughout the track Williams voices her struggle to realize her own self-worth outside of a relationship, which she has been highly vocal about after the draining process of going through a divorce (“I myself was a wilted woman/Drowsy in a dark room/Forgot my roots/Now watch me bloom”).

“Leave it Alone” is the most tender and meticulously produced track on the album with a sonic nod to Radiohead. The lyrics involve Williams grappling with the people she’s lost throughout her life, including her grandmother who suffered from memory loss after falling down the stairs at the age of 80. The music video shows Williams going through each stage of metamorphosis, forming a cocoon and transforming into a chrysalis, with additional scenes of her in the woods doing a Stevie Nicks-inspired swamp witch dance with a flowing cerulean caftan on.

The album also tackles themes of self-sabotage and the pangs of guilt and shame that follows those decisions. “Dead Horse” addresses past mistakes Williams made, including the fact that her previous marriage started off as an affair (“Yeah I got what I deserved/I was the other woman first”). On “Pure Love” she sings about how past toxic relationships have left her struggling to open up and let people in, while acknowledging the fact that she needs to work on loving herself before she can learn to love somebody else.

The production on “Sudden Desire” marks a stark contrast between mellow verses over a smooth bassline, and an explosion of prickly, static synthesizers and drums in the chorus. The lyrics conjure up visceral images of past relationships (“Your fingerprints on my skin/A painful reminder”). “My Friend” celebrates companionship, finding Williams expressing how grateful she is for the people in her circle who stuck by her side through all the turmoil she’s been through, which was dedicated to her long-time stylist, Brian Williams, who she owns a hair care company with. The lyrics go “My friend/When the blood has dried/Instant alibi/You’ve seen me from every side/Still down for the ride.”

The most rewarding point of growth for Williams in this new era has been watching her embrace femininity. The visuals in her music videos embody an unapologetic celebration of womanhood and her softer side, which her audience rarely gets to see. On “Cinammon” Williams expresses her newfound comfort in solitude and the many ways that living alone can be empowering.

In an interview with Beats 1 Williams revealed that the “Simmer” music video was inspired by the book Women Who Run with The Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D, which is about embracing the wild woman archetype. The visuals of Williams sprinting through the woods and running from a red light is meant to symbolize the rage she’s never let herself feel.

“Watch Me While I Bloom” is an anthemic track that tackles the growing pains of heartbreak, betrayal, mental illness, success, and self-actualization. The lyrics go, “How lucky I feel/To be in my body again/Pull up your roots/Leave the dirt behind.” With these painfully visceral lyrics, Williams makes it clear that she’s not just surviving in spite of these roadblocks, but thriving.

The final track “Crystal Clear” is a grippingly slow song with Williams expressing the gratitude she feels now that she can finally shed the anger and fear she’s bottled up for a decade, and has finally come out on the other side. Complete with guest vocals from her grandfather who is also a songwriter, it was an emotional drawing of the curtains on this solo endeavor.

Williams never intended to make a solo project, but she followed her instincts and found that she had to, and the work she put in has culminated in her most liberated body of work yet. The record showcases her ability to always pull herself out of a rut no matter how dire of a situation she’s caught in, and “Petals for Armor” is her declaring out loud that she is no longer afraid of the lifelong journey of unpacking her own trauma, healing, and blooming in the final stage like a flower growing out of a crack in the pavement.

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Stonewall Initiative Virtual Concert Highlights

The Stonewall Gives Back Initiative partnered with WOW Presents last night to put together a virtual concert with a lineup of LGBTQ+ artists and allies for a fundraiser aimed at helping the queer nightlife workers affected by COVID-19. Here are some performance highlights from the livestream.

(Donate here: https://stonewallinitiative.org/donate)

1. Kim Petras – Kim Petras performed a cover of Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” with her producer and friend Aaron Joseph on acoustic guitar. It had all of Kim’s best qualities; the belting, the range, and a chill-inducing upper-register that is a whole serotonin rush and a half.

2. MUNA – Synth pop trio MUNA gave us an acoustic performance of their song “Stayaway,” a breakup anthem from their recent LP “Saves the World.” The three-part harmonies once they got to the bridge were immaculate, and that alone made this performance an instant highlight for me.

3. Alan Cumming – Actor and comedian Alan Cumming performed a hilarious impromptu tune about staying home and refraining from going to the doctor for cosmetic surgery. At his home piano Cumming sang the hilarious arrangement of lyrics that went “so don’t go to the plastic surgeon anymore, he won’t tell you you’re looking like Zsa Zsa Gábor/That’s not some 22-year-old hardcore porn star.” This provided some much-needed laughter during this difficult time.

4. John Cameron-Mitchell – The star of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” debuted a gorgeous, tear-jerking ballad he wrote with Our Lady J, which he dedicated to the lost victims of COVID-19. The ballad contained poetic lyrics that went “beyond the masking of your scars/you mustn’t feel so all alone/If I don’t see you tomorrow/I know I will see you again.”

5. Betty Who – Leave it to Betty Who to take a synth-fueled club banger and transform it into an emotional and stripped-down acoustic lullaby. Performing her 2016 hit, “I Love You Always Forever,” Who’s delicate vocals were a soothing aide to a lot of my personal grief and emotional turmoil that the pandemic has brought on.

6. Kate Pierson – Kate Pierson played “Roam,” by the B-52s along with her wife Monica Coleman on guitar. This needs no elaborating because it’s Kate fucking Pierson from the B-52s. That’s iconic in itself. End of story.

7. Kristen Chenoweth & Shoshana Bean – Our favorite Broadway veterans and gay icons best-known for starring in “Wicked” teamed up to perform “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and when you hear Kristin Chenoweth belt out Judy Garland tunes, it’s physically impossible not to feel rejuvenated and hopeful.

8. Vincint – It’s always a treat when Vincint performs. When it comes to showcasing vulnerability and conviction in vocal performance he always delivers, and this performance of his single “Save Yourself” didn’t disappoint.

9. Troye Sivan – The penultimate performance was Troye Sivan performing a home-edition of his latest single “Take Yourself Home,” with snapshots from the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement throughout the decades in the late 20th century–including images from ACT UP protests and Christopher Street Pride Marches–interpolated throughout the performance.

10. Cyndi Lauper – Closing out the livestream was Cyndi Lauper performing “True Colors.” Lauper has constantly used her platform to be one of our community’s most staunch and outspoken allies for decades, and continues to do so. So it was no question that she would close out the night with one of her biggest hits that also happens to be an ode to the community.

COVID-19 has been particularly harsh on LGBTQ+ people because of discrimination from our government, healthcare system, and unemployment rates. If you are interested in being part of the solution, please consider donating to The Stonewall Gives Back Initiative.

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Rina Sawayama “SAWAYAMA” – Album Review

Rina Sawayama has been making waves across the globe for the past three years with ethereal synth pop records, and this new era shows her willingness to experiment with different sounds. Her brand new full-length project, “SAWAYAMA,” is a genre-defying mashup of breezy dancepop production on pulsing queer club anthems like “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)” and heavy nu-metal guitar riffs on songs like “STFU!” and “XS.”

This massive shift in sound is a huge departure from Sawayama’s previous work, but it wasn’t her intention to lean more experimental when she began the recording process. In an interview with PAPER Magazine the singer revealed “it started off like, 90s, Max Martin vibes. Then I’d watched that Queen movie [Bohemian Rhapsody] and A Star Is Born and I was like, it just needs to be stadium rock.”

Sawayama’s music has always been intrinsically connected to her identity as a queer Asian woman. Her most-streamed single, “Cherry,” celebrates pansexuality and romantic relationships between women, while songs on this album like “Dynasty,” “Tokyo Love Hotel,” and “STFU!” express her connection to her heritage as well as her frustration with racist microaggressions and the fetishization of Asian women and Japanese culture (“How come you don’t respect me?/Expecting fantasies to be my reality”).

Themes of identity and self-acceptance continue on tracks like “Love Me 4 Me,” which includes a nod to Rupaul (“If you can’t love yourself/how are you gonna love somebody else?”), and “Chosen Family,” which celebrates the connections formed in LGBTQ+ circles when biological families aren’t equipped to love their queer family members unconditionally.

But “Akasaka Sad” is truly in a league of its own. The song contains so many peaks and valleys that listeners might think the producer spazzed out on the soundboard. The song has drum beats, synth bubbles, distorted background screams, and a string ensemble. It is utter sonic chaos that signals a shift in tone, steering the album in a more sinister direction with serious tracks that tackle themes like betrayal and the climate crisis (“Fuck This World,” “Bad Friend,” “Who’s Gonna Save You Now”).

On the closing track “Snakeskin,” Sawayama uses the commercialization and commodification of snakeskin on handbags and couture as a metaphor for her peeling back her layers and expressing her pain. The opening piano is a sample of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 “Pathétique,” and the song comes to a close with the voice of her mother fading into the background, her words purposely jumbled and distorted.

We are in one of the most exciting eras for pop music with artists like Charli XCX, Kim Petras, Caroline Polachek, Grimes, Carly Rae Jepsen, MARINA, and FKA Twigs actively making listeners question their expectations of what the genre can be. Rina Sawayama is the latest to follow in a lineage of legends to revolutionize and push pop forward like Madonna, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, and Kylie Minogue, and this record is only the beginning of her world domination.

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Here’s Why Pitchfork Gave Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” a 10/10

I will never forget the first time I heard Fiona Apple’s soul-crushing voice ringing through the speakers in my childhood bedroom. I had just finished my freshman year of college and was beginning to undergo the growing pains of transitioning into adulthood, and the only escape I found was through music. One night I was lounging on my bed, and combing through Spotify after I had completely worn out Tori Amos’s entire collection of songs. The first song to pop up on the app’s radio algorithm was Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer,” and I was utterly awestruck. I couldn’t believe that a seventeen-year-old was singing like that.

The minute I returned to New York for school I downloaded her entire catalogue (“Tidal,” “When the Pawn,” “Extroardinary Machine,” and “The Idler Wheel…”) and binge-watched all of her live performances, including that iconic MTV Unplugged session from 1997. For four months straight she was all I listened to. I played her on a loop as I walked from Cooper Square up to 2nd Avenue, on my subway commutes, sang along to “Daredevil” while I was in the shower and even as I fried up plastic bags of frozen potstickers from Trader Joe’s in my old dorm room.

But what drew me to her even more was the fact that she’s always been more reserved and withdrawn than most artists. She isn’t on any social media platforms and she rarely tours, aside from an occasional pop-up show or festival. She doesn’t do press or interviews unless the journalist has earned her trust and is willing to go about it the right way, as can be seen in Emily Nussbaum’s recent profile of the singer in The New York Times. What Fiona Apple has to offer is incredibly rare in today’s media landscape where all that seems to matter is attention and clicks. She doesn’t care about album sales, rollouts, or cranking out new music as fast as possible. Instead she allows her talent to speak for itself.

The record is an amalgamation of ballads, spoken word patterns, rapping, and vocal contortions and incantations that have garnered comparisons to Yoko Ono. The only ingredients to Apple’s minimalist approach to the album were a piano, her powerhouse vocals, and percussion that came from tapping on a box of the bones of her dead dog, Janet. It is an incredibly multi-faceted body of work and nothing else sounds quite like it.

On the track “Relay,” Apple addresses the toxicity of online culture and the constant need for attention. On the track she sings “I resent you for presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure,” a line she claims is directed at influencers. “The reason I don’t get into [social media] is because I can see what’s happening: Everybody’s comparing themselves to everybody else. It’s really a terrible way to live,” the singer told Vulture.

The album’s title track finds Apple addressing many of the hardships that come second-nature to being a woman in the entertainment industry where women are often boxed in and treated as disposable objects, complete with a nod to Kate Bush (“I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill/Shoes that were not made for running up that hill”). The song also finds Apple taking the trapped-in-a-box metaphor literally, painting a picture of herself between walls she wants to carve her way out of (“Fetch the bolt cutters/I’ve been in here too long”).

“Ladies” is an emotionally-wrought refusal to allow men to pit women against one another and the power of communal support between women who bond over past relationship trauma (“When he leaves me, please be my guest/To whatever I might’ve left in his kitchen cupboards/In the back of his bathroom cabinets”). Apple explained to Vulture that a point she wanted to get across is that infidelity is never an excuse to hate the other party involved. “Later on in life, I’m with a guy,” she explains. “I found out he’s seeing some other woman. I meet that other woman — I’m nice to that other woman. She didn’t do it. She didn’t cheat on me.”

“Heavy Balloon” touches on her coming back into her body and eventually retrieving her spirit that keeps leaving her whenever she is caught in the throes of depression, using plants as a metaphor for her return to earth (“I spread like strawberries/I climb like peas and beans/I’ve been sucking it in so long/That I’m bursting at the seams”). “[Those lyrics about plants] reminded me of the Three Sisters [Gardens], and how we need to be in kinship and sisterhood with one another in order to build the communities that we want to see,” Indigenous activist and leader of Seeding Sovereignty, Eryn Wise, stated in conversation with Apple and Democracy Now.

On “For Her” Apple tackles machismo, sexual assault, and toxic masculinity (“Well good morning/You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”), which she claims was inspired by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in the fall of 2018. On “Under the Table,” she defiantly chants, “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up.” It is a rallying cry for any young girl who refuses to be silenced, willing to face the consequences of speaking up and disregarding authority.

This is Fiona Apple at her most vulnerable, liberated and triumphant. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is the public manifesto of a woman who freed herself from the shackles of public scrutiny a long time ago and refuses to let anybody else dictate her path forward other than herself.

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Queering Gerard Way Part I: Lola’s Pronouns

Queer people are often forced to grow up in isolation and watch people who look like us get pathologized and cast as outsiders because they are different. So when we see somebody who looks like us cross over into the mainstream, it can feel like a victory.

This was how I felt when I discovered My Chemical Romance. I certainly wasn’t old enough to be deconstructing queer theory and gender roles at thirteen, but I definitely see the band as an early indicator of my queerness, even though none of the members identified as queer.

Gerard Way was a rebellious, non-conforming individual whose entire career was a deliberate act of social transgression, from the the way he acted and dressed to the way he treated his fans. As a student of rock icons like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Nick Cave and Brian Eno, he was able to emulate what they did so well by constantly reinventing his image. Each album cycle was accompanied by new eras of storytelling and elaborate character-building that he was able to pull from his previous career as a comic book writer.

In the same vein as Bowie adopting a myriad of personas throughout his career like Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and Major Tom, Way created his own characters like The Patient and Party Poison. Picture Ziggy Stardust getting massacred and revived as a zombie. That was Way in the era of “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.” For “The Black Parade,” he cut his hair and bleached it and covered his face in white powder, becoming The Patient; a person dying of cancer who crossed over to death in the form of a parade.

When MCR fans started referring to the Danger Days character Party Poison as non-binary, Way welcomed that interpretation with open arms. It made total sense that Party Poison was a superhero in a post-apocalyptic future, because Way has been that person for so many queer, trans, and gender nonconforming kids who feel like we are living in a world that doesn’t want us to exist.

A perfect example of Way queering the music scene is the song “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us In Prison” off of “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.” The title and the lyrics are unmistakably homoerotic (“We’re just two men as God had made us/Well I can’t/Well I can”), and he had a ritual at every show where he would get all the men in the audience to undress, taking control of a situation in a scene that normally objectified young women and flipping it on its head, making a spectacle out of it.

Way has always been an open book. He’s opened up in interviews about his lower-middle class upbringing in New Jersey, and he’s always been drawn to unconventional beauty and those who embraced the unsavory aspects of life. He was an art student who regularly went to school in drag, and when MCR started to take off in the early 2000s he used his platform on a regular basis to speak out against misogyny and homophobia in the music scene, going out of his way to portray women and girls in his music videos and comic books as human beings without exploiting or sexualizing them. He would later open up in a reddit AMA about how he “always identified a fair amount with the female gender,” albeit not on the same scale as somebody who identifies as trans or non binary.

When My Chemical Romance announced their reunion in 2019, I fell into a tunnel of nostalgia. I combed through their entire discography, re-watched their earliest gigs on Youtube playing in New Jersey basements with less than fifty people, and returned to those thirty-second clips of Gerard Way and Frank Iero making out on stage, which provided those breadcrumbs of representation I was craving as a closeted teen in a small town.

I will never forget the first time I ever saw Way writhing and wailing incoherently to the point of having a nervous breakdown. My cousin and I used to binge watch music videos on AOL, and that was how I first saw the “Helena” video. His long wavy hair that flowed down to his shoulders and red smokey eye had me completely awestruck. I would have walked to the nearest Sephora or Hot Topic just to get my hands on that Urban Decay Gash eyeshadow he used to wear. He was the first person I ever saw present as gender fluid, and it resonated with me for reasons I didn’t have the language to unpack yet.

When people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up as a kid and I would tell them I wanted to be the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, they would get visibly uncomfortable or laugh nervously like it was a joke, almost like they thought I should feel shame for relating more to Gerard than any of the hyper-feminine icons I saw growing up.

But their revulsion only made me latch onto Way more, because it genuinely felt like he was the only person who understood me. He was unapologetically flawed and being a “freak” was his superpower. Songs like “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” taught me that it was okay to be angry and vulnerable when the rest of the world advised against it, and joining the MCR fandom showed me that there were a million other kids out there who felt exactly the same as I did.

When MCR disbanded and Way started working on solo material he made his debut album’s mascot, Lola, non-binary, and would always correct reporters who used the wrong pronouns on them. Not everybody took it seriously because Lola was a fictional character. But the fact that the genesis of Lola coincided with Way touring all around the globe and taking time out of every show to let his trans and non-binary fans know that he was in their corner, was no happy accident.

A love for the transgressive and going against social norms are inherently queer acts, and Way’s entire career was defined by these qualities. His song lyrics, the stories he crafted through concept albums, illustrations and comics, and his outspoken nature made him a mouthpiece for the outcasts, the disaffected youth, and anybody in the middle who felt “different” or “other.”

My Chemical Romance attained longevity even after disappearing for seven years because their message remained–if you are uncool then be uncool; embrace every part of who you are to the fullest and live your life unapologetically and without shame, because trying to be somebody you’re not is a waste of a life.

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Music

Album Review: Dua Lipa “Future Nostalgia”

Attempting to bridge the past and the future with an 80s-influenced pop album is a noble and ambitious goal that has rarely, if ever, been successfully pulled off. But if Dua Lipa has proven anything throughout her burgeoning career, it’s that she’s an unstoppable force in the music industry, and questioning her rarely ends well. After winning the title of “Best New Artist” at the 2018 Grammys, she was put under a microscope, and a high standard was set for her sophomore release. “Future Nostalgia” is a dreamy fusion of disco and pop that exceeded high expectations and is guaranteed to solidify a spot for Dua Lipa in the canon of today’s most innovative pop artists.

The title track is a cheeky ode to women who intimidate their male counterparts. Throughout the song she makes it clear that she is in control of her own narrative and refuses to take responsibility for anybody who feels threatened by her presence (“I know you’re dying trying to figure me out/My name’s on the tip of your tongue, keep running your mouth/You want the recipe but can’t handle my sound”). “Physical” is a fast-paced mashup of 80s dance pop, future pop, and pop rock that incorporates lyrics from the 1981 Olivia Newton-John single of the same name, and the 148-BPM production coupled with Dua’s powerhouse vocals embodies a sonic orgasm that will leave listeners reeling for a while.

“Hallucinate” is a prolific blend of synth pop, dance pop, and house in the styles of Madonna and Kylie Minogue. It sounds like a modern reinvention of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” and it’s guaranteed to be playing all over gay clubs across the globe. As the album progresses we get the stripped back slow-burners like “Pretty Please” and “Good in Bed.” “Pretty Please” is a track with a thick, seductive bassline and amplified sexual tension in lyrics in which she finds herself pining after an ex-lover, begging for reconciliation and some make up sex (‘Cause I miss ya and I need your love/When my mind is running wild/Could you help me slow it down?).

The album comes to a screeching halt on the closer, “Boys Will Be Boys,” a scathing condemnation of a culture that excuses childish and violent behavior from boys while grooming girls to mature faster than they are supposed to (“Boys will be boys/But girls will be women”). Most of the reviews I’ve seen from blogs considered this track not to suit the album because it “ruins the party.” However, while the song may not fit the album’s overall sound, I found its inclusion to be an excellent marketing strategy. Getting on a soap-box is never fun or easy, but putting a song like this at the end of a list of irresistible of pop bangers is a great way to draw listeners into the conversation surrounding toxic masculinity and sexual violence.

Reinvention is essential for any artist who wants to attain longevity in their career, and Dua Lipa is a perfect example of reinvention with a flawless execution. She was able to cultivate a new and fresh sound that allowed her to draw inspiration from the past while remaining loyal to her pop roots, and “Future Nostalgia” is the product of a musician driven by her own creative vision who chooses to set her own trends instead of following them.

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Music

Album Review: Conan Gray “Kid Krow”

Conan Gray dropped his long-awaited debut LP “Kid Krow” on March 20th, and the result is an incredibly nuanced body of work that tackles numerous topics engulfing Gen Z – topics such as growing up on the internet, coping with mental illness through excessive drinking, online dating, and feeling robbed of any chance at pursuing a semi-normal life because of the current social and political climate. 

The beginning of the album consists of infectious bops with undeniably catchy hooks and sad lyrical undertones. “Wish You Were Sober,” tackles unrequited love as Gray laments over a double-edged romance where his feelings for someone are only reciprocated when that person is intoxicated (“Kiss me in the seat of your rover/Real sweet but I wish you were sober”). 

The album’s biggest highlight is the emotionally-charged “The Cut That Always Bleeds,” with lyrics that go, “Oh, I can’t be the kiss that you don’t need/The lie between your teeth/The cut that always bleeds.” It perfectly encapsulates the cycle of a toxic relationship that works like a broken clock, and each stage of grieving; the sigh of relief when you finally begin to move on, the short-lived excitement when they pop back into your life, and the final twist of the knife when they inevitably betray you again. 

The album reaches its emotional peak on “Heather,” with Gray grappling with the fact that he’ll never be good enough for the person he’s in love with and has decided to direct his jealousy and resentment at “Heather,” the person’s significant other (“Why would you ever kiss me?/ I’m not even half as pretty”). The song climaxes with Gray wailing in anguish “I wish I were Heather!” and it feels like such a cathartic release that will hit the listener over the head and leave a lasting impact.

Gray cites Lorde and Taylor Swift as his biggest inspirations, and their influence is all over the album. “Wish You Were Sober” would fit perfectly in the “1989” catalogue and the song “Affluenza” touches on similar subject matter as “Royals” by calling out the lack of substance in the culture of wealth and excess, while also touching on the ways growing up privileged can have an effect on mental health.

When we look at the at the current state of the world, our generation is passing into an adulthood that provides little to no opportunities for advancement like it did for previous generations. The recent stock market crash is leading to another recession, and we are in the middle of a global pandemic that feels like yet another reminder that the earth probably won’t be inhabitable in twenty years. Conan Gray has taken the widespread angst and existential panic of the disaffected youth and beautifully packaged it into a twelve-track masterpiece. “Kid Krow” is the product of a 21 year-old who has experienced the ills of growing up in Gen Z first-hand, and has claimed his rightful place in the pop music canon.