What happens when a male musician tries to write about a female experience?
James Brooks, formerly of the Minneapolis electronic-pop duo Elite Gymnastics, returned earlier this week with a new project entitled Dead Girlfriends. If the name unsettles you, that’s exactly what Brooks was hoping for.
He drew inspiration from a speech by feminist Andrea Dworkin who argued that progress of women should not be measured by where they’re now visible in society, but rather by lowered counts of dead, battered, and raped women. On his personal Tumblr, Brooks explained that the origin of the band name will probably upset more people than the name itself, but that’s how living in this patriarchy makes him feel every day.
“On Fraternity,” from Dead Girlfriends’ debut EP, has already made waves for its seemingly political stances and controversial lyrics. It debuted with little PR, accompanied by a simple video of Brooks playing a Nintendo DS next to some flowers and a stuffed Totoro doll, while images of flowing water and the song’s lyrics are projected onto the wall. It’s those lyrics, though, that has everyone talking, and that’s probably why Brooks wanted to make sure every one read them, word for word across that ripple backdrop. The song, especially the first verse, is a commentary on the problems of being a woman in public.
It opens with a few seconds of white noise before drums kick in. The music sounds purposely jarring and unsettling at first. The noise stops and becomes a series of electronics bleeps before Brooks voice joins in, singing:
“The way your heart speeds up/ when you notice someone/ walking behind you/ Well, that’s why/ The way they’re all watching/ for your guard to drop/ at the end of the night now/ Well, that’s why / The way they act like/ even bringing it up/ means you’re the one with the problem/ Well, that’s why.”
The reaction to these lyrics have been polarized, some praising Brooks for tackling an issue long ignored, and others criticizing him for an subject that they assume he has no experience on. Stereogum came out and called the song an example of male posturing and said Scott, a self-identified feminist, had crafted “the gender edition of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s unfortunate collaboration ‘Accidental Racist.’” Pitchfork, on the other hand, sang the song’s praise, calling Scott a “white male artist with a direct feminist message that can speak freely with anyone, that will get under your skin if it’s not already there in less poetic terms.” SPIN has also weighed in on the song, noting its sexual politics but didn’t directly comment on an interpretation.
The song comes in the midst of an ongoing conversation about feminism in male music thanks to a few recent releases. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” has been critiqued for both its content and explicit video. Justin Timberlake followed suit with a similar video and a single unfortunately named “Take Back the Night.” Kanye West’s Yeezus was rampant with misogynist lyrics. With “On Fraternity,” at first blush, it isn’t readily apparent that the song is about the struggle of women; it could be about general discrimination. It’s Brooks’ comments that have given credence to the idea that it’s addressed specifically to the patriarchy. On his Tumblr, he said that when combined with the title, the song is about having a problem with the way the patriarchy treats “others” and not wanting to be complicit in that. Whereas the Thicke’s , Timberlake’s and West’s songs were under fire for unintended or hateful language, “On Fraternity” differs in that it unapologetically offers Brooks’ view on the issues. This isn’t the first time that he’s talked about feminism, using his blog to write extensively about his feelings on the issue as a man, even before “On Fraternity” was released.
In one recent post, Brooks commented that he was running the risk of veering into territory that he was uncomfortable discussing on the internet before saying “but women aren’t the only people in the world who get raped, you know?” That comment stands in juxtaposition draws attention to the intentional gendered vagueness of the song, however. Not a single gendered pronoun is used; the lyrics are as ambiguous as the listener wants them to be. The song could be about rape, but it does not have to be. Instead, Brooks crafts it to allow people to project their own interpretations on the song.
More than anything it seems the song operates as a criticism of pockets of punk that allow these gender inequalities to persist. Brooks seems to point out the hypocrisy of the scene, saying “Who cares if it’s right as long as it’s fun?” before later changing the line to “Who cares if it’s right as long as it’s punk?” He sings about the cops coming and no one talking, and it’s not clear if the “no one” refers to the victims or witnesses or both. “This is why I wanted out” Brooks sings before giving way to barrage of noise that suddenly stops. It’s the only time in the song that a first person pronoun is used, directly identifying an individual instead of allowing the listener to project onto to the song. It’s open to interpretation, but it’s easy to make that case that Brooks is charging the musical scene with apathy regarding rape culture. It’s his indictment against those who remain silent, something that is just as much an issue as the actual crimes. While others have taken the song to an attempt to imagine what it must be like to not be male, and encouraging others to attempt to imagine that world, it sounds more like a man’s indictment of a patriarchal musical system, and his inability to completely escape it.
The title itself is open to interpretation, the words “On Fraternity” a musing on questions regarding brotherhood, both literal and imagined, both stated and implicit, both observational and complicit. Brooks seems to switch back to viewpoint of the upset male on the sidelines, singing “The way they act like even bringing it up/Means you’re the one with the problem/well that’s why/The way they say they can’t just stop being friends with him/because of what happened/well that’s why.” This “why” seems to mean “why I’m telling you at all” or why this is important to recognize in youth culture. The problem, in Brooks’ mind, is that “no one talks.” You have to say something.
The title could address fellow men, reading the song as an attempt to call on men to imagine a female experience. On the other, it can be an indictment of the males of varying music scenes for disappointing and abandoning their sisters in the community, echoing Brooks’ dissatisfaction that’s stated in the closing lines.
Granted, it’s been pointed out that no male will ever truly understand the female experience. But no human being will ever truly understand the experience beyond their own, but that doesn’t stop us from empathizing with those that suffer when they shouldn’t.
“On Fraternity” then, in my own eyes, is an attempt to create a song where people can empathize with the experiences described in broad strokes. It can be about how rape culture and patriarchy make victims out of numerous people, from numerous genders. While his posts on Tumblr allude to the idea that it’s rooted in his personal experiences, the song can unlatch itself from Brooks’ personal experiences. To some, it can simply be a song they like, they understand, and Brooks crafts it in a way where the message doesn’t overtake the music, even if the narrative surrounding the song so far has.
Its unclear if that sort of muting of his message is what he intended, and he may have gotten exactly what he wanted from the critical hoopla. But the song isn’t incisive or explanatory enough to serve as a broadly accessible rallying cry against the patriarchy, so Brooks, if he cares, will have to settle for the impact he created.
It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction, condemning Brooks as a white male singing about experiences that he’s never had, but it’s also easy to anoint Brooks as a poster child for white male feminism. In all honestly though, he’s an artist whose talking about an issue that’s close to him, and while his song is a part of the ongoing conversation about the treatment of women in the music scene and the world as a whole, his intent isn’t to set out and be a driving force in discussions about the issues. It’s a song with intentional vagueness, written by a musician who has problems with the way people are treated, and doesn’t want to be complacent when inequality is occurring all around him.. Let’s hope that he isn’t an anomaly and that more artists follow suit.
Photo: “On Fraternity” by Dead Girlfriends