not gonna be pretty
questioning conventions of beauty through music
“Emmylou”—First Aid Kit
I was 14 when I first heard First Aid Kit—two Swedish sisters who initially found fame via a Fleet Foxes cover on YouTube. Gotta love the internet. Soon they started writing their own country-folk ballads, and I was transfixed. They were the indie alternative to Taylor Swift that my aspirationally “edgy” (but actually incredibly sappy) teenage self needed. Sure, they were singing sentimental love songs inspired by Johnny Cash, but there were still enough people who hadn’t “discovered” them yet for me to maintain my imagined “not-like-other-girls” status (cue eye roll).
“Hem of Her Dress”—First Aid Kit
Cut to six years later, and I am at their concert in Boston. I am also not the pretentious hipster goddess I’d hoped to become when I was 15. I’ve stopped listening to them as much, having traded in crooning Swedish women for the likes of Vulfpeck and Beach Fossils (okay, still pretentious). I accepted an invite to the concert in hopes of reconnecting with an old friend. But sitting there in our 30-dollar third row seats, I realize why I’d fallen in love with them so many years ago. It was the imperfection of it all, the rawness of Klara’s voice (at one point she nearly screams into the microphone), her lyrics pulling us into a painful breakup before the horns take over in “Hem of Her Dress.”
Despite the harmonies and technical prowess, there was a realness—even an ugliness, at times—in their voices. The low register they sang in—lower than that of any female pop star I’d heard on the radio—paired with just-barely-reached high notes, challenged all I’d learned in my high school choir. It challenged what I thought women should sound like, what was “marketable.” I found in their music a synthesis of intimacy and assertiveness, the likes of which I’d rarely heard before. First Aid Kit was my introduction into the world of artfully strained vocal chords, crying into microphones, and making music that defies what is considered “pretty.”
“Don’t Wanna Fight”—Alabama Shakes
This, of course, had been done before. Dive into any classic blues or soul album and you’ll find powerful and raw voices of women going back half a century, telling their own stories of pain and heartache—think Nina Simone. Long after I was swept off my feet by First Aid Kit, I experienced the visceral ache in the voice of Brittany Howard, guitarist and lead vocalist of Alabama Shakes. I was angry about a lot of things around the time I first listened to them. Most of the personal frustrations boiled down to my gender and what it meant within the context of family, my friends, my romantic interests, and my efforts to socialize on a Friday night. For so much of my life, I had wanted to be thought of as “pretty,” and not simply in the physical sense of the word. No, “pretty” is a mode of being. It is being ever-kind and courteous, intelligent enough to be interesting but charming enough that the intelligence isn’t a turnoff; it’s not scowling when random men smile at you in public, and it’s being effortlessly joyful in the pursuit of pleasing those around you. My first year of college was the first time I realized how much of my “personality” was actually devoted to trying to embody this perfection. This is decidedly not what Brittany Howard brings to the table. Listen to “Hold On” or, better yet, “Don’t Wanna Fight,” and you won’t be met with a smile. That’s not to say that she isn’t kind, or joyful, or fucking awesome in almost every way (which she probably is). But it is to say that her voice is not accommodating. It dominates. And it is brimming with sadness, and frustration, and anguish, to the point where she shrieks the song into being. It is powerful, and certainly not pretty.
“715 – CRΣΣKS”—Bon Iver
But what about the dudes, you ask? Of course, male artists have their own norms of sound, their own set of expectations imposed on them of what makes “good” music. There’s less of a preoccupation with them sounding and being “pretty,” but there are other limitations on which emotions should be expressed sonically (and how) in order to produce a commercial hit. Hip-hop has been largely responsible for bringing transgressions against these platitudes to the mainstream. Kanye, Cudi, Kendrick, Childish—all bring a wide array of vocal maneuvers and musical styles to their work. They give us panting, yelling, and eerie falsettos—all attempts to communicate something that can only be felt. They don’t simply express emotions; they also elicit them, and the music becomes a collective experience. I felt this recently, sitting in my room, smoking a joint, and listening to Bon Iver (otherwise known as Justin Vernon). Remember him? Indie darling famed for “Skinny Love” turned experimental collorator? Definitely not hip-hop, though he and Kanye did collab on “Lost in the World” way back in 2010. Anyway, while I was sitting on the floor, his song “715 – CRΣΣKS” came on. Like many of the songs on 22, A Million, this one sounds…weird. Definitely not pretty. The album is chock-full of dissonant chords, unexpected brass instruments, and cryptic song titles. But “715 – CRΣΣKS” is unique in its lack of noise. It’s nothing but Justin Vernon’s voice. The voice—and I can’t even really call it his voice because it’s been distorted and amplified to the point of unrecognition—is desperate, pained, imploring, and completely unencumbered by any external melody or beat. It’s just him, and I get goosebumps every single time I hear it.
Nothing about this is new, though. So what’s so special about the handful of indie artists whose music lacks the polish and production of a Billboard Top 100 bop? It’s not that the music is better; who am I to judge “good” art from “bad”? It’s just that I happen to like what I like. But there is something important about artists who expand the range of acceptable sounds, acceptable registers, and acceptable emoting. Note: emoting. Not emotion. All music deals with emotion, the good, the bad, the ugly. But not all music portrays such feelings in ways that are familiar, intimate, and perhaps even a little bit too close for comfort. Not all music invites its listener to scream, howl, and rage along to the melody. Not all music allows for people to just be really fucking weird, and messy, and imperfect.
So why care? Because we’re at Brown University. And though it may be the “chillest” among all its fancy Ivy League brethren, the fact remains: The drive and desire for perfection is everywhere. It’s what got many of us here. So, when walking across our picturesque campus, seeing other Type A’s speed walking to their next networking events (which will inevitably lead to lucrative consulting careers), it can sometimes feel like all we are capable of doing is smiling, raising our hands in class in hopes we’ll say something groundbreaking, and being fun and open—but not too open—when letting people know just how fucked up we sometimes feel. And god, so much apologizing. Listening to artists who don’t apologize, who don’t posture, who don’t fit a particular mold, who allow themselves to not sound “pretty,” can help us work on the exact same things: learning when not to smile, when not to show off, and when not to act the way others want us to act.