Friday, February 17, 2012

Six Song Six-Pack - Valentine's Day Is Over

"Men can stop domestic violence."

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's a cliche, we all know that, we don't need the lecture, blah, blah, blah. It's easy to dismiss messages like this because we feel like they're self-evident and no one WE know would do something like that. But the thing is, that's just not true. Almost two-thirds of women reported being the victims of rape, domestic violence or other forms of harassment in the past year. That means that every person reading this knows someone whose been a victim or perpetrated such actions. Of course most people who do such things aren't out there bragging about it and a lot probably don't even think that what they're doing is wrong. The system (if it can be called that) isn't working.

It seems like the willingness to overlook the denigration and outright assaults that women face has been on such prominent display recently that it demands some sort of response. I see things like the toleration of Herman Cain's history of sexual predation and willingness to blame his victims or Chris Brown's seemingly effortless rehabilitation and Grammy comeback and can't help but wonder in what world this is acceptable behavior. Hell, even in that seemingly untouchable American institution, the military, women are treated as liabilities and sexual objects with over a third having been raped with serving their country.

With that in mind, I wanted to follow up a Valentine's Day post with something a bit more pointed. As men, we have leverage and influence that women don't to influence culture and our fellow males. God knows that highlighting and then speaking up against not just abuse but against the casual sexism and misogyny that breed it isn't an easy thing to do. But then again, neither are most things that really need doing. It's a battle that's fought every day to which we all have an ability to contribute. With that in mind, here are six songs by men, to men reminding us that we can and must be better. As Billy Bragg said, "Valentine's Day is over" - let us not forget its lessons gentlemen.

1. The Last To Say - Atmosphere  Buy The Family Sign
Sean Daley's history with domestic turmoil has been far from a secret over the course of his career. His father's cheating, abandonment and (presumable) abuse have been recurring themes in Atmosphere songs as Daley tries to work through his family's past and learn from his father's mistakes and avoid repeating them. However, he's never been more explicit in his abhorrence for domestic violence than in last year's "The Last To Say" Although he presents a painfully empathetic portrait of someone who grew up surrounded by witnessing domestic violence against his mother, Daley gives no excuses for his character's subsequent abuse. Sung to a battered woman, the song urges her to leave, noting that all the reasons she's fled in the past are still there. He remembers that his own mother stayed in an abusive relationship so long that, by the time her husband died, she had no other options and was left to "mourn for the touch of a punch." It's a song that manages to be both utterly sympathetic and still uncompromising about the issue, ie, "this is not OK."

2. Potential Rapist - Naked Raygun  Buy Basement Screams [EP]
One of the many horrors of sexual violence is the fear it creates for women, even when there's no actual threat. In what is perhaps the standout track off Naked Raygun's debut EP, Jeff Pezzati sings about walking home near a woman, knowing that his mere presence is making her fear for her safety. It's a situation that manages to oppress everyone involved. Pezzati knows that "in her eyes I'm just a potential rapist" which eats him up, knowing that he's causing such pain and there's nothing he can do. The harsh washer and dryer guitar work provided by future Big Black member Santiago Durango highlights the torment both the singer and the woman are feeling. "I think she thinks I think it's funny, but it's not" he complains, adding that if he were a girl he'd carry a gun. Never ones to be touchy-feely, Raygun use anger and dread to remind us the toll that gender violence takes on all people.

3. Caroline Says II - Lou Reed  Buy Berlin

Lou Reed was certainly not one to make overtly political statements in his song and his brutal depiction of drug abuse, domestic violence and despair in Berlin was NOT designed to be PSA-style warnings. That being said, the portrait of abuse in "Caroline Says II" is all the more moving in its willingness to try to get into the head of such a victim. Using the the melody and many of the lyrics of the Velvet Underground classic "Stephanie Says", Reed slows the tempo, loses the strings and creates a stark portrait of a woman in an abusive relationship that she can't quite escape. Instead, Caroline covers her bruises with makeup, flees into drugs and puts her fist through a glass window. What's most chilling though is her inability to ultimately escape as she resigns herself to death even as she realizes that "life is meant to be more than this and this is a bum trip." It's a chilling song on a bleak album whose wispy beauty can't mask the ugly reality it describes.

4. Robot - Nada Surf  Buy The Proximity Effect 
Nada Surf has certainly settled down in recent albums. So much so that one can nearly forget how full of anger, depression and violence those early records were. Their sophomore album The Proximity Effect in fact contains two strident anti-rape anthems, the blistering "Mother's Day" and more nuanced "Robot". Caws closes the album with the latter, perhaps because of the emotional punch it packs. Starting with a seemingly innocuous little two-note repeating pattern, Caws builds the song slowly, describing the life of what seems like an average twenty-something guy. As the guy starts doing things like rubbing himself on girls in the subway Caws reveals the song's conceit - many people who may appear normal but unthinkingly pursue sex and women using force. In the biting chorus Caws sneers "you are just a robot / executing your program". Later, the guitars fade and Caws reveals that his girlfriend had been a rape victim whose still haunted by her experience. This brings the song to an emotional climax, the guitars rush back in and the chorus hits with extra force as the words take on even more venom. Far from being macho, know what violating another due to your own lack of self-control makes you? "An imitation of a man."

5. Lost Zoloft - Bob Mould  Buy Modulate

Given the gender dynamics that are so much a part of so much relational violence, it's easy to give GLBT couples an unintentional free pass when we're thinking about relationship violence but to do so ignores the reality of human nature. Bob Mould made his musical reputation as a singer and guitarist for  Hüsker Dü in the 80's and Sugar in the 90's but was also iconic as one of the biggest alt-icons to come out. His 2002 solo album Modulate reflected his increasing interest in electronic and dance music and included "Lost Zoloft". It's a painful honest song whose jumbled production combines with lyrics describing abuse at the hands of an angry boyfriend. The song is riddled with self-loathing (the phrase "someone as beautiful would never look at me") indicating that, like the battered wife in so many Lifetime movies, Mould's insecurity lead him to stay despite the abuse. The title hints at untreated mental health issues as well, although lines like "beyond the rage you feel / there's some appeal in this" hint at that masochism also plays a hand in this emotionally disturbing relationship. Ultimately, however we get some relief as Mould takes a reluctant stand - "you punch my face again / I'll have to call the state police / I need my fingers for my work."

6. Valentine's Day Is Over [Peel Session] - Billy Bragg  Buy Worker's Playtime
Workers Playtime (original subtitle - "Capitalism is killing music") was Billy Bragg's breakup album, filled with songs of regret and heartbreak. Yet even here, Bragg made a point of not reveling in any cheap misogyny and included a pointed anti-abuse anthem. Although the idea was a song by a man written to men, he chose to sing it from the perspective of battered woman. "Someday boy / you'll reap what you sow" it starts, setting the tone for a surprisingly sweet yet unyielding song. She may sympathize and even love the man being sung to but she's clearly not willing to suffer any more violence at his hand. Bragg illustrates this with his usual devastating turns of phrase that go through all the excuses an abuser might give (times are tough, he's under a lot of stress, he's just made that way, etc.) and makes it clear that none of them will be accepted. When you hear Bragg talk about "reminding me how brittle bone is" or how "your idea of justice gets rougher and rougher," it can't help but send a chill down your spine and lay those euphemism's true meaning bare. Yet there's no soaring chorus here as Billy knows that even ending an abusive relationship is not a joyful thing. All we get is a sad acknowledgement that what's done is done and cannot be undone - Valentine's Day is over.

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