In late July, James Brooks, the man behind poptimist synth project Elite Gymnastics, announced the creation of a new project entitled Dead Girlfriends. While this would have been notable in itself (Elite Gymnastics’ “Andreja 4-ever” is a jam), Brooks intended for the project to be “aggressively more feminine.” Menacing, feedback-soaked first single “On Fraternity” makes this obvious: In it, Brooks cuts deep, calling out his male peer groups’ complicit participation in rape culture, and even the project’s name was derived from the works of renowned anti-pornography feminist Andrea Dworkin.
Some, observing the mounting specter of rape culture and some backwards-ass anti-abortion legislation attempting to be passed around the country, embraced the track’s explicit moralizing. Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly remarked that “it sounds ideal in 2013 — a white male artist with a direct feminist message that can speak freely with anyone.” It’s an abrasive and intriguing track worth listening to, and Brooks is likely coming from a good place — girlfriend Grimes, who contributed the album art to the Dead Girlfriends project, tackled similar themes on last year’s “Oblivion.”
Internet feminists, however, were quick to cry foul. Stereogum’s Claire Lobenfeld compared it to the nauseatingly bad Brad Paisley-LL Cool J collaboration, “Accidental Racist.” “I’m uninterested in having a watery paraphrasing of the words I’ve been screaming for years sang back to me in a male voice,” wrote Michelle Myers. The word “mansplaining” was used. There was a SPIN roundtable that, naturally, invoked the names of Fugazi and Bikini Kill. And while it could have merely been a troll-fest (think Jezebel’s more alarmist postings multiplied by the pettiness of music blog traffic-fiends), a lot of intelligent conversation was had. Some felt that Brooks’ appropriation of what is a female issue was disingenuous; others were simply unimpressed with what they saw as a simplistic approach to writing about sexual violence; and more just felt that speaking from the position of white male privilege automatically disqualifies your perspective on the travails of marginalized peoples.
All in all, I imagined Brooks being in a similar situation as someone who bakes a cake for someone’s birthday only to find out half the guests are deathly allergic to its ingredients: he’s begun backpedaling, renaming the project Default Genders and calling “On Fraternity” a failure. While it has surely brewed up renewed interest in Brooks’ career, this venture has put him in an awkward spot. Brooks obviously means well. To think that he is craftily appropriating feminist ideals to get blogger attention is not only cynical but silly; Elite Gymnastics was itself a buzzy little group, and his association with Grimes would undoubtedly guarantee at least some coverage on Pitchfork and similar sites. So, what we’re left with is someone trying to earnestly comment on an important issue who is facing backlash because he wasn’t born with the right set of genitals. Remind you of anything?
For a music fan, it puts you in an odd headspace. How can a song with such good intentions be so maligned while an album where a man says the line “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign” is breathlessly praised? I mean, sure, Kanye West isn’t speaking for women in the way that “On Fraternity” was, but I’m also 100 percent sure that the Internet would flip its collective shit if Vampire Weekend wrote a song about fisting (then again, the feminist expectations of rap versus indie rock warrants its own column — or thesis, really).
With 71 percent of festival bills being comprised of all-male bands, it’s fairly evident that female underrepresentation is still an issue in pop music, whether we want to admit it or not. Women are right to be peeved by such a fact and, as a result, will respond to any sermonizing from male songwriters with an eyeroll. Still, regardless of whether Brooks’ thoughts were eloquently put or not, shouldn’t we be encouraging all voices to enter the conversation? After all, as Brooks himself said, “I just feel like social problems never get solved by people not talking about them.”
Patriarchal dominance is not just a female problem; it is a societal problem. For feminism to succeed, men everywhere need to realize that they too are being oppressed by these prevailing attitudes of society. Art, and especially pop music, allows people to begin eroding the values that allow such attitudes to exist. If male artists are chastised for their attempts to incorporate feminism into their songs, it discourages people from engaging with that school of thought. Then we’re just going to have people release more songs like “Blurred Lines” instead of noble, flawed pieces like “On Fraternity.” And, as anyone who witnessed the Miley Cyrus VMA twerkfest can attest, the path to progress does not lie in that direction.
Original Author: By JAMES RAINIS