Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.
First, let me explain about last night. So there I was, dressed, which is big for me in these weeks of dwindling light and increasing cold. (But I say wanting to stay in bed all day is less a sign of seasonal depression and more a sign that you have really awesome flannel sheets). I was already out, across town no less, at Souen noodle bar with plans to hit a friend’s birthday party before jumping on the L to Music Hall of Williamsburg to see School of Seven Bells when I got the text: “SOSB show is cancelled. Alley lost her voice. Bummer.” Serious bummer. I’ve never seen the band live, but as a huge Secret Machines fan I’ve always been drawn to SOSB’s blend of the Machines’ woven atmospherics with the ethereal-cool-girl-singer thing. Deflated by this news and fantasizing about those sheets my companion and I did the one thing we could think of to counteract the urge to hibernate: we went to a tequila bar.
It worked. After a few “Short Ribs” (that would be mezcal, jalapeño tequila and molasses) I was no longer concerned with creature comforts, as the whole world felt warm and cozy. Unburdened, I found myself relaying to my friend an ongoing debate/conversation I’ve been having with (you knew this was coming) a yoga teacher at my studio, Laughing Lotus. Justin Ritchie is the lone straight male instructor at a studio that has a glitter bar adjacent to the main practice room. Perhaps more than any other man in Manhattan, Justin requires regular infusions of male-ness just to maintain his sanity. Years ago, a primary source for him was heavy metal. These days, though, he has to make do with the dark masters of decades past because, he claims, there is no masculinity left in music.
“As I looked at the assembled 30 or so songs, I realized something: a lot of the ballsiest music made in the last 10 years came from women.”
I objected mightily when this first came up. I agree that the symphonic majesty of classic metal bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Justin’s favorite band of all time, Tool, hasn’t been en vogue in a while but I insisted there were lots of bands still making testosterone-fueled music. So I set about proving it, via a mixtape. On an airplane to England a few weeks ago, when I should have been sleeping, I was instead delicately head-banging in my Kuwati Air seat while the turbaned man next to me snored, putting together a collection of appropriately balls-out songs recorded in the last 10 years. “No Pussy Blues,” by Grinderman was on there. So was Muse’s cover of “Feeling Good,” and the Strokes’ “New York City Cops” and a bunch of White Stripes and “Yonkers” by Tyler, The Creator. Good shit! But as I looked at the assembled 30 or so songs, I realized something: a lot of the ballsiest music made in the last 10 years came from women. Sleigh Bells, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Ida Maria (check her out), Be Your Own PET and especially both bands — the Kills and the Dead Weather — featuring rock goddess Alison Mosshart as queen banshee. When you listen to this Masculinity Mix, it’s the women who terrify.
Interestingly, Justin responded most to songs I’d considered softer inclusions: “Novacane” by Frank Ocean and “Wake Up,” by Arcade Fire. “I love this song, it really moves me,” he emailed in response to the Canadian band’s track. “This song is perfect for me and perfect for this list.” When this all started I was thinking mostly about masculinity as aggression. Loud guitar rock has had many a moment over the last decade or so. But there is a warmer woundedness, a lower register, that’s been missing. Much of Metallica or Tool or even, say, Nine Inch Nails conveys the dark side of emotion. There’s anger and aggression in there but it’s not used as a cover for pain, the way it often is in straight-up punk rock. Masculinity in music isn’t just about being loud, it’s about being soft in a loud way.
As I walked home in the brisk cold, warmed to the core via Mexican whiskey, I turned the iPod wheel to N for Nirvana. When I was in New Mexico over Thanksgiving, I went to Hot Topic in the Cottonwood Mall, like I always do, just to see what music/movies/heroes the malcontented suburban kids are currently using to ease their pain. Avenged Sevenfold, Woe, Is Me and other bands from this century were well-represented, but by far the most prevalent face was Cobain’s. He died coming on 20 years ago, and yet no one has replaced or even challenged his reign as the patron saint of angst. No one would mistake Nirvana for wimpy, and yet Cobain — with his kohl-rimmed eyes, delicate stomach and staunch feminism — had a kind of unimpeachable machismo that allowed him to become the safe vessel for multiple generations’ repressed pain. All these years later, with music too neatly categorized into aggressive or emotional but not both, Cobain continues to play that role, as the macho rock god you can worship if you also happen to feel. Needless to say, when I finally got home to the flannel sheets, I crawled into bed, earbuds still in place, and let Kurt scream me into a deep and restful sleep.