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Letters To A Young Boat

Sailing with Lil Yachty through a brief history of musical pen pals

On his shimmery mixtape Lil Boat, released this past spring, Lil Yachty reminds us repeatedly that his hair is red. More specifically, it’s red like a cherry — which is true, of course, but also, “cherry” rhymes easily and sweetly with Burberry Perry, his best friend, producer, and frequent creative accomplice. Earlier this year, a month or so after Lil Boat was released, Yachty and Perry joyfully announced they’d secured a shared P.O. Box. They posted the address again earlier this week, and now I’m worried they’re not getting enough mail.

The maraschino on this dollar-menu Moschino sundae is Sarah Records, the Bristol, U.K., label whose legacy in the 1980s and early 1990s was chronicled in last year’s very thorough Popkiss: The Life and Afterlife of Sarah Records. In addition to creating original album art and supplementary materials for each album they released (including gamelike 7" covers that, when strung together, resulted in a composite image of Bristol), the young couple who ran Sarah out of their apartment maintained regular pen-pal correspondences with anyone who wrote them. Thus a significant part of each day was dedicated to the mail-order side of the record business, and much of that involved writing to each and every person who ordered something from Sarah.

Handwritten letters and penpal relationships have lent a feeling of intimacy to DIY and underground scenes for many years. In the ’80s, Sarah necessitated the same kitchen table assembly line and knowledge of ever-changing media mail regulations that Kill Rock Stars needed in the ’90s and La Vida Es Un Mus does today. Certainly not every interaction made at the forever-stamp level ends in such a wholesome and archivable outcome. But the early-20th-century mentoring correspondence between Rainer Maria Rilke and his pupil that comprises the core of Letters to a Young Poet is not so far off from Minor Threat drummer Jeff Nelson’s assessment of his bandmate Ian MacKaye's approach to written correspondence: “The longer letter you write Ian,” Nelson said of the ’80s hardcore legend and founder of Dischord Records, “the longer letter he’ll write you back.”

Though it may not make itself immediately apparent, there’s a space other than the post office where Lil Yachty, Teen Idles, and Talulah Gosh not only overlap, but amplify one another’s authority — like how punks, anime nerds, and theater kids somehow always end up at the same lunch table because it’s guaranteed to be the one place no one will make fun of their hair. It’s interstitial, a portable home, like a letter permanently in transit between its creator and its destination. Music, for sensitive kids, is this safe space: a sealed envelope, a little boat, a secret world.

The primary criticisms levied against Lil Yachty — that he’s amateurish, that he didn’t pay his dues, that his appearance is childish — are the same ones that were thrown, a generation earlier and across the Atlantic, at Heavenly’s clumsy chords, striped sailor shirts, and safety-scissor bangs. Likewise, to sneer at Lil Yachty’s lyrics for their simplicity and nursery rhyme scheme is to ignore the fact that one can, if one wishes, easily google any Teen Idles song and sing the lyrics, to Yachty’s melody, over “Broccoli.”

Seriously. Try it:

Getting, getting, getting

In my way

Broad horizons, but my skies are gray

Getting, getting, getting

In my way

Don't know what it is, but it ain't gonna stay

To conflate untrained with bad, and simple with immature, is to make the same mistake that some critics fell into when measuring the complicated musical and lyrical contributions of Beat Happening. Yachty, in his lower register, often sounds remarkably like that band's cofounder, Calvin Johnson, whose International Pop Underground Convention in early-’90s Olympia, Washington, “allowed this nascent community of ... pen-pals to all meet face-to-face for the first time” (setting a historical precedent for the eventual fever-dream sailing team of Yachty and multidisciplinary artist Petra Collins — and all the others who met their best friends, co-conspirators, and lovers through social media).

On a fundamental level, these erroneous critiques are rooted in our need to assign sensitivity a gender — the force that makes haters decry Lil Yachty is the same one that drives their counterparts in other genres to say they “just don’t like female-fronted bands.” It could be that there isn’t an all-encompassing word for this tenderness yet, or that, if there is, it’s written in pencil and stuffed into a striped French air mail envelope, unable to be googled. It’s not punk. It disavows irony, but it’s not the new sincerity. And though it’s tempting to label all this diasporic sweetness “twee” and let it congeal like a bag of gummy bears on a hot dashboard, that isn’t correct either: Before it was a musical genre, twee was a borderline malicious adjective deployed to expose or mock artists perceived as too gentle, too sensitive — unsealed envelopes destined for prying eyes and dirty fingers.

Hence the happy privacy of letters: What you write to a pen pal can be folded and shoved in a pocket, tucked in a 12" sleeve, or burnt before sending, and that’s as real as you or me or Yachty or Rilke. It makes sense that a multi-hyphenate balancing the pressure of the prefix — mumble-, twee-, hardcore-, indie-, backpack-, post- — would want a space that allows for vulnerability and self-definition, for feelings to take form on the page without having to then translate them into an accessible pose.

Good letter-writing, which Jane Austen called a “peculiarly female” talent, is part of this lineage of transformative intimacy that stretches from the pre-internet, through hardcore’s prodigal deconstruction of the anger many fathers brought home as a souvenir from Vietnam, and the boondoggle safety net that riot grrl wove from DIY gynecology and deeply personal zines. Messages that come in the mail don't beep or buzz to announce their arrival; they are known to breed intense anticipation on behalf of both writer and recipient, despite the notable absence of read receipts; they show up whenever they feel like it (like another sunny day, or true love, or your bassist).

To exchange letters with Lil Yachty, or with anyone, is to take on intimacy as a private and revolutionary act, happening between comrades, in rain or sleet or dead of night. It is to join the KOT to KRS. It's a way to acknowledge the historical weight and fundamentally impermanent nature of all things, particularly the feelings we often label as teenaged despite knowing full well we’ll never age out of them.

To be vulnerable and document that vulnerability in your unique (and no doubt shamefully bad) handwriting lends a matrimonial air to the gesture of sealing and delivering, BFF, LYLAS, etc. It's about accepting, and signing for, yourself.