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Miss Grit Isn't A Cyborg, But That's OK

The musician discusses how art about half-human, half-mechatronic beings — alongside their gender and racial identities — informs their debut album

Amid all the present-day chatter about artificial intelligence, it’s easy to forget that the cyborg — AI’s distant cousin — has existed in the human imagination for over six decades. Ever since 1960, when Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline first coined the term in an Astronautics article, the idea of partially human, partially mechatronic beings has fascinated artists and cultural critics alike, leading to numerous seminal works. Donna Haraway’s 1985 feminist essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, Japanese writer Chiaki J. Konaka’s 1998 anime series Serial Experiments Lain — the list goes on.

These and many other works about bionic people influenced the rock musician Miss Grit’s debut album, Follow the Cyborg. As Miss Grit, born Margaret Sohn, tells MTV News, they were drawn to the automaton for its liberatory associations: It is often depicted as free from outside ideas and expectations.

“I've always been attracted to the idea of the cyborg [because] it's pretty much an egoless being,” Sohn says. “That lack of ego is super helpful in being able to see yourself clearly for what you are, as well as what parts of you are designed by societal standards.”

Sohn — a mixed-race, Korean-American nonbinary person — finds personal value in this notion. They describe Follow the Cyborg as their effort to “explore my gender identity, my racial identity, and realize all the bullshit people are fed in their lives that can skew how they perceive themselves and their identity.” You can easily read Follow the Cyborg’s narrative — cyborg is born, cyborg learns more about itself, diverges with its creator’s vision, liberates itself, lives on its own terms — as a metaphor for a person shedding socially ingrained perceptions upon realizing they're queer.

“The concept of gender is really beautiful in a lot of cyborg films,” Sohn says, citing Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime sci-fi film Ghost in the Shell as a prime example. The film directly informed the lyrics of Follow the Cyborg’s outstanding title track. “Gender being limitless and not being confined to your body,” Sohn adds, “can be a very beautiful journey to explore.” Cyborgs inspire them since these human-machine hybrids can “analyze themselves for who they are [and] separate what is instilled in them [socially] from their inner being,” whereas in Sohn’s own life, they’ve felt that “it can be so confusing to untangle your identity from the outer world.”

This all might sound a bit heavy and complex to explore across a 35-minute rock album, but it never comes off that way. For starters, Sohn’s lyrics don’t immediately reveal the whole cyborg conceit on any one song; you’ll more likely make that connection when you listen to the album all the way through. If anything, some of the songs sound like small tales from Sohn’s life weaved into a grander sci-fi narrative — they say that Follow the Cyborg highlight “Your Eyes Are Mine” is their version of a love ballad and that album closer “Syncing” is a breakup song. Their lyrics are nowhere close to the jumbled mess that can be part and parcel of concept albums, and their even-keeled vocal delivery, with minimal accompaniment or overdubs, imbues their relatively straightforward words with extra profundity and occasional humor. The latter quality is most apparent on the ironic refrain of the skronking midtempo anthem “Lain (phone clone),” on which Sohn precedes each line in the chorus with a chant of “hold up your hands!” delivered in a tone so contrastingly dispassionate it’s hilarious.

This is all to say nothing of Follow the Cyborg’s gripping, sweeping music, which is as technically dazzling as it is incessantly replayable. Turbo-charged guitars rush in out of nowhere. Gray synthetic soundscapes introduce hypnotic states. Saxophones and strings breathe fresh air into the electronics. Maybe this description makes you think of St. Vincent, as might Sohn’s knack for eerie narratives that place some distance between musician and music even when the lyrics are at their most personal. That tracks — Clark may well be Sohn’s biggest sonic inspiration. “She is the reason why I bought an electric guitar,” they say.

Sohn’s ability to seamlessly weave searing fretwork into dizzying pop songs rivals that of their idol, and on Follow the Cyborg’s title track, there’s even a lyrical parallel. “I’m a living girl / A real living girl / Your real living girl,” they sing during the chorus as playful guitar noodling and a rave-like synth duke it out, later changing these lyrics to “I’m a living boy / A real living boy / Your real living boy.” It’s nonbinary energy in a bottle, and it also echoes St. Vincent’s arcade-like riot “Sugarboy”: “I am a lot like you (boys!) / I am alone like you (girls!)”

Sohn ventured into electric guitar at around 12 years old. They began playing acoustic guitar at 6 and classical guitar at 8. During their childhood in a Michigan suburb, they and their sisters often sang together, and one sister played piano. (Sohn is now based in New York following three years at NYU studying — fittingly for a musician fascinated with cyborgs — music technology.) Though Sohn’s parents weren’t musicians, they encouraged their children’s artistic pursuits. One year, Sohn’s dad gave the kids an especially formative Christmas gift: a condenser microphone and a Lexicon recording studio interface with Cubase DAW software. Naturally, this pushed Sohn to start capturing their music.

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'Follow the Cyborg' cover art

“I had to figure out how to engineer sessions from a young age, even though they were super crappy recordings,” they say. “But it was still my first step into the recording world.” You can trace a direct line from these early sessions to their self-produced Follow the Cyborg, which they also wrote themself along with a co-writing credit for close friend Nicole Rodriguez, a.k.a. Pearla, on “Syncing.” Sohn is also the sole synth player and guitarist on the album. Other musicians contribute bass (though Sohn plays bass on “Syncing”) and percussion, including Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa, who’s made a whole second career of drumming on big-name albums by Cate Le Bon, Courtney Barnett, and Kurt Vile.

Although Follow the Cyborg embodies its creator’s confidence and self-sufficiency, Sohn says it’s only the beginning of their journey. When talking about “Lain (phone clone),” they say the song is about working to bridge the divide between one’s inner and outer selves.

“I was feeling like my outer self was becoming this monster that was eclipsing my inner self,” they explain. “I wanted to mock my monster self and understand that it's not something to fear, but rather communicate with, and try to form a healthier relationship with.” Although Follow the Cyborg is an accomplished statement on gender and identity, Sohn is still navigating the tricky idea of the self.

Later in our conversation, we discuss the question of, in Sohn’s words: “What is your core self, and what is thrust upon you by your environment?” They say that, “in some ways, I think there’s no difference, but [in other ways], the difference is what your core catches onto and what is filtered out.” Follow the Cyborg suggests that to fully know the difference is to be truly liberated, but Sohn says, “I'm definitely not liberated [yet], and I'm always on the journey toward that.” On Follow the Cyborg, they take a bold first step.

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