illustration: Haley McKey
illustration: Haley McKey

Under Their Own Power: Women Make Some of 2018’s Most Relevant Music

I kicked off my summer by seeing two shows in rapid succession: Alice Glass at U Street Music Hall on May 12, and Fever Ray (given name Karin Dreijer) at the 9:30 Club on May 14. Both of their extraordinary sets drove home the fact that women are making some of the world’s best, most interesting and of-the-moment music right now – and they’re doing it with complete creative control.

Dreijer and Glass have a few things in common. They both rose to fame as one half of a male-female duo – The Knife and Crystal Castles, respectively. They both make brutal, synth-based songs that crackle, scream, pulse and practically demand a physical response. And they are both embarking on the next stage of their careers in a drastically different world than the one we lived in when we first heard their music more than a decade ago.

Glass’ set was the first time we’ve seen her in DC since she left Crystal Castles in 2014. Glass was silent about her reasons for leaving former collaborator Ethan Kath (born Claudio Palmieri) until the fall of 2017. Glass released a statement that began with citing the courage of women who came forward with their stories of sexual harassment and assault by powerful men during the #MeToo movement. Then she told her own story, asserting in no uncertain terms that she endured years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse by Palmieri since she was a teenager.

Thus, seeing Glass perform wasn’t just watching an artist headline on her own for the first time. We had the privilege of seeing an artist learning to harness her creative power entirely on her own terms. Her performance was, as it has always been, incredibly kinetic and wholehearted: she cannonballs across the stage, invites the crowd to come closer, pulls from their energy and gives it right back. Her fans are devoted: in the silence between songs, I heard a woman murmur, maybe a little tipsily, “I’m just happy she’s happy.” It was clear everyone who came to see her was firmly in her corner.

Dreijer’s show was also full of energy. Her stage persona is flirtatious, aggressively bizarre and without a shred of self-doubt. She released her first album, Plunge, in October 2017, nearly eight years after her solo debut as Fever Ray.

Dreijer was formerly married to a man and has a daughter, but since her divorce has described herself as “definitely a queer person, but very gender-fluid” in a Guardian interview. The ebullient, NSFW music video for her new single “To the Moon and Back” features Dreijer serving as a table for the world’s oddest tea party. In the Guardian, she describes the song’s theme as “being brave and being open to do that. It’s about taking back what’s me.” Onstage, she inhabits her video persona, albeit with a little more agency: her all-women backing band is strong and competent, but she’s clearly in charge and loving every minute.

These two shows, aside from being the perfect start to summer music season here in DC, helped remind me that female solo performers are some of the most exciting musicians. Kesha’s blistering single, “Praying,” called out her own former producer and alleged abuser Dr. Luke; her August 2017 album Warrior burns down the throwaway party-anthem framework he created for past songs like “Blah Blah Blah” and “We R Who We R” for good. Instead, it’s a mix of rock, soul, country and a variety of genres Dr. Luke allegedly blocked her from exploring when they worked together. Whatever you think of Kesha, she’s finally in creative control of her own music (and branding – I’ve never wanted a Nudie suit more).

Janelle Monáe, no stranger to having complete control of her image and art, released her stunning new album, Dirty Computer, on May 1. Newly out as pansexual, Monáe’s album explores queerness, blackness and survival in a world often hostile to both. Her “emotion picture” which accompanies the album depicts a surveillance state where people who don’t comply with cultural mores are watched, hunted down and punished. It’s uncomfortably easy to imagine how a culture could get from here to there. An extra-bright spot in the album is her new single “Pynk,” accompanied by a music video that features a pink desert, some truly memorable pants and an all-lady dance party.

These aren’t the only examples of women refashioning their image and sound into one of joyous power. Artists across genres are busting the absurd myth that women can’t get ahead without a male producer, costar or record executive (do those even exist anymore?) doing the heavy lifting. As I watched Alice Glass close out her set back in May with the searing song “Cease and Desist,” she screamed, “honestly, you’re never the victim/honestly, you have to fight.” It felt like an indictment of her former antagonist, a manifesto and a call to arms. It’s almost certain that many other talented women artists will answer it in the months to come – each in their own unique way.

mm

Haley McKey

Haley McKey is an artist and friend to the wild living and working in the DMV. As an area native, she has seen DC grow and evolve over the course of her life. She loves writing about art, music, animals and our environment, especially the city's dedication to conserving wildlife habitat. When she's not writing or working, she's painting and drawing. She loves a sour cocktail.