With the release of her first album in 2015, Courtney Barnett was an immediate critical darling. She was lauded by Pitchfork and nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy. She was called the new Bob Dylan, the new Tom Petty, similar to early Beck, and a slew of other comparisons to other music gods – few of them other women. Perhaps it was due to the mundane subjects she sang about, or because she played garage-influenced rock with weird guitar solos, whatever the reason, Barnett side-stepped gender lines, and that was cool and exciting.
So, naturally, she takes on the fraught subject of being a successful woman head-on with her second album, Tell Me How You Really Feel – describing, for example, what it’s like to have random men read your accolades and then tell you how you could be doing better. Success has clearly brought Barnett mansplaining on a massive scale.
That’s not all she explores, but I find myself dwelling on those songs with lyrics that talk about how it’s different for women who play music. Sometimes she is making a gendered statement (“Nameless, Faceless” and “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”), and sometimes she’s simply writing about her life (“Hopefulessness,” “City Looks Pretty”). It’s refreshing to my ears because for decades women have felt like they needed to suppress their decidedly feminine experiences to be in rock, or to become defined by the dreaded “woman in rock ” label.
Barnett manages to address what’s happening in culture, even quoting Margaret Atwood’ s line, “Men are scared that women will laugh at them; women are scared that men will kill them,” and also address the everyday aspects of being a person in the world. That’s where most women are at in 2018: fretting about #MeToo, equal pay, and our continued ability to wield control over our bodies and our lives while managing our mental health and binging Southern Charm. There is high cultural commentary, and there is lowbrow, nearly pedantic commentary on the random moments of silliness and stupidity that make up life.
The guitar tone on Tell Me How You Really Feel is inspired by all the bands you might find in a Richard Linklater movie, at that crossroads between late ’70s power pop and garage rock with a hint of punk. If she were truly a creature of those times, she’d be at the uncool end of watching New Wave come into vogue, and it’s an unexpected combination with her lyrics (think Wings, Boz Scaggs, or Steely Dan but hooked up to the New York Dolls’ amps).
Barnett’s second album, like her first, was released by Milk!, the label she founded to release her own first EP and now runs with her partner, musician Jen Cloher. That may be the secret for women in rock (or any aspect of music, honestly) to write the songs they want and play guitar however they feel: give yourself permission and then make yourself the shot-caller. In Barnett’s case, it has certainly worked.
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