We’ll Do It Again (In A World At War)

In the middle of the summer of 2017, Lana Del Rey’s Lust For Life entered the musical atmosphere like a whirlwind, a mixture of vulnerability, politics, and pop hooks that pulled in many different directions while simultaneously keeping its course on the mantra of the personal is political.  For those of us who both have been on board since Born to Die and have leftist politics, Lust For Life was the album that we had been waiting for Lana Del Rey to make for a long time.  As a dear friend from New Orleans wrote over text when we first discussed the album, “So proud of her, so grateful to bear witness to her talent, so impressed with all that she is capable of.”  And we weren’t the only ones who felt this way.  Lust For Life is Lana Del Rey’s most critically acclaimed album to date, with many writers applauding her mixture of pop bangers on side A with more politically—and self—aware songs on side B.  On tracks such as “When The World Was At War We Kept On Dancing,” Del Rey proved that she and her songwriting team were masters at illustrating how not so far apart those pop bangers and political anthems were from one another after all.

Although I’ve been thinking a lot about Lust For Life since its release in July (as it’s one of my favorite albums to be released in this decade), I wanted to wait until I saw and heard what Del Rey did with the songs in a live context before writing about it.  And so on a very cold February night in Austin, my sister and I got in line fifteen minutes before doors for Del Rey’s show at the Erwin Center on the southeastern tip of UT’s campus, walking by clusters of Latinx and white teenagers and youths (many of them rocking non-conventional gender presentations) standing at the front of the general admission line.  This would be the third time that we would do this together—and the sixth time that my sister would experience her in concert.  With opener Kali Uchis having dropped off the bill for the night, the show would be all Lana.  And so for the first song of the night, we got “13 Beaches.”  

Against a backdrop of flowing water and flowing keyboard parts, Lana Del Rey floats onto the stage from its right side, her voice audible before body becomes visible.  As the band keeps playing the first verse, Del Rey breaks from the song to say, in her New Jersey accent, “Thank you so much for being with us tonight.  We’re so excited to be here.”  As she switches back to her singing voice to finish the verse, I have to appreciate how much of a real person she seems to be, even given her meteoritic fame.  In her fake eyelashes, hoop earrings, and v-neck sweater, Del Rey is an incredible mixture of ordinary and extraordinary.  While she certainly is conventionally pretty, there’s also a casualness to how she presents herself on stage—which renders the force of her soaring vocals all the more incredible.  Like the best LDR songs, the strength of “13 Beaches” is Del Rey’s ability to create an atmosphere—which in the live context is grounded in the keyboard and synth magic of Bryon Thomas, who’s toured with her since 2011.  The keyboard parts become the benchmark against which Del Rey sings above or below, affecting a fluctuation of feelings.

For the first time ever, Del Rey is joined on stage by other women, dancers and backup singers Alexandria Kaye and Ashley Rodríguez.  The flowy movements and vocals of Kaye and Rodríguez help smooth out some of Del Rey’s (endearingly) awkward stage presence.  After being in the background during “13 Beaches,” Kaye and Rodríguez move up to share the center stage with Del Rey for the next song, “Pretty When You Cry.”  For this song, all three lay down on the floor and perform choreography (that looks like it could have come out of a Solange or a Kelela show) that’s projected onto the screen behind them.  Although it’s not immediately obvious from the lighting (and their light skin), both Kaye and Rodríguez are women of color.  That the two women Del Rey brings along with her are a mixture of Japanese, Spanish, Black and American Indian (Kaye) and Puerto Rican (Rodrígeuz) is not insignificant given all the shit Del Rey got for portraying (appropriating?) Cholo identity in her music video for “Tropico.”  Although Kaye and Rodríguez are literally and figuratively in the background for a large portion of the show, there are times when they move to the front of the stage, such as during the next song, “Cherry.”  

Like “13 Beaches,” “Cherry” is another atmospheric song, a LDR track that works just as much for the feeling it circulates as the message it conveys about the push and pull of a romantic relationship.  What does it mean to put women of color front and center stage three songs into this set?  As all three women slither into a squat during the song’s chorus, there is a lot going on here.  On the most immediate level, it posits Kay and Rodríguez as desirable people in themselves—and in a more immediately sexy way than Del Rey, who is considerably more clothed up than either of them.  In another sense, this setup echoes recent moves by Torres and St. Vincent to combat the trope of, to use Sasha Geffen’s words, the “naked, anonymous, sexualized woman” so prominent in pop/rock music.  The least smooth dancer of all three, Del Rey shines in this moment because of her singing voice, and not because of her dance moves or what her body looks like.  And as the image of Rodríguez rises over Del Rey’s frame, there is even a blink of homoeroticism—and if not homoeroticism, then at least a moment of homosocialism—between all three as Del Rey’s body appears to brush up against Rodríguez’s projection.

This moment of female solidarity and homosocialism continues song after song, setting up LDR and company for the trio of politicized songs that will close out the first half of the set: “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It,” “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing,” and “National Anthem.”  As alluded to in this blog’s opening paragraph, I want to zone in on “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing” here.  In the concert struck, I am struck by the chorus line, “Is it the end of an era/ Is is the end of America?” repeated twice.  Sitting atop a piano as she sings, Del Rey finally answers, “No, it’s only the beginning/ If we hold onto hope/ We’ll have a happy endin’.”  While I think that last line is a little too easy, I’m once again drawn to the affects behind these vocal deliveries, to Del Rey’s voice as reaching for hope in a plodding and truly gloomy sounding song.  As Del Rey sings the bridge, she glides to the upper left corner of the stage, where Raye and Rodríguez are waiting for her.  “We’ll do it again/ In a world at war,” she sings as dances and transitions to the chorus, during which she makes frequent eye contact with them.  

As the band move onto fan favorite “National Anthem,” Del Rey once again takes center stage as Raye and Rodríguez move behind her.  Even as she delivers lines such as “But you can’t keep your hands off/ Me or your pants on” (admittedly some of my favorite lyrics in any Lana Del Rey song), this song on this day already seems to be about more than getting laid—or the controversial brilliance of casting A$AP Rocky as JFK in the music video as a commentary on the omnipresence of blackness in the American national imaginary, which plays in the background as she performs it.  Is this the end of America?  No, it’s not.  But perhaps it’s the end of “Money is the anthem for success,” the infamous opening line of “National Anthem.”  As Del Rey discusses in a recent interview with NPR, she’s become more reflective of her work over time, going back and repositioning things (or scrapping them all together) in her live sets.  After the seriousness of “When We Were At War We Kept Dancing,” “National Anthem” sounds like a different song.  Its being positioned immediately after quite possibly the most political song that she’s ever written shines a dark realness onto what was previously a campy, tongue-in-cheek sarcastic celebration of “America.”

“National Anthem” ends up being a bridge between the politicized content portion of the set and the hits parade portion of night.  After the intentionality of the first half of the show, I’m a bit let down by the second half, especially as Del Rey comes across as tired of performing these songs.  I want to tell her that after an album like Lust For Life, she doesn’t have to perform half of Born To Die anymore, that more people than she think might be willing to take that jump into the land of synchronized choreography and political commentary with her.  But maybe that’s the point that she’s trying to make, that love and sex and relationality occur within the political landscapes that she paints in the first half of the show.  As we sing along to “Born To Die” early on in the show, I hear 10,000+ voices crying out, “Feet don’t fail me now/ Take me to the finish line.”  Are we singing about love or America?  Life or death?  In the beautiful confusion of it all, Lana Del Rey has written the anthem(s) for millenials, holding onto hope when history and statistics and our parents might be telling us to do otherwise.  And through the racial inclusivity and homoeroticism of this last tour, the invitation that she extends feels more open than ever before.  Are there things she could still do differently to decenter her whiteness?  Of course there are.  But I have to give her credit for how much she’s (we’ve) grown and grown up in six years’ time.


Harvest All My Love, Harness All My Power

When I went to see and hear Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton perform at the Murmrr Theatre in Brooklyn at the end of last month, it had been over a decade since I had experienced her (playing her solo material) in concert.  In the cold of January 2007, my best friend from college and another friend from school packed into a pew at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia to soak up Haines and her band performing Knives Don’t Have Your Back, her beautiful and heartfelt mix of piano, vocals, bass, and percussion.  That night—and that winter—would get burned into my memory.  I was 19 and about to get my heart broken for the first time by the first girl I had kissed, someone I had met in line for the Philly Sleater-Kinney show the summer before.  And so, I was in an apt place to soak up what some critics at the time of its release described as a “musical therapy session” (I can’t find the link atm).  Knives Don’t Have Your Back was an important album for those of us who were both enthusiasts of the early 2000s Montreal-Toronto indie rock scene and were coming into ourselves as young adults living away from home for the first time.  Contrary to her usual “combative cleverness” in her role as the frontwoman of Metric, Haines’s vulnerabilities and anxieties were on full display on Knives.  Long before anyone else in my life would do so, Haines’s solo work would tell me that it was okay to wake up sad.

For many of us who got into indie rock in the early 2000s, music was like a religion.  In his moving biography of Prince, I Would Die 4 U, music journalist Touré writes, “We [gen X] express our religious interests, dreams, fears, hopes, and desire through popular culture” (112).  Although I was born four years too late to be included in generation X, I’ve always felt an affinity for this turning to music for (spiritual) nourishment. This is especially relevant since after a youth group trip to Tijuana, Mexico in the summer of 2005 that left me feeling the most religious I had felt in my entire life, I quickly shed any last connections to Christianity upon beginning college/the academic year at a secular school for the first time ever.  Away from my hometown, friends and family, and cultural Catholicism, I needed new sources of inspiration; more than that, I needed people to help guide me through this new—and scary—experience.  Pulling over Corin Tucker (of Sleater-Kinney) from the end of high school, I soon added Elizabeth Powell (of Land of Talk), Holly Miranda (of The Jealous Girlfriends), and Emily Haines (of Metric) to the mix.  At 5-15 years older than me, these (white) women had been on earth longer enough than me to have long been through the things with which I was only beginning to struggle yet close enough to my age to still seem relatable.  Listening to them in my room or headphones (and, eventually, on stage), Tucker, Powell, Miranda, and Haines gave me models of directions in which I could take my life—along with the space to sort through what I did (and didn’t) want to take from what they were offering me.

All of this is at the front of my mind when I take my seat for Haines’s show at the Murmrr Theater at the northern tip of Prospect Park in South Brooklyn.  At the beginning of the show, Haines walks out onto the stage as a pre-recorded monologue plays through the theatre’s speakers.  The recording is meant to be our earpiece into the thoughts inside her head, reflections on success, love, and growing up.  Not knowing that there was going to be a performance art element to this show, I curiously watch on from my position at the middle and center of the theatre.  Haines goes through two of the songs from her most recent release, Choir of the Mind, before she gets to the familiar opening chords of “Crowd Surf Off A Cliff.”  As she lays out the mid-tempo rhythm on the keys, I feel myself plodding back to where I was ten years ago.  A baby queer moving towards a minor in gender and sexuality studies, my life was about to change dramatically when I went home for the summer and began to Craiglist date (via the w4w section) as a means of seeking to connect with queerness and queer community in New York City.  But before this queerness, I would have heartbreak; perhaps it was even that this heartbreak would inform my queerness.  I imagine that everyone in the audience, to whom Haines refers as “Diehards and Fellow Skeletons” in her emails to her listserv, is also thinking about where they were and how they were doing ten years ago, if nothing else because of the power of nostalgia.  But then like Lana Del Rey performing “West Coast” at the Woodlands in May 2015, Haines breaks out of the depressive ebb and flow of the song.  By the time she sings, “We’re out here screaming/ ‘The life you thought through was gone’/ Can’t wind down/ The ending outlasting the mood,” she sounds as assertive, confident, and… okay… as ever.

In her book Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism, Robin James is highly critical of what she calls narratives of resilience, or when (usually female) pop performers recycle damage into the cultural (and often also monetary) capital of overcoming hurt or trauma.  As I go into more detail about in my dissertation, I think that James misses something important about the power of repetition to break free from stasis, particularly within the tradition of African American music(s).  Additionally, I think it’s more complicated than this when explorations of mental health are also at play in an artist’s music.  In both Metric and her solo work, Haines has long sonically and affectively articulated the mental health struggles that fall somewhere in between having a bad day and being deeply depressed.  Nowhere is this more clear than on Metric’s “Satellite Mind,” where she belts out, “I’m not suicidal/ I just can’t get out of bed” at the beginning of the song’s second verse.  When I recall Haines and bandmate Jimmy Shaw performing this song at a Metric acoustic performance at World Café Live in Philly in February 2009, I can still remember how the sheer power of this moment felt on my body.  For a Millennial generation for whom labels are increasingly less of a means of connecting and more of a burden, Haines’s talent for continuously writing or co-writing songs that exist in this not-so-easily-named space has made her a hero among many people around my age (including myself).  And that’s huge.

Back in the space of the show, I continue to sit through Haines’s mixing of the old and the new.  Over the course of a two-hour-long set, she and her band will play both of her LP’s in their entirety.  The more deeply she goes into her catalog, the more I cannot help tapping my foot on the floor and moving my body up and down in my chair.  Ten songs in, Haines and the band get to one of the highlights of her new album, “Minefield of Memory.”  In the chorus, Haines powerfully sings, “I stay with my memories/ And it’s a minefield of memory.” [On the recorded version, Haines adds the backing vocals of “It’s a minefield, it’s a mindfuck.”]  Memory is indeed a minefield—and a mindfuck.  In a time where we record (and perform) so much of ourselves on social media, it can sometimes be hard to let anything fall into the minefield of memory.  But as a I leave the show, there are certain things about my most recent romantic relationship—and, hell, about the past ten years of my dating life—that I have to just let go of already.  After the show lets out, I (eventually) take the R back to my old neighborhood in South Slope.  Just instead of going back to my old house on 17th Street, I instead travel to my friend’s place two blocks away on 16th street, a friend that I first met during that aforementioned summer of 2007.  After I wash my face and brush my teeth, I head back out to one of my favorite bars in the neighborhood for the second night in a row, to reconvene with someone with whom I initially reconnected at a conference a few weeks ago.  And although the minefield of memories comes with me, I am fully present at the bar.

You’re Touching Me Like You’ve Had It All Along

I didn’t know at first that Kelela’s Take Me Apart would become the soundtrack to my breakup.  But that’s what happened.  After trying desperately throughout October to hold onto something that was increasingly not working, the rope broke and we fell apart.  Come November, Kelela’s latest LP started to resonate with me in a new way.  Take Me Apart, Kelela’s third release since 2013 (yet technically her “debut” album), narrates the breaking down of two different romantic partnerships, along with the in between period of getting back out there into the world of looking, touching, and fucking.  With some of her strongest vocals yet and freshest electronic music collaborations with her co-producers, Kelela pours her simultaneous pain (of loss) and joy (of new possibilities) into her vocals—and interweaves all of it with keyboard, drum pad/machine, and other electronic music sounds that mirror the rise and fall of both people falling in and out of love and bodies falling in and out of sexual tension with one another.  On Take Me Apart, digital music technologies and experiential production become means of accentuating the very human (in both the bodily and emotional ways) aspects of going through and healing from a breakup.

So it was from this space of sharply connecting with the heartbreak of Kelela’s album that I entered her show at White Oak Music Hall in Houston, the last stop on her North American tour, three weeks after my breakup.  At the same time, I also yearned to be a part of the black and queer collectivity that is a hallmark of Kelela’s shows.  Similar to when I was at Solange’s set at ACL the month before, I know that I will only be able to access the blackness of the space from proximity, and not from an entry point of personal experience.  But to the extent that Kelela’s shows both draw a queer crowd and push radical ideas of sexual intimacy and fucking with gender binaries, I feel acutely at home in the queerness of the space.  In Houston, unlike either of the times that I saw Kelela in Austin during the past two SXSW’s, I am surrounded by people of color and fellow queers.  More importantly, I am in company with people who are ready to dance, sing, and talk back to the stage banter, i.e. to engage with the music in both a bodily and psychological way.  And so once we get through the tear-inducing (for me) moment of Kelela and her band doing “Better” at five songs into the set, I finally have to let go and just throw myself into it entirely.  By the end of the set, my body is seamlessly gliding along with the songs, stopping only in anticipation of the drops, pauses, and reversals that I know are coming from having listening to these songs so many times already.  As with a sexual and intimate encounter, I lock into the music.

Throughout her 90-minute-long set, Kelela gets in touch (in both a literal and figurative way) with questions of intimacy, vulnerability, and pleasure.  Sex is at the forefront—or at least hovering nearby—of nearly every Kelela song.  From “Blue Light” to “Truth or Dare” to “LMK” to “Rewind” to “Bank Head” to “Go All Night” (to name just a half dozen off the top of my head), sex is an intimate point of connection that is, at times, also that very connection’s unraveling.  On “Blue Light,” the instrumentation forwards and amplifies Kelela’s singing about abandoning herself to someone, despite having “hardened” herself from previous romantic experiences.  After the drop near the end of each verse, the beats in the song swirl round and round in the chorus as Kelela sings “My chains keep falling down” (a line that could, in addition to reinforcing the song’s narrative of letting one’s guard down, also be about BDSM and/or chattel slavery).  Similar to the above clip of Kelela performing the song in Miami in February, as the instrumentation explodes in the Houston performance, Kelela drops with it and/or soars up to the higher points of her vocal range.  Standing in the audience with my eyes closed at times, I am engulfed by the power of this (and the rest of the) song(s).  I don’t just hear it; I embody it.  I slip into a place of mourning the loss of a recent relationship that once seemed like it could offer me a safe harbor for this kind of abandon while I simultaneously hang onto the hope that this could yet still happen for me sometime in the future.  And while the thoughts cross my mind, I more often experience the viscerality of all of this on my body, as it receives and reacts to the songs’ vibrations.

I go through some version of this melding my past romantic experiences, present emotional state, and future desires for sex and love with every song that Kelela and her band perform.  When I open my eyes and look around me, I sense that many people in the crowd are going through this as well.  In the process of doing that together in a shared space, we begin to imagine different ways of being together, without romantic relationships even necessarily being in the room.  When I wake up the next morning after getting back from Houston at 3am the night before, I think about all the reminders from back-to-back weekends of conferences of how much theorizing begins with the lived experiences that we share with one another.  If there’s one thing that black feminist thought has taught me, it’s that we write about what’s real for us, about what calls to us in ways that we materially feel on our bodies.  And if there’s one thing that queer of color critique has taught me, it’s that we sift through the overlappings of race, gender, and sexuality—and by extension of sex and power—because our daily lives are so enmeshed in these entanglements.  Over the course of a mixtape, EP, and LP, Kelela has pushed me (us) to consider how all of these things are always (already) at play in both our bodies and bodily relationships with others.  Upon leaving her show in Houston, this registers with me in a new way.

The work that we do starts in our bodies.

Weary of the Ways of the World

After the sun had gone down on the Friday of weekend two of ACL, it was Solange’s turn to take the Barton Springs stage.  As 7:15pm passed and there was still no sight of the singer, a message flashed on the big screen: “DUE TO UNFORESEEN TRAVEL DELAYS, SOLANGE’S SET HAS BEEN PUSHED BACK.  SHE IS RUSHING TO THE FESTIVAL AND LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING EVERYONE SOON.”  As I watched throngs of people jump ship to go watch the xx or Jay Z instead, the rest of us firmly stood our ground and held onto hope of her arrival.  My heart jumped back to two years ago, when we (and perhaps some of the same “we” awaiting Solange) had stood waiting for Lauryn Hill to take the stage at what would be the last Fun Fun Fun Fest out on the southwestern lake (river) bank.  With all the instruments set up on stage and lighting done in dark but bright reds on tonight’s stage, we stood in heightened anticipation for a live rendition of one of the best albums from 2016—and certainly one of the most important and powerful albums for and by black people (and particularly for black women) to be released in my lifetime.

The stakes were high, both in terms of delivering a moving set but also simultaneously offering something to give we in the audience a break from the heaviness of the world around us.  Standing near the sound booth with a politically aware white lady friend, our voices erupted with joy as the band—and, finally, Solange—took the stage.  The ensemble began by following the order of songs on A Seat at the Table, smoothly transitioning from “Rise” to “Weary” (the latter portrayed in the video above).  After Solange and her backup singers finish flipping their hair—and their entire bodies—up and down, the bass line of “Weary” sends them strutting and crouching from side to side on the stage.  “I’m weary of the ways of the world,” Solange sings at the beginning of the song.  There is a tiredness in her voice that comes through in a stronger way in the live setting than on the recorded album.  But there is also a channeling of the weariness that we are only able to experience in the flesh.  As Solange begins singing, the bass player and guitarist move their instruments back and forth in sync with the beat of the song.  Not only do they also still move in spite of the weariness but they also move together; they push through.  The combination of shared exhaustion and making music together leads to a black collectivity on stage.

In the middle of the set, this black collectivity literally extends out into the audience.  Although the above video is from weekend one, a similar moment occurs when the group perform “F.U.B.U.” during weekend two.  Once again, Solange and her band enact a choreography on stage—but it is looser than the tight, synchronized movements of “Weary.”  After singing “Some shit is for us,” Solange moves to the edge of the stage and then eventually walks out into the crowd.  During weekend two, she approaches a middle-aged black woman with tied back dreadlocks and glasses, putting her arm around her and then holding her hand.  For the remainder of the song, she stays with this woman, looking her in the eye and being fully present with her.  The woman begins to cry—and everyone from the crowd warmly cheers as a way of letting her know that it’s okay.  Further back in the crowd, I break into tears as I watch all of this unfold on the big screen.  As I turn to my friend, I see that she is also crying.  What does it mean to be included in this moment as a white person, albeit one who also identifies as a queer woman?  Without being all the way up in the front (where many black women and women of color are crowding around Solange), I am a part of this from afar.  Given all the white privilege that I already have, I feel fortunate to even get to be there at all, standing in the background as black collectivity takes center stage.

I flash back to a few weeks earlier, when I’m driving around New Orleans with a trusted (and also white) friend and colleague, listening to A Seat at the Table.  We’re doing our sound studies and black studies thing, picking out particular parts of each song and then thinking aloud about how aurality and race are working together in those moments.  But, we’re also touching down in our ongoing conversation about what it means to be white people writing about black popular music.  As I get deeper into writing about 80s and contemporary black pop stars, I only have more and more questions for myself—and an increasing awareness of what I will never be able to fully grasp on account of my whiteness.  Solange seems to be acutely aware of how race affects one’s access to her music, as she now only allows women of color to interview her and prioritizes black women in her performances.  A special intimacy is reserved for women of color while the rest of us get to join in in the enormity of the festival space from behind.  When too many things (including so much art and music) have been about shutting black people out, Solange’s music works as a clever reversal of the ways of the world.  Yet unlike the white heteropatriarchy that governs everything, Solange does not completely reproduce the total exclusion of so many of these institutions.  We (white people) are allowed to enter on her—and black people’s—terms.  This is one of the greatest successes of her music.  And I am grateful to have been let in on it.

Race, Vulnerability, and Musical Openness

2017 has been a year for expressing vulnerability through music.  While we could also say that about any other year in pop music, the sense of agony, despair, anxiety, and rage induced by Trump’s election is incomparable to anything else experienced in my 30 years on planet earth.  In this moment, the output of new releases has been huge: Austra, Vagabon, Land of Talk, Sylvan Esso, SZA, Lana Del Rey, Zola Jesus, Emily Haines, Torres, and Kelela, to name only what I’ve had in heavy rotation.  Regardless of whether or not these artists’ music has been politically motivated, I’ve viscerally felt the simultaneous desperation and urgency of their music while listening to them at this historical moment in time.

At the North Door in Austin two weeks ago, I walked into a performance of one of this year’s heaviest albums, Zola Jesus’s Okovi.  After moving in a more pop-y direction on 2014’s Taiga, Okovi is Nika Rosa Danilova’s return to her dark synthpop form, incorporating everything from reflecting on a friend’s attempted suicide to running away/back to the woods of Wisconsin to escape the horrors of America in 2017.  With Shannon Kennedy on violin and longtime collaborator Alex DeGroot on guitar (and all the pedals and knobs triggering all the synth stuff), Danilova emits an affect that pulls all of us in the audience into an immersive experience with her sound.  Similar to the video above, the group opens with “Veka,” a standout track from Okovi.  “Look alive for the statues, no retake/ Look alive before the worst is over, carry your legacy/ When the world becomes you/ When the story builds you in/ Who will find you there?” Danilova sings before she soars up in her vocal register to belt out “Who-oo will find you?”  After her first run through of the chorus, a well-timed drop brings the percussion to the forefront of the song.  The entirety of the set plays with this tension: the desperation of the verses/of entire songs clashing with the urgency and even relative upbeatness of the chorus/the dance-y songs (i.e. “Vessel”) positioned at the end of the set.  Wearing a Russian shawl for large swarths of the performance, Danilova maneuvers between retreating back into the insularity that birthed these songs in the first place and throwing off the cloth—and throwing herself to the edge of the stage.  Her stage presence is mesmerizing and it is on her that I mainly focus during the hour-long set.

There is a performance art element to her stage presence, which is not at all out of place at the North Door, the closest thing to a queer performance space that we have in the city.  While Danilova’s sexuality (intentionally?) remains a mystery in the press, her performance feels right at home in space where camp (or at least over-exaggeration) and darkness are frequently intertwined.  In the company of my girlfriend and a queer friend, I feel enmeshed in the queerness of the space and what Zola Jesus’s set does to further bring that out.  When the world outside doesn’t automatically make a place for us, we have to carve out our own space.  We bring in particular artists or invite certain people into a space in the hopes that they will draw a crowd where a person’s gender and sexual expression will not be hostilely attacked or questioned.  At concerts, the artist(s) lead the way with openness and vulnerability and beckon the crowd to follow.  But what about race?  Minus a few people who might be Latinx, I hardly see any people of color in the crowd.  When music is created from a place of insular whiteness, what are the limitations of the reach of those sounds?  Given what we do and don’t internalize as hardship or oppression, Danilova’s (or anyone’s) turning inward may or may not register in an emotionally compelling way.  For all the ways that I love and connect with Zola Jesus’s music, I also sense the particularity of its appeal from the crowd that night.  Perhaps this is the result of genre or the experimental nature of Danilova’s approach to music.  Nevertheless, as the group kicks off the end of the set with “Exhumed,” the frantically-paced violin parts feel like both an opening up and a closing off.


Five days later, I have a very different experience when I journey to Emo’s to watch and listen to SZA perform.  For the first time ever at this venue, I walk through a metal detector and have the entirety of the contents of my bag combed through by security.  But as soon as I get into the venue, I walk into Ravyn Lenae and her band doing house-tinged r&b songs.  Although I don’t previously know her music (as I assume is also the case for many of the people around me), I instantly get moving.  By the time SZA takes the stage, I feel heartened to be in a crowd with as many people of color of any show I’ve attended in Austin, rivaling Kelela’s set at Empire Control Room during this past SXSW and the Janet Jackson concert at Frank Erwin Center last month.  When Solána Imani Rowe, aka SZA, comes out in an outfit fitted to the curves of her body, the crowd screams and puts up their cell phones to record the moment.  Accompanied by a keyboardist, drummer, and guitarist, SZA and her band jump right into it.  Beginning with “Supermodel” (which includes the lines “I could be your supermodel if you believe/ If you see it it in me, see it in me, see it in me/ I don’t see myself”) SZA sings and dances around the stage with a sense of openness and (albeit at times slightly awkward) comfort with herself.  When she asks, “Who was popular in high school?” before answering “Me neither” before going into “Prom,” everyone cheers.  The sharing of vulnerability creates a shared experience of the music.

SZA’s set is a simultaneously vulnerable and joyous space.  During “Hiiijack” and then during “Love Galore,” SZA runs around the stage, intermixing kicking, dancing, and spinning around, as in the above video from her performance in Los Angeles a few days before the Austin show.  As she sings song after song about getting her heart broken by shitty men, she at multiple points burst into a huge smile.  We are putting behind—or at least momentarily putting aside—all the traumatic things that stick with us and weigh us down.  Although Rowe uses the word “multidominational” to describe her music near the end of the set, the mood of the show has already been previously set by opener Lenae giving a shout out to all the “beautiful black people” standing at the front of the crowd—and then acknowledging the white people in the crowd after that.  SZA and her openers turn Emo’s into a space for blackness for the night, even as white people (like myself) also join in on the party.  To approach universal topics (such as heartbreak or sexual frustration) through the perspective of her experiences as a black woman is to bring race into the set—even as SZA is simultaneously mindful of appealing to people of all races.  Where the Zola Jesus set lands on my body as a manifestation of a heightened desperation unbeknownst to many white people before Trump’s election, the SZA set feels like something that’s been going on for a long time, due to the ways that racism and sexism intersect.  Her songs feel open to me without being entirely or primarily about me.  The tightrope walk of appealing to people with similar identities as you yet leaving something more universal for everyone else to grab onto has been a hallmark tension of people working in popular music for as long as it’s been a thing.  SZA gets this—and she does it very well.  Her set is an opening.