The Music Club

Azealia Banks, Lana Del Rey, Nicki Minaj: Brava for music’s bad feminists.

Entry 10: Let’s hear it for the bad feminists.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photo by Cathal McNaughton/Reuters.
Lana del Rey smokes a cigarette as she performs during the Glastonbury Festival on June 28, 2014.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photo by Cathal McNaughton/Reuters.

Hey guys!

I’m really glad Jason, in his moving and incisive entry, brought up the ever-divisive Azealia Banks, who, with little warning, finally released her mythically long-awaited debut album Broke With Expensive Taste last month. By the time it came out, I’d gone through at least three stages of feelings about Banks: delight (when she first stormed the scene with her exhilaratingly promising 2011 single “212”), disappointment (when her frequent Twitter outbursts and tired usage of gay slurs began to overshadow her music), and finally indifference (when the odds that BWET would ever see the light of day started to feel ominously slim). But I really like BWET—the highest compliment I’d bestow upon it is that it served as a visceral reminder of the promise I saw in Banks before I’d ever followed her on Twitter. Social media gives the artists we love more chances than ever to disappoint us, to bombard us with unflattering overshares, extremist opinions, and even small-minded bigotry, as my former Pitchfork colleague Grayson Haver Currin noted earlier this week. “2014 felt like the year of The Great Unfollow,” he wrote, “where I chose to opt out of reading or hearing many artists’ spontaneous social media revelations so that I didn’t end up hating them.”

Critics (myself included) heralded Banks as a kind of feminist hero when “212” dropped—the song was a proudly queer rebuttal to hip-hop’s dominant refrain of “no homo” and an invigorating jolt of confident and subjective feminine sexuality in a pre-“Flawless” world. But once she started using social media as a platform to attack other women and gay men, we feminist critics started to backpedal, and worse, feel a sense that we’d been mislead or personally betrayed.

My conflicted feelings about BWET prompted me to reread the introduction to one of the year’s most fiercely debated books, Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist. Much in the way Banks has reclaimed the word cunt or artists like Nicki Minaj have attempted to turn bitch on its head, Gay turns the titular insult into a badge of honor. “I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human,” she writes. “I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers … I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal. People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up. Consider me already knocked off.”

To many pop music fans, one of the year’s most iconic images was that of Beyoncé posing, perfectly, in front of the word “FEMINIST” at the VMAs. And that was a thrilling moment for sure, but something about the way that iconic screenshot was so breezily reblogged and retweeted around the Internet made me feel a little conflicted. More and more, online feminism has become polarized and performative: You’re either in the club or you’re not, and once you’ve been ejected for, say, taking the unpopular stance about whatever Twitter is saying about Lena Dunham that day, you’re left out in the cold with the locks changed. I had a general sense of fatigue about all forms of Internet shouting matches this year, and maybe that’s why I found myself gravitating less toward the female artists who played by the established and sometimes rigid rules of 21st-century feminism than I did the ones who provoked messy, sometimes even uncomfortable questions that lacked obvious, 140-character-friendly answers. To me, 2014 was just as much the Year of the Woman as it was the Year of the Bad Feminist.

Which is really to say it was the year I learned, quite unexpectedly, to stop worrying and love Lana Del Rey. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be saying this, I’d have thought you were crazy, but: I do not think there was an album I listened to this year more than Ultraviolence. Del Rey’s first album under that name, 2012’s Born to Die, didn’t appeal to me at all; it struck me as empty, thematically undercooked, and contentedly (and thus offensively) retrograde in its vision of the modern American woman. What changed between now and then? For one thing, Del Rey became incredibly adept at articulating the darkness of that vision—Ultraviolence found her slyly asserting that her American dream had been a nightmare all along. It is often bracingly, unsettlingly, confrontationally sad, the way Cat Power’s earliest records are. As I wrote earlier this year, Del Rey’s music is about the loneliness and even the horror of embodying a male fantasy. Ultraviolence represents the moment she was finally able to bottle that glacial chill that drifts atop the pedestal. (She even put it in the context of pop history on the album’s closer, a sumptuously glum cover of Nina Simone’s “The Other Woman.”) No, Del Rey does not identify as a card-carrying feminist, and I highly doubt she ever will (she is #TeamSpace), but to me she provoked more interesting and messily unanswerable questions about femininity than artists who are easier to champion.

Speaking of which: Let’s talk “Anaconda.” Ann, I love so many things about the end-of-year essay you wrote for NPR last week, not the least of which was that it helped me articulate my cocktail-party defense of that much-maligned Nicki Minaj single. “Pop sells sex,” you wrote, “and women celebrities like [Beyoncé] embody common erotic ideas and ideals. How, given long-held prejudices against sexual women as weak and animalistic, can they also claim authority, project competence and retain self-control?” This is precisely the question I see Minaj playfully grappling with in the “Anaconda” video, in which she invites the male gaze only to thwart it with a mise-en-scène so cartoonishly absurd that really it’s just an epic cock block. And I see her confronting this same paradox in her similarly controversial single “Only,” in which she asserts, “I never fucked Wayne/ I never fucked Drake” … and then invites them on the track to semi-intelligibly blather about how much they’d like to fuck her. (I have a pet theory that the song is actually a part of a misandrist plot to make Weezy and Drizzy sound as stupid as possible, thus proving once and for all why Nicki would never fuck them—but that’s a whole other cocktail-party conversation.) Are any of these things commendably #empowering? It’s complicated. But here is a bad feminist confession: I have been bumping “Only” like 10 times more than the new Sleater-Kinney single. (Which is not a jab at the merciful resurrection of those Olympia punk gods so much as a declaration of how hard it has been to listen to something other than the wonderful The Pinkprint this week.)

And hey, here are some more bad feminist confessions. There were times in 2014 when I felt like I could go the rest of my life not needing a man; there were times in 2014 that men made me cry. There were times I felt invincible; there were times I felt defeated. Sometimes I rolled up in the four-door Aventador; sometimes I had to crawl. When I was younger, these contradictions felt like failings, because I thought that being a feminist meant being superhumanly strong, independent, and winning all the time. So I’m grateful that Minaj, like Beyoncé before her, has given us a record that paints a much more nuanced picture of what female empowerment actually looks like in this cultural moment. As powerful as they are, these artists are as honest about the valleys as they are the peaks, and the music they’re making reflects the complexity of a lived experience. The Pinkprint reminds me that being an independent woman is about something more complicated than toeing the perceived party line all the time, but instead taking full responsibility for your actions and emotions—even in the moments when they might be a little messy. This year proved Minaj to be a singular female artist playing the game by her own rules—and if that’s not feminist, then I don’t even know what the word means anymore.

Also, between The Pinkprint, Black Messiah, and Charli XCX’s Sucker, it’s been an unusually stellar December. Any other records you all are suddenly wishing you could duct tape onto the end of your lists?

That was a setup for a punch line on duct tape,