2018 In Review

The Year Of Subverted Archetypes, From Be The Cowboy To “God Is A Woman”

For the past six years, men have dominated the Grammys to a depressing degree. Earlier this year, a study found that from 2012 to 2017 out of the 899 people nominated, only 9.3% were women — not even double digits! The surge of enlightenment and optimism ushered in with #MeToo and Time’s Up unfortunately did not foreshadow major change for the most recent ceremony. The lip-service paid to both movements didn’t actually result in institutional change, as evidenced by the fact that Lorde was A) the only woman nominated in the Best Albums category and B) the only artist nominated in the Best Albums category who was not asked to perform solo at the event. Instead, she was offered to participate in a Tom Petty group tribute, which she refused. Red carpet fashions of solidarity and choreographed, albeit personal, performances by Kesha and company felt ornamental.

Grammy president Neil Portnow didn’t see this as a blatant example of latent misogyny. Instead, he said that women didn’t win much at the 2018 Grammys because they need to “step up.” Portnow, who is no stranger to criticism, was lambasted by artists like Charli XCX, Sheryl Crow, and even Iggy Azalea.  His comments felt like a challenge.

Challenge accepted. This year saw women exposing gender-imposed limitations in the music industry in creative ways, particularly by subverting quote-unquote “masculine archetypes.” The American Cowboy, the almighty power of God, and the business tycoon uniform were recurring symbols that appeared across genres. The co-opting of these archetypes felt especially moving in 2018 as industry abusers continue to be outed, their shell of civility falling to their feet. Aside from supplying adroit commentary, female musicians wrote their power into narratives traditionally reserved for their male counterparts.

With this year’s Grammy nominations, we see female nominees are more widely represented, specifically in the Album Of The Year category: A whopping five women are up for the award as opposed to last year’s single nomination given to Lorde. Underneath the wonderful art that many female artists delivered this year, there was a cunning formula at work. Janelle Monáe is among this year’s nominees after releasing an album that playfully mocked misogynist speak. Dirty Computer marries biotechnology with intimacy; it finds Monáe opening up about her pansexuality and using tech, a motif she’s explored throughout her entire discography, as a metaphor for mainstream culture’s jump to marginalize or erase what doesn’t fall under white heteronormativity.

I have spent much of the year thinking about Eve and the forbidden fruit. Original sin starts with Eve; her curiosity, power, and intuition have characterized her as both a terrifying and radical force, capable of altering the masterplan even if it might’ve been accidental. I left private school a religious cynic, and of all the stories I grew up with, Eve’s is the one that resonates most, particularly on days when my credibility is questioned. Thrillingly, Janelle Monáe flips the traditional understanding of the creation myth. On the flirtatious moseying track “Take A Byte,” Monáe complicates the relationship between carnal desires, conservative religion, and personal liberation. While calling directly to Eve and incorporating the lens of digital information, she brings the historically negative archetypal figure of womanhood into the modern age. Instead of shaming desire, Monáe embraces it and revels in the complexities of temptation that have otherwise been looked down upon.

As the government wrestled with the veracity of abuse claims during the Kavanaugh hearings, musicians used sacrosanct imagery and rhetoric to enforce their significance. When every week brings a new highly publicized assault claim, forcing victims into the spotlight while they simultaneously relive and defend their trauma, it has proved radical and significant to acknowledge the unknowable force of being a woman — to overcome while constantly questioned, doubted, and exploited. It’s not an overstatement to say that woman’s historical tenacity is godly. With personal experience between God and western religion, God has always been male, most likely with a scruffy beard, most likely depicted as white. Certainly not a woman or gender-identity that doesn’t qualify outside of heterosexual cisgender male.

Alongside Monáe, a tiny-framed but resilient and lavender-clad Ariana Grande came swinging in with her hit “God Is A Woman,” to rewrite centuries of understandings in a Top 40 pop song. (By the way, Broadly has done an in-depth look at how this actually is the case.) Woman isn’t scorned by a snake with an apple at her fingertips. She is twirling the world on its axis. Further, it’s a personal testament to her creative autonomy, that she doesn’t need a man to run her recording session. As she noted to Billboard, her small physical stature should not fool people into ignoring her immense power.

Additionally, King Princess’ recent single “Pussy Is God” significantly feminizes and sexualizes God. Mikaela Straus uses her music as a vessel for gay representation, equating it to the holiness of a religious experience in addition to juxtaposing the church’s homophobic sentiments. For her single “Untitled God Song,” Haley Heynderickx complicates an antiquated, modest image of a deity. God inhabits an ever-changing and always evolving idea of womanhood. She has a “trot in her walk/ And her Coach bags are knock-off,” or she’s somewhat of a gamer with thick hips and big lips. With these songs, the scales of injustice shift; where women in politics had their voice ignored, women in music used their work to supplant power and emphasize their agency.

Alternatively, while some artists were redefining a masculine protagonist of the heavens, others were working with an image that exemplifies terrestrial freedom. The American cowboy’s lack of inhibition has always been hypnotic. But, unless you count Toy Story’s Jessie, pop culture’s cowboy is a white man. He is that carefree rabble-rouser who looks at you with glass-blown eyes and sees the world as his moldable and open frontier.

On her brilliant fifth album Be The Cowboy, Mitski was telling us otherwise. Wouldn’t it be great to abide by the philosophies of the white male cowboy when you’re not a white male? As an Asian woman, she shared her feelings of self-erasure based on our patriarchal and western-dominated society. “I walk into a room and feel like I have to apologize for existing,” she said. “The idea of the cowboy is so American because the idea of a man riding into town, wrecking shit, and then walking out like he’s the hero is just so — ” she continued on The Daily Show, before being cut by laughter. Concurrently, Mitski is conscious of the gendered labels that accompany her songwriting, which is usually described as confessional. But Be The Cowboy is a mythology. Each song is an intense Rubik’s Cube of vignettes. Through the album’s title, Mitski reminds us that her authorship and agency should not be sidelined — should not be relegated to gendered stereotypes of the “diaristic female singer-songwriter” — just because she is a woman.

Mistki’s music focuses on the confidence and arrogance of the cowboy, where as Odetta Hartman and Kacey Musgraves explicitly harness or portray the American icon. This year’s Old Rockhounds Never Die contains rusty folk songs, hand-stitched with wandering banjo licks. Hartman embodies the cowboy while singing about it. She embraces the cowboy independence while meeting enigmatic characters on “Cowboy Song” and participates in the time-honored tradition of murder balladry on “Misery.”

Hartman is a freewheeling cowboy in her own right, traveling across the country while collecting found sound for her music, in addition to carrying out the tradition of oral folktales. In comparison, on her gently rueful single “Space Cowboy,” Kacey Musgraves not only drains the cowboy myth of its glorious, celebrated machismo but asserts herself as the leading protagonist. “Should have learned from the movies that good guys don’t run away,” Musgraves sings, letting us know that her cowboy is not the one that’s celebrated, but the kind that isn’t acknowledged. It’s the type that abuses freedom and uses it as an excuse for maltreatment.

Musgraves doesn’t claim the title of cowboy during the song, but she’s implicitly embodying the cowboy character. When she sings, “There ain’t room for both of us in this town,” she’s playing off the cinematic showdown imagery. Although she lets him roam free away from their broken relationship because a cowboy will ultimately do whatever they please, it’s also implied that she ran him out of town, winning the duel and taking claim of her territory (as is also portrayed in the video).

Musgraves avoids simply using the images employed on Golden Hour to mask herself with them. She is actively taking down the mythology of the lone cowboy, in addition to celebrated superheroes. On “Wonder Woman,” she doesn’t want to have to use her powers, going out her way in order to affirm or supply affection and information on behalf of her partner. Ultimately she wants to be human, because that is in fact what she is: “Don’t you know I’m only human,” later explaining, “I don’t need a Superman to win my lovin’.” She doesn’t require a cape-wearing savior to give love, and she doesn’t want to be a character developed as a gender counterpart.

Like a type of semantic costume party, subversion allowed the manipulation and dismantlement of patriarchal norms. For instance, the three-woman indie supergroup boygenius turned to the “boy genius” archetype as a liberating creative device. As boygenius member Lucy Dacus explained it to the New York Times, “If one person was having a thought — I don’t know if this is good, it’s probably terrible — it was like, ‘No! Be the boy genius! Your every thought is worthwhile, just spit it out. It was a way to do things quickly and confidently. We only had four days to go from zero to something, so we couldn’t waste time self-deprecating.”

Sometimes the costume party was literal. Recently, Lady Gaga decided to step into some baggy pants in order to tear down patriarchal thinking. “One tight corset after another, one heel after another, a diamond, a feather, thousands of beaded fabrics and the most beautiful silks in the world. To be honest, I felt sick to my stomach,” she said when deciding how to represent herself on the red carpet. “I decided today I wanted to take the power back. Today I wear the pants.”

In 2018, women melted down the gold of the Grammy award and recast it in their own unique and liberated image. Beyond just “stepping up,” they stepped into the celebrated masculinized images in order to liberate themselves from gendered misrepresentations and neglect. Understanding the patriarchy as costume, something that is moldable and changeable, is encouraging and revolutionary; it symbolizes that an oppressive observation of power can be dismantled. Through defying gender norms and masquerading in male archetypes, they can roam the earth and rule the heavens just as effectively.