All good things etc etc…

All good things etc etc…

Beautiful unicorn Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in the series finale of Parks and Recreation, which is still making me misty-eyed.

It’s almost over! As of tomorrow morning, I’ll have spent a full since I watching, reading, listening to and playing things starring women. Though I haven’t been perfect, I’ve been more successful than I expected in sticking to my media diet. I’m actually surprised at how easy I found it, once the Ladyist Experiment was properly underway. Within a matter of weeks, I’d lost the taste for anything else, and my pop culture radar quickly learned to tune out stuff with an excess of Y chromosomes. I thought that last part would be harder, that I’d need to strap myself to a bed so I didn’t go running off to see Generic Blockbuster 4: The Busting of Blocks, but I mostly forgot that the world outside the Ladyist existed. It got a little solipsistic every now and again, when I’d see a friend talking about a TV show, or an album, and I’d realise after a moment that no one else was on the same diet.

Now that the year is up, there’s one essential question: what was the point? It’s a tough question to answer, and I’m immensely grateful to the many people who intuited the purpose of the Ladyist without me needing to articulate it. What I can tell you, though, is what I’ve learned from doing this (hint: heaps).

I am a liar.

I lied to myself for a long time. I told myself that I paid plenty of attention to women, that I had a bunch of books and albums by women, and so on. It’s a lie that I think a lot of us tell ourselves, and the media works hard to reinforce that. We assume that the media is a meritocracy, that it reflects only the best and brightest, when there are far bigger factors at play. On some level, we all know that airtime is bought, not earned; why do you think it takes over a million dollars to make a Rihanna single? Creating that kind of zeitgeist-pop doesn’t come cheap, and the same applies for just about every movie, TV show and game you’ve ever heard of. There are industries built around this, and those businesses work to maintain the status quo. That’s not restricted to major outlets; if anything, insular channels like comics blogs or ‘nerd-culture’ podcasts can exacerbate the issue too, as they so often reflect a masculine world view. It was one of the earliest lessons the Ladyist taught me, but I never stopped realising how complicit I’d been in dismissing and devaluing the stories of women.

It takes a lot of conscious effort to change your relationship to the media, and finding out where to look was a real challenge for me in the early days to the Experiment. Hell, it’s still a challenge even now. But you only start finding when you start looking, so don’t delay. And when you do…

There is LOTS to find.

Not pictured: the records, games, DVDs on my pile of shame

I’ll try not to repeat myself, but I need to make clear: there is SO MUCH out there that is about women. Some areas are harder than others, sure. Podcasts are still a cockforest (or ‘wanggrove’) for the most part, but I’m still coming across amazing podcasts starring women. (Kudos in particular to Radiotopia for their conscious effort to support and signal-boost women behind the mic. Check out Criminal or The Allusionist for some great storytelling or word-nerdery as your heart desires). It’s exciting to hear more women’s voices, literally so in the case of podcasts, but also figuratively in other media, because…

We need more women creators.

One of the catalysts for the Ladyist Experiment was a letter that appeared in Ms. Marvel #2. Leela, a 13-year-old half Gurjarati and half Filipino girl from Virginia, had seen herself represented in a way that was revelatory to her, and the sense of joy and empowerment leapt off the page. With that in mind (consciously or not), I chose to focus on representation, looking to see stories about women told in pop culture. Seeing people like you on TV, or in comics, or in bands, is an experience that is totally ordinary to me, but for someone like Leela, it can be life-changing. Not only does it reaffirm that Leela’s experience is valid, and important, it opens a wealth of possibilties: if a girl like me can be a superhero, what else could she be?

Jamie McKelvie’s cover from Ms. Marvel #3

I still think representation is essential, but I’ve started to recognise how important it is behind the metaphorical camera as well as in front of it. As great as it is to see men writing stories from perspectives other than their own, that still limits the kinds of stories we’ll get to hear. With more women in creative and powerful roles, we’ll see a whole variety of stories, informed by new and different experiences than we usually come across. Think of Selma: the Oscar-nominated film about Martin Luther King’s march to secure equal voting rights in 1965 received a great deal of critical approval, with many remarking on the strength and variety of women on screen. Though we can’t know for sure, it seems unlikely that a male director would’ve placed as much significance on, say, Coretta Scott King as Ava DuVernay did. Such a choice isn’t exclusively the province of women, but the more varied our creators, the more varied our stories can become.

Women are the beginning.

There are so many voices that are steam-rolled by the status quo that I can’t begin to imagine the breadth of experience we’re ignoring. By choosing to tune in to women’s voices, I began to see the other marginalised groups: people of colour, of different abilities, of different sexual orientations and gender identities.

This struck me one morning, when I was locked in the autopilot routine of opening a store. PRX’s How Sound did a feature on Julie Shapiro, and included some of her work as Executive Producer on ABC Radio National shows Radiotonic and Soundproof. One of the pieces included was The Real Tom Banks, which I recommend you listen to right now.

The announcer spoils the reveal that I thought was so critical to the piece, so I feel less bad about doing the same here. For those of you who aren’t able to listen, it’s the story of Tom, a young guy in a small Australian town who tells us about Grindr and how it works. He talks us through some of his experiences with the app, and shares an instance where he’d arranged to meet up with a guy, only to have the guy see him and run.

The reveal comes when the smooth, confident voice we’ve been hearing is replaced by Tom’s own. It’s a marked difference, as Tom has a great deal of difficulty in speaking. Tom has cerebral palsy, and he usually uses a lightwriter to communicate. I remember stopping dead, standing in the aisle of a deserted store; radio folk call this a Driveway moment. In that instant, I realised with startling clarity how little I knew. I’d never consciously dismissed the idea that people with disabilities could and would know sexual desire; if you’d asked me, I would’ve laughed the question off as self-evident. But right then, I saw the boundaries of my own experience, and the unknowable expanse of ignorance beyond that.

The real Tom Banks

That was three months ago now, and the Ladyist Experiment hasn’t felt the same since then. I have absolutely no regrets about the decision to cut out the stories of straight white men for a year, but I now see that I also excluded other critical voices. That’s a lesson I’ll carry with me, because…

This ride doesn’t end.

Yeah, I’ll once more be free to read, play, listen to and watch whatever I like, but it won’t be the same, even with the Ladyist finished. I find myself hyper-aware of podcasts that are full of men, and feel uneasy when I see dramatic gender imbalances in things I love (looking at you amongst millions of others, Avengers). Though I could do whatever I want, I’m not the same person I was at the beginning of the Ladyist, and that will affect the way I consume pop culture from here on out. Because if nothing else, the year of Ladyist has proven…

Men are boring.

Straight. White. Men. We are boiled rice; we are Everybody Loves Raymond; we are muzak; Omnipresent, oversaturated, over-hyped and under-developed, we’ve been in this hegemonic state for so long that we no longer know what to do with ourselves except, y’know, talk about ourselves; that, or revisit the toys of our youth (did you see that the Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot has been greenlit for a sequel? Are you feeling more or less suicidal now?). I’m tired of the same stories, with the same actors. Now more than ever, I crave variety; I crave different ways of thinking, of seeing. Having one woman (Avengers), one black person (…Avengers), one queer person (nope, didn’t even hit this mark, Avengers); these token gestures aren’t enough to keep me happy any more. And the same goes on the creative side: I’ll be more excited to see a woman’s name before a film, or buy a record by a person of colour, because those voices are the ones I want to hear. I’ll still see things by and starring straight white guys (Avengers 2 comes out soon!), but, to borrow a phrase from Shonda Rhimes, I’m working to ‘normalise’ my pop culture, so that it looks more like the world as it is.


The ride doesn’t end, but the Ladyist must. This is the last blog post, and I’ll also be wrapping up the Ladyist podcast (which, to be fair, has been languishing in podcast purgatory for months now).

I’m still refining some ideas for what I’ll do in the future, but I’ll definitely be making more podcasts. If you’re reading this and would like to start one of your own, let me know! I’m a pretty capable producer, and I’d love to help you get your voice heard. Women, people of colour, genderqueer folks and non-cis people get priority treatment; straight white guys, it’ll cost you a little, ok? Seems only fair to me. 😉

All good things etc etc…

The Last of the Ladyist

When I told people about the Ladyist Experiment, most were supportive. Lots were confused, and absolutely none were hostile or aggressive (which was a nice surprise). Plenty of people reacted like I’d declared a plan to live as a possessionless monk in some far-flung forest; that, by limiting myself to pop culture focusing on women, I’d forced on myself an ascetic lifestyle where I’d subsist mainly on silence and Charmed re-runs.

There’s a good reason we think there’s no pop-culture about women, and that’s because we almost never see any. The films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar were uniformly stories about men (and mostly white men, with the exception of the Martin Luther King biopic, Selma). TV shows tend to prioritise men’s stories, even in more diverse casts (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones), and Coachella, one of the world’s biggest music festivals, looks pretty bare when you leave only the bands with women on the poster:

*tugs shirt collar*
*tugs shirt collar*

Games are no better. When Bioshock Infinite was initially released, the cover featured the square jaw and bracing pose of Booker DeWitt, whom you NEVER ACTUALLY SEE IN THE GAME because of the first-person perspective. All this at the expense of Elizabeth, who was the game’s real breakout star and an inspiration to cosplayers all over the world. Why was she left off in the first place? Because the industry theory is that people don’t buy games with women on the box art. This is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy, because no one puts women on the cover in the first place, (though having Lara Croft on the cover didn’t seem to hurt 2013’s Tomb Raider, which sold a million copies in less than 48 hours).

That scarcity teaches us to believe that there just isn’t much out there about women, but in repeating that idea, we only reinforce the structures that ignore women and their stories, and justify our own unwillingness to go looking for them. Because I can tell you from personal experience: once you go looking, you start to find stuff. It’s not just hard at first: it’s always hard, scrabbling past layers of grizzled anti-heroes and interchangeable, chinless dudes, while every bit of the Western world is trying to make you pay attention to them. Eventually, though, you learn to tune it out, and keep digging. What you find depends on how hard you want to look, but your effort will pay off trust me.

Take comics, for example. Want more than Wonder Woman? You’re in for a treat. Woman have begun to boom in the comic world, as characters and creators. Try Captain Marvel, Batgirl, Subatomic Party Girls, Spider-Gwen, Bee and Puppycat, Lazarus, ODY-C, Rocket Girl, The Kitchen, Gotham Academy, Saga, Elektra, Revival, Batwoman, Silk, Wayward, The Unknown, Stumptown, Black Widow, Sex Criminals, Copperhead, Thor (you know the one), Lumberjanes, or the amazing Bitch Planet, which is basically an angrier, more explicitly feminist Orange Is The New Black, only in space. Look for staggering creators like Kelly Sue DeConnick, Becky Cloonan, Kate Leth, G. Willow Wilson, Natasha Allegri, Noelle Stevenson, Ming Doyle, Stacey Lee, Kate Beaton and Marguerite Bennet to see what’s so exciting about modern comics. Download the Comixology app, or go to the site, and get a taste!

From top-left: Spider-Gwen, Bitch Planet, She-Hulk and Batgirl
From top-left: Spider-Gwen, Bitch Planet, She-Hulk and Batgirl

In need of some tunes? Shit yes there are tunes for you. What do you feel like? If you want to jump on your bed and thrash along, try Bully, Tacocat or ‘Rollercoaster’ by Sleater-Kinney. Need a song to match your wicked strut? Cue up ‘Love Letter’ by Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes, or Janelle’ Monae’s ‘Dance Apocalyptic’. Serious authentic types will love Neko Case, Hurray for the Riff Raff and Emmylou Harris, but there’s also plenty for the bubblegum popsters in the form of Carly Rae Jepsen, Colleen Green and Veronica Maggio. Glossy groovers will feel super-chic with Metric, Yumi Zouma or Solange in their headphones, while those who want to stare out a window on a rainy day and just, y’know, feeeeeeeel will be at home with FKA Twigs, Emmy the Great and Sharon Van Etten. And then there are the ones that just don’t sound like anyone else: tUnE-yArDs, Sylvan Esso and Julia Holter are perfect to inject something new into your day.

That seems like a lot to take in, and it is. Plus, there’s more! All on this Spotify playlist, made for you. It’s a hodge-podge of stuff I’ve listened to over the last 12 months (minus the Spotify-reluctant Taylor Swift and Vivian Girls). Go listen, and find something new!

I don’t have as many recommendations for books, since I started the year with Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which is dense both in its page count and in the writing. It’s an extraordinary novel, and well worth the time and energy it will demand. The storytelling skips back and forth across decades, mixing an uncommon love story, Canada’s post-WWII economic hardships, and some fantastical in-story science fiction that will only tempt you to read all of Margaret’s work (if you’re anything like me, that is). That started me on a path of amazing sci-fi, and though I haven’t yet started on Octavia Butler’s work, I’m very excited to do so soon.

In fact, my reading list is immense, and I’ll probably still be chipping away at it around this time in 2016. I’ve only just begun, and fallen in love with, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton, while my shelves groan with other books to be read. Rainbow Rowell, Girls to the Front, Sarah Silverman’s Bedwetter; there are too many to list (also several are in-transit after a move, and my memory is not so sharp as it once was).

Special mentions must be made of the few books I finished. I’ve already thrown a few words at trying to explain the immense impact Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had on me, and that impact has hardly diminished in the months since I finished it. The specificity of her writing, and the clarity with which she picks apart her own experience as an immigrant, will stay with me for years. Though totally different in tone, Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half is similarly life-changing, as her frank tone and crude but evocative drawings offer a startling insight into mental illness, depression and the ownership of a very strange dog.

On the subject of rough-but-brilliant art, please bless your eyes with this Kate Beaton cartoon.

I could spend days rapturously talking about the critical fourth panel, and how Kate’s loose style works better than any photo-realist in capturing the intent focus on the King’s face, upon which the whole joke hangs. Like Allie’s book, Kate’s collection, Hark! A Vagrant!, was the cause of many nights spent in breathless, silent paroxysms as I tried to stop myself from bursting into gales of laughter that would wake my sleeping partner. Kate’s work is absurd and gleeful, but manages to slide in some incisive observations on gender, history and religion. She’s a marvel, and I hope she writes her ridiculous (and alarmingly well-researched) histories and critiques for the foreseeable decades.

If I talk about any TV here, it’s only so I can talk about Leslie Knope.

In the toughest parts of the last year, I’ve turned to Amy Poehler’s unicorn/government employee for comfort, sweetness and unalloyed joy. There’s a unique light that shines from deep within Amy, one that’s we’ve seen since her earliest performances, but the character of Leslie Knope somehow magnifies that magnificent glow to almost messianic levels. I cared for her more than I thought I could; I still tear up at the thought of Ben proposing to her, or the moment she and Ann share before the wedding. Parks and Recreation just ended its seventh and final season, and as such there are plenty of more assured and interesting pieces on it, so I won’t repeat the internet’s major talking points. I’ll miss Parks and Rec for more than just Leslie Knope: Rashida Jones’ Ann Perkins was the only thing that could approach Leslie’s pure glow, and the friendship they forged is the kind of high-watermark that I can only aspire to in all of my relationships; April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) wrapped herself in ironic distance and sarcasm, but eventually revealed herself to be vulnerable and human in the company of such amazing women. Donna Meagle could’ve been a cartoon character, and heaven knows the early scripts didn’t give Retta much to work with. Over time, though, she carved out a hedonistic lust for life that made Donna an icon, and built her into a complex character.

Of course, there are many stellar male characters: Ben Wyatt, Andy Dwyer and Ron Swanson are iconic in their own right, but they are all stars that orbit the sun that is Leslie. Because of her, the tiny, mostly horrible town of Pawnee, Indiana became a haven, a home that was always warm and full of love. Knowing that I’ll always be able to visit is a special comfort.

Miss you already
The Last of the Ladyist

Taking myself to task

 The key word in that tweet, for me, is “quietly”. I could overlook that, and flatter myself by thinking that I live up to that standard, but I’d be lying to myself. I’ve blogged, tweeted, posted on Facebook and made a podcast, all of which have a self-promotional bent that might not invalidate my choice, but certainly undermines it. Now, less than a month from the end, I don’t regret starting the Ladyist Experiment; I do, however, regret all this talking about it.

That’s not to say there haven’t been good things that have come from it: lots of great people have offered recommendations, lent me things, and generally expressed support for my choice. I’ve pushed myself as a writer, and remembered how much I enjoyed doing it. And maybe, if I’m lucky, some of you folk heard a musician you might not have otherwise come across, or read a comic that you might’ve overlooked. All of those are wonderful things, and that’s before I reflect on the ways I’ve changed in the past year (spoiler: there are several). None of this, though, required me to make public declarations about my diet. I still think it has been a great thing to do, but I wish I’d cut myself out of it.

Aside from the ego element, there are other issues with the nature of the Experiment, and the ways in which I talk about it. However much I steer clear of terms like “girl band” and “woman in rock”, the focus I put on the creators and characters still creates a sense of the ‘other’ about them. It separates the artists and their work from their contexts and places them in a special category based entirely on their gender. That just helps to reinforce the idea that women can’t compete with men, that they need rarified air to allow their fragile species to flourish, which of course is not true.

Neko nails it once again.

Neko Case rightly pulled up Playboy for doing much the same thing. Their phrasing reinforced the idea that there is a distinct subcategory for women who are also musicians, outside of the norm. (Neko herself tackled this on ‘I’m From Nowhere’, which you should listen to right now.)

That idea of “women in music” as ‘other’ affects the lives of musicians like Neko every day, when they have to contend with a patronising sound guy, or a rival band who accuse her of sleeping her way to the top (or to the middle, or…). That sort of industry-wide obstacle forces women out, and reinforces the status quo. It’s a wretched state of affairs, and I’m not thrilled that I helped perpetuate that image, well-intentioned or otherwise.

If I could address my past self, I’d still tell Joel of 2014 to read, listen to, watch and play stuff about women for the next year (I’d probably encourage him to push harder and stick to women as creators, too). Then I’d tell him to scrap the blog, delete the Twitter account, and do it for no other reason than it’s a good idea.

Taking myself to task

 The key word in that tweet, for me, is “quietly”. I could overlook that, and flatter myself by thinking that I live up to that standard, but I’d be lying to myself. I’ve blogged, tweeted, posted on Facebook and made a podcast, all of which have a self-promotional bent that might not invalidate my choice, but certainly undermines it. Now, less than a month from the ned, I don’t regret starting the Ladyist Experiment; I do, however, regret all this talking about it.

That’s not to say there haven’t been good things that have come from it: lots of great people have offered recommendations, lent me things, and generally expressed support for my choice. I’ve pushed myself as a writer, and remembered how much I enjoyed doing it. And maybe, if I’m lucky, some of you folk heard a musician you might not have otherwise come across, or read a comic that you might’ve overlooked. All of those are wonderful things, and that’s before I reflect on the ways I’ve changed in the past year (spoiler: there are several). None of this, though, required me to make public declarations about my diet. I still think it has been a great thing to do, but I wish I’d cut myself out of it.

Aside from the ego element, there are other issues with the nature of the Experiment, and the ways in which I talk about it. However much I steer clear of terms like “girl band” and “woman in rock”, the focus I put on the creators and characters still creates a sense of the ‘other’ about them. It separates the artists and their work from their contexts and places them in a special category based entirely on their gender. That just helps to reinforce the idea that women can’t compete with men, that they need rarified air to allow their fragile species to flourish, which of course is not true.

Neko nails it once again.

Neko Case rightly pulled up Playboy for doing much the same thing. Their phrasing reinforced the idea that there is a distinct subcategory for women who are also musicians, outside of the norm. (Neko herself tackled this on ‘I’m From Nowhere’, which you should listen to right now.)

That idea of “women in music” as ‘other’ affects the lives of musicians like Neko every day, when they have to contend with a patronising sound guy, or a rival band who accuse her of sleeping her way to the top (or to the middle, or…). That sort of industry-wide obstacle forces women out, and reinforces the status quo. It’s a wretched state of affairs, and I’m not thrilled that I helped perpetuate that image, well-intentioned or otherwise.

If I could address my past self, I’d still tell Joel of 2014 to read, listen to, watch and play stuff about women for the next year (I’d probably encourage him to push harder and stick to women as creators, too). Then I’d tell him to scrap the blog, delete the Twitter account, and do it for no other reason than it’s a good idea.

Pre-emptive Retrospective #2: ‘New’ Music

Finding new music was somewhere between a delight and a biological requirement. Limited as I was, my senses became heightened like a mundane Daredevil, able to sniff out a feminine pronoun in a write-up from 20 paces. This effect wasn’t exclusive to music, but that’s the medium I’m most connected to, so the need was more immediate.

I knew I needed to find more; what I hadn’t considered was how I might do that. I’d fallen out of touch with music press, and the amount of new music in my life was at an all-time low. I didn’t know where to look, and I still feel there’s too little coverage of female bands and artists in the music media. That’s not exactly a controversial opinion, but it’s a disappointing thing to note even after nearly eleven months of the Ladyist Experiment. If you’ve got a secret corner of the internet, or a got-to place to hear about women who make music, please let me know, because I need it in my life.

That said, music press was (and is) really secondary to friends and peers as a means of discovery. Seeing people talk about an artist on Twitter, or someone sharing an interesting article on Facebook led to way more new and exciting tunes than any online tastemaker. And let’s not forget the simple but deeply appreciated texts, emails, tweets, messages and the like that wonderful people like you sent me to recommend something. Those tips weren’t just valuable for my sanity, but also for my willingness to persist with the Ladyist. So thank you, one and all.

Without further ado, here are a few of the tunes I might never have heard if not for you.

The Staves – ‘Wisely & Slow’

I think I’ll always have a weak spot for folksy harmonies, and the Staves do them better than just about anyone else. Like Mountain Man, the siblings at the heart of the Staves mix British and Appalachian folk in their clean, shimmering harmonies, with the playfulness of WWII-era harmony groups like the Andrews Sisters. Their music of the debut album, Dead & Born & Grown, is sweet, if a little safe, but the songwriting chops hint at a strong future. They’ve got a new album coming soon, and I’m looking forward to a First Aid Kit-style expansion of their sound.

Tacocat – Hey Girl

If you managed to get this far into the Ladyist without seeing the name ‘Tacocat’, you’ve got a career in landmine removal ahead of you. I’ve been hooked on their 2014 album, NVM, for months, and I’m certainly not showing any signs of slowing. The band was recommended to me by way of a friend’s staggeringly cool teenage daughter, which is about as close as I’ll come to being ‘down with the kids’ (even the act of typing that confirmed that I’m no longer a kid; the fact that I did so in inverted commas hints at premature grey hair and the tendency to make noises when getting out of chairs). Tacocat’s giddy pop energy and progressive politics make them a natural fit for me, and my only complaint is that they’ve not got any more albums for me to listen to.

Emmy the Great – Swimming Pool

Jamie McKelvie (artist behind PhonogramThe Wicked + The Divine, generally excellent human) mentioned this track on Twitter late last year, and I haven’t stopped listening to it in the intervening months. Skipping back, Emmy’s previous work was more in the Laura Marling vein of polite British folk, so it’s even more striking to hear ‘Swimming Pool’ emerge so perfectly formed. The just-so reverb on the guitar adds a perfect haze to the track, which pairs with the loping hip-hop-via-Lorde beat to give the song a sun-drunk sway. It conjures the ripples and refracted sunlight of a pristine pool, so much so that even a noted non-swimmer like me daydreams about a dip with every play. And that’s before we get to the subtle class-consciousness that Emmy weaves into the pool imagery. It’s a staggering piece, and I’ll be first to grab the album when it turns up.

FKA Twigs – Water Me

Forgive the obvious jump from one aquatic song to another, but the connections between ‘Swimming Pool’ and ‘Water Me’ extend beyond the overlapping metaphors. They’re sound alike, too, with slow, loping beats and delay that wash the edges off everything. The way each artist uses those components, though, could not be more different. Where Emmy the Great is idyllic, FKA Twigs mixes menace and sensuality into ‘Water Me’, picking apart a failed love from within the safety of obscuring delay and ghostly harmonies. It’s both intensely human and strangely alien, and it’s FKA Twig’s magic touch that allows the latter to enhance the former.

Haley Bonar – Last War

‘Last War’ is the title track to Haley’s 2014 record, a slow-burner of an album that has stayed with me over the last few months. It’s never been in high-rotation, but I’ve found myself turning to Last War more and more of late, in need of the quiet intensity it exudes even as it grapples with its own bleakness. Cover art is usually neither here nor there, but Last War‘s smouldering ruins of a burning house tells you more than you might think about the album behind it.

Orenda Fink – Holy Holy

This is the last in a long line of slow songs, but, unlike the tracks that came before, the stately pace of ‘Holy Holy’ lends it an appropriately reverent air. The slow-picked arpeggios and soft bass call to mind the celestial grandeur of Sigur Ros, a comparison that pays off in the chorus’s two transcendent chimes. This is mana from heaven for music supervisors everywhere: it possesses a quiet certainty that hints at deeper, more spiritual things without being tactless or blunt, and does so with rare beauty.

Ex Hex – Don’t Wanna Lose

Really, I could’ve picked any track from Ex Hex’s Rips, a cracking album that was one of my favourites from last year. It’s throwback garage rock without all the bullshit pretension, a straight-up ’70s mash-note played and sung with the charisma to pull it off. It’s loose, unflashy and charming as hell. ‘Don’t Wanna Lose’ stands out for the dirty riffing of the chorus, but just play the album through in full.

Pre-emptive Retrospective #2: ‘New’ Music

Pre-emptive Retrospective #1: ‘Old’ Music

As the calendar is keen to remind me, the Ladyist Experiment’s year is almost up! And since I’m plotting an interstate move between now and the end of March, it’s going to come screeching up like a coke-riddled prison escapee in a stolen Lamborghini. I also know that I have been sporadic in Ladyist updates, so I’m going to try and cram in as many recommendations and reflecting packed with searing insight as I possibly can between now and the end of March.

This is the first of such crammings-in, beginning with the music that carried me through the past almost-year. Each subsequent cramming will feature overviews of another medium (podcasts, comics, TV, books and movies). To start with, though, I’ll split music into Old and New; that way, we keep everything from getting unwieldy and save you from readings 6000 words on Neko Case (you’ve got that to look forward to).

For now, let’s look at the Old; that is, all the musicians and bands I knew before the Ladyist started. I noted at the outset that my music collection became much slimmer as of April 1st, and there’s no getting around that: without accurate data (because I haven’t the patience to gather it), I’d say that a mere 10% of my collection was Ladyist-friendly. Pre-Ladyist, I wouldn’t have claimed to be anywhere near equal representation, but I would’ve guessed at a split closer to 30/70.

Redressing that imbalance requires a lot of fresh blood, which I’ll look closer at next time, but the first part of the Experiment involved revisiting the small slice of my collection still available to me. That’s mostly a function of money (of which I am not made), but it ended up providing some of the most interesting material.

As someone who collects stuff faster than they can be consumed, there are reams of albums, DVDs and books that sit on my shelves with plastic seals intact or spines unbroken. I can’t be alone in this, can I? Because of that habit, I found lots of Ladyist-friendly albums that I’d only listened to a few times, and failed to appreciate the first time. And of course, I’m not the same person I was when I first listened, and found plenty of new ways to appreciate old loves. Such as…

Neko Case

No, I’m not going to oppress you with 6000 words on Neko; I’ve spilled enough words on her already, and will doubtless spill more in the future, so I’ll save myself (and save you).

I’d been a Neko Case fan for years pre-Ladyist, or at least I thought I was. I played Middle Cyclone incessantly at work, and owned at least two other albums and a live DVD. I’d seen her perform at the City Recital Hall in Angel Place, a venue that provided the perfect showcase for her unbelievable voice.

What I hadn’t done, though, was listen. I mean, of course I’d heard the albums, heard her sing, but I think I’d only enjoyed her on a surface level. The sounds she made, the timbre of her music, was enough for me, and I didn’t go any deeper. It was only early last year that I was forced to slow down, to pay closer attention, and she rewarded every bit of that attention. There were marvels I hadn’t even noticed before: the way she slyly changes the pulse of ‘John Saw That Number’ by shifting syllables (listen for the “He flew from the pit/ with the moon ’round his waist/ gathered wind in his fists/ and the stars ’round his wrists” to hear her play with internal rhyme and rhythm with the casual ease of a hip-hop dynamo); the bared teeth of ‘People Got a Lotta Nerve’ that you’d mistake for a grin until you catch the steel in her eyes; the way she carves up country, bar-band rock and an unfathomable mix of other genres into something that is so singularly her all across The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (an album title so grand I take every opportunity to write it in full).

In short, I’d missed her. I’d missed the nuance, the detail of a real person, and that was my loss. If nothing else comes of the Ladyist Experiment (though there are other things, and many at that), it will have been worth it to really, properly see Neko Case.

Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney, along with just about everyone else who follows, fell into a similar position as Neko, though in the case of S-K, I knew I didn’t get them. I bought their 2005 album The Woods after seeing a Sub Pop DVD that included the clips for ‘Entertain’ and ‘Jumpers’. ‘Entertain’ instantly carved out a space in my brain that it occupies even now, exposing me to the jet-engine power of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s combined woah-oh-ohs. And let’s not forget the adrenaline dump that still comes when I hear Janet Weiss’s thunderous tom-pounding. The song still stands, for mine, as one of their greatest, but my connection didn’t go any further for nearly a decade. Maybe I was put off by the (purposeful) challenge of album opener ‘The Fox’, or maybe I simply wasn’t ready for it; whatever the reason, it went back into my collection half listened-to.

When I came back to The Woods during the Ladyist, though, the stars seemed to align, and that little occupied territory in my brain quickly spread. The dissonant, scrappy sounds suddenly made sense to me, a mind-expanding unity of message and medium: in the howls and shrieks, I heard a defiant refusal to bow to masculine norms or fragile ideas of femininity. Theirs wasn’t so much a resistance as a total denial of the authority they were supposed to bow to, carving out an identity outside the narrow proscriptions for quote-unquote women in rock. They refuse to be pinned down by your boring-ass binaries.

Seeing the documentary The Punk Singer at Girls On Film Festival was critical to this revelation. I had gone through the de rigueur rebellious phase required of all teenage boys, peppered with vaguely incendiary, politicised bands who criticised all the right things from the safe space of Never Having To Do Anything. That’s no slight against the idea of political bands, but it wasn’t until I saw Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill that I realised the truly, actually revolutionary potential of music. Shouting about the president or the military-industrial complex is one thing, but it’s got nothing on the sheer power it takes to be a woman who, at the height of grunge, politely but firmly tells the men in her audience to stand back and give women space at the front. It was a brain-breaking moment in a truly superb doco, and an essential part of my understanding Sleater-Kinney.

Since their debut album in 1995, there have been a ton of bands influenced by Sleater-Kinney, but still no-one can touch the originals. Their newest album, No Cities To Love, packs the same snarl as Call the Doctor, and they’re still carving out their own space 20+ years on. ‘A New Wave’ is a statement of purpose, as they declare, “no outline will ever hold us/ it’s not a new wave it’s just you and me”. (Bringing this up was a shameless justification to include the song’s clip, but I stand by it).

St. Vincent

I’m not ashamed to admit that I didn’t quite ‘get’ St. Vincent in her early days. I was drawn to Annie Clark’s debut album, ‘Marry Me’, because of her past as a touring member of Sufjan Stevens’ band, and I liked that album. A few years later, in 2009, I bought ‘Actor’, and I liked that album. Much like Neko, though, I liked the superficial things: the tone of Annie’s voice, or the curious instrumentation. I caught hints of the more menacing undertone in songs like ‘Actor Out of Work’ and ‘Your Lips Are Red’, but didn’t find enough to latch onto; or, more honestly, I didn’t look hard enough. I’m definitely culpable here: I put the burden on St. Vincent to explain to me why she deserved my attention, when I should’ve been the one to puzzle out the idiosyncrasies that kept pulling me back.

Then I saw this:

To be fair, a friend had done a lot of the groundwork to prepare me for this revelation. Anna did an episode of the Ladyist podcast in which we talked about St. Vincent’s self-titled album from last year, which I had not yet heard at that stage. I’d decided I wasn’t the St. Vincent type, and that I wished Ms. Clark all the best as we went our separate ways (I’m sure she was devastated). I can’t pinpoint the moment, but something in the conversation with Anna must’ve made a connection in my brain that I couldn’t make on my own, and I found myself listening more and more to St. Vincent. It’s an album she couldn’t have made earlier, dialling up the nervous energy from her earlier records and delivering it with a Bowie-level mix of certainty and eccentricity. It’s properly weird, and refuses to be ignored: maybe you don’t like it, but you can’t block it out.

Then came That Video, and it was sealed.

Somewhere between her shredding in space, and whipping up smoke with her hair (while still shredding), it struck me how unlike anyone else St. Vincent is. Yeah, the Bowie comparison stands, but more in attitude than character; and the influence of David Byrne following their collaboration is hard to deny, but she’s not defined by that. It’s in the way she plays, the awkward intervals and uneasy rhythms, that resonated with me. The guitar is such a boring instrument, it’s playing so codified over the fifty or sixty years of rock that it seems impossible to do anything interesting with it. But like Sleater-Kinney, St. Vincent carves out her own space, solo by solo, and does so entirely on her own terms.

Janelle Monaé

To talk too much about Janelle would be repeating myself: the story of my new/renewed appreciation of her many, many charms is very much the same as the three above, and I’ve already talked at length about the power of Ms. Monaé, but I can’t pass up the excuse to drop in the video of her performing ‘Tightrope’ on Letterman just once more.

Ok, it probably won’t be the last time. Don’t hold it against me.

I do go on. I’ll wrap up now, but be sure and come back to hear about the New music I came across in the course of the Ladyist Experiment. That’ll be along real soon!

Pre-emptive Retrospective #1: ‘Old’ Music

Best of the Ladyist (so far)

That title is a little misleading. This isn’t a contract-fulfilling compilation of my Greatest Hits, or a clip-show in lieu of a new episode. Instead, it’s a quick catalogue of some of the most interesting, challenging and delightful things that I’ve come across as part of the Ladyist.

Best Album: Are We There by Sharon Van Etten

Sharon’s previous album, 2012’s Tramp, hadn’t made as much of an impact on me as I’d hoped, so I almost passed Are We There by. If it weren’t for the limitations of the Ladyist, I probably would have completely overlooked it, and that would’ve been my own loss. I clicked with Are We There instantly; ‘Afraid of Nothing’ is a staggering opener, fragile and determined at the same time. The opening piano gives me chills just remembering it, but Sharon’s voice is what sets her apart. In a song so defined by fear, and her strength in the face of it, the way her voice quivers and cracks but does not break speaks to her incredible resolve. It’s an incredibly emotive album that plenty of people will mistake for depressing, given its sombre tone, but Are We There is stronger than it seems.

Best song: ‘Crimson Wave’ by Tacocat

Tacocat’s fizzy, surf-flavoured power-pop is the kind of thing I’d go nuts for any day, so it’s no surprise that their album NVM is one of my most-played for 2014. It’s playful and fun, but has plenty of brains to match its heart. ‘Hey Girl’, a Ramones-y pop song about street harassment, came in a close second, but ‘Crimson Wave’ is impossible to overlook. Not only does it have all the twangy hooks you could want, it’s a song-length bundle of puns and allusions to menstruation. Usually a taboo subject discussed in terms of “freshness” and “girl troubles”, it’s refreshing to hear such casual talk about periods. And really, what better subject for an angry song than the monthly escape attempt of your uterus? Lyrical highlights include “listen to the Cramps on my stereo” and “sew a scarlet letter on my bathing suit/’cause I’ve got sharks in hot pursuit”. What more could you want in a song?

Best doco: The Punk Singer

Full and embarrassing disclosure: I was not very familiar with Kathleen Hanna before I saw The Punk Singer. I’d listened to the self-titled Le Tigre a handful of times, and only started to get them around the time that I flew to Melbourne for the awesome Girls On Film Festival. Of course, I knew the theory (riot grrl icon, agitprop feminist, all-around legend), but that didn’t prepare me for the massive shift in perspective that struck me while I was watching the film. Watching early-1990s Kathleen invite the women at a Bikini Kill gig to come to the front was a revelation, opening my eyes to the transformative power of music in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. The revolutionary promise of music is something we tend to squander (I’m thinking particularly of the unfocused anger of protest bands like Rage Against The Machine), so it’s striking to see a fairly small movement, represented here by Hanna and Bikini Kill, have such impact in pushing back against the hyper-masculine music business. It’s thrilling, inspirational stuff that should be shown to every smart young girl around the time she hits puberty. Do that, and I guarantee we’ll see the explosion of amazing bands with empowered girls at the front.

Best comic: Ms. Marvel (2014)

Molina variant cover for Ms. Marvel #2

The last few months have been amazing for readers hungry for more female leads. Superheroes, supernatural tales, friendship to the max: the spread is diverse and ever-growing. Independent and creator-owned publishers like Image and Boom! have introduced some of the most exciting new lady-led titles like LumberjanesShutter and Supreme Blue Rose, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see major publishers Marvel and DC do something to address their historically poor representations of women. BatgirlStormThor (featuring the still-unnamed woman currently wielding Mjolnir), Gotham AcademyShe-Hulk: the sheer range is wonderful, even if it’s getting to be very expensive for someone who likes to vote with their wallet.

The stand-out, though, was a teenage girl living in Jersey City. Daughter to Pakistani-American parents and raised in an Islamic household, Kamala Khan is an unlikely figure to lead a new world of superhero comics (though she does have the all-important alliterative initials). Those differences, though, are Kamala’s real strengths: in a world of identical lantern-jaws and neatly clipped blonde hair, a little brown girl can make a splash. Freed from the normal expectations of superherodom (dead parents/crushing angst/incredible privilege), creators G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona crafted a hero who feels more human and relatable than any comic character since Spider-Man. I’ve spent many pixels talking about Ms. Marvel, and I plan to waste many more.

(Runner-up for Best comic is Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet, a cracking read and a bold feminist statement all in one. Issue 1 is phenomenal, from the grimy art and the graceful sci-fi world-building to the awesome protagonist flip at the end. The only thing holding it back is that there has only been one issue, but that one issue is enough for me to consider a “Non-Compliant” tattoo, so it’s a strong start).

Best book: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Yet more full disclosure: I haven’t finished Americanah yet, both because it is a large book and because its slow pace encourages thoughtful reading. Even partway through it, though, I can see the ways its changed the way I think in small but significant ways. Chimamanda’s small but carefully observed story about a Nigerian woman living in America is beautiful and understated, and told with the kind of specificity that gives it real life. Much like Ms. Marvel, it’s all the more striking because it’s a world that we don’t see represented in pop culture, and it’s had a real impact on the way I think about Nigerian culture. Her descriptions of Lagos, in particular, are the perfect balance of spelled-out detail and assumed knowledge that gives it life even for someone who’s never set foot on the same continent. The talk of Yoruba and Igbo, of language and naming; of the shared-but-separate culture of African immigrants from different nations; nothing could be further removed from my own experience, but Chimamanda has built her world so well that I feel like I know it intimately.

Best TV show: The Legend of Korra

I can’t believe it took me so long as it did to get into Korra. Much like with Sharon Van Etten, I’d liked but not fully clicked with parent series, Avatar: The Last Airbender when I started the Ladyist (though I’d only seen two or three episodes). Finally, circumstances conspired. At a friend’s dog’s birthday party (you heard me), I wandered into an intense conversation that took in martial artistry, Asian history and the commingling of Eastern and Western architecture. I knew enough about Korra then to follow the conversation, but I was staggered to hear the depth and sophistication that had gone into the imagining of this show. To make a cartoon about superpowered people using the classical four elements to fight each other is one thing; to draw on historical conflicts, specific Chinese dynasties and distinct forms of martial arts when you do so is to operate at a whole other level. Korra is nominally a children’s show, but has the care and detail of an epic fantasy. That water-benders (people capable of manipulating water) use movements derived from tai chi is no accident, but a carefully selected pairing between the in-world use of that ability and the principles of that martial art.

All of that detail (which is only a fraction of a hint of the depth which Korra and Avatar have explored) would be nothing if the writing wasn’t strong enough to support it. Thankfully, though, the scripts are as thoughtfully constructed as the world-building. The dialogue is sometimes a little too direct or expository, but the relationships between the characters are as complex and nuanced as you’ll find in premium drama. When a love-triangle emerged between Korra and her two male teammates, I groaned. Aren’t we done with this?, I thought; can’t we have a hero who isn’t defined by her relationships with men? Then, in the next episode, the love triangle had dissolved after Korra, Mako and Bolin talked with each other about their conflicted feelings. I was flabbergasted, and overjoyed to see that the writers could handle such complexity with grace and style. And all this before I point out that most of the cast, including Korra, are people of colour. Not bad for a kids show, eh?

I’m still only in the first of Korra‘s four Books, and I am so excited to dive into the rest.

Seconds before this, she literally burst into the room declaring, “I’M THE AVATAR YOU GOTTA DEAL WITH IT”. Instant love.

Honourable Mentions

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

Sweet and delicate, this very everyday story is invested with real wonder by Amy’s rich grasp of character. I cared for and identified with Astrid Jones intensely, and the subtlety and love in her story will stay with me for years. Critical reading for any teens who are grappling with their social and sexual identity (i.e. all of them), but just as essential for adults of all stripes.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Through The Woods by Emily Carroll

I’ve already talked a bit about this book, but it deserves every bit of attention I and everyone else lavishes on it. The creeping dread of the five short stories in Emily’s debut collection would be enough to mark her out as an incredible talent, but her illustrations seethe dread and nightmare creatures such that it’s impossible to forget Through the Woods. Sometimes that’s less appealing, like the too-still moments in the wee hours that seem to invite thoughts of the body thieves and their jangling teeth, but you can’t deny their power.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age: Inquisition

If I’d done anything more than scraped the surface of Dragon Age: Inquisition, it would’ve no doubt made the proper list. Even 10-12 hours in, though, I’ve only begun to understand what I’ve leapt into. The storytelling is a thing of wonder, as you pick apart the complex political and religious entanglements of Thedas while attempting to close a cataclysmic rift that’s bleeding demons into the countryside. In amidst that, find time to keep your companions happy (maybe romance your favourite) and explore the staggering beauty of the world around you. DA:I gets extra credit on top of that for the attention and care paid to female characters of all levels. Cassandra, Leliana, Josephine and Sera are just a few of the rich, distinctive female characters you’ll meet, with a refreshing variety of skin tones that you don’t often see in fantasy. Not only that, but the incidental characters are roughly balanced on gender, so you’ll see plenty of women just as ready to wield a battleaxe or a bow as you will in an apron or religious cloaks.

Ex Hex — Hex Rips

My only complaint about Hex Rips is the fact that I took so long to hear it. That’s entirely my own fault, though, so learn from my mistake and check it out. Simple, straight-to-the-point garage rock that still manages to sound fresh and exciting, and from Melbourne no less.

Parks and Recreation

If I have to explain why Parks and Rec is the greatest, I think I’ve cultivated the wrong audience.

There are so many other wonderful things I’ve experienced this year that I can’t imagine listing them all: you’d get bored around entry #4996, and I’d no doubt miss something. Have I missed anything essential, either from this list or altogether? Share it in the comments!

Best of the Ladyist (so far)