by Josh Ginsberg (@world0fdarkness)
At a glance, Sadie Dupuis’ decision to to make an electronic album fits neatly into the parameters of an emerging rock trope. Ben Gibbard and Dntel’s (This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan is the first record I remember in this tradition, but they pop up at least every couple years. There’s the Album Leaf and Sun Kil Moon LP Perils From the Sea, which was eventually outed by “Ben’s My Friend” (not to be confused with Sad13’s “Just A Friend”) as a direct nod to the tradition of the Postal Service. And who could forget the perplexing collaboration between Timbaland and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, 2009’s Scream, which filtered Z100 beats through the lens of Hot Topic? For whatever reason, albums in this tradition tend to be collaborations between rock or folk musicians and a previously established producer of electronic music. Sad13’s Slugger diverges from that aspect of the trend. Slugger is the album on which the gnarly Speedy Ortiz shredder/songwriter finds her voice as a producer—a space she acknowledges is too seldom occupied by women, even today—and establishes a compelling path for a career beyond and in addition to her rock band. Sad13 is a gesture of total self-actualization that celebrates autonomy and community on the terms of the individual and doesn’t let you forget it.
It seems Slugger might not exist as we know it today if not for comparisons to the production of Rihanna’s ANTI that Dupuis’ Garageband demos received. This inspired her to complete the arrangement of songs independently, instead of deferring to producers, as she has in the past. Followers of Dupuis on Twitter know that she is an avid appreciator of many of mainstream pop’s most dynamic voices and personalities. The defiant abrasion of Nicki Minaj is palpable throughout Sad13’s songs—and while that streak has always existed in Speedy Ortiz’s music, it feels larger than life in the context of Sad13’s pop production. The newfound confidence shows in the way Sad13 culls a new aesthetic that ignores genre barriers to render a distinctive sonic picture. Despite their smooth, Technicolor pop textures, Slugger plays to Dupuis’s established melodic strengths—serpentine earworms of notes that evoke detuned strings and an offset body.
Although the content of Dupuis’ songs is still coated in densely abstract impressions and images, she ups the slangfactor. Dupuis also continues to revel in sly language play; you’d think she’s singing about “drowning in a basement” before it occurs to you that “abasement” is more Sadie’s speed. The change in production has not forced Dupuis to deviate from her poetic sensibility though it feels like she has consciously adjusted the scope of her lyrics. A number of the songs on Slugger are directly concerned with empowerment and social justice and tap into the crises of contemporary culture with greater clarity than Dupuis’ noisier peers. “Hype,” “Tell U What” and “Coming Into Powers” are seething tracks that demand “Fuck you, pay me what you owe” and skewer patriarchal impulses to sell women short.
Songs like “Coming Into Powers” lead listeners to one of Slugger’s most consistent and vital threads: the desire to remake the world in your image. References to patriarchal hegemony and the marginalization of female and queer artists abound on “Line Up”: “They let in every boy but I’m the only girl in sight” being the most direct instance, though there are many more oblique, figurative lyrics that seem to describe the same inequality (“dogs” “eating from the kitty’s dish”). Sadie Dupuis’ engagement with DIY spaces is well documented (you might recall her safe space hotline) and lines like “I’m only breaking in if I get to bring a buddy / We’ll jam open the door and let in the kids we like” establish the frustration of being marginalized by venues and made to stand alone. This particular problem—of alleged safe spaces becoming a venue for marginalization or social oppression of some kind or another—is particularly problematic in light of the fact DIY spaces should be a reaction against exclusion and the devaluation of others. Dupuis taps into adolescent furor when she calls out the gatekeepers of safe spaces for making her and “the kids [she likes]” feel alien at shows. Having worked as teacher, played the public role of mentor to Palehound’s Ellen Kempner, and having garnered the attention of a vast audience on Twitter, Sadie Dupuis clearly aspires to lead. Although every DIY scene has their leaders, Dupuis stands out among her peers for this ambition—she will be a talking head on VH1 before long. This desire to lead feels outsized in many music scenes and suggests that Sad13’s pursuit of a pop sound may serve a bigger purpose. The rallying cry of “Hype” (“I just wanna hype my girls”) and the lengthy hooky melodies of “Coming Into Powers,” which testify to the need to acknowledge gender inequality, (“You'll pay us what we're owed / We work as hard as those / making hella dough / cuz their body's status quo”) are purposeful making Slugger one of the year’s most intentionally inspirational collections of music.
Although big box pop artists theoretically have a platform from which they can bring about meaningful change, they rarely actually enact it. How many songs can be said to have influenced the world in a concrete way, without speaking hyperbolically? Songs that even have the potential to impact the world are few and far between. “Get a Yes,” the first song released from Slugger, is a song of that breed and would deserve accolades for its intent even if it weren’t a great pop song (which it is).
As a progressive cishet male living in a liberal enclave, I’m afforded to privilege of losing sight of how unsafe the world can be. But I teach at a public university in Manhattan and a public high school in the Bronx, places where many of the people I spend my time with are not afforded the same privilege. As a result, I try to facilitate my classes as an open forum wherein students can discuss the things that matter to them. Sometimes things don’t go as planned. Earlier this year, a 12th grade girl told a story about being catcalled. I expected that a faction of the teenage boys in the room, unskilled in empathy and largely ignorant of any experiences that haven’t come first hand,might miss the point of their peer’s story and ridicule her. I assumed I’d have to shoot down a dumbass comment about how catcalling is the inevitable result of a girl dressing “like that” and have to defuse the situation by letting some of the more enlightened students respond to the disruption and dispel the problematic conflation of a fashion decision with consent for sexual advances, verbal or otherwise. This year however, for whatever reason, things took a turn for the worst. Even though I shut it down quickly, it was clear that most people in the room believed that a girl is asking for sexual advances by dressing a certain way and that she was wrong for dismissing them as out of turn. It wasn’t a matter of there being a few students on her case. Most people in the room supported a viewpoint about consent that the adults that populate my liberal enclave would balk at. It immediately depressed me that, in that moment, the space of my classroom was anything but safe. In that moment, two dozen people who I care about fell blindly in line with one of the most repulsive and literally dangerous logical fallacies in the world. And they didn’t think twice about it.
While listening to “Get a Yes,” sometime later, I thought it was sad that Beyonce’s missive about feminism from a couple years back hadn’t touched on consent. There’s a lot of pop music about female desire and empowerment but none that I can think of that so directly says what my students needed to hear. Sadie Dupuis frames the importance of acknowledging a person’s agency, the conscious choices that must be shared by each party in a kiss or touch, in the context of a piece of music so palpably longing that it forces listeners to reckon with their own desire. The need for active consent is the thing that prevents another person from registering as an object—two brains must think, two bodies must act. She illuminates the ultimate sexiness of the other—the fact that guesswork “out the gate” will never allow you to realize “what [they’re] all about.” She also highlights what is so magnetic about the other’s subjectivity: the cliffhanger that succeeds every question you ask, as you stand and wait in awe of their unchartered brain. You need dialogue to uncover those mysteries. You need interaction. To harness their electricity requires a little more conversation and a little less action. The pop goddesses of our time would do well to take Sad13 on tour—or at least rip her off. The kids need to hear it from someone, and they need to hear it now.