And It Got Me All Fired Up: A female perspective on Japandroids
A message to the world of rock criticism: You cannot have it both ways.
You cannot claim that Celebration Rock (and much of Japandroids’ discography) is the ‘anthemic precipice of rock’ AND that Japandroids’ music is, at its core, ‘dude rock’ about drinking and kissing girls.
To do so is to fall back into the trap that disgraced rock and roll in the first place; to exalt the “golden age” of 1960s and 70s rock — when the terms “anthemic,” “universal,” “celebratory,” and “life-affirming” referred first and foremost to men’s experience, while women’s lives, experiences, and expressions earned a sub-genre at most — and think only of what critic Charlotte Richardson Andrew calls “specifically that four-white-guys stereotype – that we celebrate as rock’s ultimate chalice-bearers today.”
Now we could have a whole therapy session about my strained relationship with femininity, but I fucking love Japandroids. I love their whole thing. I agree wholeheartedly with the primary assertion that their music is anthemic and uplifting. And, for years, I never questioned their massive, rousing noise-rock, despite lyrical references to girls who are cold as ice, girls with wet hair, girls who wear all white and French girls who will be French kissed…
But then, on the recent press cycle of their latest album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, I was suddenly met with the reality that every single review, whether critical or adoring, spent some time defining Japandroids as “bro rock about girls and drinking.”
Jeremy Gordon wrote for Spin:
Their songs evoked Manichean worlds where the girls were mostly good but sometimes very bad… Standing in the pit with your boys, your boys’ boys, the boys leaving town and the boys coming back, screaming along until your feral alcoholic state broke—it was a lot, and not for nothing could they be seriously referred to as a safe space for male friendship.
Joe Caramanica of the New York Times’ Popcast defined their music as:
that combination of extreme testosterone and male intimacy.
And Ian Cohen’s (admittedly heartwarming) characterization of the band for Noisey read:
On Japandroids records, the only thing better than male friendship is drinking, which still isn’t better than rock music, which is nowhere even close to being as awesome as women.
I’m not denying the band’s prior records dabble in motifs of cute girls and male friendship. And I confess I wasn’t a hypercritical music consumer during their last album cycle. Nevertheless, my first and fundamental impression of Japandroids has always been their ability to provide indiscriminate salvation via rock music and rock shows. The gendering of their music was, for me, always an afterthought, not a primary part of the experience.
Ultimately, reading these reviews engenders the old “you’re a girl, this isn’t for you, this is music for boys” PTSD…
My first listen through Near to the Wild Heart of Life felt no different than Celebration Rock; it was still cathartic, classic, nostalgic and uplifting. When I did pay attention to the lyrical motifs on women, I noticed the duo (Brian King and David Prow) seem to have found loving partners, as opposed to one night stands. But, to be honest, I never listened to Japandroids for their relationship advice.
The pit, the spilt beer, the yelling like hell to the heavens; I sought out this music for the thrill of rock ‘n’ roll. There are female artists who I feel more emotionally connected to, more deeply validated by; women like St. Vincent, Grimes, Courtney Barnett, or Torres. But Japandroids have always been my escape into in the brash, boyish buoyance of rock and roll. Because even when the room is filled mostly with men, their performance manages to transcend gender, defiantly reminding us the fundamentals of losing yourself in music, thrashing in the crowd, yelling cathartically, and flipping off the establishment are not exclusively male traits.
Thus, I feel it is my duty to all the current and future, female-identifying fans of Japandroids, (and the homogenous crop of music critics) to highlight the many moments that I, a modern American female, felt represented on the album Near to the Wild Heart of Life.
Let’s start with the goddamn opening line of the album:
The future’s under fire
The past is gaining ground
A continuous cold war between
My home and my hometown
– Near to the Wild Heart of Life #
I was raised in a right-leaning, small town in rural New Jersey and currently reside in the prohibitively expensive, liberal bubble of Washington DC. I am playing a dangerous game working in a city that is too costly for creative professionals while facing a daunting 4 years living 3 miles from a hostile Trump administration.
There is no more apt statement to describe my future than “under fire” (see: healthcare, art, women’s rights, housing costs). Everyday, I fight the responsible option to return home, save money, and pay off those unsurmountable student loans.
Can’t leave your dreams to chance
Or to a spirit in the sky
May your heart always be ardent
Your conscience always clear
And succumb to the city and surrender, baby
I’ll be waiting here
-Near to the Wild Heart of Life
On a good day, however, I can work hard and push past the anxieties; I remember that my place in DC and its under-appreciated music community is worth fighting for.
To understand that sentiment further, please see the track “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” — which has been both a personal idealistic motivator, and a consistent reminder of free-spirited principles.
Started this song in the southern states
Rays by the river, sinning at the saints
Hot and heavy when I hit the hay
In N-O-L-A, USA
Coast of California, the highway high
Noise, narcotics, and the New York night
An unshaven shaman shaking down the day
And all manner of madness standing in my way
Down in flames with dice to roll
Up in smoke, running roulette road
And, man, America made a mess of me
When I messed with Texas and Tennessee
– North East South West #
When I was young I only wanted to explore unattainable, foreign places, like Egypt or Mongolia. But as I get older (and settle into a perpetually barely-scraping-by lifestyle), I realize I’ve only touched the tip of the American iceberg. Now, simple three-day southern road trips are more appealing than week-long European tours.
And, if you’ll indulge me the chance to dissect the lyrics on a micro-level…
- I’ve toured with a band and spent a few formative days getting artsy and weird in N-O-L-A, USA.
- I’ve done drugs, sang on bar stools, and slept on floors in New York.
- I’ve messed with BBQ restaurants and dive bars in Tennessee.
Plans to settle down
Plans to up and split
Plans loose as the morals we are planning with
-North East South West
This has already been touched on, but every other week I come up with an unrealized plan to move my ass elsewhere; maybe back to Jersey, maybe Baltimore, maybe St. Louis. It’s unclear to me whether any of these moves would be “up and splitting” or “settling down.” Perhaps both.
Japandroids seems to understand the anxiety and the indecision that inevitably ensues a life lived in rejection of normalcy.
Hustlers, whores, in rooms galore
A sinking city’s stink
An arc of bar, a flesh bazaar
Of diamonds, dust, and drink
The jukebox jamming, the lions lamming
The jokers doing the dealing…
I lay blame on the arc of bar
And the hundred proof in me
But the arc, it blames the air
Hundred percent humidity
Well at least those damned mosquitos
That fall flounder to the flood
Get a thimble full of whiskey with their paltry pint of blood.
-Arc of Bar #
I work most nights in a dive bar, and unapologetically divey bar culture is something I value greatly. The best dive bars, mine included, are full of life-long service industry folk who aren’t fronting, and who feel comfortable flying their freak flag while working long hours on tired feet (they’re also not afraid, and are in fact encouraged, to put obnoxious patrons in their place). Alas, nothing captures this circus-like portrait quite like “Arc of Bar.”
And yes, I know DC’s bar culture isn’t on par with New Orleans’, but Japandroids write about the boundless feeling of a shot and a beer — whether taken in Vancouver, NOLA, or DC.
From every day at dawn
Through to the dead of night
I’m sorry for not finding you sooner
I’ve been looking for you my whole life..
And no known drink
No known drug
Could ever hold a candle to your love
-No Known Drink or Drug[/cite]
In regards to the romance-heavy tracks on the album, “Sorry”# and “No Known Drink or Drug”#, I have never been the man in a heterosexual relationship. However, I have been the woman. And every love song has (at least) two lenses.
The sweaty boys in the crowd at a Japandroids show can only relate to the singer of the love song, not the object of his words. And being the object of a song can be just as, if not more, affirming.
Lastly, I enjoy the relentless honesty of “In a Body Like a Grave”:
Christ will call you out
School will deepen debt
Work will sap the soul
Hometown haunts what’s left
Love will scar the heart
Sun will burn the skin
Just the way it is
And way it’s always been
-In A Body Like a Grave #
…especially as guilty lapsed-Catholic who owes more than 100k for a liberal arts schooling and tried to pay it off by working for evil corporate law firms.
A rock song that provides catharsis by calling out your failings is not just a great rock song — it’s a justification for the genre itself…
Despite whether the writers of the history of Japandroids acknowledge me, or whether I am simplified into a gendered caricature, you better believe this girl will be in the pit, justifying rock music when Japandroids come through DC’s 9:30 Club tonight.
Even if it’s just me and 600 other white t-shirt clad boys, I need my life-affirming, anthemic, hard-rocking catharsis as much as they do.
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