FEATURE: Redemption Songs: The Artists Defining a New Wave of Music




Redemption Songs


IN THIS IMAGE: Christine and the Queens (Héloïse Letissier)/ALL IMAGES/PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images 

The Artists Defining a New Wave of Music


IT is not often I sit back and look at music from…


a lyrical perspective and see what changes have come in. It has been a rather sticky and horrible year in terms of politics and the way the world has been going. Music is a great way to alleviate and disguise some of the pain and, if anything, provide great direction and heart. The reason I wanted to take a brief glimpse at this year’s music is because of the extraordinary albums that have come through. Every year produces some great records and revelations but I have been crying out for artists who are digging deeper and providing music that touches on political and social issues. Some of the best albums of the year have focused on love and traditional themes but there have been some fantastic albums that have opened eyes and, as such, scored huge with the critics. If we think about those big political and seismic records (of recent years) then our mind goes to the U.S. and genres like R&B, Rap and Hip-Hop. Christine and the Queens’ new album, Chris, has been gaining glowing reviews and could well be this year’s best. Many critics are giving it five-star reports and going out of their way to say how good the album is. I have listened to it and can agree with everything being said. On 2014’s Chaleur Humaine, we saw Héloïse Letissier with long hair and, whilst it scored big with critics, this year’s follow-up finds the heroine cutting her hair and adopting a more muscular and stern look.


Chris is an album that means business and talks about subjects such as womanhood, gender issues and sexuality. The Guardian talked about the evolution between albums and why we cannot see Chris’ creator as Héloïse Letissier:

Fast-forward to 2018 and the really rude words are now in Spanish (follarse). And “we are all losing to somebody… we are all losers to somebody” – or so Letissier observes on Feel So Good, a track that apes Michael Jackson in the most successful way. This is an MJ reborn in the body of a 30-year-old Frenchwoman hell-bent on kicking the notion of womanhood around until it’s puree. Letissier has written an album all about these clotted fluid dynamics, set to the squelch of 80s funk; the only thing missing from Chris, her second album, is the grease of street food eaten at unlikely hours of the day after some funky bodily exertion.

To still refer to the French pop creative as “Héloïse Letissier” seems a little futile when there are such pressing updates. Apparently only her parents still call her that now. To recap: Letissier became Christine of Christine and the Queens when, a heartbroken theatre school dropout, she moved to London in search of a reason to keep going and was given succour by drag queens: the backstory of Chaleur Humaine”.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Jack White/PHOTO CREDIT: Joshua Mellin

Here is an album that tackles big themes and is very open about issues such as sex. A lot of the other best albums of this year – from the likes of Paul McCartney, Jack White; Arctic Monkeys and Natalie Prass – have looked at more conventional ideas and scored big. I am a big fan of balance in music but I feel there has been a surfeit of artists talking about something much more meaningful and pressing than matters of the heart. I will move on to other albums that have defined this year’s shift but, to end, a little word from Christine and the Queens’ lead about her transformation, openness and what Chris represents – as she explained in this interview with The Guardian:

In France, since I cut my hair they hear the ambivalence [in my lyrics] way more,” she explains. “I’m playing around with the male gaze and confusing heterosexual dudes who say stuff [about how I look] like: ‘I’m excited ... but I’m angry!’ I love the scam of a macho man. I wrote this record because I wanted to address the taboo of a woman being blunt and forward.”

She admits that the promotional tour for this album has been hard, not least in France. “Sometimes I feel like I’m educating people,” she says, anger bubbling up for the first time. “I realise that by addressing female desires I’m getting really strong reactions. But it’s not my job to diffuse that.” Her sexuality has also caused controversy, with some French articles changing her pansexuality to bisexuality. “At one point, they told me I’d invented [pansexuality]! I was like: ‘It’s actually on Wikipedia.’” She looks exasperated. “For some people, it’s impossible to escape binaries. Pansexuality [is] impossible to simplify and I think people hate me in France for that.”

She is cautious about the dialogue around queer identity, too. “If the dominant society uses it to sell shit then we have lost the meaning of it – ‘Ten queer artists to watch out for!’ How can you simplify it like that? Queer is about intense questioning that can’t be made nice and glossy”.

There is one American artist that has made a big statement this year but it seems British/European artists are penning some of this year’s most-charged and stunning albums. Maybe that is a reaction to Brexit and how the politics in this part of the world have been highlighted and singled-out. I am not sure of the reason but it is good to see a bit of a shift from U.S. Hip-Hop/R&B strike to other genres/parts of the world. I will look at IDLES, Janelle Monáe and artists like Sophie – who have managed to mingle thought-provoking themes among more accessible subjects –; but Anna Calvi is another artist who has just released a huge record. Like Christine and the Queens; Calvi has been looking at gender, sexuality and control. The guitar virtuoso has changed her creative tact somewhat and, on her latest record, brought her guitar-playing prowess more to the fore. Calvi, again, is an artist that is looking at sexuality, gender rights and getting her voice heard. The Independent, when reviewing Hunter, made some salient points:

This was a conscious move for the shy daughter of two psychotherapists. Rebuilding her identity after breaking up with her girlfriend of eight years, she became sick – in her words – of “seeing women depicted as being hunted by men in our culture” and began writing lyrics as an “Alpha” determined to go out into the world and “explore pleasure in all possible ways, free from any shame”.

With a voice she’s finally trusting herself to use with the same confidence that she’s always had in her guitar, Calvi lays yowling, prowling animal claim to both the male and female aspects of herself. She opens the album with a predatory strut of a strum, asking: “If I were a man in all but my body/ Oh would I now understand you completely?


 IN THIS PHOTO: Anna Calvi/PHOTO CREDIT: Eva Pentel for DIY

In a recent interview; Calvi talked about Hunter and how she felt compelled to talk about gender and the power of being a woman:

In the years since she emerged as an esteemed art-rock guitarist and singer, alongside winning best breakthrough act at the 2012 BRIT Awards and being twice nominated for the Mercury, she has found herself answering such questions as: “What’s it like playing a phallic instrument?”, and that other favourite: “What’s it like being a woman in music?” “It’s this idea that women are a genre and that you would be compared to really random female artists because you have breasts, but not compared to a male artist”, she says”.

This year – the last couple of months especially – is bringing these angry, emphatic and deeply profound records at a rate I have not seen for a long time. Female artists like Calvi are standing up against stereotyping and, as the interview explores, talking about more than what happens between the sheets and the pages of their diaries – like so many mainstream artists often do:

As a rebellion against women’s invisibility, gender stereotyping and its limitations on humanity, she made her boldest record yet: Hunter – an album she wanted “to feel visceral and primal and wild and messy and have a rawness to it”. And she put out a statement of intent on her website, laying out her views on its themes. “If I hadn’t gone through that difficult time, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to have been so risk-taking in the music”, she says. “It does feel quite exposing.” On it are songs such as “Alpha” – a term usually used to refer to men, but here she was “interested in the alpha human. This is a human portrait, it’s not a gendered thing” – and “Hunter”. “I’m tired of seeing women hunted by men. This is a female hunter.” She is also tired of the “policing [of] women’s bodies and their sexuality”. “It’s a given that men should experience pleasure. It’s not a given that women should deserve and expect pleasure. And that’s just bullshit. The culture that we see is so male-centric”.

Another British act who have been eschewing easy options and using music as a way of getting us to re-evaluate and think is IDLES. DIY, when delivering a five-star review of the band’s latest album, Joy as an Act of Resistance, seemed to sum up the feeling we all got when listening through the first time:

Across its 40-odd minutes, ‘Joy As An Act of Resistance’ makes you want to laugh and cry and roar into the wind and cradle your nearest and dearest. It is a beautiful slice of humanity delivered by a group of men whose vulnerability and heart has become a guiding light in the fog for an increasing community of fans who don’t just want, but need this. No hyperbole needed; IDLES are the most important band we have right now”.

IDLES’ debut, Brutalism, in 2017 dealt with the death of Joe Talbot’s (their lead) mother and how he reacted to that. Of course, there was more at play but you can hear the personal exposure and pain that came through on the album. The frontman has suffered new tragedy since then – him and his girlfriend lost a daughter during childbirth – and, as such, vulnerability has come into Joy as an Act of Resistance. DIY talked to Talbot earlier in the year and reflected on vulnerability:

Vulnerability is a word that comes up constantly during conversation with Joe, tied into every thread of chatter around game-changing second album ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’. It’s a practice that Joe says has helped him become more caring, accepting and understanding. It also often makes him quite misunderstood...



A lot of people think it’s sarcasm,” he lays out, talking about the album’s iron-clad centrepiece ‘Love Song’. “I wrote a love song / ‘cause you’re so loveable,” he barks in its first line, before channelling Dirty Dancing’s Baby (and uttering that same word again): “I carried a watermelon / I wanna be vulnerable”.

Bravery, openness (especially in men) and depression make their way into the album. Songs like Samaritans discuss suicide and how men are encouraged and expected to be introverted and suck it all in. If Anna Calvi and Christine and the Queens have examined female roles and empowerment through bellicose and defiant expression; IDLES, in many ways, are defining masculinity and eroding the toxicity that can show itself. In the same interview, Talbot spoke about that issue:

It’s amazing isn’t it, the trope of masculinity,” Joe ponders, exhaling into a half sigh, half chuckle. “It engulfs our psyche without us knowing. A bunch of unspoken rules that we live by, that are really dangerous a lot of the time.” It’s a point touched upon on ‘Brutalism’ but hammered home throughout album two”.

These three albums (I have mentioned) have been released in the last couple of months and it seems the culmination of all the political horrors out there and the messages advertising/the media are putting out there has led to this musical revolution. Last year saw some potent albums come through but records from Janelle Monáe (Dirty Computer) and Sophie are not to be overlooked. Monáe talked about songs (to The Guardian) such as Django Jane and what she was trying to say:

She puts down mansplaining with a forceful, deadpan lyric: “Hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue.” It’s one of Monáe’s most political songs to date, and also one of her most personal, a revelation for a singer whose critics have called her presence “cerebral”, her music “controlled”, her “constructed” look”.

Remember when they used to say I looked too mannish,” she sings, in a pointed taunt. This is Monáe 2018: “One of the things I’m trying to learn to do is let go.” She says that letting go has come about in part thanks to therapy, and in part to translating political anger, as she ever more explicitly addresses wrongs against black Americans. Django Jane is “a response to me feeling the sting of the threats being made to my rights as a woman, as a black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades. Black women and those who have been the ‘other’, and the marginalised in society – that’s who I wanted to support, and that was more important than my discomfort about speaking out”.


IN THIS PHOTO: Janelle Monáe

Dirty Computer is Monáe talking about empowerment and women’s rights; about respect and getting people dancing. The record is accessible and you can understand it but, rather than look at basic ideas and copy the mainstream, there are actual messages and inspirational songs throughout. In that Guardian interview, Monáe explained what she is all about:

Because I’m about women’s empowerment. I’m about agency. I’m about being in control of your narrative and your body. That was personal for me to even talk about: to let people know you don’t own or control me and you will not use my image to defame or denounce other women.”

It’s an ugly phenomenon she has glimpsed on social media. “I see how people try to pit women against each other,” she says. “There are people who have used my image to slut-shame other women: ‘Janelle, we really appreciate that you don’t show your body.’ That’s something I’m not cool with. I have worn a tuxedo, but I have never covered up for respectability politics or to shame other women”.

Drowned in Sound, when reviewing Dirty Computer, raised some interesting points:

While she had already mentioned her 'non-linear' sexuality in the past, partly from answering questions about her androgynous fashion-sense, her third record comes at the time of her most concise 'coming out' and she has laid the process out for all to see during a time where a more open dialogue about different variations on sexuality and gender is starting to take place. While some fans of her earlier, more challenging, material may be mildly disappointed sonically by such a straight-up pop record, even they must acknowledge what an important album this is both personally to Monae and socially to the current world, and for that, it is a successful and pleasurable work”.

The last album I wanted to bring in is from Sophie (or ‘SOPHIE’). Her album, The Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, tackles everything from materialism, consumerism and social media; transgenderism and sexuality through to imagery. In this interview, she talked about her identity and the interviewer, Rich Juzwiak, looked at what Sophie’s is all about:

In a plainspoken, efficient manner, SOPHIE’s music explores transhumanism, the notion that technology can enhance our humanity. SOPHIE considers transhumanism and transgender identity to be connected—that she talked about being trans at all shocked me, given her previously expressed allergy to the label in multiple interviews”.

An interesting question came up:

A lot of discussions about presentation focus on visual aesthetics. I wonder if this album is an opportunity to express your identity in sonic form, essentially tapping into a virtually untouched aesthetic realm. In other words, is the music itself an extension of the way you present your identity to the outside world?

Yeah, I think you touched on something really important there...I don’t know, I mean, I’ve always found expression through music. That’s my chosen method of communication. I can speak through my appearance a bit as well, but the medium I’m more experienced with is music”.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Sophie/PHOTO CREDIT: Charlotte Wales

In a separate interview with Billboard; Sophie talked about transness and how important it was to talk about it:

She continued by saying that control is key when it comes to discussing the nature of transness. “Transness is taking control to bring your body more in line with your soul and spirit so the two aren't fighting against each other and struggling to survive,” she said. “On this earth, it's that you can get closer to how you feel your true essence is without the societal pressures of having to fulfill certain traditional roles based on gender”.

The songwriter talked to i-D discussed how she writes and what feels natural to her:

I think the only way you can judge things is by what feels good to you, and not forced, and right now it feels natural to me to do this stuff -- to be in the spotlight,”

“I’ve never really been particularly into karaoke-style performance or a drag race style thing. That’s not an influence on me. I’ve always dreamt of creating some sort of community atmosphere, which is queer, fluid, diverse, genderless, dynamic… I guess I felt like a lot of the culture around club nights in London was very macho when I started doing music. I did want to bring something different, to try and open up a different space for people.” Looking around the room last Tuesday, it seems like she’s achieved just that”.

Sophie has produced one of the best albums of the year and, like her contemporaries I have featured, The Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides takes sexuality and other such subjects and puts them to the forefront. It is a bold and brave album that has struck the critical heart. NME gave their opinions on the album:

More than just proving SOPHIE’s aptitude as a producer (and let’s be real, she’s one of this decade’s leading pioneers), ‘Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides’ digs deeper. Crossing boundaries of pop music and chasing transcendence, SOPHIE achieves the rare feat of making abstract, difficult electronic music that hits you straight in the heart”.

There are ample albums where you can find something familiar and safe but it seems, in 2018, we are seeing certain artists producing incredibly provocative, fascinating and illuminating works. It is wonderful hearing such fantastic and resonant albums. I am not sure what the rest of the year holds but we are seeing this wave of social and political work emerge that is not only enriching and educating listeners but scoring huge with the press. I wonder whether this will continue into 2019 and signals a movement: the best and most affecting albums arrive from those who dispense with predictable relationship songs and write about something that…



 CUTS much deeper.