Williams + Hirakawa

Williams + Hirakawa

Of the many things the singer Banks (the stage name of Jillian Banks) does well—and I think there are many—the thing she does best is cultivate her own vibe. Her music is sensual and liquid, atmospheric and echoic. To listen to her album is to get inside her head, almost literally: you feel like you’re in her dark and cavernous skull, or sitting next to her on the floor of her bedroom, lights off, as she modulates her angst through thrumming bass and crescendoing synths and weird jumbled electronic noises. Her music videos—sensuous, serious, all cheekbones and collarbones and dark eyeshadow—illustrate her sonic vibe exactly. When you listen to her songs, you feel like you understand her: a lonely, angry, disillusioned woman, rejected, in love, tortured, conflicted, distant, isolated. Her music luxuriates in what it means to be both sexual and have a working brain, all the little neuroses and horrors that sometimes lead one to loneliness instead of romance, when all you want is the latter, or at least you think you do, or actually you really don’t know at all.

I discovered Banks the way I discover most music these days: via a remix. Producers Snakehips (who are dudes, by the way, a fact I would like you to keep in mind) took Banks’ first single “Warm Water,” chopped it up a little, emphasized some bass lines, and it found its way onto the Majestic Casual YouTube playlist and therefore the mix of the “study + electro + chill + uptempo” 8tracks playlist I was listening to. Banks’ haunting, gorgeous singing permeated the hazy bloops and beeps I’d been languishing in. Soft and clear, a touch breathy but still melodious, her voice is just plain beautiful. I looked up the original song, found a variety of her associated singles in which she articulated a variety of things that I needed to hear at the end of my junior year, miserable about all the things this school makes it easy to be miserable about. I couldn’t wait for the release of her album Goddess in the fall.

How I wish I had just rested securely on my own tastes and not opened my web browser a few weeks after the album came out and typed in www.pitchfork.com to see what I should be thinking. Reviewer Andrew Ryce gave Goddess a 5.5. I would have given it a 7, but Pitchfork and I have disagreed before and will again. That’s not the point.

Once I started to read the review, I started to feel my sexism senses tingling. Something somewhere in this article was off—way off. Surely written by someone who I imagine disheveling his man-bun just so and fidgeting with the top button of his printed chambray shirt as he listened to the album, the review starts jaded (“the worst crime wrought by this decade’s wave of woozy, trip-hop-influenced R&B has been inciting boredom”) and moves through incredible condescension to dismissal.

Ryce seems unable to understand Banks as an artist with any agency of her own whatsoever. Though I don’t think Ryce has a misogynist agenda, I think the way he talks about Banks reveals his unconscious prejudice against female artists. Throughout the piece, he insults Banks’ “limp and lifeless” voice, “her “wispy and rehearsed” delivery. By doing this, he undermines exactly what makes her style her own. When he criticizes what he terms her “run-on mushmouth” in a song called “Fuck ‘Em Only We Know” he writes, “she practically whispers the chorus as if she were afraid to let a profanity slip.” Ryce doesn’t allow the possibility what Banks is doing here as an artist, which is consciously, purposefully cultivating a persona that comes across as depressed and isolated, not out of enervation but to earn little moments of catharsis, nor does he consider that she whispers this profanity out of emotion and not out of a demure, ladylike fear (she sings it quite plainly at other points in the song).

Ryce attribute the tracks that he likes to the work of producers, all of whom (like Snakehips) are male, and in the most egregiously unwarranted sentence of the review, he gives these dudes all the credit for a creative vision that Banks had screwed up: “In the year that followed, she hooked up with a number of fashionable, bubbling-under producers: Shlohmo, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Lil Silva, and Sohn have all put their magic on her vocal tracks, and she›s built a coherent catalog by sucking the color out of their work, like some ravenous musical Marceline. “ Taking in stride the use of “hooked up” to describe musical collaboration—which sounds unnecessarily sexual to me but, I admit, doesn’t have to be, the fact that each and every one of these producers is male, and that Ryce seems to find them all—as a group—uniformly, unquestioningly talented, means that as a consequence he undermines Banks’ role in her own work and ignores what it she that she, as a singer and songwriter, brings to the tracks.

Let’s move now to how dismissive the sentence is. By Ryce’s rendering, Banks’ style—whether he likes it or not—is not even her own to claim. It’s not “Banks-ian” or “Banks-esque” but that of a “ravenous musical Marceline.” Marcelline is a character from the television show Adventure Time who eats the color red. Though I don’t watch Adventure Time, I know a lot of people who do, and who love it. But Ryce does not mean this as a compliment. Marcelline is not a real human being, and certainly not someone with an artistic vision that invites comparison with Banks. I’ve read other pieces that compare her voice to Fiona Apple’s or Erykah Badu’s, who are actual humans with actual careers, not cartoons, and who are therefore reasonable points of comparison to draw against another human.

The incredibly charged language used also reveals the bizarre gender politics coursing through this essay (and criticism, more broadly). The word “ravenous” is a word that evokes all kinds of gendered implications, especially in terms of female sexual appetite. Here, the review makes Banks into a kind of archetypical succubus, a woman who uses her sexual desirability to eat men alive, destroy them and their work. “Ravenous,” as anyone who’s taken a GSS class will tell you, is loaded, implying insanity, sin, and destruction. It reflects an outdated idea of female sexuality—and Banks is an artist who sings a lot about sex—as dangerous and demonic, best suppressed and repressed.

It’s true that Ryce just doesn’t like Goddess and his criticism could be mostly be disagreement about aesthetics and not always latent misogyny. So I looked up another review of an album he didn’t like, this time by Sam Smith, a male pop star who you know because there’s no way to be on this campus on a Thursday night and not have heard “Latch” emanating from at least three rooms full of your drunken peers. Ryce’s review of Smith’s album In the Lonely Hour, which gives it a 5, begins with some background on Sam Smith, his success and his history and his career, treating him as an individual with a self and not a regretful consequence of a genre of music gone too far. The review repeats some of Ryce’s favorite criticisms: Smith’s music, like Banks’, can sound “grey,” can be “mush,” but here Smith’s failure is attributed to the “layers of industry polish” and “focus-grouped lyrics” forced upon him. Ryce is fine with Smith because Smith has a good voice: sure, his album is schmaltzy and overproduced, but no further analysis is done here. (For what it’s worth, I find Smith’s album much more boring than Banks’ and Banks’ voice as compelling as Smith’s.) The simple respect evident in Ryce’s treatment of Smith is what is lacking from his attention to Banks. Smith, here, is a victim, an artist with talent whom “the record company has groomed…within an inch of his life.” Banks is someone who ruins the music made by the more talented men around her.

This is admittedly a relatively minor instance of sexist interpretations of a woman’s work, though I don’t feel that I’m out of line in taking Pitchfork to task for failing to treat an artist fairly, considering how much cultural capital they hold. But why Banks is criticized for attempting to individuate herself within an industry that favors the popular over the innovative, as Smith’s example shows, reveals a failure not only in how we talk about gender, but how we talk about art, letting larger narratives of identity totally override the art itself. It’s tricky to do this in an industry like music, where maintaining a realistic and winning persona is crucial to success, but drawing a line between biography and cultivation of image might help. Controversy around this emerged lately in discussion of the critical reception of Patricia Lockwood’s latest book of poems, Motherland Fatherland Homosexuals, which Adam Plunkett from the New Yorker reviewed, spending very little time talking about it as a work of art and a lot of time projecting what he knew about Lockwood from her Twitter account onto the work. “I worry that [Lockwood] fits herself” to social media, he wrote, that she’d failed to consider “the subtleties of men’s desires,” that her book would be better if she (not the poems) were open “to the emotional lives of the men she mocks.” Here, too, Plunkett has failed to understand how the persona Lockwood has created is a career move, and that shaping her work to play off of the immense success she’s had on Twitter is shrewd, not pitiable.

Banks makes it obvious that she, too, has a specific vision for herself: she knows exactly what kind of artist she wants to be and very consciously has tried to bring her music in line with that. In a piece in Interview magazine, she explains that, in cultivating her persona, she “only wanted to put out necessary stuff…I just want to put out what I think is special and what I think should be seen and heard.” She’s conscious, deliberate, crafty. Her song “Change”—which tells the story of a complicated, tormented relationship—contains the lines “Call me out / You would say I need attention / Just because I put on makeup / To ironically look good for you,” expressing the exact challenge of being a woman artist. The world is such that you must subject yourself to male critique and be found pleasing in order to succeed the way men are able to. This is a huge drag, but Banks shows that at the very least you can make these compromises knowingly, purposefully, aware of what you’re doing, and therefore retain some control over how you are perceived.

I don’t mean to say that only men should review men and only women should review women. Considerations of gender absolutely belong in discussions of art, if those considerations focus on how gender functions within the art itself, and not for what it says about the personality of the artist. When art made by female artists is analyzed through the male critic’s lens, and when he deems it lacking because he fails to find something of himself in it and because he has not been trained—as people who are not male are trained—to analyze art that comes from those whose position in society means they look and think, sound and live differently than men do, that is a societal failure. But when this failure means that emerging and diverging voices are undermined by people in places of cultural power, it is a problem on an individual level—a problem we should be more attuned to.

I love Banks’ music because it moved me in a certain way, and it moved me in exactly that way because I am a woman, not because she is. As a woman, I know it is possible to love books and paintings and songs and movies created by male artists, or—as they’re commonly called—artists. Sometimes, I’ve even thought—and written about—that work critically. Such criticism is actually pretty easy when you talk about the art, and leave the artist be.