Music by VICE

God Bless Women Who Sing Candidly About Fucking

There's a new generation of ax-slingers celebrating female sexuality with hot licks and explicit lyrics, and I'm here for it.

by Lauren O'Neill
Nov 7 2017, 6:00pm

Photo by Sarah Palmer

This story appears in VICE magazine and Noisey's 2017 Music Issue. Click HERE to subscribe to VICE magazine.

One day in early September, I logged on to social media and discovered an avalanche of shares of the same short video. The clip in question features the British Conservative Party politician Jacob Rees-Mogg appearing on the Piers Morgan breakfast TV vehicle Good Morning Britain. In it, Rees-Mogg expounds on his total opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape. Life, he says, is "sacrosanct."

Many consider Rees-Mogg to be a likely candidate for the future leadership of the Conservative Party, and therefore for UK prime minister. His personal views on abortion directly oppose that of huge swaths of the population he may one day lead. From the defunding of Planned Parenthood in the US to the growing prominence of the right-wing, anti-choice Democratic Unionist Party in the UK, we seem to be surrounded at every turn by attacks on women's reproductive rights. Amid this suffocating environment, I've been finding a lot of comfort in music by women who sing candidly about fucking—especially when they've got electric guitars slung around themselves like AK-47s.

This June heralded the long-awaited return of the genre-bending indie-rock maven St. Vincent, a guitarist of such enormous skill that she could outplay most with her eyes shut. She also sings about sex a lot. On "Birth in Reverse," from her 2014 album St. Vincent, she sings, "Oh what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate," against a wailing guitar line. Though the scenario she details is pretty mundane—she's basically just describing my unremarkable Sunday morning—the casualness with which she invokes sexuality, here and elsewhere, is striking. Masturbation, in St. Vincent world, is something regular and normal, and in making it so in her music, she foregrounds female sexuality as a natural part of life, rather than something that exists solely for the male gaze.

St. Vincent is also a fascinating live act. I saw her play back in 2013, and while squeezing impossible-sounding riffs out of her glossy white guitar, she performed choreography: a fey side step here, a cute finger snap there. It was refreshing to see an artist assert that she can be at once sexually candid, a master guitarist, and feminine, detaching the instrument from its macho, headbanging associations. And though the guitar is slightly less prominent on her pop-leaning recent album, MASSEDUCTION, her music is still clearly fueled by sex; listen to the pounding drama of "Los Ageless," and tell me I'm wrong. More important, her reemergence means that an outspoken advocate for women doing whatever the fuck they want with their bodies is once again front and center.

Of course, the image of a woman playing a guitar as a symbol of subversion is nothing new: Would Cherie Currie of the Runaways announcing that she's your "ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherrrrry bomb" be half as exciting if she weren't accompanied by a Joan Jett guitar solo that pulses with sex? Would Courtney Love's caricature of youthful femininity, cursing in dirty babydoll dresses, feel as incendiary if the venom weren't coming out of her fingertips as well as her mouth? There's obviously something phallic about the guitar, but in the hands of a woman, that maleness is subverted somewhat. The shape may be dick-like, but the infinite possibility of the instrument works just as easily as a metaphor for the complexity of femme sexuality, where a one-size-fits-all approach to pleasure simply won't do.

It's important for music fans to see women playing instruments of any kind, because pop music as an institution still says they shouldn't.

Still, it's important for music fans to see women playing instruments of any kind, because pop music as an institution still says they shouldn't—something you can see simply from the sheer dearth of women and non-binary performers on most major festival lineups, and Rick Ross's recent claim that he's never signed female artists because he'd just end up trying to sleep with them. So when a woman takes up an electric guitar or an Ableton console—and makes sure that we see her doing so—she's not just quashing the myth that women can't be skilled musicians, but also asserting her ability to make music happen on her own terms. When that sort of musical expression is paired with lyrical content that highlights sexual freedom of any kind, it's magic.

Another female guitarist whose ax is a prominent visual fixture is alt-rocker TORRES. In her recent videos for "Skim" and "Three Futures"—both directed by Ashley Connor, who has also worked with fellow girls with guitars Mitski and Angel Olsen—sex and music are linked. In the clip for "Skim," we view her handling a woman's leg the same way she might a guitar, and the song's lyrics ask after the capability of someone's lover. In the "Three Futures" video, she swings the guitar behind her so that it doesn't get in the way when she's going down on an alternate-life version of herself. For her, the guitar, quite clearly, is an overarching symbol of sexual voracity.

But, it doesn't have to be. Katie Ellen, a band based in New York and Philadelphia, rose out of the ashes of defunct pop-punkers Chumped, also fronted by guitarist and singer Anika Pyle. For Pyle, guitar music is the conduit for another type of sexual agency. On "Lucy Stone," from Cowgirl Blues, the band's debut album released earlier this year, she sings, "Well I don't wanna have your children / Does that make me less of a woman?" And on "Proposal," she intones over and over and over: "I'm sick of fucking in our bed." Delivered from behind a guitar (she shreds, by the way), her words remind us that actively asserting your choices is about expressing what you don't want as much as what you do.

It might seem strange to think of resistance as something as small as plucking a set of strings or singing candidly about sex. But in a world where it feels like politics is encroaching on my body, having my ordinary reality reflected back to me as something to be celebrated rather than ashamed of feels strengthening and necessary—even if it is just what I do on a gray weekend afternoon.

Lauren O'Neil is a writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.

This essay is part of a special series we put together for the Music Issue called Musings on Music: Four Writers Reflect on the State of Music Today. Read the other three essays:

Streaming Is Killing the Musical Author
That Time the Foo Fighters Got Censored on FM Radio Because of 9/11
Lil Wayne Changed the Internet Forever