Flavorwire Interview: Dead Girlfriends on “On Fraternity,” Feminism, and Taking Inspiration From Taylor Swift

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Stop Pretending, the new EP by James Brooks — the artist formerly known as Elite Gymnastics and now as Dead Girlfriends — has caused quite the controversy online since it was released earlier this week. Much of the controversy has centered on the song “On Fraternity,” which addresses rape culture. Flavorwire spoke to Brooks about the song, the debate that it’s catalyzed, and the “giant chrome echoing rage-chasm of the Internet.”

A lot of the discussion online about “On Fraternity” focused on the idea that the second-person verses were speaking “for” women or presuming to know the female experience. You wrote more on your Tumblr about this yesterday, but for the record: what was your intention with the song?

I feel like it’s pretty straightforward. It’s weird to verbalize what went into writing a song, because usually when I write a song it’s to try to express something that’s hard to verbalize. But the thing you wrote about how in general the lyrics on the EP as a whole don’t necessarily imply any specific… there’s a lot they leave to the imagination, they allow you to project a lot of different experiences about the things that they’re talking about onto them. “On Fraternity” is specifically supposed to leave it open to dealing with any kind of oppression. When I wrote [the song], I was attempting to focus on experiences that are common across the entire spectrum of oppression and how I feel about that as a white male.

Perhaps part of the problem people had with the song is that they wonder who the audience is. The fact that it’s in the second person suggests perhaps it was addressed to women, whereas I read it as addressed more to kinda frat bros, etc.

That’s kind of a weird question because I don’t know if I was necessarily thinking about what audience the song had when I made it — when I chose to end Elite Gymnastics and go full DIY for the next thing without a label or a publicist, I didn’t go into it with any illusions or expectations about having an audience at all. In terms of what actually inspired the song, a lot of it has to do with seeing some stuff Claire [Boucher, aka Grimes] went through in the music industry.

As in, some of the stuff you discussed in this long Tumblr post from a couple of weeks back?

Yeah. [The song] is not meant to specifically be about the music industry, but for me personally when I wrote, “This is why I wanted out,” it was sort of referring to not wanting to be part of that machinery based on how I’d seen it treat people close to me.

Right, that makes sense. “This is why I wanted out” seems like it could apply to any number of patriarchal institutions. Do you have any thoughts on why people have been so keen to impose these interpretations on it, then? And have had a problem with the song?

I dunno. My biggest influences are people like Xiu Xiu and Lil B, [and] even like, Taylor Swift and Joanna Newsom, people like that who have been huge influences on my songwriting are often seen as divisive within the sphere that I operate and within the sphere that many of these conversations are happening. I would posit that maybe part of the reason for the controversy around the song is that it was presented as “feminist” and that’s already a word that inspires explosive plumes of debate to rise up within the giant chrome echoing rage-chasm of the Internet. I wonder if the song would have gotten the same reaction if the project name hadn’t been “Dead Girlfriends” and the Tumblr post from a month ago (which for the record was just me spitballing and not intended to be an artist statement or press release) did not exist.

“The sphere that I operate [in]”: what sphere is that specifically?

I guess maybe the sphere could be defined as “people who read music websites.” “On Fraternity” starts with 20 seconds of noise and what comes after that isn’t necessarily super big tent or accessible or conventionally “good” sounding. I’m happy with it and proud of it but I can’t fault anyone for not being into it. Maybe a lot of people just didn’t like the song and got freaked out when they wondered if a shitty song was being given a push because of its politics.

In regards to “On Fraternity,” you said on your Tumblr as a response to this post, “I’m sort of starting to veer too closely to the zone of ‘stuff I am probably not willing to go into depth about in the context of a Tumblr debate post’, but women aren’t the only people in the world who get raped, you know.” You subsequently apologized. Why exactly did you write that? What were you getting at with that idea?

I guess maybe I can say that the experiences of sexual assault and feeling unsafe in public spaces are not necessarily exclusive to women and I wanted to speak to those experiences and not necessarily to any one specific group that they happen to. In the real world I feel like there’s a lot of backlash and misconceptions about feminism, period. The entire “men’s rights” movement on Reddit and elsewhere is predicated on the idea that feminism is about being pro woman at the expense of all others, that it’s about replacing one hierarchical power system with another. I believe that sexism hurts everybody, so when I was writing the song I wanted to take into consideration the fact that the person whose heart speeds up when they hear somebody walking behind them could be anybody, about how I don’t want to be complicit in creating a world where anyone has to feel that way.

That’s where the “women aren’t the only people who get raped” comment came from, the statement is factually correct but it’s really harshly worded and might have made some women feel like their rape experience had been trivialized, which is why I apologized for it. Especially on the Internet, debates about feminism often get really contentious and labyrinthine — for example in a lot of circles the phrase “feminism” by itself is often taken to basically mean “white feminism” because women of color don’t feel like their interests are being properly reflected by mainstream feminists. A lot of people find the word “patriarchy” inadequate to describe the nature of society because they feel oppressed on the basis of class or race or sexual orientation to the same extent that they feel oppressed because of their gender, and so they use the word “kyriarchy.”

I think there’s something of a kneejerk hostility in some feminist circles towards the idea of a white male speaking “for” them, but I thought it was interesting that at least a significant minority just assumed that’s what the song was doing without actually, y’know, asking.

I mean, I actually sympathize with that impulse — I’m just not sure I really did anything personally that warranted the full brunt of its wrath. Claire was playing the Roots Picnic awhile ago and Macklemore was one of the bigger artists on the bill — we stood and watched his performance on the side of the stage and I thought it was amazing but I had some kind of complicated feelings about it. As he was introducing his pro gay marriage song “Same Love” he did this long speech where he announced that he felt we were witnessing “the greatest civil rights movement of this generation,” referring to the gay marriage debate. And on one hand I was literally standing next to a same-sex married couple that are two of my favorite people in the world and being really happy that this fairly mainstream crowd was roaring in support of their right to marry, but on the other hand I was like, “I’m not sure if the civil rights movements of previous generations are actually like, over.”

When you say in that song, “This is why I wanted out,” it does rather raise the question of how you can effectively detach yourself from these patriarchal structures that govern so much of our lives, especially when your very nature makes you one of their beneficiaries. Do you have any thoughts on that?

I mean, that’s a great question. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life looking for answers to it.

Yeah, seriously. I think about it a lot, too. But obviously the fact that you’re doing this album entirely yourself represents some attempt to do so in terms of the music industry?

I feel like specifically with regard to the music that I do, yeah. I had a lot of opportunities with Elite Gymnastics, like a year ago that project was in a pretty good place and a lot of people in the industry expected it to continue to do well. I talked a lot in that Tumblr post about how my experiences led me to perceive the music industry as pretty sexist/racist. Going full DIY was one idea I had about trying to find a way to deal with that. I think the fact that Stop Pretending got way more press than anything my previous project had done sorta led to that being lost on people, though.

That’s probably true, unfortunately. I want to ask you about the gender ambiguity in the lyrics, because I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much into the fact that there are no gender pronouns. Is that an idea you were interested in exploring?

The lyrics were all really deliberate and took a long time to write. I was really inspired by Taylor Swift, especially on her new album, how her songwriting style sort of mimics the conversational language of her audience. I was really excited by that. I wanted to try to use a lot of conversational language and a lot of the kind of language I would use writing about stuff on Tumblr in the context of songwriting.

Huh, that’s really interesting. What is it that appeals to you so much about Tumblr as a platform?

It’s difficult to single out qualities I like or dislike about the Internet that are unique to Tumblr specifically, I’ve just been online since I was a teenager and it’s almost always been a significant part of my life. I like it better than Pinterest because I’m more interested in text than images most of the time, I guess. My mom is more into Pinterest.

Can you tell me about the visuals for the video? There’s something kinda… blank about them, I guess? What was the idea there?

I thought a lot about format when I was trying to figure out how to release the music I was working on. When I thought about how I listen to other peoples’ music I realized that YouTube is a really important platform to me, that I never think about it but that usually when I want to hear a song I go search for it on YouTube. Some of my favorite artists are people like Lil B who predominantly live on YouTube and make money from there, and not from album sales. The “On Fraternity” thing was just intended to be a way to listen to the song on YouTube more than anything else. Eventually I want to do other pieces for the other songs and eventually maybe something more like a proper music video or maybe songs that exist only on YouTube and not anywhere else.

You discussed the name Dead Girlfriends on Tumblr yesterday, and yesterday you said, “I can see how some people saw that quote [about the project name] and assumed that I am totally humorless and in denial about the fact that I benefit from the patriarchy no matter how many mean things I say about it on the internet, which is the exact opposite of what I originally meant to express.” So what did you mean to express?

I don’t know what I’m gonna do about the name yet. I don’t think band names matter that much — with Elite Gymnastics the name was the first thing anyone asked about in interviews but it was always the last thing in the world I wanted to talk about. If the name is one of the things that is creating problems again, I can just change it again. I care deeply about the stuff I make but the name I have to put on songs in order to prevent people from thinking they’re the work of Simpsons producer James L. Brooks is not one of the main things I care about.