Since Kevin Barnes split himself in two in the likewise split-in-two Of Montreal magnum opus, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer — rendering himself both Barnes and Georgie Fruit, the genderqueering, flamboyant glam alter-ego with a penchant for glitter, self-exposure and enlisting Susan Sarandon to spank his pig-outfitted tour manager — his performance, sound and lyrics have borne an inherent progressivism, one that’s engrained via a constant homage to former gender transcendent rock alter-egos, and through lyrics denoting the valorization of various forms of fluidity. (Look toward Barnes/Fruit’s flippant, repurposed use of “faggy”or toward Matthew giving Barnes/Fruit “the eye” before he spurns Eva in “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider,” the song in which Georgie Fruit first emerged.)
Barnes’ antics have certainly never felt effortless; in fact, they’re quite the opposite. For a musical act that exists pretty well outside of the pop mainstream, Barnes’ production values — especially knowing about his lo-fi roots — are strikingly ornate and theatrical. (Solange Knowles once praised his style, saying, “For some reason the performance style that’s cool right now is not trying too hard. But to me, if you’re going to do anything, why not try hard? It takes vulnerability and bravery, but Kevin has no fear.”) But there’s something different about the effortful-ness of Of Montreal’s new song and video, “It’s Different for Girls,” the first single from their upcoming album, Innocence Reaches; it still lives within the same gender-bent ethos, still expresses it with the same hyper-saturation and fervor, but lyrically, the song approaches it not so much as a casually ornate personal truth, but rather as a bloggy thesis. Watching and listening, I found myself agreeing with a lot of the songs’ (very generalized) points — but then I realized that what I want in a song — and especially from an Of Montreal song — usually isn’t a glorified BuzzFeed empowerment listicle.
It brings up two relatively persistent questions about how art addresses the fact that it, like everything else, is inherently political. Does music need to be a think piece in order to make you think? And, on the flip-side, if it is so overt, is that a bad thing? The answer to these questions is not the matter of some objective, overarching value judgment about art, but rather how well the aftereffect of said art replicates the formula it’s set for itself. Anohni’s Hopelessness — made almost consistently from floridly worded yet essayistically direct political lyrics — likewise may have made any creative writing professor shudder, and yet the scintillating dance-pop production and sweet delivery stretched the clunky wording of (rather agreeable) politics into dangerously catchy anthems of contemporary dissonance, making a concrete example of the oddity of indulging in and enjoying one’s 2016 life as the world crumbles.
“It’s Different for Girls” takes an overt political message, and a similarly essensialist idealization of the feminine, and lyricizes it with more fluidity and grace than the messaging on Anohni’s album — yet it does less to counterbalance or complicate its didacticism, with the exception of simply making it fun. The song reads as a think piece that celebrates femininity through the putting down of masculinity — and its sound doesn’t jar with the lyrics so much as carry them from sentences you might find scrawled across the pages of an evergreen op-ed on gender to a catchy pop-song.
The thesis part is pretty implicit in the title — “It’s Different for Girls.” And if the thesis is stated therein, it’s substantiated in the following lyrics, or what’d otherwise be the body paragraphs of the blog post (hey, like this one!) — paragraphs that you’d read and think, “Hey, this is another really good, articulate blog post about general societal assumptions of masculinity and femininity that we’ve been talking about as a problem for generations that doesn’t really add much to the conversation, but reiterates it in a lucid way, and to music!”:
It’s different for girls/ From when they are children, they’re depersonalized/ Aggressively objectified
It’s different for girls/ They are mercurial creatures, not a masculine dissonance/ Or sexual currency
They’re not expected to fight/ They’re expected to sit and take some lesser man’s shit/ Though it don’t feel right/ No, don’t feel right
The video nearly matches the lyrics’ bloggy literalism, but with a few exceptions that make the formula result in something a bit more interesting, and the same can be said of the way the song sounds — existing in the same poison-candy-and-neon-forested sonic landscape of the likes of midcareer Of Montreal favorites Hissing Fauna and Skeletal Lamping. (Their recent albums, though never reverting to the lo-fi pleasantry of Cherry Peel, had paired back the synth-pop just a bit.)
The video sees Barnes fully bedecked in drag; previously, while he’d gender-queer with women’s clothing and makeup, his embrace of the aesthetic had never leaned so fully into the feminine; here, in a lush, blonde, up-done wig, he prove his mettle at serving up toxic doses of sass and confidence — though there’s also a newfound warmth to the delivery. He’s surrounded by a room full of diverse queer people, dancing joyously, some twerking, and then finally, eight-year-old non-binary dancer Ezra Azrieli Holzman— emerging as the embodiment of the song/video’s ideal — enters view, dances, receives a giant trophy, and the video ends with Barnes holding Holzman in a victory dance.
Following Orlando, more than ever, I want to embrace celebrations of queerness and ideological leanings away from the engrained qualities of stereotyped masculinity, to elevate examples of all of the above culturally not being depicted solely through victimization. The blogosphere (myself very much included) – particularly anxious about the upcoming election, about the Brexit, about hate crimes and gun control, about the general state of the world – is keen currently on the combination of pop culture as a trojan horse for discussing politics; it’s often now that a film, TV show, or work of music are judged on their message more even than their execution, and this seems to be something of a shift. It also just so happens that art that — like a blog post — has a clear headline-able message, fits far better into a brief blog post (one of the main outlets for music videos now) than something more complex or thought-provoking. The result of this can sometimes be art that feels a little too blog-ready, that gives readily into the messages we bloggers will want to take from something, and becomes subsumed by that message.
The new Of Montreal video isn’t bad — it is joyous yet steeped in attitude, and Kevin Barnes is exquisitely watchable in that ornate blonde wig and frock. It celebrates all of the things I tend to think are worthy of celebration, and things whose celebration many facets of society generally wish to stifle. However, when it comes to art, what I’ve always wanted to celebrate is the fact that it’s often more than a mere celebration that can be summed up in the headline of a blog post, that it’s something a blog post should have to reach for to define. (Perhaps as a reassuring counter, however, there’s Beyoncé’s Lemonade: though beloved by the blogosphere, it managed to be hugely politicized, but often in ways that felt organic rather than didactic).
In much of their work, Of Montreal have used stylistic elements, glam influences, and lyrical flourishes that connote the same kind of fluidity as in “It’s Different for Girls,” without becoming a thesis on the fact that they connote that fluidity. With politicized art being particularly clickable in these times of major political unrest, music videos and other media are often presented in pithy news posts whose headline and angle emphasize the politics in quick, reductive fashion. If blogs have become a key space for the display of music and music videos, its a little disheartening seeing some art itself merging with the brief, casual, opinion-essayistic form in which it’s displayed.