No Cis-Men November: My Month of Only Consuming Media Made by Women and Non-Binary Creators

Storytelling poetry, oil paintings and psychological studies all feature on Emily Blundell Owers's list.

WORDS Emily Blundell Owers

As a teenager, I thought that force-feeding myself literature by ‘the greats’ of the 20th century was a way of proving my intelligence. I read Kerouac and Fitzgerald, Camus and Salinger, and felt clever because I ‘appreciated’ the work of these men. By now, I’ve slogged my way through an English degree where I’ve consumed more of these ‘greats’, this time paying for the pleasure (whilst some deserve the accolade, others I met with distaste, earning me daggers from professors and students alike). Now living in a post-graduation haze, as the UK’s second national lockdown loomed over the coming month of November, I came to a realisation. 

I’m tired of media produced by men. Of music, of films, of art – but most especially of literature.  

The thing is, men never quite get women. Women are mothers and lovers and daughters. Extensions of the self. You hear men talk to each other about victims of abuse at male hands, encouraging each other’s faculties for empathy by asking them to picture her as ‘his ____’. Fill in the blank with whomever you deem worthy of love, and thus of human decency.  This same principle applies to men writing women; again and again they are categorised as motherly figures, as pure innocents for them to protect, as someone to fix or to fuck. Or they are just blank, either entirely absent from men’s stories or a name mentioned in passing to pad out a narrative which seeks nothing more than to explore the deep, dark mind of its male protagonist. Natch. Every option feels as empty. And whilst I can’t speak for the experience of gay men or gender non-conforming people, I can only imagine that their portrayals feel even more flat, or cruel, or absent. 

In the vast majority of settings I’ve been invited to write, or speak at length on art or literature, male perspectives have been the focus.

Of course, I’ve found electrifying female and trans voices before, have wallowed in the richness of non-cis-male creatives, poets, filmmakers and novelists since I was in my early teens. But in the vast majority of settings I’ve been invited to write, or speak at length on art or literature, male perspectives have been the focus. The voices I hear aloud as I watch, or in my head as I read are most often baritone. Sometimes that voice even speaks over my own when I’m looking at, or questioning, or doubting myself.

So, this November, whilst many of us have been inside consuming more media than ever to fill our days, I set myself a challenge; to only engage with work which has been made by women and non-binary creatives, wherever I can. Most of what I watched and listened to, and everything I read has been directed, written, sang or otherwise performed by people who don’t identify as men. And more importantly, most of this content has been about women and non-binary people, because that is what I’ve been pining for; the female and otherwise non-cis-male experience crystallized, as complicated and painful and deliriously happy as it is. Below are the very best of those portrayals, divided for ease into four categories – ‘to read’, ‘to watch’, ‘to hear’’ & ‘to enjoy’. 

Throughout the month my mind became saturated with the experiences of others; I escaped into alternative existences, though never felt (as I have before) like I was in totally alien territory. Reading, seeing, and hearing the experiences of other women and non-binary artists and storytellers from their own perspectives felt as though I were witnessing alternative versions of myself, of my mother, of my closest friends. When we consider how our experiences relate and differ to those we encounter through art, I think we are able to better know ourselves. Exploring these other – yet adjacent – worlds ignited my own creativity in a time when the world felt on hold, underscoring the power of what the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective once called a “language that could speak starting from itself”.

To Read

Mieko Kawakami, Breasts & Eggs (2020) 

‘Breasts and Eggs’, Japanese author Mieko Kawakami’s first full-length novel to be translated into English, consists of two books following the same characters, with the first taking place over three days, and the second, set a decade later, over a number of years. This novel takes the form of Natsuko’s internal monologue, which propels the narrative forward through reflections on everything and nothing, the monotony of everyday occurrences deftly folded into ponderings on memory, sisterhood and motherhood, all of which are (im)balanced with the protagonist’s literary career. 

Though I prefer the brief intensity of the first book, that isn’t to discount the frank, funny and sad way Kawakami presents the later stage in Natsuko’s life, and in particular the parallels between artistic output and motherhood which she draws, begging the question of whether both can be possible, and indeed whether female anxiety over this conundrum might paralyse women into attempting neither. 

My favourite parts of Kawakami’s writing are her descriptions of life’s minutia, nestled easily between these existential themes; a frustration at being too hot in a room of other people bundled up in scarves, a discussion of one’s preference for the warmth of yellow fairy lights over the coldness of white. Both parts of the novel are made up of such moments, as well as seemingly endless other occasions of relatability, empathy, pain and magic, told through a frank narrative voice, and some of the most natural dialogue between women I have ever read. 

Eileen Myles, Cool for You (2000)

Eileen Myles is famous for her poetry, but I blasphemously prefer their prose. ‘Cool for You’, their first novel, recounts much of Myles’ own early life, attending Catholic schools in Massachusetts and working odd jobs in the wake of her father’s untimely death. But beyond the particularities of its characters and locations, the book is foremost an account of the experience of childhood itself, and the familiar strangeness of reflecting and recontextualising those memories from the point of adulthood. Myles’ method, of ‘[making] a novel by shuffling… stories into each other and finding some way they could be interconnected’ results in an unusual experience of reading. The book’s plot is non-linear and fragmentary, though not in an unsatisfying way; like a quilt of odd fabrics made aesthetically coherent by the same colour thread, the reoccurring thoughts, themes and images which run through Myles’ stories bind the narrative together. 

A lot of the book is about women and their complicated relationships  -Myles’ mother is portrayed as a beloved enemy with whom every row feels like a ‘lovers’ quarrel’-as well as Myles’ experience of non-binary gender identity. Though when ‘Cool for You’ was initially published Myles still identified as female, here they recall the sensations of being between as well as akin with both genders from early childhood: ‘[wanting] to be the beloved son’, ‘a Terry’, like their father and brother, and growing up to be ‘really not a girl anymore’, but ‘a boy on her bed in the world’. Such moments offer glimpses of feelings which even the author themself did not know how to place at their time of writing, offering valuable insight into gender identity-crises both to those of us who can relate, and those who have never questioned their own gender. 

Flo Conway & Jim Siegelman, Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change (1978) 

You’ll have to forgive me for the fact that ‘Snapping’ is co-authored by a man; I couldn’t not include it on this list, as one of my favourite things I’ve read this year. This book is an accessible psychological study (any technical words or theories explained in layman’s terms), about the experience of ‘snapping’, or sudden personality change, and its relation to the American human development movement that formed in the 1960’s, becoming a ‘roving, raving potpourri of therapy and religion, science and mysticism, the avant-garde and the occult’. 

First published in 1978, ‘Snapping’ sees Conway and Siegelman take stock of what they see as the wreckage of the preceding decade, unveiling the darker side of America’s famously vibrant counterculture and documenting the heady mix of co-opted Eastern philosophies and psychedelics that saturated California in the 60’s, catalysing ‘profound adventures in human awareness’, as well as laying the groundwork for cult indoctrination, and the resulting loss of free thought for those targeted by such movements. We hear first-hand accounts of indoctrination techniques used on former cult members, from transcendental meditation to sensory deprivation and induced group frenzy, as well as vivid descriptions of the ‘snapping’ moment, the break in consciousness that causes people to suddenly shift into entirely new personalities and lifestyles of devotion. 

At times the book’s tone can come across as rather scaremonger-y, but that feels appropriate given the fact it was written at the height of this ‘epidemic’. It also feels no less relevant today. In fact, I think it’s vitally important that we try to understand the ease with which the mind can be moulded and manipulated, our personalities altered fundamentally by external forces, what with the new host of challenges to our freedom of thought that are posed by various algorithms we encounter daily on social media, trying to persuade us to spend our time and money, as well as our voting power the way faceless corporations best see fit. The world we inhabit today is not dissimilar to the one Conway and Spiegelman described in 1978; we also exist in a time of ‘constant stress, artful distraction and endless propaganda’, though this time on steroids. 

This isn’t to say though that ‘Snapping’ is all ominous prophesying; the vast majority of the book is a roadmap of the wacky landscape of the American psyche, picking up hitchhikers along the way in the form of the most bizarre and interesting interviewees I’ve encountered. We meet the likes of Marjoe for example, a preacher ordained as an infant who recalls giving sermons across the Bible Belt at 4 years old, and ‘Black Lighting’, the man who coined the term for and the process of ‘deprogramming’ cult members, speaking from jail after staging various high-profile kidnappings. 

This book left me questioning the nature of cults and religions, of US consumerism and the country’s drug culture, of memory and personality and the overall fragility of the human mind. Who knew psychological theorising could be so entertaining?  It’s also a great read to accompany ‘Wild Wild Country’, the 2018 Netflix documentary I stumbled upon during the first lockdown and can’t recommend enough.

Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (2019) 

In this book of 9 essays, Filipino-American writer Jia Tolentino moves fluidly between the subjects of feminism and capitalism, technology and America, neurosis and identity. ‘Trick Mirror’ asks a lot of questions, of Tolentino herself and of her readers, without offering many concrete answers. ‘I am always confused’, she admits in her introduction. But this not-knowing, far from rendering her essays unsatisfying, is explored with such eloquence and wit that it feels both exciting and familiar, a precarity symptomatic of being alive in the 21st century. 

The book spans such sprawling cultural discourses as marriage, and all its invented tradition, our digital existence and the ways that the internet increasingly determines rather than reflects our life outside of it, and the practice of praising ‘difficult women’ automatically in the name of feminism, which, Tolentino asserts, has been co-opted by conservatives to deflect genuine criticism from female members of the GOP. Between such weighty political musings, Tolentino often pivots to intensely personal self-reflection. ‘Reality TV Me’ recalls her stint on a forgotten show at the age of 16, a record of her youth which allows for excruciatingly close observation of her teenage behaviour and neuroses unimaginable for (and unwanted by) virtually everybody else.

My favourite essay in the book feels like perfect coalescence of Tolentino’s expansive and interior observations; ‘Ecstasy’ maps the triangulation of faith, music and drugs that came to define her coming of age in Houston, and the sometimes-indistinguishable revelations they allow for someone with an ‘ecstatic disposition’. This tale of mega-churches, clubs and highways unfurls carefully, a revelation in and of itself. 

At other times, ‘Trick Mirror’s subjects are inescapably bleak. ‘The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams’ charts the financial and moral wasteland of late capitalism in which blameless young people are forced to grow up in, whilst ‘We Come from Old Virginia’ accounts the ‘unfathomable rot’ of campus rape culture. Both essays left me with a pit in my stomach, balking at the implications these societal institutions have for my generation. Though difficult, their darkness feels necessary, and underscores Tolentino’s admirable need to ask why things are the way they are. 

The writing in these essays moves intuitively and smoothly between investigative reporting, literary criticism and personal, even poetic reflection. Tolentino’s prose is the rare kind that makes me grab a pencil and draw asterisks in margins, underlining for instance, a quote in ‘Pure Heroine’, which asserts that instead of discarding female literary figures as imperfect models of womanhood, we embrace them ‘with the same complicated, ambivalent essential freedom that a daughter feels when she looks at her mother…a figure that she simultaneously resists and depends on…uses, cruelly and lovingly and gratefully, as the base from which to become something more’. 

Every one of these essays is unpredictable, yet bring forth familiar truths and uncomfortable ambivalences about existing in the modern age. Her voice is like that of a good friend who resolves to tell you what she really thinks, whether you want to hear it or not. 

To Watch

Sofia Coppola (dir.), The Virgin Suicides (1999)

This film is likely one everybody’s already seen, myself included; it’s pretty scandalous that I barely remember watching it the first time round (though that initial viewing at a sleepover, being talked over by a gaggle of teenage girls, is actually pretty apt). The plot of ‘The Virgin Suicides’ however remained fresh in my mind; I adored the book as a teenager, and hold strong associations between my own adolescence and Coppola’s aesthetic, having spent many an afternoon surfing Rookie Mag and seeing its imagery reimagined through Petra Collins’ highschooler lens. The book is one of the few instances where I feel a male author portrays his female characters accurately, viewing the Lisbon sisters through the eyes of the smitten neighbourhood boys. Their narration never presumes an understanding of teenage girlhood; instead, the novel has curiosity at its core, turning upon the axis of their recognition that ‘they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all’. 

Though Coppola’s retelling doesn’t quite match the book’s intensity of longing or despair, it comes pretty close, as well as offering some things the book does not: its sense of humour, and famously compelling visuals. Indeed, the navel-gazey ennui that permeates the shots of the Lisbon girls imprisoned in their bedrooms seems now to be more accurate than ever, speaking directly to the quarantine we find ourselves in. Spending so much of my time inside as of late has upped my appreciation for the accuracy of Coppola’s props and design, minute attention to detail given to the clutter of teen-girl life that could only ever come from a female director: foil stickers on birthday invites, trinket boxes spilling over and underwear curled up on bedroom floors. Details like these along with the girls’ insular chatter, and Coppola’s daydream depictions of heartthrob Trip Fontane give the story of ‘The Virgin Suicides’ a new dimension: the film takes on the perspective of both the boys and of the girls themselves, the watchers and the watched.

Sarah Gavron (dir.), Rocks (2019)

Before ‘Rocks’ there were two pieces of media that came to mind when considering TV and film made about coming of age in contemporary London; ‘Kidulthood’ (2006) and ‘Top Boy’ (2011-). Whilst ‘Rocks’, co-written by Nigerian-British play and screenwriter Theresa Ikoko and film and TV writer Claire Wilson, and directed by Sarah Gavron, shares some of the bleak themes from these earlier stories – particularly its plotline of a young person looking after themselves whilst a parent struggles with mental illness, as Ra’Nell did in ‘Top Boy’ – this film feels entirely different.

‘Rocks’ is centred specifically around the female experience of growing up in London, and feels more embodied and authentic than those predecessors. The camerawork of Hélène Louvart mirrors the emotions of ‘Rocks’’ titular character, swinging around like eyes settling on different faces, or objects in a room. When Rocks searches for money she has misplaced, the camera – and, by extension, the audience – searches too. When she attempts to find her mum, her nausea is replicated by the camera’s reeling motion. Such shots make us feel her panic and unsteadiness.  

Despite its heavy subject matter, ‘Rocks’ is warm and full of joy. The protagonist is wrapped up in the love of her female friends, who can’t understand her plight but are determined to try. The relationships between characters are imperfect but wholehearted, and their best way of defending their friend from her pain is, as it is for many teenagers, through laughter. This portrayal of London and the young people in it feel real. Locations are familiar, without the exaggerated ‘grit’ that is often found in films based in the city: classroom scenes are uncannily accurate, and the way the film is spliced with short interludes of the girls’ Snapchat stories makes it feel even more like we are seeing what they see. 

This naturalism is the product of the collaborative way the film was written and produced by its mostly female cast and crew. ‘Rocks’’ cast was formed following the auditions of over 1000 London students, most of whom had never acted professionally; the girls then workshopped the plot of the film with writers, with Gavron explaining that they ‘tried to respond to what was naturally happening between [them]’. Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that the friendships in ‘Rocks’ are masterfully accurate; when the girls interact you can’t tell if the laughs and the dialogue are between characters or the actors themselves. The line is not just blurred- it doesn’t really exist. 

‘Rocks’ is a testament to the way this style of screenwriting and filmmaking can produce beautiful, intimate and representative stories, and change the lives of those young people involved in the process. Kosar Ali, who plays Sumaya and is just 16, admitted that before filming she ‘didn’t see acting as a tangible career’; now though having been given this opportunity to shine, she not only realises that she can ‘dream big and go for it’, but wants those young people who see the film to ‘see themselves and go: “Yeah, right, I can do that.”

Forough Farrokhzad (dir.), The House is Black (1963)

Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad only made one film in her short lifetime. She died in a car accident at the age of 36, leaving a body of important and controversial modernist poetry and ‘The House is Black’, a poetic documentary essay with a runtime of 22 minutes. Despite the film’s brevity, and the fact of Farrokhzad’s relative greenness as a filmmaker, it is hailed as one of the best documentary films of all time as well as a key precursor to the Iranian new wave of cinema. 

Commissioned by the Society for Aid to Lepers, seeking to publicise their operations and raise funds, ‘The House is Black’ was shot in 1963 inside the Bababaghi Hospice leper colony in Iran. The film shows the reality of life for Bababaghi’s residents, with much of its runtime devoted to the treatments administered to those in the early stages of the disease, as well as the deterioration faced by those in the grips of its later stages. Farrokhzad’s lens does not shy away from the painful bodily effects of leprosy. She also, however, makes sure to reinforce the fact that the disease is not the extent of these people’s lives; we are privy to classroom scenes, playtime, as well as shots of women applying makeup and styling their hair in preparation for a flamboyant wedding. This footage is spliced with audio of Farrokhzad reading quotes from the Koran and the Old Testament, as well as passages of her own poetry. Twice, we also hear from a male voiceover, which notes the clinical reality of leprosy, reinforcing that it is treatable, given the right care. 

It’s a careful reconstruction of the world these people inhabit, a collage of images and sound which fit and move together beautifully, a testament not only to Farrokhzad’s directorial skills but also her flair for editing. Offscreen notes that in ‘The House is Black’, she pioneers ‘a style that [brings] the illusive quality of images together with poetry to create a new…third meaning’, and I would agree that there is something alchemic to the way the footage and audio seem to reshape each other as you watch. Combining the poetic and the experimental with a serious medical documentary is a recipe for strangeness. But whereas this juxtaposition of mysticism and reality may feel at odds if it were forced upon some other film, here it feels like an entirely appropriate approach for its subject matter. The people within the colony are shown practicing religion, giving thanks for all the things which God has ‘blessed’ them with, including ‘parents’ (which many of them don’t have), ‘hands’ (whilst holding their prayer books with hands that have lost fingers), as well as ‘eyes’, ‘ears’ and ‘feet’, all parts which are at the mercy of their bodies’ rapid decay. We see faith and truth clash irreconcilably before us, and may pose the same question as Farrokhzad; ‘who are these people in hell praising you, O Lord?’. 

The subject matter of this film -pain, suffering, life- feels both ancient and extremely pertinent to the time it was made. Many critics have taken the film to be a comment on mid-century Iranian society, where the state has failed to protect and provide for the ill. Indeed, the male voice toward the beginning of ‘The House is Black’ reminds us that ‘leprosy goes with poverty’, a fact of disease that remains true today as we face the knowledge that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting those of lower socio-economic status, both within the UK and worldwide

Broaching the subjects of physical and societal illness so starkly means that ‘The House is Black’ is by no means an easy watch; but it is important, and feels saturated with truth. Though the documentary is dark, Farrokhzad has not chosen despair over hope, for one without the other wouldn’t be true to life. The people of the colony are ravaged by this illness, but they continue to fall in love, to have children, to learn and to pray. When, in the final scene of this film, a student is asked to write a sentence using the word house, he scrawls on the board that ‘The house is black’. It is – but they still live within it. 

To Hear 

Lady Saw, Raw: The Best of Lady Saw (1998) 

‘Lady Saw’, the first ever female DJ to go triple-platinum, is oft-dubbed the ‘Queen of Dancehall’. I came across her 1998 album ‘Raw: The Best of Lady Saw’ during summer, and found its 19 song track-list to be a perfect introduction to her discography. Sexuality runs throughout the album, most famously in ‘Stab Out the Meat’, a track which sparked controversy for its explicit lyrics at its time of release, despite the fact that contemporary male dancehall artists were performing equally ‘slack’ songs. Conscious of this double-standard, Saw pointed out that whilst “a lot of male artists [were] making music that was degrading to women”, she took “the same issue -sex- but didn’t do it in a degrading way. I taught women to love themselves”. 

Her lyrics’ message of female empowerment through sex is manifold. Her 1996 track ‘Condom’ (available to listen here) demands that girls ‘don’t bother play shy, tell your guy no bareback ride’, and it’s not only safe sex Saw wants and pushes her female audience to pursue, but good sex, that centres around their own pleasure. 

‘If Him Lef’ advocates the recognition of one’s desirability regardless of any man’s opinion, and not to bother with a lover ‘unless him know fi do de wuk’. This isn’t to say though that Lady Saw’s lyrics are exclusively sexual; ‘Find a Good Man’ sees her pining for love and security, admitting to feelings of loneliness. 

It’s refreshing to find an artist that recognises one’s perspectives on love, sex and relationships are not always clear cut, and Saw’s complexity of feeling is matched by the varied sounds which layer up on ‘Raw’. The album embodies the Sound System culture of sampling, reshaping rhythms in fun new contexts; the opening track ‘Hardcore (It’s Raining)’ twists the chorus of Rupert Holmes’ ‘The Piña Colada Song’, whilst ‘Gal No Worry’ lifts its tune from Dean Martin’s ‘That’s Amoré’. My favourite tracks are ‘No Long Talking’, which in turn saw its iconic opening line – the flirtatious challenge ‘Baby are you up for this?’- sampled in Headie One’s ‘Ain’t it Different’, and ‘Strange Feeling’, a song centred around a wobbling baseline and chorus of female voices, scat-singing and vocalising angelically. 

These heavenly harmonies anticipated the change in style Hall’s music has taken since undergoing a Christian baptism in 2015. She now goes by ‘Minister Marion Hall’ and has renounced her past in favour of a career as a gospel singer. In April of 2020, fellow dancehall artist Mr Vegas staged an online funeral for the persona of Lady Saw, which had 14,000 attendees. During the ceremony he declared that ‘the greatest must be sent off with a beautiful tribute from us, her peers, so tonight we pay homage’, the drama of which feels fitting for such a legend of the scene. 

Babeheaven, Home for Now (2020)

This debut album from West London five-piece Babeheaven provides us with a dreamy indie-pop sound befitting of their name, one epitomised in the opening track ‘November’, which begins with a string solo that’s quickly accompanied by the ethereal vocals of Nancy Andersen, ascending into clouds of sound. 

Babeheaven takes a nostalgic style, which melds 90’s swirly synths and bedroom-pop reverby guitars, and uses it to fashion love songs, the kind which could indeed have existed 30 years ago, as well as cuts concerning distinctly modern dilemmas. ‘Human Nature’s throbbing bassline and synths are a backdrop for musings on the ‘relationship between our inward and outward selves’, with the band stating that the track is ‘about the performance we do online…about losing touch with yourself and not transmitting emotions’. Andersen croons about being ‘here’ but ‘not quite there’, feeling ‘ivory more than flesh and bone’, managing to name that performative, hollow feeling so quintessential to the age of social media. 

Whilst such internal struggles inspire many of the lyrics on ‘Home for Now’, it is clearly the world outside which has most influence on Babeheaven’s production. On ‘Until the End’ we hear what sounds like the turn and click of a disposable camera, ‘I’ve Been Gone’ samples birdsong and something resembling walkie-talkie static, and ‘In My Arms’ features cresting waves. For an album pieced together in a summer of social distancing and released during a national lockdown, its sounds are a reminder of the people, places and things outside of our homes. This gives the project a sense of optimism, makes the album’s soundscape feel spacious and rich, balancing out its lyrical claustrophobia, particularly on ‘Craziest Things’, one of my favourite and most fitting songs of this year. Saturated with anxiety and cabin fever, Andersen apologises for ‘climbing up the walls’, declares she cannot ‘lie [in bed] anymore’; the song captures that sense of reliving the same day over and over which has become so common during quarantine, something perfectly mirrored in the looping visuals of Sacha Beeley’s music video.

I loved this album. The whole thing feels introspective, is lyrically full of doubts and questions about one’s place in life and in the lives of others. And yet, its sense of unease is delivered with warmth, cushioned with hazy, dreamy sounds that seem to confirm that this feeling of not knowing is ok, that we might be ‘Home’, and in our own heads ‘for Now’ but we’ll find the answers eventually, in our own time. 

ShyGirl, Alias EP (2020)

Everything about Shygirl’s recently released EP is fast and blunt, from its nineteen-minute runtime to the one word titles of each of its seven tracks. But in this case, brevity does not equal simplicity. As its title suggests, ‘Alias’ sees Shygirl shift between roles on each track, switching up her sound as easily as the her alter-ego ‘bbz’ (the Bratz meets IMVU avatars, created in collaboration with CGI artist mot0r0) switch up their looks in the video for her single ‘Slime’. Whilst lyrically the tracks making up this EP are cohesive, sharing themes of sexuality, ownership, physicality and mystique, their sounds are distinct. 

The aforementioned ‘Slime’ begins with Shygirl’s monotonous flow, half-rapped, half-spoken, a voice which slips into an autotuned, cyber-siren beckoning ‘yeah, you can holla me…come pour me up’, over a soundscape of wet, vibrating bass and synth blips. The track is a world away from ‘Tasty’, a song which sounds exactly like its title suggests; a sugary Y2K club banger with palpable House influences, from Shygirl’s modified vocals to the symbols which shimmer throughout. This sleek, perfectly packaged confection of a track leaves us unprepared for what immediately follows in the form of ‘Leng’s lightning-fast flow, and frenetic, pulsating beat, which moves as quickly as Shygirl suggests she herself does, between ‘East, West, North boys’ and ‘Southside dons’. 

My favourite of the EP is its closing track, ‘Siren’. It’s this song which I think best illustrates Shygirl’s skill for blending references; her bridge (mis)quotes Tony Montana’s iconic declaration ‘when you have the money you can have the power/ when you get the power then you get the girl’ from ‘Scarface’, in an almost comically pitched-up voice reminiscent of The Prodigy’s ‘Outer Space’, whilst the track’s tumescent, euphoric production would be right at home amongst clubland classics. 

‘Alias’ is EDM meets R&B meets hyperpop, veering from slinky sounds that could be straight off a Britney Spears cut to dark beats and unexpected samples which would be more at home on a Death Grips track, without ever once standing still. Shygirl is an artist constantly evolving, devolving, whatever keeps her in motion. From ‘Alias’ I get the sense that she is only momentarily glimpsing through the eyes of these particular personas and sounds, that they are masks, like the David Cronenberg-meets-Cassandra cover art for the EP. These faces, these aliases, are Shygirl (recognisable, like her iconic eyebrow piercing) but they are only parts of her; she never reveals herself in her entirety. 

To Enjoy 

Hannah Lupton Reinhard, Oil Paintings 

RISD graduate Hannah Lupton Reinhard paints joyful, supersaturated portraits of friends and family, often surrounded by the trappings of Jewish-American life; a loaf of challah and a menorah jostling for room on one dinner table, whilst figures in other compositions are clad in stars-and-stripes bikinis and bum bags. Her subjects share food and drink and are usually locked in an embrace (basically enjoying everything we can’t do right now) and all in the hues of that summer sunset glow that immediately follows golden hour, when skin sheens in reds and pinks. 

The glowing depth of Lupton Reinhard’s oil paintings is given an even more magical quality by her technique of scraping away at the paint to create texture, mimicking strands of hair and fibres in clothes, as well as the Swarovski crystals glued onto the canvas, making apples and jars of honey glitter, the most grown-up, skilful reinvention of the paint and glitter-glue craft projects that were first perception of what art was. I think this sense of nostalgia, my childlike urge to reach out and touch not only the paint’s ridges and the raised lines of crystals but also my friends, in the carefree way we used to, is what has brought me back again and again to Lupton Reinhard’s work over the past fortnight, reminding myself that these beautiful things have happened and will happen again, a thought which helped abet the gloom of the winter lockdown.

Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986)

Nan Goldin’s photographic masterpiece, ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ has had many iterations; shown worldwide in its slideshow form, from underground clubs to the MoMA, Goldin adds and subtracts images from the Ballad each time it’s projected, altering the soundtrack as she goes. I’m lucky to have caught a screening at the Tate Modern last year, and to have been leant the 1986 book of the series, which is the way I experienced the Ballad this time round, listening to a playlist of the soundtrack as I flipped through its pages.  

The book of the Ballad contains 133 photos, a fraction of the almost 700 which make up the slideshow, but the experience doesn’t feel lacking, perhaps because the book allows for more time to settle on the really compelling photos, of which there are plenty.  Goldin has referred to the Ballad as ‘the diary [she lets] people read’, and it certainly tells the story of her life, and of life in general. Photos are grouped together by subject: older couples, women and men alone, then in groups, in couples, having sex, and with children, with the book closing on a painting of skeletons lovingly entwined. The entire cycle of life plays out; we recognise in her photos our parents, the loneliness of youth, friendship, love (and hate, with one self-portrait showing Goldin with black eyes inflected by her then-lover), sex, birth and, inevitably, death. Indeed, the series is a testament to many lost lives. Much of Goldin’s social circle was made up of members of the LGBT community, and many of her photos’ protagonists died during the AIDs crisis. The Ballad thus feels weighty in both its composition and its context. 

There’s a beauty though that permeates this often-serious subject matter: Goldin’s colours, the bright reds, dark blues and golden yellows that saturate bars, cars, baths and bedrooms make the pages gleam. Many of the photos are awe-inducing moments of perfect composition and light, with images like ‘Cookie at Tin Pan Alley’ reminiscent of stills from a carefully crafted movie. Others are snapshots, haphazard and blurred, taking on a different kind of beauty through their familiarity. 40 years ago, not everyone had a camera in hand, but Goldin’s shaky shots of ‘Kathe in the Bath’ and ‘Thomas Shaving’ remind me of that impulse to take out my phone and capture my friends unposed and adopting some characteristic gesture, to record the state of my bedroom in dawn light. They also underscore the message Goldin deems to be at the centre of the piece – honesty. Her uncompromising shots are a way of ‘[enabling her] to remember’ things exactly as they were, to extend to the people she loves that acceptance which Dionne Warwick pleads for in the soundtrack’s ‘Don’t Make Me Over’.

Kai-Isaiah Jamal, THE RED HAVEN – an Oyster card story’ (2020)

‘THE RED HAVEN – an Oyster card story’, by poet, model, and visibility activist Kai-Isaiah Jamal, was posted in video form in August, a part of the campaign to save free Oyster Card travel for London school kids. I listened to it over and over then, and came back to it in November after learning that a deal had been reached, protecting this essential amenity for the next 6 months. Something about the poem felt even more poignant this time round, leaving me teary-eyed. Perhaps it was missing my once daily commute on some ‘top deck of a London bus’: the fact that the bus routes Jamal names in their caption -the 197, 176, 468- were some of my own portals to friends’ houses and freedom growing up: the thought of how close these freedoms and the safety free travel provides came to being taken away from kids like us in ‘blazers all big’, trying to get home or get far away from it. 

Jamal is an intensely engaging performer of their poetry, something I was lucky to experience firsthand at the ICA in December of 2018, when I saw them read for the first time. Although the electric atmosphere of a live poetry reading can’t be replicated on an Instagram video, Jamal’s oratory skills still captivate, the ease of their measured and musical way of speaking enveloping one’s attention, and I smile at their short, fat tie- a favourite way of flouting school dress codes. This outfit, combined with the rolodex of memories that flash through my mind as Jamal reads about forgiving drivers letting you on with no Oyster, window seats, and looking out to see the ’the whole of the south […] awash with pink skies and stoic high rise’, remind me that those days weren’t so long ago, and that there’s beauty in all this time for such reflections some of us are lucky to have right now, clocking that ‘you’ll not get anywhere fast/ because stopping is essential’. 
Amidst this nostalgia though, Jamal reminds us that we must keep our ‘momentum going’, to maintain our outrage at these social issues which disproportionately affect marginalised children. Free Oyster card travel for under 18s is only guaranteed for the next 5 months; we must back campaigns like Don’t Zap the Zip and Marcus Rashford’s battle for free school meals, so that children’s well-being, safety and freedoms are protected long-term. ‘May we always give you the chance to get on the bus’, Jamal implores, underscoring the duties we have to provide the same and better chances to kids that we had for ourselves.

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