Culture Is A Weapon. Join the Fight:

Speedy Ortiz on Gender and the Art of Subtlety

Frontperson Sadie Dupuis on patriarchy and getting a crowd to listen

/ November 10, 2015

“Lyrically, we’re not an overly political band,” says Sadie Dupuis of Massachusetts quartet Speedy Ortiz. “But I always try to write all lyrics, even if they are about personal issues, from a perspective that is addressing something larger.” The results are effective; on the band’s spring 2015 full-length, Foil Deer, Dupuis cuts open ideas about gender, power, and stereotypes with masterful, razor-sharp indie rock. “I’m not bossy I’m the boss /  caller of the shots,” she sings on “Raising the Skate,” a song she’s said was inspired by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign, intended to inspire confidence in young girls. “Boys be sensitive, and girls be, be aggressive,” goes the hook on “Mister Difficult.”

Dupuis, who is also a poet, has an intricate sense of control over her words, using her lyrics, articles for places like She Shreds and The Talkhouse, as well as her web presence as platforms for criticism. “There’s two ways you can go,” she says, explaining her own approach to injecting music with activist impulses. “You can always have your politics straight up front, and in that sense politics become a gate where people who basically already agree with you are going to climb over it. But if you have the gate down a little bit lower, you can slip some darts in once people get over it.  I think both ways are effective.”



LIZ PELLY: A few months ago in an interview you said, “I never thought I’d be able to be in a band as a platform to bring awareness to anything. But more and more, over the past year, that’s seemed important to me.”  What has changed for you over the past year?

SADIE DUPUIS: Growing up writing songs, you never expect that anyone is going to hear them outside of your immediate friend group. So despite having your personal politics of wanting to play in safe spaces and wanting to support likeminded bands, you don’t actually expect anyone to ever ask for your perspective on these systemic issues in a larger context or in large music magazines.

Over the past year, something I’ve realized is that how I conduct myself in my private life is not enough in terms of my politics. And also that when you’re making art you’re in conversation with more people than your immediate group of friends. And maybe the people outside of your immediate group of friends haven’t had access to the same progressive aspirations that the East Coast liberal bubble is entitled to.

If I have something up there that inspires a car ride home conversation on something like, what are the problematic aspects of the national conversations surrounding gender? Then it seems worthwhile.

So for you it has to do with breaking past that bubble, and using your higher profile of your band to push out of that immediate community.

Yea. Especially playing in a heavy guitar rock band, I think a lot of our crowd is straight white cis dudes who haven’t thought about politics in relationship to music. If there’s a way to even nudge a wider conversation into those show goer’s experiences, I want to subliminally attempt that. I’ve had the ‘Gender is Over’ jersey on my amp since April. If I have something up there that inspires a car ride home conversation on something like, what are the problematic aspects of the national conversations surrounding gender? Then it seems worthwhile.

Those potentially seem like some of the most important interactions – where you might actually have the potential to change someone’s life.

It used to make me really angry if someone was kind of touchy at the merch table, but now I’m like, “Hey! So glad you liked the record. Let’s talk about why it’s uncool to touch someone, ever, of any gender or sexual identity without their permission.”

For some reason it’s still sort of transgressive to be a front woman in rock. I feel like if someone is already a fan of a band who exhibits that, there’s an opening there to be like, “hey, you can’t touch any person this way without their explicit consent.”

If we play a show and I meet two women who say, “I’ve started a band, how do I find my community in this shitty sexist scene?” And I meet two dudes who are too touchy, and I’m like, “Hey, really nice to meet you, please don’t touch me without my permission,” then that’s four people I had a great time with. And it’s worth playing a show.

I want to ask you about your feelings on pop feminism, and more specifically, music twitter feminism. Today I was reading an article about the “feminist think piece industrial complex” which I thought was an interesting term. It made me think about the ways that internet-centered feminism can be so hollow sometimes – but at the same time, it’s important to use these platforms the best way you can.

Introducing concepts to people who came for the pop music but might walk away with a dusting of politics is really important and helpful. Even if it’s ill-defined, it points in the direction of learning more. And learning more points in the direction of treating the other people you share the world with better. I think art should always be playing a role in pointing people towards learning more, and learning to treat each other better. Art that doesn’t, I kind of write off.

People were furious about Beyoncé when she had the feminist sign behind herself. But just think, how many 12 year olds never get any education about feminism in their high schools. Think about how many of them probably saw that, didn’t know what that word meant, looked it up, and now have an awareness of a very long political movement that they otherwise might not have learned anything about until college.

I have close friends who until five years ago thought feminism meant straight-up man-hating. If you express anti-racist views on Twitter you can get death threats. You can get trolled. I’ll retweet an article that’s somehow tangentially related to #BlackLivesMatter and get crazy threats. It’s so fucked up that we live in a world where these things can happen, and sometimes when you live in an art bubble where you’re going to shows and have friends who are politically engaged you can forget that these are still very real problems for many people. There’s only so much time you have in a 30 minute set, or on your Twitter profile, to express views that are anti-racist or anti-discriminatory in any way. But I think it’s important to always be engaged in protective behavior for humanity.  Especially if you’re trying to create anything.

I think art should always be playing a role in pointing people towards learning more, and learning to treat each other better. Art that doesn’t, I kind of write off.

A lot of music that is made in feminist rock and punk circles is politicized, but has more to do with personal social dynamics than explicitly about political ideologies. What inspires you to think that way?

The origin of most art is some sort of personal impetus. I’m most excited about music where someone is talking about a personal experience that has gone unspoken because there hasn’t been enough financial backbone to make it ‘relevant’.
So much of the music in the mainstream narrative that’s been viewed as canonical is made by straight white dudes, and doesn’t have anything to do with the origins of punk which are about elevating voices that haven’t had a place to talk about their experiences. Music that offends me is people who want to totally disengage from their own personal experiences. Because they have nothing to say. Their narrative has been told so many times.

I think more than ever, I really want to hear personal music but from a perspective that’s not what’s been shoved down my throat my entire life.