Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

The New Decemberists Album: It Contains 100% Less Raping

The Decemberists' new album, The King Is Dead, takes the band in a new direction: tamer, more pastoral lyrics and a pared-down, bluegrass-tinged sensibility (with guest vocals from the always-excellent Gillian Welch). Critics have taken note, and the reviews have been mostly positive—people seem relieved by the band's turn away from the melodramatic subject matter and overwrought musical stylings that have characterized their last couple albums. But the most notable difference from the band’s older music—and one I've yet to see a critic mention—is that there's not a single rape or abduction to be found on the entire album.

I started listening to The Decemberists eight years ago, when my sister, C., came home from college one winter break with their first two full-length albums, Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty The Decemberists in her car stereo. C. felt partially responsible for my musical education, and she played the albums for me over and over for weeks as we drove around our mid-Atlantic suburb.

There were some things I liked a lot about The Decemberists. Their lyrics were literary, cosmopolitan and full of big words, all of which appealed to my inner aspiring snob. They had a song called "Odalisque"! And another called "Song to Myla Goldberg"! I didn't know what an odalisque was, or a Myla Goldberg, but I wanted to be the kind of person who knew these things. They had a way with driving chord progressions, unconventional instrumentations (accordion, organ, glockenspiel) and unexpected harmonies that were fun to try to sing along to. Their one strummy love song, "Red Right Ankle," seemed to speak directly to my lonely, stupid, young heart and the type of passionate affairs it hoped someday to have. But there were also things I wasn't so sure about.

For one thing, their lead singer, Colin Meloy, sounded like a British goat. No, wait; that's not quite right, and I want to get this right: Think of Morrissey's morose drone, and combine that with the nasal mewl of Blink-182's two lead singers. And NOW imagine that sound coming from a goat. Voilà!

The main thing that weirded me out about The Decemberists, however, was not Colin Meloy's voice but the fact that his lyrics could be dark. And not dark in an Elliott Smith or Fiona Apple way—the way a solipsistic, depressive teen could curl up in bed and sob about the UNFAIRNESS of it all while listening to—but frighteningly dark. There was one song in particular I couldn't bear to listen to: "A Cautionary Song" on Castaways and Cutouts, a three-minute sea shanty about a single mother who prostitutes herself to a gang of hostile sailors in order to make enough money to feed her young children.

"I hate this song," I whined to C. as we drove to the mall to exchange sweaters our parents had given us for Christmas. (She wouldn't let me skip the track—driver outranks shotgun when it comes to music privileges, obviously.)

"It's supposed to be ironic," she said, rolling her eyes at me.

She was right: It was supposed to be ironic. In fact, irony was the entire point. The Decemberists' juxtaposition of old-fashioned language with disturbing themes is what has endeared them to so many listeners since their formation in 2000. They've enjoyed critical and increasing popular success over the years, to the extent that The King Is Dead debuted at the top of the Billboard Top 200 in January. (A recent New Yorker Talk of the Town story depicts the band as deliberately nonchalant in learning the news of their album's success.)

You can count me among the many fans who have turned The Decemberists from an anonymous prog-rock group from Portland into something close to a household name. Not wanting to be insufficiently appreciative of irony, I pushed past my initial squeamishness that winter break and soon came to genuinely love The Decemberists. I bought every one of their subsequent albums. I listened to their uptempo songs as I went running in the morning and their downtempo songs as I drifted off to sleep at night. I talked about them with boys I had crushes on and saw our mutual interest in the band as a sign of how RIGHT we were for each other.

I got so close to The Decemberists' music that I stopped even noticing the violent misogyny that had initially given me pause. But that misogyny wasn't an isolated incident; on the contrary, it's a major theme of the band's work. During the eight years since Castaways and Cutouts came out, The Decemberists have repeatedly abducted, raped and killed women, and their well-educated, liberal fans and critics have lapped it up.

Let's take a closer look at "A Cautionary Song," which, though only three minutes and nine seconds in length, feels like it will never end when you are listening to it. The song is, on the surface, a grotesque children's story: an exaggerated version of what you might tell a particularly bratty kid if you wanted to scare the shit out of him. It begins with a sing-songy taunt—"There's a place your mother goes when everybody else is soundly sleeping"—and then goes on to describe the indignities your mother is subjected to. Here's a sampling of lyrics, written (as are all The Decemberists' songs) by Colin Meloy:

With dirty hands and trousers torn they grapple 'til she's safe within their keeping.
A gag is placed between her lips to keep her sorry tongue from any speaking, or screaming,
And they row her out to packets where the sailors' sorry racket calls for maidenhead.
And she's scarce above the gunwales when her clothes fall to a bundle and she's laid in bed on the upper deck.

I see the irony now—but it's not a particularly profound irony. The song's tone is certainly sardonic enough, and the combination of old-fashioned poetics with a violent subject matter is joltingly incongruous. But beneath Meloy's dense, wry language, "A Cautionary Song" is little more than a three-minute yo-mama joke, with the extra thump of an unexpected punch line: "So be kind to your mother, though she may seem an awful bother, and the next time she tries to feed you collard greens, remember what she does when you're asleep." (Ba-dum-bum!)

This punch line is actually kind of funny, if you have a dark sense of humor. But somehow… not really funny enough to warrant setting a poem about a systematic gang rape to jaunty accordion music. To me, anyway.

And Colin Meloy claims to understand that. He declined via a publicist to be interviewed for this article, but he spoke about his use of rape imagery in a 2006 interview for Venus Zine with Ann Friedman, blogger (and Awl contributor). When Friedman asked whether he considered how his lyrics come across to female listeners, Meloy responded, "These are touchy subjects. … It’s something I consider very strongly as a songwriter. There’s a lot of touchy subjects we deal with—not only rape and violence, but racism, anti-Semitism. I know it’s so loaded, being a male and singing about these things. I don’t do it aloofly, but there’s a reason why I’m pushed to write about these sorts of things. The tone of these songs is supposed to be really dark."

He then added: "When you’re writing in the voice of a character, it doesn’t seem genuine to rope yourself off. … In some sense, not only am I trying to adopt an appropriately dark tone, but also staying true to the genre."

Yet the record belies Meloy's claims of addressing the subject with "an appropriately dark tone." If you have a few minutes, watch this clip of Meloy performing "A Cautionary Song" in Portland in 2008:

When he gets to the "sailor's sorry racket calls for maidenhead" part (about 0:55), he cocks his hand behind his ear and leans expectantly towards the crowd. They whoop, laugh and applaud.

"Will somebody just yell 'maidenhead'?" he asks the crowd, laughing.

"MAIDENHEAD!" they dutifully roar.

Can we imagine, for a moment, what this song would be like if Meloy hadn't couched it in elaborate language and a pseudo-historical setting? Suppose "A Cautionary Song" were set in a modern-day housing project or a trailer park instead of a 19th-century port city; suppose Meloy asked the crowd to yell "PUSSY!" instead of "MAIDENHEAD!" Do you think The Decemberists would be able to get a crowd of pretentious white indie kids in Portland to cheer and clap for that song?

I doubt it (although, who knows? kids these days, etc.), and so does Meloy. In a 2003 interview, Meloy said of his rape-themed songs, "I think when you put them in the context of something in the 19th century, you're still addressing it, but it takes on a different feel. There's a whole different world that it's creating." Meloy seems to acknowledge that the joke of "A Cautionary Song" wouldn't work with modern-day language and modern-day characters, even if the brutality and punch line stayed the same. If you took away the anachronism and the quaint language, there wouldn't be much left except for—well, rape.

I am sorry to report that your mother is not the only victim of misogyny in The Decemberists' libretto. In the band's first five albums, several female characters meet unfortunate fates, including (in chronological order):

  • dying in childbirth and then haunting a catacomb for the next fifteen years along with the premature infant's ghost ("Leslie Anne Levine," Castaways and Cutouts)
  • being enslaved, raped, and beaten, and possibly dismembered, depending on how you read the lyrics ("Odalisque," Castaways and Cutouts)
  • being beaten and raped in the middle of nowhere following a miscarriage ("The Bachelor and the Bride," Her Majesty The Decemberists)
  • being coerced into sex by a man of means and then, after his disapproving parents find out, being coerced into a suicide pact with him ("We Both Go Down Together," Picaresque)
  • being seduced by a rake with a gambling problem, being saddled with his debts after he leaves, and dying of consumption ("The Mariner's Revenge Song," Picaresque)
  • being abducted on the beach at pistol- and saber-point, and then being raped and killed ("The Island," The Crane Wife)
  • being kidnapped, tortured, and—wait for it—raped by a sociopathic child-killer ("Margaret in Captivity," Hazards of Love)

There are a lot of "being"s in that list, because women in Decemberists ballads rarely play an active role in their own stories. They're usually tabulae rasae; we get no sense of their personal experience or their individuality. They often show up out of nowhere for the express purpose of dying in order to advance the plot of the song. Not one of these stories is told from the woman's point of view; many of them are sung from the point of view of the woman's rapist or murderer. ("Leslie Anne Levine" is sung from the point of view of the premature infant's ghost.) (Really.)

It's not that terrible things don't also happen to men in Decemberists songs; to the contrary, the shit hits the fan for many of Meloy's male characters, too: wretched chimney sweeps, suicidal coal salesmen, sailors who get swallowed by whales, dead Confederate soldiers. (Meloy's big on the undead.) The difference is that the men in Decemberists songs are usually accorded first-person perspectives, feelings, motivations, internal lives—the whole real-person treatment. Meloy's men are victims, yes, but they're not just victims. They do things rather than simply having things done to them.

To his credit, Meloy doesn't judge his ill-fated female characters. There's never a sense that they have it coming to them or that they deserve their gruesome fates. (But, really, isn't not being judged by her creator the least a character can ask when she's being raped, beaten or drowned?) But that's because he doesn't judge any of his characters. Meloy is maddeningly detached from the narratives he spins and the characters he creates, but he doesn't use his distance from his characters to say anything about them or their actions. His sadistic psychos just are sadistic psychos. His damsels in distress just are damsels in distress. Meloy isn't saying anything about rape—he's just saying "rape."

The problem is that Meloy seems to think that his use of misogynistic themes is artistically and even morally justified. When asked about his interest in rape, kidnapping and murder in a 2009 AV Club interview, Meloy said:

I do think I have a particular interest in those tragedies for some reason. But I also felt vindicated and not so much like a sicko when I dug into a lot of the bigwigs of the British folk revival. People like Anne Briggs and Nic Jones and Sandy Denny and June Tabor, Maddy Prior. When you dig into their material, you see that there’s kind of a common fascination—a lot of the folk revivalists in England particularly are really into the darker material. And oddly enough, I think there’s something to be said to a lot of the women singers who are focused on the darker-bodied material. A lot of scary misogyny was present in a lot of early folk songs. And I think there’s an empowering sense, this idea of revisiting these songs in a contemporary context is a way of not only highlighting what it was to be a woman in the 16th, 17th century, but also how those sorts of scary, violent events were omnipresent in these folksongs as well.

So Meloy seems to have two main justifications for singing about raping and killing women, as far as I can tell:

  • Women folk revivalists sang about rape as a way of empowering themselves, which makes it okay for The Decemberists to do it for the sake of "staying true to the genre."
  • Singing about violence against women reminds people how shitty life was for women before the mid-20th century.

Okay, first thing: Whom exactly is Meloy empowering by singing about rape and murder? I feel like this should go without saying, but empowerment via reclamation of historically hurtful themes isn’t really a transitive thing. Could female British folk-revival singers empower themselves by singing about rape? Sure! Can Colin Meloy empower women by singing about rape? No! Well, he can try, but it'll go over about as well as if I tried to empower African-Americans by tossing around the n-word.

What's more, there's a difference between singing old misogynistic folk songs for the sake of historical remembrance and writing original misogynistic folk songs. The British folk revival "bigwigs" that Meloy mentioned in his AV Club interview don't seem to have sung very many songs about rape, but that ones that they did sing—like Anne Briggs's "Young Tambling" and Maddy Prior's "Lass of Loch Royal"—were English and Scottish ballads that have been sung for centuries. To an extent, folk music is about preserving cultural traditions and historical texts, which is what Briggs and Prior did in recording these songs. Meloy's songs are pseudo-historical, faux folk songs: original compositions that imitate the themes and subject matters of old ballads without any additional reflection on these themes.

Not to beat the sexism/racism equivalence into the ground, but Meloy's argument that his use of misogynistic imagery is a way of "highlighting what it was to be a woman in the 16th, 17th century" holds up about as well as the claim that it wouldn't be offensive for a white artist to write a brand-new minstrel show and perform it in blackface, because it reminds people how blatantly racist white Americans used to be. Reproducing old forms of oppression without commentary doesn't challenge those forms of oppression; it perpetuates them. Writing original songs about violence against women for the sake of "staying true to the genre" of folk music isn't brave or interesting; it's gratuitous.

Gratuitous misogyny is nothing new in pop culture, or even in pop music—please see the many books and academic articles that have been written on the subject of misogyny in hip-hop culture. The Decemberists' use of misogynistic images isn't any worse than that of Ludacris or Dr. Dre, but it isn't any better, either. So why has Meloy been largely spared the same hand-wringing and moralizing that have dogged hip-hop for literally decades?¹ Oh, right: He's white; he has a bachelor's degree in creative writing; he employs an expansive vocabulary and has a penchant for historicism and literary devices. The Decemberists' music is hyper-literary, guys. It's prog rock, so.

I should make it clear that I don't think Colin Meloy is a misogynist. He may well be quite the opposite. But his justifications for telling stories about violence against women disregard the fact that his music functions primarily as entertainment. Regardless of Meloy's artistic intentions, The Decemberists' music creates a space where people who are normally constrained by political correctness—well-educated, politically liberal, upper-middle-class, mostly white people—can enjoy uncomplicated misogynistic fantasies. The Decemberists capitalize on people's unspoken chauvinism, their inner animalism, and they send the message that it's unproblematic—even empowering!—to enjoy misogyny, so long as you couch it in florid language and pseudo-historical settings.

And as long as you don't really mean it. In that 2006 Venus Zine interview, Meloy said, "I’m not a misogynist. I’m not a rapist. I’m not an anti-Semite. People should be able to see there’s a sense of irony there."

Funny thing about irony: It works best, I find, when there's a message behind it. It's hard to say the opposite of what you mean when you don't mean anything at all.

¹ The one exception seems to be Conservapedia ("The Trustworthy Encyclopedia"), which describes The Decemberists as an "immoral, liberal, Indie-rock band from Portland, Oregon. … known for glorifying rape, suicide …, and various other sinful acts in their music."

L.V. Anderson lives in Brooklyn.

Concert photos of Meloy by Oslo In The Summertime.

41 Comments / Post A Comment

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

"Meloy's songs are pseudo" there you go.

Signal to Noise (#9,876)

I like the band but do have a problem with Meloy standing behind irony when I'm not entirely sure that's even what it is. (Also: yes, thank you; his voice is such a nerdy honk that he wrecks the melody despite being on pitch.)

As someone who played in bands, tried to write fiction, and also tried to write songs, I can only say that writing from a woman's point of view (as a dude) may be one of the hardest exercises I've ever done. You actually have to know quite a few women well, whether they be family or friends, know a few things about what they've gone through. That's a tall order for anyone, because it requires you actually live — which is not something a lot of songwriters have done when they're putting out their first records in their late teens and early 20s.

s. (#775)

This seems somehow relevant.

k-rex (#2,909)

Many men have hearts filled with anger and disappointment and fear. Some of us take it out on other people. Some of us take it out on imaginary people and then laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

When one talks about the things that Men have done, please remember that many of us have not done these things.

We are animals. We are not ideals.

hazmathilda (#839)

So there's no use in calling out the things men do that we don't agree with? "Let them be, they're flawed creatures but ultimately many of them are harmless"?

Or are you talking to Colin Meloy?

k-rex (#2,909)

That is correct. There is no use.
Discussing things is fun and useful. Calling out, in this case, is neither. It just forces either retreat or retaliation.

hazmathilda (#839)

In that case, I couldn't disagree with you more!

But it's Friday afternoon, and no one ever solves anything in internet comment discussions anyway, SO you go your way and I'll go mine.

amuselouche (#448)

But is it rape-rape if it's historical fictional fishwife rape? Um…I don't have the energy (or space) to respond to all of these arguments in a comment so I will just stick with saying that I respectfully disagree with pretty much all of this! But I am a lady who likes the Decemberists and who also enjoys starting the day with a good song about murdering orphans, so that is probably to be expected.

bemuselouche (#10,201)

yeah but fyi, this is why it's racist to ride a bike in portland.

MParcells (#375)

Next week can you please cover Nick Cave's Murder Ballads. Please????!

Nikdaheratik (#10,199)

This has to be the most useless review of any album ever. Obviously, you like their music without really understanding why they're good. And no, the reason why some of the songs you are listed are ironic isn't because of them couching the "nasty bits" in flowery language.

The language is there to help set the mood of the song. You have modern musical motives contrasting with older, almost archaic language so that events that are happening in the distant past no longer feel so distant. So you can feel both the ironic detachment of history and also that you're right in the middle of a past that wasn't as safe or happy as the world is today. In many ways, it's similar to Baz Luhrmann's take on Romeo + Juliet where they have the same Shakespearian language but the setting and costumes are completely modern.

Bad things often happen to people in songs by The Decemberists. They don't do this to glorify the people who are doing wrong, but to take you back to a time where you couldn't just call the cops and or have modern civilization solve your problems, but rather you had more real consequences and sometimes you ended up with a messy end. But it's all good because at the end of the album, you can wake up and be back in the good old 21st century.

To go off your list there's "Leslie Anne Levine" which feels ironic because deaths in child birth in modern times are a small fraction of what they were at the time of the song. "We Both Go Down Together" highlights both the inequities of power that come from the system of class back then and the fact that, if the main characters had been born in modern times, they could have gotten married instead of jumping off a cliff. "The Mariner's Revenge Song" wouldn't have had such a grizzly plot as, nowadays, they wouldn't have held her responsible for the rake's debts.

I would agree that "Odalesque" and the other two songs are grizzly and confusing, but I think they're rather weaker than the rest of their work. More to the point, I think if their songs in general took an event right to the edge, and then did a Hollywood style Deux-ex-Machina their entire work would be extremely flawed instead of being mostly excellent with a few duds.

And I think you've completely missed the point and are being unfair in "The Hazards of Love" as the entire album is a fantasy/myth story. The grizzly tracks at the end are a huge contrast from tracks 2-4 where Margret meets the hero, falls in love, gets pregnant and is happy about it all. I just don't see how you can focus on "The Abduction of Margret" and then completely ignore "Won't want for Love".

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

So, would you say you are THE most representative Decemb'rists fan ever?

melis (#1,854)

'Grizzly' plots? 'Grizzly' tracks? I knew bears were behind this somehow.

So, if the Awl weren't running a No-Sheen-Zone, would these 3,000 words have been on an actual misogynist?

MParcells (#375)

Like GG Allin. I can't be bothered by the Decemberists when there are (were, God Bless His Soul!) GG Allins out there. Or Limp Bizkits for that matter.

MGrant (#10,205)

This post is bullshit. Anderson doesn't understand what 'staying true to the genre' means. And I think it is absolutely vital for people to point out all the time, whether they're a man or a woman that life for women before the 20th century was totally shitty. This is something that conservatives consistently pretend was not true, and use to justify their stupid 'back in days bygone before the evil modern day' rhetoric. Anderson's statement, "Reproducing old forms of oppression without commentary doesn't challenge those forms of oppression; it perpetuates them." is just false, because a restatement is itself a commentary, creating a juxtaposition between how things are and how things used to be. There is a message behind Meloy's irony, she just doesn't see it.

deepomega (#1,720)

No, actually, it's not. Because the "message" (things used to be bad) is completely undercut by finding comedy/shout-along lyrics in them. Does anyone actually want to claim the historiorape lyrics are intended to be… historically accurate in any meaningful way? Has any human being ever listened to a decemberists song and thought "shit, life was HARD back then!"?

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

No screaming at the writers! Just stop it! At least this time it's only 10K-plussers.

I found this article challenging, because I do like the Decemberists. As a consequence, my first reaction was to say no no no, they can't possibly be misogynistic! But, fellow fans, can we really deny that an AWFUL lot of the female characters in their songs end up in refrigerators?

I think that's a valid starting point for criticism. I don't think Meloy's a misogynist, but when dealing with women's issues (particularly of a historical nature), he does perhaps find it easy or convenient to cast them in the victim role more often than not. This is a convention of his genre, but one he could (and sometimes does; more later) subvert.

The writer is correct to pin her (?) critique to "A Cautionary Song." Although meant to be dark, the tone of the music and the way it is performed is a bit too jokey for the material. That juxtaposition is part of the point of the song (if not its entire point), but I think there's a strong argument to be made that it misses its mark in balancing the two tones against each other. It can also be argued that the song is supposed to disquiet the listener. An interesting point of literary debate!

However, I think the writer gives too little credence to the idea that the men in these songs are meant as a critique of patriarchy. Name me a Decemberists song where men hold all the power (I'll save you some time: it's all of them) and I'll name you a Decemberists song that ends in misery and disaster (surprise! it's all of them). To test this axiom in a modern setting, check out "Sixteen Military Wives." (Related: are men or women more powerful in the also modern-era "Valerie Plame"?)

I also think that the writer fails to acknowledge that the second-most-recent Decemberists album, Hazards of Love, overturns some of these genre conventions. The most powerful character in the story is definitely the ass-kicking evil Queen. The male villain, the Rake, is more vile but less impressive. They both represent twisted parental figures.

The female hero is the incarnation of all that is good and sweet and innocent AND, this is really really worth saying, NOT A VIRGIN. She has consensual sex with her lover and becomes pregnant before marriage and at no point is this ever held in her disfavor. She is later abducted, it's true — although my reading of the lyrics has always been that the Rake was interrupted before he could carry out his clearly stated intention to rape her.

Also important: the Rake is interrupted and dragged to hell by the ghosts of his children, whom he murdered. They appear and are named and cast as victims in "The Rake's Song," then reappear as powerful, vengeful spirits in "Revenge!" Your victims will become powerful and be your undoing — that's a feminist message.

Another important point of comparison: the male hero is also the victim of abduction! He was kidnapped by the Queen as a baby and lives in thrall to her magical power. So in this story we have male and female characters playing roles of both abductee and abductor (for admittedly gender-role-compliant reasons). I think the work as a whole is a lot more feminist-friendly than it's given credit for here.

I should probably stop now before I blather on even more. Still, as you can tell, this was a really thought-provoking article. I hope to see more like it!

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

OK, just realized that this comment basically goes, "Hey, my first instinct was to say 'not misogynist,' so then I did." Here is the metatext I would squeeze in there if this were an actual writing project I could do drafts of:

Older Decemberists material relies more heavily on the twee irony of their old-timey sound and Meloy's peculiar vocal inflection. A lot of the lyrics from that period (most of their career) is objectionable or questionable from a feminist perspective. However, more recently, as Meloy's songwriting has matured and become less gimmicky, he has shown more care and complexity in his depictions of women.

mickeyitaliano (#2,202)

The first thing I thought of was when I saw this title was,when is "The Rake's Song" gonna be mentioned. It must be on here. The same way certain comedians have to now give up their so called "poetic license" so do our singers. "Send them to Rehab!" come the cries from town folk not interested. Just mind your business. What the fuck are individuals with a thought supposed to sing about anymore. These albums are works of art. Stop being hyper sensitive and using your Columbia Journalism degree to knock something you have zero feeling on aside from being an incensed automaton rebellion.

Villa (#2,985)

Excellent article. I wish Melroy (like The Beastie Boys & even Jay-Z to some extent have) would just cop to some misogyny that he has sense wised up to in his later albums. Well thought out & good read.

crashlaunching (#10,210)

Really good article. I'd grown tired of the Decemberists musically a while ago (with the exception of The Mariner's Revenge Song, because I like massive songs about whales), and so hadn't thought about them lyrically, but this is a really thorough and valuable exploration.

elegantfaker (#1,646)

Wow, I really need some underemployed, overeducated white people telling me what I can and can't listen to, and what I should and shouldn't like. This is so exciting!

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Wow, definitely the point of this article is that no one is allowed to listen to the Decemberists, ever. Good job!

invisiblecunt (#9,933)

Congratulations on missing the point of reviews as an entire concept

elegantfaker (#1,646)

This isn't a review. This is demagoguery.

paezpumarl (#10,215)

Well…as much as I disagree with this article, I can't say I didn't feel relief when I finished it. Why? Because she didn't attack the greatest Decemberists song of all, "Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect".

Emdashes (#4,271)

I don't listen to the albums obsessively the way I did, but I'm loyal to the D's, as though they were my cousins–I see them whenever they come to town, I buy their albums with real cash money. And I like "The King Is Dead" (and Meloy's EPs, which should be considered in his body of work, even though they're covers).

It's great to see the band's lyrics examined with such care, 'cause they deserve close reading. And you're right, the "being"-ness of women receiving violence in these lyrics is repetitive and probably problematic. I think Meloy is the kind of guy who'll incorporate this critique into his next songwriting binge, and we'll see the difference by the next album.

You know how Judd Apatow is always striving to understand his own befuddlement about women's behavior and motivations? He's working on it. There's no way that a sensitive dude like Meloy isn't working on it, too, and working stuff out, and working on not being seen as or written about as this guy.

And props for "tabulae rasae"!

scratch (#9,949)

The article is a gajillion times better than most of these comments. Personally, I'm indifferent to the Decemberists, but Mr./Ms. Anderson did a nice job of pondering the whole subject. All the subjects. My only complaint is the use of the term "political correctness." A talented writer should know that it means nothing, nothing at all.

scully (#10,214)

Delurking and creating an account just to comment on this article. I think it's a well done and thoughtful critique. The author clearly admires the band and I respect her attempt to understand this in the context of problematic subject matter in the song lyrics. It's important once in a while to examine why we're giving a pass (and I've liked the Decemberists too) to something we'd otherwise find distasteful or plain wrong. I'm thinking about this band very differently as a result of this piece. Well done.

bashe (#10,245)

Also stupid: "maidenhead" means "hymen," or "virginity," not pussy.

A Snood Mood (#1,737)

If she's got children then she doesn't have her "hymen" or "virginity", and the men still wish to go to where it once was, right? And that would be where?

forrealz (#1,530)

#mansplaination bait

Thou Dreamest (#10,270)

Just dropping by to say that being shouty on the internet is not cool. Disagreement is fine–it's part of having a conversation. This is an interesting an article, with interesting points that can be debated in an intelligent and civil manner. I appreciate the author's thoughtfulness.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I hope the Decemberists put Gillian's Caleb Meyer on the program while they're working together. There's a fine rape song for you. —

Interesting how much talk there is here about what is permissible. That kind of language always makes me think, somehow, that one is not quite concealing one's desire to censor. Meloy "gets a pass," or he has a "justification" or fails to have one, or it's okay or not okay for him to put rapey content in his song (depending on the political effect of such content: it empowers women or doesn't).

BishopRook (#10,996)

Of course the characters given a first-person perspective in these songs are going to be mostly male. Colin Melloy is a male singer. There ARE a few instances where he sings the part of a female character, and it's often jarring when he does.

You've ignored a number of songs and characters that don't fit with your premise, too.

- The Bagman's Gambit, where a male government official is seduced by a female Soviet spy for intelligence; the woman is never anything but in control, even arranging her own release after she's captured.

- On The Bus Mall, where two young gay men prostitute themselves on the streets of Portland; is this an example of latent misandry too, or just a story being told?

- The entire existence of The Queen from Hazards of Love who is–while an antagonist–both strong and very well-textured, perhaps moreso than any of the album's other characters.

- The Tain, where a mother is horrified to discover that her daughter has killed the local chaplain–if it had been a male murderer and a female victim, this would be on your list as an example of misogyny, so why isn't it considered as a counterexample?

These are just off the top of my head.

hrose (#241,651)

Stumbled on this awhile after it was written, but had a thought. I think the biggest misogyny I see in this article is not out of Meloy, but out of the author. The woman got "coerced" in "We Both Go Down Together"? The woman in "The Mariner's Revenge Tale got "seduced" and that's why her life got ruined? These women made choices, just like the woman in the author's hated "A Cautionary Song". As a woman, it galls me more to have someone say that the women in the songs were pawns in males schemes of some sort than have someone write the songs. He's exploring dark material, just like Quentin Tarantino kills a bunch of people in every movie he writes. It doesn't make him a hater of the living. But when someone says that a man tricked women and makes the women who had a choice to take a man into their bed, jump off a veranda, whore themselves out, etc., then that's a lot more misogynistic than someone writing a song about it. Obviously the rape songs don't apply, and if that was the author's argument, then it would be sound, but it's not.

Also, the stereotypical "pretentious white indie kids" line irked the hell out of me. How droll you are, making yet another Decemberists fans are hipster joke. No one has done that before. My dad is a hippie blue-collar worker and loves them, so let's cut this stereotype hipster crap.

2192665135@twitter (#282,696)

Or more to the point that irony works best when there's actual irony, somewhat disserved by singing "rape happened" over and over again to an audience wholly expected to consume it.

The comparison to hip hop is made kind of specious by the fact that it's overwhelmingly blatant didactic. But the points of the incongruity of their justification are definitely sound.

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