By Charlotte Freccia ’19
In late September, Jack Antonoff’s indie-pop outfit, Bleachers, released a reissue of their debut album, Strange Desires, in which every track was re-spun, remixed, re-recorded with female pop vocalists, and retitled Terrible Thrills Volume II. The album was quietly released as a free download on Google Play.
Since then, the innovative, fizzy, feminine Terrible Thrills has leaked into more-commonly-used music streaming programs and into the minds––and hearts!––of its listeners.
I’ll just go ahead and say it: I was embarrassingly late to the game in my appreciation of Bleachers. When “Strange Desires” exploded onto the collective cultural consciousness late in the summer of 2014, I did my best to avoid it due to my distinct distaste for the maudlin, overdone pop-ballads of Antonoff’s band, fun. I figured that his new project would be nothing too different and before too long, fade into obscurity. In any event, it was only this fall that I started seriously listening to Bleachers, and any residual hesitation was obliterated by the irresistible mastery of Terrible Thrills.
After a giddy, appreciative first listen of Terrible Thrills, it became impossible for me to think about the album independently of its feminist implications. So often in the pop music industry, the personal styles of female performers are watered down to the point of homogeneity, because this is how mainstream Americans like their women: pretty, poised, void of personality. Think about it: there are a limited number of camps that a female pop star can fall into, and very few individuals who find success outside of those genres.
You have your sweet-voiced girls with guitars or pianos, your Vanessa Carltons, your Colbie Caillats; you have your big-voiced pop balladeers, your Kelly Clarksons, your Carrie Underwoods; you have your slightly edgier, hip-hop influenced sex kittens like Nicki Minaj or Rihanna. And while the pop mega-hits of Katy Perry or Taylor Swift (or anyone else making music within the circumscribed ideals of a female pop star) might be fun or catchy, they aren’t truly unique. More often than not, music made by a female pop star has been appropriated by a million-and-one producers, songwriters, and industry men who know how to fix a chord or a lyric to make it as commercially appealing (read: bland) as possible. The music-consuming public has always been more accepting of expressions of personal style in mainstream music when the performer is a man: consider the public and critical reaction to Kanye West’s foray into a more stylish, modern brand of hip hop alongside Miley Cyrus’ rocky transition from Disney darling to captain of the proverbial twerk-team to Flaming Lips groupie.
But on Terrible Thrills, I love, love, love that the women that are featured on each song co-opt Antonoff’s sound and lyrics and make the track distinctly their own. Carly Rae Jepsen’s bouyant, playful interpretation makes “Shadow” sounds like it belongs on a Carly Rae Jepsen album. Sara Bareilles makes the once-dusky, angsty “Rollercoaster” sound soulful and sweet. Rattle-and-snap R&B singer, Tinashe, transforms “I Wanna Get Better” from manic/dynamic to laid-back and sassy. Sia takes the originally drum-and-synth heavy “Like A River Runs” and makes it into something totally different: a morose meditation on lost love, perfectly aided by her towering, emotional vocals. The individuality of each performer is perfectly expressed in each track. In giving them free reign over his dense, layered pop, Antonoff has allowed these women to embrace and express the personality so often denied of them by their big-name record labels.
Of course, one desperately pines for the day when women can express themselves so clearly in songs that they have written, rather than finding their voices in songs written by men. I’m not arguing that Antonoff is the Great Liberator of Women for letting his girlfriends reinterpret his songs. A woman hardly needs a man to articulate her opinions and define herself. But in a world that is so inherently afraid of women who do so, it’s a hell of a lot easier, as a woman, to have your voice heard when it’s a man’s words you’re speaking.
The influence of Antonoff’s original tracks is certainly noticeable in the remixes of Terrible Thrills, but the songs are given so much energy and innovation and personality by each performer, sounding completely new. For perhaps the first time, these hugely talented ladies have been encouraged to take risks, and those risks paid off: Terrible Thrills makes the listener long to speed through a city on a handsome stranger’s motorbike toward a well-lit place where she can dance, laugh, and celebrate her unique femininity.