Meg Remy uses her personal experiences to create art that, in its violence, is liberating, empowering, and a far more effective agent of change than a fist to the face could ever be.
How does one counteract violence? Do you run from it? Ignore its prevalence in our governments, our institutions, our society, ourselves? Or, do you choose love, whatever that means? Martin Luther King Jr. famously said “hate begets hate; violence begets violence,” which is true, but I’m not sure where it gets us. And, I’m not sure it helps those subjected to violence day in, day out.
In a 2015 interview with Democracy Now!, Al Schackman, Nina Simone’s longtime guitar player, relays this story about Simone meeting Dr. King in 1965: “Well, we were at a fundraiser, and we approached Martin, and he put his hand out. And before anything else could happen, she just, in a very strong voice, looked at him and said, ‘I’m not nonviolent.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s OK, Sister. You don’t have to be.’”
Simone’s violence manifested itself in many forms (some more beautiful than others) but the way it infused with her music–in her piano playing, her song selection, her original compositions and of course, her voice–is her legacy. The Civil Rights movement was the catalyst that unleashed Simone’s violence, but she had lived with violence her whole life: poverty, racism and the physical and psychological abuse her husband/manager Andrew Stroud subjected her to. Violence begets violence.
Prior to the release ofIn A Poem Unlimited, Meg Remy, the mastermind behind U.S. Girls, talked about how the violence that permeates all facets of modern life, particularly violence towards women, was influencing her lyrics. It’s clear Remy’s self-diagnosis was spot-on after hearing the finished product. In A Poem Unlimited is protest music at its most effective. And it should be said: protest music is very often ineffective. Poignancy in protest music is one thing, but the most indelible protest music is the righteously angry, violent kind. Nina Simone, Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Clash, and Fugazi all took their righteous anger and, rather than direct that violence inward as many artists do, they projected it outward so everyone who encountered their music would be forced to face that violence and then do something with it.
That’s precisely what U.S. Girls achieves with In A Poem Unlimited. Like the greats before her, Remy doesn’t rely on one facet of her music to translate the violence. Her gradual move away from programmed music, heavily hinted at on her last album, Half-Free, feels natural and effectively makes her songs feel open and more accessible. Remy’s employment of The Cosmic Range is a brilliant move. What better way than getting a shit-hot free jazz cosmic boogie funk band to translate the relentless violence of modern life? Their hypnotic rhythms draw you deep into the songs, and the solos sprinkled throughout the album are brilliantly jarring and confrontational. It’s also exciting to hear these musicians being forced to play within tightly constructed songs; it focuses the sprawling nature of The Cosmic Range with stunning results. The result is an album that’s undefinable, genre-wise. It’s undoubtedly rock music, largely due to Remy’s voice and delivery, but there are elements of classic electronic music, hip-hop, disco and early 70’s soul on nearly every track. No two songs sound the same.
Remy’s songs (some written by her, others brilliantly curated) are to the #MeToo movement what Simone’s were to the Civil Right movement. She sings stories of women exacting revenge on their male abusers on “Velvet 4 Sale”; being coerced into unwanted sexual situations by St. Peter on “Pearly Gates” (which features soon-to-be star James Baley on vocals); and of Barack Obama’s manipulative smile and his cowardly, deadly, war tactics (“Mad As Hell”). “Rage of Plastics”, penned and originally recorded by Simone Schmidt of Fiver (another songwriter who is particularly adept at translating stories of violence toward women into song) speaks to the brutal effects of capitalism on women. “Incidental Boogie”, the record’s most rage-ready song, is about a woman in an abusive relationship who feels lucky her male partner doesn’t beat her hard enough to leave bruises. “Let’s face it / Admit that it’s all related,” Remy sings on the standout track, “Rosebud”. It serves as the record’s thesis: violence most often committed by men–whether it be towards women, other countries, or marginalized communities–all comes from the same place. It’s behaviour and impulse that is learned (even encouraged) by the patriarchy, and it must go.
In a statement announcing the “Velvet 4 Sale” video release, Remy says “Men are lucky women (and children) have yet to take up arms. And although I hope this never happens and I completely disagree that violence is ever effective, this very idea was ripe for a song.” Like Nina Simone, Remy uses what she has experienced and seen to create art that, in its violence, is liberating, empowering, and a far more effective agent of change than a fist to the face or a bomb launch could ever be. Now, with the time we still have, it’s up to all of us to do something with it.