When I saw U.S. Girls for the first time at SXSW last year, it nothing short of changed my life. It was the last day of my last anticipated SXSW and I was standing in the basking 5pm sun in the lot next to Hotel San Jose, waiting for U.S. Girls to begin their Saturday early evening set. At long last, the band began to fill the stage: a keyboardist, a guitarist, a drummer, a bass player, a second guitarist, a saxophonist. When vocalists Meg Remy and Kassie Richardson join them, they take center stage, look at one another briefly, and then just stand there. Their silence is a provocation, an invitation to be there with them for the next hour. As the band jump into “Velvet 4 Sale,” the two continue to stand there—before Remy forcefully comes in to sing the first verse and the Richardson and keyboardist Geordie Gordon join to harmonize with her during the chorus. It’s only the first the song and there’s already something magical about this band, about the way that Remy combines a Kate Bush-inspired gift for lyrical-narrative storytelling with the funk and jazz grooves of her latest collaborators, The Cosmic Range. With their backing, what has always been an art and experimental pop project for Remy takes on a new sense of urgency, one that is, at times, even soulful. By the time the band get to “Window Shades” near the end of the set, I am mesmerized by this song that I do not yet know. With Remy in character as a woman confronting her cheating lover, the allegory of this song—and this entire project, really—as being about the ways in which women have been cheated over and over again throughout history is crystal clear. But even amidst that reality, we still find a way to dance, to sing, to find joy. We find a way to keep on living.
It’s this memory of U.S. Girls that I bring to their show at Gasa Gasa in New Orleans on April 25th. As I walk into the 200-person capacity venue, I am well aware the expectations that I am putting on this show. U.S. Girls are, after all, my favorite live act that I experienced in six years of going to SXSW. So, I have high hopes that this will be an amazing show at my favorite venue in the city, albeit one I’ve barely spent time in. Standing near the front of the stage with a friend, I realize for the first time how much Gasa Gasa reminds me of a beloved venue back in Brooklyn, Glasslands, which closed four years ago. The setup and lighting of Gasa Gasa lends itself well to intimacy, which U.S. Girls immediately embody as they cram eight people onto a stage made for half that number. As the lights get the darker, the band make a similar entrance as they did in Austin one year ago, with Remy and Richardson getting on stage last. At first, the band get off to a bit of a slow start. People in the audience are talking, and Remy and Richardson, although in character, seem to also be frustrated with their ear monitors. Even though I am standing right in front of the speakers, I can’t really hear the vocals very well, which is tough for listening to a band who rely so much on narrative. But as the set goes on, the vocals—and the instruments—get simultaneously louder and crisper, bringing me back to what is so special about seeing this band live. By the time the band get to “Pearly Gates,” everyone is paying attention—especially when Remy, Richardson, and Gordon do those amazing harmonies that they showcase a capella at the end of the song. With the male members of the band backing them up, Remy and Richardson seem, for a moment, to be free.
At the end of last year, Remy published an Instagram post with the caption “‘The world doesn’t want to see women hugging’ aka Acts of Necessary Rebellion with @kass_richards_.” The post is a series of photographs of Remy and Richards hugging, holding hands, and falling on top of one another as they perform on stage together. It’s a joyous collection. The photos propose that the act of female friendship in itself is rebellious—and that physical intimacy between women that is not necessarily sexual carries another layer of revolutionary potential with it. This is another memory of U.S. Girls that stays with me, prompting me to look inward towards my own life. I see flashbacks of this kind of intimacy with my high school track team in Jersey City, with my favorite all-lady living situation in college in Philly, with my queer cycling friends in Brooklyn, with a group of queer and/or lady friends from grad school in Austin, and with my almost all-female pilates class in New Orleans. This kind of intimacy is both familiar yet rare in my personal life, as I imagine is the case for many others I know who also identify as female. Why is this? As women, we’re taught that we’re supposed to reserve this kind of physicality for men; as queer women, we’re taught that we’re supposed to save these gestures for signalling our romantic interest to someone. On the flip side of that, straight cis men and abusers of all kinds believe that this kind of touch is their domain, to have whenever they want to figuratively or literally lay their hands on us. So as Remy and Richards hold hands or put arms around one another’s shoulders on stage at Gasa Gasa, I feel them taking this space back, inspiring me to think more about how I can do this in a queer and feminist way in my day-to-day life. And, once again, they also remind me of the power of their performance in Texas.
As the band perform “Incidental Boogie” at Gasa Gasa, I notice a woman in front of me gesturing along with the lyrics. As Remy sings, “He hits me left, hits me right/ All the time, but no marks,” I see her hit the left and then right side of her face, stopping before she actually hits the skin to signal the “no marks.” I feel taken aback by the level of contrast to what Remy and Richardson are doing on stage, which at no time re-enacts the violence discussed in the lyrics of many of the songs. Nevertheless, I try to quickly let it go, so as to stay present in what’s happened on stage. But as Remy walks off the stage and into the crowd at the end of the song, I watch the same woman put her hands on her as she walks by her. The lack of consent in this moment bothers me. Yes, we’re at a general admission show where people’s bodies are bound to touch one another’s—but something about the invasiveness of this gesture in the wake of Remy’s generosity sets something off inside me. As Remy goes to lay down on the floor for the rest of the song, she seems unphased by it, perhaps accustomed to this happening when she walks into the audience. Soon after, she gets up, walks back on stage, finishes the song, and then exits the stage for the night with Richardson. This becomes yet another memory of U.S. Girls that will stay with me. As I sit at home after the show, I think about the intricacies of a politics of physical intimacy, of the fineness of the line between connecting through touch and touching in a way that feels intrusive. And, in the process of all of this, I also can’t help thinking about the limitations of white feminism at this moment in 2019.
As an American-Canadian musician born and raised in Chicago and currently residing in Toronto, Remy’s idea of feminism is, in many ways, refreshingly nuanced and transnational. In an interview with Noisey from 2015, Remy comments, “For me feminism isn’t about women, it’s about equality for all human beings… Feminism is the hope for a better world.” Given how much the focus is on women in U.S. Girls, I remember feeling surprised when I read these lines for the first time. But perhaps that is the point; perhaps this project is about elevating the experiences of women to being taken as human—and not just “female”—experiences. At the same time, I also feel rattled when I read Remy declaring, “I think not voting is a good way to protest… I’ve never voted in an [U.S.] election.” Who has the luxury of being able to choose to not vote? I think back to the 2016 presidential election, where multiple progressive white people that I know chose not to vote, in the name of protest (as, meanwhile, 94% of black women voted for Clinton). While I share Remy’s desire for a feminism that thinks bigger than just improving the lot of “women” (although we certainly still need that as well in both America and Canada), I can’t help feeling that the racial politics of feminism are being underplayed here. As people, we all write and create from the positionalities with which we are most familiar. For example, in an interview with her sister Beyoncé in early 2017, Solange powerfully states, “The biggest reward that I could ever get is seeing women, especially black women, talk about what [A Seat at the Table] has done, the solace it has given them.” I appreciate this quote from Solange since it signals her intentions of reaching women in general while it simultaneously recognizes that black women will be able to access her music in a unique way. I have a similar experience when I listen to U.S. Girls. While Remy’s aspirations to appeal to not just “women” but also “humans” certainly register, the narratives feel most relevant to white women—and, more particularly, to straight white women. This is not to critique Remy (as I admire her in many ways and connect to her music on various registers) but rather is to be real about the levels and layers of effort required to connect all of our intersectional experiences in ways that create lasting change.
A performance from late last year shows that Remy has been thinking about this too. At the awards gala for the Polaris Music Prize (for best Canadian album) in September 2018, U.S. Girls performed “Poem” and “Pearly Gates.” Contrary to their usual setup, the only touring members on stage for the performance are Remy and Gordon. In lieu of a backing band, the two are instead part of an incredibly diverse 12-person choir, ready to sing a capella. While they perform “Poem” (a song I have yet to hear the band do live), Remy stands off to center right, just another voice in the group. It is only when they transition to “Pearly Gates” that Remy moves front and center, standing near two microphones. As she sings the first verse, she is backed up by voices instead of instruments, the choir providing the melody that makes the performance possible. At the chorus, the entire group sings together, their voices enacting a collectivity not immediately present at most U.S. Girls shows. After singing the second verse, Remy exits to stage right, leaving the choir to run through the chorus without her this time. During the start of the outro on which Remy, Gordan, and Richardson typically harmonize together, the camera zooms in on the black and gender nonconforming person with glasses and a bald head standing off to the left. After performing the part that Remy usually sings alone, the singer is joined by the person to the right, harmonizing together in a moment of black (and queer?) collectivity. Singing together with the group one more time, the choir sans Remy at last embodies the work that she hopes her music might do in the world, mobilizing feminist art to work across lines of race, gender, and sexuality.