When I saw U.S. Girls for the first time at SXSW 2018, it nothing short of changed my life. It was the last day of my last anticipated SXSW before moving to New Orleans 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 (the mastermind behind the entire project) and Kassie Richardson join them, they take center stage, look at one another briefly, and then just stand there. Remy and Richardson’s 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 then Richardson and keyboardist Geordie Gordon join to harmonize with her during the chorus. It’s only the first song and I can already feel the magic of experiencing this band, who I have just gotten on board with after a friend excitedly recommended In A Poem Unlimited, live. Moved by how Remy combines a Kate Bush-inspired gift for lyrical-narrative storytelling with the funk and jazz grooves of her latest collaborators, The Cosmic Range, I feel drawn to how U.S. Girls as a project is a fusion of a love letter to funk, soul, and R&B and the (re)telling of women’s stories via a Cindy Sherman-eseque visuality and a narration of various everywomen characters. With The Cosmic Range backing her up, what has (since her signing to 4AD for 2015’s Half Free onward, at least) 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, a song that will soon after be (and remains) my favorite U.S. Girls song. At the same time, it is also a song that will foreshadow my own move to LA three years later, along with the drawn out entanglement with—and then letting go of—someone another 2.5 years into that. As Remy sings,
But I’ve called that number twice
Hoping you’d pick up this time
I haven’t spoken with you in a while
Now, baby, I know you know I know
I think about you even so
Silhouettes on the Window Shades in LA
And you played me
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 hoodwinked over and over again by the patriarchy throughout history is crystal clear. But there is something about this song, and many U.S. Girls songs, that also transcend this scope of white heterosexual power dynamics. As a (at this time) queer white woman in the audience, this is one of the U.S. Girls’ songs that’s easier for me to latch onto, as its lack of gendered language (minus the “I won’t/ Ask all your men how you are doing”) opens up the space to emotionally connect to the song’s emotional message of grief, loss, and betrayal. On that hot night in Austin, I dance along to “Window Shades” with the song already ingrained in my bones—and I’ll dance off different people with it in the future as well, in New Orleans in 2019 and then in LA in 2023.
It’s this first memory of U.S. Girls that I bring to their show at Gasa Gasa in New Orleans on April 25th, 2019. As I walk into the 200-person capacity venue, I am well aware of 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 five 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 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 (fully) free. It will be my favorite concert that I ever attend while in New Orleans.
At the end of 2018, 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. The photos are a joyous collection, demonstrating the pure joy that can be shared between those who share an identity of being women or AFAB (assigned female at birth). The photos propose that the act of friendship between women in itself is rebellious—and that physical intimacy between AFAB people that is not necessarily sexual carries yet another layer of revolutionary potential. 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 throughout my life to this point: with my high school track team at my all girls Catholic high school in Jersey City; with my favorite all-women living situation in college in Philly; with my women, trans, and femme cycling friends in Brooklyn, with a group of queer and/or feminist friends from grad school in Austin, and with my almost all-women 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 women or assigned female at birth. 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 signaling our romantic interest to someone. On the flip side of that, too many 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 (seemingly) butch queer 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 happening 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 receiving unwanted touch 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. It’s something that I’ll mentally and emotionally revisit in New Orleans only one year later, after a manipulative ex-lover emotionally coerces me into having sex with her after comparing me to her two other nonbinary lovers, for whom she has declared her love (instead of me). When I get my tenure track job in LA the next year, I thank the goddess that I can now be 2,000 miles away from her—and, incidentally, soon start using she/they pronouns upon my arrival in LA in June 2021. Nevertheless, I think about this all again after conversations about consent and intent with two of my three lovers from my first 1.5 years in LA, getting accused of some serious shit before someone also admits a lack of boundaries (although, since this situation was blurry, I have upped my verbal consent practices even more as a result) and getting broken up by someone saying she was only hanging out with (and fucking?) me out of being a people pleaser. All of these incidents are shared amongst AFAB people.
But I’m not thinking about these past transgressions at the LA show in September 2023; instead, I think about my own gender. As I wait to meet and chat with Remy after the show, I realize that I have no idea how I actually feel about my gender or pronouns at the moment. I’m about seven weeks out of having had a hysterectomy, and I can hardly process what it means to have had all of these organs associated with the reproductive tract removed, especially as a queer and genderqueer person who’s never slept with a man of any kind (and likely will never). Before the surgery, I tell my therapist that I think it makes me feel even more genderqueer, that it reaffirms who I think I’ve been becoming since getting to LA. This all seems to get further accentuated on the day of my surgery, when the first thing I remember after coming to from the anesthesia is me telling a nurse, “My pronouns are they/them”—and that nurse explicitly (along with every other health care worker in the hospital implicitly) disregarding how I’m listed as a genderqueer person with she/they pronouns in my medical profile. So, I have one of my doctors update my pronouns to they/them in the system and introduce myself to a bike group gathering, which is the space where I’ve always felt most affirmed in my gender, as “they/them.” It feels weird as I say it, as if it captures the pronouns that I’d prefer to be referred to by (they/them) while it also occludes my 34 years of living as a woman, nevermind my seminal 16 years moving in the world as a queer woman. But I don’t tell Remy any of this, as it’s our first time meeting and that’s a lot to share with someone you don’t really know. Instead, I share that I missed their Brooklyn show that I was supposed to go to back in April since I was about to start chemo for ovarian cancer, to which Remy quietly replies, “Oh shit.” “So this means a lot to me,” I say before we reminisce about the New Orleans show and I talk a bit about being a professor of African American studies, queer theory, and popular music studies. After we take a photo together in “the good lighting,” we hug again and she tells me, “Keep healing.” Smiling, I reply, “I’ll see you again next time you’re here.” And then there we were, two women hugging one another.
While the September 7, 2023 show at Teragram Ballroom is officially part of the Bless This Mess tour, it’s also the make up for the canceled (due to COVID) Heavy Light tour, as a t-shirt that a dear friend sends me from the East Coast leg of the tour reminds me. In May 2020, I was due to meet up with my sister and best friend from New Orleans/Austin in NYC to see U.S. Girls and Austra (two of my favorite musical acts (and both from Toronto!)) in the same week; after a research trip to Berlin, I was supposed to return to NYC and see Land of Talk, my favorite band since 2007, touring their upcoming album Indistinct Conversations. Obviously, none of those things ever happened. In those three and a half years, Heavy Light has only gotten more pertinent. Sonically and narratively, Heavy Light sounds exactly like its title predicts it will: it holds the heaviness of the current moment and the lightness of the moments of joy we find within it together. With songs such as “Woodstock ‘99” and “The Quiver to the Bomb,” the album also looks to the past to situate our present in a bigger history. “You can do a lot with four American dollars,” the backing vocals sardonically sing on album opener “4 American Dollars”—which also is a wink to Remy having grown up in the Chicago suburbs and going to art school in Portland before relocating to Toronto in 2010. For most of the discography, U.S. Girls has been a commentary on American culture from a distance, the reflections of an expat looking back at her homeland from across the three Great Lakes she crossed to leave it. As the song title “4 American Dollars” belies, U.S. Girls is also about America’s place in the world, particularly that of Western capitalism and popular music culture at large. While I’ve always disagreed with Remy on the demerits of voting, I’ve still always admired her as a songwriter, storyteller, and political commentator since that first moment I heard “Velvet 4 Sale” back in February 2018.
The setlist for the Teragram Ballroom show is itself a narrative, walking us through the last two albums with a sprinkling of songs from 2015’s Half Free and 2018’s In a Poem Unlimited in a way that also firmly grounds us in our moment in September 2023. “Navy & Cream,” from Half Free, is at first a surprising opener, until I remember the opening lines as Remy sings them: “Since the beginning of time/ People have been wondering about the space in between.” In America, we are in a unique moment of political polarization; meanwhile, as I continue on my personal gender journey, I teach students Black studies, queer/feminist theory, and sound studies parading as Black creative expression, Black Lives Matter, and African American popular music humanities requirement courses, emphasizing always “the space in between” binaries, herstories, and our very senses of self. The next four songs are all from Bless This Mess: “Only Daedalus,” “So Typically Now,” “Futures Bet,” and “Bless This Mess.” All of these songs come with a message: don’t fly too close to the sun (when chasing what you think you’re supposed to), don’t just do what everyone else is doing (in this case, moving from Brooklyn to upstate New York), bet on the future (but… not in the financial futures kind of way), and embrace the mess of wherever you are in life (being a mother of toddler twins—or, for me, having cancer). As the lead single from Bless This Mess, “So Typically Now” is the first sing-a-long moment of the night, with people (including me) covering both the backup and lead vocals—and dancing wildly to the song’s fused disco and 80s synthpop grooves. Meanwhile, “Bless This Mess” is the first moment that showcases Remy’s incredible vocals, with subdued piano, percussion, and guitar laying down the sonic backdrop for Remy to really start to let it rip.
We then dance into the recent classics part of the set: “Window Shades” (from Half Free), “Rosebud” (from Poem), and “L-over” (also from Poem). Here, the latest rendition of the band (Remy on vocals, Geordie Gordon on keys/synths and backing vocals, Edwin de Goeij on keys/synths and backing vocals, Ed Squires on percussion, and Max Turnbull on guitars and backing vocals) stretches out these older songs with new life. During the jam-y, drawn out build up to its opening instruments, people in the audience start screaming “Window Shades!” I feel it too, the excitement of my favorite song about to arrive, and one linking all three times that I’ve experienced the band live. “This is the first song I wrote about LA,” Remy finally says—and the crowd cheers and starts singing along with the backing vocals of “I won’t” even before Remy comes in with her vocals. “Rosebud” comes next, a moment of familiarity from the album that I assume was many people’s entry point to the band. Before transitioning to “L-over,” Remy tells a story about trying to get “the label” to choose the song as a single, before adding, “We know it’s a single. It’s a single for us.” We next travel to Heavy Light for the first time, as Remy transitions to “the second song I wrote about LA,” “Woodstock ‘99.” (I smile to myself as I think of a recent IG post that Remy closes with, “I sure hope I get the chance to show @sleater-kinney my Hot Rock tattoo.” (A song from S-K’s next album, “#1 Must Have,” takes on the rapes from… Woodstock ‘99).) Only a 15-minute walk away, we all sing, “There’s really something about Macarthur Park.” Staying with Heavy Light, we move to “4 American Dollars,” which is stripped down to be percussion-heavy, with Remy lifting her pant leg in sync with, “You’ve gotta have boots/ If you wanna lift those bootstraps,” packing a punch.
After a lowrider tribute (as my friend who I’m there with tells me) in the form of a cover of William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful For What You Got,” we close off dancing harder to two of U.S. Girls’s most brazen commentaries: “Tux (Your Body Fills Me, Boo)” and “Woman’s Work.” With Morel and de Goeji on keyboards, “Tux” is a synth masterpiece on stage, mashing the disco and funk sounds of the 1970s with 1980s synthpop. Singing as an old tuxedo that’s buried in a closet, Remy narrates over a synth-funk explosion, “I was never for you/ I was always for someone else/ I gotta bust on through to you.” (Are we talking about the man behind the suit here or the woman expected to be on his arm?) As the audience catches the next drawn out build up, people start screaming, “Woman’s Work!” Another one of my favorite U.S. Girls songs, it’s my first time hearing it live. Harkening back to her musical roots, Remy offers us a noise version of the song, gutturally screaming, “You found a way down/ And now your work is never done.” It’s both these songs that reignite my gender processing that carries over to when I’m waiting in line to meet Remy after the show. An increasingly masc queer and genderqueer person with a lot of what could be categorized as feminine energy (part of why I’m writing an entire book on what I call sonic femmeness), I feel myself transported back to Remy’s initial invitation for us to occupy “the space in between.” Leaning into the opportunity to at last shave my head (because cancer), I, in some ways, feel the most nonbinary that I ever have. But then “Woman’s Work” gets me feeling. “That woman’s work is never done.” Before the show, I share the song to IG with a caption in Italian that reads, “Tutto il giorno ogni giorno se sei una persona di AFAB” (All day every day if you are an AFAB person). Listening to U.S. Girls as a queer and now also genderqueer person, I sometimes have to find ways to write myself into some of the songs. Alongside that, I’ve been trying to figure out how to hold onto my identity as a queer woman while identifying as genderqueer. The show clarifies a lot for me. (When I get back from the show, I’ll change my pronouns on my IG profile back to they/she.) As “Red Ford Radio” closes out the set, I think about how I’m fighting with my family again over their calling me a “girl.” Yous girls, indeed.
At one point early in the set, Remy solemnly states, “Love is a tricky thing.” It’s in response to someone in the audience yelling, “We love you, Meg!,” the kind of thing people say at shows (and especially yell at women performers on stage). At the time of the show, I’m nearing the end of a year off from dating, only the second time in my 18-year-long adult life that I’ve taken this long of an intentional break. Love is a tricky thing, indeed. When I first got to LA and dated someone for four months beginning one month into my time here, I wanted to be in love again so badly. And while there was a lot of love and tenderness between us, I never got to a place of starting to fall in love with her. I still get sad when I think about this sometimes, as she’s an amazing person who is kind, generous, and beautiful in so many ways, even if she is also very emotionally protective of herself. While we ultimately weren’t compatible as romantic partners, I also wasn’t fully available, due to being in a new city and job—and still being entangled with someone I had reconnected with right before moving to LA. But she was the first person I dated as a genderqueer person, and she was especially wonderful with seeing me in my gender. During my birthday week this year, I saw that she had donated to my GoFundMe and reached out to invite her to a friendly coffee. It felt good to reconnect with her, even if some of the old guardedness was still there. When I texted the next day that I’d be glad to get more (friendly) coffee and never heard back from her, I felt sad. It’s hard to revisit something I wanted to work out but didn’t. Then again, love is a tricky thing—and is so often a part of the work that we women, AFAB, and femininely-minded people (continue to) do.