Whispered something in your ear
It was a perverted thing to say
But I said it anyway
Made you smile and look away
– Cigarettes After Sex, “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby”
A week after the earliest allegations against Harvey Weinstein emerged, I heard the band Cigarettes After Sex on the radio for the first time. A song called “Sweet” drifted onto a Nashville indie-rock station one night, while I was driving home down a string of highways that were still new to me, and I felt like I’d been lifted into a pretty foreign film. The band’s gauzy sound—molasses-slow drums, vocals drenched in reverb and delay—seemed made for the scene that slid by my windshield: streetlights, skyline, anonymous American highway. It was could-be-anywhere music, sad-and-dreaming music, night-driving music of the highest order. It reminded me of teenage summers that I spent driving my parents’ car back and forth to my crush’s house, never telling her a thing about my heart.
The brainchild of songwriter Greg Gonzalez, Cigarettes After Sex released their first full-length record in June 2017 to glowing reviews. Much was made of the music’s popularity as a balm for sleep anxiety, and critics heralded the band as modern inheritors of the legacy of shoegaze-influenced artists like Beach House, the Cocteau Twins, and Slowdive. But what almost no one seemed to be talking about, in those summer months before Weinstein and #MeToo, was the blunt eroticism that cut through the sonic haze and the current of sexism beneath it. In Gonzalez’s songs, graphic lines about sex bleed seamlessly into childlike declarations of love and longing, so that the smut and the sweetness seem intimately connected. On “Young and Dumb,” for instance, a nameless woman is called “the patron saint of sucking cock”; on “Opera House,” another nameless woman is trapped in a venue of the narrator’s creation, “crying through the night/with no-one else for miles.” These are songs are about the pleasure of quietly crossing lines, about watching women from afar until they agree to be yours forever, and about knowing it’s a perverted thing to say and getting to say it anyway. They’re love songs, yes, but like so many love songs, they also embody and invoke male fantasies about unlimited sexual permission and the right to possess. They conjure a dream world where shy boys get to whisper the creepy things they’ve always longed to whisper, where their innuendoes are met not with rejection but with sweetness and an iPhone striptease, where obsession is elevated to something like nobility. This fantasy might be soothing, but for whom?
The striking thing about the whispered come-ons in CAS’s songs is that you can listen to them over and over again without realizing they’re there. The lyrical equivalent of the guy who seems nice until he has a couple drinks and gets handsy, they encapsulate a phenomenon that is bigger than any one band: a stuttering, shy-boy alternative to the brand of misogyny that parades through pop, hip-hop, rap, and punk. The kind of soft-core misogyny that suffuses so many indie rock lyrics may be less brazen, but it’s no less confident in its presumptions about women’s desires and bodies. These lyrics speak to, and for, a quieter side of sexism that seems particularly relevant to recent conversations that have grown out of the #MeToo movement, which are addressing not only our country’s normalization of rape and sexual harassment but all the quieter, more surreptitious ways in which men are socialized to dehumanize and mistreat women and women are socialized to accept this—to tread lightly and appease, to say any word but “no.”
My point is not to level an attack on Gonzalez or his band—I wish them all the consensual sweetness they can find—or to imply that men can’t sing about sex in affirming, beautiful ways. My point is that this package—straight-guy fantasy sheathed in softness—was so familiar to me that, in spite of myself, I did find it soothing. As I listened to the album on repeat, I told myself that I was trying to articulate what I found so sinister about it all. But then I caught myself singing these songs in the shower, and I knew a more complicated truth: they reminded me of the songs I grew up singing, of the boys I used to know and the boy I used to be. They reminded me of how us boys used to talk about the girls we longed to love while we sat in our parents’ cars, drinking those songs down as fast as the cheap whiskey our brothers had bought us with our mothers’ money. They made me wonder about us—about myself, my old friends, and all the other shy boys raised on sad songs.
Like many people, I peaked as a music listener in high school. I was one of those secular kids for whom music was the closest thing to religion: a source of moral and spiritual instruction, of information about the world and models for living in it. Back then, I think my friends and I believed, on some level, that our music taste set us apart and defined us. We thought music could make us dirty when we were actually innocent, experienced and world-weary when really we were privileged kids who knew little and had experienced even less. Unlike the pop stars of the day, our so-called indie heroes sang about real, ugly, fickle feelings, about getting old and getting lost and feeling low for no reason. In basements and messy bedrooms, I strove to write that honesty and rawness into my own fledgling, three-chord songs. Because my friends and I listened to bands we considered uncommercial (though many of them were on the same major labels as the pop stars we disdained), we let ourselves think we had something on the well-adjusted kids who liked Top 40 songs about how good it was to be alive. Our imagined advantage was a shifty, nebulous thing—call it a knowledge of the true state of things, a willingness to know dirt, a store-bought teenage lucidity.
As a genre label, indie is also notoriously nebulous, more marketing term than signifier of a particular sound; in 2018, it is slapped on everything from dancefloor synth-pop to the wispiest of folk songs. Although no essay could possibly claim to speak to the glut of interwoven scenes and styles the term has come to connote, there are a few common denominators. In “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie,” one very good essay on a topic that deserves many more, critic Sarah Sahim writes, “In indie rock, white is the norm.” To this I’d add: in indie rock, disaffected white masculinity is the norm, and it always has been. (Back in 1995, a Rolling Stone reviewer was already writing about the genre’s “obsolescence due to politically incorrect Caucasian maleness.”) Indie taught me that you could be alienated in the city, like the leather-and-t-shirt boys in the Strokes, or all across the plains, like the Americana nerds in Wilco or Okkervil River. You could sure as hell be alienated in Athens, Georgia, which gave the scene such luminary weirdos as R.E.M., the B-52s, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Of Montreal, and you could be alienated if you were rich and white, like the Ivy League darlings in Vampire Weekend, or poor and white, like The Replacements or Nirvana. And yes, you could be alienated you were a woman or a person of color, but your voice was often drowned out by the plaintive cries of all those different varieties of white boy.
This is not to say that all these artists trade in thinly-veiled racism and misogyny, but rather to emphasize what I was imbibing every morning on the bus was mostly white male disaffection. What I didn’t realize in high school was how that seductive disaffection had been carefully marketed to boys who looked like me. I also didn’t realize that political and social disaffection often came freighted with sexual frustration and misogyny. When I sang along to songs like Weezer’s “No Other One” (“I want a girl who will laugh for no one else/When I’m away she puts her makeup on the shelf”) or The Decemberists’ “We Both Go Down Together” (“You wept/but your soul was willing”), I barely gave a thought to the ways these songs depicted women, just as I barely gave a thought to the genre’s unbearable whiteness. If I thought about the gender politics of music at all back then, I likely thought that indie was elevated above the crude sexism of more commercial genres. But if the message of Dr. Dre’s “B*tches Ain’t Shit,” Motley Crüe’s “Girls, Girls, Girls,” or Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is that women are nothing unless they’re sex objects, then the message of a lot of so-branded indie music and film—see the aforementioned Weezer song, most other Weezer songs, most Woody Allen movies, and films like Garden State, 500 Days of Summer, and Elizabethtown—is that women are nothing unless they’re willing to be everything to a man: eternal lover, sex object, consoler, and font of existential purpose. Instead of the phallocentric polygamy often sold in mainstream pop and hip-hop, the indie male gaze tends towards myopia and obsession, selling a vision of monogamy oriented around the man’s existential salvation from a fucked-up world that doesn’t get him (or his weird music).
In 2007, the critic Nathan Rabin summed up this romantic ideal with the now-household term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”: a fictional woman who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Rabin has since renounced his own term, expressing dismay that many readers (including the director Cameron Crowe) had missed the critical edge of his original essay and adopted Manic Pixie Dream Girl as a convenient way of describing the kind of woman they liked. I was undoubtedly one of those men who missed the point. Like many of my male friends, I thought Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State was more or less the perfect woman—cute, game for adventures, sexy in an unintimidating way, and into The Shins. My whole concept of love was a carefully crafted illusion built on the carefully crafted illusions of the artists I loved. It was, in short, unreal.
I spent most of high school wearing hoodies, reading guys like Salinger, and thinking about a girl called Laura, whose name is not really Laura. She was a good friend of mine, and she still is. But from the moment I met her at orientation—she wore Fender sneakers that day, with bright, mismatched laces—I harbored a shy crush, projecting the longing I’d learned from songs onto her. I imagined that if I could only find the right words to say, the right Smiths song to play with one earbud in my left ear and one earbud in her right, she’d my indie girl, the solution to all my problems. But Laura wanted to be a doctor, not some guy’s indie girl. Once or twice, we argued about the roles that actresses like Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansen played in films like Garden State and Lost in Translation. I didn’t know how to articulate why I liked those characters so much, why their combination of passivity and spunk appealed, but Laura already knew exactly why she couldn’t stand them. “I don’t get it,” she said one afternoon. “They don’t really do anything.”
In our junior year, I found the courage to ask her to prom. After years of anticipation, the night landed like an off note. In the vast function hall, under strobe lights and the weight of years of expectations, all the ease between us faded. I couldn’t think of the right words to say, so I spent the night sitting at a table along the side of the hall, listening while my male friends kept asking me whether, when, and how I was going to make a move. This is your chance, man, they said. It’s now or never. Meanwhile, Laura danced with her friends in the center of the floor, laughing and smiling, and I wondered why I couldn’t laugh with her, couldn’t make her smile. Afterwards, in her car, with my friends’ voices ringing in my head, I put a hand on her shoulder. “You looked beautiful tonight,” I said. It was the best I could do. She smiled, looked away, and drove me home.
Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person,” which came out in The New Yorker last December, made a larger pop-cultural splash than (arguably) any piece of short fiction has in the last decade. It chronicles a brief relationship between 20-year-old Margot and 34-year old Robert, which develops over text, flares into one unpleasant (for Margot) but consensual sexual encounter, and ends with Robert hurling the word “whore” at Margot after she doesn’t respond to his texts. Several critics have argued that the story resonates with young women because it effectively dramatizes the toll that casual, atmospheric sexism can take—the microaggressions, expectations, and slights that women deal with on an everyday basis. “In this #MeToo moment,” Olga Khazan wrote in The Atlantic, the story “went expectedly viral, by revealing the lengths women go to in order to manage men’s feelings, and the shaming they often suffer nonetheless.” See: Laura turning away, saying nothing. See also: the couple of times I complained to male friends that I didn’t understand why she was flirting with me for no reason.
In the story, Robert does not physically force himself upon Margot, but his behavior demonstrates a general disregard for her preferences. Margot’s demure responses, in turn, illustrate how she has learned to ignore those preferences in the interest of safety. As Lisa Bonos put it in a Washington Post article, “The entire interaction reads as if Robert is acting out a masturbatory fantasy rather than interacting with a live human with her own desires.”
Some of “Cat Person’s” chilling resonance has to do with the fact that Robert doesn’t fit the dominant societal archetype of a misogynistic man. Instead, he is a slightly loserly 34-year-old who goes to the movies alone and can’t kiss or spell properly. He’s the kind of guy who puts on a movie with subtitles after sex because he thinks it’s a sophisticated thing to do. In high school, he probably wasn’t the cat-calling jock, but it’s easy for me to imagine him as an indie kid, wondering why the girls he knows don’t act like the girls in songs. I can’t read the ending of “Cat Person”—the part where Robert keeps texting Margot after she’s told him she’s not interested—without hearing the Cigarettes After Sex song “Affection” in my head:
It’s affection, always
you’re gonna see it someday
My attention for you
Even if it’s not what you need.
Eventually, goes the logic of the song, this nameless woman will understand. She’ll realize that the narrator’s/Greg Gonzalez’s/my/our fucked-up, unpredictable behavior is actually love—real love—and even if it’s not kind of love she needs, she’ll eventually accept it. Who cares if “I get mean when I’m drinking” or “tell you to go fuck yourself,” as Gonzalez’s narrator boasts he’s done—all of this is forgivable within the fantasy of the song. It’s affection, always. I get that women and men don’t always treat each other perfectly, and that forgiveness is worth cherishing and celebrating, but in the context of the rest of Cigarettes After Sex’s discography, the narrator’s assuredness—you’re gonna see it someday—conjures the very depths of male privilege. (On YouTube, “Affection” is the band’s most popular song by far, with over 40 million views to date.)
In Gonzalez’s seductive songs—as in so many songs written by men—love, sex, and possession blur together. Crucially, tenderness is not forgotten here—the longing for everlasting love is as omnipresent in Cigarettes After Sex’s music as the desire for a blowjob, and distance and media are folded into the fabric of intimacy in a way that feels distinctly modern and distinctly male. X-rated selfies merge with the idea of sweetness until the two seem inseparable, a lover is at her best when she’s “like a dirty magazine,” and the best sex is like a scene from a movie. Even the band’s name is telling—it conjures not the mutuality of two bodies moving together but the solitary exhale that follows, the memory of sweetness as recalled alone. Not the messy specificities of human love but the archetypal image of self-satisfied pleasure. For so many of us, men and women alike, the dream of togetherness is first encountered in private, in front of a screen.
Sexism in indie rock and pop (and the music industry more broadly, as the Grammys recently reminded us) is nothing new. But the poetics and aesthetics of art that is largely made for and marketed to disaffected white males can offer a starting point for conversations about a kind of sexism that is still struggling to recognize itself as such. It might help us talk, for instance, about what it means when the music we fall asleep to is about girls who are young, dumb, and hot as fuck, or about how when male artists make art about their mid-life crises or their battles with depression, the blame for their pain often gets displaced onto a woman. By looking at the songs and movies we love and have loved, we might learn to recognize some of the ways we’ve failed women in the past and the kinds of thinking that informed our actions. And by acknowledging that the misogyny that pervades Western culture extends to the products of that culture that have been branded as alternative or independent, we might gain a better understanding of how the art we consume has informed and reflected our ideas. Through that understanding, we might reaffirm our commitment to being better, to hearing and making songs where nobody gets imprisoned in an imaginary opera house and nobody is titillated by the idea of keeping them there, songs that celebrate gloriously mutual love and sex, rather than the lonesome, impeccably stylish cigarette that comes after.