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Ladypalooza PRESENTS! Remember The Blow

There are lots of inevitably female pop performers to (shudder) deconstruct. I mean, there’s Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Beyoncé, and, uh. OK, so I guess there are five female pop performers. Why aren’t there any more?

If only there were some pop album that had songs about, say, how girls’ pussies are literal goldmines; being in a threesome involving a girl a girl and the universe; persuading a girl whom you hear through the ceiling being sexually undersatisfied downstairs for a real lesson in love (orgasming); being chewed up, digested, and crapped out—in sensual terms—by the beloved; how your love is like the Louvre; and other, strange, strangely complex love songs. And maybe those songs could have some fresh, eminently catchy production? Oh wait! That album does exist. It’s The Blow’s 2006 release, “Paper Television.”

Now I know you’re going to say that there’s lots of intelligent pop music. And I agree with you! So we don’t have to argue. I love Annie, Robyn, Sade, The Knife: These people are all making intelligent, sexy, fun pop music. But we’re not tearing people down—we’re building them up. Those folk are great, but The Blow has for me a special place in the pop pantheon. It combines two of my favorite things: Real Northwestern DIY ethos and ambitious, bootyshaking beats.

Let’s get it straight. The Blow is just Mikhaela Yvonne Maricich. The whole thing started in the early aughts. Before that, Maricich was a vocalist on K Records luminary Phil Elvrum’s Microphones stuff. Boy, remember them? They were literally the best. Anyway, The Blow started out as Get the Hell Out of the Way of the Volcano, which started out as Maricich with her own voice looped/layered and some ukeleles/acoustic guitars. It was very K Records-y. The first few The Blow releases were (mostly) not very good. Or, they were good in the way Beat Happening was good: They were good in spite of themselves.

The initial The Blow albums had inklings of how great its 2006 version would be. Early songs like “The Moon Is There, I Am Here,” “A Night Full of Open Eyes,” “What Tom Said About Girls,” and “Watch The Water Roll Up” showed Maricich’s proclivity for the Donne-ian conceit, curious sexual ambiguity, and pop hooks. They also burned into my mind the phrase “party thighs.” But it wasn’t until 2004, when Maricich was joined by Jonah Bechtolt (he of YACHT “fame”) that The Blow’s most effective iteration was born.

2005’s “Poor Aim: Love Songs” and 2006’s “Paper Television” are some of the most puissant pop music ever created. Especially the latter, but the former laid the groundwork. “Poor Aim: Love Songs” took Maricich from the role of indie girl cum background singer and made her into the pop ingenue. “Paper Television” is one of the greatest articulations of the rarely-lofty aims of pop music: It’s a nuts and bolts dissection of how love works told in a series of clunky similes and conceits.

It seems a little disingenuous, but I suppose I should start (middle?) out by saying that Maricich is an out lesbian who is “a musician first and gay second.” Maricich doesn’t make a big deal of her sexuality, and in fact cogently emphasizes her musical/artistic work as being primary to defining her being. Because we don’t gay parallel park, gay eat out [ED. NOTE -- Uhhhh], or gay listen to music. But it seems significant to her music since she does sing plaintive lovesongs to boys and to girls.

The first song on “Paper Television” likens what girls sit on to “a pile of gold,” and goes on to advise boys to treat women better because then they (women) will share their goods (pussy) with them (boys). It’s a characteristically crass-yet-accurate song. It has a great beat, the kind that shakes and shudders so hard you think its going to tear itself (and you) apart.

“Pile of Gold” is pretty to the point, but that’s what makes it great. It doesn’t, like so many other songs, advocate anyone to get shithouse drunk so they give up their “treasure.” (A feature of pop discourse that makes me want to die, basically.) No. “Pile of Gold” says that boys will try to shift the socio-economic value of your pile of gold by denigrating it, but don’t let them. Get what you’re worth. “All the boys, you know they want it, they want it.” It’s true. The bridge paints a in thirty words a picture that’s worth a thousand words. That’s what good pop music does.

Boys boys we love you

Some of us don’t

Plenty do

Treat us good

And you know we’re gonna

Share share share

Our goods with you

Share share share

Our goods with you

“Parentheses” is the one transcendent banger on the album. It had “Young Folk” potential to blow up into the mainstream, but it just didn’t. Still, it was indie popular. It seems fairly obvious to me that any song that compares a loving, supportive relationship to a syntactical device will have crossover appeal (to the nerds). When the song also features some insanely catchy snare drum and hand clap staccato beat, well—even better. “Parentheses” and the next song are about something that makes Maricich seem like an honest to goodness hippie (who wants to freak you).

That song, “The Big U,” depicts a love triangle, but it deviates from the classic configuration by making one of the principals… the entire universe? And the universe is a real slut, too, because pretty soon he’s going to be asking the other lover out.

I know one day, I’ll watch the Universe come up and ask me out on a date

And I’ll say, “Yeah.”

And we’ll get into his car and we’ll go all the way

There’s no good reason not to

“Parentheses” and “The Big U” are both about how the world (and the universe) are these big, scary places. But they exhibit a sense of care and concern for others that’s equally big; they’re about relationships that are just as scary as countenancing “everything.” And Maricich is going to help you—even if her help is to hold you in the deli aisle or fuck your brains out.

“Long List of Girls” is a palate-cleanser of a song. At the time (four years ago) Bechtolt’s beatmaking was progressive and inspired. Who expects to hear a drumline beat on a K Records release? Before this a cappella rendition,  Maricich jokes that she wants to sell the song to Beyoncé. After hearing what Bechtolt did with it, you kind of think she could have.

“Bonjour Jeune Fille” has similarly impressive production and returns to the narrative mode: Maricich and her girlfriend hear a girl in the apartment above them having unsatisfying sex with her boyfriend. Rather than having bad sex, Maricich wants her to DTMF and come downstairs. And come, with them. The song—half in French—is happily unhinged and provocative. It’s another song about satisfying female sexuality. And its bridge is about Maricich’s Silence of the Lambs fantasy of wearing the girl around town like a suit of clothes, which only adds to its charm.

“Babay (Eat A Critter, Feel Its Wrath)” sounds on the face of things like a bittersweet love song until you consider the titular critter is Maricich and the titular wrath is her passage as, eventually, fecal matter through her lover’s digestive track.

But inside your digestive trip

What was there for me to grip?

I wanted nothing more than just to stay there

The truth is I was just too dumb

To stop myself from holding on.

I believed in love.

Maricich pulls a Kafka and turns a common expression—I’m a piece of shit—into a literal piece of narrative. The song is basically an extended poop joke, and humor is as good as anything for that particular situation.

The next two songs —”Eat Your Heart Up” and “Pardon Me” —are both about the heart. In the first, Maricich expresses her desire to eat her lover’s heart (again, literally) and the latter explores how the heart deals with sex and being spurned. Whereas the one expresses equal parts lust and trepidation—I want you; what will people think of us?—the other is the result of the relationship. They describe what it’s like to be confused and falling in and out of love when you’re young.

“Fists Up” is my favorite song on the album. It feels like the culmination of its precedents. It combines the most endearing parts of Maricich’s songwriting—clunky extended metaphors, a sometimes naive fixation on love, charming vocal hooks—with Bechtolt’s impressive beats. The entire thing is a structural marvel of rising and falling action, anticipation, and climax. Essentially, “Fists Up” likens the self to a city and its various desires as revolutionaries trying to overthrow the present regime. You get the sense that Maricich’s love is like the French Résistance and the obstacles to it are maybe Vichy régime.

The idea of true love being like world peace gives it (love) the moral force that it rarely sees in pop music these days. And rightly so, because why is your love so important, so transcendent? Most of the time, Love, ironically, is a very selfish feeling. It’s about desiring beauty or desiring a feeling. It’s rarely really about desiring the good. But I think Maricich has built up a store of good faith.

The obstacles to love Maricich portrays are actually very simple, but their being embedded in the particular conceit make them fit into the entire tradition of the self-as-city literature: Simply put, she can’t get everybody on the same page:

The vigilantes can’t agree on who’s in charge,

They gave their souls for the cause

But the love that they were after is still at large

See this faith in which they found allegiance

Ripping at the seams as hope is running it’s course

The rebels just cant muster the force

To walk the thin line between belief and delusion

It’s almost trivially true that if everyone would align their desires, we could have a sort of universal love. But the soul has appetites that can’t be ruled by reason or experience. And if one person can’t have an entirely consistent, well-governed self, then how can two people ever connect? It’s hard, and that’s why most love songs are actually songs about failed love.

And, finally, “True Affection” is a calm coda. It’s another song about another failed romance, but it describes an amicable ending.

Are you still here? Yeah? OK. What’s the point? Well, yes, the point is that there is a lot—a real lot!—of great pop music out there. And a lot of it is about how women are sluts and about how you should get them drunk and then they might have sex with you. And then there’s some pop music that’s about how women are great and you should treat them right. And then there’s The Blow, who I think combines the best aspects of lurid pop music with, not to sound all camp counsellor here, a positive message. So please support this music if this is the sort of music you want to hear. Because right now, Hipster Runoff kind of has the definitive take on The Blow:

Remember when that guy from the YACHT (Jona Bechtolt) ‘produced’ all of The Blow’s songs, but then she was ‘too Portland’ to take the brand to the next level [via selling out and making some mad mnstrm commercial money] then he quit the Blow and they haven’t been relevant since? Feel like women ruin everything/always have terrible ideas + ideals. Hard 2 empathize.

And it feels like a shame that there aren’t more women making sexy, smart pop music. I know it’s presumptuous to do a lot of hand waving and moaning about treacly love songs, slut-shaming country ballads, and mindless dancefloor bangers, which is why I’m trying not to do that. Celebrate the music you enjoy, support the music that makes you think, and hopefully the two will coincide more frequently. It seems to me that women have been conceded a few places on the musical topos, one of which is dance-pop music. So let’s make a big deal about it when someone goes out and fucking conquerors that ground, marks it, and expands it.

28 Comments

  1. Edman wrote:

    Yes! I remember seeing her live a few years ago, thinking it was great, and then subsequently forgetting what her name was.

    Thank you!

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  2. Simon C. wrote:

    Whaaaaaat? How can you have stopped before “True Affection”? UNFORGIVABLE OMISSION.

    On second thought, I will forgive you after all, because holy Jesus, this is probably my favourite album nobody else has ever heard of.

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  3. Dareva wrote:

    Oh my god, oh my god!! I feel you, Simon C–Paper Television is my favorite album yet no one has heard of it. So happy to see an analysis of it here!

    B Michael, I almost didn’t finish your lovely review because half way through the second paragraph I had to turn on the album itself. I long for more music like this. “Parentheses” has been one of my go-to sappy mix tape songs for years. It reminds me of being totally connected to someone who does a lot of psychedelic drugs (in a good way).

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  4. BMichael wrote:

    I believe the part about “True Affection” was lost in the shuffle. From my computer, it looks like I had one line on the song, “a calm coda. It’s another song about another failed romance, but it describes an amicable ending.” Not very good writing!

    I do like True Affection a lot, actually. It gets to a particular emotional configuration that romantic comedies generally arrange into more and less boring scenes from a Pottery Barn catalog: Acceptance, rejection, and dealing with it. I think it could have worked in a good whale penis joke, but what do I know?

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink
  5. Kristin wrote:

    I saw The Blow in the student center lounge in 2004 at Bryn Mawr College and couch danced with her. She had awesome energy and the music was amazing.

    Possibly the best concert ever, with Mirah. And Mirah’s mom.

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  6. GarlandGrey wrote:

    Re: The Big U: Claire from YACHT uses “The Universe” as her handle on the internet. That song is about the breakup of The Blow.

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  7. BMichael wrote:

    @GarlandGrey Wow! I didn’t know that. How did you know that?

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Permalink
  8. anais wrote:

    This is amazing, so so good. Fists Up is also my favorite song. Also Khaela is truly lovely live.

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  9. Laura wrote:

    Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!

    I love The Blow and TB and having them together is making my heart so happy!!

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  10. Sady wrote:

    @B & Others: GLFHASDDFLAWEAARRRRRGH. Okay, it is true that since I wrote that Cuomo post the LANGUAGE CENTER OF MY BRAIN HAS BROKEN, and yesterday I could barely spell words let alone edit the words of others, but what happened was I cut & pasted the end in after some business and SOMEHOW lost the “True Affection” para? I’m putting it back in now.

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  11. Danielle LaBove wrote:

    I’d love it of you’d take a crack at this one:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHgbzNHVg0c

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Permalink
  12. pascal wrote:

    Quite a long shot, but maybe someone might help:
    The Blow’s videos remind me of another DIY artist’s video, in which a very butch young woman wakes up (maybe from the dead, don’t remember) in a forest and in one shot walks through the forest while being dressed by witches -or- undressing and tossing the clothes aside (don’t remember, might have been 2004 when I saw it only once, the witches might have been from another video by the same artist or the artist collective that created her video). at some point there definitely were boy’s underpants and maybe a white tank-top of the “wifebeater” variety. Maybe people were throwing leaves at her, or mud. There is also 60% chance she might have walked backwards.
    Anybody recognize anything? Any hints welcome…

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 7:34 pm | Permalink
  13. Nikki wrote:

    Aaaaah thank you so much for posting this! I never heard of them, but instantly love it. Thank you thank you.

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 7:34 pm | Permalink
  14. Brimstone wrote:

    Paper Television is an amazing album. It got me to see Yacht, who didn’t really do it for me at all

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 8:13 pm | Permalink
  15. Nila wrote:

    I love love love The Blow. Parentheses is a go-to for my mixtapes too, Dareva!

    Thanks for writing this. I was sad, though, that Tegan & Sara aren’t on your list for women singing about love in witty and interesting ways!

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 10:19 pm | Permalink
  16. fmstack wrote:

    Alright, y’all need to stop kicking so much ass. Every single update for like the past few weeks has been pure unadulterated awesome. Like, what? How does this happen?

    Friday, April 30, 2010 at 12:04 am | Permalink
  17. GarlandGrey wrote:

    @BMichael My best friend is a huge YACHT fan – we saw them at SXSW. Claire has been using The Universe as a handle for a while (http://vimeo.com/universe) and writes about science fiction (http://www.urbanhonking.com/spacecanon/). When we were at the show, someone asked Claire what she had to do with the Blow, and everyone in the audience groaned (major faux pas). They try to pretend in public that Jona left to focus on YACHT, but he said in an old interview that he would never work with Khaela again.

    So, merely speculation on my part, but there’s evidence for it.

    Friday, April 30, 2010 at 12:39 am | Permalink
  18. SoVeryUnhip wrote:

    I’ve only heard “True Affection,” but that song is amaaaazing. <333

    Friday, April 30, 2010 at 4:15 am | Permalink
  19. SeanH wrote:

    I flipping love The Blow! I’d never heard of them, but Lola and the Cartwheels (which was this great woman-centric queer indie rock art collective thing in Sheffield who put on awesome events) got them for a gig, and I saw them in a small pub, maybe forty people in the room, and it was bloody brilliant. My housemate bought Paper Television from their merch table and it’s been on rotation in my life ever since. ‘Fists Up’ still makes me want to cry a little.

    Friday, April 30, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink
  20. Samantha B. wrote:

    I tend to think that The Blow’s lyrics are cleverer, and I am a very cheap sucker for their under and yet over production, but I must also ask, what is it about the pop-y ladies of the UK? Why can Kate Nash and Lily Allen have so much goddamned girl-inappropriate fun and still be commercial as fuck. Why is this so peculiarly unamerican? The April 30 edition of: things I can’t quite wrap my head around.

    Friday, April 30, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink
  21. K. wrote:

    Nothing to add but a simple, “right on!” I love K Records & Paper Television is full of smart dance anthems. I don’t follow a lot of musicians online, but Khaela’s blog is one of my favorites to read.

    Friday, April 30, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  22. Lizzie wrote:

    Just downloaded this album and it is fantastic!
    Another lady suggestion for if you enjoy Paper Television: “Wider” by Tender Forever. It’s really great!

    Friday, April 30, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  23. Farore wrote:

    OH MY GOODNESS OH MY GOODNESS *handflap* I died of delight when I realized there was going to be a Ladypalooza about the kind of music I listen to (namely, electro/synth pop). And BLOW YAY BLOW! Actually, I have a bad habit of getting Blow mixed up with The Knife; they seem to share concepts quite a bit. The Knife’s “Listen Now” shares a lot of the feel of “Fists Up” and there are a few other songs that convey similar feelings… I almost feel like The Knife’s “Deep Cuts” album and The Blow’s “Paper Television” are two halves of the same commentary, sad/scared and cheery/aggressive respectively.

    But uhm yes I am so happy you featured The Blow! And so sad it is not really a band anymore. Come back, The Blow ;;

    Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 11:07 pm | Permalink
  24. Angela wrote:

    DTMFA! :D

    Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 11:12 pm | Permalink
  25. theviciouspixie wrote:

    If it were not for Tiger Beatdown I might never have heard of The Blow, and my life would be a less awesome place because of it. Thank you, Sady!

    Sunday, May 2, 2010 at 6:31 pm | Permalink
  26. Jean wrote:

    Thanks for introducing me to The Blow, they are sexy fun! I’m going to meekly and with the utmost desire not to offend ask if anyone on the Tiger Beatdown team likes any music not made by a white person? I absolutely don’t want you guys to write about stuff you aren’t feeling just for diversity’s sake, but the offhand reference to Beyonce, Rihanna, and Sade really hammered home just how monochromatic Ladypalooza has been thus far.

    Sunday, May 2, 2010 at 9:34 pm | Permalink
  27. B Michael wrote:

    @Jean

    I totally agree. I tend to write (Hi, I wrote this piece) where my core competencies are. I in fact enjoy music made by non white people, and I am actually non white so there’s that. My third-favorite album of all-time (I have a google documents spreadsheet where these things battle it out) is Illmatic. On the other hand, I do not listen to A. a lot of pop music and B. a lot of rap music. I mean, I could certainly make a great mix tape featuring prominently these two genres, but they’re not something I’m super compelled to write about. Sorry!

    Now, here’s where I can be helpful. I happen to know for a fact that SD called out a few weeks ago for people (of or not of color) to write about music made by non-whites. And I know for a fact that SD got 0 submissions. This being the Internet, I would suggest you get on the Web 2.0 horsezeitgeist (you can do that in the Deutsch, right?) and submit a piece? Or a pitch? I know that someone here would really love to read it. In fact, I would love to read it, and I am (metaphorically) here. QED.

    I am realizing right now as I’m about to press Submit comment that this might sound like a pissy comment–it’s not! I really would love to see more submissions that break the breathtakingly white atmosphere of TB. (I mean, look at the thing! It’s like 99% white just on the screen. I bet it burns-not-tans, too.) So please, please, please: Send pieces and pitches to tbd.ladybusiness@gmail.com.

    Monday, May 3, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  28. Sady wrote:

    @Jean: Yeah, it is a problem! One that I kind of can’t get around! We were sending out open invites for folks to write about stuff that was not indie/90s music Made By Some White People, but we didn’t really get stuff in. I’m disappointed, and I can see why you are too.

    Tuesday, May 4, 2010 at 1:35 am | Permalink