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
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.