Music

Queer as Folk

Julien Baker. Photo: Alysse Gafkjen.

JULIEN BAKER’S MUSIC WRINGS OUT THE BODY. Her lyrics, sung over sparse, echoing instrumentation, as if she were alone in a cavernous room, frequently dwell on physical injury. The title track of her 2015 debut album, Sprained Ankle, casts her as a marathon runner limping toward the finish line. In “Televangelist,” from 2017’s Turn Out the Lights, she’s an “amputee for phantom touch / leaning on an invisible crutch.” “Hurt Less,” from the same album, has her “pitched through the windshield” in a car crash. Baker tangles these visions of wounding and woundedness with meditations on mental illness, substance abuse, and her ongoing dialogue with Christianity. Throughout her work, these wincing moments gesture toward the grand humiliation of being alive: having to crawl around Earth in human form, a failing expression of a perfect God.

Baker’s third album, Little Oblivions, released in February, gurgles the same blood in its throat. “I bloody my hands till you hear me,” she sings in “Relative Fiction.” On a song called “Bloodshot,” she describes “the gore of our hearts”; “Ringside” has her threatening to “beat myself until I’m bloody / and I’ll give you a ringside seat.” There is catharsis in these lyrics, as Baker takes conflicting layers of selfhood and lets them fight to the death in a boxing ring. By transforming psychic trauma into images of physical harm, Baker conveys her wounds on a plane where they can be grasped in three dimensions, picked apart, cleaned.

Over the past decade, a growing roster of musicians—many of them openly queer or making music that readily maps onto queer experience—have used similar sonic palettes to attend to questions of pain, salvation, and belonging. Some, like Sufjan Stevens, Torres, Tomberlin, and Anjimile, also come from Christian backgrounds that continue to inform the songs they write. Alongside other performers such as Tasha, Big Thief, Christelle Bofale, and Adult Mom, they chart the terrors and joys of queer relationality. As part of the trio boygenius, Baker collaborates with two of this ecosystem’s more visible members, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers. Different perspectives, particularities, and textures emerge, but these artists are united in a certain hush. They sing as if conferring secrets.

Last summer, Taylor Swift ended a three-album streak of glossy stadium pop with the surprise LP folklore. With its lowercase song titles and diffusely lit black-and-white cover of Swift beholding a stand of trees, folklore marked a sudden shift from the electronic, crowd-grabbing gestures of 1989 (2014), Reputation (2017), and Lover (2019), all three of which played explicitly against the backdrop of a romanticized Manhattan, the kind that appears in fashion advertorials. By contrast, folklore retreats into the woods. 

For folklore and its companion album, evermore, released last December, Swift worked alongside members of the indie band the National, one of the most reliable torchbearers of respectable melancholic rock music. The acoustic balladeer turned electronic experimentalist Bon Iver, another indie darling, appears on a duet called “exile.” While Swift had previously worked with vocalists like Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco, who sings in incessant all caps, she has recently turned to a crop of collaborators with nearly unimpeachable reputations among music critics. Her sound coarsened from plastic to wood, transforming her songs from spell-alongs primed for Kidz Bop to compositions that, in their minimal gravitas, spangled numerous year-end lists.

It’s not a stretch to hear Baker’s influence on these records. In 2017, Swift’s longtime producer and cowriter Jack Antonoff spoke about wanting to work with someone like Baker; perhaps his admiration for the lesser-known artist found its way into his most visible and lucrative partnership. Like Baker and her peers, Swift sang her two indie-rock albums as if she were imparting unspeakable intimacies. “betty,” from folklore—on which Swift, in character as a teenager, sings in the first person about trying to win the love of a girl—reignited smoldering fan speculation about whether the pop star might be secretly queer despite publicly identifying as straight. While Lover gestured toward a rainbow-flag-draped queer inclusivity, forcing gay slang into lyrics and trotting out an overliteral drag-king routine in the video for “The Man,” folklore, and “betty” in particular, aimed for something deeper. 

It hit. “Swift’s latest album . . . has a song so palpably queer I believe it could singlehandedly resurrect Lilith Fair,” wrote Madison Malone Kircher in Vulture. “It could open for an Indigo Girls show and then just never cede the stage.” The harmonica, distant slide guitar, and springy acoustic chords on “betty” do, in fact, nod to decades of lesbian musicianship, from the women’s-music movement of the 1970s to the latest wave of artists, including Baker, out and working to critical acclaim under the umbrellas of indie rock and folk. Swift’s new albums don’t just flirt with gay lyrics; they actively adopt a sound long associated with queer artists working first at the fringes and later toward the center of American music.

The movements referenced by Swift’s new instrumentation and production styles are not without their deep historical faults: A major women’s-music label, Olivia Records, fractured at the end of the 1970s over whether trans women artists and engineers should be allowed to continue working in the fold. Both women’s music and Lilith Fair, in their efforts to promote the work of women in a male-dominated artistic field, largely elevated white women, even though the work of Black musicians like Linda Tillery and Tracy Chapman pivotally inflected each movement’s defining sound. Among the critically acclaimed crop of younger queer artists today, the more visible and lauded musicians also are predominantly white and cisgender. 

Hegemony reproduces itself even among those artists who aim explicitly to work against it. Still, I see a schism between someone like Baker, who collaborates closely with other queer women, and Swift, who hired primarily men to contribute to her last two albums. An anecdote from the production process may be indicative of why Swift’s folk-styled albums leave me cold. Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National said they orchestrated the album “with a mix of musicians scattered around the globe (none of whom even knew what they were playing on when they recorded their parts).” This clandestine operation was undoubtedly designed to prevent leaks, thus preserving the market value of an album by one of the most commercially successful artists working today. Perhaps this is why folklore and evermore sound so reined in. Making music piecemeal and in secret precludes holistic collaboration, alienating musicians from the products of their labor. Swift’s two 2020 albums speak the surface language of intimacy while functionally instituting insularity. 

Taylor Swift, Jack Antonoff, and Aaron Dessner performing at the 62nd Grammy Awards.

Critics and awards committees have hailed both folklore and evermore as speaking to the monastic life mandated by the past year of pandemic lockdowns. The albums do fit the moment in which they were released, and they have no doubt comforted fans trying to make sense of the world as it stands. But the music’s whispery dressing highlights Swift’s adaptability as a pillar of a troubled music industry gutted by a year’s worth of lost concert revenue. The quiet instrumentals and hushed vocals have the exact same goal as her flashier work: to brighten Swift’s star and tighten her increasingly rare monocultural hold. They’ve succeeded; folklore debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 846,000 first-week sales. Last weekend, it earned Swift her third Album of the Year Grammy award. At the ceremony, she performed a medley of three recent songs in, on, and around a woodland cabin built on the stage, accompanied by Antonoff and Dessner strumming picturesque acoustic guitars to either side of her.

And so Little Oblivions comes out against that mainstream embrace of music like Baker’s, repudiating the often unacknowledged influence it has had. Where Swift dominated the conversation by going quiet, Baker now ticks up the volume, blending her signature acoustics with harsher-edged drums and distorted bursts of organ. Spikes of anger surface from the murky sadness for which she’s known. On the song “Favor,” her boygenius bandmates appear, singing close harmonies. It’s easy to imagine them together in the same room, each playing off the grain of the others, laughing, challenging each other. Though this is Baker’s solo album, her voice scatters, diffuse yet heightened through symbiosis. Her presence here is porous, not compromised but strengthened by the drift of other people into the center of her work.

ALL IMAGES