On Default Genders, Dead Girlfriends, Politics, and Imagination
In the middle of summer, when the Internet is starved for something to gawk at, even the smallest of controversies can make some noise. So it was last week with the release of "On Fraternity" and a subsequent self-titled EP by Default Genders, songs that provided just enough grist for the content mill to get to churning.
See also: How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide
Default Genders--formerly known as Dead Girlfriends--is the new project of James Brooks, formerly of Elite Gymnastics, and currently of Grimes' boyfriend-dom. Brooks has a tumblr, on which he muses about various subjects, from the politics of the music industry to sexism. He attributes inspiration for the project to the work of Andrea Dworkin, a radical feminist thinker who The Guardian credited with "symbolizing women's war against sexual violence."
Dworkin is one of the first influences named on Brooks' tumblr "list of heroes," a fashionably eclectic roster that also features Jim O'Rourke, noted feminist Taylor Swift and Lil B. It is Dworkin's subject of interest that Brooks takes up as his own on Default Genders, and his championing of that subject that has garnered attention.
Were it not for the gender politics, the EP might have been snidely dismissed, or ignored entirely, as undercooked chillwave, ironic given Elite Gymnastics used to self-define as members of the scorned subgenre. (Only to be told that they weren't actually all that chillwave, natch.) The music is glitchy and delicately pretty, but without the kind of substance that has elevated Toro y Moi and Washed Out past the pejorative genre tag with which they were first saddled.
The instrumentals themselves are so thinly developed that it's clear that the import of Default Genders rests almost entirely with the lyrics. Like Brooks' tumblr, the tracks here are DIY constructions on which to place unwieldy manifestoes, which suggest a man attempting to formally renounce the trappings of rape culture.
The closest Brooks gets to any kind of specific detail kicks the record off in promising fashion on "Words with Friends," as he quickly sketches a portrait of a proud woman who has been abused. But the well-drawn characterizations of the first four lines soon give way to sterile clich√©s about pain and love, ones which the record, for the most part, continues to spit out.
The other two songs here, "Stop Pretending" and "On Fraternity," have their rewards, particularly the former, in which Brooks delivers what he might intend as the record's thesis, an assertion that he does not belong to a society of rape enablers: "if people talk shit and say you're not one of us, I guess we can stop pretending now that I ever was." That kind of male renunciation is troubling as a political statement, but it makes for a good lyric and the bridge of brass and woodwind that follows is the record's most touching musical moment.
But there's no getting away from the ideology. Even "Omerta," a gauzy, somewhat lifeless instrumental, engages in political messaging through its title, as a comparison between the mafia's fabled code of silence and (to hazard a guess) the complicity of men who perpetuate rape culture.