Introducing The Minerva Festival: Celebrating Women and Non-Binary Composers

This week, we spoke to The Minerva Festival about the amazing work they are doing to help lift up the work of women and non binary composers.

The festival turns two this year! Could you tell us a bit about why it was set up in 2018?

The festival was set up by our 2018-19 chairs, Laura and Claire because they noticed that opportunities to hear music by women and non-binary people in Cambridge are rare and can often be quite tokenistic: most, if not all, of the music in the classical canon is by men and so it is unfortunately relatively common to attend concerts where all of the music is by male composers. Most of the music studied in the Music tripos is also typically by male composers and the number of female students who take the composition options is quite low. The festival (known in 2018-19 as the Cambridge Female Composers Festival) was set up, then, to try and remedy this by providing spaces to encourage the performance and study of music by women and non-binary people. 

What barriers are still in place for women and non binary people in composing in 2020?

While many women and non-binary composers are active in composition at the moment, the fact that composition faculties are dominated by men, all the ‘great works’ a musician may ever play or study were written by men, and only male composers are deserving of a place in the concert hall, history books, and podiums gives the illusion that there is no historical precedent for what we do, and that we are alone. Even though women are now allowed to study composition, the socially and institutionally-ingrained idea of the male composer-genius are hard to defeat, and no doubt influence the way compositional endeavours by female and non-binary composers are received. Hence, while in 2020, equality seems apparent on the surface, we still have a long way to go to achieve true parity between genders. 

How have you gone about finding music written by women and non binary people from history when they have been so overlooked?

There are some helpful online resources, such as the ‘1200 Years of Women Composers’ playlist on Spotify (https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7mgjMnYI9ERG1598WKpFUR?si=jFnjU8jqQ8uA3QcFDwc2cA). Twitter has also proved a useful tool for asking others for music suggestions which we may not have come across! Some people have also drawn upon their past performance experiences, although unfortunately it isn’t rare for people to have never performed music by a woman or non-binary person. It can be quite difficult to find music as, particularly in the past, women have had limited access to publishing opportunities; however, there is still a lot out there that is relatively easy to find. 

Susan Rutherford has also recently taught an optional course called “Women in Music” in Part 1B of the Music Tripos, which has been immensely helpful in embedding female composers in their respective social and historical contexts, and introducing their works to undergraduates in an educational context. The inclusion of this course has definitely been a major step for the music faculty; however, one will still have to do much scavenging until female and non-binary composers are integrated into the compulsory history courses in schools and universities around the globe. 

What made you want to get involved?

Hannah: The main reason for me was my growing frustration with the limited opportunities available to study music by women and non-binary people during the first and second years of my degree. Although studying this music would have been possible in coursework, they were literally non-existent when it came to lectures and supervision work. There was also a bit of a myth that went around that women didn’t really compose or that, when they did, it simply wasn’t very good… These frustrations inspired me to join the committee in 2018 as one of the recital representatives, so I could help show that this wasn’t the case and that it isn’t just men who deserve a place on the syllabus! 

Leia: Since starting my degree at Cambridge (and indeed moving to the UK!) I have been extremely aware of the peripheral position I occupy in the Western Classical tradition, being both a woman and a person of colour. Although I knew of women of colour who were actively involved in Classical Music, we were not reflected in history and did not merit admiration as composers. So when I heard about the Cambridge Female Composers Festival as a fresher, I was very excited at the prospect of being represented, and that there was a group of people trying to correct these historical injustices in the most meaningful way: by sharing music. I attended as many of the concerts as I could, and remember being really moved by the closing concert. I joined the committee in 2019 hoping to continue the great work! 

How has the festival been going so far?

The festival has been running since the end of January, and so far it has been going really well! We have held a number of successful events, including a jazz night, several evensongs and a coding workshop. We are also very grateful to everyone who has chosen to donate to the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre (who we are supporting at each event), as our collecting tins are already getting full!

What are you hoping for the future of the festival?

We hope that Minerva will continue to run for as long as it seems to be making a difference! It will be a slightly bittersweet moment when we end as, hopefully, that will mean there is enough diversity in music being performed here that we don’t need to run a festival! In the meantime, though, we hope to continue running a successful recital and concert series and inspiring others to continue engaging with this music outside of the festival.

Is there anything in particular you’d recommend coming up?

Hannah: I am looking forward to our series of talks, beginning with Sarah MacDonald’s illustrated lecture on women and liturgical music on 21 February in Great St Mary’s.

Leia: I’m really looking forward to the closing concert on 8 March in St. Giles church – where we’ll be able to hear the choral work by the composition competition winner, alongside a whole Symphony by Alice Smith and the amazing Entr’acte for strings by Caroline Shaw. I’m a bit nervous, but I hope to do justice to the Shaw as a conductor! 

 

For more information about the festival, visit https://www.minervafestival.org

The Toxicity of New Year’s Resolution Culture

By Carlotta Wright

Dry January. Veganuary. Januhairy. Taking out a gym membership. Drinking more water. Achieving inner peace. We’re bombarded with online content about New Year’s resolutions come the new year, but how does this look mid to late January? For me, that’s when the shiny newness of the year wears off and the grey January blues set in. Studies show that a third of resolutions do not make it past the first month.

I wanted to start off this year’s column with this topic, now that we’re a few weeks into the year and one week into term, because I know a lot of people feel the same – it’s hard to maintain the same level of enthusiasm for becoming your best self a few weeks into the 365-day slog.

It’s not uncommon to feel anxiety and pressure. I personally love New Year’s – the feeling of rebirth, of possibility. It’s an artificial excuse to start again, a socially constructed pat on the back that tells you, “It’s a blank slate from now on”. It feels like a cosmic second chance of sorts.

But others hate it, and that’s just as valid. The expectation to look back and count up your successes and failures often feels too much, and is especially daunting for people with bad mental health or going through difficult life circumstances. Why do we do this in the first place? The pressure to make sure this year will be the year, your year, surely can’t be good for anyone.

My New Year’s resolution list this year was incredibly vague. I’ve always been like that – as much as I love the whole energy of the new year, the idea of creating a big list to hold myself accountable to has always filled me anxiety. I just knew vaguely the changes I hoped I’d make to my life this year. Drinking more water was one of them, as well as hopefully getting my writing published somewhere.

But there are pitfalls to this vaguer approach too. I was at the pub with friends a few days into January, describing the gist of my resolutions. It was pointed out to me that what I was essentially describing was inner peace. Full disclosure, I haven’t achieved self-actualisation yet.

I think there’s definitely a gendered aspect to the ‘new year’s resolution culture’ and to the productivity cult of recent years in general. Women especially seem to espouse the resolution of going to the gym, losing weight in the new year, when there’s evolutionary reasons why we gain weight in winter. Social media is already full of scrutiny, and it’s just made worse when you’ve been socialised to pick apart every aspect of your appearance, body and self all your life.

Another side to the discourse on New Year’s resolutions I’ve seen crop up a lot more lately online is ‘manifestation culture’. What is it exactly? For the uninitiated (like me), it’s essentially a more galaxy-brained way of saying “positive thinking”. It’s based on the law of attraction, and holds that our thoughts affect our reality, both consciously and unconsciously. It’s about keeping good vibes around you, mostly, and “the ability to attract into our lives whatever we are focusing on.”

But how does this fit in what we know about structures of raced, classed and gendered oppression? This New Year I’ve seen a lot of people talking about ‘manifesting the life you want’ for 2020. But if you have anxiety or depression, you can’t just decide to manifest positive things because your brain chemistry has turned against you. VICE also pointed out that putting such high importance on our thoughts goes totally against professional mental health advice to those with obsessive-compulsive disorder: your thoughts are just thoughts, nothing else.

It all goes back to the cult of productivity, which is simply unhealthy. We are more than we achieve and produce.

That’s often what makes me feel funny about all the Twitter threads and instagram stories around the 31st of December that recount (often month by month!) what that person achieved that year. The fear of comparison adds extra pressure when compiling New Year’s resolution lists, to make them as ambitious as possible, and it can definitely create a foreboding feeling towards the end of the year when we haven’t ticked enough items off our metaphorical, or literal, lists.

Of course, I’m not dismissing all efforts at self-improvement. It can be incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. But when does this urge go too far? In our increasingly fast-paced, commercialised, capital-driven world, you’re valued for what you produce. But not every hobby has to be a side-hustle.

You don’t have to manifest all your goals to be worthy as a person. New year’s resolutions often, whether we want to or not, end up being about targeting a multitude of micro-flaws we see in ourselves or our lives.

Maybe we should ditch the concept of resolutions entirely. Naz Beheshti, an “executive wellness coach” recommends that we focus instead on daily, weekly and monthly “intentions” of things we want to change, rather than one big intimidating list. That job title aside, it seems a better strategy to break down your desired life transformations into more manageable chunks, turning them from “resolutions” into something a bit less pressure-based.

There’s a difference between calmly working to build better habits and obsessing over the need to fix problems we are told we have. Whether its post-holiday weight, drinking more water, doing dry January, give yourself space to fail. And finally, give yourself the gift of indulgence. New years resolution culture often has a very spartan feel about it, and it’s just not good vibes.

Art by Maggie Stephenson

‘Joker’ shows how it could have been any of us

It opens with a dim room, reminiscent of New York lofts. The camera pans towards our isolated protagonist painting his face, spotlighted by the warm bulbs lining the mirror. Zooming intimately in, we are brought face to face, almost uncomfortably close, with Joaquin Phoenix (playing Arthur Fleck, the man we eventually know as Joker) as he stares at his white-coated reflection. The camera draws to his hands hovering indecisively over the paints, fidgeting unsettlingly. It is this constant element of the unsettling that director Todd Phillips aims to portray throughout his film, which complements the prevalent dramatic irony. Arthur’s blank eyes starkly contrast the immediate moment after, when his hands physically contort his face into a smile, then into a sad face. With the last smile he pulls up, we see a teardrop through an extreme close-up shot, leaving a bead of blue eye makeup rolling down.

joker

This powerful first impression struck a chord with me, as it likely did with others in the cinema that night—this act of forcing on a mask to conceal the turmoil underneath. Now the first R-rated film to make $1billion in global ticket sales since its official release on 4 October this year, Joker has become the most profitable comic book movie of all time, despite not being released in China (with the film’s political undertones, one could speculate why that is).

Following an impressive legacy of iconic Jokers (excluding Jared Leto, apologies Suicide Squad), Phoenix demystifies this infamous character through his performance tracing the origins of this supervillain, and perhaps simultaneously, explores the roots of many contemporary sources of evil. Co-written by Scott Silver and Phillips himself, Joker contextualises Arthur Fleck in his own life, constituted by unfortunate events and failed relationships, and a Gotham society proliferated by socio-economic inequality and increasing unrest. Arthur epitomises neglect and devaluation, both by the people in his life, as well as by wider society and the government. Contrary to fellow Marvel/DC comic book adaptations, Joker delves into the genre of psychological thriller, providing a plausible backstory of Batman’s nemesis—one that perhaps hits too close to reality.

Like many box-office films that have dealt with controversial themes, Joker has proved divisive. It has been criticised for being a “dangerous” film that is unnecessary when mass shooters, most of whom match Arthur’s profile (traumatised, radical, and lonely white men), are rampant across the US. Instead of condemning Arthur’s brutality, he stands atop a police car, glamorised as the revolutionary in the narrative of underdogs overthrowing elites. Phillips and the team have come under fire for glorifying violence, idolising the protagonist who “could easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels” (referring to misogynistic men sharing anti-feminist hate online). These are valid criticisms. Such a high-profile film carries the risk of promoting violence in popular media. And with its enormous success, some may argue, the responsibility of not perpetuating this culture of violence falls all the heftier.

However, the film equally had the productive potential for flagging the widespread inaction off-screen towards, and highlighting the urgency of confronting them. There appeared for me, elements of the everyman in Arthur, which could resonate (at least to some level) with individual viewers. Of course, one may argue that casting this cold-blooded killer under a sympathetic light unrightfully excuses his violence, as if experiencing suffering gives you an automatic green card to inflict violence. I think that would be oversimplifying. By creating this character who for much of the film, was grounded in the mundane rhythms of everyday life, as opposed to a larger-than-life supervillain persona, Joker points to how it could have been any of us.

Ultimately, Arthur Fleck was just an ordinary person. However, under those specific conditions, encountering certain people at those exact times, this man was moulded to evolve into what he became. In some ways, humanising the Joker to construct a somewhat relatable character, served as a tool to underline the role of wider social, political and economic structures. None of us are immune to them and therefore, any of us can be subject to their injustices as Arthur was, creating prime conditions for a dangerous downfall (or here, the rise of the Joker). Gotham’s issues parallel those in our off-screen world, such as gun violence, the declining welfare state, wealth gap, and treatment of mental health. The consequences of inaction (or indifference) by Gotham’s government and elites, proved dire in the film—a foreboding commentary on real life.

The film confronts the problematic aspects of the state and its elites, admittedly sometimes in a heavy-handed way, but gave me hope that a mainstream film unabashedly delivers important political commentary. The persisting theme of an indifferent, ineffective state that has consistently rejected its citizens’ demands, brewing long-term resentment that consequently sparks widespread chaos, reminded me of recent global protests—Iran, Chile, Lebanon and my home city of Hong Kong. The urban scenes in Joker looked eerily familiar.

Another significant issue is that of mental health, which our protagonist suffers from, along with chronic illness. Having been confined to a psychiatric ward previously, Arthur was categorised as needing to be treated, medicalised and segregated from society. His ill mother, Penny, is similar. Both their treatments have proved ineffective and lack sustained support for long-term recovery, paralleling the inadequate mental health support from real-life institutions. The recurrent motif of ‘putting on a happy face’ was instilled in Arthur early on, when his mother said his life purpose is to bring laughter to the world. Arthur’s case, albeit an extreme one, shows how negatively an individual can be affected. Although we have progressed, mental health remains a taboo subject, causing individuals to feel they need to literally mask their troubles, thereby preventing intervention where help is most needed.

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Despite incorporating those aforementioned issues, one shortcoming is Joker’s representation of people (particularly women) of colour (POC/WOC). When it came to unpacking the casting choices of the main five women Arthur interacts with, I was stumped explaining the significance of casting WOC for four. This could be positive—Hollywood finally “blind casting”! I would suggest otherwise. The black women in the film lacked character development, basically just props to our white, male protagonist—visible but not seen. For example, Arthur’s delusional love interest, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), is a tired single mother living in a run-down building. This may be done to highlight how much the movie’s flawed society (thus, our flawed society) disproportionately disadvantages certain people facing a “double jeopardy” (being black and female). But all of their appearances are relatively fleeting, and nearly all meet ‘the struggling but strong black woman’ stereotype, which unintentionally burdens individuals and boxes WOC into a two-dimensional image. Phillips’ choice to cut the scene revealing Sophie’s fate, further causes us to scrutinise how much tangible progress is being made in diversifying the silver screen when the full stories of these WOC are essentially ignored and excluded?

Overall, despite its controversies, Joker is undeniably a thought-provoking film. The success and ethics surrounding how it deals with difficult subjects can be debated. Nonetheless, the fact the film got people debating in the first place, is in my opinion, more important than its flaws. It covers a plethora of highly relevant topics, with the productive potential of inciting conversations amongst viewers on topics they may not regularly consider, but as Arthur’s trajectory shows, indeed affects each one of us. If, as Phillips asserts, “outrage is a commodity”, then I think Joker mobilised it well.

 

 

 

Lessons from living abroad

The Year Abroad. An opportunity to develop your INDEPENDENCE, experience a new CULTURE and boost your CAREER PROSPECTS. All of the above are buzzwords taken directly from numerous presentations given to apprehensive second year MMLers, most of whom are experiencing a confusing mix of desperate excitement to escape the Cambridge bubble and wishing that nothing had to change.

The months leading up to a year abroad departure are clouded with so much logistical planning that the emotional upheaval is somewhat brushed aside. As you’re bombarded with emails from the YA Office which promise certain death if you don’t hand in forms stating your new address by the deadline, the often stressful and isolating reality of what lies ahead is overlooked. Academic contact drops off fairly drastically as soon as you leave the country and unfortunately, that also means that pastoral care can be hard to come by. For any second year MMLers out there: this article isn’t intended to put you off the coming year. It’s just a warning that the home comforts of Cambridge aren’t as easy to find in Paris or Buenos Aires or Moscow.

Even with previous experience of living abroad alone, adjusting to life away from the small Cambridge circles was challenging. In hindsight, I probably relied too much on my gap year experiences when I left for my third year and spent the weeks before I left telling myself ‘it’s fine, you’ve done this before’. The difference is that at the end of school everyone leaves the same environment and goes into something completely new, whilst on a year abroad, the unfortunate reality is that Cambridge still exists without you in it. Lectures restart, Bridgemas still gets celebrated and that’s hard to watch when you’re thousands of miles away.

Without a doubt, the most damaging thing you can do is check Instagram. Heed my advice, DELETE IT! My heart would sink every time a new story came up from one of my friends in Cambridge and eventually the gods at Android realised my pain and the app miraculously stopped working on my phone. At first, I felt even more cut off not being up to date with Cambridge news but after a few days I realised how much lighter I felt not knowing what was going on. A year abroad is about making the most of wherever you are and for lots of people, that involves partially cutting themselves off from uni events and friends. It’s impossible to get immersed in your new life abroad and stay in the loop with everything at uni too. You can’t live two lives at once.

Don’t believe people who say they loved every minute of their year abroad: it’s not true. Of course, most MMLers have amazing experiences during their travels but the rest of the time is made up of ‘normal life’ stuff which in my case often involves hours of Netflix and avoiding doing work. Having a personal crisis because you’re sat at home alone on a Friday night is completely understandable but also unnecessary. Don’t beat yourself up because you spend time alone or with other English people or international students – not every day can be ground-breaking and enlightening.

The change which affected me the most was the sudden loss of my closest female friends. I was lucky enough to have a circle of incredibly strong women around me in Cambridge who, regardless of the problem, were always there to comfort me, listen to me and bring me back to reality when necessary. Not being able to walk next door and be in the company of your best friend is so disorientating, especially when you’ve spent the last two years relying on them for emotional support. Dealing with loneliness, not feeling integrated into where I was living and, to top it all off, a recent break up was incredibly difficult without my friends. While at the time the isolation felt painful, it also proved to me that I was capable of coping with challenging times alone. Of course, phone calls home helped a lot but the fact that I managed to stick it out in a country I didn’t know with people I wasn’t that close with showed me how resilient I am.

While Cambridge does inevitably carry on without you that doesn’t mean that people forget you. Long distance friendship entails as much effort and reward as a long-distance relationship. I can safely say that both those travelling and those left in Cambridge value nothing more than talking to a long-distance friend. Outside perspectives are invaluable for both parties and thanks to Mark Zuckerberg, no one is ever too far away. The YA is temporary, but good friends aren’t.

Moving abroad is a test of your strength of character and anyone who even manages to get on the plane has already passed.

Dear MMLers, all of the YA Office’s selling points are true: a year away is so much more than a CV building opportunity. Throughout the months you spend abroad you will learn so much about your will-power, tenacity and ability to make the best of situations. After what hasn’t been an easy five months by any stretch of the imagination, I now feel ready to embark on the next six, with even more confidence in the strength of my friendships back home.

The Case for Mediocrity

In a story very common to students at Cambridge, I always did well in school. I got upset if I got an A not an A*, or God forbid a B. As a result of this, my self-worth and identity were very much tied up with my grades and the praise of my teachers. This, in a shocking turn of events, was very unhealthy. When I started my course here, the realisation that I was not even average, let alone the best was one that hit quite hard. Who was I if I wasn’t the smart one? What would define my worth if I wasn’t doing well academically?

I have spent the last couple of years really struggling to keep up, always feeling like everyone else finds it so much easier than me and not understanding why. It was hard to come to terms with the fact that I won’t ever be the best here, and that’s okay. It’s taken a long time to get over the idea that I had to do something really well for it to be something fulfilling.

And Cambridge extra-curriculars don’t help with this a lot of the time. There’s a lot of competitiveness here and that translates into extracurricular stuff where it often seems like you have to be really good at something to join it. There seems to be little space for just being ok.

In my first year, I started drawing as a kind of therapy. I was at a really low point and often felt like I couldn’t even begin to do my work as it was just too much to handle. Drawing provided a space for me where I could do something non-academic that I didn’t have to share with anyone if I didn’t want to. It was my secret hobby and therefore had absolutely no pressure attached to it. I didn’t have to be the best because no one would see. If I messed it up, that was fine, I could throw it away and never think about it again.

Drawing gave me immense fulfillment even though I am not very good at it. I am still not very good at it. And that’s okay. It’s been life changing to realise that I can do something just because I like the action of doing it. I like the feeling of scribbling my pencil, I like the quiet, meditative feeling I get, and I like the act of making something just for me.

Being mediocre can be really freeing as it takes away the pressure of maintaining or improving how good you are. Over the last couple of years I’ve definitely improved somewhat, but I’m still no Picasso, and that’s fine. I know I don’t have to be.

This year I’m trying to focus on the achievements in my life that aren’t academic, things that define who I am regardless of what other people or supervisors think. I am creative, and kind. I am a loyal friend and a good listener. I am fit and strong. And I like drawing. I really like drawing.

Being the best isn’t important to me anymore and I’m trying to surround myself with people who think the same way. The competitive atmosphere here can be exhausting sometimes and I feel so lucky to have friends who are less affected by it. I know now that I am so much more than my grades and that I have value that comes from myself, not from the validation of getting praise for my work.

I am absolutely mediocre, and that’s great.

Queer women and non-binary singers to add to your playlists

Support the LGBT+ community with your clicks, your views, your listens, your shares! Here’s a list of some of my favourite queer women and non-binary singers to diversify your listening. Hopefully there’s something for everyone here.

Christine and the QueensHéloïse Letissier, Christine and the Queens

Chris is a French singer-songwriter and releases songs in English and French who identifies as gender queer and pansexual. Her music has a pop feel with Janet Jackson as a big inspiration for her latest album. Her music is fun, sexy, and powerful.

Fun fact: I bought a blazer from Zara because she was modelling it. Moral of the story? I am a sucker for advertising and hot people in suits. But do I look fantastic in a blazer? Absolutely.

Song to start with: 5 dol

Iconic lyric: what if the obvious is suddenly so insane?

 

Clairoclairo

Clairo is perfect for fans of soft indie rock. Her latest album Immunity is relaxed with plenty of songs about unrequited love and learning to be comfortable with the unknown. Have a watch of her genius video explaining the song Bags for more of an insight into what her music is about.

Song to start with: Softly

Iconic lyric: Sofia I know that you and I shouldn’t feel like a crime

 

King Princess2019 Lollapalooza - Day 1

Anyone who knows me knows I literally cannot shut up about King Princess. I am pretty much convinced she is a goddess sent from gay heaven to taunt me. A New York native, she just released her first full album in October after releasing an EP in 2018. Her sound is fairly chilled with gorgeous vocals and lyrics that appeal to anyone who was an angsty teen and is now an angsty twenty-something. When does this angsty phase end by the way? Asking for a friend.

Song to start with: 1950

Iconic lyric: I rule with the velvet tongue, with my dress undone

 

Princess Nokianokia

Princess Nokia is hip-hop singer and rapper. She’s an intersectional feminist who is keen for women of colour to take up space. Her lyrics are always clever and range from rapping about her upbringing, to her sexuality, to the state of New York City. Her album 1992 Deluxe has a great mix of low-fi hip-hop tracks and others with a nostalgic 90s and early 2000s RnB feel. Whatever the track, her sound is powerful and sexy.

Song to start with: Tomboy

Iconic lyric: A nerdy girl with nymphomanic tendencies

 

St Vincentvincent

Since starting her career touring with Sufjan Stevens in his band, St Vincent has released a wide range of experimental tracks. She takes inspiration from Kate Bush, David Bowie, and Jimi Hendrix. She’s said before that her music is so changeable as it reflects her life living with anxiety. Everything can change in a moment and she channels this in her songs. 

Song to start with: Masseducation

Iconic lyric: I can’t turn off what turns me on

 

Girl in Redred

Girl in Red is another queen for those with angsty souls. Her indie-rock tracks are written, recorded and produced in her bedroom in Norway. Her song “we fell in love in October” is particularly lovely. She’s said in an interview that it’s about the joy of experiencing being in love with her first girlfriend after a long time of struggling to accept herself. Just shouting “my girl!” over and over again.

Song to start with: I’ll die anyway

Iconic lyric: you will be my world, my girl

 

Janelle Monáejanelle

Once again, anyone who knows me knows I won’t stop forcing them to listen to Janelle Monáe. Her music is an eclectic mix of hip-hop, RnB, rock, and pop. Her most recent album is especially incredible lyrically, with plenty of comment on the state of the US at the moment. Older albums take a lot of influence from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” with the idea of the robotic woman as a recurrent theme.

Song to start with: Take a Byte

Iconic lyric: Hundred men telling me cover up my areolas, while they blocking equal pay, sipping on they coca-colas

 

Emily Kingemily

Somewhere between RnB, soul, and pop, everything Emily King has released absolutely bangs. Another New Yorker, she’s toured with John Legend, Floetry, Alicia Keys, and Erykah Badu. When I saw this queen live last year (pun unintended, flex absolutely intended) it was one of the best gigs I have ever been to. Her voice is so soulful and controlled.

Song to start with: Look at me now

Iconic lyric: always know when the last smile has been drawn, so you won’t have to give too much of yourself

 

Tracy Chapmantracy

This list would not be complete without Tracey Chapman. Her androgynous voice is deeply soothing and her lyrics are powerfully emotional. Her song “Fast Car” is one of the greatest songs of the 20th century in my opinion. Her album titled “Tracy Chapman” from 1988 is great listening for a long car ride while you stare out of the window.

 

This article could have been a lot longer so if you made it this far and are still looking for more, here are some honourable mentions that I didn’t have time to write about: Frankie Cosmos (indie-rock), dodie (sad girl bangers), Tove Lo (pop/electronic), Hayley Kiyoko (pop), Shura (pop).

Girl Talk reviews : Apple TV’s Dickinson

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant-” wrote Emily Dickinson, in one of the almost 2,000 poems, scribbled on scraps of paper, that were found in her bedroom upon her death. Born in the 1830s in Amherst, Massachusetts, it is said that in the last years of her life, she would rarely leave her room, and always dressed in white. She’s one of my favourite poets ever, if not the favourite, and so I greeted the news of Apple TV’s retelling of her life with some apprehension.

In those 4 walls of her bedroom, held in silence like a fly in amber and secluded from the hustle of revivalist 19th century New England, Emily Dickinson managed to crystallise the deepest range of human emotions – where it always seemed that she’d reached enlightenment and been cut off at the last minute by a dash. Apple TV, if their recent offering The Morning Show (streaming to mostly bad reviews) is anything to go by, are not characterised by subtlety.

Single words, earmarked by dashes, exclamation points – Emily Dickinson’s poetry channeled the telegraph decades before it was invented. “Some of the strangest, most fascinating poems ever written”, opens Apple TV’s Dickinson. This respect for its subject and her output reassured me at once, and it really does provide the emotional core to this dreamy and feverish retelling of what Dickinson’s life could have been.

To keep this spoiler free, I’ll just focus on the first episode. Hailee Steinfeld (of “Most Girls” fame) plays the titular poet,  while her complicated and strict father, Edward Dickinson, is played by an excellent if sometimes wooden Toby Huss. The opening scene sees Emily wake up, lights a candle and write, visibly shaken and twitching with inspiration, breathing heavily. It reminded me of Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 Suspiria remake, when the young girls are possessed by a witch’s spirit as they dance. Dancing is erotic and euphoric in Suspiria and so is writing in Dickinson – her sublimated emotions and anxieties poured forth into poets like “Wild nights – Wild nights!”, allegedly about her sister-in-law, Susan, here played by the sweet-faced Ella Hunt.

Dickinson (which has met with largely positive reviews) is a sprawling, ambitious take on a complicated figure. It’s certainly not what people expected – modern, funky, made for social media.  Emily says “bullshit” within the first five minures. Vaguely old-timey and quite beautiful graphics and drawings adorn the title sequences of each episode, while bass-heavy backing tracks punctuate scene changes, including A$AP Rocky and Skepta’s Praise The Lord . The dialogue is halfway between general period drama formality and a 2000s teen movie. “What up sis,” says Emily’s brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe) as he rides up to tell her he’s marrying her best friend and (in the show and probably in real life) secret lover. “Nothing bro, just chilling,” she replies, lackadaisical – it really is a show carried by its visuals and storyline, rather than dialogue.

But striking imagery was crucial to Dickinson’s poems too – just look at one of her most famous lines, “Because I could not stop for Death –/He kindly stopped for me –/The Carriage held but just Ourselves –/And Immortality.” Each episode is named after a poem, and it is this poem that the show opens with. Lines of Emily’s poems appear as she composes them, embossed in gold on tree trunks and water buckets.

It’s really a show about the power of escapism. Every night, Emily retreats inside her mind to drive around with Death (an excellently relaxed Wiz Khalifa) in a red velvet dress. In life, Dickinson wrote with feverish imagination, probing deep at death, repression and trauma, all the while ensconced in staid respectability. In Dickinson, Emily is powerful, supremely confident in her status as a misfit. Her poems here are not published anonymously – whereas real-life Dickinson was said to be afraid of being published, obsessed over mysterious men (writing a series of letters addressed to a mysterious “master”) but never finding real love. We’re so used to this idea of a life experienced through the mind, through letters, being “less than”. But in Dickison, Emily is young, and has not yet become a recluse.  As the show takes pains to stress, whatever life Emily built for herself, it was the one she wanted.

Many criticised the show online and on Instagram comment sections for the liberties it seemed to be taking with the truth. Emily didn’t run wild in orchards, or kiss women, or smoke opium, or even want her poems published! Films like Terrence Davies’ 2016 biopic, A Quiet Passion, portray Dickinson in a more expected light, a quiet, terrified woman, unprepared for the real world. But as Rachel Handler explored in a wonderful article for Vulture, it is really not so clear that Emily actually was such a homebody. Madeleine Olnek’s 2018 film Wild Nights With Emily turns that assumption on its head and showed Dickinson as a fun, queer (perhaps a lesbian), exciting and ramshackle woman. Apple Tv’s Dickinson does similar things; it teases out what’s already in the source material – a loud passion for life, for nature, a life deeply felt and experienced.

Her relationship with Susan is explored beautifully and is truly one of the shows’ greatest strengths. Meet me in the orchard, Emily asks in a letter dropped down in a basket. It’s  a beautifully shot scene, and a visual pleasure to watch them watching each other, framed by red apples, one dressed in white and the other in black. You’re not sure if they’re just friends – until Emily asks “Sue” to promise her she’ll always love her more than her brother, and they kiss.

This relationship has been theorised on extensively by literary scholars, but largely discarded by the academy, especially during the years of the “Lavender Scare” of the mid 20th century.  Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart published a book in 1998 called Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, a compilation of Emily’s letters to Susan, undeniable expressions of romantic love. “I love you as dearly, Susie, as when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens.”

Dickinson really marries well the nods to the poet’s extensive literary output, with excellent TV. A particular success is Emily in a blood-red dress, leaving behind the virginal white for her nightly carriage ride with death. Later on, as Billie Eilish plays, discussions of the afterlife – “publicity is not the same thing as immortality” – reference one of her most famous poems: “The Carriage held but just Ourselves – /And Immortality.” The scene is charged as Emily – literally – flirts with Death, and the whole show drips with vivacity and sex. There’s competition, romantic and physical, for Sue’s affections by Emily and her brother, against the backdrop of Susan’s sister’s funeral – their youth is inevitably tinged with loss and death. Even as we see the preparation of a bountiful feast, the audience is treated to a close up of a chicken being killed.

Again, anyone reading Dickinson’s poetry would notice her fascination with death (“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –”) but there’s the sexy, flirtatious side to her isn’t fictional. She  once mailed Kate Scott Turner a poem alongside a pair of garters. Kate Scott Turner is believed by many to have had a brief fling with Dickinson. She ended up living an openly gay life in Europe and is in the only existing daguerrotype of Dickinson

It’s by no means a perfect show, of course. The dialogue is often awkward, and there’s a weird interplay between archaic and modern language: lots of “I shall” followed by “I’m pretty psyched about it”. It seems to be a point about age – the younger characters use slang, while the parents are stilted and formal. But it doesn’t quite work. There’s slightly too many slick gimmicks, it’s a bit too instagram-generation in its aesthetics – it needs more soul, something Dickinson’s poems never lacked.

The greatest value in Dickinson is the way it reminds us of the power of our own imagination to soothe and to fulfill us – something we should all keep in mind in the midst of Week 5. Don’t limit yourself to writing what you know, write what you feel. Emily Dickinson may have lived out the end of her life in one room, but she travelled in her mind. Vivid emotions, despair and trauma run deep in Dickinson’s poems; “‘It was not Death, for I stood up” is a delicate meditation of what we are capable of surviving. But there is also a deep lust for life –  “I taste a liquor never brewed/From tankards scooped in pearl”.

The show as a result seems to be more about what Emily Dickinson’s life could have been, if it had been more fair. It’s an  assumption that in society as it is today, there is more to offer, to “fearless” women like Emily. She “dwells in Possibility”, as she wrote herself, and so does Apple TV’s Dickinson.