I am video-chatting with Carson Cox, who is the frontman of the Tampa Bay punk band Merchandise. We’re talking about pop music. I think Merchandise’s 2012 record Children of Desire is slightly pop, but he disagrees: The bass lines are too animated and too thought-about to make the record pop, he lectures, and rock and pop don’t think about the bass the way punk does. He asks me if my band is pop. I tell him that yes, White Lung is pop. He laughs at me. We’re both wrong. We’re both right. Merchandise and White Lung are not pop.
“I think pop is the most brutal form of music,” Cox says. “It’s the hardest to hide behind and it seems to have no limit.”
As a frontwoman, I am constantly thinking about my limits. And that thought process ranges from spontaneous debates like, “Will I get kicked out of the bar if I throw this microphone stand into the crowd?” to structural deliberations about melody placement and harmonies.
I started writing songs in my mother’s basement when I was 16. They were shit pop songs. It wasn’t until I started writing with other people that I created any music worth sharing with the public. I wish I could write alone, but I’m not talented enough. I need a band. This is why I admire pop writers, especially female singer-songwriters because, like Cox says, pop is the most brutal form of music. Think Chan Marshall and Liz Phair circa 1995. Sure, Sam McBride and Henry Rollins screamed in your face, naked chest, practically bleeding from the eyes, but Marshall and Phair sang about fucking and their alleged abortions in front of hundreds of crossed arms with nothing but a guitar to support them. Do you understand how much confidence that takes? That’s so much harder than screaming. That is why I respect Waxahatchee.
Waxahatchee is Katie Crutchfield. Also of the band P.S. Eliot, Crutchfield started writing under the alias Waxahatchee in 2011. She recently released her second album Cerulean Salt (rounded out by Kyle Gilbridge on bass guitar and Keith Spencer on drums) and it’s the record my 16-year-old self would have aspired to write. It’s the record I would write now if I weren’t so afraid. If I had the stones to truly be pop.
Crutchfield is a fan of Chan Marshall and it shows. Cerulean Salt feels very What Would the Community Think in structure, but Crutchfield doesn’t share the same current timbre as her hero — she projects as often as she hushes. I imagine that Crutchfield has punched a few girls in the face (which makes me like her even more).
Cerulean Salt begins with “Hollow Bedroom.” A simple, finger-picked melody climbs around Crutchfield’s ashy voice. “I left like I got my way, but truly I left with nothing at all,” she sings, “And we are late/And we are loud/And we’ll remain connected as you are reading out loud.” The guitar is awkward and bare. “Hollow Bedroom” acts as an introduction to the album. Crutchfield lets you know she’s not afraid. She’s going to tell you everything about her life of champagne flutes, fields and all the bad stuff in between.
“Dixie Cups and Jars” conjures images of a trashy bride: “Make-up sits on your face like tar.” Crutchfield’s lyrics are little poems, but they don’t have the secondhand embarrassment factor of diary entries, a typical downfall of the singer-songwriter genre. She’s secretive enough and relies heavily on imagery, describing moments rather than her exact feelings. I imagine that breaking off a relationship with Crutchfield would be completely void of “I feel” arguments. She’d politely leave, maybe, maybe cry in silence on the way home, and then write a million great songs about you that are so fucking pictorial you would never figure them out.
Halfway through Cerulean Salt, Crutchfield drops “Coast to Coast,” which employs pop sensibilities and ends up working like Veruca Salt’s “Seether” for Gen Y. Crutchfield’s voice blasts from the first line as she flickers a little lick underneath: “You scan the AM for Coast to Coast/And I’ll try to embrace the lows,” she sings on the chorus. We want to know: Who was listening to radio shows about aliens while Crutchfield felt sad? Like “Seether,” “Coast to Coast” is straight-up contagious pop — sugary, smart and almost anthemic, it ends as quickly as it started.
My friend and pop veteran, the singer-songwriter Louise Burns, says that as a singer-songwriter you always run the risk of being viewed as inherently boring. “There’s just so many of us,” she explains. Plus, being a female singer-songwriter is that much harder because it embraces stereotypical ideas of what we expect when we think of women playing music: Joni Mitchell, Karen Dalton, Marianne Faithfull, Phair, Marshall, Fiona Apple, the list goes on all through the generations. Breaking the rules of your gender and doing like the boys do is not as brave as completely embracing your own stereotype. If you come out unique and successful, you must know what you are doing. When there is less noise, you become more exposed. The empty spaces between guitar ring-outs are the challenge. Words can hang forever when there is no feedback to clog up the room.
That’s why Crutchfield’s strongest moment on Cerulean Salt is the one where she sounds the most stereotypical. On “Peace and Quiet,” she plays with Frank Black’s technique of quiet-loud-quiet singing: “Some cosmetic illusion/You’ll rest your callow bones/Blame my hard-working father/For harm you cannot atone.” An effortlessly catchy chorus separates the verses like a plastic divider between orders on a grocery store conveyer belt. The song sticks with you long after it’s over. Crutchfield has the kind of voice that feels familiar without being forgettable. She gets in your head and waits around for days until you are humming her infectious melodies through all your daily errands.
I’ve got this troupe of female musicians, radio hosts and music critics. We all follow one another on Twitter, and they were all gushing about Waxahatchee, like seriously gushing. Something about Cerulean Salt strikes a chord in my generation of girls. Maybe it’s because the album reminds us of that really terrible time when we were starting to develop our agency by sneaking out and going to punk shows, getting drunk on cider and dying our hair. Maybe it’s because Cerulean Salt is a throwback to the female singer-songwriter tradition girls like me cut our teeth on. It’s the pop we found power in because it actually spoke to us.
Marshall, Phair and Apple were like the cool, older sisters we never had, gently taking us in and teaching us lessons about how much everything fucking sucked and why it was all going to be okay. These women sang to us when we were alone in our rooms, trudging through stupid homework and dreaming about getting the fuck out of wherever we were. Those pop singers were honest with us when no one else was. Their vulnerability saved our asses. I mean, who else was going to buck up and do the job of communicating with a shitty teenage girl? We needed those pop women. We will always need those pop women if we want to create more confident, creative females. (And trust me, we want more confident, creative females around.) Cerulean Salt reminds me of that formative time in my life and with every song, Crutchfield makes me realize that even though everything back then totally fucking sucked, it actually did turn out OK.