The year of chaos comes to an end with a strong Full Moon in Cancer on December 29th, lighting the way into the New Year and reminding us that even though much has been lost in the storm, we have strengthened what matters most: our deepest connections.
As we move into the dawn of 2021, Mars changes suit and pursues the realization of our collective visions with the determination of Taurus, ensuring we have the power to see ourselves through this next chapter and fulfill all the promises of light after a long storm. Look to the New Moon in Capricorn on January 12th as the time to commit to a new course of action based on the lessons learned from 2020 vision. We will build from what we have learned, not bury it behind us.
And now we begin the slow climb up the mountain side, pushing our respective rocks against the pull of gravity that kept us close to the ground all year. Do you remember what it felt like to pull yourself up past the brim of the horizon, knowing there was a beautiful scene in store? The last of 2020 will feel like that moment between sleeping and waking, when we’re not quite sure if we should take those first steps up or lay in bed a little longer. You can wait past the square Mars, your ruling planet, makes to Pluto on December 23rd—this will be a test of character rather than an opportunity to elevate. The Full Moon on December 29th is a reminder to center chosen family and loved ones, your biggest lesson of this year. As we move into 2021 your energy will return, now inspired by the visions you entrusted to a new year. Mars enters Taurus on January 6th, and you’ll know that this chapter is truly behind us. By the New Moon in Capricorn on January 12th, you’ll know what energetic principle you want to dedicate your creative practice to, and you’ll have the strength to believe in it once again.
Audio Challenge: What has 2020 vision opened your eyes to? How do you want to enter 2021? Don’t wait until the New Year officially arrives—use this time to begin thinking about how you want your musical practice to look this upcoming year.
The biggest shifts happen from within, when a misunderstanding held deep in the heart has finally shifted, causing a cascade of changes in your life like dominos finally giving way to a clearer path forward. This year has brought up a lot of strife, but the biggest challenge for you has been facing some of the beliefs you thought would hold you through any struggle. The Full Moon in Cancer on December 29th reminds you of the work you are here to do: clear ancestral stories in order to move forward with renewed light. As Mars moves into your first house on January 6th, you are energized with the renewed determination to create your own narrative out of this chaos, forging a path through this time that is entirely your own. It’s time to let those you trust show you how to step away from what you have known into what is truly yours. Sometimes the hardest comforts to give up are our own ideas about order, but by letting them go we can see what truly is. By the New Moon on January 12th, make a commitment to widening the scope of your vantage point—ask for the veil to be lifted. You are ready.
Audio Challenge: What beliefs about your music no longer serve you? How can you rewrite your own narrative so that it speaks honestly to the person you are right here, right now? Remember: it’s in moments of disorder when we can truly access who we are and what we need.
As 2020 ends, you leave behind all fears about your ability to find sure footing in this world. If the chaos has taught you anything, it’s that you can survive even the worst of storms and still find a soft, sweet place inside your heart to keep the light going until the sky breaks. The Full Moon on December 29th will bring a reminder that you can generate any resources you need—a parting gift from the goddess of chaos, as you leave her reign and enter 2021, with everything you need to get started. By January 6th, when Mars moves into your 12th house of spirit, you’re ready to channel the tones that speak to the deepest desires of your center. Move from this place with integrity, allow your trust to guide you through. Mercury, your ruler, will enter an expansive place in your chart now, allowing you to see the path that was meant for you when the others were blocked. Take it, and with the New Moon that rises on January 12th, make a commitment to trusting this voice that arose in the night—the one that speaks your heart true.
Audio Challenge: Think of your musical tone as an extension of your voice. How do you want your tone to change in 2021? What do you want it to say for you? What resources, what gear do you need to achieve this? Commit to the tone that feels most authentic to only you.
There is a great big stone inside your chest, right next to your heart, weighing down any moment of brilliant joy with a reminder of all that has been lost in this realm. Grief is a powerful motivator for personal transformation—it’s almost like being carried away on an iceberg, headed towards an unknown land, having no more say on it than trust that this current will bring you to a place of rest. The Full Moon on December 29th is in your sign, which means you’ll be able to reflect on all that has passed and all you’ve moved through during this short-long time. One year may have passed on the Gregorian calendar, but 10 years have been lived through in your heart—honor it. As Mars moves into the 11th house of community and connection on January 6th, you’ll find comfort and hope in the arms of those you choose to move into the light with. It will be time to make peace with loss—always with you, but not always standing in your path. It’s time you take your own steps forward now. By the New Moon in Capricorn on January 12th, you’ll know the power that lies in making connections that help pull you through difficult times and put the pieces back together. But remember it is you who chooses to bring them in; it is your heart who called in those who would help you through.
Audio Challenge: Hold a final vigil for all things musical you’ve lost this year (bands, tours, opportunities, etc.) and let it all go, for good. Light candles, make a list, and release. Make space for 2021 goals and what you need to do right now to manifest them.
This whole year there has been a soft and quiet voice following your steps, directing your actions, leading you down the spiral staircase into the great unknown: the belly of your beast. Lying there in the dark hours of the night, alone, the world has come into sharp focus. There’s more to see here than what you’ve explored so far. So much more to go. And now as we step into the light of what will surely be the time for you to find those places, we have to make sure you remember that belly, the shape of the night, the dreams that held your light. The Full Moon on December 29th will ring out this year with a clear intention for what’s to come: you know what dreams you wish to serve by now. As we enter 2021, Mars ignites your house of offering, a time to step back onto the playing field and trust your craft. You’ll work on your daily practice this year, realigning actions with new intentions directed towards that energetic presence you trust. By the New Moon on January 12th, you will identify what practices need to go in order to realign. There are some habits that won’t be following you into the dawn.
Audio Challenge: Consider how your daily practice may need adjusting. What habits no longer sustain you? What habits would you like to implement? Pay attention to what your heart tells you on December 29th, and make a game plan for your daily practice by January 12th.
Learning to trace and retrace your path through ever-changing landscapes has given you two gifts: the strength to face changing circumstances, and the clarity to know what truly gives you grounding. It’s the second gift that will help most in the coming year, as you have the opportunity to reorient your life in order to align your actions with what you truly value. The Full Moon on December 29th closes out this year with a reminder that you are and have done enough. You cannot stop the losses from coming, and you cannot patch up others’ hearts so that they don’t face the brunt of the storm, but you’ve done everything possible to soften the blows. Now will be your time to collect the pieces of your own broken heart and take to mending. By January 6th, when Mars moves into your ninth house, you’ll be healed enough to take on a new course of study; there’s still so much left to be explored now that the doors start to swing back open and the sky has calmed down. Step out and make a commitment to trusting your creative vision by January 12th, when the New Moon shines on your fifth house of poetic expression. What better time to go for what you truly love then now, when you’ve made it through the storm?
Audio Challenge: What is it about your music that grounds you? Maybe it’s a belief, a certain sound, or an instrument. Identify the foundation of your practice and consider what’s yet to be explored.
Your worries are well warranted. Even though certain, perhaps superficial, things have changed the current situation, this does not ensure that you will find ease in your professional and creative pursuits anytime soon. It will be months before we meet with friends, and even longer before you’re able to enjoy a live show. But in this moment, you can be sure that the time to share your work is approaching. And for now, that will have to be enough. The Full Moon on December 29th brings with it a reminder of what you love about the work you’ve taken on, and how much you have yet to explore. As Mars moves into Taurus to ring in the New Year, your determination to forge ahead will grow. Make sure to take care of any relationships that affect your ability to move forward now—business partnerships and collaborators will have important parts to play in the next few months as we begin to meet again. Who you connect with now can make a real difference in how much you are able to grow. The New Moon on January 12th will focus your attention on the space you need in order to fulfill the promise of possible collaboration. Trust that you’ll be able to grow this creative vision very soon. Invest your time in making it a reality.
Audio Challenge: Which important musical relationships have you neglected in 2020? Which ones have you invested way too much energy into without much reciprocation? Begin nurturing the relationships you want to keep and letting go of the ones holding you back.
This year has been a real test of character for the integrity of your soul. It’s not the make and metal of your heart, but the way you speak about it to others that has been weighed against the truth inside. In every place where a small lie has helped you move through a situation with more ease, you have been asked to confront the dissonance. Is it truly worth your time to believe in anything but the fiercest truths now? As we move towards 2021, you’ll be asked to apply that same grit to the foundations on which you have built your life. Have you been cutting corners on your visions in order to make them more palatable? The Full Moon on December 29th will remind you of what you have gained by sacrifice: dedication to self, belief in your vision, and determination to see it through. As Mars moves into your seventh house on January 6th you’ll be asked to review the strength of your connections against this same harsh light. You’ve got a big project in store—you can count on big movements following the storm. Do those around you inspire you to keep building your vision? Take care of the foundations you set, and the people who help you lay down those bricks. The New Moon on January 12th will help you decide whether it feels right.
Audio Challenge: What small lies have you been telling yourself and others about your music? Can those small lies be turned into truths? And if so, what sacrifices must you make? Spot the lies, and determine which ones you want to be truths and which ones must be released.
There are so many things that didn’t go as planned, and so many people to blame for what went wrong. But in this moment, as this chapter starts to close, do you really want to go out holding a candle of frustration for those who stood in your path? There are so many opportunities blooming in the background, if you step into your capacity to trust that those who did you wrong will face their own just karmic deserts—this moment, however, is about you getting yours. The Full Moon closes out this year on December 29th, strengthening the courage you have cultivated through trust in the power you hold. This is your moment to realize that this year of loss has pushed you to depend on your power and strength alone, and you have been found capable of pushing through. As Mars enters your sixth house of work on January 6th you have the opportunity to change the course of your daily practice, aligning with your courage instead of your fear. This isn’t the time to return to the same wheels you spun before this moment: this is the time to initiate a new offering entirely your own. By January 12th, when the New Moon in Capricorn lights up your house of resources and stability, you’ll find that you’re fully capable of funding your dreams on your own grit alone. Go for it.
Audio Challenge: What aspects of your musical practice have you been hiding from? What scares you the most? Use this time, along with your unrelenting courage, to address your fears.
You’ve had to let a lot of things go this year in order to move with the time that you’ve been given. But it’s not the goals or dreams or vision boards or future plans that have cost you the most: it’s the heavy weight of doubt that used to sit around your neck, reminding you at every moment of the things not yet finished. You’ve had to toss that ugly thing into the wind—who doesn’t have a long list of what was unfinished in 2020? But this constant companion, this drive to self-critique yourself into elevation must stay here in this night. As you walk towards the new chapter, remember all that you leave behind on December 29th, when the Full Moon in Cancer centers the clarity you have developed in your heart. As you move into 2021, Mars enters your fifth house of creativity, bringing back the practice that connects your craft with the spirit of purpose you have been able to regenerate in the night. As the New Moon in Capricorn blooms on January 12th, remember what you’re really here to do: not conquer, but integrate. Not achieve, but synthesize.
Audio Challenge: Push aside all notions of success with your music and take a moment to connect to your purpose. What does it look like? Manifest it by writing it out or drawing a representative symbol, then hang it someplace where you will see it everyday.
You’re not alone. Even if it’s felt like it for so much of the year, even if you’ve lost contact with many people you thought would always be around, even if you need to take a break from family, chosen and inherited—because you need some space to think. Even so, and more so, you’re not alone in this time, and you won’t be alone in this time for much longer. The Full Moon in Cancer on December 29th will bring with it the opportunity to cherish the quality of connection you value the most: the chance to build a vision with people who feel the same pull at the heart. As Mars moves into your fourth house on January 6th, you’ll find you have little patience left for home, this space you’ve inhabited for so long. It’s time to make some changes here in order to let in new light. Open the windows and let the cool air rush through, filling your lungs with promise. The New Moon on January 12th will bring you the answer you seek, if you’ve made the space within your home to receive it. Ask for guidance. Listen to what the heart has to offer. Trust.
Audio Challenge: Use this time to make changes to your environment that will ignite creativity and hope. Clear out any clutter and/or unused gear, and make space for new promises and connections.
You may not have always participated in opportunities to connect with others, and it’s been painful to realize just how far they’ve dwindled in the past year. You will have opportunities to see your friends and loved ones soon, but in this moment, as the dredges of 2020 begin to fall, it’s time to reignite the passion you once had for your creative practice. Because it’s this passion that you want to share with those you love when you are able to see them again; it’s this passion that will reinscribe sorrow with light. With the last Full Moon of 2020 on December 29th, take pride in the beauty you’re able to create when you invest your energy in hope that shines a light through the darkness. Center that vision in the year to come, and meet it with the drive that is offered by Mars entering your house of communication on January 6th. It’s time to record the small blooms of beauty you see and share it with those you love. By the Full Moon in Capricorn on January 12th you’ll have the strength and support to initiate a new practice with those you trust. By holding a light through the night, you illuminate a path that others can follow.
Audio Challenge: What are you trying to communicate through your music? And who are you trying to communicate it to? Create a clear creative vision for 2021 and a roster of loved ones to share that vision with.
We have changes that need to be made now, and in order to do so, our bonds must be strengthened and reinforced against the incoming tide. Because of the beloved investment we have in each other’s future, we will now manifest together. Reinforce trust in yourself to carry out the tasks that must be done, starting with building compassion for yourself and others. There is no right way to be, just a right way to hold each other through this process.
Read through your Audioscopes for Libra Season and take on an extra challenge with our audiobytes and tips.
Yes, this is your path—and yes, you’re the only one to lead it. There may be setbacks now, as the sun dims on the horizon and the ground before you lays unbroken: it’s up to you to cut this path through the dense foliage, alone and at night, with nothing but trust in your heart to guide you. This is both your gift to others and your curse: the power to go alone, but the fear of getting lost where no one has set foot before. Don’t rush the clearing, don’t push before you are sure you’re ready. You have time.
Audio Challenge: Use this time to consider yourself as your one and only bandleader. When working alone, what are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Take five minutes to make two separate lists of each while listening to the Aries audiobyte, and use them to guide your creative process.
If it feels like every new proclamation you set forth is met with resistance and every conversation you open is filled with mistrust, your warning bell has been sounded—it’s time to reconsider the battlefield before setting up for another fight. You may think you are defending the right of all, when actually you’re only holding a partial picture of the territory. Listen. Allow for fullness to ring true before pushing forward. This may not need to be a battle after all.
Audio Challenge: Lay down your defenses this month and take time to reflect on what you are fighting both for and against with your music. Meditate on the Taurus audiobyte, or sit by a stream or other body of water if that’s available to you, and consider what nature has to say.
There are gifts hidden here behind the cave walls, a pool of clear water shining in the moonlight, the reflection of your dreams’ eye caught between waking and sleep. But you must learn to tell the difference between the images dancing on starlight in dreamtime and the fixed reality unfolding before you. Pay attention to the energy reflected in those whom you choose to share your most intimate secrets with. Where are you heading together? And for what purpose?
Audio Challenge: Put aside your musical dreams for a moment and take stock of what’s available to you right now—especially those who you trust with your most unrefined song drafts. Pick one person and collaborate on a song together, using the Gemini audiobyte as the backbone.
There are times when all you can do is follow the pattern set by others, those with more power, more clarity, more light. It’s easier to lean on the cadence of those you choose to follow than it is to collect the pieces of your own vision and create your own map. But if you do so now—if you take on the responsibility of setting your own pace, going your own way, following the intuitive path your heart knows and mind must follow—you will find your power and your strength. You had the right map, all along.
Audio Challenge: Set aside time for yourself to draw an actual map of your musical journey. Start by mapping out how you’ve arrived at where you are now, and then where you would like to go. Spend time listening to the Cancer audiobyte as you reflect on what you’re heart has to say.
It’s time to go back now. The hiatus from the songs that keep your heart singing and the steps that keep your body in flow has lasted longer than was necessary for you to re-seed this time with vibrancy. You must take the lessons you’ve learned from this time spent in contemplation and infuse your practice with the brilliance of a heart that has learned to pick up the pieces and start over once again. This time requires a new way of communicating your light to those who are ready to receive it, and you will find a way. Trust.
Audio Challenge: Use the Leo audiobyte as your first step back into your musical practice. Write vocals and/or additional instrumentation that reflect what you’ve learned this year and record over the audiobyte.
You’ve almost completely freed yourself of the chord that runs from the back of your mind down into the pit of the Earth, the place where all memories of failure lie. The only one continuing to feed into this is you, and although it may be an uncomfortable way to hold yourself up, it’s also the only way you’ve known. But you no longer need to remember every action gone awry, every word said out of haste, every connection severed in the night. This is a rebirth for both you and the Earth. Let it go. Bury it. You won’t be back here again.
Audio Challenge: On a sheet of paper, write a list of every musical failure that plagues you. Then, burn the sheet of paper and bury the ashes in the ground or in a houseplant. Listen to the Virgo audiobyte and rewrite your story through song.
There are so many things you can’t enjoy about this beautiful season, this year, but that only brings the joys that are available to you into sharper focus. There is a small patch of grass where the sun beams through, where the wildflowers grow despite the daily shifts in weather patterns. Sit here, in this small space of Earth that is warmed by the energy of those who have sat here before you. Remember the gifts that have been passed down to you through the lineage of the sweet smell of sage. This power will get you through.
Audio Challenge: Set up a corner of your space for musical productivity, and be sure to keep it set up so that you can return to it easily. Decorate it with photographs or ephemera of your family, ancestors, and/or others who paved the way for your journey. Listen to the voices in the Libra audiobyte, and see if you can channel the voices of your own people who came before you.
You can finally see above the rim of the half empty cup, into the wide expanse of shifting sands below. The Earth moves herself into a new position, making way for the reality that is already brimming on the horizon, ready to breathe through the tightness in your chest in order to allow for new growth. But in this moment, in this clarity of vision, nothing more needs to be done but to accept the reality that is to come, and to allow your heart to meet it. Your plan of action will arrive soon enough, as surely as the season changes and the day follows night.
Audio Challenge: Use this time to rest and accept what is to come. Spend time outdoors, or somewhere with a view of the outdoors, and listen to the Scorpio audiobyte. Reflect on the seasonal changes, and begin to compose a song that aligns these changes with those in your own life.
Keep that candle burning bright in the window, because the light that shines through the glimmer in your eye is the only signal your kin needs to find you. The heart, sweat, and tears you’ve poured in the foundation will bring the recognition you’ve been needing to hear from those who can hold your heart’s intention and let it ring true. This is the last moment before the tide turns heavy and the winds begin to blow in a new direction. This will be the moment when your friends find you, by that same guiding light, to navigate through the storm together.
Audio Challenge: Reach out to the musicians in your life who support you and offer you light. Arrange a time to brainstorm ways on staying connected right now—perhaps a songshare over Zoom or a mixtape exchange of songs that excite you. Keep the Sagittarius audiobyte playing lightly in the background as you brainstorm together.
There won’t be any decisions made now that won’t change later, and there won’t be any fixed path to lead you through the coming storm. The key here is to know that you’re well prepared for any changes afoot, and to lean into the trust in your heart so that you can adapt. Anywhere you find yourself now can be called home, as long as you carry the connection to lineage, kin—those gifts passed down from grandmother to grandmother that find a resting place in your heart to bear fruit. You won’t be alone in this time, and you won’t be forgotten as long as you remember the legacy you are carrying through.
Audio Challenge: Using the Capricorn audiobyte as the foundation, compose a piece of music that honors your lineage. Try to use an instrument or piece of gear that you’ve had trouble with in the past, but do not get frustrated with perfection—you have everything you need right now.
You will never find the perfect expression of human compassion that will ensure safe passage through any situation. There are monsters only you are destined to face, well-worn patterns passed down that must now be broken in order to clear the way for a new step forward. It’s up to you to face these demons and make friends, to step into knowing instead of fearing what will come next. The torch has been passed down, the night has fallen, and it’s your turn to run this leg of the race. You’ve been chosen. You will make it through.
Audio Challenge: What are some musical monsters you’ve been facing? These might be in your head, or even gear or a technique that you’ve had trouble tackling. Pick one and address it head on—use the Aquarius audiobyte to guide you.
If the bright colors of the morning have lost their hue, and the daily tasks that ensure your strength have lost their meaning, then it’s time to recollect all the energy that you’re giving to the world and bring it back to center, to source, to the altar in the middle of the room. It’s time to renew vows to spirit first—to the guides that spoke to you so clearly earlier this year, but whose voice may be lost in the swirling chaos of this moment. Set up the altar: place connection before action, compassion before knowing, legacy before success. Your values are shifting now, and you need to recollect. The sun will shine brighter once you have received its blessing.
Audio Challenge: Create an altar that puts you at the center, and listen to the Pisces audiobyte as you assemble it. This can take on many different forms—a candlelit table top of things that bring you joy, a softly lit practice space filled with inspiring images, a playlist of songs of compassion—but no matter what form it takes, be sure it caters to nothing or no one else but your own spirit.
In 2017, Geoff Edgars published a requiem for the guitar in the Washington Post with “The Slow, Secret Death of the Electric Guitar.” According to the piece, electric guitar sales had dropped significantly during the previous decade, from about 1.5 million annually to just over 1 million, and the biggest names in the business were either bankrupt, in debt, or making major budget cuts. However, the following year Fender’s market research showed that the market was evolving: the new generation’s motivation had shifted, with a focus on emotional benefits, and 50 percent of all beginner and aspirational players identified as women—with 19 percent as Black and 25 percent as Latinx. This critical progression of both motive and player offered the industry a seemingly clear cut way to resurrect the guitar: by taking the demands of women—especially those of women of color—more seriously, and offering more visibility.
And yet, many music industry leaders and media outlets seem to prefer to bury the guitar alive—or wait for a catastrophic pandemic—rather than include us in the conversation.
Earlier this month, the New York Times published, “Guitars Are Back, Baby!,” which reflects on 2020’s record-breaking increase of guitar sales due to the pandemic. The piece includes quotes from some of the industry’’s leading companies, demographic statistics, the influence of the guitar hero, and a few slight nods to the role of women. However, this piece fails us in the same ways previous writing about the relevance of guitar has: the visual portrayal and influence of BIPOC women are nowhere to be found and, more often than not, images of women rely on sexualized and feminine depictions.
The inherent problem lies in who’s doing the writing (older white men), who they are writing for (certainly not us, who make up half the market), who is invited into the conversation (older men), and who is being visually represented (cis white men and women). These same regurgitated voices and images preserve an antiquated guitar industry and culture, and in turn, these pieces speak exclusively to an older, white demographic. Apparently we, a community of diverse players from many different backgrounds and ages, are not included.
Mainstream media, as we mentioned in “Changing Tides: The Evolution of Women in Music Media,” shapes our understanding of who truly embodies and belongs in guitar and music culture. Imagine how these guitar death/rebirth pieces might read if they were written by a woman of color guitarist—the choices in language, representation, and dialogue would be drastically different, and more representative of players as a whole.
In an attempt to fill some of the gaps left by the New York Times piece, we aim to answer the following questions: Why are mainstream publications repeatedly failing to document our experiences and stories? What parts of the guitar and its culture are we saying goodbye to? Who are we welcoming and how is that shifting our understanding of guitar culture, education, and community?
The role of the guitar hero is almost always speculated upon in these articles. This archaic and masculine model (or overtly sexualized when women are depicted) perpetuated by these writers has long been dead in many of our communities. In general, the term refers to a guitar player’s specific individual ability to inspire through technical ability, and someone who fits this definition, yet very rarely mentioned, is H.E.R.
With an amazing combination of inspiration variations, H.E.R. plays with a technical presentation that leans toward melodic and ear-heavy training, as discussed in our cover interview for She Shreds Issue 20. Just last week, she became the first Black woman to release a Fender Signature Guitar, and yet the mainstream is still choosing to almost exclusively showcase Taylor Swift—as if women who play guitar should exclusively stick to acoustic, singer-songwriter music.
In 2020, the mainstream media must prioritize the representation and influence of communities outside of the white cis mold in order to keep up with trends and, ultimately, to showcase the reality of the culture, which is why H.E.R.’s signature guitar is a massive milestone. There is plenty of mainstream visibility for women and women of color guitarists right now (H.E.R., St. Vincent, Willow Smith, Brittany Howard, Yola, and the increased popularity of pop stars and their all-women bands, like Beyonce and Lizzo) but when guitar is discussed at an industry level, we’re still seeing the same old faces and hearing the same dull voices.
On the other hand, the guitar hero is no longer our sole source of inspiration. The ability to immediately connect via social media has strengthened our desire to learn and our ability to create community through guitar and music. On the ground level, we must recognize that community over individuality is of utmost importance for change—something that the mainstream and older generations seem to have a hard time grasping. To inspire outside of the mainstream understanding of guitar heros, we need to broaden our definition of what inspires us. And in order to include an intersectionality of women players, we need to look outside of ourselves to create and find inspiration through each other.
The death of the 20th century guitar hero seems to be at the hands of technological advances, resulting in a shift toward community-based inspiration and learning. “Maybe the issue isn’t too few guitar heroes, but too many of them,” writes Alex Williams in the New York Times article. “As any 30-minute foray through cover-song videos on YouTube will attest, there are approximately 1,000,000,007 much-better-than-average guitarists out there, many of whom are in their teens or early 20s. A great many of them are tearing through Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen or Jimmy Page licks. And a great many of them positively shred.” But Williams overlooked two crucial changes in the culture: first, that being “a good guitar player” no longer only means playing like the aforementioned men (for many, it’s to have the ability to express feeling and communicate); and second, that there is strength in community—modern players seek inspiration through representation.
In Fender’s 2018 market research, the company found that 72 percent of respondents picked up the guitar to learn something new and better their lives (players don’t necessarily want to become rock stars anymore), 61 percent of guitar players want to learn how to play for themselves, and 42 percent viewed guitar as part of their identity. While the 20th century beginner guitarist may have needed a hero to inspire progress and stardom, players today can learn more easily than ever through technological advances which equipt just about everyone with the right tools. But oftentimes, because of the overwhelming options and stimulation, there might be a lack of emotional, cultural, or personal connection, and the process might not be as meaningful or engaging. Watching a player show off their soloing speed is no longer as fulfilling as the right combination of chords, personality, and kindredship.
The shift toward community-based learning and inspiration is even more apparent in 2020, with stay-at-home orders and more time on our hands. While Williams credits the resurrection of the guitar to the pandemic, he fails to consider the recent trends that have greatly contributed as well—many of which are led by women and women of color. Musicians are hitting IG Live for more intimate performances, often accompanied by a minimal set up including an electric or acoustic guitar. One example has been Girls with Guitars, a weekly Instagram live performance and conversation series hosted by H.E.R. that gave viewers a glimpse into her technique, and even helped the rise of other participating guitarists including Cat Burns, who has recently become the face of TikTok UK. There’s also Pickup Music, a monthly membership artist-taught guitar education community built on showcasing the talents of a young Instagram community; In Session, a free six-day digital camp for women and nonbinary music producers of color from all levels and backgrounds; the influx of TikTok performances; Tiny Desk Home Concerts; and the many weekly IG live performances that we’ve flocked to in the absence of live music, such as Victoria Boyd of Infinity Song.
“The guitar will always evolve with popular music,” says Sam Blakelock, founder of Pickup Music. “The problem is the way the guitar is often taught is stuck in the 1980s. Many online guitar courses are still dominated by old white men teaching classic rock. This doesn’t speak to young players and isn’t representative of the new community of guitarists.”
Pickup Music is just one example of how social media has changed the landscape of guitar education, by breaking out of the mold with a modern and inclusive guitar-based community with reflective teachers of all ages, genders, and race. “Bringing people together who are interested in similar styles of guitar and who are at the same stage of their learning journey is the key to reaching new levels as a player,” says Blakelock.
Fender’s recent revival, as stated in the New York Time article, is accounted for by the following: in 2020, nearly 20 percent of beginner guitarists were under 24, 70 percent were under 45, and 45 percent identified as women.
“We’ve broken so many records,” Andy Mooney, chief executive of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, told the New York Times. “It will be the biggest year of sales volume in Fender history, record days of double-digit growth, e-commerce sales and beginner gear sales. I never would have thought we would be where we are today if you asked me back in March.”
This information, combined with Fender’s 2018 research that showed 19 percent of beginner’s identified as Black and 25 percent as Latinx (and what we can only imagine has increased since, with role models like H.E.R. and Willow breaking further into the mainstream) should act as a glaring indicator as to who the mainstream media should be passing the mic to. Any mainstream publication that addresses the death/rebirth of the guitar and fails to include the voices of women and younger generations is damaging not only to those voices, but to the sustainability of the industry at large. If mainstream media shapes the general population’s understanding of guitar and music culture, and mainstream media is not accurately representing that culture, then perhaps the guitar’s demise has just as much to do with the media’s negligence as it does with consumers.
Grasping onto a culture that simply doesn’t hold a future for the music industry anymore is detrimental on many levels. And as a result, if the question remains, “Is the guitar dying?” then the answer is yes: let the guitar, as the media has forced us to perceive it, fissile out. It’s time to let those who are being left out of the narrative—the major contributors to the guitar’s resurrection, thus lining the pockets of these major music companies—to lead the conversation, and to be recognized and uplifted for the imperative role they play in saving the industry.
In the first three Rolling Stone covers of 2020, more musicians were women of color (Lizzo, SZA, Megan Thee Stallion, Normani) than all of its covers combined from 2010 to 2015 (Rihanna, Whitney Houston, and Nicki Minaj).
This shift in representation hasn’t been swift so much as sudden: a whiplash undoing of mainstream publications presenting scattered gendered exceptionalism, packaged and sold under a slobbery male gaze as music journalism. Plenty of people have been calling it out (or mutely unsubscribing) for decades, but to little avail. However, over the last few years, a combination of capitalist survivalism and good old-fashioned public shame has jolted greasier-than-glossy magazines into accepting that short-term impulse buys for sexy covers can’t remedy the consequential reputation rot.
Plus, it wasn’t like the wrung-out “sex sells” strategy, with all its thin assumptions of who’s doing the buying and what they want, had actually been working. Over the course of a decade, Rolling Stone newsstand buys had slunk from 139k per issue in 2007 to 28k in 2017, surviving more on a few bouts of impressive political journalism than much else. In 2018, the new owner of Rolling Stone’s parent company announced that their goal for the publication was to be relevant to millennial consumers—a hell of an endeavor for a magazine that has been recycling Bob Dylan and The Beatles since its inaugural issue. Guitar World similarly changed its tune in 2016 when it announced an end to the annual bikini gear guide.
The corporate notion of appealing specifically to younger generations emerged in 1954, when Billboard announced that jukebox operators had been increasingly stocking R&B records to meet the demand of white teenagers who weren’t interested in the orchestral “popular music” that dealers had been pedaling in segregated shops. Fast forward more than 70 years and the business goal of remaining relevant to young buyers is increasingly intertwined with an expectation of respect for the web of identities musicians hold. While it’s unwise, if not difficult, to espouse an eagle-eye understanding of a phenomenon while living through it, it can feel at times like things are changing for the better.
However, change can be an elusive, slippery thing when touted imprecisely. Who are we including when we talk about how women are recognized, celebrated, or ignored? Who fits within that gendered category, and who do we consider entitled to recognition? Which voices count as “the media”? When we compare “right now” to “back then,” with which moment do we begin and how does our linear conception of time encompass the waxing and waning nature of progress?
This article is about how mainstream music publications have portrayed musicians who live outside of the cis male mold, because widespread visibility can have a powerful impact on our understanding of what is possible. As Oprah put it in a documentary about the Ed Sullivan Show’s impact: “You don’t understand what it’s like to be in a world where nobody looks like you. When I first saw Diana Ross looking glamorous and beautiful, it represented possibility and hope. It was life changing.” Achieving visibility and respect that fully reflects the contributions of a person or group to our culture is part of a systemic cycle of awareness, acceptance, and appreciation. Maddeningly, these cycles wax and wane without regard to the unity of our intersecting identities, which is why so few of the musicians discussed in this article are openly trans or nonbinary. To discuss how certain musicians have been talked about over the course of history is to be limited to those names that were uttered loudest to begin with. It is paramount, then, to distinguish between an analysis of what was and an analysis of what we have found. This is the latter.
And it started with Mamie Smith.
Rock created the music publications we read today, R&B created rock, blues created R&B, and Mamie Smith made the blues a national sensation. In the summer of 1920, a small label called Okeh Records recorded Smith singing a rendition of Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues.” The record was an overnight sensation among Black working-class consumers, catalyzing a series of reactions by the record industry that would change popular culture forever. As Angela Davis pointed out in her book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Smith’s success simultaneously led record companies to finally consider the tastes of Black consumers (while pigeonholing them into segregated buyer categories) and producing the music of Black women musicians. As blindly rooted in profit as these corporate labels’ reactions were, the ultimate impact was that rock ‘n’ roll and some of our biggest music icons’ signature sounds originated in Black communities—often Black women musicians, specifically. Because of Mamie Smith’s success, the country’s biggest record labels rushed to sign Black women musicians such as Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, Ethel Waters, Gladys Bentley, and Bessie Smith (no relation to Mamie Smith), who a teenaged Billie Holiday listened to before moving to Harlem and singing in the nightclub where Benny Goodman discovered her. The rest is history—or as Frank Sinatra put it in a 1958 interview with Ebony, “Lady Day [Billie Holiday] is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.” Little could he know that, as was finally acknowledged in 2000 by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Holiday’s genealogy of sound extends to today.
At a time when white women’s orchestral pop music still held up marriage and heteronormative domesticity, these early blues recordings were the first instances of women singing to a national audience about independence, fluid sexuality, domestic violence, and working class struggle—phenomena that have often been mistakenly treated as inceptive when they later re-emerged in everything from the sexual revolution colliding with second-wave feminism to Madonna to the #MeToo movement.
The Second World War came and went, and temporary openings for women in factories (such as Gibson’s Kalamazoo Gals) as well as the mainstream music business along with it. When the war ended, government propaganda of women’s equality did too, leading to a spike in pop music as a vessel for messages of feminine domesticity. When the war ended in 1945—seven years after she packed an audience at New York’s Carnegie Hall—Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day” made history as the first gospel song to cross over into popular appeal, while Doris Day’s “Sentimental Journey” topped the charts, marking the beginning of Day’s career as an “armed forces sweetheart.”
Sure, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was so popular that she played to a massive stadium 14 years before The Beatles’ Shea Stadium concert (popularly cited as the first such performance), but Variety’s white male writers couldn’t resist framing their kudos as being about a person “of considerable heft” whose music was “even for sophisticates.” The same drivel applied to Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, whose 1953 charts-topper “Hound Dog” rocked the musical landscape at #1 for seven straight weeks while she was subjected to vile physical comparisons and blatant respectability politics. Elvis may have idolized Tharpe, but he played right into the hands of industry executives looking to put a white man’s face on Tharpe’s and Thornton’s sound. Worse than Presley’s co-opted success was the white-washing of rock ‘n’ roll history it triggered. The British Invasion, as rock critic Kandia Crazy Horse would later point out, finished what Elvis had started. By 1970, Tharpe was described by one publication as “so rhythmically exciting that when she accompanies herself on guitar she might be a blacked-up Elvis in drag.”
Considering how the 1960s birthed second-wave feminism, it’s impressive how dude-centric the emergence of modern rock journalism was. In fact, if there’s a moment from which you can directly trace the peak crudeness of mainstream music magazines, the mid-1960s might be your best bet. While the 1980s took the objectification of women to appalling heights, it was the 1960s emergence of the modern rock critic as well as gonzo journalism—which prided itself on making dumpster fires of professional ethics—and the left’s rejection of sexual mores that provided a rebranding opportunity for deeply entrenched misogyny in the music industry.
Even Rolling Stone had its exceptions, though, as any vessel of exceptionalism must. A few months before the magazine published its first issue in 1967, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” hit #1 on Billboard’s charts. Taking a break from its worship of Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon, the second issue of Rolling Stone dedicated a full page to the Queen of Soul. “Let her do her things, after all, she’s the one with the talent,” the piece advised Franklin’s new producer before launching into a song-by-song analysis of Aretha Arrives (1967, Atlantic Records). The next year, the young music outlet published an eerie echo of Billboard’s 1923 acknowledgment of Bessie Smith’s triumphs: “In this day when groups and infrequent solo male artists dominate the music, the public interest and the charts, Aretha Franklin’s incredible commercial success is extraordinarily noteworthy.” Whether it was in Rolling Stone or The New York Times, Franklin got credit—and even though she made history when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the mainstream media’s serious treatment of her talent was revolutionary 20 years prior too.
However, journalists still found ways to gender their coverage of Franklin, erase the women who came before her, or both. In 1968, The New York Times published one of their earliest articles about Franklin: “Establishing an identity through asserting the basic female emotions does not sound like a very original or interesting development for a pop singer—yet it is, in fact, almost without precedent in Miss Franklin’s tradition,” claimed white male writer Albert Goldman. “The old-timers like Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey (or Mahalia Jackson today) were massive matriarchs,” Goldman lazily stereotyped before turning to the woman-as-victim cliche of “the Billie Holidays or Dinah Washingtons [who] loved, suffered and learned resignation before they opened their mouths… Aretha’s woman may suffer, but her soul is whole and untrammeled by depression or abuse.”
In hindsight, the 1969 Woodstock and Harlem Cultural festivals served as a perfect transition into the 1970s. Joan Baez and Janis Joplin were notable exceptions to Woodstock’s celebration of men in music, while Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson headlined the 300,000-strong Harlem Cultural Festival weeks prior. Choice exceptionalism prevailed in both the festival circuit and mainstream media coverage, but it was also an era of milestones: the Filipino-American rock trio Fanny made waves on the Billboard charts, inspiring The Runaways, fronted by Joan Jett; Sylvia Robinson recorded her chart-topping “Sylvia” before founding Sugar Hill Records and bringing hip hop into the mainstream with her production of the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”; and Suzi Quatro became the first woman to reach rock star status for her bass playing. Not surprisingly, the media’s response was mixed.
In a 1974 article published in the influential and permanently-dated music magazine Creem, writer Robert “Robot” Hull seemed stuck between masturbating through his own words and acknowledging Suzi Quatro’s talent: “Suzi Quatro is a real cutie, rootie tootie, not sweet hog honey like Linda Ronstadt but a tight roller derby queen with juice and enuf krassiness to rank her right up there with the Sweet and Slade,” he drooled. Fittingly, Hull would go on to become a major rock critic and eventual producer of CD series’ like “Sounds of the ’70s.” Rolling Stone’s own coverage of Quatro later that same year was mild in comparison, but still ensured that any recognition came through a lens of male gaze, with the bassist propped onto the empty pedestal of “glittering sex queen” in one line and taken down in the next as “a short, trim woman from Detroit who moved to England after nine unsuccessful years in the American music business.” The New York Times couldn’t resist following the fad, with white male critic John Rockwell choosing to focus his coverage on his opinion that “Quatro dresses in leather jumpsuits and tries to project an image simultaneously aggressive, indifferent and raunchilly sexy.” The newspaper’s coverage of Fanny was equally stupid. “Going to see an all-girl rock group, one has to bring a mixture of condescension and paranoia,” wrote Mike Jahn, admitting the band was good before launching into time-tested cliches: implying they couldn’t move their amps, praising them for not being “Joni Mitchell-type cute,” and making sure the reader knew that this rock group wasn’t just a “pop choir.” Even with androgyny sweeping the mainstream musical landscape (with an apparent absence of acknowledgment of aesthetic contributions by non-cis musicians like Jayne County) this uninspired combination of visibility and ignorance continued into the 1980s.
“Annie Lennox began her life as a man two years ago,” reads the intro of choice for Rolling Stone’s 1983 cover story of Eurythmics’ newfound fame. In an act of truly gymnastic erasure, the piece recited Lennox’s explanation for her switch to an androgynous style as an anti-harassment strategy before concluding that “sexual speculation” at her recent concert “suddenly seemed irrelevant in the presence of such triumphant talent.” Nevermind the implication that abuse is reserved for those who are inadequate or that the musical ingenuity of other powerhouses from the era like Whitney Houston didn’t stave off the collective gnashing of teeth by arena crowds or magazines alike (Rolling Stone would wait until 1993 to publish a proper feature of Houston, promoting its unremarkable interview with a bright red splash of “Whitney Houston Gets Nasty” across its cover and another “Whitney Houston Gets Down and Dirty” for its headline).
As hip hop exploded and rock and pop kept morphing into a mind-numbing multiplicity of genres, music journalism was slow to evolve. The New York Times covered the beloved Grammy-award winning Selena for the first and only time before her death in its 1994 stereotype-laden coverage of a Mexican Independence Day party in New York City, while Rolling Stone didn’t even manage to mention her until late into 1995. Both publications treated TLC the same, ignoring the group except to insult them, even as they broke international records with CrazySexyCool (1994, LaFace and Arista Records) and shook the world with their famous call-out of the greed of the music industry in a 1996 Grammys press conference.
In the same way that TLC fought back against their management, the 1990s also ushered in a new generation of independent music publications founded and run by women who were sick of the mainstream press. Carla DeSantis Black founded Rockrgrl in 1995, publishing interviews and articles about bands like Sleater-Kinney and Tegan and Sara long before bigger publications took notice. Even before then, beginning in 1985, Lori Twersky published the zine Bitch: The Women’s Rock Mag with a Bite, a title that would live on in the separate pop culture magazine Bitch, founded by Andi Zeisler and Lisa Jervis in 1996.
All three of those influential publications were founded in California, so it’s fitting that San Francisco became a hub for women music journalists in the 1990s before their migration to the East Coast’s biggest publications. Evelyn McDonnell became SF Weekly’s music editor in 1992 and moved on to take the same job at the Village Voice in 1996, but not before overseeing an intern named Sia Michel. Before becoming today’s deputy culture editor at The New York Times, Michel was the first woman editor-in-chief of Spin, where Caryn Ganz climbed the music journalism ladder, eventually becoming deputy editor at Rolling Stone and then pop music critic at The New York Times. Ganz has joined other rock critics like the inimitable Jessica Hopper (who, true story, penned her first piece of music journalism because of lousy coverage of Babes in Toyland) in using her influence to sing the praises of acts ranging from Haim to Lizzo to Chastity Belt. And when Rolling Stone started 2020 out on the right note, it was women—Brittany Spanos followed by Emma Carmichael—whose writing dominated the centerfold features.
Our understanding of time may be linear, but cultural trajectories rarely are. The volume and tone of the mainstream media’s recognition of our communities has been a similarly fickle thing. To take their words and hold them up to the light isn’t an act of independence so much as accountability. We’ve always been here, taking music to new places, and we always will be. Or, as Mamie Smith sang in the song that started it all, “There’s a change in the ocean / Change in the deep blue sea… I’ll tell you folks, there ain’t no change in me.”
Virgo Season is the time of harvest. Even in 2020, seeds have been planted: reflection, patience, flexibility, and interconnection. We know now that our world is connected not only through fiberglass wires and photons, but through lived experiences and shared air. We are in this moment together, and we will only get out of this moment together.
Read through your Audioscopes for Cancer Season and take on an extra challenge with our audio tips.
This pain in your side won’t let up simply because it’s time to move forward. You’re going to have to learn to move with this loss; pull your heavy heart out of the ground and replant it into the open cavity in your chest, where the wind has whistled through and cleared away the embers. This path won’t get any easier, but you’ll get better at holding yourself through it. You were made in order to live through these moments of chaos—it’s in these fires that your truth rings true. Now is the time to listen to the chords that string through your belly, pushing you up to standing, pushing forward and true.
Audio Challenge: Use your recent loss or challenge as inspiration. Write a song about it, sing it loud—acknowledging pain is the first step to healing.
No one can tell you the way forward now. All the details are skewed in the shadow of the Full Moon announcing that now is the time where all things must change. You can take a few things along with you for the journey, the reminders of what home feels like so you can secure it again. But there will be no visiting the same pastures come next year—the crops will not grow in these changing winds. It’s time to make peace with what you know in your heart is true: you must leave this old place behind in order to find what rings true.
Audio Challenge: What chords and techniques do you rely on? Are they serving your growth, or stunting it? Consider writing a song on a new instrument—something new, unfamiliar—and see what comes to the surface.
Does securing a safe place to rest require a sacrifice? The price for comfort and stability needs to be balanced with the desires you know will not be put to rest, in this timeline or the next. The myth of cohesive global structure has been shattered by the blast of 2020 vision, but that doesn’t mean you’re not still holding on to the broken shards that are embedded so deep in your heart. Who’s to say finding home is uncalled for, or that there must be a time to lay down the dreamtime vision for a small fire, a warm bed, and a meal in the morning? Just this heart.
Audio Challenge: Evaluate the space in which you play your instrument or work on music. Are you comfortable there? Does it activate you? Is there anything that is no longer working for you? Create an environment that moves you.
You can capture the ray of photons shining through the newly opened door if you can muster up the courage to declare yourself ready for the challenge. Where once there were broken promises and a potent dream left askew on the floor, now there is a ray of light beckoning you through. But in order to take this next step down the path you thought was closed but has been newly offered, you must make sure you’re ready for the trials ahead. What you have asked for is no easy task, no light walk through the woods. There are dangers on all sides now, which you must trust you have the capacity to meet. Will you take it?
Audio Challenge: What new musical paths have you been avoiding? What new challenges have you been putting off? Pick one and begin to explore it.
This is not the time to take yourself to task. It may be true that there have been blunders made in the past, and it may also be true that certain structures are built on changing sands instead of set in stone. But the time at hand is not made for putting nose to grindstone, working through the frustrations of the day with heavy hands and focused heart. The reigns need to loosen a bit on the chariot that carries your vision from this field to the next. It’s enough that you’ve been here this far, and that you see what more there is to come. Take a shower. Wash off the dirt and ashes from the long night. There will be opportunity for flight tomorrow.
Audio Challenge: Be easy on yourself this month. Instead of forcing yourself to write the record, EP, or song, take time to explore other ways of enjoying music: listen to your favorite record, polish your guitar, look into a new genre to explore, read the autobiography of a musician you admire—nurture your musical soul.
There may be unidentified whispers in the backroom, the hint of a secret not yet exposed but ready to hit the surface, a betrayal lurking around the corner. This doesn’t mean anything is actually shifting, except your own perception of it. Watch out for phantom enemies keeping you up at night and ghostly patterns of long distant past. You are celebrating another year—not in strife and competition, but in recognition of how far you have come. When your blood starts to boil over misheard words and crossed wires, slow down. Take a breath. You’re simply being reminded of what you’re already letting go.
Audio Challenge: Make three columns on a piece of paper, and write out the following lists: all you’ve accomplished in the last year, all that you’d like to accomplish by this time next year, and all you must let go off to reach your goals.
Yes, it may feel like time to open the doors to new energetic connections and let the air flow through your sails, pushing you across the sea to a new destination. Unfortunately, the weather is not here to accommodate your plans, and the destination may be no farther than the ends of this abandoned hall. There must be another way to find new inspiration in this house full of plans that lay unfulfilled, littering the floor with your unmet desire. Think back to a song you heard wafting through the garden before this chapter started—you’ve already met someone who can end this dreary wait for a change in seasons.
Audio Challenge: Put aside your current goals for a moment and revisit what inspired you to play music in the first place.
You’ve been sowing the seeds that are needed for change in silence, knowing that by the end of the harvest you’ll find yourself in a different place. That time is here now, and so it’s time to carry through on the promises you made to yourself at the year’s onset. It doesn’t matter what fireballs may fly across the night sky now, what challenges still lay ahead. You must accept the time that you have been given for shifting, allowing the energy to carry you through to the next round.
Audio Challenge: Make a list of the plans you had set for yourself in 2020. Write out a list of alternative ways to accomplish them if this year has put a wrench in your journey.
Yes, starting out in that new direction will be wise in this moment, as any opportunity to reach out and bring back some of that glow into your heart is immeasurably valuable. There are many ways to lose your way down the hidden valleys and plateaus of this time you have here to explore, but the one most difficult to come back from is losing the connection between your heart and your offering. Don’t let this be a time where you take an easy path in order to guarantee a future you know will not manifest. Take space. Allow the vibratory frequency of your unique vision to sing your heart open once again.
Audio Challenge: Think back to what made you gravitate toward music in the first place. Try to bring more of that into your life—both within music and your day-to-day.
It’s time to collect yourself now. The decisions have been made, the calls are done, and all there is to do is sit with the path you have put yourself on and see it all the way through. There are wide open fields of potential to contemplate, and many pieces of the puzzle that have fallen into place to create an unexpected picture that is, nonetheless, complete. You may need to quiet down the background noise and the endless sticky notes in order to find it. But it’s there—that feeling that you may just be finding home.
Audio Challenge: Lean into this moment, despite whether it was what you expected or not—the unexpected is often what brings you closer to the truth.
There is something burning in the back of your chest that’s been held back so long it’s about to smolder through your ribs and burn through. If you don’t reach in there and pull out the fire bit by bit, truth by truth, word by word, then you’ll undoubtedly find yourself in a pit before the month is through. There may have been a time when bottling it up worked, a tried and true strategy for those who pay mind to what needs to be said (or not said) at any given appointed time. But 2020 will not give you that free license to play silent when you can feel the scream form in your throat. Say it. Before it takes you.
Audio Challenge: Set your truth free—whether through song, the written word, or plainly saying it outloud. Speak your truth.
There is a single horse driving this race between you and your feelings of personal safety on this secluded beach at the midnight hour, when the dawn promises new challenges and this night isn’t long enough to resolve the ones that have already spun out: trust. Can you trust the direction this path is going? Or are you looking back over your shoulder, wondering where the lights have gone? It’s time to put the soles of your feet firmly on the ground and remember what gave you the strength to begin this journey in the first place—it wasn’t fear and it wasn’t doubt. It was trust.
Audio Challenge: What does trust mean to you? Do you trust those within your musical circle? And more importantly—do you trust yourself, and the path you’ve paved?
Even during the most trying of times, the struggle is not simply made in order to test the soul or suss out the strength of our backbones—it’s also a necessary process in order to usher in the new. The sweet songs of sorrow sung into the moonlight give way to praise for the morning rays of the rising sun. The new day is coming, its seeds already planted into the deepest folds of your sweet, soft heart. The courage of the Leo sun lies not in ignoring the dangers of what is to come, but in recognizing your own power to overcome them.
Read through your Audioscopes for Cancer Season and take on an extra challenge with our audio tips.
Because there is no promised land at the end of this rainbow’s curve, because you don’t know if the sun will rise tomorrow, because it’s not certain whether your life today will be the one that stays or the one that was just a phase—reach out. Reach deep. Reach down into that belly pit and keep pushing through until you find the soft soil of that land buried inside of you. It is from this place that we need to hear your vision. It is from this place that you will be reborn.
Audioscopes Challenge: Reach deep into yourself, through the fear and insecurities, and make a list of all the musical endeavors you’ve ignored. Pick one and work on it this week.
If you build from the ground up, setting each stone down with clear intention and focused vision on what will become, then there will be no thunderstorm, no clap of light, no earth-shaking tragedy or rivers of circumstance that can rattle this foundation from its core. You know what it is that you are building, and you know who it is that you are building it for. There really isn’t any time but here and right now to get started. Go.
Audioscopes Challenge: Set a timer for five minutes and write out every single music goal you’d like to accomplish in your lifetime. Then organize the goals under reasonable timelines: three months, a year, three years, a lifetime. Write out the steps needed to achieve each goal, set deadlines, and begin.
Just because there is a storm raging outside these windows does not mean you have to give in to the cold, dead promise of night. This is your time for divining the next steps on your path; tomorrow, when the sun rises, you will have ample opportunity for flight. Don’t mistake the long pause between breath in and breath out as a cause for concern. This is just the Earth breathing around you. Sync in.
Audioscopes Challenge: Consider meditating and focusing on the breath for at least 15 minutes before working on your next song or figuring out a new piece of gear.
No, you are not standing on the precipice alone. You may only be able to hear the siren’s shriek curdling up your bones, reminding you of what has been lost, but just because the alarm keeps ringing doesn’t mean there’s more difficulty ahead. Let your heart rest now. Take a deep breath in, feeling the pull of your chords at the fingertips. There are others here, reminding you that were you to open your eyes, you’d realize you are here together. All you have to do is trust.
Audioscopes Challenge: Look into the music of your ancestors. Were they musicians? What kind of music did they listen to and/or play? Use what you find in your own creations.
Is this body a temple, a playground, a work site, or a cubicle? Did it perform the necessary movements and rituals to keep your energy balanced and clear? Do you feel your energy pulsing down from spinal cord to fingertips, your power doubled by its nimble form? There is only one who can play harmonies here, only one who can hold the tone of this moment and sustain it long enough for you to hear it. Pay attention now, she is speaking—not an enemy, not a tool, not another reason to find discrepancies between vision and manifestation of light.
Audioscopes Challenge: Consider creating a before and after ritual to your music process (finger or vocal exercises to warm up, deep breathing, a quick yoga session). If you already have a ritual, make any necessary adjustments that might be needed as you continue to tune into your body.
This is the last month of wandering through unknown cave passages, bumping up against the walls, listening for echoes to guide you. The sun is rising just outside the lip of the entrance, beams glaring down passages like strips of neon light showing the way out. Even now you can look up and notice the difference between midnight and twilight, the way the light changes when dawn is on the approach. You will have another tomorrow. You will have a new cycle burgeoning from this fall. The question now is: what will you bring to it?
Audioscopes Challenge: The next time you face writer’s block, do not give up—push through it. Take a 10 minute break and listen to music that excites you, read poetry that inspires you, and then pick up your instrument and see what comes out.
No situation is hopeless if those who are caught in the battle between circumstance and might keep a clear vision of the future they are manifesting and a resolve to see it burst through. You may have witnessed the end of an era, but does this mean you’ll bury the new one too? Will you lose sight of your gifts in the moment’s chaos, or will you hold tight to what you know is true, sound, centered, and resounding? It is up to you to feed this fire during the storm. It is up to you to feed the light.
Audioscopes Challenge: Think back to the way you approached music before live gigs were halted by the pandemic: What brought you joy? What gifts do you possess? Are your goals the same as they were before? Do not use the answers to harp on the ways you might be limited today, but rather how you can apply them during this new era.
Love comes back and swings full way right into your chest, lighting up the areas that have been sleeping on the present, waiting for a brighter day to let the rays catch. But you cannot keep holding your breath, waiting for a better time to say what must be said, waiting for fair weather in order to make the journey. This is the new seasonal shift; this is the climate that will unfold. Your time to move is now—make your way across that bridge from circumstance to chance.
Audioscopes Challenge: Consider talking through the next steps of your music with a trusted loved one, no matter how underdeveloped or lofty they may seem.
Does a condor look down at the ground below and question the plumes of air that keep its feathers in flight? Do not question the strength of your wings to keep you going when you’ve already decided the path you’re on. Now is the time to push through the butterflies in your belly and trust that you have aligned divine providence with vivid intention, cleared the pathway for travel, and caught that column of air that will carry you through. You’ve done this a hundred times, in a thousand different weather variations. Now is no different. You will carry this through.
Audioscopes Challenge: Make a list of your musical strengths and create affirmations for each one. Consider how your strengths can be used even more to further your goals. Say the affirmations outloud to yourself every time you practice or perform.
The only thing guaranteed on this journey is that you will face exactly what it is that you need to see in order to lose the ignorance that acts like a shield between you and who you are to become. The confrontation with the abyss of chance may seem too troublesome to have meaning, but it is in these moments, when the hair on the back of your neck rises, that the self you are becoming is revealed. Don’t stall the inevitable. You have no chance against this foe some have called destiny and others chance. You can face it.
Audioscopes Challenge: Lean into the moments that take you by surprise, the ones that may feel confrontational to who you thought you were. Stay present and see what is revealed about you and your music going forward.
Who you commit your time to reveals as much about your journey as it does their ability to change it. Their merit becomes your merit, their karma becomes your karma, their difficulties become your difficulties, their gifts become your gifts. Will you enter into this next phase willingly, arms at the ready, hands intertwined? Do you know what you are taking on? Remember: no one can choose this for you, no one can separate this once it is done.
Audioscopes Challenge: Consider the musicians and bandmates you associate yourself with. Is it a mutually beneficial relationship? Do you receive as much as you give, and vice versa? Are they supporting the full and whole you?
The only way to ensure order in the small slice of the world that is under your purview is to enact it yourself. Through the careful and diligent application of set rules and boundaries, protective measures and routine, you will set the wheels in motion that will deliver the results you seek. Not by chance or divine providence, but by sheer determination matched with commitment to your single goal: clarity. To see through the eye of the storm you need the grounding to stand on. Set yourself up.
Audioscopes Challenge: Map out the foundation of your creative process, including your goals, routine, intentions, and limits and boundaries.
Cancer is the sign of home, hearth, and happiness through interconnection with family and kin. For too many of us, the right to flourish in ancestral lands and recognize lineage and kinship has been stolen by those who decided that their personal profit was manifested by their own god, decreed by the color of their skin, and destined by hierarchical belief systems that privilege greed over grace. Now the ocean tides are rising, breaking through every blockage and barrier between reclamation and recompense, opening the channels for what has been stolen to be paid back tenfold.
But we, the beings made of carbon and heart, must prepare for the long ride down the rivers of circumstance in order to find the head, the source from which all direction flows. Rest is necessary, as is taking up the spear for battle. This will not be a battle won and lost in a night—this will be the initiation bell of a lifetime spent reckoning with the futures that have been lost. Read through your Audioscopes for Cancer Season and take on an extra challenge with the free, downloadable audio bytes created by Takiaya from Divide and Dissolve.
These bonds are not meant to be broken. Even if the body fades, the touch is lost, the bright light of recognition is tarnished by the heavy burden of memory, this cord that connects your belly to their belly, your mind to their mind, your heart to their heart, remains unfettered: not in use, but not broken. Like an open telephone line at the end of a tin can for you to scream your heart into. Even as you wish to rise above the circumstance of contrary patterns mired in pugnacious thoughts, so too will you find, when you look behind you, each one of them dragging along, trailing behind like cans on a car, announcing, “Just married!” You, and your inherited patterns, as one.
Audio Challenge: Which patterns in your music writing are serving you? Which ones aren’t? Listen to the Aries audio byte on repeat, and see what it tells you about your patterns.
This may be a time of harvest, when all the seeds you’ve planted spring up through the hardwood floor and manifest the gilded future you’ve been eyeing through your one-way mirror, foretelling the future at your door. The promised land unfolds before you, but already there is a small voice creaking beneath the planks of the floor, reminding you that today you have plenty, but tomorrow you may have none at all. What does it matter, the seesaw of circumstance, the roll of the die across the green felt of material reality that blankets the dance of microcosm universes manifesting at your door? Without a reason, there’s hardly a matter. Find it.
Audio Challenge: What is your reason for creating music? Try to recreate the Taurus audio byte with your own instruments and gear, and meditate on the reasons music calls to you.
All the spells in the world won’t do the good that is promised when you lay your desires at the foot of a loved one’s door. The altar is set, the spells cast, the crystals collected, and the guitar tuned—but there will be no time for a performance now, not if you haven’t spent a moment looking past the bridge of your own nose. There is someone here who needs your help, and you have the energy to spend. Funnel that fickle talent into the manifest future, created by mutual ascendance merged with love. You will do better now, as long as you don’t worry so much about where you are headed; look instead at where we are headed, together.
Audio Challenge: Consider the noise heard throughout the Gemini audio byte, then write a song that incorporates noise and/or feedback into its foundation. Let it act as the voice of another—what is it saying?
There are certain lines of resonance you are born into that will never lose their power, and then there are certain lines of connection that you take on willingly and invest in, doubling their energetic influence in your realm. Those chosen connections have the power to renovate or destroy, transform or abandon, make right or wrong any moment of short time you share on this blue sphere deep in the sea of ocean black. You do not need to consecrate all connections, but there is little energy in this field for placating those you know cannot hold on to the end of the rope as you swing ever higher into the stratosphere. Choose wisely.
Audio Challenge: Which connections are furthering your music? Which are holding you back? Use the Cancer audio byte as a guide to write a farewell song to those you might need to release.
If you let yourself be guided not by the fear in the pit of your belly but by the spirits of your conscious past, then your willful actions will be blessed with resonance, tuned with emotional license, and pointed directly forward to the future. You will find your way out of this pit of self-denial and self-doubt, your conviction slicing through the myriad of voices like a gilded sword, finding that one chord that rings true. But actions born in trust come not from the mind that is fixated on a future goal, but from a heart that knows whatever reality must unfold in front of you will deliver you to the next harbor, from which your sails will be set free and your mind at ease. Listen.
Audio Challenge: Record a soundscape that uses space and bursts, like the Leo audio byte. Let the space be your conscious past and the bursts be the one chord that rings true for you right now.
These empty rooms you can claim as your own are filled with the glittering reminders of certain moments that have passed you by, leaving memories of the futures that could have been in their wake, gilded frames on the wall showing the places you’ve wished you’d been. But not today. This time the moon rises over your desire for a change, lighting a channel that will give you free rein. You’ll do well to take a boat and set out on it. This is the time to finally test the strength of your convictions against the tides. You know the way: seen half in twilight and half in dreamtime, but always sure. Follow it.
Audio Challenge: Write your truth in a riff or vocals over the Virgo audio byte. Follow your gut, and don’t let your need for order get in the way of your voice.
If the floorboards have been set down right, if the rooms are filled with love, if the people you’ve invited in can hold you down, and if there is ample room to grow, then this shall be a time when the moon shines through the windows and finds you ready to take flight. But if the ground feels shaky below you, if it feels like there are unknown motivations behind closed doors, if the wind cannot whistle through the windows, then the structure will creak and complain under the pressure of your weight as you try to take off—giving way instead of holding you up.
Audio Challenge: Open the windows, call in your muses, and stomp away on the effects pedals you’ve been neglecting. Regain your balance, let the ground support you, and use the tempo of the Libra audio byte as your guide.
There will always be new slights to tally, new messages of grief and glory to record, new enemies to counter, and old enemies to keep the score. We could spend a lifetime, you and I, righting every wrong in every corner of this vast earth. But we’d miss the reason for the rhyme, we’d lose the opportunity of time spent climbing up this mountain, pushing the boulder of our own ignorance up its slopes, reaching the top in order to take in the majesty that exists beyond this limited view.
Audio Challenge: Listen to the buildup and breakdown of the Scorpio audio byte. Write a lead that feels challenging to you, and play it over and over again. Don’t let mistakes trip you up—accept them and move on.
Yes, it feels like you’ve been losing for years now: the bag that held your hope, the armor that kept your heart warm, the hearth that lit your belly brightly, the network that held you close. But in this moment of chance and circumstance, there is magic hidden in each article you lose. Not in the past, piled up like gems that will never reach your hands, but in your pockets, restoring the energy you’d sent out to its rightful owner. Take this moment to feel it sink deeply into the crevice of your chest; you have been given more than you have lost, if you know how to recognize it.
Audio Challenge: Create an ambient song that depicts all that you’ve lost, and all that you’ve gained from those losses. Use the Sagittarius audio byte for inspiration.
It’s difficult to find a way through this pile of rocks weighing down on your chest, keeping you pinned to the floor, preventing you from finding little channels of air in a sea of pressure. But there is someone, right now, just outside these caves, trying to channel you out. This may be a task for two: one calling out into the dead of night, the other locating your voice beneath the rubble. But they won’t find you—not unless you make the call.
Audio Challenge: Who is it that you’d like to let into your inner sanctum of music writing? Think about why and how, and then reach out to them.
There are channels to dig, seeds to plant, forests to clear, and rivers to enchant. The long list of The Work that needs to be done continues to grow, with every opportunity capitalized on, and every threat identified and strategized around for possible danger. But there is always more to add to the list. Every stone unturned offers a new possibility that must be assessed, every seed planted represents more work to be done to ensure its bloom. But behind it all—the endless tasks to be performed, the manifold care that must be taken at every turn—there is a bright moon dipping up over the horizon, just long enough to whisper of something more.
Audio Challenge: Write a to-do list of everything you need to do with music right now, and put it in order from high to low priority. If it seems like all work and no play, be sure to add fun rewards and activities after two or three to-dos are accomplished, like experimenting with sound or treating yourself to new or used gear.
They are growing back now, these fields of resonance that you have carefully cultivated into fruition after the sudden loss. As the gate to the garden swings open and you’re finally able to step back into the love and comfort of those you hold dear, you recognize a new field—now emptied, ready to be seeded with the vision you have cultivated during these months of twilight, dreaming through the windows towards a horizon you know exists just beyond these doors. Don’t lose sight of it now, as the sun rises and your daily motions come back doubled because of the time spent away. You can step out beyond the confines of what you know, if you trust your vision to guide you through.
Audio Challenge: Create a course of action for the next steps of your music. The world has changed in some ways, and yet is completely the same in others—take that into consideration as you move forward, be easy with yourself.
We are witnessing collective disruption. It’s no longer viable to depend on the institutional structures of governance to give us what we need—the dissonance between collective needs and those who have assumed charge over distribution has been shown, and things need to shift in response. You have to take care of your own needs and those of others now. How will you respond? How will you stand up and use your agency to protect yourself and those you love? Read through your Audioscopes for Gemini Season and take on an extra challenge with the free, downloadable audio bytes created by Bean Tupou.
The horror of the storm raging outside doesn’t change the fact that you still don’t know which way your allegiance lies. Values rise and fall as true north has been lost in this chaotic time. There’s only one compass you can fall back on, one sword to pick up in this fight: the one that rises from the pit of your belly, fired in the caverns of your deepest heart. When there’s no one to follow, no speeches to give rise to your light, it’s time to discern your own beacon through the fog. Take this time to listen. Take this time to wrap up all that misfortune in the emblems of family kinship as it is buried deep into the Earth.
Audio Challenge: Take a few minutes to listen and meditate on the storm. What is the wind, the thunder, the darkening sky saying? Download the audio byte below and write a response through lyrics, a riff, or both.
How do you protect the small mound of Earth and Blood that you call home? Do you draw boundaries, arm up with swords, defend with powerful words backed up by that burning fire behind your eyes? Is every perceived threat worth fighting for, or are you whispering swan songs to old demons, ghosts inhabiting your line of sight? A knock at your door that sounds like the one that came before when you were small, when you were weak, when you didn’t know how to answer without losing what you love? Be careful. Make sure you know who it is that you’re fighting for.
Audio Challenge: Listen to the layers and singing chorus in the Taurus audio byte. Think about your own community, the people who deserve your love and fight, and write a song for them using a chorus pedal or other audio layering.
There is a siren song piercing loud and clear and true. Everything on the table pales into the background, lost in the shadow of what’s being asked of you. Why does everyone trouble you so? Why is it that every connection burns bright red with need exactly when the world opens up and offers you a hand out of the mess that has become your bedroom floor? It seems like there’s a choice to be made between your own bright light of possibility and the endless service to kinship that leads to years of obscurity and communal plight. But oppositions are never as sharply focused as they seem. What looks like a familiar path may lead you down a new road through the tall fields of wheatgrass—but you must learn how to listen.
Audio Challenge: What is the siren asking of you? Listen closely, and write a song in response to the audio byte below in a genre that you’ve never created within before.
Tabula Rasa: the table is cleared. You’re going to be staring down at an empty plate and an altar full of random knick knacks and brimstone that mean nothing unless you know what to dedicate your energy to. There’s no point in chanting to the light of the Full Moon, setting down the stones that guard your energy, and reconnecting each tendril of your energetic body back to the Earth until you can answer, Why? What energetic principle do you serve? And what kind of person does this service make of you? Find out. You’ve been freed from having to go through the motions, the actions, the patterns well grooved into your joints that automatically move at the call. Do you take up the same service, or do you name a new principle and start anew?
Audio Challenge: Take a look around at what gear you currently have at your disposal. What have you neglected to spend time with? Where would you like to dedicate more energy? Find your answers, and incorporate them into the Cancer audio byte.
This is the time of retracing paths that have already been taken—every step that’s been won, every word that’s been said, and every action that’s been taken in the name of your own truth, your own energy, your own single source of vitality on this Earth. But this doesn’t mean that you have to spend this time plucking out each feather at the stem, leaving your naked body out in the cold to pay for your sins. There are other ways to reconcile loss and regret. There are other dances to step in time with in order to pay your dues and reconcile past with present, privilege with payment, anxiety with experience. Take that light seed of truth and bury it deep into the Earth. Water it. Pray over it in the moonlight and feed it the blood of your recovery. Let it grow once again.
Audio Challenge: Reflect on your musical journey thus far. What would you like to keep with you? What would you like to leave behind? Use what you come up with to write a song that reflects that vision, and perhaps incorporate a sample of another musician’s work as a spirited guide.
You can’t get it out until you can trust the soil it’s been planted in. You can run your tests, consult the experts, check every box, voice every concern, but at the end of the line there’s just you and this box of dirt, dirty or not, clear or not, trusted or not. When will it be enough? When will you know if you can put the seed in the ground and trust the fruit it bears? Perhaps you’ve gotten used to the waiting: the worms squirming in the pit of your belly, the blistering heat on your back as you run just one more test on the ground. There will be no one who can decide this for you. At some point you’ve got to learn how to run.
Audio Challenge: Consider the foundation you’ve laid for yourself and your music. What does it sound like? Perhaps it resembles the bird song, or the soft growling as heard in the Virgo Audio byte. Whatever it may be for you, use it as a pad, a foundation, for a new song.
Perhaps the only trip that is possible right now is the change in scenery that comes when you adjust the angle through which you look at things. Pull down the mirrors strapped to your bedroom walls. Turn off the notifications from devices that are divorced from any person bearing meaning in the small confines of the space you have relegated your energy to in recent months. You don’t know anyone, and they don’t know you. Each has grown, changed, and metamorphosed inside a cocoon of their own making, called to spring wings, grow antennae, and learn to take flight during the quiet hours before dawn. Approach with caution, and with care. There are new beings out there, and it’s up to you to learn their call.
Audio Challenge: Consider how you’ve changed during this time, and what changes in your musical environment and process might be needed to accommodate the new you. Listen to the sounds of the sea as a baptism in moving forward; use what you come up with to redesign your practice space or music corner to best suit your current needs.
Nothing will ever be as it was before—but then again, nothing really ever stays the same, does it? Swallowing this most recent truth, that has been uncovered by the colic sun, may seem more difficult a task than simply ignoring what the meal would be. But plates served during troubling times are best devoured warm, when the food is still hot and there are others to share the meal with. Let this plate sit out and you will return to it covered in mice and maggots, spoiled and rotted over, yet still demanding to be consumed. Do yourself a favor, and look right at the blinding split screen ray of sun directed at you now. The pinprick is sudden and quick, and you can look on to what comes next after it’s done.
Audio Challenge: What is it that you’ve been putting off, musically, during this time? Is it finally finding the right tone on a pedal, or finishing the final verse of a new song? Let the Scorpio audio byte remind you of what happens when you sit on something for too long.
It seems like an old flame is still lit in that dusty room at the back of the house, the one that you convinced others wasn’t there. Only in the slow hours of midnight, when no one else is awake and the stars are formed in exactly the right way, do you turn around and look, checking to see whether it’s still there. You can always find comfort knowing that the soft glow will take you through the darkest night into morning, when you won’t need to look back again. But every time you fall back on that old sweet song, you grow just a little more dependent on that glow in the window, letting you know everything will be alright in the end. Is it because of that old candle in the room, or because you know how to hold on until first light? Only you know.
Audio Challenge: Light a candle (or few), put on your favorite comfort song, and use elements from both that song and the Sagittarius audio byte to create a soothing hymn written by you, for you.
When there is a powerful step to be made there must also be powerful thought behind it. There’s an overture in the distance, an orchestra rising in tempo and beat to meet the rays of the sun in the glory of the day that is just beginning. All the work you have put into your garden is now ripe for the reaping—but there are still obstacles in your way. You need help finding the right tools for the harvest, and trusted hands to see your crop through. Gather your riches within reason, and share your bounty with those who have helped you along the way. Otherwise, there may be a shadow of reckoning cast over what was once a time of recompense. Go slowly. Take your time. Each root recovered is a blessing.
Audio Challenge: Listen and reflect on what tools and trusted companions you’d like to include in your music. What and who do you need to truly flourish? Write a song inspired by this audio byte, and collaborate on it—distantly, of course—with someone you trust.
When is enough enough? You’ve been pulling the shards of broken glass out of others’ backs for so long that your bloodied hands sting when you try to move them through air. The particles in space are eating at the tender tissues of your fingers, aching at your palms, trying to penetrate through what’s left of your drive to go on. Are you satisfied? Have you given enough? Or must you go on until every back is free from trouble as you, like Apollo, hold the world on your back, balanced perfectly on your own sense of responsibility for their plight? Someday you’ll have to look down at your own two feet and see the quicksand you’re standing on has already taken over your thighs, threatening to climb up your insides. Step up.
Audio Challenge: Listen to the repetition and buildup in the Aquarius audio byte. Does it sound like falling rain? What is it saying? Write a lead melody that describes your struggle and yours alone.
You’re right. Things don’t change. Not overnight, and not when you expect all the bottles to line up in a certain way and then they don’t. But over time, as you look back at where you’ve come from and into the abyss of the unknown that has yet to be uncovered, you must notice that you’re on a different path than you were before. While it may happen by chance and circumstance, transformation also requires your energy, intention, and spirit caught in a glass. Breathe into the crystal pane and trace out the dream you dare not give voice to but hold in the dreamtime starlight of your mind. Ask the universe for help in the manifestation, listen for the dewdrops of opportunity as they manifest in the air around your head. It’s already happening.
Audio Challenge: Listen to the Pisces audio byte and reflect on where you’d like to be heading during this time of unknown. What is needed of you during this transformation? Make a list of what you would like to manifest in your music, and consider writing a manifesto that you can look to for everyday guidance.
Aries is the sign of recovery. The warrior rises at dawn with an intention set in stone—integrity and strength of character drive the actions that are in tune with universal spirit. Now is the time to dig up the pieces that have been buried in the mud. The dust has not yet settled, the fight has only just begun. Remember what you came here to do—the Earth is giving you the time to do it.
Your fight through the thick undergrowth, densely populating the ground between the trees, hasn’t been for your own benefit alone. As you clear a path through the thick foliage—light in one hand, guide in the other—you set down the steps that others may follow. Someone had to go first, and your wildest impulses are now met with the recovery of purpose. We are all one and yet we are all many. The energy that drives you brings forth the path that is necessary for expansive recollection of what has once been and will be again. Don’t fear what is to be revealed beyond the next field of vision—you have ample practice pushing forward through the shadows of the unknown.
Audio Tip: Find inspiration for a new song from something you have overcome.
Spring is at your door. What will you plant in your garden this year, once the fog clears up and the rain begins to fall? This is a time for new roots to take hold. The ground no longer accepts the same seeds from last year’s bloom—the environment is different now, and so are you. Take this time to understand in what ways your heart has changed over the matter. From the soft soil of your solar plexus a new seed begins to bloom, even now, as it has yet to take root. Feed it. Let it grow within and extend its branches out into the open, ringing in the new dawn. You will give this seed a home soon.
Audio Tip: Try out a new creative practice – style of music, video project, or visual interpretation of a song.
The narrative is changing. The same stories you’ve told before have new endings, the characters you’ve known have grown. You cannot keep giving us the same message day in, day out with the same tenacity as before. Your heart has moved, like an iceberg slowly treading water, but you’re not sure where it’s headed. That’s ok. Let things shift around you and find the clues within the lyrics of your song. Write the lines out for yourself, perform behind closed doors—get the sound right. You are your own audience right now, and you’re perfecting a new song.
Audio: Write a new song with a theme you’ve used previously, but from a different perspective.
The groove you find yourself in is dictated by the people around you who play the hedges, guiding the needle down the track, filling in the background noise. You can only see as far as you dare to tread, the distance dictated by the voices you entertain when night falls. Are you dedicated to your practice, or to the people that fill in the chorus? Have you let your sound be taken over by the background, afraid to tread ahead alone? Only you know if you’re ready to shed comfort for the vibrancy resonating in your core. Only you can pull out the shard of light that is lodged in your throat.
Audio Tip: Play a song in the style of one of your closest friends.
The sweat dripping down your back isn’t the only thing you miss about the dance floor. In every moment of movement, there is your energy meeting their energy meeting the universal energy through resonant flow. Your body slices through the air like jelly, your feet carve out new paths on the floor. Do you need a partner to keep dancing? Or can you negotiate the rhythm alone? The sound of your heels hitting up against the floor is for you alone—can you keep dancing if there is no one left to see it?
Audio Tip: Collaborate on a project with someone new.
You can decimate the particles of pestilence with the wrath of a self-convicted sun. You can scrub your hands raw on the grindstone, ridding every last flaw. Revealing the bone cold truth of every living moment will satisfy the urge to cleanse, but only for a moment. Skin grows back. Cells, too. Tomorrow, a new threat will rise, as sure as the little hairs on the back of your neck that will respond. You need to cleanse on a different level—not with bar soap or scrubs, not with sage or crystals, not with light rays or photons. Deep in the crevices of your bones there lies your enemy: memory.
Audio Tip: Record a hymn to the energetic field of your choice.
Would you refuse to put a seed to flower knowing that the bloom will fall come autumn? The world follows a natural rhythm, a spring, a blossom, a fall, a renewal—who are we to get in the way? The seed that is yearning to bear fruit doesn’t bemoan the renewal of its offering. Trees are gifted with the absence of self-knowledge: you have to contemplate loss before you begin. Is this burden worth the practice, or will you choose to hold back your desire, waiting for a better spring? You may have the world’s worth of time to wait on, but only if you can keep the window open and the sun shining in.
Audio Tip: Release a pre-recorded song that you shelved.
Test out each square on the bedroom floor. Jump up and down on the softer areas, listening for cracks between the tiles. There are places where the foundation has corroded and needs to be replaced, while other weaknesses in the ground can be mended through care and practice. Make your decisions now about how to best deal with the creaks and cracks beneath your feet. A solid platform is necessary for movement, and no one will ensure you—this work is your own. Cutting away the rot comes first; the band-aid is ripped and the wounds laid bare. This is a time of mourning. Next comes the setting of new boards.
Audio Tip: Practice a new percussion instrument this month.
Playing aloof is a luxury for those who can afford to let opportunities pass them by. As you sharpen your arrows on the grindstone, restring your bow, watch patiently from the vantage point of the sidelines as your opponents take the floor, you’ll notice no one is looking over anymore. The time to bide your time has ended, and if you want to recoup your losses you’ll have to step into the challenge and claim your space on the ring’s floor. Aim your bow at the target you’ve intended, step back, breathe into it, and let your shot ring true.
Audio Tip: Ask to join a tour that you think is out of your reach.
The pretty little boxes you’ve built have been decimated by fire, buried by ice, and laid bare by the storm. But you haven’t walked away empty-handed. You’ve learned how to set a foundation right, what materials to use, who you can call on to help secure the roof. Knowledge is a much sturdier material than metal, and now is your time to rebuild. Let the grief refine you, sanding down your edges into fine pin-pricks of desire. There is more for you here than the field you have known, but first you have to let it burn, the soil turning over for new roots to take hold.
Audio Tip: Let your grief be given a song.
You step up to the plate, bat in hand, weighing down the options as you stare down the ball. You can’t let your swing flow when you are trying to consider the airflow, the emotional state of the pitcher, your teammates leg on the base, your coaches rough breath, the texture of the dirt between your toes. You have to focus on your grip, the tension in your muscles, the way your arm moves through the swing as it has done countless times before. Correct contact is directly dependent on trust. Let it flow.
Audio Tip: Record a jam session. Play it back. Build on it.
This is the time of reaping. Your fields have all gone to pasture, the fruits of your labor are sitting in store, the sweat that has poured down your back is now dry salt shards. Are you satisfied? Is this the same row you’d like to walk down next season, or are you ready to put down the plow, hoping for a reason to look up at the sun instead of down at your shadow? Celebrate this moment of necessary respite, as the sun goes down and the herald crows. The sun is setting on an old way, and in this night you will dream anew.
Audio Tip: Create a healing track for yourself only.
Murder ballads are everywhere. From songs, to movies, and beyond, the centuries-old subgenre is ingrained in our culture—and sometimes, we may not even pick up on the violent, and often misogynistic, messages.
You may have encountered murder ballads in the podcast Dolly Parton’s America, in which an entire episode it dedicated to how they influenced Parton’s earlier albums, and how she became a feminist icon by flipping the script; on The Hunger Games soundtrack, in which the foreboding song “The Hanging Tree” draws from Appalachian folk; the bluegrass standard, “Pretty Polly,” which has been performed by everyone from jazz guitarist Bill Frisell to Judy Collins to Throwing Muses frontwoman Kristin Hersh; or songs like “Hey Joe” (popularized by Jimi Hendrix), “I Used to Love Her” by Guns N’ Roses, or “Love the Way You Lie” by Eminem (featuring Rihanna)—all of which may not strictly follow the murder ballad formula, but continue the violent lyrical tradition.
However, there’s an entire history of women performing traditional murder ballads, as well as writing some of their own, as an act of taking ownership of a tradition that often kept them defeated and, well, dead.
Originally, the murder ballad subgenre sprung from the ballad tradition, a narrative song form that often depicted an event (in the case of murder ballads, the killing is the event). While many ballads remembered and performed in the US today largely originate from the British Isles, there are various ballad traditions from all over Europe. And in the US, many murder ballads come out of Appalachia, where the majority of the early settlers were from the Anglo-Scottish border country.
In this context, ballad has a different meaning from modern day musical parlance; historically, it’s a song or poem that chronicles a particular story, with or without music. Broadside ballads were poems about real events that were printed and distributed to the public. Eventually, there were melodies added to some of these poems, and many renditions were performed by an array of musicians, which accounts for the variations of these songs (often with no known author) that one might hear today. These broadside ballads were used to make money, chronicling a crime and sometimes sold as souvenirs outside of court houses. They also acted as a way to convey information throughout communities—and in some ways, they were almost like tabloids.
What many listeners don’t realize is that traditional American murder ballads often depict the real and true murder of a woman. Many were pregnant, often slain by the father of their unborn child (maybe their lovers were already married, or of a different social standing, and these women became a problem that needed to be taken care of)— in any case their pregnancies apparently made them inconvenient and disposable.
Murder ballads focused exclusively on homicide, and often the homicide of women. They were sung and written from various points of view: Sometimes the killer expressed their remorse (“Banks of the Ohio”), other times the victim sang from beyond the grave (“The Twa Sisters”), and in some songs the narrator was omniscient and removed from the direct action of the story (“The Ballad of Pearl Bryan”). The women in these songs were perceived as innocent, helpless victims who were “led astray” by their lovers—who, more often than not, were also the murderers—powerless against their fate. The messages of these songs were heard as warnings to other young women of the time to not to go down the same path, while the men were often portrayed in a bizarrely sympathetic way, seemingly not responsible for their own actions, but rather co-victims in these “crimes of passion.”
Murder ballads based on true stories turned real-life victims into narrative stereotypes, warning other women what would happen if they “misbehaved”—in other words, women engaged in their rightful autonomy while men disturbingly pushed back. This, in turn, fed the public curiosity of violence as entertainment, and perhaps was one of the earliest forms of true crime media that is so rampant today.
“The murder ballads witness that Appalachia, specifically in the 19th-century period of industrial change, was defined by essential tensions between cultural traditions of the past and emerging notions of American modernism. This tension is met in the songs with responses of violence against women whose life situations—marked by sexual freedom—are the very depiction of a new cultural modernism that threatens the hegemony of the past.”“‘This Murder Done’: Misogyny, Femicide, and Modernity in 19th-Century Appalachian Murder Ballads.”
One of the most famous murder ballads, “Omie Wise,” tells the story of the 1808 murder of Naomi Wise, who died in North Carolina. While the actual facts of this case are lost to history, according to folklorist Eleanor R. Long-Wilgus, it was suspected that John Lewis, who was thought to be the father of Naomi’s unborn child, killed her. It is believed that Naomi may have been older than Lewis and knew that he was engaged to be married to someone else. When Naomi became pregnant, it appears that her fate was sealed. In one of the most famous versions of the song, by guitarist and singer Doc Watson, the lyrics state:
John Lewis, John Lewis, will you tell me your mind?
Do you intend to marry me or leave me behind?
Little Omie, little Omie, I’ll tell you my mind,
My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.
Have mercy on my baby and spare me my life,
I’ll go home as a beggar and never be your wife.
Meanwhile, “Pearl Bryan,” another well-known and particularly gruesome ballad about the killing and beheading of a pregnant 22-year-old Indiana woman in 1896, does not usually reference her pregnancy, but it does refer to her alleged killer, Scott Jackson, as her beloved:
What have I done Scott Jackson that you should take my life,
I’ve always loved you dearly. I would have been your wife.
While dozens of songs recounting the murder of Bryan have been recorded, they all vary in the way the story is told. The real story, according to folklorist Sarah Bryan (no relation), began when Bryan contacted Scott Jackson, whom she believed could be the father of her unborn child. With the help of Alonzo Walling, it’s been speculated that the two either brought her to a doctor in Cincinnati who mishandled the abortion, or Jackson and Walling, using what they learned in dental school, attempted to perform the procedure and failed, resulting in her death. The two brought Bryan to Kentucky and disposed of her body, but not before beheading her as an attempt to prevent identification. Jackson and Walling were eventually caught, found guilty, and sentenced to a double hanging.
As the 20th century carried on, murder ballads continued to burrow their way into the American consciousness. And not surprisingly, women stepped in and put their own stamp on this tradition, turning the tables and questioning the status quo of murder ballad lyrics. In the 1920s and 1930s, many traditional murder ballads had made their way into the collective folk/country/bluegrass repertoire, resulting in them often being sung by women.
In 1924, North Carolina musician Eva Davis, along with friend and fellow musician Samantha Bumgarner, traveled to New York City to record some songs, including the murder ballad, “John Hardy” on banjo. The song can be traced back to West Virginia, where it’s believed that John Hardy killed Thomas Drews in a disagreement over a game of craps.
Following in 1928, the Carter Family, with Maybelle Carter on guitar, recorded a variation of the song, titled, “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man.” Maybelle Carter, with her distinctive style of playing called the “Carter Scratch,” influenced legions of guitarists, and her iconic Gibson L-5 sits in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
In the late 1930s, the Coon Creek Girls, an influential all-women string band that appeared regularly on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance radio program, recorded the murder ballad “Pretty Polly.” The song has roots dating back to the 1760s, and its impact is still felt today with versions heard on television shows such as House of Cards and Deadwood. The Coon Creek Girls, along with singer Idy Harper, also recorded a variation of “Omie Wise,” titled “Poor Naomi Wise.” The group featured Lily May Ledford, Rosie Ledford, Esther “Violet” Koehler, and Evelyn “Daisy” Lange. Lily May Ledford enjoyed a resurgence in her career during the folk music revival of the 1960s, and was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship before she passed away in 1985.
It wasn’t until around the 1940s when women began regularly reclaiming murder ballads as their own, writing and recording original music and putting women in positions of power.
Patsy Montana, who was the first woman recording artist to have a million-selling record with, “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” had another tune in her repertoire with a decidedly darker bent. “I Didn’t Know the Gun Was Loaded” tells the story of a murderous, gun-toting femme fatale, Miss Effie. Written by Herb Leventhal and Hank Fort (who was born Eleanor Hankins), the song was recorded by several different artists in 1949, with notable versions by the Andrews Sisters and Montana. The second verse is positively revolutionary for a song recorded at the time, as it could be interpreted as Miss Effie shooting a man who tried to rape her:
Now one night she had a date,
With a wrestling heavyweight.
And he tried a brand new hold,
She did not appreciate.
So she whipped out her pistol,
And she shot him in the knee,
And quickly, she sang this plea.
I didn’t know the gun was loaded,
And I’m so sorry my friend.
I didn’t know the gun was loaded,
And I’ll never, never do it again.
In 1966, rockabilly and country pioneer Wanda Jackson recorded another song of revenge, “The Box It Came In.” Written by Vic McAlpin, the song peaked at #18 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs and spent 11 weeks on the charts. In her autobiography, Every Night is Saturday Night: A Country Girl’s Journey to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Jackson wrote, “In 1966, Capitol released ‘The Box It Came In,’ which was my first Top 20 country single since 1961. That was one Ken Nelson [producer] was a little worried about because of the subject matter.” She felt strongly about the song, adding, “I thought it was great, but Ken was always a little scared of courting controversy. I always like feisty songs, so I convinced him we should do it.”
My clothes are all ragged my goodwill coat’s not the best,
And I’m a walking on cardboard in my last dollar dress.
I looked in the closet for my wedding gown,
But the box that it came in was all that I found.
He took everything with him that wasn’t nailed down,
Bet he’s got a new sweetheart to fill my wedding gown.
But somewhere I’ll find him then I’ll have peace of mind,
And the box he comes home in will be all satin lined.
Dolly Parton is a trailblazer in many ways, and her contribution to murder ballads is no exception. Her first four albums, recorded in the late 1960s, delve into the reality of life for women in a way that not many had done. Helen Morales, Argyropoulos Professor of Hellenic Studies at UC Santa Barbara, author of Pilgrimage to Dollywood, and guest on Dolly Parton’s America states that Parton’s songs “provide an insistent witnessing of women’s lives,” and speaks about “women being treated really badly by men.” During her career, Parton has covered traditional ballads including “Banks of the Ohio” (also covered by Joan Baez, who was known to often perform murder ballads) and “Silver Dagger,” but in 1967, she wrote the murder ballad, “The Bridge.” The song is told from the perspective of a woman who falls in love with a man under a bridge. He gets her pregnant and flees, resulting in the woman returning to the bridge to commit suicide: “Here is where it started, and here is where I’ll end it.”
Many contemporary songwriters have drawn inspiration from these old stories, creating their own modern day murder ballads. And women, specifically, continue to subvert the violence in both subtle and overt ways.
One of the most famous murder ballads, written at the end of the 20th century, is the Dixie Chicks’ righteously revengeful “Goodbye Earl,” in which lifelong best friends, Mary Ann and Wanda, kill Wanda’s abusive husband. The song was controversial for its time, and some radio stations refused to give it airtime—according to the LA Times, about 20 out of the 149 radio stations tracked by Radio & Records refused to play the song when it was released.
But what makes this song different from other murder ballads is its happy ending: Maryann and Wanda open up a roadside stand and face zero consequences from the murder of Earl, because, as the songs states, “It turns out he was a missing person who nobody missed at all.” The video won the Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association award for Video of the Year, and some radio stations that did play the song often aired it alongside messages that referred domestic violence victims to hotlines for support.
On Gillian Welch’s 1998 album, Hell Among the Yearlings, the singer-songwriter, along with David Rawlings, contributed a new staple of the murder ballad genre with the song “Caleb Meyer,” in which a woman kills her rapist while he’s attacking her. The song does not present any easy answers, and the narrator wrestles with what she did out of self defense:
Caleb Meyer, your ghost is gonna
Wear them rattlin’ chains.
But when I go to sleep at night,
Don’t you call my name.
Valerie June’s “Shotgun,” released on her 2013 album, Pushin’ Against A Stone, tells the story of a jealous lover who kills their cheating partner and then kills themself. This visceral, bluesy track features June’s stirring guitar work and haunting vocals.
Again, moral ambiguity is on display; an unfaithful lover is met with revenge. In an interview with NPR, when asked about writing “Shotgun,” June responded, “Many times in the older songs, the woman’s the one to die. And I was like, no, no, no—it can’t always be that. We have to balance out the murder-ballad situation.”
Perhaps one of the most notable modern songs to address murder ballads is Hurray for the Riff Raff’s “The Body Electric,” released on 2014’s Small Town Heroes. Songwriter Alynda Segarra uses the song to address how our culture treats violence with detachment, especially violence against women, and she expertly frames this by pointing to the casual violence of murder ballads: “While the whole world sings / Sing it like a song / The whole world sings like there’s nothing going wrong.”
“I am mostly familiar with how [‘The Body Electric’] has taught me there is a true connection between gendered violence and racist violence. There is a weaponization of the body happening right now in America. Our bodies are being turned against us. Black and brown bodies are being portrayed as inherently dangerous. A Black person’s size and stature are being used as reason for murder against them. This is ultimately a deranged fear of the power and capabilities of black people. It is the same evil idea that leads us to blame women for attacks by their abusers. Normalizing rape, domestic abuse and even murder of women of all races is an effort to take the humanity out of our female bodies. To objectify and to ridicule the female body is ultimately a symptom of fear of the power women hold.”“The Political Folk Song Of The Year,” NPR
Musicians today are creatively reckoning with the ghosts of American folk music. Women are taking control of a narrative that was once physically and creatively forced upon them, and pointing out the hypocrisy of the detached view of violence—in fact, on International Women’s Day in Middletown, Connecticut, a group of musicians did just that.
With funding from a REGI Grant (Regional Initiative Grant Program) from the state of Connecticut, I organized the event, The Murder Ballad Project: Reframing Songs of Violence, as a response to my lifelong fascination with murder ballads and their place in our culture. I invited some of my favorite artists from the region, including Rani Arbo, Pamela Means, Lara Herscovitch, Amanda Monaco, and Karen Dahlstrom to perform both murder ballads and songs of empowerment. We partnered with New Horizons Domestic Violence Services to raise money for them, but to also provide context that the violence women faced in murder ballads is still very much a reality.
My hope is that if we look at the violence in these songs head on, without a sense of detachment or denial, then maybe our collective resignation to violence will change. I was humbled to be a part of the long tradition of women taking what has been given to them—in this case, murder ballads—and flipping the script.
The narrative landscape of Amelia Jackie is sumptuous and decadent. There are ripe peaches, ice cold plums, butter, and sweet cream. A magic mouth, a red velvet mouth, a “girl that I love” who’s got “a big, golden tongue”—her songs build an entire world. I describe it to Amelia as “Southern Gothic, Bastard Out of Carolina, lesbian Americana” and she laughs, surprised.
“That is what it is,” says Amelia. “Do you remember in that book how she can’t sing and she really wants to? I really related to that. I grew up without much, but a lot of passion. Bone in Bastard Out of Carolina [by Dorothy Allison] had this extreme pain around not being good, about not being able to sing, and that made her sing alone. I had the same fear, but I did it in public anyways. I have to try really hard to be good.” She paused for a moment. “The problem for a long time was that I was trying to be good, when I should have just been who I was.”
In 2018, Amelia released a video for “Velvet Leash,” her first song released since 2013’s Molasses Gospel, a country-inflected alt-rock bop dripping with a syrupy sexuality, like Sade singing a Lucinda Williams song. “When I was studying feminist theory and women’s writing, one of the things we talked about was sexual subjectivity, describing your experience,” says Amelia, chuckling. “And I guess I really ran with that.”
The video is a perfect accompaniment—a visually stunning world of vivid colors, plump fruits, and lush fabrics. It’s decadent without seeming affluent, a world populated by women and queers. They eat, take baths, and do their makeup in groups at the bathroom mirror. They attend a party together at a picturesque LA craftsman bungalow. They’re butch, femme, androgynous, cis, trans, waifish, zaftig. They’re all beautiful and they’re all friends. When the video came out I joked that it was the L Word reboot we all wanted but didn’t deserve.
The first time I saw Amelia play was in 2006 at Lorena Haus, named for Lorena Bobbitt, Amelia’s shared apartment in Borough Park, Brooklyn that hosted shows. I also played that night, (a solo set of songs I’d written with my twink punk band, Gloryhole), along with Alynda Lee Segarra, who still makes music under the name Hurray For The Riff Raff. I can vividly remember sitting on the living room floor watching Amelia play her guitar harder than I thought was possible. Until that point (and well beyond) I had spent most of my free time at punk and hardcore shows, and while Amelia certainly didn’t play the most aggressive music I’d ever heard—on the contrary, her songs were deeply vulnerable—she was one of the most aggressive guitar players I’d ever seen. She looked like she was trying to harm the guitar: “I really used to hurt myself back then. My hands would bleed after I played. And now I’m like, ‘what was I doing?’”
The highlight of Amelia’s set was “City Kid,” a song about her mom trying to hide an eviction from her and her sisters. I can still hear her singing the end of the first verse: “And mama didn’t pay the rent / So we’d just come home from school / And everything was out on the lawn / She said, ‘Take what you need, but need what you take, we’re going away today.’”
Walking home from that party as the sun came up and a light snow fell, I felt like I was living the life I had dreamed about as a teen: Roaming the city at dawn, still drunk from the night before, coming from a party full of cool, talented women with a song I’d heard one of them sing still stuck in my head. We were all young and there was so much future stretched out ahead of us.
In 2007, my drinking had become constant. I spent all my time either drunk, or hung over and getting there. I had failed out of college and worked a series of bottom-rung service industry jobs that paid me enough under the table to keep partying, but didn’t require any kind of acuity to perform. I was beginning to develop an awareness that I was drinking to blot out something inside me, but I didn’t yet know what.
At the same time, Amelia and a few friends moved to a loft in Bushwick where they continued to have shows—and not just intimate singer-songwriters like Lorena Haus, but full bands. In my fuzzy memories, 1087 Loft felt like a space for queer women, but it wasn’t always that way. “When we first started booking shows there, we just booked whoever,” Amelia says. “We had a Leftover Crack show, the biggest show we ever had, and there were so many underaged kids puking off the porch and breaking our shit. After that we realized we had to be more intentional about our shows and we started only booking queer, trans, and women bands. Because making another space for men to act out, we were just like, creating something that already exists. We wanted to make something different.”
In the 15 years since Amelia and I met, she’s come into her own as a musician. She’s more confident, and plays an electric guitar with a more minimal, softer touch. She tunes it differently, at the behest of her drummer and producer, Robin MacMillan, who she met working at the now closed restaurant Mama’s in the East Village. “You know who else worked at Mama’s?” asks Amelia, barely pausing long enough for me to begin to stammer out the name of an old friend. “…Cat Power.”
“Velvet Leash” is the first single from Amelia’s new record of the same name, which she is still seeking a label to release. In November, she released her second single, “Most Beautiful Name.” It’s slower than “Velvet Leash,” less sultry, more gentle, but still powerful, as Amelia’s music always has been. The first time I heard her sing the line, “Just because I hate my body doesn’t mean I can’t love yours,” I got chills.
Velvet Leash isn’t easily categorizable. The songs are not quite folk, not quite pop, not quite country, but somehow all three at once, like early Joan Armatrading. Even individual instruments jump genres: Contrast the slide guitar that opens “Ice Cold Plum,” an urbane ballad that could fit right in on Mazzy Star’s She Hangs Brightly, with a similar sounding slide on “Electric Eyes,” a kinetic alt-country ode to young love that invokes the expanses of America you might see from the back of a pickup, an open box car, or the passenger seat of your girlfriend’s Outback.
“Electric Eyes” is Amelia’s most recent single, and it’s a perfect encapsulation of her oeuvre. Its sound is pure bad girl Americana, and the lyrics, a paean to a series of bratty exes—like “Mambo No. 5” meets “Stubborn Ass”—are full of women with “sugar in [their] blood, and sugar on [their] minds.” Amelia’s delivery is sometimes sung, sometimes almost growled, but it’s always slick and sweet as molasses.
“Most of the new songs were written a whole step above, and Robin was like, ‘I think this is where your voice should be,’ says Amelia. “When I heard it, I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m singing in the wrong place.’ Like sometimes when you go somewhere with your voice, it feels good, but it doesn’t necessarily sound good. And when I tuned the guitar down, everything started to make more sense. It was an epiphany. My music finally sounded good to me.”
As for me, I’ve become more comfortable with myself. I got sober, wrote a book, switched from a cat person to a dog person, and from a man to a woman. In the months leading up to publicly coming out, I started thinking back on all the moments that had preceded it. I kept returning to my time at 1087, and my friendship with Amelia. As much of a woman’s space as it was, she kept asking my ostensibly all-male punk band to play shows. She made sure I felt invited and vital every time I was there.
Turning over my simmering transness in my head, it’s impossible not to see the role Amelia played. In going out of her way to make sure I always knew that I was welcome wherever she was, that I was a necessary part of her community, Amelia made space for me to become the woman I am. When I came out to her a few months ago, she laughed and said, “That doesn’t surprise me.” And why would it? From her early days at Lorena Haus to the “Velvet Leash” video, Amelia has always made space for all kinds of women.
Protest songs breathe power. They are born in defiance, resisting the sinking feeling that nothing will ever change. Some even present the message with clarity and simplicity of truth—consider Sam Cooke’s civil rights era anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Drawing from an experience in 1963, when he was turned away from a Louisiana hotel for being black, the song entwines personal experience with audacious hope. The result is a collective voice, a call to action, a hunger for change.
While some social change has come since segregation, other issues are on the brink of dangerously backsliding. Shreveport, Louisiana—the same city that refused Cooke—is now the focal point of another civil injustice, this time concerning restrictions on reproductive rights. While the case against the state awaits review by the US Supreme Court this week, local musician AJ Haynes is breathing power into both music and activism during trying times.
Haynes, the frontperson of soul rock band the Seratones and abortion clinic counselor at the Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport, speaks with me from a coffee shop in Massachusetts the morning after a show at Great Scott, a Boston music venue. “It was actually one of the most diverse groups I’ve seen,” she says, excited that the crowds at her shows have been changing. “I feel more women are showing up. More people of color. It’s really important for me to curate a space where people will feel comfortable, and where people will feel safe, moreover.”
Hayne’s concern for her fans comes from experience. Oftentimes, women don’t feel protected—a fact she has witnessed over and over again as an abortion clinic counselor at Hope Medical Group—and she is fiercely protective of fans and clients alike. Anytime she sees a single woman at a Seratones show, she worries about their safety, sometimes even asking them to message her on Instagram when they’ve arrived home. “People need to feel safe,” she asserts, recognizing that living in a woman’s body at this time can be frightening, especially if you live in a state that has passed 89 abortion restrictions since Roe v. Wade.
A series of hostile restrictions by Louisiana lawmakers have culminated in June Medical Services v. Russo (formerly June Medical Services v. Gee), a case that the US Supreme Court will hear this Wednesday, March 4, 2020. Filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the lawsuit challenges a Louisiana law aimed at implementing admitting privileges. Known as Act 620, the law was passed by the Louisiana Legislature in 2014, and it models a Texas law that the Supreme Court struck down in 2016, requiring that a physician performing an abortion must have active admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles from the abortion facility. However, in a state that only has three abortion clinics (down from seven in 2011), such stipulations would mean the closing of two more clinics—Hope Medical Group for Women being one of them. “The state of Louisiana is trying to undermine the constitutional precedent,” says Haynes, perplexed at the state’s audacity to impede the civil rights of approximately one million women of reproductive age within the state.
“Brighter days coming, but I can’t see where I’m going,” sings Haynes on the title track of her band’s most recent album, Power, released last year on New West Records. When she began writing the lyrics to the song, Haynes was thinking of her daily struggles as a teacher (“getting up early as shit”) when she taught at a local middle school, as well as the daily struggles of her patients at Hope Medical Group. She mentions that she has seen patients who wake up at 3 AM, work on their school assignments, get their kids ready for school, go to work, go to the clinic on their lunch break, pick up their kids, help their kids with homework, then continue working on their own homework. “This is the story of so many people,” says Haynes. “And it’s not acknowledged how many are grinding like that.”
Louisiana has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation, and was in the top three according to findings from the 2018 census. Not everyone has the resources to benefit from the services of a clinic, especially when they’re so few and far between. For example, let’s say a woman who lives in northeast Louisiana is in need of an abortion: the closest clinic, which is Hope Medical Group, can be a three hour drive. Not having access to a vehicle, childcare, and/or the leisure of being able to miss a day of work further prohibits access to proper health care. “This is an attack on people trying to get out of cycles and systems of poverty,” says Haynes, adding that in Louisiana, people of color disproportionately suffer the most from abortion restrictions. As we are meant to be living in a post-Roe v. Wade reality, Haynes asks in frustration: “What is the point of having something that you can’t have access to?”
In order to have an abortion in the state of Louisiana, a patient is required to navigate through a few steps 24 hours before the procedure:
In addition to the physical and financial strain these visits create, especially for patients traveling from rural areas, the emotional toll can be just as substantial. Since Haynes began working at Hope Medical Clinic over a decade ago, she has continuously witnessed her colleagues show up for their patients. “Being compassionate means that you have to give up yourself, hold space for people,” says Haynes. “That’s exhausting sometimes.” There’s no way to compartmentalize witnessing the heartbreak of others on an hourly basis. “That’s the thing,” says Haynes, “We value our patients; the state of Louisiana clearly does not.”
Like her work at the Hope Medical Clinic, Haynes writes songs that hold space for the listener, creating something they can hold, and that can pull them (and herself) out of the fire. Haynes recalls a morning when she was getting ready to go to the clinic after a 5 AM yoga class. She hastily made coffee as she listened to All Songs Considered on NPR, when they played “Power.”As the hosts talked about her song, she realized, “Damn! I made the song that I needed to hear for myself to go to work.” Coupled with an infectious beat and killer arrangement, the song has certainly resonated with people—last year, the Center of Reproductive Rights asked the Seratones to play “Power” at their New York gala at Lincoln Center. “As we were playing the song, motherfuckers were writing checks,” says Haynes. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
Haynes writes from perspective, always keeping her lineage in the back of her mind. She’s deeply inspired by women like her mother, an immigrant from the Philippines, who managed to raise three children in Columbia, Louisiana while her father attended a recovery program. “That is magic! [There is] truly divine magic in that labor,” says Haynes. Tapping into that wellspring of perseverance, and taking a page from artists like Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison, Haynes strives to get into the mind and lives of characters she imagines for her songs. “I can’t do that unless I understand myself first,” she says. “And this record was a lot about understanding myself.”
In the music video for “Power,” a young black girl traverses different sites in Shreveport, including Hope Medical Group, and the message is clear: It’s time for women to reclaim themselves, especially when on the verge of a court decision that could be detrimental to reproductive rights. “We take two steps forward / They take one step backward/ We take each step to lift us up higher,” belts Haynes in the chorus, reminding us, like Cooke did 56 years ago, that we are the change we seek, because we are the power.