Captain, Not the Crony: Why Speedy Ortiz Is the Artist of the Year
On top of their dynamite record 'Foil Deer,' Speedy Ortiz have established themselves as a fearless band in a time when it's not safe to be bold.
Each day this week, Noisey is announcing and discussing one of the five artists we believe defined 2015. The first Artist of the Year is Speedy Ortiz. Follow along here all week and in the weeks ahead for more end-of-year discussion.
Speedy Ortiz is a band made up of people being people in this world. They’re not aiming to get famous, they’re not necessarily seeking out high profile record deals, and they’re not looking to sell out arenas (although I’m sure they wouldn’t mind any of those three things if they happened). They have, however, become unlikely icons at a time when becoming an indie rock icon is nearly impossible. Much of what the group has done since becoming famous enough to appear in Playboy twice is reminiscent of the riot-grrrl ethos—setting up a welcoming place for people of all ages and all backgrounds to come together to enjoy (damn good) music. It’s less “Girls to the front” and more “Be cool to other people.”
Maybe that doesn’t seem like the most revelatory way to approach making music and art—just a few people doin’ it because they like to do it—but its that casualness with which Speedy Ortiz approaches the world that’s their greatest asset. Their politics aren't political; they're just matter-of-fact. They're the right thing to do. That’s what makes Speedy Ortiz the artist of the year.
But let’s step back. Before their 2015 release Foil Deer, ten tracks of definite punk snarl, Speedy Ortiz formally jumped onto the scene with their first full album in 2013, Major Arcana—a record widely hailed as refreshing and full of life (Pitchfork dubbed it "Best New Music"), yet less explicitly about anything, with poetic but hard-to-decipher lyrics. When they returned with Foil Deer, the cryptic lyrics disappeared and became feminist statements tearing down gender roles and pointing out the bullshit in society. “I’ve always identified as a feminist, but I think for me in the past my feminism took a form of feeling genderqueer and wanting to be treated on a level that is the same,” frontwoman and principal songwriter Sadie Dupuis once stated when asked if this album was a feminist album. “Boys have had enough being at that level, maybe let’s just put women above them for a while.”
At a time where abortion restrictions are tightening around the country, women are still being paid less than men for doing the same work, and people are being beaten up outside shows for being trans, releasing a decidedly feminist album could be considered risk. But it’s not. Now, more than ever, we need music and artists unafraid to stand up and shout. Like a modern-day Kathleen Hanna, Dupuis creates fearless art that makes a statement, and stands up for herself and, by that nature, others.
Outside of the music, though, the band has shown how you can take these somewhat nebulous ideas and put them to action. On top of Dupuis being a public face for topics of cultural importance—quick to jump into conversations in interviews, on Twitter, and more—Speedy Ortiz played benefit tours for the both the Ferguson Library and the Baltimore food bank earlier this year. Moreover, in early September, the band announced that all shows they played would include access to a hotline—a number that anyone present could call or text if they felt like they were in a dangerous situation and needed a sudden way out. “When we started it, we were like, in an ideal world, nobody ever has to use this.” Dupuis tells me when I asked how it had been working out since implementation. “It just starts the conversation—and that's mostly what's going on with it. We've even seen some venues putting up their own guidelines in places we've been on this tour, which I've never seen before we started doing this, so that's pretty cool. A few different bands that are wider in reach than we are setting up their own similar systems, so that's exciting too.”
Only a few months after their hotline, Speedy Ortiz announced they would be touring to benefit the Girls Rock Camp Foundation, a group that generates support and funding for Girls Rock Camps, with 100 percent of their net proceeds going to the nonprofit, the first time the band is touring to benefit a specific group. They also recently put all their music up on Bandcamp so fans could listen to everything for free, without having to deal with Spotify regulations. “I think our background is coming from kind of our local punk scene which is, frequently there are fundraising shows,” Dupuis says. “And when you get to a certain level of touring and playing festivals you see it becomes more of a capitalist venture for a lot of these bands, and we're just not very good at living that way.”
Devin McKnight, the group’s guitarist, agrees: “That's stuff that we're all on board for anyway. I would think that if any of us were weird about stuff like that it would be, we probably wouldn't be in the band.”
But, back to that thing about Speedy Ortiz being a band made up of people being people. What continually sets Speedy Ortiz apart from their contemporaries is their attitude. As a songwriter, Sadie has written about it all—from breakups to jealousy, being threatened by men while waiting for a friend in a car, to the shitty sexism women face by doing something as simple as taking charge.
Look at the bold lyrics from “Plough,” off Major Arcana: “No it isn't the first time you showed up/ On the first of the month asking me for your cut/ And some virgin parchment you brought me to read/ Why’d you pick a virgin over me?”
Speedy’s sound is grungy, punk rock reminiscent of Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. Foil Deer continues cementing that approach, finding Dupuis singing cryptic, poetic songs about love and relationships, immersing herself and the listener in how fucked up people can be to each other sometimes, especially when sex and love are involved. It’s relatable, at times even charming—which speaks to her ability to connect with a listener. “Writing songs was a place to internalize self-observed feelings,” Dupuis says. “Whereas I'm a little bit older now, and I'm less wrapped up in the woe is me and more wrapped up in oh my god, the state of our world. At some point, maybe when you're a little bit younger that kind of escapism into the glorification of substance worship can be a fun escape, but at some point you get old enough and you realize the world is really crazy and upsetting.”
Look at some of Foil Deer’s standout tracks: “Puffer,” a song about refusing to be complacent even if your life is going fine, features a heavy, R&B inspired bassline. “My Dead Girl,” starts out as an anthem of independence and quickly becomes a mourning of the danger of being a woman in this world, how someone standing just a little too close to you or catcalling you can turn into something much more violent. “Raising Skate” calls out sexist stereotypes of women—“I’m not bossy, I'm the boss / Shooter, not the shot/ On the tip and fit to execute/ I'm chief, not the overthrown”—putting on blast those who think that because a woman in charge they’re “pushy,” “abrasive,” or “bitchy.” Those adjectives aren’t really used for men, are they?
Speedy Ortiz challenge gender roles and reputations in a world dominated by all-male bands singing songs about how messed up and sad they are. They exist to give back to their community. They exist to empower you. They exist to make you put your fist in the air. The band embodies what the genre of punk rock started out as—powerful guitars and a dominant stage presence—but have also brought along the bold message that no matter who you are or what you’re feeling, you’re OK.
“I think a lot of the ethical values that we try to exemplify are things that we've always valued and have done on and off all along” Sadie says. “Basically we just do whatever we feel like doing and we're lucky that people facilitate that for us.“
On “Curling,” the third song from Speedy Ortiz’s debut EP Sports, Dupuis sings, “If it hasn’t already, my time’s gonna come.” It has.
Annalise Domenighini is a writer and Noisey's social editor. Follow her on Twitter.