Usually, hypes about bands, books, films etc. make me sceptical at least. But now and then, when its time in the spotlight is over, I start enjoying the particular release, sometimes years after everyone else was talking about it. But there are also hypes I don’t understand and probably never will. One of those is the ongoing one about American dream pop outfit Cigarettes After Sex. As their style of music is not really what I’m listening to anyway, I just noticed that the affection for their songs was growing slowly but steadily – and then culminated in high praise for their self-titled debut album in 2017. My indifference faded after I had attended the Open Source Festival in 2018 with some friends. We were waiting to see Tocotronic when the quartet from New York City came on as one of the festival’s headliners. None of us knew much about the band and we couldn’t bring ourselves to enjoy their monotone songs. Again, I know that this sound is exactly what many people love about these guys.
‘Young and dumb and hot as fuck’ – Just words?
Personal preferences aside, some research on the next day resulted in a shocking revelation: The band’s lyrics (available on their website) are full of encroaching and disturbing statements of a cis, male and heterosexual I. Greg Gonzalez, who formed the band in Texas in 2008, sings about being ‘obsessed with your body’ (Sweet), bluntly describes ‘You open your dress and show me your tits’ (Sunsetz) and wants to go ‘where the girls are young and dumb and hot as fuck, where they’re dancing in the street with nothing on’ (Young and Dumb). He fantasises about building an opera house ‘in the deepest jungle’ and putting yet another nameless woman there ‘with no one else for miles’ (Opera House), and he downplays and romanticises being disrespectful: ‘I know that you say I get mean when I’m drinking/But then again sometimes I get really sweet […] It’s affection always/You’re gonna see it someday/My attention’s on you/Even if it’s not what you need’ (Affection) – although he mentioned once at a concert that this song is addressed to a male friend but … well, you can’t be sure about that.
In my opinion, artistic freedom ends with thoughtless and crude remarks that draw on mainstream porn stereotypes, maintain typically ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits and are teetering on the brink of crimes like stalking or false imprisonment. Words pave the way for deeds as Best Coast‘s Bethany Cosantino already pointed out in 2016: With Chris Brown‘s Back to Sleep as an example, she criticised people working in the pop industry for ‘perpetuating rape culture’.
There’s no cultural value in presenting reactionary and discriminatory views, especially when it’s done without clear criticism, disapproval or irony and humour at least. And that’s exactly what Gonzalez does when he, again and again, emphasises how his songs are based on his own experiences and feelings.
Whether that’s really what his life looks like or not, is irrelevant for now: By saying so, his objectification of women and his excessive focus on his point of view become real and normalised. They are not part of a satirical ‘state-of-the-nation statement’ and ‘hardly an advertisement’ for this kind of behaviour like they are in texts with similar protagonists, e. g. Nick Cave‘s novel The Death of Bunny Munro (Cave, 2009, although some of Cave‘s comments are definitely questionable as well). They are not part of a strong stance against sexual violence against women like they are in songs like Nirvana‘s Polly. No matter how quietly and softly, Cigarettes After Sex‘ lyrics promote sexism and misogyny.
Is this real?
After finding out about their lyrics in 2018, I was sure I would find critical comments online, not least considering the steadily increasing awareness of demeaning behaviour due to the ongoing #MeToo movement. But I was wrong: I read about ‘modern love songs’ (Pitchfork, 2017), about how their record was ‘one of the debut albums of the year’ (The Guardian, 2017), a ‘truly exciting’ release (Under the Radar, 2017), and how the hype was ‘entirely justified’ (PopMatters, 2017). And yes, even NBHAP head Norman Fleischer praised it as a wonderful ‘album for lovers’ back in the days and we named it one of our fifty favourite records of that year. He’s quite aware of that misjudgement as he told me in the course of this article. Additionally, the they were travelling all around the world and even selling out many tour dates. Why was everyone so deaf to the damaging role portrayals and stereotypes in their lyrics? Maybe because people don’t pay much attention to lyrics in general (especially if they aren’t their native language). I guess it’s a systemic problem and these bigger structures need to be overhauled. But let’s not give up hope, shall we?
A nightmare that needs to end
Cigarettes After Sex recently released their second album Cry and it’s basically like its predecessor – not just musically as my colleague Miriam already analyzed. There’s (alleged) self-loathing and obsessive wanting (Don’t Let Me Go, Touch), unironic mentions of anime porn and magazines like Playboy and Penthouse (Hentai, You’re the Only Good Thing In My Life) and another softboi-excuse for being selfish and disrespectful (Cry), again mixed with creepy descriptions like this: ‘I could see you were walking slow, drinking a Slurpee/In a peach baseball cap, falling in my lap/You were so thirsty’ (Kiss It Off Me). And although there’s not much change, some of the newest reviews are far more critical: The ‘occasional lyrical gaffe’ (The Guardian, 2017) has turned into ‘icky lyrics’, and ‘Gonzalez’s failure to evolve lyrically’ is an ‘issue’ (The Guardian, 2019). Furthermore, the ‘two-dimensional fantasies’ and ‘rendering women as pure sex objects’ lead to the record being just ‘one giant, dull, and gross fantasy’ (Pitchfork, 2019). And that’s just one reason why it didn’t show up in our ‘end of the year’ list in 2019.
This is definitely a step towards the right direction. Nevertheless, praising the melodies, the vocals, the instrumentation and still awarding 4 out of 10 points for the record weakens the legitimate and long overdue criticism which should just be the beginning anyway: We need to name and boycott misogyny and sexism whenever and wherever we find it even if it takes us a moment to actually spot it. For me the music of Cigarettes After Sex is not dream pop, it’s a nightmare that needs to end.