The thing that knocked me off the fence and squarely into “SLEIGH BELLS ARE THE BEST OMG” territory was realizing (partial credit to Mike Barthel) that this album is basically a treatise on 14-year-old girls (and I would say a particular, privileged kind of 14-year-old girl). The lead singer is also a teacher in New York City. The songs have titles like “Kids” and “Straight A’s,” the lyrics are about grades and braces and boyfriends and playing games and calling your friends and fighting with your friends and talking about how powerful you are and Kool Aid.
And, yeah, this album sounds basically like being fourteen! While also being female and white and upper middle class and from the East Coast / New York Metropolitan Area! But then, it also sounds like being in your late twenties and looking at white female upper middle class New York teenagers and hating the fuck out of their careless, thoughtless, worshipped and way-more-confident-than-you asses.
Alexis’s laid-back, girlish singing is doing basically the same work as the little girl shrieking bloody murder in the middle of waxing adult about how she needs a vacation and casually wondering where her sunglasses are on “Kids” — she may sound cool and confident and polite, she may be chatting about trips to the beach and good-girl things like getting straight-A’s, but there is a whole secret stomping tornado going on. All around her words there is rage, there is ripping shit apart, there is imagining getting out her laserguns like in a videogame and shooting your goddamn face off, or at least taking out her cell phone and texting her best friends about what a little shit you are. (I don’t think the layered vocals are just an acknowledgment of how thin and soft her voice is — the kids on “Kids” are layered too, half the album’s lyrics are first-person plural. It’s the feral pack groupthink of adolescence.) And the whole album, the singsong-y schoolyard chant melodies and the danceable rhythms and Alexis’s singing, it’s saying, you know, take her seriously, this rage is real for her, but don’t take her too seriously, because really, what has this kid got to be angry about? What does this kid need a vacation from? Laugh at her a little bit. Disregard her a little bit. Just so she doesn’t get too big for her britches.
This album basically sounds like the first day of summer, every summer between eighth and eleventh grade. Not what I was listening to at the beginning of every summer between eighth and eleventh grade, but how the beginning of every summer between eighth and eleventh grade felt. And, like, I believe you all know how much I love music that takes me back to middle school.
She tells a great story, better than the band its discussing, but that’s OK because I do hear what she’s describing in the music. (I enjoy Sleigh Bells, but I don’t get terribly enthusiastic about them, possibly because that story Erika tells isn’t realized as vividly as it might have been.)
But as a take on teenage-girlness in pop music, Sleigh Bells is kind of radical. Teenage girls in pop are supposed to be shrieking consumers of the assumed dregs of the chart: non-threatening boy bands, girl groups, bubblegum, all characterized by bowdlerized themes. There are so many things wrong with that conception of teenage girls to begin with; for a start, the fanbase of most of the chart pop that teenage girls are reputed to enjoy is actually dominated by pre-teens of both genders.
Further, there isn’t much room for teen girl music to be about teenage girls. From Backstreet Boys to Justin Bieber, the music we’re told teenage girls are listening to isn’t actually saying anything about being a teenage girl. (Songs teenage boys are assumed to be listening to is more often a conversation about being a teenage boy using teenage boy language.)
(As an aside, Taylor Swift is so interesting because her albums to date are a rare example of music by, for, and about teenage girls. And note that detractors of Taylor Swift throw the same accusations of vapidity and falseness that always get thrown at music teenage girls are said to like. And this is in spite of the fact that the lack of vapidity or falseness in Swift’s work becomes immediately obvious once you start to pay attention.)
Anyway. Back to Sleigh Bells.
So Sleigh Bells make this noise that is entirely removed from what we’re meant to think of when we think teenage girl music. It’s rough and messy and abrasive, whereas teenage girl music is thought of as sugary and boy-crazy and shallow. (Sleigh Bells is also shallow, but being shallow in pop is no crime.) And here you get this other view of pop teenage girldom, where the girls aren’t ciphers or unthinking members of a passive, undisciplined audience, but thinking people who have thoughts and ideas and desires, and are still pretty stupid because they’re teenagers, but even so, they’re not just faceless consumers of Non-Threatening Boys magazine.
My point though, is that Sleigh Bells makes this obvious because of their incongruity with the pop usually associated with teenage girls. It doesn’t mean this abrasiveness is the only way or the best way to make music for or about teenage girls. Indeed, the point should be that the readers of Non-Threatening Boys magazine also have rich inner lives that can’t be glossed over with pop-narratives that treat them as cultural dupes.