“I wish I was that cool as a teen.”
“I’d settle for being that cool at any point, ever.”
—Anonymous Girlpool Fans
There’s something honest about a show where a band gets up to play and instead of the same blustery rockstar machismo we’ve been raised on for 65 years, instead of amps being cranked to 11, heads banging, ears bleeding, we get something on the opposite end of the scale. A band who dares to muffle their drums.
A band who dares to play without drums or percussion of any kind.
A band you can sit and listen to without worrying about how much of your hearing will be gone afterwards. This is what Girlpool and Frankie Cosmos are doing right now—at this very second—charming their way across the country on tour.
Soft is not new, of course. Soft goes way back. It’s hard to believe how much of life used to be complete silence. I suspect we spend more time with headphones on than our forebears did eating, or sleeping, or just about anything. And where there’s Beats, there’s sound. Too much to bear, really, and no one believes they will ever suffer for it. Dads on the subway, kids in the club, guitarists, drummers, all convinced they will hear everything forever and they will, they will, until one day they don’t.
Loud can rev up a crowd and send shock waves of bass through your chest cavity. Soft can do so much more. We know the difference but we treat soft like it’s a liability, just a bridge between louds when we could all get along fine without loud at all. But I can’t imagine life without whispers.
My first exposure to soft as its own entity was in the liner notes of early Stars albums, which contained cryptic paeans to the “soft revolution”. Here was a band professing its love for nuance and subtlety in a way that bands just don’t do—not now, not ever. We’re conditioned to want bigger, better, more, to the point where our heads are full of ads and our ears have been shredded by overzealous masters and this is exactly how the orchestrators of our modern cash-curated lives want it, clamping down hard on consumers and bleeding them dry while stringing artists along until everything is dead or beyond salvation, which will absolutely happen in a fabulous shitstorm that’ll make Cold War domino theorists clutch their suitcases and prep launch codes in giddy lust.
We don’t have to accept this. There are other ways, too. Frankie Cosmos played songs that all seemed to be a slice of in medias res rather than having any kind of arc from beginning to end, and no constraints on how long or short a song should be, all in a mellow tone.
This was quite a relief from a listener’s standpoint, as it meant I was free to appreciate what they were doing without having to worry about meaning, that awful concept that lurks beneath everything and compels us to need to know details that don’t matter and never will. Sometimes Frankie (I’m guessing that’s what she goes by, although she said “We are Frankie Cosmos” at the end, and I like that ambiguity) would introduce a song by telling us what it was about. It was nice that it didn’t matter, that I didn’t have to care, not in a negative way but in a very freeing way, because now I was hearing words and music but I was also seeing motion, watching her and the bassist trade looks or sway in and out of time with the music, watching the drummer have a genuinely good time behind his drums draped with pillowcases which he played with the typical largesse as befits his craft, but which sounded so small and inoffensive, contrary to expectations. It was a rare and enjoyable experience.
Girlpool is best characterized, I think, as a movement. It’s endearing to see a group that everyone can look up to, a group that kids and especially young women can model themselves after, a group that exudes honesty above all else. There’s no agenda here other than pure honesty—here are two women doing exactly what they want to do exactly how they want to do it and it’s off-kilter for sure but that’s part of the plan and that’s what the audience latches on to.
The spectre of authenticity, so prevalent in entertainment, has no power here because everything you see and hear at a Girlpool show is simple and transparent. There’s nothing to hide behind. Certainly not cynicism. It seems weird to have hope at this point, considering everything we’ve got going on at the moment, but that audience was full of hope and it gave some small bit of warmth to this cynical bastard’s heart to see a scene where there was no room for posturing and no sneering petulant faces, only a quiet satisfaction that roared with the might of a soft revolution.