The audience begins to clap as I finish playing "Hotel California" for my elementary school talent show. I get up, bow, and walk off stage to rejoin my parents in the audience with my Barbie pink acoustic guitar in tow.
In my mind, I am James Walsh and Jimmy Page. I am an absolute badass because I just played “Hotel California” for my entire school after practicing and practicing for months. Then, the question comes: “So, you want to be like Taylor Swift when you grow up?”
I don’t remember who said it. All I know is that it would be something that I would hear for the next twelve years of my life — something I still hear today. I’m not bothered by Taylor Swift as a person, and I’m not bothered by people that enjoy her music, either. What I do have a problem with is what a womxn in music is constructed to look like. We are overwhelmingly classified as less talented, less able, and dependent on our cis male counterparts. These realities extend far beyond music for womxn, too; these are stereotypes and constraints we must actively fight in our daily lives, in our constant existence, built up with endless expectations that we’re taught not to strain from.
I won’t back down /
I won’t be afraid /
I will scream out loud
5 Years Behind by THICK captures this reality flawlessly. The opening track of this record, “5 Years Behind,” evokes Bikini Kill in its balance of melody and hard-hitting rhythmic punk energy. The lyrics in the first verse, “Everybody’s expectations that they have of my life / Keep on swimming, keep on swimming / Just to keep my head up / My heart is heavy like my body,” truly capture the struggle of navigating all the expectations placed on womxn. The band continues: “Always five years behind / Slowly veering off the path that they paved for my life,” expressing the stress and difficulty in recognizing one’s individuality and personal will. We struggle in a society that places strict rules and expectations on who womxn can be. It’s not easy to stray from the path carved out for us; it carries further stereotyping, negative judgments, and exclusion, but also a prioritization of individuality and truth.
“We are overwhelmingly classified as less talented, less able, and dependent on our cis male counterparts.”
“Bumming Me Out” follows up on the difficulties of navigating the womxn experience. Something about this song evokes a great deal of nostalgia for me. I imagine if there was ever a coming of age movie made about my life, this is the song that would play on my college move-in day. The lyrics express the inherent exhaustion produced by living in a world that consistently hinders your individuality and equality:
Never knew I’d be so tired /
Fighting for what I believe
Try to take it all in stride /
Sometimes it just feels like
Everything that I see, bumming me out /
Everything that I read, wearing me down /
Everyone that I see is freaking me out
If I had a dollar for every time a cis male student tried to justify the gender wage gap to me or explain why having rapists in office isn’t a big deal, I would probably have enough money to have my coming of age movie made.
“I wish I could spew the lyrics of this song right out of my mouth, aimed towards every narcissistic man I’ve ever had to deal with.”
“Mansplain” reintroduces riot grrrl energy back into the album. The song opens with the recorded sounds of men’s voices making sexist comments about womxn musicians, and I’m taken back to my school talent show questions, standing there with my Barbie pink guitar. It’s like walking into Guitar Center, nervously sweating because I know that any mistake I make testing out an instrument will be attributed to my gender, while a cis man standing right next to me could make the same mistake without even a comment. I wish I could spew the lyrics of this song right out of my mouth, aimed towards every narcissistic man I’ve ever had to deal with:
Thanks for explaining
How to play guitar /
If it wasn’t for your help
We wouldn’t get this far /
Thanks for explaining how to do my job
The songs on 5 Years Behind alternate from reflecting on the experience of being a womxn in society in sentimental emotionality to fully expressing anger at the restraints and expectations placed on us. It is this diversity that I believe truly encapsulates the experience of a womxn musician — and simply of a womxn in general. This is what makes this album truly irresistible.
Soleil Engin is a public policy major at the University of Chicago, where she also helps organize student performance opportunities with the Music Forum. She is passionate about healthcare equality, creating gender inclusive music spaces, and making music with her band, Puddlejumper.