Just Tell It
At Betty’s, I’m telling Loveless about Miranda July‘s recent Columbus visit; during the Q&A, a young man handed the author and filmmaker a pair of those eyeglasses with the nose and mustache attached and asked her to tell everyone a secret about herself. What made him think she’d do it? (She didn’t.) Starting to wax philosophical over my second beer, I wonder what happens when a person becomes a public figure, and ask Loveless if she’s found it difficult to keep up a barrier, to maintain a space for herself.
“Yeah, I guess I do,” she says, “because I write so honestly. And that’s what’s kind of weird: I write in a very blunt manner, like, I need to say this. You know? And then I get reviews that say, ‘She’s making this up, she’s trying to have this shtick, or she needs to find other things to write about.’ Or I’m married now, so it’s like, ‘Why are you writing about dudes and shit?’ I still need to have, obviously, a part of me that’s not for everyone, but I don’t ever wanna be the kind of person that doesn’t write honestly.”
Loveless explains that the sense of being scrutinized only intensifies at shows, partly because there’s such a stark difference between who she is in her songs and who she is in person. “Especially strangers,” she adds. “I’m very shy and closed-off. Sometimes people will come up to me and think I’m being a bitch because I’m like,”—Loveless adopts a robotic tone—”Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the show, and then I just sort of run up the stairs to get away from everybody.”
“I think they expect me to be like my songs—brash, vulgar—and then they think I’m faking my songs because I’m not like that. I mean, I’m twenty-three years old and married. I’m pretty boring and monogamous. But I just really like in-your-face writing. My favorite writers are Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, Tobias Wolff—those are tell-it-like-it-is people. And I’m this way partly because my family is. We’re very, ‘I have a problem, I’m going to tell you about it, and now we’re going to get in a horrible fight, but at least we’ll know what we feel, right?’ I’ve never been able to relate to people who are like, ‘I feel something but I don’t know how to express it.’ I’m really into just, ‘Tell it.’”
Sipping the beer that’s making me ponderous, I wonder if, once people find in her a kind of authenticity, they lock her in a mental category… and then I lose my thought. The word “authenticity” bothers me, I admit.
“I don’t know what it means,” Loveless says. “I think there’s this weird idea that everything authentic, or authentic country, comes from the South or the West. But I’m from the Midwest and I feel like the definition of authentic is the Midwest. We’re friendly, we have this accent that isn’t even an accent. I love being from the Midwest because I feel like it’s the most authentic place in the country.” Authentic as in honest? “Yeah, honest. We have manners but we’re also really vulgar and crass. We like to get drunk. We just don’t hold anything back and I love that.”
Not holding anything back seems like it’d give people more of an opportunity to judge you, more material to work with.
“You can’t make all of those people happy. And especially as a performer, when I’m on the road every night for two months, you’re gonna see some bad shit.” Loveless tosses back another self-deprecating laugh. “You’re gonna see me at my worst. But that’s life. Everyone’s human and you shouldn’t judge people too harshly. A lot of that, for me, comes from being raised really religiously; I’ve seen a lot of people judged just for being human.”
As Loveless and I have been talking, it hasn’t gone unnoticed by me that the walls of Betty’s are adorned with pin-up magazine covers from the ‘50s and ‘60s. I’ve been going to the restaurant for years; it’s something you start overlooking after a while. But all this talk of pop culture, public perception, authenticity and judgment—even someone asking an accomplished filmmaker and author to tell a roomful of strangers a secret—has an underlying subject to it: the masculine gaze. How much has really changed in the past 50 years? For some men in the audience, any woman who steps onto a stage isn’t much different from those pin-up queens with their doe-eyed glances.
“People really are jealous of women who play music,” says Loveless. “That sounds kind of pathetic, but it’s completely true. Right after I got signed, there were a couple dudes in the country music scene that were like, ‘I guess it’s who you know.’ Since I was fuckin’ twelve-years-old I wanted to be in a band, I wanted to play music, and I wanted to fucking do it for a living.”
Loveless describes how she dropped out of school and even dance classes, having once planned on going to college to become a dance teacher. “I realized I couldn’t be a full-time musician and do anything else. I sacrificed everything. Sacrificed education, having money. I networked the fuck out of myself, played shows constantly, sacrificed having any comforts… like, this is what I do. I lost my job. I got laid off from Benevolence [an organic restaurant in Columbus]. I was a prep cook there. They closed down and I was like, ‘I guess I’m doing this for real.’ And a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, I guess you must have known someone.’”
Do people not recognize how much of a risk the full-time musician’s life can be?
“It’s an incredible risk. And I’m not bitching at all, because I love my life and I don’t have to work a real job. But people think you can have a full-time job and a house and a family and be a musician, and you can’t.”
When you read the press about Loveless, especially what came out around Indestructible Machine, you can pick up on this tone of wonder, this amazement at Loveless’ age. Thrown off, perhaps, by the strength of not only her songwriting but her attitude, so many articles cast her as an anomaly, a mystery to solve, when in fact she’s just been expressing what millions of women her age, in her generation, experience every day.
Loveless nods when I ask if all this sleuthing is getting kind of laborious. “Yeah,” she says, “People say it’s hard to believe I’m writing these songs. I mean, girls are having babies at fourteen.”
“There’s this whole thing about women that we’re more feelings-oriented or we’re just thinking about make-up.” Loveless pauses and smirks. “Okay, I am thinking about make-up most of the time; I love make-up. But we have so much pressure to be smart and be pretty. Like, if I show up to a meeting and I don’t have make-up on or if I’m wearing a casual outfit, people are like, ‘See, you say you want to be sexy, but you look kind of boring right now.’ But you can’t look too sexy because then you’re not a feminist.”
“It’s so fucking hard to be a woman,” she continues. “And I don’t expect any sympathy or pity. I love being a woman, I’d never want to be a man. I’m very happy being me. But every second that you’re a woman, you’re aware of it. I walked in to get cigarettes, and people were like ‘Damn, baby!’ Come on! You cannot have a moment to yourself where you’re not thinking about being a woman.
But everything you do as a woman is like, ‘Pretty good for a woman!’ or ‘Why is this woman singing about drinking?’ I mean, Vic Chestnutt fucking drove himself into a tree and then sang about depression and killed himself, and he still gets more respect than I do when I sing about having a beer.”
Loveless recounts the tired comparisons she gets to Neko Case, who, if you’re really listening, she sounds nothing like. Case’s voice is also not a rock ‘n’ roll voice, Loveless’ is, through and through.
“Obviously there are more male songwriters than women songwriters,” Loveless says, “so getting compared to Neko Case is like saying, from the writer’s point of view, ‘That’s the only thing I can think of.’ Or every time I play a show, somebody says, ‘I saw a woman with a guitar and I was like, What is this gonna be like?” She laughs in disbelief. “And I’m like, ‘Well, I saw four dudes in a band and I thought, ‘This is gonna be the same fucking thing I hear every night.’”
*Thanks to Ghettoblaster for allowing me to use portions of an interview for their magazine here at PopMatters.