Political art is easy to do badly, especially in music. Lay the message out and it becomes ham-fisted, something to use to preach to the choir. The Bush and Trump protest albums do this and they quickly fizzle and fall out sight. Make your message subtle and risk listeners missing it or going the exact opposite route you meant for them. Springsteen did this with “Born In The USA” and despite it highlighting many of America’s problems, politicians use it for its ironic chorus alone.
U.S. Girls, musician Meg Remy’s avant-garde act, recently made waves for releasing “In a Poem Unlimited” which is very well-made political art. “In a Poem Unlimited” is essentially a feminist protest pop album. It’s an incongruent mash of funky jazz rhythms and groovy beats running headlong into unsparing commentary and brutal folk tales. It’s incredible political art because it doesn’t tell you about the damage it fights, it shows it to you.
You’ll probably notice how poppy and enjoyable “In a Poem Unlimited” is before you notice its messages. The instrumentation and the vocal style on the album bring you in while also making you just wary enough to look for signs of something wrong.
There’s an instant familiarity to the album because many of its songs take tropes from pop music and uses them too make alluring beats. “In a Poem Unlimited” creates strong draws with funky bass tracks torn from ’70’s pop, record scratches torn from ’90’s pop, simple violin lines popular to plenty of eras of pop, and vocals that have the emotive drama common to pop singers.
A lot of tracks on “In a Poem Unlimited” can be enjoyed like most pop songs but not in the exact same way. Unlike “Born in America,” there are small elements to the beat that communicate the discord and issues inside each track. There are some sharp edges, some heavy distortion, and some outright aggression to tracks that let you know something isn’t totally right even without the lyrics. “In a Poem Unlimited” invites you to listen a little closer and catch the darker meaning lying underneath the surface.
U.S. Girls capitalizes on the buy-in the instrumentation creates with lyrics that deliver a feminist message through narrative and story. Each character study or folktale shows the damage Remy believes certain parts of American culture can cause.
To be brutalized means you don’t have to think / And life is easy when there is only pain to compete / But I wonder what this incidental boogie / Is really doing for me / Cos I’m no closer to free
“Incidental Boogie” takes on the view of a woman who can’t seem to dodge incredibly abusive relationships. She describes fleeing one to get into another until she accepts abuse as an inevitability and a positive one at that. The lyrics are pretty harrowing and awful, but that’s the point! “Incidental Boogie” reveals how continual, normalized abuse wears a woman down to a point where she becomes numb and dehumanizes herself to.
“Pearly Gates,” tells a story of a woman compelled to use her body for salvation. She seduces St. Peter to get into heaven but he ignores her after the deed is done. The lyrics reduce her to being, “just another man’s daughter.” The song shows listeners that the power of women’s sexuality is a false one and that men can turn on them at any moment.
“Velvet 4 Sale” paints a scenario where women and children rise up and murder men. The lyrics of the song are the dangerous women justifying what they’re doing by pointing to the violence done to them by men. It shows how men hurt women but also the violent undercurrent in American society.
Not being an entirely pessimistic or narrative-driven album, “Poem” is Remy openly criticizing greed in society and calling for change. She points out that the strictures of a profit-driven society and the issues that come from it aren’t a foregone conclusion.
No one needs to make a profit / No one needs to get paid / If we all agree we don’t have to live that way
“In a Poem Unlimited” uses so many mechanisms to make a deeply feminist and political critique of society enjoyable. That’s because Remy doesn’t tell you about America’s issues. Instead, she uses America’s issues to form narratives and stories. The album comes together like a collection of dystopian sci-fi stories, allowing listeners to feel America’s problems rather than explaining the problems to them.
Remy does not lecture or preach or get so tongue-in-cheek and overly subtle that her message goes misheard, either. Across most tracks, Remy voices her discontent with American society in a compelling and thought-provoking way. The songs don’t feel like a soapbox or a platform for her as much as they feel like a forum where her listeners can grapple with troubling issues and realities. This is political art done right.