Distorted guitars ripped through the stadium, a raw voice piercing the air as the lights came up onstage. My breath caught in my lungs. I was in Atlanta to see Lorde, and Mitski was the opening act; I had no idea who she was. There was something about the way she laid her heart on the stage, armed with a microphone and an earth-shattering bassline, that was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. She compared falling in love with jumping off a balcony, an abusive relationship to a room full of broken trinkets. She was anguished, angry, but she wasn’t consumed by it. So many women in the music industry sing about cheating boyfriends and addictions as if they’re unbeatable, but Mitski sang as if she were saving her own life. “I am stronger than you give me credit for,” she howled, and I believed her. When her set was over, the reverb shaking the concrete below me felt like a question. I didn’t have an answer yet, but I knew I was just as angry as she was. And I knew I wanted to do that.
I ended up looking at music publications like NME and The Q to find new favorites. I found more and more women working through their anger and trauma via music. From symphonic metal albums to Halsey’s latest singles, abusers and double standards were being put in their place. Enter Hayley Williams of Paramore fame with her single “Simmer,” a menacing, slow-burning ode to feminine rage. I’d been a fan of hers for years, but this was unlike anything she’d released with her band; this was leaner, sharper, more restrained. The video features Williams alone in a forest, running from her own anger, asking, “How to draw the line between wrath and mercy?” She finds peace in loneliness and spite after a short-lived and volatile marriage; the music isn’t particularly loud or volatile, but it brought the solace I was looking for.
This seems to be the most common misconception about turning rage into art—that the art itself has to be angry. From the riot-grrrl movement to the women of Lilith Fair, music that went against the grain was dismissed as “tampon rock” and second-wave feminists were stereotyped as aggressive man-haters. I was afraid that listening to angry music and making angry art would make me an angry person, the worst thing for a girl to be. Sometimes I still am. But the truth is nothing beats watching a woman take her life back. If there was anything more exhilarating and cathartic than hundreds of teenage girls screaming lyrics they’d scribbled on their bedroom walls, I had yet to find it.
Then, last December, I discovered something else: modern witchcraft. A friend told me that her practice helped with her depression. I wondered if it could ease the growing unrest I felt, sated only by Mitski and the women like her. I had heard of Wicca and other types of paganism, but this kind of spirituality felt more open to interpretation. Unconcerned with propriety and purity, witchcraft placed emphasis on sheer will. It empowered marginalized people through something primal and personal, energy much like the kind I felt when I listened to Hayley Williams’ cathartic “Simmer.” Online covens routinely cast hexes on Harvey Weinstein, Brett Kavanaugh, and Trump—constant reminders of how pissed women are and deserve to be. There were spells to protect women’s reproductive rights, charms that turned anger into protection against outside forces: rage reinforced safety and femininity in any form. I put aside my initial hesitation and tried casting a few spells. Whether or not they worked was debatable, but I always felt a little lighter afterward.
In the words of Roxane Gay, “Anger without purpose is unproductive.” Maybe that’s why we feel so trapped inside our own skin when someone has hurt us; maybe it’s unused fuel, and we’re ashamed of our dormant emotions. For me, I didn’t even realize I had those pent-up feelings until another woman sang them back to me. Whether it’s Phoebe Bridgers mocking an ex with a fake British accent or a modern witch performing a protection spell, I don’t think it’s ever been about escaping emotions. Music critics will still dismiss women in rock as too aggressive, and the media will still label witches as delusional; both groups have still managed to embrace their feelings and live in spite of them. If you ever see Mitski in concert—or Williams, or Bridgers, or Halsey—you’ll find girls dancing, laughing, crying tears of joy. If you ever watch a young witch blow out her candles after sending a plea to the universe, you’ll notice her shoulders relax immediately. I don’t know if I’ll continue with witchcraft or if I’ll ever be a musician, but I found what I was looking for in those nose-bleed concert seats: an outlet. I’m making angry art I can be joyful about.
By MJ Brown
Photo Illustration by Matthieu Bourel
Source Photograph of Model: Igor Ustynskyy/Getty Images