Alexandra Savior’s Kind of Feminism
What does female empowerment sound like? Lily Ekimian argues that it can be heard in the music of Alexandra Savior.
Knowing what establishes art as feminist is a feeling more than anything. The line is very fine between exposing a trope and being that trope, just as it is between acknowledging gender and falling victim to it. With that in mind, there’s an honest feminism in Alexandra Savior’s music that is very refreshing. She does not sing as a woman who is marketing her gender or sexuality, though she does not pretend she is not a woman, either. She sings with a human vulnerability, addressing her longing and desires as a woman, as well as her insecurities as one. She does not fall in line with problematic gendered music because she acknowledges the trappings head-on.
Savior’s music reminds me of Věra Chytilová’s film Daisies (1966), a film one can only describe as a nightmare for the patriarchy – a feminist apocalypse by way of pure female empowerment and a total structural breakdown of society. The film’s characters appear so feminine that they defy their gender by pushing it to the extreme; in a way, this is what Alexandra Savior’s music is doing too. Aesthetically speaking, her music videos also seem reminiscent of the film.
She only has two albums to date – 2017’s Belladonna of Sadness and 2020’s The Archer – which makes following the 24-year-old artist’s career all the more exciting. Her first album was done in collaboration with Alex Turner, and his musical influence is felt – this is even how I found out about her in the first place, through Turner. It may sound counter-productive to have to speak about Savior in relation to a man, though their collaboration is important to note because I would say they are male and female musical counterparts. Turner’s style, especially since The Last Shadow Puppets’ 2016 Everything You’ve Come to Expect, has matured to a level of extreme confidence, in both his music and performance, and this style seems directly linked to a self-conscious masculinity. Turner’s performance in the music video for his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Is This What You Wanted?” is flamboyantly masculine, wearing a vest atop bare skin, paired with an ascot, sunglasses and tight, embroidered trousers; he embraces his gender nearly to the point of parody, which takes it to a level beyond simply being a joke. Savior does this with her femininity: she is so feminine that she becomes something beyond any expectations of gender (like the women from Daisies). The music video for “Howl” (off her latest album) is a great example of taking gender expectations to the extreme. If a woman is meant to be submissive to men – awaiting them with a languid disposition – then this video has flipped that notion on its head. Savior lays lifelessly on the floor, on a bed, on a couch (I am reminded of Ramón Casas' painting A Decadent Girl), on a table, on the stairs, on the dirt. She has stripped sex from these poses by making them uncomfortable to look at; it’s as if her message is a dare: I’m here for the taking, if you still want to take me like this.
“Mirage” is one of my favorite songs of hers. It features the singer deciding upon a stage name or alter-ego that will best suit her:
Violet was tickling my fancy
Gives out just the right amount of soul
I wonder if it makes me sound too old
Decided that a Stella or a Candy
Seems as if I’m spinning down a pole
Swept them over to the stack of no’s
“Anna-Marie Mirage” becomes her new persona, and the change the singer experiences as a result can be seen in the change of the chorus throughout its repetitions: “I sing songs about/Whatever the fuck they want;” “We sing songs about/Whatever the fuck they want;” “We sing songs about/Whatever the fuck she wants.” By the end of the song, her persona has more freedom than she does, much like the freedom one feels behind a mask, though, since the two never merge into one, our singer does not feel that empowerment on her own.
I’ve also become a fan of her more recent song “The Archer.” It’s a reflective love song that exposes her awareness of her own emotional weakness and insecurity, though it addresses this with the distance one has when examining the past:
You ate me right up
You spit me back out
You bit my head right off with your tiny little mouth
I licked the blood from your lips
Is her songwriting cliché? I’d argue that it dances right up to the line of becoming so, which is not at all a criticism – quite to the contrary; her music is rooted in clichés of femininity which is why she is able to critique and subvert it so well. Take “Crying All the Time,” for example. She sings: “He doesn't like it when I cry/And now he's gone, so I'm crying all the time.” The lyrics, and the title, are a joke with a subtle poignancy to them; she is acknowledging a female stereotype of sensitivity (“crying all the time”) and playing that role, while making an ironic protest by saying it is to spite her ex-lover – but at the end of the day, she is still crying. How does one reconcile feminist ideals with involuntary emotion? Savior seems to find that balance here playfully.
We need women like Alexandra Savior to become popular because women who pretend sexual self-exploitation is empowering harm the rest of us. You don’t need to be sexually conservative to be a feminist, just as feeling emotions that have been associated with femininity does not compromise your stance as a feminist. As 2020 has just begun, let’s hope that Savior offers us a pathway to a new type of sonic female empowerment. Her music, and the message carried within it, is definitely worth our attention. ▲
Lily Ekimian is an independent filmmaker from Washington, D.C., now based in Pittsburgh. You can follow along with the films that she and her partner, Ahmed, are working on via their social media @dogdoorfilms!