Author of influential and criticized text The Dialect of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, radical Canadian feminist Shulamith Firestone was a founding member of various prominent feminist groups, including New York Radical Women, Redstockings, and New York Radical Feminists. Perhaps moved by Firestone’s recent death in 2012, Channy Leaneagh has devoted her band Poliça’s second studio album, Shulamith, to conveying a message of feminism reminiscent of that of Firestone’s.
In the music video for Shulamith’s lead single, “Tiff” (feat. Justin Vernon), a tied-up Leaneagh is confronted by a second, vengeful, torturous Leaneagh. Between asphyxiating and pummeling her own alter-self, Leaneagh cruelly performs a slipshod waterboarding technique, while singing, “Make a pact with my secret son/ Have a bullet, he has the gun,” and “Compared to you, compared to me/ I’m a pawn in the hype machine/ You’re a pawn in the caring scheme.” Considering modern feminism and the obscene influence of image, advertisement, and consumerism in today’s America, it’s depressingly powerful to see Leaneagh’s hype-machine, publicity-drawn “pawn” torturously murdering Leaneagh’s caring-scheme, intellectually defiant “pawn” (perhaps her feminist pawn?). There’s an inherent yearning for power within Leaneagh, but this video seems to either confirm that she has given up part of her self necessity for it, or that she’s artistically or temporarily disabled of her down-to-earth self, her “caring” form. Does this reflect the band’s beliefs, too? Do Poliça believe evil triumphs over truth and warmheartedness? At least at this point in time, with this album and this specific song, Leaneagh seems to acquiesce.
Shulamith’s opening track, “Chain My Name”, aches similarly to “Tiff” in a defiant, yet less violent way. Probably the record’s most synth-bouncy, bass-strong track, “Chain My Name” has Leaneagh, between constant iterations of “chain my name,” singing “Hold my hair back, when you kiss my face/ When I lay my body down/ I erase your place.” This is the record’s “feminist setup,” alluding to later tracks involving romance, womanhood, and loneliness. In “Warrior Lord”‘s belittling line, “Watch him fight/ Carving words in walls/ Made like a warrior/ Stand so taller than me,” Leaneagh directly introduces her Firestone beliefs in correlation with womanhood and the societal impression that man is more successful, more hardy, “taller” than woman. The song’s music video answers this assumption with intense atmosphere, beautiful underwater color, and a romantic coalescence of two water-laden women. Poliça confirms woman’s ability to hold power and equality, while still remaining beautifully sleek and “gentle.”
Leaneagh’s lyrics shine with the band’s robust instrumentation in these tracks, as well as on “Very Cruel” and “Spilling Lines”. Almost all of the album’s other tracks (particularly “Smug”, “Torre”, and “Matty”) possess a calm fluidity. The exception is “I Need $”, where Leaneagh repeatedly confesses and admits “I need money” and “I don’t need a man.” These lines aren’t as compelling as others found earlier in the album. Closing track “So Leave” cleans up after its predecessor with a slow-burning “I don’t like when you tell the boys/ That I’m your girl” and “String me up like a lucky charm.” Leaneagh is obviously looking for more in a relationship.
Highlighting how tough the battle can be in the world of art and publicity, between integrity, advertisement, appropriation, dishonesty, and sexualization, Poliça aren’t afraid to take on big themes in Shulamith. The struggle of hype-machine pawn and caring-scheme pawn within Leaneagh shows up throughout the record, with the band succeeding in pushing beyond their previous record through the maturity of their sexy, electronic R&B sounds united with darker lyrics and political connotations. As Shulamith Firestone likely highlighted for Leaneagh, feminism can be vehemently expressed, but Poliça, through art and music, makes that expression charming and danceable.
Essential Tracks: “Chain My Name”, “Warrior Lord”, and “Tiff” (feat. Justin Vernon)