Periods of rock-music excesses eventually lead back to a garage-band sound, lighter on production and elaborate melodies, heavier on energy and dissonance. Arena rock bands of the early 70s brought about New York Punk. Frizzed-out hair bands of the interminable 80s brought about Seattle Grunge.
And now? This time, we are in the middle of a musical era characterized not by hard-cock, big-hair metal, but mountain-man-beard-wearing, faux-folk, beau-bro sensitivity. Even the stripped down, bluesy rock we’ve heard over the last decade (think Black Keys or The Dead Weather) has had a manicured, fitted-tee-shirt patina to its roots-rock image.
Enter Bully, a rock band from Nashville fronted by Alica Bognanno, providing a welcome antidote to what has become an increasingly plastic and antiseptic hipster-rock landscape. Their sound scours with a grit and energy, like 90s grunge, and Bognanno’s personal, intimate lyrics, are more than word candy to carry notes—they are grounding and relevant for today’s crisis of empathy, our cultural disconnect from reality.
Bully’s first album, Feels Like, dropped in 2015. The vulnerable lyrics mixed with guitar-heavy rock and pop-like hooks is clearly reminiscent of 90s grunge.
Just listen to the first 30 seconds of “Too Tough:”
If the salve for the 80s glam-rock was 90s grunge, the balm for skinny-jean, lumbersexual aughts and teens is this stuff that Bully brings. It’s a different kind of medicine, though, for a different kind of sickness. It’s not broken families, distant dads, and medicated moms taking central focus. Today’s targets are cultural iniquities such as sexual harassment, misogyny, and bigotry.
What the generation of 90s grunge and the generation of today have in common, though, is a theatrical entering into a society in which those in power seem horribly out of touch, where it seems like the world no longer has a place for them. (It’s happening now in the Age of DT, but see also: Nixon; see also: Reagan/Bush.)
The 90s musical response to this feeling of displacement, expressed mostly by bands fronted by man-boys, was one of apathetic resignation. It was “oh well, whatever, nevermind.” If Bully is any example of the response from this generation, it sounds much less resigned and, instead, empowered and hopeful. It’s more of a musical resistance. And it feels significant and appropriate for that resistance to be led by a woman.
One of my favorite songs from Bully’s latest album Losing, released by Sub Pop in October, is “Hate and Control.”
There’s a guitar bend in this song that reminds me of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box.” And there’s an anger in both these songs, as well. But instead of “Hey, Wait! I’ve got a new complaint / Forever in debt to your priceless advice” and “I’ve been locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks,” which is a spinning inward and forever forlorn, “Hate and Control” is a checking in with the outside world, a search for connection:
Hey, are you doin’ all right today?
I know everyone’s shaken up
Guess the power lies in hate
I don’t mind you for speakin’ up, I need your conversation
Ooh, I felt stuck underwater
I couldn’t find my breath
Have I lost my voice completely?
Was it ever really there?
What a way to just believe in empathy and care
Bognanno’s lyrics feel far more vulnerable and honest than Cobain’s surreal “Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet / Cut myself on angel hair and baby’s breath.”
The chorus of “Hate and Control” drives home the song’s message:
What is it about me
That makes you so uncomfortable?
Can we just exist without your hate and control?
It’s a fitting plea for this age of polarized digital friendships which are high on quantity, but low on quality and sometimes completely devoid of empathy, where fringe hate groups are rearing their ugly heads with alarming regularity.
I don’t know if Alicia Bognanno would like her band being compared to Nirvana, or her style compared to Kurt Cobain, but for me, the resemblance is there and it’s one of the things that draws me to the band in general and Bognanno in particular. She might be more appreciative of a comparison to Kim Deal or The Breeders. Or better yet, no comparison at all.
Another of my favorite songs is “Focused”
On this track, we get a heavy dose of Bognanno’s Cobain-like talent for screaming dissonantly while still sounding awesome doing it. The lyrics are reflective and personal, but again, unlike a 90s-grunge move toward apathy and fuck-it-all nihilism, we get a move toward transcendence and perseverance.
He was a deadbeat
I’m glad you got out, I’m glad that you moved on
And I still remember
What you went through when we were sixteen
You explained it to me then but
A few years later I felt what you mean
I am trying to stay focused
I am trying to stay focused
I feel this. I really do.
I am trying to stay focused, too. I am trying to knuckle down amidst daily distractions and disappointments and awful stories in the news. Music has always helped me deal with feelings of discontent, frustration, or isolation. It does this, somehow, by expressing those feelings. By naming them, calling them out. There’s something comforting in it. Something transcendent. I’ve found it especially healing when music screams at those feelings or throws its guitar at those feelings. It’s why I gravitated to grunge in my late teens.
It’s why Bully feels like home.
I saw Bully play live at Music Hall of Williamsburg last Monday night, and being there reminded me of being 17 again in Houston and going to see bands play at places like The Vatican and Fitzgerald’s. The crowd was energized, unlike the disaffected Brooklyn shoe-gaze I’m used to seeing. During the final few songs of Bully’s set, I even witnessed slam-dancing (safely, from my 40-something, age-appropriate vantage point in the balcony). I never really partook in slam-dancing, even when I was younger, but I felt like I understood it. To me, in it’s purest form, slam-dancing wasn’t about a masculine sort of violence or aggression (even though I think it sometimes took that form). I always felt like slam-dancing represented a kind of togetherness and intimacy. A willingness to be hurt for closeness and connection. To be up against another person and feel their sweat, smell their goddamned teen spirit. It was “here we are now, entertain us.”
Last Monday’s slam-dancing contingent at Bully had a bit of that feeling, only it was more like, “here we are now, let’s fucking beat this shit.”
I’ve been waiting for a music to make a counterstatement against the nasty weed of a culture that’s been sprouting up around us. I think Bully is a sign of better things to come. For music. For America.
Here are a few photos I took at the show in Williamsburg Monday night:
And here are much better photos taken by CoolDad Music, who was also at the show and gives a full review of it here.
I really enjoyed this review, but I would offer that Bully might be more of a refuge than a revolution. I think the narrative that used to exist… punk rock as a response to ’70s rock, grunge as a response to ’80s rock, etc… that narrative concluded at the turn of the century with media fragmentation brought on by the internet. There is no continuing narrative because concentrations of attention have been replaced with distribution of attention via social media, et al. The media landscape is now entirely different… Nirvana as a cultural touchstone could not exist today the way it did in 1991. So I totally agree that Bully is out there for those of us who see that society is losing its screws all around us, but they’re an island, same as everything else. Same as Nirvana would be if they came about in these times.
For what its worth, I think Nirvana’s impact is romanticized by most critics, anyhow. Something had to come after hair metal, & in large part it just incidentally happened to be grunge. Liking those bands didn’t necessarily indicate that you felt alienated from society, it was just the thing to like at the time. It actually became a part of fitting into society. A lot of those people were also listening to MC Hammer at the time. And Ralph Lauren was creating grungewear or whatever. It changed things on the surface, but it didn’t save culture. As much as anything it just created a runway for Creed.
So maybe we’re better off with media fragmentation, anyhow.
Great review, grunge has always been home to me, so I’m happy to see this new generation coming through. Check out Fangclub, grunge band from Dublin Ireland, debut album is massive