Sadie Dupuis Instills Catchy Pop With Sex-Positive Messages of Consent

Sadie Dupuis, "Slugger"

Sadie Dupuis, “Slugger.” Shervin Lainez

When I interviewed Sadie Dupuis, the themes of her new solo record Sad13 had reached a fever pitch level of relevance in music.

From Kesha to Heathcliff Berru, the failure of men in music to practice consent and general human decency around women spoke to problems that were far beyond those of simple party lines. Even in progressive spaces like schools, rampant, perverse misogyny is a serious problem.

Especially when we consider the recent president-elect and the kind of campaign he ran, it’s clearer still just how much of this country is ready to deny blatant consent violations if those violations don’t fit their narrative. As with most things, music might be the answer.

This week Dupuis releases Sluggerher solo debut as Sad13, on Carpark Records. An off-kilter, subversive pop counterpoint to the arty post-punk she makes as the leader of Speedy Ortiz, it’s a bold reclamation of personal identity for someone who got her start in home recording. Diving through the most genre-bending, tangential recesses of her mind, Dupuis produces something so catchy and relevant that it refuses to be ignored.

There are distorted guitars, but there are also squiggly synths, some rapping, and hooks galore. It’s in these bubblegum moments when the words sneak up on you, heady meditations on the cycles of abuse, media regurgitation and consent. Dupuis has crafted a piece of art here that invites you in and blindsides you, promoting inward introspection without preaching.

I recently spoke with Dupuis about Josie and The Pussycats, ‘Safe Space’ policies at venues, and William S. Burroughs’ “23 Enigma.” But we also talked about how people don’t always learn things that we think are ubiquitous, and how someone will always need to be educated on why something is a problem before the problem can be fixed. If this record sheds light on even the smallest amount of the toxic rhetoric we’ve been hearing dominate the press, it won’t be for naught.

If < 3 is the emoji symbol for a heart, what is < 2?

Well it started as a typo. I typed it to a friend intending to do a < 3 and I just thought it was hysterically funny. So I had the idea that I wanted to do a song with that title. I guess the more I thought about what I would say, it was sort of about how a singular person can contain lots of different identities that shouldn’t be viewed as conflicting.

There’s a lot of that in the video, too.

There are 12 of me in the video, I think. [Laughs]

You’re subverting the pop dynamic of the ‘80s in a lot of ways, right? When women were treated like shit, that whole Miami Vice era. But even in rock ’n’ roll music and old psychedelic music that was always the case. Even for the old masters like Cohen and Young, it was always really romantic to possess a woman in music. I don’t think it’s just exclusive to pop.

Totally.

So you’ve you’ve said that intimacy for you means getting on an intellectual level with someone. How does that work in our society today, when we don’t see the intimate dialogue and discussion that lead to sex? Isn’t that impulse something the climate of media wants and orchestrates, or feeds off of?

This is a Josie and the Pussycats level conspiracy theory. I actually did a song from that movie. Father Daughter Records did this compilation series where they had bands cover songs from fictional bands. It was fun. I don’t know that there’s necessarily a media conspiracy to prevent consent from being spotlighted, but I think what’s often being viewed as sexy or edgy, and not just in music, film or TV, often borders on the side of the sexually dangerous. The extreme end of that is sex without consent.

Sadie

Sadie. Shervin Lainez

How many times have you heard people boycott movies because of a rape scene? We really sort of glamorize the spectrum of sexuality that comes from people having an unspoken fling, or at the far end of it, these glamorized rape scenes. When we do see nice, positive, consensual sex, we don’t really see how two people can get to that point. Even shows that we consider progressive.

There’s a scene in Transparent this season where two characters are about to have sex and one person is asking for permission to do certain things. And the other character says, “Stop talking, you don’t have to ask me. Stop talking.” It was kind of disappointing. Here’s an opportunity to actually show that the dialogue up to affirmative consent is fun and part of the process. So I think maybe we just have bad habits and have been trained to tell stories in a certain way.

You’ve also said before that we never learned it. All these places were responsible for teaching it to us, but instead we were conditioned to act this other way because we were never taught it by our parents or teachers.

Less so now than when I was born in the late ‘80s, but it’s still very tight-lipped with talking to kids about consent, sexuality, really. I think less than half the states mandate sexual education whatsoever. Most of those don’t focus at all on how sex can be pleasurable. It’s really a glorified biology class. That’s not really why I wrote the songs, I just had the idea to write a song about consent that was fun and exciting and viewed in a positive light.

You’re talking about “Get a Yes,” yeah?

Yeah. What’s that stupid Jim Carrey movie, The Number 23? It’s that theory that when you’ve got a number on your mind, you see it all the time. I think it’s a William S. Boroughs thing. Every time I hear any songs about this or see any movies or TV I’m watching out to see, will they even broach affirmative consent? And I still don’t really see it.

Well 23 is a holy number in the I Ching.

Yeah, it’s also William Boroughs, I think, “The 23 Enigma.” Just the idea that now that I’ve written a song about affirmative consent, every time I see sexuality portrayed in pop culture, I’ve got it on my mind. When you have something on your mind you start to look for it.

But you never intended to make this about yourself, right? It’s about taking personal agency, but I get the sense you’re not trying to make yourself a poster child so much as saying, “I want you to start thinking in this way.” Outwardly focused energy, not inwardly focused, I guess.

I suppose that’s true, yeah.

“I don’t think pop music has to be frivolous. Often that assessment is based in misogyny…Pop music can say really important things.”

Where do safe spaces enter into this as far as venues are concerned? Can you tell me a bit about that number you set up, that hotline? Nobody’s ever done that before, how did it work out?

Yeah! We started this up because we had seen some things at festivals that were distressing to us, and we wanted to provide a way for people in the audience to get in touch with security via us, so that was sort of the impetus behind it. We still have the number up. I don’t know that we’ve gotten a tremendous amount of people buzzing us through it, but we did post safer space policies around this number so people know where to call and had an idea of how to be respectful to other people and showgoers.

And that’s just sort of listed from similar DIY venues that use a similar vernacular on what they will and won’t tolerate at their shows. It seems like some other bands have picked up the hotline since then. I know Modern Baseball has one. Some of the venues that saw us doing this are setting up their own numbers and have started posting safer space policies, which is cool.

I’ve definitely been at shows where you’ll be packed in really tight often with beautiful people. But there’s never been a boundary or breach in my mind that I’ve crossed. But when that Heathcliff Berru guy got caught harassing women last year, it really illuminated this dialog in the music industry, and we all had to turn inward a little bit. But it doesn’t seem like a gray area ever, and it shouldn’t be. Consent is consent. So I guess if people aren’t buzzing you every day but know it’s a resource, that’s still a good thing, right?

Yeah. I think the main idea was that there were certain guidelines we posted, and since posting them people have told me it never occurred to them to consider some things as unwanted behavior. For instance, touching someone as you walk by them in a crowd. I hate to specify genders on it because all people do this, but women are more likely to be on the receiving end of a touch when someone walks by them in a crowd—even if the person touching them thinks it’s innocuous.

People just seem to feel more entitled to touch women’s bodies, even when they would view it as a non-sexual point of contact. It’s really invasive, and it can take you out of the showgoing experience, especially if you’re already on your guard for behavior that might be more harmful. Because of how we socialize, I think people collectively view women’s bodies as more up for grabs, and not just men do this.

It’s a question of physicality, too, I guess. I get pushed around at shows a lot because I’m short. Not sexually harassed of course, but there’s a weird sense of Manifest Destiny that people take over space, over being up front. “I’m entitled to be there, I’m entitled to get close to you.”

Yeah, and that was part of our guidelines, too! It wasn’t just about unwanted sexual contact. Part of it was just about being mindful of the people surrounding you. I think we posted something like, “If you’re tall, look around you and see if there’s someone shorter who might benefit from you moving.”

Sadie

Sadie. Shervin Lainez

Right on!

The point of our safer space policy is just emphasizing thoughtfulness within the music community, because sometimes you get so absorbed in the experience you pay for that you might not understand you’re negatively impacting someone else’s experience they paid for.

I live down the street from Silent Barn in Bushwick, and it’s a community. People live there, you can get a haircut in the back. There’s a mutual accountability between the artists in residence and the promoters and the people who live there, an accountability toward keeping it a safe space, nonviolent, good vibes. No fighting, no bullshit.

Right. And not every place is going to be as good as Silent Barn.

Yeah, I know. But all-ages DIY communities remain the place where all of these progressive practices continue to thrive. Not a utopia so much as a place where there can be non-binary music, where an academic and a poet can co-mingle. Your father worked the sound at Max’s Kansas City, right? New York in the ‘60s was such a cross-section of different people with different economic identities and different social statuses. I feel like if we can get that back some way, in some perspective a lot of this violence and bullshit might come to the surface.

Silent Barn and the New York venues on the DIY side of the spectrum are often run by people who are political organizers and have a politically invested background where they care about inclusivity and they care about making a safe space. I think a lot of people drawn to those shows maybe already know about safer space politics.

This is more of a Speedy Ortiz question because that’s what the hotline was for, but I think the idea of us doing it is, yes, we play Silent Barn, but often we play huge festivals and large clubs in other countries who aren’t run by community organizers, aren’t small venues that have an actively stated stance against gentrification. People coming to those shows might never have been exposed to these kind of politics.

Certainly there are problems in Punk and DIY, but I think at least people in those circles are somewhat educated on the basic politics of being in an artistic community. Whereas the person who works a nine to five in an unrelated industry and just loves music and only goes to these big clubs might never have even heard of these politics. Part of why we wanted to start that hotline and post these policies were that those ideas could reach a wider audience.

‘I just love that idea of art always being in conversation with other art.’

Totally. We can pivot back to Sad13 with that, too, because part of the values existing outside of the DIY communities is a subversive move, too. To even get those gears turning for a wider audience. The idea of using something as a device to fuck with people, for lack of a better word, that’s really the gorgeousness of this record to me. It’s catchy as hell, you’re taking agency over yourself and your identity, self-recorded like you started making music, which is awesome. But you’re also talking about eating an asshole, you’re bro-ing down in a joking way.

[Laughs] To be fair, Jay-Z said that first. Not fully, but that line in “99 Problems”

I feel like that you’re reclaiming some of that bombast. Is that partly your intention?

Yeah, I think I was just having fun with it. I went to grad school for poetry, did an MFA for that, and feel like this is something in poetry—a poet should be in conversation with every other poet. I just love that idea of art always being in conversation with other art, and a lot of this record was putting myself in conversation with some very mainstream pop music.

So it’s obviously fun to say lines like that, but at the same time I don’t think I’m trying to fuck with people. Perhaps on some level it is subversive, but I think it’s more that I don’t think pop music has to be frivolous. Often that assessment of it is based in misogyny, because people have viewed women’s tastes as frivolous and often the people who love pop music are young girls.

Pop music can say really important things, certainly we’ve seen that in this past year alone. I guess it was more that these are the topics that are important to me.

Your band members have joked in an old interview that your lyrics are so wordy they might as well be hip-hop. So it seems like you took a lot of fringes that you found meaning in and went at interpreted them yourself on this one?

Yeah, I have a lot of fun with home recording, and when I was making these I really just thought they’d be demos. I didn’t intend to have this turn into a full record. When you don’t have that kind of pressure of paying for someone’s studio time, when you don’t have those people around you you have the opportunity to fuck up, experiment and see what happens. I wouldn’t say I’m rapping, but there’s parts on this where I’m basically rapping. Being able to do it all by myself and not having to run everything past anyone let me get to places that I wouldn’t get to if I was with three other people and two engineers in a recording studio.

When we reject the genre labels it almost becomes more about the ideas than the shape they take.

Well it’s like how everyone’s sick at dancing when they’re dancing in their bedroom, because no one’s watching you!

Singing in the shower, yeah!

It feels good, and this is basically my “dancing in the bedroom” record. I have really stupid dance moves, but nobody was watching me do it so I felt really cool. Now everyone has to watch me do it again.

Sadie Dupuis plays Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn on Tuesday, December 13 with Emily Reo and Told Slant

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