Video premiere and interview: The Awful Purdies, ‘45’

Katie Roche listening to the track while recording “45” at Rescued Rabbit.–Jason Smith/Little Village

Because “45” has a simple, catchy melody, its easy to overlook the levels of depth that make it great. The melody is accompanied by a complex arrangement of acoustic elements, one of the hallmarks of the Awful Purdies’ sound. It unfolds into Katie Roche’s vocals and includes textured and layered harmonies that echo and support them. The strum of the guitar gives a sense of rhythm, itself supported by the soaring pluck of the banjo and the deep, swooping melancholy of the cello. Added to the hummable melody, the complex tonal textures would make this song the best moment in a waiting room or lobby — it sounds pleasant — until one notices the lyrics.

The words are verbatim comments from Donald Trump based on a transcription from a recording taken before his 2005 appearance on Days of Our Lives. The grotesque misogyny of the sentiment creates a tension with the beauty of the song: It is uncomfortable. Unsettling.

“45” is a step forward for the band. The Purdies’ work consistently offers uplifting sentiments that recognize the reality of struggle, affirming the beauty of life while responsibly and joyfully recognizing the difficulty of doing so. There’s nothing cloying or saccharin about the band’s invariably authentic and grounded work. What they accomplish in “45” — recontextualizing Trump’s comments as a sorrowful and joyful anthem — uses the talents the Purdies have honed at a new level.

The words are horrifying, the sounds are lovely, and one cannot unpeel the one from the other. You process a range of emotions: anger, humor, disgust, shame, horror. In the end, hopefully, you end up where Awful Purdies guide you: a place where strength and beauty can co-exist with, and perhaps triumph over, the cruelty of misogyny.

Katie Senn playing cello during the recording of “45”–Jason Smith/Little Village

In this way, “45” offers something unique — a model for resistance based in collaborative and creative harmonies. I never would have thought that I would have phrases like “phony tits” or “moved on her like a bitch” replaying in my head. It’s not a way of speaking that I favor. But their arrangement re-situates these sentiments, and as the earworm burrows deep, the staying power gives me, a man, an opportunity to appreciate the experience of how women have described the effect of those words.

I experience the continual echoes of casual violence in “grab ’em by the pussy,” and the entitlement, the ugliness, the brute squalor contained in “I did try to fuck her.” I do not feel targeted by these words, but still feel a sense of degradation. Simultaneously, the added joy and rapture that the band’s voices contribute as they merge and weave together makes something new occur. It neither erases nor covers over what is ugly: The song exposes it. Beauty blossoms through it and despite it. Just as graffiti can add brilliance to abandoned spaces or plants can bloom in concrete desolation, so also does the Awful Purdies’ “45” herald beauty’s persistence even in the unwelcoming terms of the President’s language.

Awful Purdies is a musical collective of individual talents that seems uniquely capable of framing each member’s excellence. I became a fan of the Awful Purdies when I first heard them play. I’d rarely seen such a collaborative group of multitalented persons function so seamlessly. Lyrically, they earn their positivity so that it never feels cliche. Musically, the band includes an eclectic combination of instruments that blend harmoniously. Vocally, the band members take turns as lead singer and chief songwriter. Their banter and stage presence communicate the deep respect and honest affinity that each member has for every other. I don’t know of another band that so effectively deploys each member’s range of talents with honest gratitude and support.

Like their textured songs, each Purdies’ performance that I’ve seen contains layers. The warm wit of their conversations onstage is as excellent as their songcraft. Their live performances, at least as much as their recordings, construct spaces where men can hear women’s experiences depicted in universal ways. Awful Purdies songs have never been partisan. They write songs that one could interpret as political because the band is unabashed about a desire for justice and a conviction that women are humans who have a rich and rewarding inner experience. It’s political only for those who prefer power to humanity. And this makes the band the perfect candidate to take on “45.”

Donald Trump speaking at a presidential rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 21, 2017–Jason Smith/Little Village

On Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, Donald Trump, a former New York television personality interested in properties, was declared President of the United States of America. This declaration was despite losing the popular vote, and also without regard to an alleged pattern of problematic racist and misogynist behaviors. Since his inauguration as the 45th President, Trump and his administration have been riddled with accusations of corruption.

The release of “45” just prior to the 2018 midterm elections is more positive than a simple protest: The Purdies remind listeners that a candidate’s character counts for more than the soundbites regarding issues. If the character is cruel, then cruel conduct will follow. They demonstrate how beauty is always a choice; therefore, each voter has a chance to contribute toward what is beautiful even in a context dominated by brute practicalities of dollars and sense.

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I was introduced to “45” on a warm July evening. Roche had spoken of the song earlier in the evening, and hearing it — even in its skeletal form — was eerie. The power of its beauty and the potent ugliness of the words contrasted, even then. As we talked about ways to help her vision for “45” become realized, we both agreed that videographer Jason Smith would be pivotal in allowing “45” to attest to the enduring importance of character and creativity in a world dominated by the values of misogyny and hatred. Jason and I had gone back and forth for a year about ways that we could potentially work together in terms of interviewing artists, and the way that Katie spoke about “45” made it seem like an auspicious beginning.

The music video, which features selfies taken by women, is an unselfish expression that invited the world to collaborate with the Purdies on the project. Each of the facial expressions worn by the various persons who identify as women — whether heartbroken or proud — is correct. As these photographs, intimate and personal, weave through the song, what strikes me is the unafraid sense of vulnerability that accumulates in defiance of the President’s dehumanizing rhetoric. The agency and autonomy depicted is simultaneously fierce and fragile, a mirror of an honest kind of personal power that persists beyond the policing and controls of the logic of misogyny.

I was raised in a home where Rush Limbaugh was played, talking about feminazis who wanted to destroy America. The Purdies are perhaps “worse” than the strident caricature of the man-hating lesbian summoned by conservative talk radio in that they’re a group of smart, hilarious, goofy, talented, generous women who are open to collaborating with men. Not only did I feel invited to collaborate with the band as an equal, but I saw the same spirit as they worked with Ben Schmidt of Rescued Rabbit Studio to record the song and with Jason Smith in the filming, editing and brainstorming throughout. Despite my lack of musical talent, the Purdies let me experience how it is to be part of the band. My opinions mattered: I was heard, I could ask, I could contribute, the labor was shared. There was never really a worry about who did more, or who could take credit — just a common vision toward which I was invited to work.

I will always admire the subtleties of the Purdies’ worldview, which lets me briefly occupy the universal human experience through the frame of being a woman. In “45,” this work takes on a different tone in the triumphant transformation of the last line: “you can do anything.” Rather than an expression of entitlement, the Purdies offer listeners an experience of empowerment. Having worked on this project, I feel the truth of the statement as a potent alternative to its narrow, selfish origin.

Throughout the last two years, when confronted by the ugliness of ways that men behave through the lens of #metoo and #whyididntreport, not to mention the continual insults that the President offers to women (like “horseface”), I’ve been frustrated about what I can do to support the women I admire and respect and to disrupt the logic of misogyny that seems all-pervasive. My choice to work with the Purdies, and their willingness to respect my talents, showed me one path forward. More than that, the experience has been a beautiful reflection of a world governed by equality, respect, consent and collaboration that I hope will become the foundation of our society someday soon.

Awful Purdies promo photo for “45”–Katie Roche/Awful Purdies