Flavorwire Interview: Dead Girlfriends on “On Fraternity,” Feminism, and Taking Inspiration From Taylor Swift

Stop Pretending, the new EP by James Brooks — the artist formerly known as Elite Gymnastics and now as Dead Girlfriends — has caused quite the controversy online since it was released earlier this week. Much of the controversy has centered on the song “On Fraternity,” which addresses rape culture. Flavorwire spoke to Brooks about the song, the debate that it’s catalyzed, and the “giant chrome echoing rage-chasm of the Internet.”


A lot of the discussion online about “On Fraternity” focused on the idea that the second-person verses were speaking “for” women or presuming to know the female experience. You wrote more on your Tumblr about this yesterday, but for the record: what was your intention with the song?

I feel like it’s pretty straightforward. It’s weird to verbalize what went into writing a song, because usually when I write a song it’s to try to express something that’s hard to verbalize. But the thing you wrote about how in general the lyrics on the EP as a whole don’t necessarily imply any specific… there’s a lot they leave to the imagination, they allow you to project a lot of different experiences about the things that they’re talking about onto them. “On Fraternity” is specifically supposed to leave it open to dealing with any kind of oppression. When I wrote [the song], I was attempting to focus on experiences that are common across the entire spectrum of oppression and how I feel about that as a white male.

Perhaps part of the problem people had with the song is that they wonder who the audience is. The fact that it’s in the second person suggests perhaps it was addressed to women, whereas I read it as addressed more to kinda frat bros, etc.

That’s kind of a weird question because I don’t know if I was necessarily thinking about what audience the song had when I made it — when I chose to end Elite Gymnastics and go full DIY for the next thing without a label or a publicist, I didn’t go into it with any illusions or expectations about having an audience at all. In terms of what actually inspired the song, a lot of it has to do with seeing some stuff Claire [Boucher, aka Grimes] went through in the music industry.

As in, some of the stuff you discussed in this long Tumblr post from a couple of weeks back?

Yeah. [The song] is not meant to specifically be about the music industry, but for me personally when I wrote, “This is why I wanted out,” it was sort of referring to not wanting to be part of that machinery based on how I’d seen it treat people close to me.

Right, that makes sense. “This is why I wanted out” seems like it could apply to any number of patriarchal institutions. Do you have any thoughts on why people have been so keen to impose these interpretations on it, then? And have had a problem with the song?

I dunno. My biggest influences are people like Xiu Xiu and Lil B, [and] even like, Taylor Swift and Joanna Newsom, people like that who have been huge influences on my songwriting are often seen as divisive within the sphere that I operate and within the sphere that many of these conversations are happening. I would posit that maybe part of the reason for the controversy around the song is that it was presented as “feminist” and that’s already a word that inspires explosive plumes of debate to rise up within the giant chrome echoing rage-chasm of the Internet. I wonder if the song would have gotten the same reaction if the project name hadn’t been “Dead Girlfriends” and the Tumblr post from a month ago (which for the record was just me spitballing and not intended to be an artist statement or press release) did not exist.

“The sphere that I operate [in]”: what sphere is that specifically?

I guess maybe the sphere could be defined as “people who read music websites.” “On Fraternity” starts with 20 seconds of noise and what comes after that isn’t necessarily super big tent or accessible or conventionally “good” sounding. I’m happy with it and proud of it but I can’t fault anyone for not being into it. Maybe a lot of people just didn’t like the song and got freaked out when they wondered if a shitty song was being given a push because of its politics.

In regards to “On Fraternity,” you said on your Tumblr as a response to this post, “I’m sort of starting to veer too closely to the zone of ‘stuff I am probably not willing to go into depth about in the context of a Tumblr debate post’, but women aren’t the only people in the world who get raped, you know.” You subsequently apologized. Why exactly did you write that? What were you getting at with that idea?

I guess maybe I can say that the experiences of sexual assault and feeling unsafe in public spaces are not necessarily exclusive to women and I wanted to speak to those experiences and not necessarily to any one specific group that they happen to. In the real world I feel like there’s a lot of backlash and misconceptions about feminism, period. The entire “men’s rights” movement on Reddit and elsewhere is predicated on the idea that feminism is about being pro woman at the expense of all others, that it’s about replacing one hierarchical power system with another. I believe that sexism hurts everybody, so when I was writing the song I wanted to take into consideration the fact that the person whose heart speeds up when they hear somebody walking behind them could be anybody, about how I don’t want to be complicit in creating a world where anyone has to feel that way.

That’s where the “women aren’t the only people who get raped” comment came from, the statement is factually correct but it’s really harshly worded and might have made some women feel like their rape experience had been trivialized, which is why I apologized for it. Especially on the Internet, debates about feminism often get really contentious and labyrinthine — for example in a lot of circles the phrase “feminism” by itself is often taken to basically mean “white feminism” because women of color don’t feel like their interests are being properly reflected by mainstream feminists. A lot of people find the word “patriarchy” inadequate to describe the nature of society because they feel oppressed on the basis of class or race or sexual orientation to the same extent that they feel oppressed because of their gender, and so they use the word “kyriarchy.”