Bolshy, brazen and unapologetically sexual – in Oxford, the first group of people to spring to mind from this description is likely to be a post-crewdate rowing/rugby club tearing up the Bridge dancefloor. How about in music?
Discussions of the objectification and empowerment that coexist within women*’s expressions of sexuality in the music industry have proliferated in recent years, and platforms such as Cosmopolitan have increased popular awareness of sexual pleasure from a perspective not necessarily imbued with the male gaze. Although efforts are often made to make these discussions more inclusive, women*’s sexuality in mainstream music is still overwhelmingly filtered through a heteronormative lens. Increasingly, however, there are exceptions. Amongst many others, a standout is Marika Hackman’s third studio album, Any Human Friend.
Over the years, Hackman’s sound has metamorphosised – from ethereal folk on EPs Sugar Blind and That Iron Taste in 2013 to snarky, petulant grunge on 2017’s I’m Not Your Man. Her sound transforms again on 2019 album Any Human Friend, an indie-pop powerhouse which testifies to her determination to not to be contained or constrained. In the past, she has expressed frustration with her music being pigeonholed, but clearly does not shy away from calling a spade a spade herself. A brief glance at the track-list is enough to reveal one of the core themes of the album: sex. Specifically, queer sex.
Gritty, unapologetic and at times lyrically uncomfortable for the casual listener, Any Human Friend rides an emotional rollercoaster through the year after the end of a long-term relationship and the trysts, triumphs and trials that come with it. The album explores topics including detachment and commitment in sexual relationships (‘come undone’), frustration with feeling like someone’s experiment (‘conventional ride’), and masturbation (‘hand solo’). Aside from horny, there are songs for every term-time mood – from sardonic self-pity (‘send my love’) to watching your mates go off the rails on a night out (‘blow’) and desire to find genuine connection (‘any human friend’). Sound familiar?
Although the themes of the album feed into contemporary conversations on gender, equality and sexuality, this is accomplished in a way which is fundamentally personal and honest. Partly out of tongue-in-cheek intention, mostly as a side-effect of its subject matter, the record challenges stereotyping of women* as polite and accommodating and reclaims ideas often used to put them down. Merchandise for the album has included a t-shirt with fried eggs for boobs (catch me rocking this in the Rad Cam) and a pair of big ugly y-fronts with ‘Attention Whore’ stamped on the waistband (catch me rocking these if you’re lucky). Hackman is not afraid to bare her soul, and other parts too – the album cover, inspired by a photography series focusing on new mothers, features her in mock-maternity underwear and holding a piglet in lieu of a newborn. The photo is unedited and, in tune with the album, a refreshing expression of vulnerability, imperfection and all the blips and blemishes being human entails – take it or leave it. At its heart, that’s what Any Human Friend is about. In an interview with NME, Hackman says she wanted to create a space where people could see and embrace all the messy, unpleasant and confusing parts of themselves and not feel ashamed.
Sure, we’ve come a long way from the days when a young Mary Lambert was excited to hear Weezer’s Teenage Dirtbag on the radio, thinking it was a lesbian love song, but it’s still harder for queer people to find music which speaks to their everyday experience. Especially stuff which doesn’t feel gimmicky or superficial. Although increasing LGBTQ+ representation of all kinds in music should be welcomed, the emphasis on marketability and gaining “woke” points can leave many queer people feeling a little alienated by what is perceived as simply band-wagoning or pride-month-esque rainbow capitalism.
I was introduced to this album by one of my housemates when it was released in August; since over half us identified as LGBTQ+, its confessional refrains soon became part of the furniture. I remember a conversation about the lyrics of ‘all night’ with a different housemate, a queer person nearly a decade older than me. Almost bashful, she said she couldn’t remember ever hearing a song where a woman was so sexually explicit about other women. Hackman writes first and foremost from experience, rather than explicitly as activism, and perhaps it is precisely this – rather than straight artists’ support and queer cameos in music videos, however well-intentioned – which helps the LGBTQ+ community feel seen in popular music.
It may not have made it to the Brits or Grammys but, for me, this album deserves a special mention for its openness. In an ideal world it wouldn’t be something to remark on. However, in a society still dominated by heteronormativity, the simple act of honesty can have disproportionate consequences for those whose narratives are not always heard. Let’s hope Any Human Friend becomes one of many pieces of creative expression where openness on the part of all women* – including regarding sexuality – becomes unremarkable.