Hitting Home Run Feminist PopOn "Slugger," Sadie Dupuis Infuses Pop With a Poetic Punk Ethos

Speedy Ortiz vocalist Sadie Dupuis is striking out on her own with a new solo album, Slugger. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

On a Sunday this fall, I sat at a crowded cafe in Manhattan with Sadie Dupuis, lead vocalist in Speedy Ortiz and mastermind behind brand-new indie pop outfit Sad13. We started off talking about the quality of vegan cream cheese available at the cafe (exceptional) and the common experience of reading Judith Butler as a student at Barnard, her alma mater: “In order to understand it, I’ll read around 20 pages and then I’ll have to binge-eat chips all day.”

Starting out in undergrad studying poetry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and subsequently Barnard, Dupuis knows the power of meticulously crafted phrasing and diction. After a handful of various musical side projects and bands, Dupuis released her first record with Speedy Ortiz in 2011. Soon, Speedy Ortiz started getting so many gigs that she quit her job. “These opportunities felt silly to miss out on, so I quit my job,” she said, when we talked last month. “Now my job is just playing music, and that’s kind of surreal.” After accumulating a large fan base and receiving critical acclaim, Dupuis started recording bedroom pop–influenced solo tracks under the moniker Sad13. Juxtaposed with a pop-influenced sense of sophistication, Sad13’s debut album, Slugger, out on Carpark Records November 11, tackles complex themes like consent through songs like “Get a Yes” (“I say yes for your touch when I need your touch/ I say yes if I want to”).  Drawing inspiration from ‘90s “girl groups,” animated television, and DIY indie sensibilities, Dupuis, and her work as Sad13, highlights the unlimited possibilities of pop.

EMMAY MAY: How has your background in poetry affected your songwriting?

SADIE DUPUIS: It means I’m not satisfied with words very quickly. Having that academic background in poetry sometimes results in me obfuscating what I mean because I think it’s too simple or boring of a way to say something. That paranoia of the sentence, and of not being interesting enough, is something you shouldn’t [have] in pop music. I love singing along; they’re just catchy and fun.
 

What prompted you to work on Slugger, which is mostly a pop-influenced album, kind of on a different path from your past musical projects?

I’ve always enjoyed pop music growing up. I grew up in New York City, and I still have [radio station] Z100’s number memorized from calling in all the time. I really gravitated towards a lot of radio pop. My parents were involved in the punk scenes in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but I wasn’t interested in rock stuff. I really liked pop. I haven’t really made super poppy stuff before, so it was fun to do some of the songs that wouldn’t really have been appropriate for Speedy Ortiz.

What influenced the album?

I had been watching Jessica Jones. On the album, there is a song that directly refers to the show called “Krampus (In Love).” I am really into Charli XCX and a lot of the artists on Neon Gold, like Tove Lo. Charli is a really good songwriter, and she does things that I borrowed a little bit from. I had been on tour for almost a year and had been out with friends like Downtown Boys. I just love how overt their politicism is in their lyrics. While I feel that the Speedy songs are very political to me, it’s not always super obvious what they’re about. I felt like doing a pop album, I could do things that were more explicit to my politics.

I’m interested in pop music and accessibility. What does pop music mean to you, and what does your ideal pop music look like, and why do you think that pop music is a powerful form?

A lot of what gets through in pop music is the melodies. They are so brilliant, and that’s why a lot of the songs in the Top 40 will have 12 writers on them. I’m interested in cramming as many hooks [in] as possible. When you’re doing it on the guitar and in a rock band and with dissonance, it doesn’t always translate.

I grew up loving Destiny’s Child and TLC. I really liked girl groups, vocal three-part harmonies; I love that stuff. That was one arena in which my parents and I saw eye to eye. My mom got me a TLC CD, my dad liked Motown. I still listen to pop music, and I feel like it’s become weirder that it used to be. Like Lorde. The production on those songs is so strange. FKA Twigs is so popular, and her songs are so strange—she’s an artistic genius on all fronts. And I feel like we elevate those types more than we used to. There’s less of a tendency to see a manufactured group like ‘N Sync and more a tendency to see artists who grew up on pop and are messing with it from the inside.

Photo by Shervin Lainez. 

How do you envision inclusivity and accessibility within music? You started the help hotline, a phone number that concertgoers can call at Speedy Ortiz shows that aims to address harassment and serves as a vehicle for individuals to “speak up and speak out.” Do you hope to further that in your side project?

We still have that up and operating. That sort of has furthered itself in a way because other bands have picked up on it, like Modern Baseball, notably. I think it's about awareness and kindness for the people who are supporting you. I think people are less tolerant of uncaring artists than they used to be.

Yeah, I feel like that’s the next step when people talk about physical accessibility—like mosh pits and feeling like you can’t participate.

I despise when artists force participation, when they think that everyone will experience the show in an identical way.

There’s this confrontational aspect to what I would call old-guard punk. It might be expected that a singer might come out and spit on the audience…Even in some less punk dancier projects, people are still touching the audience, and I think it’s a question of consent. Like, you wouldn’t want someone coming on stage and touching you while you're performing. Consent to touch should work both ways.

I really like “Get a Yes” because it does a really good job of translating a complicated issue in a fun and catchy and more accessible way. What do consent and companionship and intimacy mean to you?

In writing that song, I felt embarrassed by the simplicity of some of the things I was saying. I felt uncomfortable with some of the lyrics, but that’s kind of what conversations about consent are like. You just put forward what you want, what you’re comfortable with. It’s a conversation that should be a fun negotiation, and if there's awkwardness, it’s leading towards something great. It felt good to keep it in this awkward playful space. It is what I feel like a lot of conversations are like with a new partner. I felt awkward putting it out as a first song, but I felt like this song is important. You’ll hear songs about consent and sexual assault that are responding to violence or to the negative things that are so laden in the fucked up way that America deals with sexual education, and I wanted to make something that was fun.

I can't think of a song that deals with that.

I've definitely written songs about when consent is ignored or bypassed, usually coming from a place of hurt and anger. I think the way to heal from that is to put more songs out there that are expressing sexuality and sexual education in a positive way. We’re so behind other countries in the way we deal with sex education. I think, like, 24 states require sex education, and courses that even discuss pleasure [are] something like under a quarter of them. Predominantly, it’s a glorified biology: They discuss what's happening in your body, but not how to make you feel good or have the conversations with someone else that can make you feel good. And that’s why so many people who are becoming sexually active for the first time don’t have positive or good feelings.

A lot of the songs I grew up caring about–I keep citing Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle.” It's amazing, but a lot of the song is about the division between her body and her mind...It's like a fucked up plot to that song that stops me from getting as behind it as I should be. All these earworm songs that showcase amazing singers and amazing arrangements shouldn’t have to make me feel shitty. Maybe that’s why we need pop music.

We need radical pop music. It is really important. I feel like it hasn't been explored before, and that’s why I love this album so much.

This interview is so sad...

I know, it’s because I’ve been watching so much Bojack Horseman.

I love Bojack Horseman. That was definitely a show that I binge-watched in the spring. It’s really sad; I really cried a lot. I love cartoons and have always been a big fan. Like, when I was younger, I wanted to make good comics. I'm a big fan of cartoons, and in the same way that we’re talking about [pop songs] getting weirder, it's like cartoons, or at least ones that are delivered—like Adventure Time for example—things that are shown en masse to large swaths of the population are getting weirder. Adventure Time is a kids’ show, and it showcases potential queer relationships and family.

We’re not going to regress. In high school, I tried to start a GSA, and we got called into the principal’s office and told it wasn’t appropriate. A lot of my friends were rampantly homophobic, and I wasn’t really out. My high school was also overwhelmingly white, to the point that it was, like, weird that I was half Jewish.

I love TV, but I didn't watch TV growing up because it was whitewashed and heteronormative. Nowadays, I think kids have no tolerance for that shit. They've found everything online and [are] learning things in a political sense, whether it's from Tumblr. I just feel like there's not a way for us to regress because some of the most politically engaged voices in the conversation are young people, and they're not going to forget that we’re making strides toward wider representation in mainstream media. And when those kids are, like, magazine editors or TV producers, they’re not going to.

But maybe I'm too optimistic, but maybe...not only are we able to have conversations about privilege that we couldn't have before—there are many people who talk about privilege in a way that's phony—but I think there are also people who know what they’ve been given and work actively to redistribute those resources. That feels different to me. It feels like more people are concerned with giving more voices more power than previously.

How have your identities affected your art-making process?

I’m not a story-based writer, and that was why I was terrible in all my fiction classes. I can only write from my own emotions. Sometimes I’m writing from the experience of my emotions from 15 years ago. I might be fictionalizing the emotions I’ve felt, but they come from something real. It’s hard to escape your own identity doing that. So much of the pop music I grew up on is romantic and oriented in things that are about love and socializing and human connection. You kind of have to bring your own experience to that, and I’ve always written from a perspective I view as gender neutral.

A lot of these songs on Slugger don’t have pronouns.

A lot of the music I grew up loving I now view as misogynistic. I don't want someone to be excluded from connecting with a song because the gender they identify as might be the person maligned in the song. I think it's totally healthy and normal to feel angry in love, but I feel like sometimes people have been excluded from music because too overwhelmingly the narrator is a man and the person on the receiving end of their anger is a woman. Gender is fluid, and I don't always feel like a super femme woman; that’s part of why I’ve always tried to write from a gender-neutral perspective. Sometimes there are pronouns, but If I can avoid them, I do.
 
I identify as demisexual, so a lot of the time, I feel like my perspective of writing about sexuality is a perspective of trying to understand it anthropologically.
 

Do you feel more visible in terms of your identities, and how so? In a good way or a bad way?

I’m not that secretive or private, and I think I’m pretty open about what my life looks like. We see a lot of musicians who are like that because of social media. I think that most people's identities are more transparent than they used to be. We’re less interested in the mystique of a rock musician than we used to be.

Do you ever find that taxing, specifically the emotional labor?

I always sell merch because I want to meet people who come to the show. It's nice to know who's there, but there have been times when I’ve felt disrespected, when I’ve felt exhausted...I’ve definitely come up against that wall.

I think it's important to work...if I'm on the clock and I feel horrible, I still feel like I'm on the clock because of the things that I value and stand for. It’s part of my job to be available. Some people aren't good with touch boundaries, and I try to be calm and instructional in a way that avoids the situation escalating. I meet younger women who are 17 and they tell me, “I didn't think I could be in a band.” I've gotten letters before at shows. Representation is so important. [I] never met any musicians who were women when I was in high school; I only met bros. Even though I had records that I loved, I never got to meet these musicians.

by Emma May
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Emma May is a former Bitch intern and junior at Barnard College studying Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies. They like pop punk, zines and comics.

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