By Hannah Wisterman
My whole life, I have been what I might call “spatially demanding.” I’ve always been a bad judge of when I’m standing too close to others; I’ve always been decently to significantly chubby; I’ve always been outgoing; I’ve always been loud. I’ve always been big, in about a thousand ways. But when you’re 15 years old and half your identity is about being into indie music (in 2013!), big isn’t really the image to go for. In 2013, I was listening to Purity Ring, Daughter and Lykke Li—all artists whose bodies were as small and delicate as their voices. Have you heard a female indie artist from 2010-2014? They sound shy and soft and skinny. And of course, when you’re 15, you want to emulate those you love. Ergo, I wanted to emulate this idea of being little and fragile and fairy-like.
Here’s the thing: that’s fundamentally not me. It can’t be, no matter how hard I try— and believe me, I’ve tried. Years later, I’ve lost none of my bigness. The number on the scale is higher than it ever was in high school and I still get “be quiet” gestures from professors and loved ones. But I have a weapon now that I lacked in high school: big, loud women in music. Cutesy, coy skinny girls are still in vogue (and in Vogue), but so are women with volume and oomph. Alabama Shakes became indie darlings a few years ago, making big, timbrous lady voices cool. Lizzo, in all her social media dominance, makes it sexy to be voluptuous and funny. Adele and Missy Elliot, in dramatically different ways, give audiences a “real woman” image with their straightforward and relatable messages, huge presences and most visibly, full figures.
While they’re great role models and public figures, these women aren’t my go-to. The loud lady itches I get are specific, and need particular people to scratch them. I want a singer in whom I can see myself: a spatially demanding woman. Needy, vocal, pretty-but-not-pretty. Culturally, we look to others to confirm what’s OK, so when I see and hear women like that, I feel normal. These are the women that give me permission to be big.
Kristina Esfandiari has a voice like I’ve never heard. In the first song of theirs I listened to, “Burn,” her vocals were almost more of a feeling than a sound: a deep rumbling in my chest and the back of my head. Her voice is low (low low), weathered, and full of space, in a way. Her voice feels both subterranean and atmospheric, and it fits snugly among sludgy guitar and bass. It’s not just her voice. King Woman’s lyrics are largely about undoing and being undone; yelling “I wanna be adored” (from the song of the same name) along with Esfandiari in the car is so affirming. With those in mind, it’s no surprise that when she sings, her whole face sings with her–even her body. Her mouth opens wide, her hands shake, she kneels; she expands and explores the space she’s given. Her existence and manifestation is unapologetic.
Nothing like a loud folk lady to remind you what women are allowed to be. LeBlanc practically yells the first lines of her most popular track, “Aujourd’hui ma vie c’est d’la marde,” and when you see her sing, you can tell. Her mouth moves in every which way; her eyebrows arch. When you think of a big voice, you think of something like LeBlanc’s, a loud-as-hell midtone. She plays banjo and the triangle and can kill an “Ace of Spades” cover; she’s got fluffy hair and true candor in her songwriting. She’s self-identified as “trash folk,” and something about the slightly off-kilter, chirpy, jangly sound of her music makes it feel the comfiest, most fun Dumpster a girl can find.
Emma Ruth Rundle
Listen, my love for Emma Ruth Rundle is undying, and it’s because of her bigness. She’s pretty tiny physically, but her voice is as big as any room it fills. I listened to it nonstop while on flights last summer, and her voice is now tied to huge expanses of hills and oceans, which is so appropriate. It sometimes sounds like it’s being ripped from her body–it almost leaves her out of breath. If it’s not a wheeling howl, it sparks out from between her teeth. And her stare! Her whole face knits up, and you swear she could set something on fire with her eyes. Her lyrical themes are existential and emotionally turbulent, not a shred of cutesy or delicate to be found.
We all feel marginalized in different ways. Maybe you feel like you take up too much space, like me. Maybe it’s your race, or your sexuality, your style, your X Y Z, your whatever. When you doubt yourself, the easiest place to find certainty is in others. For me, seeing spatially demanding women who rule and rule hard makes me feel safe in my identity. I hope you can find your own.
Featured photo by Paul Hudson via Flickr.