A year ago I heard a song called “Boys Will Be Boys” and I kept hearing it wherever I went: it inhabited me and I it. This line, in particular: You invaded her magnificence / put your hand over her mouth. A song that crucifies rape culture, a song that recognizes the talons of sexual violence and how they mark you, how unforgivable and immediate those markings are. Softly sung, slow and almost weightless until it’s not—the singer gives us pain in this song that is bottomless, but that still, somehow, she explicates in a few minutes. What can hold pain like that? Music can sometimes contain a sliver of its brutality and make it known, give it texture and tangibility. “Boys Will Be Boys” is angry and it is gorgeous. It seethes, it builds a throat from petals and thorns.
Stella Donnelly wrote and sung this song. An Australian singer-songwriter in her late twenties, she has a voice like pepper-dusted honey, stinging and insistent. “Boys Will Be Boys” is one of a handful of songs on her 2018 EP Thrush Metal. This year she released her debut album Beware of the Dogs, which, after listening to in full, I listened to again. And again.
In Donnelly’s music, tenderness is a needle—insistent, sharp-mouthed, a silver pinch under harsh white hospital light. Desire flexes its tangled muscles in quiet admissions of longing, nothing saccharine or cleanly romanticized. In the sore, gentle “Mosquitos,” Donnelly sings perhaps one of the most vulnerable lines I’ve ever encountered in a song: I use my vibrator wishing it was you. About this, she says, “This is probably the only love song I’ll ever write. I find myself having to say ‘Sorry, mum’ after singing it live sometimes. The vibrator line is the only way I could really express my love for someone. It had to be a little bit crass. It’s hard to find a way of speaking about love that isn’t too optimistic.”
She splays out masculinity like a taxidermied butterfly, pinning it down with a careful eye, reducing it to its strange patterns and recognizable structures, its ironies and affectations. In
“Old Man” she delivers a delicious, folksy skewering, her voice a dart sailing through a cranky bar stuffed with old white guys, hitting the mark again and again, precise, unforgiving: Boy if you touch her again / I’ll tell your wife and your kids about that time / Cause this is not ‘93 / You lost your spot on the team, you’re out of line.
Donnelly quietly, catchily dismantles male entitlement in witty and delicately sung lines, offering an unexpected anthem amidst the bloodstream of sexual harassment and violence surging through history, this particular song an ode to the #MeToo movement without whatsoever being reducible to a “political song.” It transcends its politics like feminism transcends politics; it’s freedom itself, whatever that looks like for you. Her feminism is more like her lifeblood, like the water submerging her every song, etched into the undercurrents of all of her music. She doesn’t have to actively court its emergence. It just is.
I’ve worked too hard for this chance / to not be biting the hand that feeds this hate
Your personality traits don’t count / if you put your dick in someone’s face.
Donnelly wields language, truly, rather than it wielding her. Listening to “Watching Telly,” one of my favorites on the album, for example:
Signs are telling me that I’m not right
I’m not worthy of the
Choice to make my own choices for my body
He was 27, I was 21
He liked Ernest Hemingway
I liked watching telly
God loves his children
But God loves men, Jesus Christ
Donnelly acknowledges the exhaustions of girlhood, womanhood, of being a person constantly, culturally belittled, underestimated, and undermined. Agency over one’s life and one’s self, especially, emerge in moments like these, moments tearing away the narrative from self-indulgent dudes croning away, however beautifully, about their hurt, their women, their disadvantages. Of course privilege does not negate suffering, but Donnelly rightly notes how the suffering of the privileged seems to overcrowd most of our mainstream art.
In such sparse lines she manages to pinpoint a specific species of pretension—the little ironies familiar to most of us, particularly young women dealing (in any circumstances) with straight dudes, tugged out in a handful of words. Her cleverness is so unique and so unforgettable you feel that you know her, could recognize her from anywhere, even if of course her music is not her. You think, for a moment, it could be. In “Allergies,” her run-of-the-mill breakup song, as she calls it, she bends her voice toward gentleness, a flexibility not so often encountered. In “Lunch” she stirs a wistfulness inflected with realism, a not-quite-mourning-not-quite-acceptance of her constant liminality, the excess of time she spends in between rather than here or there:
And I get homesick before I go away
You got lots of persuasions, and time to explain / but I’ve only got time for lunch.
Donnelly encapsulates the musician’s life, its solitary affairs with dislocation—disorienting, often melancholy, isolating—with that one line about lunch. At once you are subsumed by a particular kind of afternoon sunlight, the feeling of stepping out of a pool into a thin linen dress, body damp and hair knotty with chlorine but warm all over, warm in your every dripping limb. You dry quickly and your cheeks flush with sunburn but still, you want to stay outside.
What I adore most about Beware of the Dogs: Donnelly implores us to take women seriously. That listening, not merely hearing, spurs change, and women’s art is the lever we must pull to canonize, amplify, and actually universalize their voices. The notion that male-made art somehow possesses an inherent neutrality untouchable by women assumes that men are our default for humanity. Beware of the Dogs teases, it laughs at itself and yet it never laughs at the feelings of its singer. Or its listeners. It never questions the validity of those feelings, however fraught or manifold their textures may be. Listen to “Die,” a fan-favorite of the album, and swoon in its contradictions: an upbeat, ridiculously catchy, smart, vibrant eyebrow-raise against self-destruction. Seriously, Donnelly never compromises complexity or wittiness:
Safety is important, you can trust me baby / but you’re always driving all over the road and /
I don’t wanna die, I don’t wanna die / I don’t wanna die / I don’t wanna die
Donnelly wants to live, and the weight of her relationships, her beloved’s own anxieties and insecurities and manipulations, merit compassion, she seems to say, but she certainly won’t claim them as her own. She feels so much, she feels a whole nosedive of dissonance, and she’ll make damn brilliant music out of it, thank you very much.