Read Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath on Catcalling as Human Communication


Sylvan Esso, the electro-fuzzed joint project of formerly-indie-folk artists Amelia Meath and Nicholas Sanborn, put out a debut album last year that I loved quite a bit; as the live following they’ve gathered can attest to, there’s a heavy, easy abandon about Sylvan Esso that grounds their earnest and slightly gawky vibes. Now, Amelia Meath’s annotated the album for Genius, and her notes are wonderful—human, specific, and kind. On “Dreamy Bruises,” for example:

My original idea for the song was that it was going to be about a group of boys getting together to dance. Alone. Without girls. It’s not necessarily about a homo-erotic situation, but more about the energy of a bunch of young men loving each other… the idea of a secret all-boy dance party happening in the basement, almost like a rave. In my brain they’re all seventeen years old, getting together to dance in their socks.
The lyrics… then became an expression of those super lonely, suburban, “discovering-your-sexuality” parties that happen—the red Solo cup parties. You lie to your parents and say you’re going to Cindy’s house but instead you go to a party that a 21-year-old boy is throwing in his basement and you’re so excited. You don’t feel very comfortable in your clothes or your body. It’s about that dirty groove of teenage energy, a moment of beauty within all of the sadness of being a young person.

On “H.S.K.T.,” a note about what I assume is a near-universal human experience:

You know when you’re at a rager; you’re kind of drunk, and you go into the bathroom and shut the door. You’ve been yelling and talking to everyone for two hours then all of a sudden it’s quiet. There’s a sound seal that forms when you shut the bathroom door. You look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Oh! I’m alive!” You had sort of forgotten that.

The most interesting note is on the album’s opener, “Hey Mami,” which the band does live in the video at the top of the post. It’s a song about catcalling, half of which plays around with inhabiting (or mocking, or throwing back) the voice of a catcaller, which makes the track hit and mix many registers at once.

The opening refrain—Hey mami, I know what you want, mami—is grating and playful, a lamentative rejoinder, a meaningless bit of background noise. Then, halfway through, Meath switches voices and claps back languidly, in syllables that drop like pebbles—Sooner or later the dudes in bodegas will hold their lips and own their shit—and then moves back towards celebrating the act of catcalling, all the same: But our hero, she don’t know the gravity she holds/ As she pulls on the eyeballs of all the kids standing tall.

It’s interesting. Acknowledging that catcalling is a complicated intersection of power vectors that can recall or prompt or invoke actual violence, I also find it to be a deeply individual subject around which there’s less space for ease than there should be. It can be sort of feminist anathema to say that you don’t think catcalling is a big deal to you specifically—let alone to say that you sometimes enjoy it, if you do (which results in the type of dictatorial, insecure overcompensation exemplified by that last link).

The word also becomes a catchall for the expression of physical appreciation as being inherently negative rather than something that varies tremendously with subject, object and intention. I’ve had horrible catcallers that felt physically menacing; catcallers that, after I threw up a middle finger—my usual tactic—threw a Slurpee out of their truck at me and and yelled, “Bitch, you wish I would fuck you.” I’ve also had many catcall-adjacent situations that felt cute and funny and unremarkable, overall just fine.

Meath’s notes make the song hit all those registers better for me, both sonically and thematically. She talks about feeling threatened or honored, depending on the person trying to talk to her, what they want, the time of day. She writes about it so plainly that both of those reactions—threatened, honored—seem as personal and consequently noncontestable as they should always be. She writes, “At some point, these dudes will figure out a way of actually talking to a woman that doesn’t involve saying hey girl or fuck you.” But then, she adds:

Sometimes there would be a pack of old men outside of the building who would look at me and say “Ugh, bless you.” It would make me feel like a million dollars. I realized that I didn’t think that cat-calling was always a bad thing. It is really wonderful to be acknowledged as a beautiful being. I also like to acknowledge others as beautiful beings in public. It’s a kind of communication. People usually just like to decide that I’m saying cat-calling is wrong in this song. And in some places it is wrong, but I like to cat-call people, man. I like to whistle at dudes, or tell women they look lovely. Sometimes it’s nice, if you figure out a way of doing it well. I think we should be able to acknowledge each other in public spaces.

A peaceful meditation on catcalling—that most rare bird. For further zen, here’s “Coffee.”

Contact the author at [email protected].

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin