The phrase ‘representation matters’ has gained popularity of late, a rallying cry that accompanies demands that Hollywood diversify casting. Though the symptoms are different, an issue of representation persists today in the music industry as well. The ratio of white executives to executives of color at the most powerful companies is troublingly high, but even setting that aside, the bands given the biggest and best opportunities are also overwhelmingly white. And what’s more, representation among fellow fans can be just as important as any of the above—after all, the fans don’t commiserate with the band itself or the executive who greenlit the project upon the release of a new album or at a live concert. Instead, fans are a community of their own, and the sense of belonging can be just as significant as elsewhere.
What must it be like, then, when someone feels out of place among an audience brought together by love for the same music? Bartees Strange is a lifelong fan of indie rock mainstay The National, but noticed that he was one of very few Black folks in attendance at one of the band’s concerts in DC in 2019. Providing more disappointment than shock, Strange set out to make his own mark on the indie rock scene—specifically by re-imagining songs by The National.
Bartees Strange was born in England and, due to his father’s military service, moved around Europe throughout his childhood until his family settled in Oklahoma. Since then, Strange has moved to Brooklyn, then Washington, DC, where he currently resides.
Though Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy is labeled as Strange’s debut EP, he began recording music years prior. A digital trail leads to his old band, Bartees & the Strange Fruit, whose 2017 folk-driven record, Magic Boy, feels like a great distance from the sounds on Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy; instrumentation aside, his dramatic vocal performances are clearly rooted in existential angst.
The new record creates alternative context for five covers, which in turn creates space specifically for three of his original songs. Some of the covers are unrecognizable in sound and intent, a phenomenon that is not accidental. The National has self-awareness, and some of their work contains an ironic arrogance that simply does not exist when coming from Strange.
Pulled from their classic 2005 album Alligator, “Mr. November” was written about the anxiety of running for president. “I’m the great white hope,” Matt Berninger strains on the original, amid crashing drums and a warbling guitar. When Bartees Strange sings that line, he scurries through it, uninterested in the literal politics of it, more focused on each crisp note and the promise to not “fuck us over.”
Strange subverts “All the Wine” in a similar way. “I’m a perfect piece of ass,” he sings, parroting lyrics about being a “birthday candle” among a group of black girls; where Berninger speaks on privilege, Strange is simply leading an empowered life. His most powerful moments come with his original tracks toward the end of the EP, which, for the record, was indeed named after a lyric on The National’s “Murder Me Rachael.” The redirected energy across the covers leads seamlessly to “Going Going,” which had appeared in another form on Magic Boy by Bartees & the Strange Fruit. Then “HAGS” and “Far” take the record through to its end, punctuated by wailing exclamations at heavy moments.
The art for Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy is a simple piece that reflects why Strange chose to record and release it. As he explains in the description on Bandcamp, the Pan African tri-color pattern and a central black dot alone speak volumes about his identity; then consider how small the colors are and why the edges of the dot are peeled back. In an industry that has all but deliberately stolen from and disenfranchised musicians of color, Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy is Bartees Strange’s way of entering the conversation and making way for more artists that look like him.
by: Zoë Elaine