“I love Brooklyn so much,” Cassie Ramone gushes. “I've been living here for eight years and I really love it.”
A slight pause.
“But I think it's in a weird place right now. I think it's too self-aware.”
Though clearly describing her home city, to some, Ramone could just as easily be talking about herself. The changing of musical seasons in New York's most navel-gazey borough parallels her relationship with the independent music world. It's a love/hate affair that is perplexing and rife with giant, poison-tipped bear traps marked “GENDER.” It even abounds in her surname: a harmless, if not frivolous choice for an all girl garage-pop band has created a life all its own attached to the end of Cassie Grzymkowski's name.
“I'm actually kind of embarrassed by it now. I wish I could just get married and change my last name.”
She laughs, but a theme becomes apparent as we speak. Ramone is coy at best, painfully awkward a good deal of the time. Being interviewed is not a comfortable endeavor for her, and pride regularly makes way for self-deprecation. Naturally, I ask her about this.
“For a while I wasn't sure if I was extroverted or introverted, but now I think I'm definitely introverted. It's funny,” she continues without hesitation, “I'm really sensitive, and I get way more hurt by criticism than I should. But I also get weirded out by too many compliments.”
Maybe this is why she calls her songwriting a “catharsis.”
In a world that cringes at total feminine dominance while celebrating conventionally bland pseudo-mystique, Ramone resides somewhere between the Grass and the Coast. A reminder: no person, regardless of sex, can be easily defined. And a woman without definition is an enigma for those whose job it is to explain her role in contemporary culture. Which is why, in this case, a finger can be pointed directly at music journalists. Ah, the media. Always the easiest to flog. But in a world where the axe of the adolescent finger hovers above an open iTunes account and a Best New Music review, it's hard to overlook that Ramone has been constantly (and unfairly) critiqued for her less-than-feminine approach.
“I wouldn’t want to switch spots with any of my contemporaries,” she quickly interjects. “I just try to keep a positive spin on everything that has happened. Every musician that I really respect has either gotten terrible reviews or lived their whole career in obscurity.”
Still, it deserves mention that since Mauled By Tigers, the Vivian Girls' debut that launched Ramone and her counterparts to Internet fame, the response from critics has been largely negative. Despite a growing fanbase and a broadening of creative outlets, including her solo work and alongside Woods' bassist Kevin Morby in The Babies, it seems few want to give Ramone credit for being an instrumental driving force in the revitalized Brooklyn / New York rock scene.
“[The media] has given me a lot of shit the past two years and I really hope it stops soon, because it's very hurtful.” Ramone points out that the negativity doesn't stop at her own material, adding, “they even say mean stuff about me in other band's reviews which I don’t think is fair at all.”
Not only unfair, but costly. While the influence of critics on the listener may be limited, music directors at major brands are definitely paying attention. And since licensing and commercial opportunities are how many of today's musicians make the leap from obscurity to self-sufficiency, the financial ramifications can be pretty severe. Even within the Vivian Girls, who many could argue ushered in the garage/girl-pop revival‚ she's seen as the diminutive sidekick with vocal efforts that are lackadaisical at best. So much so that by the time The Babies self-titled LP came out, Pitchfork called Ramone's “fast-and-loose way with pitch a source of contention in the indie rock world.”
“I've thought about it a lot,” Ramone admitted. “When it comes to women in music, its kind of a Madonna/whore complex. As a male spectator you either want some sort of goddess or some sort of revolutionary, riot grrrl style… powerful, feminist. And I don't think I really fit into either of those, so maybe that's where some of the hatred comes from?”
This all raises a larger point: would a man's voice, especially one in a band that straddles the lines of punk be put to the same scrutiny? Contemporary comparisons would indicate men who molest pitch create less “contention”, so it must be misogyny! Maybe, but let's consider the first Ramone; Joey's voice was criticized much the same way. Still, we look back on him with rose-colored glasses. Not to mention, as a pop icon who's graced everything from movies to action figures.
So does she find it frustrating?
“To risk sounding ungrateful, Yes.”
For all of the talk of gender equality in music there remains a gap between what is accepted and what should be. Unlike musical tastes, which can be argued, this is not a matter of opinion. The continued altar we place the more sexually acceptable woman upon is one of society's greatest moral failures. But when the “socially conscious” independent community follows suit, we're all guilty.
Hypocrisy aside, why then does she remain one of the overlooked accomplished female musicians of the last half-decade? And will the new Babies record bring people around or simply raise more questions?
“I don’t know how to answer that without sounding like a cheese ball. I just hope my music makes people feel better knowing that somebody feels the same way as them.”
Devoid of cheese, her answer proves credence to an argument that her lasting legacy will simply be as a musician. A songwriter who successfully avoided the constraints of gender. A tortured soul whose connection with the listener is so intimate, it's nearly invisible on the surface level. And for those who refuse to see beyond the exterior, the introspection, pain and sacrifice is perceived as apathy.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. And in the end, for everything Cassie Ramone has—and could've—earned, her adopted last name may be her crowning achievement. Like the person and her songs, it's no longer a novelty. And it's certainly nothing to be embarrassed of.