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Mitski, Phoebe Bridgers Represent 21st Century Women at ‘Turning the Tables Live’

[Billboard]

Carly Rae Jepsen, Mitski, Jamila Woods and Phoebe Bridgers discussed specificity in songwriting at the kickoff for NPR’s 200 Greatest Songs by 21st Century Women list.
NPR Music celebrated the launch of its 200 Greatest Songs by 21st Century Women list with an intimate performance and panel discussion with Carly Rae Jepsen, Mitski, Jamila Woods and Phoebe Bridgers at New York City’s Lincoln Center.

By Jillian Forstadt

The lineup on Wednesday evening (Aug. 1) served as a physical representation of the diverse list of performers found in the latest canon from NPR’s ongoing “Turning the Tables” project, which aims to make the popular music canon more inclusive.

The artists onstage at the Damrosch Park band shell spanned a variety of genres, from Woods’ poetic R&B lyrics to Mitski’s DIY rock melodies.

Jepsen, whose pop hits “Call Me Maybe” and “Run Away With Me” made the list at #21 and #161, respectively, said she grew up listening to folk musicians like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, and tries to combine the depth of their writing with the upbeat cheer of pop music.

Her most recent single, “Cut to the Feeling,” released in May of last year, was born out of that desire to express that joy.

“I can always tell in the sessions if something good is happening because while we’re in the middle of writing everyone’s dancing, and this was one of those sessions,” Jepsen said. “It was very joyful and the song is meant to be joyful. It was an explosion of happiness, or at least trying to urge your lover to go there with you.”

Despite the differences in their sound, the four songstresses all write with a clear specificity — a commonality that became apparent throughout the evening.

“It seems like specificity is very strangely relatable,” noted Bridgers, whose conversational ballad “Smoke Signals,” off her 2017 debut album Stranger in the Alps, ranked #190.

As “Turning the Tables” cofounder and NPR music critic Ann Powers, who served as moderator for the evening, pointed out, many of the songs on the list have political connotations, often unintentionally, as a result of the time period in which the songs were written. For many listeners, these songs speak to conversations about race and women’s power, according to Powers.

Mitski’s song “Your Best American Girl,” #16 on the list and #89 in Billboard’s canon of the greatest music videos of the 21st century, quickly became an anthem for those grappling with racial identity.

“If you write something that’s incredibly true to you, it will be true to someone else because you’re not special,” said the Japanese-American singer, whose new album Be the Cowboy drops on Aug. 17.

Woods, also a poet and an activist, more intentionally writes songs inspired by the lives of other black women and the Chicago community in which she was raised.

“I can represent my experience as a black woman, but through the specificity I can also represent something about what it means to be human as well,” the “Blk Girl Magic” singer said.

The Americana trio I’m With Her, composed of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, opened the night with a short performance of songs off their debut album, See You Around, released in February. Their song “I-89” made the list at #166.

The canon, released Monday, was voted on by a group of 70 women and non-binary music journalists. Each of the artists on the list debuted after Jan. 1, 2000.

The performance and discussion were part of Lincoln Center’s 48th annual Out of Doors festival, which runs from July 24 to Aug. 12.