Shilpa Ray's 𝑷𝒐𝒓𝒕𝒓𝒂𝒊𝒕 𝒐𝒇 𝒂 𝑳𝒂𝒅𝒚
Photo courtesy of Clandestine Label Services
It’s been five years since New York punk rock/art-pop songwriter Shilpa Ray released the album Door Girl to critical acclaim. As evidenced on Portrait of a Lady, Shilpa Ray hasn’t lost a step despite the half-decade hiatus.
Maybe hiatus isn’t the right word. It’s apparent that the bulk of the songs on Portrait must’ve been conceived during the thralls of the first-round of the Trump years and subsequent neoliberal hegemonic “usually-scheduled-programming-but-now-we-don’t-have-to-think-about-it” redemption arc of the Biden administration.
The ballardy-tone set by opener “Straight Man’s Dream” is immediately thwarted by the palpable intensity of second track “Manic Pixie Dream C*nt”, an early high-point of the record that lets listeners know that SHILPA RAY IS BACK, BABY!
Juxtaposition is something Ray understands, and it’s the pocket they thrive in. Where the opener ebbs, the second track flows into a hard-hitting punk number. Making the listener think for a moment they know what kind of record they’re in for, only to have expectations utterly subverted.
The third track, “Heteronormative Horsesh*t Blues” also slows into emotional balladry, only to be accentuated and upheaved by “Lawsuits and Suicide”. L&S has a distinct glamor courtesy of plucking synths. The sounds of glamorous synths and keyboards are all over this record.
The following “Cry For The Cameras” slows it down again to illuminate what is unspoken but expected of female performance artists in the current media landscape:
“Your story doesn't havе a chance to survive
And when you're done trending, how do you spend the rest of your life?
Break out those big tears,[...]
Network tears, my darling
Look straight at the lens and learn how to cry.” Ray croons over piano and orchestral accompaniment. These closing moments of “Cry For The Cameras'” tie-in to the cover-art which depicts Shilpa Ray smiling ear-to-ear while genuine tears are visible coming out of her eyes, then rolling down her cheek and neck. Further extrapolating on what it means to be feminine by contemporary standards, Ray is wearing an askew blonde Monroe-esque wig.
The proceeding “Bootlickers of the Patriarchy” is about women in positions of power who disingenuously engage in women’s rights issues while abetting patriarchal power structures.The second-half of the song picks up in tempo and intensity with undulating synths and a shouting Shilpa—driving the point home on an eighteen wheeler.
Things reach an apex on “Male Feminist”, with Ray needing to scream “SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP” on the chorus to better-illustrate her frustration. “The 21st century’s got a new punching bag—I’m alright with that” Ray candidly delivers to start the second verse. “Who buys this crap anyway?” Shilpa demands...before revealing “It’s you!” and diving into some of the nastiest electric-guitar work of 2022 to close the song.
“Same Sociopath” also contains the dazzling, glittering synths that are peppered nicely throughout the album.
“Charm School For Damaged Boys” is another high-point in its razor-sharp delivery and inclusion of a cowbell. Also doesn’t hurt to ask “a loser Proud Boy poser ‘How did you get to become this kind of tool?’”
According to a press release, the impetus for Portrait of a Lady stretches back to Ray’s experience with photos from Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”, a personal expose of the photographer’s time in the No Wave scene of New York in the late ‘70s. “It shook me to my core and made me reflect on my own experiences with sexual assault and abuse,” Ray says. She couldn’t shake the idea of a concept album—a full-throated rock album about being a survivor—but found herself hesitating until 2019, when she began to approach the concept in earnest. “I kept asking, ‘How do you do this?’ But Goldin’s work—as well as the writings of music journalist and musician Jes Skolnik—inspired Ray to throw herself into the difficult work. To match her personal and fearless lyrics, which range from darkly funny to harrowing, Ray and her co-producer/collaborator Jeff Berner gather a wide batch of sounds, from unhinged garage rock to soul ballads.
All of this begs the question: Who is Portrait of a Lady for?
Is this album for 2016 Ant-Choice Democratic Vice-Presidential pick Tim Kaine who voting for was morally preferable to a symbolic Green Party vote?
Is this album for Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who is actively campaigning for Anti-Choice Texas congressional candidate Henry Cuellar? Is this album for Henry Cuellar himself? Is this album for Justice Samuel Alito?
[...]No—it’s not. The aforementioned could care less about the work-a-day folks whose livelihood and stability could be upended by an unplanned pregnancy.
This album is for the rest of us. Those of us who might just need to move some energy around. Those of us who don’t know what we’re complicit in by toeing the party line each election cycle. As Ray proclaims on the album's eighth [and my favorite] song “Life’s no fun when you’re progressive and the system works in your favor.”
Remembering that Democrats control the Presidency, House, and Senate, a woman's right to choose could be codified with a stroke of a pen via executive order. The Democrats refuse to take such action simply because they don’t want to.
Call it a reheated culture war, or one that has been being silently waged for over the last fifty years, but don’t call it good. If you’re tired of having your bodily-autonomy treated as a bargaining chip, consider donating to state-based organizations that will have an immediate impact on people seeking necessary and safe abortions.