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Reclaiming Hysteria

Written by on February 20, 2020

Alexandra Savior @ Pico Union Theatre 2/15/20

Through her performance, Alexandra Savior eloquently details her grief and tragedy with a twist, allowing women to take back the word “hysteria.”

On February 15th, I journeyed to The Pico Union Project- an intimate, church venue in Los Angeles- to hear Savior’s new album, The Archer. The crowd cheered with honest excitement as Savior stepped up to the stage. She wore a dark blue dress that cascaded to the floor and doll-face makeup. A coy smile crept shyly onto her face as she looked back at us. The band immediately jumped into the set and swept the crowd up in her narrative and melancholy.

There is certainly a bitterness felt by women towards the portrayal of female emotion. Marks like “overly dramatic,” “hysterical,” and even, “crazy” are commonly branded onto women that attempt to share their feelings. But rather than try to avoid the stigmatism, Savior embraces it as an act of defiance. 

Wearing a painted-on doll face, she fakes crying or makes cutesy pouting faces during the most dramatic segments of “But Youand “Girlie.” She repeats the line “Don’t you try to calm me down,” in her song, “Mystery Girl,” getting more and more hysterical, verging on drunkenness, until she is screaming into the mic. 

Quickly after the song fades, she looks at her frontwomen and chuckles shyly to them, and then to the audience, laughing at the dramatism. By using these visual, jokey gimmicks to over-dramatize her feelings, she is able to lament alongside her fans, while still being in control of the amount of vulnerability she feeds to the audience. It is a shield against being labeled as a stereotypical “hysterical woman.” 

With this contrast, Savior fills a void in female musical expression. She wails lyrics bursting with vulnerability verging on desperation, but by embracing the stereotype of hysterical, “crazy ex-girlfriend,” she fails to lose her strength or composure. During “Crying All The Time,” she contorts her face into an expression that mimics the Comedy and Tragedy masks, singing, “He doesn’t like it when I cry. But now he’s gone, so I’m crying all the time.” The lyrics themselves are sharp and witty and beg to be sung along to. Some audience members knew every line, and were either belting them out or silently mouthing them along. It’s the kind of music that makes us want to wear a babydoll dress and heavy black makeup. It was something I have not found in music written by men. 

And it isn’t performed by men either. As the band took their place on stage, it was clear that the show would be female fronted. Lily Breshears, synth/keys player, took front-left stage, with Melissa Guerison, violinist/guitarist taking the right, and Alexandra Savior between them.

While the bassist and drummer were both men, they sat hidden at the back of the stage, rather than attempt to embrace the music like Breshears and Geurison could. 

Although Savior wrote the songs, Breshears and Guerison performed them with their own feeling. While either singing backup or playing alongside Savior, they stared straight above the crowd, their own faces filled with yearning, as if recalling moments when they too felt the frustrations that Savior writes about. 

After the show, I was fortunate enough to interview Guerison. It is evident that she cares a lot for Savior. She explained, “I was touring with four bands… And I have dropped out of all of them except this one because I love working with her so much. She is a real human being and treats people that work for her really well… It’s like a little family.” 

This relationship is evident on stage. When Guerison and Breshears aren’t directing anguish over the crowd, they are grinning back at Savior, supporting her. There’s clearly a lot of love there. When I asked her about what it has been like working as a woman in the industry, she sighed and said, “We’ve definitely had to kind of bind together and it can be exhausting at times, but yeah, we do it.” 

I ended the conversation by asking if she had any advice for other women in the industry. She replied back, “Fight like hell and it doesn’t get any easier. It’s a constant fight and hopefully it will get easier, but we all have to keep sticking up for ourselves and not let people cross our boundaries. Just keep supporting each other.”

This has been a hard-fought battle for Savior. After writing her first album with Arctic Monkeys frontman, Alex Turner, many assumed that all of the musical complexities of the album were by his design. Taking back control over her music, Alexandra Savior wrote all of the guitar lines, lyrics, and melodies herself, according to an interview in Gigwise. Instead of passing them on to other men that could potentially again get the credit for her work, she passes it off to her fellow female musicians, who play them with honesty and feeling. They work as a team, ensuring that none of them are alone in this struggle. 

By playing alongside these strong frontwomen and friends and taking back the meaning of hysteria through her lyrics and performance, Savior remains in control of her image and place as a woman in the industry. She preaches a truth about women that doesn’t hesitate to contradict itself. The almost gimmicky anger and sharp edge radiating from the artist contrasts beautifully with her shy and sweet nature. 

This act inspires us to take possession over our own definitions of female emotion while head banging alongside Alexandra Savior and her fellow female musicians.

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