In this post, I'm going to talk about WARPAINT (1991), by Happy Rhodes.
There was this record store in Iowa City - no inventory on the floor, just the CD booklet in a reusable plastic and cardboard sleeve stacked up in rows and rows of narrow riser shelves. I discovered Happy Rhodes there, specifically the cover for EQUIPOISE, a collage combining Happy's face with one of her monsters. The cover resonated with me in all kinds of ways I wasn't ready to understand. It felt good in my hands. So of course I didn't buy it until later, after I'd found a copy of RHODESONGS back home over winter break and deemed other albums by the artist worth the financial risk. Also I got whatever else I could get, which wasn't entirely all together that much; a lot of her albums were out of print. I filled in holes, including WARPAINT, once I'd moved back to Illinois and discovered eBay, not that I exactly listened to them when I first got them.
See, I listened to Rhodes so much my last semester in Iowa that I couldn't listen to her for a while after that. All that failure, all those broken dreams. My breakup with neurotypical academia (so, yeah, ACADEMIA) was overdue and bitter as fuck. Our relationship had turned abusive. Academia didn't get me and never really served my needs, it made me feel pretty bad about myself and isolated me from my loved ones, but oh boy, it sure did take my money! All that student debt, and my employment prospects were as shitty as they'd ever been. For a couple years, EQUIPOISE gave me the shakes. I still wanted Happy's albums because I loved them and they felt like a resource worth gathering for that point in the future when they became necessary: when I could hear what I wouldn't let myself hear my last year in Iowa, as I was too busy falling through systemic cracks and failing to deal effectively with the consequences of my unacknowledged disabilities.
This winter, I listened to all the Happy Rhodes. This winter, finally, I heard what I needed to hear.
Whatever her neurotype, Happy writes songs from a neurodivergent perspective. If she's not autistic herself, she's a tremendous ally. She sees and advocates for the adult autistic community through her craft.
WARPAINT might not be the first autie pride album, but it's definitely the first and most unambiguous I've personally encountered, even held up against Happy's previous four albums, which are not thin on neurodivergent content by a longshot. Every song, every
lyric, every stimmy rhythm.
There's her ASMR-inducing ode to special interests, "Feed the Fire." There's an appropriately stripped down song about recovering from sensory overload, "Lay Me Down," which this winter I assumed to be a love song to a weighted blanket until I remembered weighted blankets wouldn't be invented until seven years after the album came out. Definitely they ought to have love songs dedicated to them, though, the one I got for Christmas has saved my butt a bunch of times already. There's a song about nonverbal shutdown, "Words Weren't Made for Cowards," that basically says up front I'd rather not be able to talk at all if the alternative means obliterating sacred silence with words that don't mean a damn thing, distinctly important because it's an assertion that one of the most demonized autistic traits has purpose and relevance in our society, that it's not necessarily or always a problematic symptom to be ABAed into oblivion, that maybe there is something extremely important to be learned in meeting a nonspeaking person where they are instead of attacking them or trying to "fix."
There's a song about the autistic relationship to time, how it can feel like we're running behind, perpetually out of sync with everyone else, "Another Century," and a song about feeling like an alien, "Phobos." "All Things (Mia Ia Io)" references meltdowns ("Now when I hear big sounds/I cry like a little girl") and trouble with gross motor skills as well as another perspective on neurodivergent time and relation:
I'm talking about connections
Between here and there
All things exist at once
Seems more than we can bear
There's even a song about joy stimming that opens with Rhodes describing a glitter wand, "Terra Incognita." Someone get this woman a Tangle! Also, me. I would like more Tangles, please.
Then there are the advocacy songs. My experience of the autistic community so far is that many of us are extremely invested in social justice and civil rights. Making the world a better place for everybody's brain.
The title track is about surviving severe bullying and maybe don't listen to it while on a walk outside if you are also a survivor of severe bullying because damn, Happy gets it. "To Live In Your World" catches my throat with the lines, "I don't remember her face/Or why I was there/I just remember feeling angry/Something made me hate her/I had to suffocate her." It feels like it's about masking, essentially destroying one's true self in order to survive in a neurotypical society that pathologizes autism and condemns individuals who openly demonstrate autistic traits.
I am evil
I am brutal
So you say you must
Be rid of me
It frightens you
To look at me
'Cause when you do
What you see
Is a reflection of yourself
And your society
The previous track, "Murder," is more overtly about eugenics, and don't you dare think that's not an active concern in the autistic community, in 1991 or right the fuck now. (CONTENT WARNING for that link: COVID-19, cognitive disability and systemic abandonment: neurotypical folks better fucking read it and read it twice with my admonishment that INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY IS ONLY A QUALITY OF LIFE ISSUE BECAUSE OF ABLEISM. If you or your loved ones are in an affected community, approach with care, the panic attack it gave me knocked me down for two days.)
The album opens with "Waking Up," a hopeful call to action and assurance that no matter what, Happy sees you, Happy's got your back.
I have never been afraid
To change the circumstances
Of the world
Thank you, Happy. I really need this album, it is a validating and inspirational entry into autistic culture. It helped me move toward the initiation of my own unmasking. My ears are lucky to hear, indeed.