Is it bad that I like streaming? I grew up in the pre-internet age, where everything you knew about music and culture came from a magazine or the radio, maybe the occasional commercial, or if you were lucky, MTV. Streaming is a new age, one that brings with it many well-documented pitfalls and failings, not the least of which is the financial situation with artists, who are paid what can be best described as crumbs if a crumb could have another crumb fall off of it.
And yet, as the crumbs fall by the wayside, they offer new paths to discovery. An all-powerful algorithm that listens to what you obsessively put on the same six playlists and assigns a musical identity based on the perceived gender of the person singing.
This is how I discovered Bully.
The Nashville band—now the solo project of singer/guitarist Alice Bognanno—showed up one day in my you-might-enjoy playlist wedged in between “Doll Parts” by Hole and “Dry” by PJ Harvey, which felt fortuitous for a foray into a band that swims in the same oceans as those predecessors. Some discoveries live with you forever, first loves that rattle around your brain like pebbles in an empty soda can. “Feel The Same,” the first track on 2017’s Losing, is just such a pebble, luring me in with the careful strumming of a guitar on the edge of explosion. The first moment I heard that song, I knew something was coming for me, but I had no idea what. Like the first moving picture, where the train all of a sudden comes direct at the screen. The thrill of a panicked movement, the exhilaration of knowing everything that comes after this moment is different.
As soon as “Feels The Same” left my system, I had to go back and play it again. And again. And again. Bognanno so perfectly captured the ennui of trying to drag new satisfaction out of actions that had long lost their luster—masturbating, cutting your hair, sitting alone—while her guitar pushes and pulls underneath like a wave in a restless ocean that only she commands. I put it on repeat for a day, then on a playlist with other songs I felt would flow nicely on either side of it, only to proceed to play it on repeat anyway. It is a rare capture to discover something new to yourself that causes the world around you to fall away. There was no room for new discovery with that song; I just needed to live in that moment.
After “Feels The Same” became an obsession, I sought out the rest of the catalog. Losing is an endless cavalcade of emotive fury, vacillating between an uncontrollable wail that Bognanno wields like a sword in the midst of a knife fight, and a curtain pulled back to expose rare moments of impassioned vulnerability.
Much ink has been spilled about Bully’s sound being mired in the 90s, but like staring at a painting through a keyhole, you’re only allowing yourself to see what is easily glanced at. Bognanno is possessed of an authentic spirit, one that is willing to place every card in her deck on the table and tell you who she is. Her songwriting is clever and endlessly charming, with the wit of a woman who is unafraid to be open about her own fears and misgivings. Over the course of three full-length records she has proven her ability to craft fiendishly clever pop songs, with hooks coming from all sides and raucous distortion working together to craft earworms that will burrow into your memory and never depart.
Bully is a band that loses nothing in translation; it is refreshingly honest at its core in musicianship and lyricism. The band behind Bognanno has changed and evolved over the years, as she’s remained the constant at the center of it all, but they have remained throughout it all a tight collection of inescapable hooks and crushingly heavy tones. Bognanno is a singular voice in her songwriting; she’s emotive, honest, and tender in her words. She has opened a book that exposes the parts of herself that so many are afraid to bare to the world but in Bully she is expressive and free.
I bought Losing and their debut album, 2015’s Feels Like, in a heartbeat. You simply cannot lie on the floor of your apartment spinning in the cycle of obsessive discovery and not buy something. Those records were in constant rotation, soundtracking my every moment through a particularly harrowing October. The Sub Pop loser-edition vinyl copy of Losing—a translucent record with splashes of blue swirling throughout—was spinning on the turntable in my apartment when I drank myself into the darkest depths of a lifelong depression. It stayed spinning as I spun, lying there on the floor, running through the consequences of my worst intrusive thoughts and impulses. That record played when I was admitted to the hospital after an attempt on my own life, and it played when I got home and promised myself that I would make changes that would fix this.
It spun on the night that I laid in the bathtub and worked up the courage to come out of the closet and told my partner that I was trans. Bognanno’s willingness to bare her own soul so brazenly inspired me to finally take up arms against my own defeated spirit and find new words to express myself. When she sang, “I try to see you but it’s been a rough start,” in “Spiral” I felt seen and spoken to. I felt brand new in an instant. I was trying to see myself, but it hadn’t been an easy road to start.
On “Trying,” from 2015 debut record Feels Like, Bognanno drives the line I question everything / My focus, my figure, my sexuality directly into my heart and in an out of body experience I see myself reeling from the effect of a punctuated truth on a body.
In Bully I found joy, too; the exuberant thrill of casting off and letting go. What I failed to see at first was the catharsis in so aggressively claiming that the fears of what might be no longer held much sway if you spoke them aloud. Bully is the sound of moving ahead with full awareness of the impact of the past. “You don’t like me when I’m angry / tough shit learn to deal,” Bognanno declares on Losing’s “Hate and Control.” It becomes a flag around which to rally.
Played in the background, Bully is the endless sound of the summer; windows rolled down with arms dangling lazily down the side of a car driving anywhere, skin reborn in the haze of the sun. It’s the sound of skateboarding down unknown roads, or sitting in a nameless patch of grass with nowhere to be and endless time to enjoy the expanse of both nothing and everything.
Just as the emotional catharsis of Bully is freeing, so too is the feeling in the music. Bognanno is an endless talent standing behind a guitar bending to her will, paired perfectly with her unmistakable voice. When I was able to pick myself up off the floor, I was born anew in the light of air guitar and dancing freely in the living room. Bully is heavy, melodic, and moving. They will raise your arms into the air and free your feet to move at will. You will cry and laugh and throw yourself at the mercy of reckless abandon.
And you will be free.
As loath as I am to thank the digital overlords that dictate a playlist at me, they delivered Bully to my heart. Through them, I have bought records that have become so overplayed I had to purchase again. They have lived on a thousand playlists and mixtapes, been the soundtrack to emotional catharsis, tearful goodbyes, and enthusiastic new beginnings. Bully is proof that there is always something new to discover, always something waiting in the wings that is poised to become everything for you in the heat of a moment. We can always grow, cast off the weight of the past and float forward. In a cathartic howl throw the words that have haunted you out to the wind and free yourself.