Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

The Music We Hate: P.J. Harvey

"Gasping as though in the throes of orgasm does not make Harvey's music sexy or dangerous. It is headache-inducing."

This is an online supplement to Maisonneuve's print-only "The Music We Hate" feature (Issue 36, Summer 2010). To read Carl Wilson on Radiohead, Sean Michaels on Sufjan Stevens and more, buy the print edition in stores or contact us to order it.

Photo by Dave Mitchell

In the UK, if you’re an indie musician trying to make it big, mentioning P.J. Harvey in your interview is about as common and blasé as saying “I do it for the music, not the money.” Basically, everyone skims over it. Because it’s bullshit. No one really listens to her—her publicists have created such a false indie-icon image around her that to admit nothing comes to mind when you say her name seems faux pas.

Harvey slipped into the woodworks on the coattails of other successful female musicians, thanks to her fortunate timing. The early nineties were filled with powerful women unafraid to strap on guitars and tell men to fuck off. Alanis Morrisette, Liz Phair and Shirley Manson led the decade with sounds that are staples of kick-ass female rock today. Florence and the Machine, Bat for Lashes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Metric—none would exist without the women of the nineties.

Harvey had nothing to do with laying these foundations. After losing my P.J. Harvey virginity with to her first single “Dress,” my initial thought was: Surely my headphones aren’t working. They must be causing that droning, trying-to-rock-but-not-quite-making-it whine. The hype surrounding this woman as a pioneer in British female music cannot have led me to this sad Patti Smith/Kim Gordon wannabe who looks like she’s trying to conjure Juliette Lewis. Why would the British music magazines deliberately lead me so far astray?

Harvey’s follow-up album Dry is filled with uninspiring, bogged down guitar riffs. It’s an unbalanced album that drowns Harvey’s voice beneath the instruments. In the title track, she ends every phrase by going up a notch in pitch, as though achingly asking a question: “You leave me dryyy? You leave me dryyy? [Overly dramatic inward breath.] You leave me dryyy?”

It cannot be borne. There is no variation. Her voice and the guitars are swimming through the same ugly muck—and that isn't alternative rock. That is a lack of creative ambition.

In fact, exaggerated, unnecessary breathing is a constant theme in Harvey’s music. Often it sounds as though she is being punched continuously in the gut. Unfortunately for Harvey, gasping as though in the throes of orgasm does not make her music sexy or dangerous. It is headache-inducing.

I clung to the hope that her later albums would prove stronger as Harvey’s talent matured with age. Wrong again. I came across an acoustic version of 2006’s “White Chalk,” the title single from her eight studio album. She sounds little better live than a self-conscious teenage girl performing at her high school talent show, squeaking on the high notes and banging the same, unimpressive chords up and down on the piano. Then comes the screeching, echoing siiiilence. Christ—this is what we call groundbreaking?

Needless to say, after giving Harvey a fair and lengthy test run, I had no desire to look any further. With an endless spectrum of talented emerging musicians and earlier rock icons, there is no time to waste on mediocrity. What I hate most is that my account now looks like I've been listening to her all week, thanks to writing this article. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I am not alone in my distaste for her music—or my belief that few are listening anyway. While standing in line for a gig a few weeks ago in London, I began discussing my decision to bash P.J. Harvey with a friend. The response from the woman in front of me: “I thought P.J. Harvey was a man.”

Meredith Humphrey is a music journalist living in London and is currently finishing her MA in International Journalism at City University.

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