A Personal History of Music, Day 27: “Fire Drills,” by Dessa

John Scalzi

Dessa is the one musician in this series who I met prior to hearing her music. She and I were guests at John and Hank Green’s NerdCon: Stories convention in 2015, where among other things she and I participated in a team debate event in which we expounded the value of putting on foot attire in a sock, sock, shoe, shoe fashion rather than in the (obviously inferior) sock, shoe, sock, shoe fashion. Dessa was great fun to hang with and exuded cool from the moment she stepped into a room. I was a fan before I heard a single note.

I have heard, shall we say, several notes of hers in the time since. Dessa is one of my favorite working lyricists: Ferocious and vulnerable, smart and witty and true, and with the ability to take a turn of phrase and use it to hook your heart and your head. Her lyrics read like poetry (no surprise, as she is a published poet) and are often as dense as an essay (also no surprise, as she is a published essayist) and revealing as a memoir (if you did not guess at this point she is also a published memoirist, you’re not paying attention). Dessa is reporting from the front, and the front is the world and her movement through it.

Which brings us to “Fire Drills,” which I think is, to date, her finest hour. In it, Dessa lays out what it takes to be a woman in the world, because she has been a woman in the world, among other things touring with Doomtree, the rap collective she is part of (and was the CEO of, for a time) and doing her own solo work and other appearances and projects. Being out in the world means she knows what it takes from her to be in it, and how much of it isn’t available to her. As she says in the song:

You can’t be too broke to break
As a woman always something left to take
So you shouldn’t try to stay too late or talk to strangers
Look too long, go too far out of range ’cause
Angels can’t watch everybody all the time
Stay close, hems low, safe inside
That formula works if you can live it
But it works by putting half the world off limits

“Fire Drills” is reportage, presented relentlessly and to a beat, and tells you a simple fact: That so much of a woman’s life in the world is running the fire drills of the song title. Doing the cautionary heavy lifting and planning that men don’t have to, and don’t have to think about — or, because, we’re so often blessed in our often willful ignorance, even know was a thing that had to be thought about at all.

And, of course, this is bullshit. “I think a woman’s worth, I think that she deserves, a better line of work, than motherfucking vigilance,” Dessa raps in the song.

She is 100% fucking correct. Dessa deserves more than vigilance. So does my wife. So does my daughter. So do all my friends and peers who are women. So does every woman anywhere, regardless of whether I know them or not. None of them are getting it, and, how to put this, recent events in the world and particularly in the United States make “more than vigilance” harder for them all. “Fire Drills” is more relevant in 2022 than when it came out in 2018, and that is infuriating.

“Fire Drills” was brilliant since the day it dropped, but today, now, here in this time, it hits me like a punch in the face. It starkly reminds me of what I get for free that others get only at high cost, and sometimes not at all. There’s nothing in Dessa’s words here that to me tries to make the individual male listener to feel guilty about this, and guilt is not what I feel in any event.

What I feel, and what Dessa’s words pull from me, is a sense of responsibility; first to bear to witness to and to acknowledge the truth of what Dessa is saying, and then to put in some work, in support of women and others whose rights are being threatened today. People who have privileges in the world tend to sort into two camps: Those who believe privileges must be horded, and those who believe privileges should be shared. The hoarders are having their moment right now. My work needs to be in making this hoarding moment as short as possible, and, in support of others, help to bring things around to sharing once more.

I’m glad that meeting Dessa inspired me to seek out her music. I’m even more glad that Dessa’s work is challenging me to do and be better, and serves as a reminder of what this moment asks of me, as one who does not have to lead a life of vigilance. Dessa didn’t write this song for me or about me, or to require me to do anything. It inspires me to do it anyway. Listen to the song, maybe it’ll do that for you, too.

Dessa (left) and Aviva Jaye, on JoCo Cruise 2022.

— JS

11 Comments on “A Personal History of Music, Day 27: “Fire Drills,” by Dessa”

  1. I feel that debate about socks and shoes left out an important question: tying the shoes. Do you tie the shoe (or engage the Velcro, as the case may be) as soon as you put it on, or do you put on both shoes and only then tie the laces?

    The famous clip from “All in the Family” evaded the issue by having the debate be about boots, which don’t need to be tied.

  2. Agreed, John – that line about women deserving a better line of work more than vigilance is indeed a gut punch, especially now. The lyric video above also had a link to the Tiny Desk concert. Thanks again for this writing effort.

  3. I just want not to be terrified every single moment of my life that the government will declare that I am not a citizen, take everything I’ve worked for and give it to a male cousin I haven’t seen in forty years, and force me back to the man I divorced almost twenty years ago.

  4. …”privileges must be horded…” lead me on a little day trip into “How would the Mongol horde deal with privileges?” :-)
    Every day now it seems I hear something else which makes me think that people should be better by now.

  5. Thanks for this John. Having heard of most of your song choices this month, have to admit I was not familiar with Dessa before now. And I want to hear more, so thank you!

  6. Yeaaaaah Dessa!

    This album is my favorite of hers–the production is on point, the themes are painfully timely….and it has a track meditating on free will written in the aftermath of her hacking her own brain with the help of a neuroscientist (read the memoir).

  7. “we expounded the value of putting on foot attire in a sock, sock, shoe, shoe fashion rather than in the (obviously inferior) sock, shoe, sock, shoe fashion. ”

    Huh. I never figured you for an Archie Bunker character.

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