Karen & the Sorrows depict a one-of-a-kind pageant in the new video for “Guaranteed Broken Heart,” mixing humor and grief in equal measure. The song is the title track from the New York-based queer-country group’s new album, out October 18th.
Modeled on the “Miss Lez” pageants emceed by famed drag king Murray Hill, who makes a cameo in the video, the clip features a variety of performers displaying talents that mirror the many ways people deal with breakups. Karen Pittelman, the band’s leader and songwriter, performs with her guitar and winds up with mascara-streaked cheeks from her tears. Another performs a cheerless, drunken burlesque routine. Yet another destroys clothing and then rips the insides out of a massive stuffed animal.
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“I was thinking of all the different elements of how I deal with broken hearts and how others do,” says Pittelman. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriends was in the back of my head too and how that show has been looking at the questioning of a lot of things we take for granted about how we deal with love and loss. I wanted everybody to be competing with their own best heartbroken talent.”
Loss is a backdrop and a recurring theme on Guaranteed Broken Heart. Pittelman’s longtime bandmates Elana Redfield and Tami Johnson departed the band before recording, leaving the songwriter to recruit members of New York’s thriving country and bluegrass communities to play. It even expands the group’s stylistic palette from country-rock: on the stripped-down “Why Won’t You Come Back to Me,” fiddle and banjo are added to acoustic guitar and Pittelman’s haunted vocals for a hypnotic, dirge-like effect.
“I did what the songs demanded of me,” she says. “A lot of them were like, ‘We want a string band,’ and I was like, ‘Shut up, songs! I don’t have a string band. I’m already working hard to bring together an electric band for you.'”
There’s also an element of Nineties country production and instrumentation that Pittelman worked to incorporate into Guaranteed Broken Heart. Many songs have solemn fiddle intros from the big Nineties ballads, along with the requisite polish, but there’s still plenty of grit from stinging electric guitar and the messiness of heartbreak. In another way, Pittelman captures peak Nineties country with clever lyricism, as on the shame-on-me saga “Third Time’s the Charm.”
“It pisses me off that people don’t appreciate the elegance that goes into the best country music writing,” says Pittelman. “A lot of it is finding that little turn of phrase, that little piece of wit inside of your suffering so that you can laugh and cry at the same time. That helps you survive.”
Outside of music, Pittelman has also been working to organize events and support for fellow queer-country performers in New York and beyond, along with speaking out against the effect of white supremacy in country music. Earlier in 2019, she published a lengthy essay that tackled a lot of the popular misconceptions about country music as being a racist art form, looking deep into the music’s history at times when the industry itself had enabled structural racism that largely kept non-white performers out. The end goal? Illuminating some of these blind spots for white people through the lens of country music.
“I really think we can be organizing white people against white supremacy using country music, not just shifting things within the industry,” she says. “We could have a tour. We could be out there connecting with people who love this music and helping them start to build an anti-racist analysis and to see how that benefits them too. I really believe that’s possible.”
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