Screen Violence by Chvrches — A Feminist Analysis (by a man)

Gregory P. Stringer
21 min readNov 21, 2021


The digital album cover of Screen Violence, the fourth album from Chvrches.

When Screen Violence, the Scottish electro-pop band Chvrches’ fourth studio album came out a couple of months ago, I happened to be reading some excellent feminist scholarship on gendered violence and (dis)embodiment in ancient Greek and Latin epic poetry. As I continued to read with the album playing on repeat, I couldn’t help but experience the whole record through the lenses of the feminist theory I was learning about — the suppression of women’s voices, the denial of agency, the omnipresent threat of male violence, often sexual in nature, and the resultant disembodiment and destruction of women, both physically and mentally. In exploring these 10 songs through these lenses, I have uncovered layers in the lyrics which develop a defined set of themes, connect the songs to one another, and reveal a depth and complexity that make this an extremely timely and thoroughly brilliant concept album.

A few notes about myself before I dive in further. Although I’m a long-time amateur drummer, I’m not particularly knowledgeable on the intricacies of music theory (after all, a drummer is “someone who hangs out with musicians,” as the old joke goes), so I will only comment very sparingly on the music. That is entirely due to my deficiencies, not the artists’, as the music on Screen Violence is, in my opinion, uniformly and hauntingly good, as well as strongly complimentary, both responding to and helping to develop the lyrical themes. As on the previous three Chvrches albums, there are, of course, lots of the electronic beats and varied organ sounds mixed with pop rock sensibilities that are their signature, here often made echoey and spooky sounding to fit the horror-inspired motif signaled by the title. But, as is also frequently true of Chvrches tunes, the music is also often surprisingly upbeat when compared to the lyrics that it accompanies. Lead singer and chief lyricist Lauren Mayberry described this contrast well when I saw them perform in Boston a few years ago: “this next one is a sad song,” before backing up and correcting herself, “actually, they are all sad, this one’s just slow.”

But, rather than attempting to critique the musicality, as a trained Classicist and a Latin teacher who has been exploring the lyrics of popular songs with my students as part of their preparation for upcoming encounters with Roman poetry, I’m especially interested in dissecting (pardon the pun) the lyrics on Screen Violence. I should also state up front that I assiduously avoided reading any reviews by journalists or comments by the band themselves about the album or the making of it, because I wanted to simply explore my own reactions, neither mediated by insider knowledge of the creators nor influenced by the external evaluation of others. So, that said, if any of these interpretations are completely off base or in direct contradiction with things the band members have said, or have already been explored by reviewers elsewhere, I claim ignorance. Furthermore, I subscribe to a two-way model of reception anyway, wherein the meaning is simultaneously created both by author and reader, so undoubtedly much of what you are about to read here stems from what I have brought to the album with me — my own knowledge and experiences, my own work to understand gender, my own broken heart, etc. Likewise, I’m admittedly a big fan of Chvrches, so this is not at all an “objective” review (whatever that means), nor does it pretend to be. However, I do hope that what follows nevertheless represents something approaching the standards of good literary analysis.

Also, I should make it clear that I recognize my positionality as a cis-het man, and as such it may perhaps seem somewhat strange to some for me to analyze a women’s poetry through a feminist lens. But, as someone who identifies as a feminist and an ally, I feel it is both important for me to continue to read and learn about feminist theory and, in order to better understand the theory, to put it into practice. Also, I freely admit that much of this theory I have only learned second-hand from reading the scholarship of others, and though I certainly want to give credit where credit is due, I confess I wasn’t always sure whom to cite, when, and where. Nevertheless, feeling inspired, as I described above, this seemed like an ideal opportunity for praxis, and so I hope this is received in the spirit it is offered — genuine enthusiasm, curiosity, and a desire to learn, grow, and explore. Critical feedback is more than welcome.

The connection with feminist theory jumped out at me from the very moment I downloaded the album. The animated digital cover shows a disembodied woman’s hand reaching up, fingers outstretched as though in a violent death-throw, from within a flickering tv screen in an otherwise empty, blood-red room in what must be a nod to horror films like Poltergeist and The Ring. (Bordo, S. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body)

But this horror tie-in is so much more than a clever cover or a fleeting leitmotif — rather much of the album is infused with allusions to what the literature I was reading called the “carnographic” imagery of horror movies (as in, excessively graphic violence, most often perpetrated against at women) — certainly one intended meaning of the title Screen Violence. (Pinedo, I. C. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing)

Also, a repeated emphasis on the vulnerability of the poet and her body, gendered female, signaled already from the polished fingernails of the feminine hand on the cover, helps underscore the unapologetically feminist lyrics that cut at the heart of being a woman in 2021. Indeed, in a departure from earlier Chvrches albums, where Martin Doherty would usually lead a song or two, here the poetic voice is arguably entirely Lauren Mayberry’s. Even during the celebrity guest appearance of music legend Robert Smith of The Cure on the song “How Not to Drown,” the goth icon is nevertheless content to play second fiddle to Mayberry, and throughout the album Doherty’s vocals are only used sparingly, making it a markedly more “feminine” album than anything they’ve put out so far.

From the very first song, “Asking for a Friend,” Mayberry initiates a recurring theme of disembodiment, here via 21st century internet-speak. Spend any amount of time on Twitter and you know that “Asking for a Friend” really means she’s asking for herself but is afraid or unwilling to admit it. As a woman, she feels her voice is denied to her — indeed the very first words are “I don’t want to say…” — and so she has to couch everything she’s about to say as if, in fact, she is not saying it or that it is not really her saying it. And that very first thing she’s afraid to speak about? Existential dread:

I don’t want to say

That I’m afraid to die.

The entire intro which follows is a praeteritio in which Mayberry indeed speaks her insecurities and anxieties by not speaking them, as she lists the things she can’t — or won’t — say, “I’m no good at goodbyes, I can’t apologise.” Then, the first verse which follows is all about things she did, but now regrets, almost all of which again are speech acts. Speech is inherently dangerous for her, as a woman, and whether she speaks up or holds her tongue, either way she feels it is bound to lead to regret:

’Cause I sunk some ships with selfish lips

And it all came back to me

I was terrified

I never told you why

And the songs I wrote ‘bout hearts I broke

Would never come for free

I cheated and I lied

But I meant it when I cried

Ultimately, “Asking for a Friend” seems to be a lament of a failed relationship, which somewhat gently introduces many of the themes of the album absent much of the coming violence. But it is worth bearing in mind Margaret Atwood’s old adage that when a heterosexual relationship goes wrong “men are afraid that women will laugh at them, women are afraid that men will kill them.” Female vulnerability in the face of the potentially deadly consequences of patriarchal violence appears to be at the root of many of the songs which follow.

Indeed, death is everywhere on this album — some form of die, died, dying, dead, or death appears no less than 15 distinct times and across 7 of the 10 songs. And that’s not even counting related words and phrases such as funeral, epitaph, suicide, killed myself, drown. If we include those, then only one song, “Nightmares,” doesn’t explicitly mention death (though it is not devoid of violence either). Honestly, I think it’s the most “death” I’ve heard on a single album since Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning.”

But, it’s not morbid for morbidity’s sake; rather this is evidently what it feels like to Mayberry to be a woman in 2021, as processed via the leitmotif of horror movies — perhaps not a surprising a choice given an ongoing global pandemic and the political atmosphere of recent years. So many of those very real fears of being a women in this world which maybe, just maybe, are now finally starting to get broader recognition in the wake of #MeToo, are present: domestic violence and murder, sexual assault, objectification, body image, being silenced, and the legitimate fear, guilt, grief, anger, and regret these provoke.

In fact, the second song, “He Said She Said” uses that familiar myth of sexual assault cases in its title as a bit of clever misdirection to hit on most of those aforementioned themes. This isn’t about two opposing gendered sides or points of view of a particular event as the title implies, rather it is a meditation on all the explicit and implicit double standards which men (and some women) impose on women such as: “you need to be fed, but keep an eye on your waistline,” “Get drunk, but don’t be a mess” and “look good, but don’t be obsessed.” Also here is the ever present threat of violence: “He said, ‘You bore me to death, I know you heard me the first time,’” and the dreadful impact all this has on women’s mental health (“Be sad, but don’t be depressed” … He said, “It’s all in your head”) is then summed up and repeated in the chorus” “I feel like I’m losing my mind,” representing the “she said” half of the title. Finally, the fatal repercussions of this constant mental abuse are also present, if only hinted at:

But it’s hard to know what’s right

When I feel like I’m borrowin’ all of my time

The third song “California” seems to pick up where the first song left off, a lament of a failed relationship (perhaps the same one?), though here markedly darker. Perhaps California, often synonymous with vacation and escapism, especially for those from outside the US, stands in for the escape of romantic love? If so, like many fantasies, this proves to be one that reality cannot long support. Regardless, this song also explicitly connects death with dreams, setting up another recurrent theme throughout the rest of the album.

No one еver warns ya

You’ll die in California

Falling in a dream, you lеt, let go

No one ever seems to say, say so

No one ever tells ya

There’s freedom in the failure

Dying in a dream feels like home

No one ever seems to say, say so

This chorus seems to be the first direct connection to horror movies, as many women do indeed, “die in California” — all the time, on the sets of slasher films and episodes of CSI. Interestingly, at the end of the song, the poet wants to return to the imagined safety of cinematic fantasy, as she calls for someone to “pull me into the screen at the end.” Here emerges a second meaning for Screen Violence. Our whole world is screens these days: phones, laptops, televisions, and tablets — a process well underway pre-2020 and only accelerated by the global pandemic that has kept us inside and physically separated from one another. Curiously, a television, not a phone, is the screen on the cover and the one specifically referred to several times (here, as well as in the songs “Lullabies” and “Better If You Don’t”). Mayberry seems to ask, as perhaps we all do these days, is the screen friend or foe, tool or weapon? For the screen puts women on display and subjects them to the male gaze (as first described by Laura Mulvey and something especially prevalent in horror films), as well as feeding them a continuous stream of the type of double standards and unrealistic expectations catalogued in “He said / she said” — certainly a most insidious form of Screen Violence. But, while the screen displays, it can also protect in a way, creating a safe divide from the very real people on the other side of it who could or would do bodily harm. Perhaps this is why the poet asks someone here to “pull me into the screen at the end” and later in “Lullabies” declares that “we’re better off inside of a screen sometimes.” The screen provides some of the safety she seeks by allowing a measure of control, both to the viewer to mediate what they see, as well as to the content producer to filter who sees what and when and how.

In the very first lines of the fourth track “Violent Delights,” the poet combines two of the themes set out as programmatic from the opening of the first song — her denied voice and fear of death, though here the order is inverted:

Had a dream your father died

I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t cry

Although the song is ostensibly about the sleeplessness provoked by night terrors rather than cinema, I feel the distinction is intentionally muddled — what are horror movies if not “violent delights”? And what are nightmares if not horror films played out in our heads while we sleep? And the description of the second death in the first verse is rendered more cinematic than the first, as we get more details as we witness the victim resist in vain:

The second night, I dreamt you drowned

You couldn’t fight, you were not found

Then, the chorus directly ties the dreams and horror even closer together via words such as “creeping” “bleeding” and even a nod to the practice of “last rites” so common in religious-themed horror films like The Exorcist:

And these violent delights

Keep creeping into my nights

And they’re reading my rites

And I’ll never sleep alone again

And these violent delights

Keep bleeding into the light

In the second verse, Mayberry seems to ponder what really is hers, in terms of both mind and body, and who gets to control her narrative:

A photograph will steal your soul

An epitaph won’t make you whole

If I disappear, thеy’ll say I killed myself

I nevеr feared for my own health

It would seem that she fears that celebrity, and the inevitable loss of control over her own story and self image that comes along with it, has led her to an anxiety about her bodily safety at least as great as that for her mental health detailed in “He Said / She Said.” And, perhaps not surprisingly, the fear expressed in these night terrors seems, in fact, to be the another symptom of the poet’s hopelessness in the face of existential dread:

And I’ll never be right

But they’ll never sleep alone again when I’m gone

The next song “How Not to Drown,” which includes the celebrity guest appearance by The Cure’s Robert Smith, builds off the drowning imagery in the first verse of “Violent Delights.” But here the poet is directly vulnerable to (male) violence, which she vows to resist: “I wasn’t scared when he caught me, look what it taught me.” However, her voice, perhaps a poet and singer’s most powerful weapon, is either being denied to her, as it is in the second chorus (“Tell me how, It’s better if I make no sound,”) or violently controlled by someone else who, by the inclusion of “the king” toward the end of the first verse, is gendered male:

You promised the world and brought me it hangin’ from a string

Stuck it in my mouth, into my throat, told me to sing

That was the first time I knew you can’t kill the king

And those who kiss the ring

But again the danger is not limited to the loss of her voice, but even death, either via drowning:

I’m writing a book on how to stay conscious when you drown

And if the words float up to the surface, I’ll keep them down

Or, if she does use her voice, she’ll be subjected to a carnographic disembowelment, which though put in Robert Smith’s mouth, is redirected at Mayberry via the second person “your”:

That was the first time I knew they were out for blood

And they would have your guts

All this culminates in a destruction of agency and a dissolution of the will to fight and therefore, ultimately, an impending, inescapable death:

I will never escape these doubts

I wasn’t dead when they found me, watch as they pull me down

The following tune, track 6 “Final Girl,” perhaps the best on the album, contains the most obvious and explicit Screen Violence, with its overt horror movie references and accompanying “carnographic” imagery. At the outset, we find Mayberry blaming herself for her distress and doubting both her own capacity to cope via music and even her own talent:

Swallowing the seeds of sins

We sewed into the ground

Keeping secrets until everything

Became a bit too loud

I could wash it down

I could drown it out

By filling up the silence with an organ sound

And by writing sentences I used to think were quite profound

The word “drown” in the first verse, though used in a different sense here, connects the listener directly back to the very real existential dread articulated in the previous two songs. The mental anguish associated with the futility of her efforts leads her to desperation in the chorus wherein she ponders if perhaps submission to the patriarchy and male gaze is the only way to stay safe, to stay alive:

And it feels like the weight is too much to carry

I should quit, maybe go get married

Only time will tell

And I wonder if I should’ve changed my accent

Tried to make myself more attractive

Only time will tell

This is followed by a post-chorus that makes the explicit connection with cinema, bolstered by a clever horror film pun (“in the final cut”) of the type so often present in the titles of slasher movies:

In the final cut

In the final scene

There’s a final girl

And you know that she should be screaming

Not surprisingly, the second verse returns to existential dread, here expressed through a feeling of rapidly expiring time (“Telling all the tales took time, That I just do not have”), which reconnects us to the same anxiety already expressed in “He Said / She Said” (“But it’s hard to know what’s right, When I feel like I’m borrowin’ all of my time,”) and “California” (“Waste a month, waste a year, Waste the time you could’ve been here”). This becomes even more intense and visceral in the second pre-chorus via the recurring themes of patriarchal possession of women and the threat of violent death which here combine:

Try to take it back

As it turns to black

Don’t want to find your daughter in a body bag

So I need to get out now while most of me is still intact

Mayberry imagines herself being dismembered, a process she tells us is already underway (“while most of me is still intact”). And in the line “don’t want to find your daughter in a body bag” there is a possible allusion to a common refrain from men when asked to comment on cases of sexual assault, rape, and/or domestic murder wherein they can only understand it as a violation as it relates to themselves (“I have a wife,” or “I have two daughters,” vel sim), rather than that of a independent and equal being.

In the end, the titular “Final Girl” is again another woman with her voice denied (“ you know she should be screaming,”) who will be revealed to be merely a “stand-in” (pun intended) for the disembodied poet during the final outro chorus:

In the final cut,

in the final scene,

there’s a final girl,

does she look like me?

So, in fact, it is the poet herself under assault and whose voice was being denied all along.

This is followed by a deceptively upbeat, happy-sounding track “Good Girls” which, not surprisingly, is actually about Mayberry’s contrasting self-identification as a “not-Good Girl,” and the inherent dangers that brings. Interestingly, this is the song on the album where the author employs the greatest number of active voice verbs for the speaker since the first song.

They tell me I’m hell-bеnt on revenge

I cut my teeth on wеaker men

I won’t apologise again

And I never had a taste for liars

Or the uniquely uninspired

’Cause I don’t need to be desired

But, as is the case throughout the record, almost all of these first person active verbs are negated (“I don’t,” “I won’t,” “I never”) or violent-sounding (“I cut my teeth on weaker men”) and essentially all in opposition to the reported actions of what the “good girls” do and do not do. It is also Mayberry at her most self-confident, here pointedly not regretting her past and declaring her independence from the male gaze (“‘Cause I don’t need to be desired”). The chorus, instead, turns to the titular “good girls” with whom she contrasts herself:

Good girls don’t cry

And good girls don’t lie

And good girls justify

But I don’t

We the listeners know the poet is marking a contrast, because all the way back in the opening lines of the first song, she has confessed to lying — one of the few moments of her describing herself as successfully speaking (“I cheated and I lied”). Interestingly, in comparison, these “good girls” do have a voice, but they seemingly only use it to justify themselves, an unmistakeable act of submission. So, here the poet is the one actively refusing to use her voice, because doing so could only be in accordance with someone else’s wishes, to justify herself to them, as the “good girls” do. The second half of the chorus raises the stakes and reveals the consequences of this choice:

Good girls don’t die

And good girls stay alive

And good girls satisfy

But I won’t

The poet’s refusal to “satisfy” (with undeniable sexual overtones) puts her very life in question, and as we know, it’s not at all unreasonable for her to think so. One could also read in these lines the rape-apologist refrain that if something does happen to a women, it must be her failure, her fault — she was probably “asking for it” because she’s not a “good girl.” Therefore, Mayberry perhaps presages her own death in these lines because of her unwillingness to “satisfy” — “good girls stay alive … but I won’t.”

Finally, the song begins and ends with violence, though in Mayberry’s most “active” song, it is she who is contemplating committing the violence for once and invites someone (us?) to join her in “killing your idols.”

Killing your idols is a chore

And it’s such a fucking bore

’Cause I don’t need them anymore

So maybe if you just got some guts

We’d kill them with a thousand cuts

And say we did it out of love

This self confident, pro-active poetic voice is short-lived, however, as in the next track, “Lullabies,” Mayberry returns to regrets and the resultant loss of agency. Though there are still a lot of “I” statements here, they are mostly about what she didn’t do or wishes she had or hadn’t done:

I’m getting tired of the alibis

All the excuses and reasons why build inside my mind

No reply

I wish that I’d known ahead of time

And I wish I had been more kind

I wish I

After her failure to accomplish any of the first person actions in the verse — a list which she herself can’t even fully articulate — in the chorus, the poet has her agency denied as she has become the passive recipient of all the verbal actions.

Paralysed and spinning backwards

Lullabies don’t comfort me

Televise the great disaster

We’re better off inside of the screen

I’m terrified of falling faster

Lullabies don’t comfort me

So televise the great disaster

We’re better off inside of the screen sometimes

She is “paralyzed” and “spinning backwards” and “terrified” while being uselessly sung to and having her (perceived) failures displayed to the world. A world in which she is still unable to find comfort in, so, as she does in “California,” she instead muses that perhaps retreating to the mediated realm of the digital world is the better choice — “We’re better off inside of the screen sometimes.”

The ninth song, “Nightmares,” opens with what seems to be a voice rediscovered, only to be just as quickly denied in the second line of a clever epigrammatic twist:

I get the last word

Only because I write on the walls in my head

And in quick succession that denied speech is immediately rationalized away:

Maybe some things are better unsaid

To be left on the sheets of your bed

Later, in the bridge, this unresolved relationship has revealed itself to be horrifically unsatisfying: “It might have looked like love, but it tasted a lot like blood.” And she longs for many of the things denied in previous songs — to be loved, seen, heard, safe, and satisfied — which she knows can only come if she learns to love herself: “What is it like to be the apple of your own eye?” In the lines that follow this, the speaker is interestingly neither fully active nor passive, but rather putatively both, almost a middle voice, in these essentially reflexive verbs of which she is understood to be the implied, unexpressed agent:

Always loved

Always seen

Always gratified

Always heard

Always safe

Always satisfied

But, her inability to do either this or to move on causes her to return repeatedly to a downward spiral of negativity in the chorus that gets progressively lyrically darker and musically heavier as the song progresses:

Can I forgive if I forget

All my mistakes and my regrets?

If all of this is for the best?

I’ve been singing that song,


Another ballad that won’t make amends

It’s been giving me nightmares,


And they don’t end

I’ve been singing along,


Another poem designed for revenge

Now I’m living the nightmare,


And it won’t end

This connects us back to the bad dreams of “Violent Delights,” and the repetition of the strongly enjambed “again” punctuates the recurrence and inescapability of them. And, though she understands she’s not to blame (“I was no sweet dream, but I was never a nightmare”), she nevertheless also knows it’s up to her to let go, if she wants to move forward, as signalled by the repeated “forgiving, forgetting” of the outro.

The very last track, “Better If You Don’t,” with its softer vocals and gently plucked guitar marks a strong transition from most of what has preceded it, sonically at least. However, lyrically, Mayberry returns to almost all of the themes laid out throughout the first nine songs in quick succession. She is full of regrets (“Drinking to the things I can’t take back”), nods to the ambiguous the relationship with the screen (“TV’s on but facing at the wall”) and its apparent provocation of her self-doubt (“Can they tell I don’t like me at all?”) in another example of Screen Violence. She again feels estranged (“I’m never as alone as I am back home”) and contemplates the fragility of human connection and mortality (“And some of them arе not our friends, And some of them arе still our friends, but dead”), while still struggling to use her voice (“I mumble when I speak”). And, she is more sure of what she shouldn’t do than what she should (“It’s better if I don’t dwell, but if I do, I won’t call on you again”). It is important to note an interesting inverse of her situation at the beginning of the album in “Asking For A Friend,” where she was still stuck on a failed relationship:

But you still matter,

You still matter

You still matter x8

I don’t want to say

That I’m afraid to die

The past is in the past

It isn’t meant to last

But if I can’t let go

Will you carry me home?

Can we celebrate the end?

I’m asking for a friend

Instead on “Better If You Don’t” Mayberry closes the album resolved to move on:

I carry what I keep

I don’t miss a lot of you

I drink and I think too much

I should quit one of the two

But I won’t wish for luck

And I won’t bother you

It’s better if you don’t

care, but if you do

I won’t follow you,


There is no way to know if these two songs do in fact refer to the same relationship (or any “real” relationship at all for that matter), but the artistic connection between the opener and the closer is made stronger by several verbal echos, some of which are single emphatic words (“friend” “home”), but others are whole phrases wherein most of the verbal agents have been reversed.

Verbal echoes between “Asking For A Friend” and “Better If You Don’t”

So while she seems to have taken some control of her actions by album’s end, one thing that remains the same from start to finish is the poet’s struggle to speak in the face of all this emotional trauma.

These verbal echoes, as well as the other inter-song links noted above — the denied voice, the existential dread, our relationships with screens, the looming threat of patriarchal violence and control, and all this weighed against the difficult balance of self-love and the risks inherent to opening ourselves up to the love of another— help to create a splendid symmetry that is a big part of what makes Screen Violence such a compelling and satisfying concept album. The themes are timely, compelling, and well-developed alongside the leitmotif, but in ways that are often subtle and that only fully reveal themselves after several listens. Throughout, the lyrics are rich and carefully crafted, without ever feeling forced or over-wrought, and Mayberry’s poetic voice is equal parts strong and vulnerable, sardonic and earnest. All this, combined with its varied and nuanced supporting soundscape, has created an understated masterpiece and the perfect album for this particular late-pandemic, post #MeToo moment.



Gregory P. Stringer