what we write about when we write about not writing: a music post

Last Friday, Maura Johnston posted a blog entry @ The Village Voice entitled “How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide.”

It was a pretty solid post, overall. Johnston tore into this idiotic profile of Lana Del Rey, which really does have a creepy tone, as though the author needs to be able to pretend that all female musicians are also his girlfriend, and better act like it. She also made quick work of a racist, sexist moment in Esquire where a bunch of unusual real names (e.g. Beyoncé) were mocked as “porn names.”

That said, Johnston jumped the shark twice. As a matter of overall structure, I seriously doubt that she likes Lana Del Rey all that much. I could be wrong, but my reasons are these: first of all, Johnston seems to have good taste in music, and the Lana Del Rey album is very uneven. “National Anthem” is so bad that it reminds me, with an involuntary shudder, of when I had to buy albums on cassette. It’s Del Rey’s “Wild Honey Pie,” except that’s even worse, because it re-uses bits of Track 2, “Off To The Races,” making that (much better) song seem less impressive.

Second, even if the profile really was creepy, you can’t seriously criticize the media for sexualizing Lana Del Rey. She’s defined herself through sultriness. (She’s your little Scarlett! Singing in the garden! Kiss her on her open mouth!) The music video for “Video Games” is so rote it’s almost like a parody: half of the video is her pretending to sing — while giving the camera a sidelong glance through amber waves of hair — and the other half is standard indie-rock “found footage” from 1980s home movies.

Side note: Where do all these home movies come from? I swear to God, there is a gigantic warehouse somewhere full of nothing but home movies for indie rock videos, and PSAs you might sample on your next rap album.

…ANYWAY, as a result, the piece ends up trying to defend Del Rey against the tidal wave of prurient publicity that she has obviously courted (starting with the fact that she’s Lizzie Grant, or used to be). Is it really a feminist move to treat Del Rey as famous by accident? Even Interscope takes flak for trying to persuade us that Del Rey is an indie rocker — another reason I don’t think Johnston likes Born To Die. But she is so intent on playing close to the vest that she won’t even disparage “Born In The USA” by Miley Cyrus.

Honestly, I really hate this approach to cultural meta-criticism. The Internet is full of indignation. Even when it’s justified, as here, there’s no reason Johnston couldn’t have also said something about all this music she’s sticking up for.

But it gets better. Johnston, firing on all cylinders, amassing a body count like a John Woo movie, takes a hip shot at Chuck Klosterman’s piece on tUnE-yArDs, which included the following line:

Garbus will end up with this bizarre 40-year-old life, where her singular claim to fame will be future people saying things like, “Hey, remember that one winter when we all thought tUnE-yArDs was supposed to be brilliant? That fucking puppeteer? Were we all high at the same time? What was wrong with us?”

Johnston responds: Anyone want to get a male critical darling of yore on the phone to talk about his “bizarre 40-year-old life”? I’ll wait.

Are you kidding me? How much time do you have? I’ve got Sunny Day Real Estate and Massive Attack on the line right now, and if you want the “deluxe package,” I’ll throw in Flava Flav, AND Andrew W. K., AND a copy of A Visit From The Goon Squad.

This, of course, led me to Johnston’s entire post responding to Klosterman, and I have to say, she didn’t get it. Klosterman is not just being polite when he calls Merrill Garbus a “serious artist,” and writes that w h o k i l l is “a very good record,” adding “I like your record.” OK, he doesn’t love it, but he likes it, and he did listen to it. His article is about the relationship between artists and fans, and his point is that even though he likes this album, some people who are obsessed with it right now will later try to discredit it, unless Garbus shuts them up with a slew of fantastic albums. Consider what happened to stellastarr — if you even remember the band I’m talking about. The “percussiveness” of w h o k i l l is a mixed blessing. It initially helps the album by making it easy to describe, and, in a way, easy to listen to — I know what I’m supposed to hear. But it also is something I can easily shrug off if the band’s star begins to fall, as though it was just a gimmick.

Perhaps Johnston feels that he should have listened to it six times. If you don’t listen to it six times, how can you possibly claim to have an informed opinion? Well, w h o k i l l is not exactly a bolt out of the blue. It’s musically similar to a lot of other acts, including Vampire Weekend (the percussion) and Ponytail. Life is short. I guarantee that when I recommend a song to friends, they listen to it exactly once unless they like something about it.

A lot of what passes for “debate” about culture descends into one or both sides saying, essentially, “you don’t even have the right to speak on this subject.” That’s no way to vindicate w h o k i l l; if you’re not already a fan, it sounds petulant.

Everything Klosterman says about tUnE-yArDs is right. His observations are so self-evident that I’m not sure why a fan has to take exception. Their lyrics really are indecipherable. I can be a Nirvana fan and still laugh at Weird Al’s “Smells Like Nirvana.” When instead you have a blogger at Slate wondering why “My Country” didn’t become an #OWS anthem, I start to wonder what kind of headphones these tUnE-yArDs fans are using, because I would pay basically any price for them.

Then there’s Klosterman writing that you can’t dance (other than in theory) to tUnE-yArDs — but you can, Johnston counters, because she went to a concert and that’s exactly what she did. No doubt, but live music played outdoors on a [Chan] Marshall stack is not the issue. Klosterman’s point is that the record actually isn’t a dance record, but that a lot of fans will enjoy pretending that it’s hedonistic just because it’s percussive. He’s right. It’s a headphones record. No matter how deep you are in Williamsburg or Silver Lake, if you put on w h o k i l l, you’ll make at least person so mad that you’ll have “the DJing fight,” a staple of any self-respecting hipster party. (This won’t happen right away. For one song, a lot of people will talk about how they totally love w h o k i l l. It will happen halfway through the second song.)

Indie fans have to stop congratulating themselves for dancing. It’s just embarrassing. Nobody comes home from a Justin Timberlake or Rihanna concert and says, “Man, that was so rad. Good crowd. People weren’t too cool for a little ass-shaking.”

To bring things full circle, Johnston does her best to prove that tUnE-yArDs is sexy as hell, quoting her colleague Eric Harvey:

On the sultry slow jam “Powa,” she confesses her preference for ceding control in the bedroom, punctuated with the confession “my man likes me from behind,” before collapsing into a gorgeous orgasmic wail. She one-ups even this on “Riotriot,” admitting an erotic attraction to the Oakland cop she watched handcuff her brother. It’s a quietly stunning moment to hear an artist, especially a woman, so bluntly admit the most repressed form of desire: that which arises when encountering a source of power well beyond your control.

This is laughable. tUnE-yArDs aren’t sultry (cf. Lana Del Rey, above). Yes, “Powa” is a sex song, but despite the masochism, it’s on Garbus’s terms. The song opens like this:

Wait, honey honey
Wait, honey honey
I will never get to sleep
Rebel, rebel, no
I can never get to sleep
I’m a rebel, rebel, no
Hold me til I get to sleep

This is vulnerable; vulnerable can be sexy, but this is so frail that it casts a shadow over the rest of the song. In “Powa,” Garbus sings about sex as if it is her alternative to suicide. Even the title suggests her need to dismantle “power,” a word she fears, by translating it into baby talk.

As an artistic statement, “Powa” is genuine and compelling. Klosterman’s description, “Garbus briefly and convincingly sings like Robert Plant,” conveys a lot more information than Harvey’s cliched “gorgeous orgasmic wail.” It’s good for Garbus to present her sexuality on her own terms, and probably many of her fans find her both genuine and sexy. That is plenty. There’s no reason to enter w h o k i l l in a sensuality contest against Born To Die. It will lose at a game it wasn’t trying to play, and some of the reasons are really banal: for example, you can’t get hot for lyrics you can’t understand. The effect of describing “Powa” as “a gorgeous orgasmic wail” is to make the next Zola Jesus or Janis Joplin article less informative.

Ultimately, both Johnston and Harvey give the impression that they would describe w h o k i l l as more sensual than Lana Del Rey, because Del Rey is fake and cheap. I find this disingenous because I don’t think Johnston (in her job as a critic) is all that interested in Bedroom Music (Especially For Lovers!). She tops her column on w h o k i l l with a picture that makes Garbus look about 14, and just so we don’t get the wrong idea, the picture for the other column isn’t Lana Del Rey but a Rolling Stone cover with Tina Turner. After all, Lana Del Rey was photographed by Terry Richardson, and that guy is terminally icky, even if she was the one who picked him.

Meanwhile, the tortured prose of “she confesses her preference for ceding control in the bedroom” and “admitting an erotic attraction” sounds exactly like what it is: a repressed indie rock Nice Guy trying to prove that he can write about the adult stuff. (Hot tip: “It was more than attraction…IT WAS EROTIC ATTRACTION!” is a hipster fridge magnet waiting to happen.) It’s reasonable to ask whether a Lana Del Rey song in which she sang “my man likes me from behind” would earn as much praise as “Powa.”

Rather than laying into Harvey’s analysis of “Riotriot,” which screams “I’m in a graduate seminar on Jean Genet,” I’ll come clean. “Riotriot” is one of those songs that makes w h o k i l l unlistenable for me. If you want to hear exactly what I’m talking about, fast-forward to 2 minutes and 30 seconds in, when the song goes into a noisy, atonal fit. Yes, I can understand that this is supposed to represent the chaotic experience of a riot, but it doesn’t: it represents the chaotic experience of a certain kind of art school post-punk. I’ve heard this aesthetic done countless times; I must own at least 20 albums with similar songs, thanks to Pitchfork. I wouldn’t say “Riotriot” is a better riot song than “White Riot” by the Clash, or “Guerrilla Radio” by Rage Against The Machine: it just sounds different. Furthermore, none of these songs will ever be featured at an actual riot. Protesters sing slow, melodic songs; that’s what works best for 500 unaccompanied voices.

I pretty much knew I was going to hate w h o k i l l when I saw how the band spelled its name. I’m aesthetically finicky enough to get a headache whenever I see those jagged little capital letters. The album title, with its inexplicable spaces and italicization, added insult to injury. I have no idea what “whokill” means. Is it a question? Is it, like, the first half of some ancient prophecy (“whokill the winged bear, only they shall eat the fruit of splendor”)? “Born To Die” may not be a very subtle album title, but at least I get some emotion out of it.

It is, in no way, essential that I love tUnE-yArDs. I also don’t like the art of Jaspar Johns or Paul Klee. I’m a Rothko guy, a Mondrian guy. Nonetheless, if I had to write a review of w h o k i l l, I would give it a decent score, just like Klosterman. I would do all I could not to describe it as “dance music topped off by a gorgeous wail,” because that would be misleading. I’ll end with how not to end, courtesy of Pitchfork’s Matthew Perpetua:

A lot of what makes w h o k i l l and tUnE-yArDs’ excellent live performances so compelling is the degree to which Garbus commits to her ideas and displays a total conviction in her personal, idiosyncratic, high-stakes music. This, in and of itself, is very inspiring and empowering.

Johnston cites this, approvingly, as summing up the band’s “highly individualistic appeal.”

It does the opposite. It tells us nothing. You could replace the artist and album names with almost anybody in indie rock, and the statement would continue to sound true. The Dirty Projectors make personal, idiosyncratic, high-stakes music. So does EMA. So does Robyn, Cass McCombs, Leonard Cohen. It’s all just so inspiring and empowering!

Of the people I know, the subset who even know who tUnE-yArDs are, are nuts about them. Still, the way they talk about the album makes sense to me. It can be discussed objectively. When you try to do more than that, by making an album magically capable of being all things to all people, you fool yourself into thinking “My Country” is blowing in the wind. So much hyperbole leads, later on, to the kind of backlash that Klosterman is talking about.


PS. A couple snippets from Pitchfork reviewer Lindsay Zoladz, who writes an absolutely devastating review of Born To Die in precisely the right way, judging Lana’s album on its own terms:

[She aims] for chatty sparkling opulence…[but] does not have the personality to bring it off. Jay and Kanye made escapist fantasy sound so fun […] [Lana’s] fantasy world makes you long for reality. The sexual politics of Born To Die are troubling […] For all of its coos about love and devotion, it’s the album equivalent of a faked orgasm– a collection of torch songs with no fire.

As Ron Howard would say: now that’s how you narrate a story. Are you going to drop $10 on somebody else’s faked orgasm? Are you even going to Spotify something with no fire? Of course not.

Be happy everyone! Thanks so much for reading! OKTHXBYE!