Sometimes, I get tires of thinking about the changing pace of music and culture, the confusing prism of what things mean, to whom and it what context. Fandom seem to require so much hard work and reckoning these days. Sometimes I just want to throw in the towel and stop trying to be a conscientious consumer. Fuck it, sign me up for Nihilism 101. I just want to listen to the Rolling Stones in all their unrepentant glory. I want to hear Mick Jagger be a little bitch. I want music that means sex, drugs and death. Sorry, but that’s my comfort zone.
Look at the assortment of instruments that Paul Simon brings on stage with him. It’s like the contents of a small music store or antique shop. And how many of them come out for one low-key ballad? That’s just Paul Simon’s way. He incorporates exotic things from all over the world and makes is sound natural. But, of course, you could stuff all wind chimes and flutes and talking drums in the world onto your record and it wouldn’t mean anything if you don’t have songs that are touching. Simon wrote all the songs alone with an acoustic guitar, and anything else added on in the studio is just sprinkles on what’s really hearts-and-bones songwriting. We come to Paul Simon for his thoughts about life, and if there’s a little flute on the side, that’s nice.
Portugal. The Man are from Alaska, which means that they can see Russia from their house (Lord, I never get tired of that joke!) which should give them a unique perspective of what it means to be American. Seriously, though, Alaska is not a proper state; it has a different history, demographic makeup and culture than the proper United States, not to mention a radically different environment. I would imagine that being Alaskan actually would give one a nice remove from which to watch the American culture wars. Just don’t expect to hear about it from this band. Portugal. The Man is not here to write polemics or make comments about the unfolding world. Their songs are not about anything you can put your finger on – they’re just poetic and melodic. And that’s really a relief. I don’t actually want to hear another song about what it means to be ‘so American’ – I already know it’s not gonna be anything good. I just want to hear a catch song.
Is it a blessing or a curse when edgy artists suddenly go mainstream? On one hand, niche artists who happen to fluke into wide popularity often find themselves either pandering to the masses or flailing around to get their original voice back. On the other hand, the mainstream needs regular infusions of weirdness and irregularity to keep it keeping up. If there’s one thing the wider market needs, it’s more queer women’s voices from diverse backgrounds. Enter Janelle Monae, who’s been doing her freak thing out on the edge for a long time, and now she’s got one of the biggest and most acclaimed records of the year. The thing with Monae, though, isn’t that she got lucky with a fluke groove or – god forbid – sold out her aesthetic to become more appealing. She got wildly popular because the world was ready for her. The public didn’t used to take an interest in what a crazy black girl had to say about pushing gender boundaries, same-sex love or being a female artist in a still-very-normative world. Now the tides have changed, and people want to hear as many voices as they can, anything but the same old white-guy angst. The experience of being young, black, gay and creative in a world that is unstable, swiftly-changing and dangerous to differences is suddenly very relevant, and not just to people who’ve lived that particular experience. It’s relevant to anyone who’s come to the realization that the pop cultural figures they’ve been told to relate to are garbage. We’ve been living in a tyranny of forced empathy, being told from childhood that the most valid, universal and important human experience is the puberty-pain of middle-class white males, and we’re fucking sick and bored of it, and we want to learn about other people, and we want to be heard for our own stories. And we want more music and pop culture that reflects that. It’s not a matter of the outsiders storming in at the expense of the old classics, it’s just the Zeitgeist being ready.
So, have you heard about Moby? Apparently he’s a sad schmuck loser who consistently strikes out with women who are far out of his league and then lies about it. Like when he wrote in his memoir that he dated Natalie Portman and she was all like “wut, lol, no I was 18 you creep” and he was like “but we’ve been photographed together, please pleeese tell them we dated” and she was like “hard no!” and then he was so humiliated he canceled his book tour. Which is hardly terrible or earth-shaking as far as celebrity gossip goes, but it does put me once again in the exhausting position of evaluating my fandom of a person who got caught soiling their pedestal. Which, in this case, is hardly a scandal. Moby’s pedestal was never that high, and he didn’t even do anything particularly wrong besides being an average delusional sad dude who thinks that a few hang-out sessions and/or misguided hook-up add up to a ‘relationship’, and being a self-deprecating sad schmuck who gets rejected by women has kind of always been his ‘brand’, so. I mean, I was just evaluating my fanhood of Michael Jackson, and although I decided that I was perfectly okay with not being his fan anymore, I still spent the rest of the day singing “Annie are you OK?” in my head, so… this is child’s play, really. The only thing that gets me is that, unlike full-blown pedophiles, delusional sad schmucks with creepy intentions are fucking everywhere, they’re an everyday part of every woman’s life, and though they may be thinner on the ground once you’ve aged out of being potentially dumb enough to fall for them, they don’t ever entirely go away, and the fact that Natalie Portman still has to waste her time clarifying that she did not in fact ‘date’ a creepy sad older man who imagined himself dating her because they hung out a few times, well, just…. eww, squick. Moby not canceled, but unfortunately revealed to be a mediocre human being, flawed in a very conventional, boring, and pathetic way.
I remember this song being on the radio, back in 2013, and I didn’t know what it was. It was another few years before I started listening to Arctic Monkeys, so I missed the bus on that discovery. It reminds me of the early 2000’s rock revival, though. I think I would have really loved it in 2001, but that would have been a good five years before Arctic Monkeys made their first record, or even existed as a group, for that matter. But it’s funny, in a way, how a 2013 song reminds me of bands from the early 2000’s who were all trying to sound like bands from 1979. It’s just the cyclical way music works. All the hooks come around again and again, freshened up with new hairstyles.
For your collection of classic albums nobody has ever heard of, add R.L. Burnside’s A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (1996), which is classic for that title alone. Also for what Burnside did bringing blues music up to the gates of the 21st century. I must admit that I actually like aggressive electric blues like Burnside’s a lot more than traditional shotgun shack blues of olden times. Having been raised on blues-derived rock music, this kind of high-leaded energy feels like what blues ‘should’ sound like, while the crackly acoustic recordings of the old masters sound a little alien to me. Palates change, of course, and I know that some things are acquired tastes. But this right here is what I, the modern listener, want from a blues record. Which is why even the most deep-rooted musical styles have to evolve or face extinction.