Here’s something notoriously depressing. I think we all know the story of Joy Division’s brief success and tragic ending. There have been movies about it. Tragedy obviously sells, and you can’t deny that it’s because of the tragedy that instead of being a blip on the radar of the crowded post-punk field Joy Division has had an afterlife that’s fueled the sales of a million t-shirts. At least their gloom was genuine, and people with their own gloom relate to that. Idolizing a troubled person may seem ghoulish, but if it helps other troubled people feel a little bit better, that’s about the best legacy anyone could ask for.
Remember a couple of years ago when I was so obsessed with Belle & Sebastian, and I was posting about them every other week? I guess that was around 2015, and it was one of my favorite albums of that year. Kind of a random and unexpected choice of fresh obsession. As it happens, Belle & Sebastian have released about a dozen albums, the first of which came out in 1996, so I was, of course, very much late to the party. In 1996 the pieces were already fully in place, the aesthetic recognizably formed, but perhaps the market wasn’t quite ready for shoegazer pop reminiscent of something you would hear in an inoffensive mid-1960’s romantic comedy. Now that particular aesthetic is its own cottage industry, because apparently society is finally ready to go full-twee.
The Beatles didn’t singlehandedly convince ‘the establishment’ that rock and roll was worthy of the same respect as ‘proper’ music, but they certainly contributed more than a fair shakes towards earning that respect. It’s generally agreed that Sgt. Pepper was a catalyst in establishing rock music as a real art form, and She’s Leaving Home is generally pointed out as proof that rock musicians are capable of producing works of great sensitivity and nuance. The youths of the time needed no convincing on this point, but the squares were reluctant to give those long-haired upstarts their due as songwriters and composers. All they needed was Paul McCartney in his most dewy-eyed mode, thoughtfully acknowledging the sad and inevitable gap between between generations and their inability to relate to one another, backed with a plush string arrangement. Now, of course, the artistic validity of rock as a genre is beyond any shadow of a doubt; if anything, it has become overly entrenched as the dominant cultural standard. It strikes us as outlandish and unthinkable that anyone would have ever questioned it.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the goth aesthetic is just that – an aesthetic commanded by choice of lipstick and accessories, to which musical taste is just another satellite. Fair enough. Goths care about the details of their material style more than most subcultures. Goth music may be an undefined genre, but it’s very definitely a thing. No one can be goth or a fan of goth without bowing to Bauhaus, a group who, in their brief years together, set the standard for both musical and visual goth aesthetics. That’s decades of influence for a career spanning four albums (plus one reunion.) Personally, I’m somewhat loath to give too much credit to a band whose lead vocalist has a set of vocal mannerisms that just so happens to be identical to David Bowie’s, and I’m not the first sharp-eared critic to point out the similarity, but apparently Peter Murphy finds it deeply rankling when people impugn upon his originality. It’s purely a coincidence that he sings that way, alright? Anyway, this is seminal goth music, and in no way a group of men who built their entire musical identity out of a dog-eared copy of Station to Station and then went on to inspire a whole new generation of kids to build their entire identities on a small handful of songs and videos. It’s just the circle of life and it moves us all, as the poet said.
The Knife’s music is a distant relation to the electronic music you hear at clubs and bars, in the same way that the frozen ‘breakfast pizza’ you were served in middle school is related to what people eat in Sicily. (Obviously, The Knife’s music is the authentic Sicilian cuisine in this equation.) The Knife evokes a frosty and surreal atmosphere, using such dangerous gimmicks as voice distortion and tinkling reindeer bells. It is, through and through, very Scandinavian, and like Scandinavia itself, not to everyone’s taste. Alienating music is by rights the most interesting music, and by alienating people in swaths artists gain cult-like followings from true believers. With The Knife, Fever Ray and solo projects, Karin Dreijer is definitely one of those artists who serves freshly-chilled weirdness to a small cabal of true believer-type fans. She is not about to become a household name or headline a major festival, but I’m guessing that she has more freedom and satisfaction in her idiosyncratic career than major pop stars may do in theirs.
Fun fact: Little Richard began his musical career playing drag shows, which apparently was absolutely a thing in 1940’s America. If nothing else, it taught him a lot about the application of eyeliner. And showmanship, of course. Little Richard was one of the hardest rocking rockers in the newly invented world of rock’n’roll, and it was newly invented because he had just invented it. He also deserves credit for introducing legions of crew-cut white kids to dubious sexuality, something he was surprisingly allowed to do in era when sexual deviancy was still very firmly frowned upon and could easily destroy even the most upstanding crew-neck’s life. Maybe it was because rock music itself was viewed as a novelty that a black man with a taste for beehive hair and heavy makeup could be accepted and dismissed as one more weirdo in a parade of noisy weirdos. Then, of course, he found Jeebus and renounced – temporarily, as it turned out – his devil’s music playin’ ways. The damage to an impressionable generation was already done though, and in a few years popular culture would be entirely in the hands of effeminate devil-sympathizing juvenile delinquents.
“Help gets so unhelpful, near the end”
Marianne Faithfull can be kind of a downer sometimes. She gets into some of the darker corners of the average human experience, having lived them all, of course. She began performing this adaptation of a Caroline Blackwood poem in the 70’s, when it was still unclear whether or not her own substance abuse would take her down. It didn’t, because apparently Marianne Faithfull has a constitution unrivaled by anyone except some guy named Keith. This woman is going to sit and watch the world burn to the ground and then reach for another drink. On a realistic note though, Faithfull has had to face mortality in recent years. She is no longer about to drown in whiskey and heroin, but she’s facing the mundane reality that no one ever really survives. She’s undergone treatment for breast cancer and other health problems, and she’s seen many close friends pass away. The death of Anita Pallenberg last year was particularly hard. Those things lend a new level of gravitas to Faithfull’s latest work. (As if gravitas was a thing she was lacking.) She was never just playing at being one step away from oblivion, but now oblivion is inevitable, a burden of time, not a threat of her own making. No one comes close to Faithfull when it comes to exploring themes of shame and regret, desperate hope and longing, love and redemption. She has the optimism and black humor of a soldier who returns alone from the battlefield.