Shanty for the Arethusa

Image result for the decemberists

The sea shanty is about due for a revival. Since sailing has ceased being a major industry and seamanship a major career option, so the shanties have died out. But with all things old-timey and artisanal being currently on-trend, I think we can expect to see some of the more obscure and niche types of folk music becoming a hip thing for trendsetters to be in-the-know about. Bluegrass music has been steadily becoming more popular for some time, while the general interest in backyard gardening and the long-lost pickling arts shows no sign of waning. People want to do things with their hands again, they want to feel connected to some kind of heritage, they want to feel some sense of self-sufficiency, and learning musical folklore is part of that.


Shankill Butchers

The single most blood-curdling lullaby you’ll ever hear. And it becomes even more chilling when you learn that it’s very much based on real history. The real-life Shankill Butchers were a kill-squad within the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force who went about kidnapping and murdering Catholics during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. I much recommend learning about the political history of Ireland, because if nothing else it will deepen your understanding of all the pop culture that the Irish have produced. (It’s also quite the cautionary tale about the English people’s boundless desire to colonize literally everyone including their next-door neighbors.) If you don’t feel like doing the research, then the Decemberists have done it for you.


Come at me for saying this, but Debbie Harry remains the greatest white woman rapper. She came about that distinction on the strength of one song, Rapture, which in 1980 became the first rap song to achieve mainstream popularity. Here she is again in 2003, proving that she’s still got it. Now you may point out that Harry is not very good at rapping and her verses are kind of nonsensical. Well, yeah. I never said she was the best. There’s not a whole lot of competition in the white women rappers category; to the best of my knowledge there are maybe two or three. There’s Iggy Azalea, an Australian whose emulation of black culture is one bad suntan away from straight-up minstrelsy, and Yo-landi Vi$$er, a South African whose work is only tangentially related to American hip-hop. And then there’s just Deborah Harry, who’s not a very proficient rapper but can claim credit for helping to popularize the genre, which definitely makes her the most culturally important white woman in the game.

Shabop Shalom

Here is a song about being Jewish, or becoming so, or something. And romance with a Rabbi’s daughter. Weird spoken intro aside, it’s kind of a funky jam, as much as Devendra Banhart’s brand of psychedelic of Latin-spiced psychedelic folk music could be said to be funking it. Also, I think it’s a topic that needs to be more of an item in music. Given how many important entertainment figures are Jewish, there aren’t too many songs about it. It’s definitely its own genre in literature and in comedy, but it’s not exactly a big rock and roll aesthetic. More songs for Jews, please.

Sex With Strangers


Sex with strangers is a taboo, one of the milder ones. It’s a not-uncommon fetish. It’s a profession. For some people, it’s a symptom of the corruption of traditional values; for others, it’s just something you do on spring break. Nearly any way you look at it, there’s the implication that for people who have sex with strangers it’s because they lead lonely and broken lives. They’ve failed, somehow, to know the people they have sex with. That may be nearly true. It’s probably true that most sex workers, for example, didn’t arrive at their position by skipping down a path strewn with daisies. There are the confirmed lonelyhearts of the world, the people who find sustained relationships impossible for whatever reason. Too busy, too ugly, too traumatized or too antisocial, they’ve just given up on partnership and domesticity. There are the fetishists, whose fetish exists outside of how functional or not they might be in other areas of their life, and then there are people who simply get a thrill from the breaking of a mild taboo. Then there are those who think they are being brave new girls, feminist trailblazers lifting the stigma of promiscuity one drunk stranger at a time, carving a new society by their rejection of good girl standards, claiming their place alongside men in the arena of meaningless fucking. Until they realize that their behavior has calcified into fetish, they’re too old to learn relationship skills, all of their peers have disappeared behind their white picket fences, and all they’ve done is repaint the old taboos a different color. They find that they’ve become the nighthawk at the diner.

Sex Changes

Amanda Palmer just can’t stop being controversial, at least in the small corner of our culture where indie music is subject of serious discussion. Controversy is to be expected for a very emotionally and intellectually unfiltered person who lives her life on social media, as Amanda does. I’m not sure how and why we’re at a cultural moment where we’re having a heated discussion about a 12 year old song by a now defunct indie band, but here we are, so let’s have the damn conversation. Is Amanda Fucking Palmer transphobic? I mean, I think that we can agree that as a person, she is not. She is super pro-everyone being who they are and having the freedom and the right to do so. Is she an over-privileged white feminist and cis person who hasn’t quite grasped the nuances of intersectional identity politics? Oh yeah. So maybe she didn’t realize that it isn’t very nice, to say the least, to use language crudely referring to medical sex change – a physically, emotionally and politically fraught experience that many very vulnerable people struggle to go through – as a lyrical gimmick. I’ve always taken it as a broad metaphor, but listening closely, I can’t figure out what exactly the metaphor really is. It may be very broadly saying that personal growth can sometimes be traumatic. We change ourselves, and are changed by life, in extreme and violent ways. My best guess is she’s trying to say that society is cruel and dehumanizing in its expectations and often forces people to undergo painful and invasive changes, medical and otherwise, in order to become someone they’re not or someone they think they need to be. Which is a good point to make. We are all in a constant state of cutting and chopping away at ourselves in pursuit of, well, selfhood, it’s very often not even a very authentic self, and it’s usually female people who are hurting themselves to conform to externally enforced social expectations. But trans people who pursue identity-confirmation procedures in order to live their identities are not the same as women who are being oppressed by social standards, it’s a false equivalency, and one should not be used as a metaphor for the other. All of which, I know, is very complicated if you don’t spend time immersing yourself in these issues. And this is a song that was released 12 years ago, when these issues were not being discussed as much as they are today, so you can’t expect the same standard of cultural sensitivity. Something that was just fine 12 years ago may trouble you now, it may trouble you enough to thoroughly sour your enjoyment or it may not. It really depends of how much you were getting from the artist in the first place, and how much you still need from them.

Sex Bomb

When it comes to sexually explicit material, few bands have been as gleeful with their shock tactics as Lords of Acid. That may be why they never broke very far out of the underground techno scene. In the late 90’s they saw the internet-porn-fueled future and they thought it was going to be a blast. They also knew that orgasmic female moaning was a surefire party-starter at least as old as Serge Gainsbourgh. No pretentious big ideas about broader social context for them, though. Nuance? Never heard of her! Drinking, dancing and screwing in smoke-filled dungeons is the only life that matters. There’s something liberating in that kind of mindless hedonism.