ThouShaltNot is not more, but for a little while in the early 2000’s they were keeping 80’s-style goth music alive. I don’t even remember why and how I discovered them, because the keeping goth music alive scene is not really my scene. (The interwebs, obviously, though.) I’m glad I did, and I’ve been listening to them pretty regularly for years. It’s nice to discover something that is in the same vein as the classics everyone and their dog loves but hasn’t been hammered to death by every two-bit DJ in every poorly-lit sleazy nightclub you’ve ever been to.
And here we pause to briefly wax nostalgic about early 2000’s indie rock. I have to do this sometimes because I’m in my 30’s. Wow, I remember really liking the first New Amsterdams album. For, like, a few months in 2006. (Never You Mind was released in 2000, but never you mind.) I didn’t realize that 1) The New Amsterdams aren’t really a real band, they’re a side project of The Get Up Kids, who are ok but not a personal favorite; 2) I would rarely ever listen to The New Amsterdams again, except in isolated moments when I’m remembering the summer of 2006; and 3) I don’t even particularly care for this particular style of indie rock in the first place. I was actually encouraged to buy this record by someone who thought I would like it because I like Built to Spill. They were on point with their suggestion. If you like unpretentious regular-dude indie rock, this is a record you will enjoy. I also really like their album Story Like a Scar, which actually came out in 2005 and was also in heavy rotation in the summer of ’06. It’s good chill driving music, which I know because I took a lot of long road trips during that phase of my life. Let me get a few more birthdays under my belt and I’ll start compiling decades-of-my-life playlists, and this will be on one of them.
The Flaming Lips are one of the great psychedelic rock bands of our time (not that it’s a crowded field.) Their music roves all over all of the wavelengths and their heads are filled with soupy ideas. They want you to use your cosmic energy to liberate yourself from whatever is binding you. Free your mind! Many people consider them a drug band, for obvious reasons, but really, you don’t need any chemical edge to enjoy the trip they offer. It may even feel a little redundant. This is music that trips you out and expands your mind all on its own power. So yeah, allow that cosmic pulse to take you out of your narrow little life and feel the greater power, or whatever. I think there’s some crude metaphor for self-liberation in Wayne Coyne’s video, but it may throw you off that it just happens to be a lot of people’s erotic fantasy as well. Minus the monkey, of course.
Flashback to 2005, y’all! It’s pretty much a given that whatever’s at the top of the music charts at any given time is pretty much crap that will be forgotten within weeks. It’s been that way since time immemorial. When a young artist tops the charts with their debut single, you expect them to also be forgotten within weeks. But every once in a while that young artist with the catchy single develops into a real keeper. When Rihanna had this, her first hit, there wasn’t much to put her ahead of all the other pretty girls with promising singles, but she soon established herself as pop music’s resident bad girl. It was her rock solid judgement in picking hit singles, her give-no-fucks attitude, her unapologetic glamour, her turbulent personal life and her honesty about it – all the things that make a great pop star, all in one loud package. More than a decade later, she’s not only still at the top of her game, she’s actually growing out of the gilded pop star box and edging towards becoming an artist with vision. The distinction between pop star and visionary artist is kind of a false dichotomy anyway; plenty of successful pop stars have vision. It’s a vision of themselves being successful pop stars. But there’s definitely a difference between those who are content to sing and dance and make money, and those who see themselves as cultural figures with something to say. Rihanna has been evolving slowly from the former to the latter, and if she never arrives at ‘serious artist’ acclaim, it won’t be because she couldn’t transcend the tropes of ‘stupid pop star’.
I remember the exact moment I first heard Lady Gaga on the radio. Cruising through south Austin in a Subaru station wagon with a person I would now murder if I thought I could get away with it. A far from idyllic memory; the early months of 2009 were among the worst of my life. When most of your time is spent trying to become unconscious, little happy moments make a big impression, and hearing a good song on the radio stays with you. I’ve successfully repressed the rest of that day, but that moment with the radio dial will stay with me forever. Hearing the robotic chorus of Poker Face for the first time, my exact thoughts were, “This song is far too good to be on the radio; I will most likely never hear it again. Better enjoy the hell out of this.” It was like something you would hear at a leather-daddy disco, an aggressively sexual earworm too dark for anything but a three a.m. dance floor. It’s a song designed for that final desperate bout of dancing right before last call, when the fates decide who gets to ride the disco stick and who goes home to cry. That’s to say, it’s a very specific aesthetic. Before Lady Gaga exploded into the mainstream, we were in one of those boring dry spells where the kinky gay club music stayed in the kinky gay club. Now its hit supremacy feels inevitable, the hand of the pop gods at work. But at the time, in that moment, in broad daylight, it had a gorgeous feeling of misplacement, like a straggling reveler doing the walk of shame in their glitter and sweat on a Monday morning.
One of the greatest musical artists in the German speaking world pays homage to one of the worst. The question is, why? Cultural solidarity of some sort, I presume. Nina Hagen and Falco couldn’t have been more different. She tore apart the fabric of musical convention as part of the underground punk scene; he was known for a handful of novelty rap songs. I’m sure you’re familiar with the famous hit Rock Me Amadeus. If not, just know that it is a song of such excruciating badness you can’t help but love it. Really though, Falco’s music was so, so, so, sosososo sooooo sooooooooooooo objectively bad. I mean, this guy was the German Vanilla Ice. He was also the most successful musician to come out of Austria since Amadeus himself. Inexplicably enough, the world really wanted to hear what europop would sound like with more rapping. Why does Nina Hagen, one of the godmothers of punk, see this man as a kindred spirit? We’ll never truly know, because Falco is dead and Nina Hagen is insane. No really, Prima Nina is batshit insane, which is, of course, a large part of her brilliance. Hagen is one of those people for whom aggressive weirdness is not an affectation but a way of life. She has to be weird because otherwise she would explode. It doesn’t help her harness her immense talents towards anything approaching marketable appeal, but it’s made her a cult icon to fans whose alienation is too deep to be salved with what’s readily available. Nina Hagen will probably never follow former fellow outsiders like The Smiths and David Bowie from well-kept secret to Hot Topic sales rack, and that’s ok. She doesn’t want that, and her fans don’t want that. Let the weirdness remain undiluted. So what if a lot of what she writes about makes no sense. She writes from the heart, no doubts about it. If she wants to write a send-off for the soul of a shitty half-forgotten pop-rapper who drove into the side of a bus while high on cocaine, that’s her grace. If Nina Hagen thinks Falco’s soul is worth blessing, that doesn’t elevate his legacy, but maybe we should consider that being an artist is in itself elevating, even if the art is dreck.
One day I’m going to be a sexy older dame, and I only hope to be half as sensual and edgy as dame Marianne Faithfull. There have been many, many songs sung about being old and weary, if anybody can claim to have seen too much, it’s Faithfull. She owns the persona of the rueful old street singer. The other side of that persona is the unrepentant sensualist who savors her experience and can’t wait to live more. Which is incredibly inspiring, for anyone who doesn’t aspire to curl up and die once they’ve passed their golden child years. Life is still full of adventure, even if you’ve outlived your usefulness as an ingenue. There’s the promise of late life romance, free of the shame and stupidity of youth. There’s the satisfaction of wisdom well earned, the pride of self sufficiency, the relief of leaving the young woman’s pedestal behind forever. Once you’ve lived it all and seen it all, the world is your oyster.