I wish singing was as natural and easy as Amanda Palmer makes it sound. According to her, anyone can just unlock their voice and sing out. (Cat Stevens says the same thing.) It’s not true, of course; some people don’t have the innate ability, while some don’t have the courage. But it is a beautiful idea, best taken as a broad metaphor for the magic of self-expression. Amanda Palmer, as she writes in her book, believes that self-expression is free to anyone, and vulnerability, and putting yourself out there, and asking for whatever you need to ask for. It’s a beautiful and inspiring idea, and I’m sure that it’s helped a great many people. She doesn’t ever really confront all of the ways that those things are insurmountable for some people. She doesn’t seem to understand that some people have no one to reach out to. But it’s not that kind of a book, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It is not Amanda Palmer’s calling in life to confront the structures of disenfranchisement. Her calling is to inspire the people who have something to reach for, to reach for it. That’s pretty damn noble, in its own way, and it’s needed.
It’s not that often that an instrumental pop song hooks your ear and leaves you so satisfied you don’t even miss singing. Even songs designed for nothing more than taking ecstasy usually insert a vocal track. And it’s especially striking given that the singer missing is the great Charles Bradley. But this Menahan Street Band instrumental interlude from Bradley’s debut album is actually a standout all on its own. It evokes its own story, a little bit melancholy and a little bit optimistic, like any good love story should be. Just fill in your own details.
I can’t relate to Gwen Stefani’s generic feminine ambitions – something she was not being the least bit ironic about, if her lifestyle choices are any indication – but I can relate to her personal style. Though, obviously, it’s always a bit disappointing to find that the coolest girl on the block only ever really wanted to settle down and have a bunch of babies, your teenage idols are still your teenage idols deep down inside. You can credit Gwen Stefani for inspiring a legion of impressionable middle-schoolers to dye their hair shades that previously only existed on cartoon characters. You can credit Stefani for all the now-thirtysomethings who still religiously stock up on the Manic Panic and Urban Decay and Hard Candy. Yeah, Gwen Stefani was visually everything 8th grade me aspired to become one day. I didn’t particularly care that she also made music. She was just the height of style. I might even debate you on whether the style actually holds up better than the music. I mean, did the world really need California Ska, or did the world need an enduring fashion icon with the power to make adult braces trendy?
Gender-flipped, radically reconstituted covers of hoary male narratives is one of my favorite subgenres. I love the idea of finding something intimate, feminine and modern in something tough and masculine from another era. Cat Power didn’t invent that idea, but she was doing it before it became trendy. She really knows how to weave her own narrative out of narratives written by people with wildly different lives and points of view. Her cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man is a classic exercise in finding new truth in old tales. Nothing represents old-school rugged manliness like the Highwaymen: Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, outlaw country’s grand old men. The Highwaymen were formed as a reminder of what outlaw country used to be, before country music became just another bland, pandering, million-dollar pumping mainstream industry. They weren’t shy about leaning on leathery cowboy motifs, a reminder that in their day real men did really manly things, with horses and/or motorcycles, and they did it while day-drunk on whiskey-cocaine highballs. They were broadly implying that being a so-called bad guy living outside the law was some kind of moral high ground because at least they hadn’t sold their souls working for the man or whatever. In practice it just meant a lot of drunk driving, neglected families and money woes, but it’s a nice all-American fantasy of rugged individualism. Those guys probably intended riding off on a silver stallion as a metaphor for refusing to go to rehab (real men don’t go to rehab, real men die of cirrhosis like God intended!) but what does it mean for a woman living in today-times? Obviously it’s still a narrative of personal liberation, of freeing oneself from the woes of mundane life and zooming off, one way or another, into a lonelier, grubbier, but more self-actualized life. Which honestly is still the same message, delivered in sexier tones. Wherever you personal silver stallion takes you, saddle up and ride it as far is it goes.
Moby really makes the romantic yearnings of an unassuming schmuck sound, well, romantic. In the general scheme of things, as things stand today, mediocre dudes who have the sad feels are out of favor, let’s leave it at that. But Moby is not your average mediocre sad dude. He only looks like one. He has great things inside that eggy bald head of his. Artistic greatness, as we all know it, is taking your own mundane and inherently selfish emotional landscape, and transposing it into something that sparks other people’s souls with recognition. Great art makes you look anew at people you normally dismiss, barely visible people, people you would mock if you noticed them at all. Like that aging hipster with his vegan latte and his limited edition laptop and his beanie – he’s a person too, and he has the same great depths you have. He may even have great sounds and visions inside his head that could touch the world with their beauty and universal truth. All this because art is empathy. Art is awaking others to their own depths of feeling. Art is sharing those depths of feeling. (Art is shorthand for emotional communication for people who suck at talking about their feelings.)
A little while ago I decided to slowly start working my way into the Cure fandom. I can’t say I’m a dedicated, torch-carrying superfan but I did spend a lot of the past year listening to Lovesong. (Yes, the gateway Cure song.) One thing I found out – well known to longtime fans, I am sure – is that despite being somewhat ridiculous in image, they’ve been consistently sincere in their mopey romanticism, and despite a lot of personnel changes consistent in their sound. Obviously, Robert Smith is a little bit of a punch for being the emo kid who staunchly refuses to get a normal hair cut well into middle age, but apparently he and his fans are ok with that, and that’s admirable. A lot of us wish we were still the absurd little freaks we were when we didn’t know any better. As long as those sadboi anthems keep coming.
Everything about The Real Tuesday Weld is precious and refined like cut crystal stemware. Their refinement is in everything from their parallel-universe-cabaret aesthetic to their acclaimed videos to their literary bona fides (more than one of their albums has the distinction of being a ‘soundtrack to a novel’.) Obviously, baroque pop or antique beat or whatever portmanteau you want to call it, is something the world needs more of. The incursion of jazz, chanson, tango or other before-the-war and old-world musical influences into the world of pop is never not refreshing, and anyone who does it earns instant upgrades in the class department.