I discovered Hurray for the Riff Raff by stumbling into a SXSW performance, back when SXSW still meant something. I was a little blown away. Alynda Segarra is both very tiny and cute and an incredibly powerful performer, someone seemingly grew out of centuries of troubadour tradition like a pithy fruit. We don’t really talk about protest music anymore, because it’s been decades since anyone has used music as a political tool in any organized way. We forget the impact of effective political songwriting, and it’s too bad. Good music is just what the revolution needs.
This what soul music is all about. Sharon Jones was a modern-day paragon of soul, and her life was its own triumphant soul song. Soul music is the expression of people’s downright magical ability to nourish love, optimism and generosity of spirit out of a lifetime of hardship, disappointment and misfortune. It’s this big-spirited perseverance that allows us, as people, to continue hanging in there, all together. Nothing reflects that more than the vibrancy and creative joy that flourish in the most oppressed and disenfranchised communities. All broad sociological strokes aside, though, we love soul music because it makes us feel good and reminds us that we can and should feel good despite the worst of times, and that satiates a universal thirst for comfort.
Leonard Cohen lays out his philosophy for life, and it’s just what you would expect. He’s a downtempo kind of a guy. When I hear this, I hear it as a decades-too-late reply to Marlene Dietrich, who crooned “A guy who takes his time, I go for every time” back in her day. Dietrich didn’t leave much question as to what she meant, and she was, indeed, a fast-movin’ gal, if you catch my meaning. We can be sure what Leonard Cohen means about it too. He’s talking about cruising along savoring the slow stuff, and sensualism has always been his philosophy. Of course, he comes from a different time, when the pace of life was not so jacked up on synthetic adrenaline, and taking things slowly just to enjoy them didn’t seem like such an exotic luxury. Well, we all have something to learn from the old geezer, don’t we?
I never thought that it would come to this, but it seems that droning, feedback-laden guitar rock – of the kind that Lou Reed patented in the waning 1960’s – has become something of a rarity. The world moves on, of course, and the dozens of bands that were formed because someone stumbled across a Velvet Underground album have flourished and run their course. It is the nature of culture. We are dominated now by a different set of collective musical gestures. And that’s ok, because contrary to the nostalgia narrative, the culture was not objectively better when everyone sounded like they’d stumbled upon a Velvet Underground album. If nothing else, now it actually feels like a treat again to hear someone who has mastered that particular droning laissez faire. Maybe one day kids stumbling upon Parquet Courts records will be motivated to start yet another garage rock cycle.
Coming to the end of our sexy songs about sex, we’ve illuminated nothing, I think. Let’s cap it all off with something mindless and fun. Chromeo isn’t known for depth or perceptiveness, but they are known for… actually, I’m not sure what Chromeo is famous for. Hyper-caffeinated dance music influenced by funk, disco and old school hip hop, according a swift bout of research. Post-millennial party music, I guess. Let’s just say that when these guys write a song about a sexy socialite they’re not trying to explore the problematic intersection of gender roles and institutional class disparity. There’s artists who do want to explore those things, but at the end of the day, people just want to dance and pretend that it’s still 2001 and Paris Hilton is the role model we all look up to. So file it under Music for Sleazy Parties.
Here’s a song about sex, and all of this week’s songs are going to be about sex. Disingenuous, I know: most, if not straight-up all, songs are about sex. I could put it out there that most human endeavor is in some way about sex, because humans are simplistic like that. But definitely most music, though some people do try to put on a genteel scrim by dragging ‘love’ into it. Some people are so masterful that they don’t mention interpersonal relationships at all, but it’s understood that deep down inside, their artistic motivation is the same as the guy screaming about his love rocket. (It’s always the hope that their showmanship will increase their chances of finding someone to bonk genitals with, and frankly it’s failproof.) But, by and large, most songwriters stick with what they know and what sells: sex is fun and it sure would be great to have some. This school of songwriting is inexhaustible, and inexhausting. This song by Die Antwoord is a straightforward example of sex-focused songwriting; it delivers the message that sex is fun and it sure would be great to have some; it has a bedroom-suitable beat and a hook that, besides selling sex, could also be used to sell alcoholic beverages, tropical-smelling beauty products and any number of other sexuality-enhancing products. Of course, we all know that two of the three members of Die Antwoord do, in fact, have sex with each other and even have an offspring to show for it, which lends it an element of authenticity often missing from sexy songs made by people who don’t actually have sex with each other and therefore lack that certain sizzle when they perform together. Which is the thing about sexy songs: there needs to be an element of real passion behind the dirty talk or else they just sound stupid.
St. Vincent is a woman of mystery. She doesn’t like to open up her personal life, which is understandable enough. We should all be wary about trying to draw straight lines between art and real life. But she does write such passionate and complex love songs. They’re not even love songs in the traditional sense. They’re not about the usual business of desire and putting the loved one on a pedestal (then tearing them down from it in due time, of course.) She writes songs about looking at a person, seeing them for their good and bad sides, having an intense and ambiguous web of feelings about them. It’s hard to tell when listening to a St. Vincent song if it’s about a loved one or a passing stranger or even just a reflection of herself. A very intellectual approach, I think. I would like to know who some of her muses are, besides that bug-eyed English waif, but of course she’d never stoop to picking her work apart like that.