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.
File under obscure favorites. If I may recommend a must have album that never shows up on any of those circle-jerk best-of lists, please take the time to discover John Cale’s Vintage Violence. Cale is still best known for using the viola to produce a vicious haze of electronic feedback with The Velvet Underground, and he’s carried on being forbiddingly weird throughout his solo career. Unlike Lou Reed, Cale’s walks on the wilder side never fluked their way onto the radio, and he’s never gotten up there with the big boys in terms of record sales and accolades. Which might be just fine as far as he’s concerned. He does what he wants, and if it’s not always easy to enjoy, that’s fine. But, despite a reputation for being even grumpier and more avant-garde than anyone else in his circle, he is also a master of stately emotional ballads. Which is his most accessible side, and where this particular album makes a great introduction. This is some truly underrated work, and it’s an injustice that John Cale isn’t widely accepted as one of the best songwriters and composers of his time.
Here, a lesson in zef aesthetics. For Die Antwoord music is only part of the story; their personas and visual style make them a complete package. There’s some debate as to how real those personas really are. It’s a bigger issue back home in South Africa, where some critics have accused Yo-Landi and Ninja of being middle class poseurs, much like white performers in America often get called out for trying to act like they from the hood. But for us viewing audiences here in the States, a lot of the context gets lost, and we don’t really care if their zef is the most authentic zef, because it’s the only zef we know. You don’t need an in-depth cultural history to enjoy what’s clearly an image that’s heavily dramatized for the stage. Die Antwoord’s visual cues are uniquely theirs, from their love of rats and freeky people to their clever takedowns of American hip hop culture. If you didn’t get it already, the sleek pimpy fellow getting his throat ripped out at the beginning of the video is a doppelganger of the aggressively mediocre and wildly popular Miami rapper Armando Perez aka Pitbull. Die Antwoord have consistently set themselves against what they call “one big inbred fuck-fest” of a music scene, meaning the endlessly generic, overhyped, overproduced products of the mainstream pop machine. Rap music used to be an outsider culture, but it has been cannibalized by the music industry and turned into another bland mass market product ruled by stereotype and cliche. The same has happened to rave culture and electronic music. Die Antwoord are a rap-rave outfit, drawing inspiration from – and satirizing – both cultures. One of the most enjoyable things about their inventive videos is seeing them send up, invert, and overturn the tired tropes of the standard music video.
Here is another Geoffrey Oryema song, which I initially considered skipping over for fear of redundancy. But then I discovered some good quality video of the artist performing at Woodstock ’94. That was thing, and I think it’s gone down as one of those ill-advised mildly embarrassing things from the 90’s, like hacky sack and No Fear t-shirts. But they did book Geoffrey Oryema to play in front of several thousand people, so that’s a positive. You would think that Oryema’s music is too intimate to translate well to festival stages, but it actually sounds surprisingly good. If the audience seems somnolent, well, I assume they’re all deeply, deeply stoned, and honestly, that sounds quite pleasant to me. I mean, festivals are exhausting, and you get subjected to a lot of mediocre acts desperately trying to play to the back of the crowd, and opportunities to just sit back and enjoy some fine musicianship are actually pretty rare. So yeah, that looks like a good time to me.
Many a singer has played the miserable wench Pirate Jenny, the prostitute who fantasizes bloody revenge upon her clientele. She’s been a figure in the public imagination since the early 1700’s, so she’s been around. The original, real-life Jenny Diver was well known gang leader and thief whose exploits included picking pockets at parties whilst wearing a false set of arms, being twice deported to America and bribing her way back to London, and, eventually, execution at the age of 41. She was still very much alive and active when John Gay made her a character in The Beggar’s Opera in 1728. That early template of musical theater proved surprisingly enduring, and Jenny’s immortality was assured. In 1928 Kurt Weill rewrote the play as The Threepenny Opera, composing brand new songs but keeping the story and characters. Weill’s songs have become popular standards, with Pirate Jenny being a particular favorite of singers with a taste for tragic glamour. It’s a song that every self-respecting interpretive singer tries their hand at, with various degrees of success. Judy Collins and Maddy Prior have tried, but it’s not a song for pretty-voiced singers. Lotte Lenya and Nina Simone’s versions are among the best known and the best, but for me, Marianne Faithfull’s is the ultimate. Nobody else has a comparable voice, rasping and angry and weary from a lifetime of abuse. Because it takes a real lifetime of hard living to bring to life a woman whose lot hasn’t changed much in 300 years.
Is there such a thing as intense relaxation? If that is not too much of an oxymoron, then this is the most intensely relaxing music. Too call Geoffrey Oryema’s music ‘exotic’ would be cliche (and racist) but I have to call it something, so I’ll go with otherworldly. Oryema’s Exile is a unique offering. Thanks to the production of the all-powerful Brian Eno, it avoids the tropes of the ‘world music’ market. No aggressive drumming, choral ululation or happy platitudes. Oryema has also made albums with Peter Gabriel, and the difference is striking. Gabriel, though honorable of intention, belongs to the school of production that sells African artists to Western audiences only in ‘African drag’, marketed by uplifting backstories of struggle, as if their artistic achievements can’t be taken seriously on their own terms. Oryema, of course, has his backstory; his family fled political persecution in Uganda. Exile is the name of the album, and it is a state of being. The album is an emotional meditation, a sustained atmosphere of bittersweet nostalgia. Almost none of it is in English, and it doesn’t need to be. It is rather experimental in that sense; it doesn’t sell its story, it implies it.
“Peace and love in the north, peace and love in the south, peace and love in the east, peace and love in the universe”
Please? Even if you’re suffering from idealism exhaustion, even if you’ve dismissed the concept of peace (world or local) as a childish pipe dream, you might still feel a little lifted up. Black Uhuru does that. It’s music for positive mobilization. Remember that peace is not an abstract concept; it’s built on simple things like freedom, justice and equality. So motivate yourself to fight for those things, piece by piece.