In his calmer moments Father John Misty could pass as one of those 1970’s singer-songwriters who wrote about the beauty of California, the beauty of the open road, and the beauty of long-haired women. Except that he packs more words into his verses than James Taylor or Jackson Browne have in their entire vocabularies. “You stand alongside/And say something to the effect/That everything’ll be alright soon” may well be the most needlessly verbose line ever written, and given than lines to that effect have been written, many times over, with far lower word-counts, it’s hard to tell if the writer is being pretentious or satirical. And therein lies the litmus of how you perceive Misty himself. Do you find his ability to make the simplest sentiment sound like a thesis statement delightful, or does it make you cringe? I’ve been a devoted fan for years, so obviously, I’m in the delighted camp. Pop music is dumb, sometimes knowingly so and oftentimes obliviously, and delivered by dumb people in the hopes of appealing to dumb people. Meanwhile, people who’ve nurtured their vocabularies past middle school are under-served. We need role models to relate to, too. I, personally, can relate deeply to the kind of paralyzing intellectualism that makes people add extra words to all their sentences because they’re too emotionally stunted to say the two or three or five words that would actually express what they’re actually feeling.
St. Vincent doesn’t like to be questioned about where her songs come from. She doesn’t like to be accused of writing about herself. She retorts, rightly, that the presumption of intimacy in songwriting is incredibly condescending and inherently gendered. We may ask a man if he’s writing about himself, but we don’t take it for granted that he does. Songwriter Annie Clark resents the assumption that she’s incapable of purely intellectual writing. That having been said, though, intellectual and imaginative writing, and emotionally intimate writing aren’t mutually exclusive, and it is in fact the tricky balance of being both that marks the songs of St. Vincent, while escaping the skills of most other songwriters male and female. St. Vincent writes incredibly intimate songs that feel like they’re coming from directly inside her head; it also so happens that St. Vincent herself is a fictional persona. We never really know what Annie Clark is thinking and feeling, we only know what she wants us to know St. Vincent is thinking and feeling.
Amanda Palmer named an album Theatre Is Evil, and she’s got a point. She knows, probably better than most, the incredible power of just getting up on a box with your piano or your ukulele or whatever, and speaking your mind. Palmer started her career literally standing on a box, as a street busker, and she’s built her fanbase through the unconventional means of interfacing with fans directly via social media. She’s earned her share of controversy, mainly from critics (and peers) who cannot wrap their heads around how crowdsourcing and direct patronage even works, and insist that those things have got to be in some way wrong because they cannot understand such a novel model of artist/fan relations. The no-middleman business model isn’t for everyone, but it’s worked out pretty dang well for Amanda Fucking Palmer, and besides all that, it’s given her a unique platform for her activism. She has her very own grassroots network of dedicated supporters, people who may have come for the music but who’ve stayed for the political engagement and consciousness raising. Palmer has always been outspoken in her feminism and keenly aware of her power, as an artist, to be heard and the responsibility to share stories and amplify other voices. Right now, in suddenly turbulent times, she’s tapping and amplifying a deeper rage, as the stakes in activism become increasingly life or death. Amanda Palmer is very serious about being the a spokesvoice for women who are livid with rage and fear, and using her network to blur the lines between entertainment and political action. The personal is the political is the entertainment is the culture is the agent of change.
Going back to the summer of 2013, a great year for music. It must’ve been some kind of serendipity, but I discovered a lot of artists in 2013. There were just so many great songs on the radio, the kind that make you say to yourself, “What is this, I want more!” Portugal. The Man was one of those groups, with some amazingly catchy songs like Modern Jesus and Purple Yellow Red and Blue. The album Evil Friends has become a favorite, a definite keeper, one of those records that you remember an entire decade by. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend it.
Lily Allen is almost the same age as me, and her career follows such a perfectly post-millennial trajectory. She was the first and, I think, only, person to parlay MySpace popularity into a major mainstream pop career. She released her first demos online in 2005 and a year later she was a real-life star. Obviously, no one uses MySpace anymore, but social media has become the gateway, unguarded by anyone but trolls, from obscurity to notoriety. Nowadays, it’s a near-instant process and it’s become common to see young stars following a Kurt Cobain-like trajectory from promising to prematurely dead in a matter of months, as opposed the years it formerly took for that kind of drama to play out. Oh, but in the golden mid-2000’s, when Lily Allen had the sweet hit of the year, it was unheard of. Where did this girl come from and how did she do it? There was even a grudging sense that Allen had ‘cheated’ her way to fame, that she wasn’t really a ‘real artist’ because she’d used the internet to grow her fanbase, bypassing the usual years-spent-in-the-trenches process. There was talk about the necessity of paying one’s dues in order to have earned the sweet rewards of stardom. Nowadays, that feels like old people talk. Now one cares how you came up as long as you’re generating content. Lily Allen, for her part, got herself a major label contract as soon as she could, and it was only with that financial backing and PR know-how that she fully cleared the hurdle between internet sensation and entertainment industry professional. And now she’s writing songs about the angst of being a divorced single mother, making me, for one, feel incredibly old. On the other hand, though, it’s a kinda heartwarming to see the former MySpace brat grow into a pro with a long-term career that she’s steered, bumpily enough, through controversy and personal struggles, proving that artistic longevity is possible and sustainable, even for the instant-gratification generation.
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.
Nobody writes songs about mowing the yard like Courtney Barnett does. But don’t mistake writing about boring subjects with actually being boring. Boring subjects are not the same as boring ideas. It may seem like it’s all about the little things but it’s never just the little things. Barnett knows that things like the grass in the yard or the tiles on the ceiling that we fixate on are just placeholders for the bigger things that are going on inside our minds. We talk about the stupid and mundane because we can’t gather the words to talk about the deeply meaningful and we project our unarticulated emotions onto harmless objects because we don’t know how to express ourselves. We’re just as afraid of being understood as we are of being misunderstood. So we fidget and talk about the weather. Some people spend their entire lives fidgeting and talking about the weather, and some people spend their entire lives in a constant state of anxiety because they want to say what they mean but can’t quite find the way to do it. And that’s a mind state even the most confident and articulate of us have been in, usually when confronted with romantic feelings. But, you know, keep on making mistakes until you get it right, right?