The tango of all things needs to be brought up to pace with the modern world. Honestly it doesn’t really need a digital update, given that’s it’s still broadly popular. But the French collective Gotan Project updates it anyway, with beats and samples. (Gotan is an anagram for tango, haha clever.) The result sounds amazing. Injecting a little tango or a waltz to a pop song has long been a means of adding some class and sensuality, but I guess that it works both ways too. If the tango has any sort of negative image problem at all – and for the most part it evokes nothing but passionate romance and artfully applied lipstick – it’s the Hollywood trope that learning to ballroom dance is something uptight divorcees do to get their groove back, akin to yoga retreats and going to Italy to eat gelato, aka a bourgeois white lady affectation and not at all hip for the digital generation. And frankly, that’s kind of okay. An ancient and storied culture doesn’t need to be commodified for the hipsters, although it may be fun to try.
But is he though? Lately Jack White hasn’t quite sounded like the Jack we’ve always known and loved. He’s had a crisis of conscience or something. He’s playing on guitars that he bought from a store and editing songs on a laptop like a goddamn normal-person now, apparently. He’s doing all the things that – in his head, at least – make him look like a “sell-out”. “Wait, what, so you didn’t record you new album on all-analog equipment in a basement home studio in a trailer park in Alabama while wearing your great-grand-uncle’s wedding tuxedo? Traitor!” Said no one. It seems that Jack White has come to the realization that at the end of the day, his obsession with authenticity impresses no one but himself. So he broke down and bought a guitar that wasn’t second-hand. Which is fine and I fully support him. No 42-year-old can be expected to be the same weirdo he was at 20-something. Oh, but what a fine weirdo! Let’s take a moment to appreciate just what an impact the early White Stripes records really had. They turned my life around, I kid you not, and I’m not even a musician. They brought a thrift-store sensibility, a well-defined visual and musical aesthetic, and a genuine love for oddity into the forefront of the cultural landscape at at time when lovers of the old and dusty felt most disenfranchised. They made me want to enjoy pop culture again. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
Here for you dose of turn-of-the-century nostalgia, it’s No Doubt. If you remember gluing gaudy plastic “bindis” from Claire’s to your face in honor of Gwen Stefani, congratulations, you’re a 90’s kid. I myself never did that. I didn’t listen to No Doubt in the 90’s, because my adolescent “I hate everything” was really strong, and I could not permit myself, on my honor, to enjoy normal-people shit. That didn’t stop me from having a raging fashion-crush on Gwen, but, you know, in secret. In hindsight, I can admit that No Doubt was a pretty good band. Not a great one, by any means; Gwen Stefani’s style and charisma carried the day far more than her vocal talents. But so what, it was a great image.
Is there anything more Scandinavian than a song about reindeer? I’m not sure how many reindeer pulks you’d find around modern-day Stockholm, but they’re still a fixture in Lapland and adjoining regions. Americans accept Santa’s reindeer as a piece of pop surrealism; in Scandinavia making a caribou carry your shit is just as realistic as having a horse do it. More so, really. Horses don’t do that great in the arctic. Anyway. What I’m saying is, this is a moment of cultural difference right here. The Knife are a Swedish group who are mostly concerned with universal things than know no borders, like love, dancing and lasagna. As it should be, since music is supposed to be cross-cultural and unifying like nothing else. But then you get a song that’s highly specific like this one, and it reminds you that these people live very different lives somewhere quite far across the world, and they get to see and do things that you don’t have access to, like hanging out with reindeer.
Here’s a song that I recognize from the first millisecond of the first chord. God knows I’ve spend enough hours in my life listening to Lucinda Williams’ Essence. It’s one of my go-to crying-on-the-floor blues records, though I haven’t needed that outlet in a long time. Funny how crying on the floor stops being fun after a few turns ’round the block. Now I listen to Williams – and other heartrending artists – because it’s good music. It says something about the human soul. Funny how someone else’s sadness can be so relaxing. It’s nice when you remember that you have no reason to cry, and even when you think you do, it’s probably not a very good one. Let someone else do the crying.
This, a song about asking forgiveness, feels a little mournful for today. But also thought provoking, if you want to dwell on thoughts about grace. Penitence, grace, and forgiveness are pillars in the doctrines of every faith I know of. Perhaps guidance for navigating those things is the reason we have religion in the first place. The asking and dispensing of forgiveness may be, out of the emotional events we humans experience, the most spiritual. It is certainly the most difficult thing to ask forgiveness, or to give it, and that may be why we’ve tied it so much into doctrine and ceremony. You may take a dim view of organized religion, or question whether it even still has a place in the modern world, but if there’s one benefit to mankind that religion continues to provide it’s teaching people how to humble themselves emotionally. That’s why it may be impossible to make contrition and forgiveness your subject – in song, or in any other art – without invoking religious feeling. You can just be sorry to one person before you, but as an artist you have to be sorry before God as well.
One of my wishes for my younger self is that I had discovered Bjork sooner. I would have had more hope for the future if I had heard her in the 90’s. Alas, I grew up without MTV. As late as the mid-late 2000’s (when I finally started getting regular internet access) I had very little pop culture. I didn’t know that in 2001 one this was declared one of the most controversial and iconic music videos of all time. I think I would have been impressed to see the singer half nude having pearls sowed directly into her skin, and more with her naked face, and even more with her naked emotion.