The Knife are – were – a group known for performing in masks and/or facepaint. Though they didn’t go so far as to keep their real names anonymous, their personas were kept shrouded in mystique. However, in their own frosty Scandinavian way, their music is very intimate. Very often Karin Dreijer Andersson sounds like she’s singing straight into your head, from inside a wolf suit. With lyrics about mundane things like going out for Chai tea, The Knife’s musical weirdness becomes kind of homey. An esoteric sort of home, of course, but still cozy and full of personal touches, as a home should be.
This is a song I’ve spend hours of my life listening to, even though I can’t say that I really enjoy it. It pushes my buttons emotionally. I can relate to its anger and love. But it’s also not something I need to hear all the time, which is why I’ve listened to Lucinda Williams much less in recent years. I don’t need emotional crutch music the way that I used to. When you’re inexperienced, young and stupid, you need something that teaches you how you should feel, a guide on how to navigate all of the feelings. Now that I’m not any longer at least two out of those three things, I don’t really care about feelings anymore. Feelings are not longer interesting. But it’s sometimes nice to revisit things that used to be massively important, and in the case of music, maybe learn to appreciate it in a new context.
Everybody’s favorite album of the aughts is Give Up. It really seems that literally everybody you know loves this record. They either straight-up unconditionally love it, or they’ll admit that they used to love it but they were just going through an emo phase and they’re totally over it now, which just means they’re fronting. Just, everybody who hears this record loves it. I love it, you love it, your dog loves it. That, of course, makes The Postal Service one of the most important and influential groups of our time. They invented dream-pop! They invented shoegaze! They invented chill-wave! I’m actually not entirely sure that any of those things are even a legit thing, but it’s true that most of the electronic synthpop that we’re glutted up on now can be traced straight back to this one record.
David Bowie looks at the abstract concept of reality. “Things that [they] regarded as truths seem to have just melted away, and it’s almost as if we’re thinking post-philosophically now. There’s nothing to rely on any more.” he said in 2003. Well, there’s nothing more post-philosophic than talking about how reality has become sless real, and this is coming from a man who founded his own internet service. Reality, in the broad scheme of things, is just as nebulous and slippery as it ever was, and the idea that technological and societal changes have altered it in any substantial way is a philosophical discussion as old as time. Fortunately for fans who don’t necessarily want to have that discussion, Bowie’s Reality album wasn’t actually about philosophy. It was more about the artist’s own reality, and the reality of real people feeling lost and small in the world. In this case, the artist looks back at himself as a young man, and sees a cosmic joke. What happened and why? He’s not sure, but all he can do is look back and laugh.
Lucinda Williams writes about broken hearts and bruised emotions a lot. Her other great subject is people. Hard luck people. Williams spent a lot of years as a hard luck person herself before she became successful. She’s seen a lot of rough living in her time, and she’s witnessed a lot of failure. She can document the rough side of the rock’n’roll life. There’s a lot of working musicians who live on the road and run themselves ragged and bleed for their art, all without ever earning the bucketloads of money and adulation that’s supposed to make it worthwhile. This is for them.
John Cale is one of the few remaining luminaries whose lights are still on. He’s steadfastly been doing his thing with little regard to what’s trending, confident that his brand of challenging art rock exists outside the reach of trends. Though he may have a relatively small audience, he can also be confident that his music is a necessity to his fans in a way that more accessible artists’ may not be. In fact, the further we roll along in this fractured world, the more of a necessary relief it becomes to hear a consistently challenging and intellectual voice. A John Cale record isn’t what you’d call escapey funtime music, but it offers a singular point of view, which is in itself an escape. An escape from a pop culture where nobody seems to know what they’re aiming to be, besides popular. We want an artist who knows who he is and knows his own vision, just as much as we’re attracted to people who know who they are IRL.
“Hello, I’m good for nothing, will you love me just the same?”
And now, a song about rampaging insecurity. Or the opposite, a song about expectations and frustration. Amanda Palmer writes about emotional ambiguity like none other. She slides from frailty to rage and back again in a couplet. This kind of theatrical intensity can be almost terrifying, especially for people who are used to the cleanliness of pop. But the Dresden Dolls built a singularly dedicated fan base because they appeal to people who want to see real blood, sweat and tears underneath the makeup. The intimate and confessional coexist with the performative; that’s where punk poetry meets cabaret. Say what you will about Amanda Palmer and her business practices, but she represents the triumph of the crazy independent artist in an era of corporate sponsorship. It’s good to know that it’s possible to keep a career afloat just be the sheer force of passion and charisma. Obviously, her global couchsurfing grassroots ethos isn’t for everybody, but it’s still inspiring.