There’s a lot of debate among purist about what constitutes a real Rock Star™. Is it constituted by what kind of music they play, what they look like, how they live? By the narrowest measure, rock stars have traditionally been white men with electric guitars. By most measures, the rock stars are the ones who rock, on stage and in life. Famously, it helps to be tragic and dead, or so burned out as to be barely alive. You also have to be larger-than-life and worshiped as a God. Whether or not rock stardom requires playing rock music is the biggest question. What does it take to be included in the pantheon of rock stars? I motion to posthumously include people who lived before rock music was invented, such as Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, just because their lives were hella hardcore. I would also dearly love to exclude Madonna, who’s managed to make a career on literally nothing except sexual charisma. (Which is its own bizarre talent, I suppose.) What about Billy Joel, who is as squishy-soft musically as he is around the middle? Not a rock star, in my book. What about Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin, who plays undeniably hard-rocking music and teaches paleontology when he’s not on tour? That’s either rock star as fuck or not rock star at all. Or what about the fact that some of the best music of the past two decades was made by guys who’ve never been seen without their robot masks? Are they rock stars? It’s a mixed-up, fucked-up world out there, and the old rules about who gets to be a rock god no longer apply. The old rock gods are ascending back to Mars and/or Valhalla even faster than the polar bears and black rhinos, and it looks like the stage belongs to rappers, pop divas and guys in robot masks. So, having taken all that into consideration…if Rihanna says she’s a rock star, damn straight, she’s a fucking rock star.
“I close my eyes and I see you dancing. Do you see me when you close yours too?”
You may have noticed that I’m a sucker for weird music. My favorite artists are the ones who think that weirdness is its own reward. You may also have noticed, gazing out at the world, that there’s a dearth of just that. Ironically, the downfall of big record companies and the open platform of the internet have actually curtailed the idea of weirdness as its own reward. Maybe it’s because now artists have to do all the heavy lifting of branding and promotion themselves. But I won’t get into that. What I’m saying is there’s not as many artists today who become successful with a “fuck y’all I’m gonna be weird” kind of an attitude as there were in the golden years of the 60’s and 70’s. There are still a few, though. Devendra Banhart is one of them. He throws every idea at the wall and not every one of them sticks, but when it does, it really hits that like-nothing-else sweet spot. Not coincidentally, many of his songs sound like they were rediscovered in an attic somewhere. Not because his music is derivative (though it does sometimes remind me of very specific things) but because it has a freewheeling spirit of do-whatever that just takes me straight back.
Here is a song about infanticide, and I couldn’t be more here for that. I can’t condone the practice itself, but I’m also tired of hearing about love all the time. It takes a brave creative visionary to make such a dark and twisted little song and make it their big hit single, but The Decemberists are nothing if not uniquely visionary. They know, even if you don’t, that epic narrative songs about horrific things used to be every bard and minstrel’s bread and butter. Perhaps not so much the cold-blooded sociopathy narrated here, but definitely murder and bloodshed galore. How do you think people entertained themselves before God created binge-watching? They wanted to hear about, in great detail, what terrible things could befall those less fortunate than themselves, just as we do. This isn’t a novelty song that somehow found its way onto indie radio, it’s the scion of a narrative folktale tradition as old and deep rooted as human language itself. It reflects what evils humans may do, and the cultural salves we create to comfort each other. Narratives tie us together, they warn and educate, they condemn and they comfort. The night is, in fact, dark and full of terrors.
If I remember correctly, a former colleague recommended Nico Vega to me, you’ll really love this band he said, and I ignored the suggestion because that person was an absolute fuckboy. That was a couple of years ago. Then I discovered Aja Volkman through a collaboration with some DJ, and wow, she has amazing lungs. I hate it when fuckboys are right, but fuckboy was right. So I’m passing it on to you. Here’s a great band that you’ve probably never heard of. Unfortunately, they’re broken up now, but they did release two albums. So, check it out.
The Flaming Lips are one of the great psychedelic rock bands of our time (not that it’s a crowded field.) Their music roves all over all of the wavelengths and their heads are filled with soupy ideas. They want you to use your cosmic energy to liberate yourself from whatever is binding you. Free your mind! Many people consider them a drug band, for obvious reasons, but really, you don’t need any chemical edge to enjoy the trip they offer. It may even feel a little redundant. This is music that trips you out and expands your mind all on its own power. So yeah, allow that cosmic pulse to take you out of your narrow little life and feel the greater power, or whatever. I think there’s some crude metaphor for self-liberation in Wayne Coyne’s video, but it may throw you off that it just happens to be a lot of people’s erotic fantasy as well. Minus the monkey, of course.
Hey, remember The Go-Go’s? That girl group from the 80’s who had all those sleepover-friendly wholesome pop hits and then disappeared like a discarded scrunchy? Well, you’ve heard this song but you’ve never heard this song sound so classy. Call it “How to Rescue a Pop Song from Camp Nostalgia 101” by Nouvelle Vague. The concept of Nouvelle Vague is simple; take famous classics from the New Wave and punk era, and redo them in the style of Jane Birkin. They have had some mixed results with this formula; not every song actually benefits from radically retro re-imagining, just like not every person manages to look chic wearing their grandparents’ clothes.But when it works, it works wonders – who knew that The Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen could be so seductive? In this case, there’s definitely rescuing that needed to be done. The Go-Go’s original is emblematic of the lighter, frothier side of 80’s pop; it was all amped-up bubblegum, and sadly, The Go-Go’s didn’t do much to dispel the idea that an all-female pop rock band could be anything more than a fleetingly amusing novelty. Most people remember the tune but likely have no clue what any of the words are besides the title, because why would they. Nouvelle Vague’s decidedly more understated take doesn’t exactly elevate the material into greatness, but it does strip away the tacky memories of Belinda Carlisle’s crimped hair, and unearths the dark soul the original’s sheer catchiness so effectively disguised.
There isn’t an adequate name for Camera Obscura’s style of music. Indie pop is too broad of an umbrella. As is folk, as is folk pop. Retro and twee are adjectives that imply the presence of kitsch. How about KNDP, for knowing naive dream pop? Or, my own best favorite, teatime music. Whatever you want to call it, Camera Obscura nails a very specific mood. Tracyanne Campbell has an otherwordly voice and a jaded schoolgirl persona; she’s basically the musical embodiment of a heroine from a mid-century coming of age novel. She’s a post-post-modern Franny Glass via Glasgow. She’s a 1960’s folk singer sent forward in time by a vengeful Joan Baez. She’s every cool girl who seems wiser than her years. She has, in short, a voice and image you can pin any number of fantasies upon, if you’re given towards the nostalgic and the cerebral.