St. Vincent has been a darling for her last two albums, but let’s go back to before she became well known. A time when, I must confess, I had only the vaguest awareness of who she was. Late to the party again! Well, now I know. It takes a while for an artist to really come into their own, and it takes a while to build an audience, instant-superstar prodigies notwithstanding. And it’s especially hard, sad to say, to break out of the pastel ghetto reserved for Women Who Write Songs and Play an Instrument™. So I’ll admit that the first time I listened to St. Vincent I dismissed her as yet another earnest singer-songwriter type with too many feelings. That was before she really let her freak flag fly, so to speak, but it was wrong of me anyway. The keen and clever songwriting was always there, and Annie Clark has always been too intellectual to lean on her feelings for material. She’s said many times that her work is not confessional and she resents the implication that it is. She is absolutely right and I’m glad that she’s put her foot down on it, because it is an absolute fallacy that women’s creative work must by default be confessional, rooted angst and emotion rather than in the imagination or in the intellect, or primarily a means of working out personal trauma. Those tropes are wearying and dull.
Here is a love song for people who think that the possibility of shooting themselves in the head is somehow romantic. Yes of course it’s a metaphor, a loaded one, if you will. It’s for those moments when we need to take a deep breath and just plunge blindly into what’s probably something stupid and entirely preventable, aka an adventure. And also, of course, people who think that the stakes in their love lives should be equivalent to playing with guns aren’t healthy and should probably seek help. Your love life should not have stakes of life of death. Rihanna herself could tell you that. Rihanna would probably also tell you that if you can’t distinguish between symbolism and real life, you should seek help. You know what, just seek help already, you sick fucks.
This here’s my jam. In case you haven’t noticed, a lot of Rihanna’s songs are my jam. You gotta love her ballsy attitude and truth-telling. Rihanna gives us a lot to unpack with it. You can start by asking whether this kind of sexually explicit banger is trashy or empowering. I think the latter, personally; in a pop culture that oils its wheels ogling women’s bodies, somebody needs to step up and ask those boys how big they are. Flip that sexual entitlement right back around on them. Some of you might say that you can’t fight sexual entitlement with more sexual entitlement, but I think Rihanna would say that ladies are entitled to the good D, and if you can’t bring the good D, back in on outta here, boy. It’s always men with sad dicks who are suddenly all against sexual entitlement and body shaming when women start to talk about their dick preferences. Yeah, Rihanna just came out and said it: she wants the big dick and don’t you dare slut-shame her for it.
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.