“I may be bad but I’m perfectly good at it.”
There we have it: the definitive statement of purpose by Rihanna for unrepentant bad girls everywhere. Or the final commercialization of a formerly underground subculture. Take your pick. It could even be both. You can be delighted by Rihanna’s gleeful embrace of sexual transgression and still wonder just how transgressive anything really is if four million people are buying it. Perhaps there’s not much taboo left to fetish culture when it’s constantly in your face and at your fingertips. On the other hand, though, good. Let people be sexually liberated, empty out those closets, sweep open the dungeons of shame, stop clutching your pearls at other people’s pleasures. Girls just wanna have fun! With ball gags and Japanese rope bondage and puppy play and femdom and slashfic and cam shows and dd/lg and latex and friendly fire and cryptozoophiliac Patreon subscriptions and whatever other filthy things you didn’t know you were into until the internet brought them to your attention. It’s a great time to be alive and sexually active.
Here Lies Love is a record that rewards delving deep. (Why do you think I’m still writing about it so much?) Obviously, it should inspire an interest in learning the history of the Philippines. It’s also a treasure trove of talent to follow up on. Nearly every one of the 22 tracks feature a different vocalist. Some of them you are sure to know of: Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos, David Byrne. Some were still obscure-ish in 2010 but later became huge huge stars, such as St. Vincent and Sia. Most, however, are under-the-radar artists who don’t get much press, but are worth discovering. This one is Canadian music royalty Martha Wainwright, who is a singer-songwriter in her own wright but doesn’t have all the accolades of her brother. (Hahahaha, see what I did there?) Worth checking her out!
Marina Diamandis sure knows how to make angst poetic. She’s dramatic in her lyrics, in her vocals, and in her image. She may have pop diva sensibilities, but they’re constantly in a balancing act with her emo side. Because although her music might sound ‘big’ her topics are intimate. She writes a lot about things that are interior in a way that most pop doesn’t usually touch. Lots of songs about insecurity, about not knowing who you are and what you’re doing. That’s an essential part of being young, of course, and dealing with those feelings in a productive way is an essential part of becoming less young. That’s why Marina strikes a chord with the young and the not so much. She’s a figure study in how to be vulnerable and creative about it.
Rococo is a good word for Arcade Fire’s musical aesthetic. They’re committed maximalists. Certainly, their ornate and ambitious compositions share a spirit with the gold embellished curlicues of Rastrelli. Intellectually, however, the Butlers and company seem to take a stance against materialistic excess, which they see as a downside of modern life. (They’re also not as radical or as deep as they fancy themselves. More on that at some later date.) The irony, of course, is that historically, some of the most materially excessive and politically inequitable regimes have yielded the most enduring art. The Rococo (and the Baroque, the Gothic, the Art Deco, et al.) art and architecture that thousands now crowd to see was funded by despotic kings and tithe-happy Popes as a celebration of themselves and a conspicuous display of their obscene wealth, at the expense of the poor and downtrodden, for which not a few of them eventually paid with their heads. Great art outlives the political context of its creation, which is a comforting thought when living through trying times. It also makes the stance of looking down on modern life – the “modern kids” and whatever they’re up to – a rather foolish one. It’s a pretension like any other, to think that our time, such as it is, is somehow inherently stripped, somehow less profound, somehow more excessive, somehow shallow. With hindsight the unprofound and vapid will fall away and the meaningful cultural artifacts will shine on. We ourselves may not live long enough to see that happen, but following generations will.
The best disco songs are fueled by not-very-double entendres. Goldfrapp has dabbled with success in various styles of music, but they’re at their best when they’re time traveling us back to the era of spandex on the dancefloor. That kind of unabashed sleazy fun may go out of style, but it never stays out of style for very long. People just want to dance to songs about rockets. Rockets are sexy, you see. They represent the unbridled libido. The promise of going to metaphorical outer space on a metaphorical rocket is why people go to the disco. The music that takes them there doesn’t get a lot of credit for its cultural value, but it does its job. A purveyor of really good dance music will always be in demand, and artists like Goldfrapp, who take those vintage four-to-the-floor grooves into the 21st century, deserve acclaim.
If I had to summarize Sleigh Bells’ sound in one word, I would say ‘chaotic’. Not in the sense that they don’t know what they’re doing or don’t have coherent ideas. On the contrary, their sound is expertly fashioned. It’s just that your head spins with what to make of it. The aggressive contrast between the wall-of-sound noise assault and the bright melodies that run through it, the way Alexis Krauss’s pop tart vocals are distorted, the teeny-bopper reference points, the sheer up-to-11 volume of it. It’s music designed not to be instantly boxed in with one word.
Whatever happened to Sleigh Bells, you ask. Well, they’ve been consistently working and putting out albums. They just released an EP, cleverly titled Kid Khrushchev, a couple of months ago. And they’ve been consistently good albums, too. The reason you’re not hearing hype about it is because in the past seven years, what Sleigh Bells were doing has become what everyone is doing. There are so many groups out there mixing noise pop with grunge rock with feedback with harmony vocals with bad gal attitude. In 2010, Sleigh Bells were the only noise pop grunge duo, and they – for lack of a better word – slayed us with their originality. It’s hard to overstate that. When I first heard Sleigh Bells, it was like nothing else on the radio. Treats was one of my most-played records that year; I couldn’t stop blasting it over and over. It was so fresh, so LOUD, so take it or leave it, so much fun. That’s not an impression that’s easy to make twice, and since then, Sleigh Bells have become just another cool-girl rock-pop band. They’re still good, but they’re not the frontline anymore. But they really kicked off the decade.