Die Antwoord is just, quite simply, too weird for this world. I’m not entirely sure they’re even real people. Their personas are so heavily tied-in to their musical style and their entire aesthetic feels both authentic and like absolute performance art. Whatever else they are, they’re tricksters pulling the rug out on all the usual conventions. I’m still waiting for their feature film, or visual album, or jukebox musical, or whatever fully realized mission statement they want to make to cap off their wildly uneven but brilliant oeuvre. I love music that shows its literacy in the tropes and conventions – and the history – of American pop culture but exists outside of it. This song doesn’t have a video, but most of their other songs do, and if you’ve ever watched one, you know that they’ve seen enough music videos of American rappers waving guns and they’ve seen Andy Warhol’s screen tests.
Here’s a song about sex, and all of this week’s songs are going to be about sex. Disingenuous, I know: most, if not straight-up all, songs are about sex. I could put it out there that most human endeavor is in some way about sex, because humans are simplistic like that. But definitely most music, though some people do try to put on a genteel scrim by dragging ‘love’ into it. Some people are so masterful that they don’t mention interpersonal relationships at all, but it’s understood that deep down inside, their artistic motivation is the same as the guy screaming about his love rocket. (It’s always the hope that their showmanship will increase their chances of finding someone to bonk genitals with, and frankly it’s failproof.) But, by and large, most songwriters stick with what they know and what sells: sex is fun and it sure would be great to have some. This school of songwriting is inexhaustible, and inexhausting. This song by Die Antwoord is a straightforward example of sex-focused songwriting; it delivers the message that sex is fun and it sure would be great to have some; it has a bedroom-suitable beat and a hook that, besides selling sex, could also be used to sell alcoholic beverages, tropical-smelling beauty products and any number of other sexuality-enhancing products. Of course, we all know that two of the three members of Die Antwoord do, in fact, have sex with each other and even have an offspring to show for it, which lends it an element of authenticity often missing from sexy songs made by people who don’t actually have sex with each other and therefore lack that certain sizzle when they perform together. Which is the thing about sexy songs: there needs to be an element of real passion behind the dirty talk or else they just sound stupid.
This was my first Die Antwoord song! I heard it over the PA at some other concert I was at, and it was an instant “WTF? I love you!” moment. I had to know what this weird shit was, but apparently Shazam doesn’t work when you’re in the middle of 500 people, so I had to wait a few years before I found out. But I never forgot. I love to get sentimental about discovering bands I like; it’s like falling in love with a hot stranger, only better, because you don’t have to give them a ride home in the morning. Anyway. I think we’re all agreed that the world doesn’t actually need a white woman rapper. That’s not really a niche that needs to be filled, given how many black women rappers are on the breadline waiting for their big break. But if it did, Yo-Landi Vi$$er would be the one. This one actually has her own aesthetic and doesn’t pretend she’s from the American delta. She’s got her own culture she’d talking about, and if she checks American hip hop tropes, it’s to satirize them. Die Antwoord aren’t even what you would call a hip hop group; they’re a mashup of things that don’t usually go together, like rap and house music and film and performance art and really really bad tattoos. That’s the kind of originality that makes you stop and say ‘da fuh?’ and then ask for more.
Here, a lesson in zef aesthetics. For Die Antwoord music is only part of the story; their personas and visual style make them a complete package. There’s some debate as to how real those personas really are. It’s a bigger issue back home in South Africa, where some critics have accused Yo-Landi and Ninja of being middle class poseurs, much like white performers in America often get called out for trying to act like they from the hood. But for us viewing audiences here in the States, a lot of the context gets lost, and we don’t really care if their zef is the most authentic zef, because it’s the only zef we know. You don’t need an in-depth cultural history to enjoy what’s clearly an image that’s heavily dramatized for the stage. Die Antwoord’s visual cues are uniquely theirs, from their love of rats and freeky people to their clever takedowns of American hip hop culture. If you didn’t get it already, the sleek pimpy fellow getting his throat ripped out at the beginning of the video is a doppelganger of the aggressively mediocre and wildly popular Miami rapper Armando Perez aka Pitbull. Die Antwoord have consistently set themselves against what they call “one big inbred fuck-fest” of a music scene, meaning the endlessly generic, overhyped, overproduced products of the mainstream pop machine. Rap music used to be an outsider culture, but it has been cannibalized by the music industry and turned into another bland mass market product ruled by stereotype and cliche. The same has happened to rave culture and electronic music. Die Antwoord are a rap-rave outfit, drawing inspiration from – and satirizing – both cultures. One of the most enjoyable things about their inventive videos is seeing them send up, invert, and overturn the tired tropes of the standard music video.
I planned to do this last year but didn’t, so now I’m expanding my annual best-of. There were a lot of albums I loved, but many of them didn’t make the official list. So here are my favorite non-album hits for the year. In no particular order.
She Moves (Far Away) – Alle Farben feat. Graham Candy
Debut single from German DJ Alle Farben (real name Frans Zimmer.) A big hit in Europe, which is where I first heard it. A catchy song, a cute video, and a lot of memories.
212 – Azealia Banks
I’m bending the rules here, since technically, this song was first released way back in 2011 (although only in the UK.) Like many other edgy people, Banks had to make it big in Europe before getting a break in America. Her first full length album finally came out in the end of 2014, and this single is making the rounds again.
Boys in the Wood – Black Lips
This got a lot of airplay back in the spring, which is also when I caught these ATL punks at SXSW. They put on a fierce show.
Istanbul – Morrissey
World Peace is None of Your Business was a bit of an uneven affair, but this single is beautiful. The video I’ve included, although handheld and shoddy looking, was shot at Austin Music Hall on May 24 2014, a show which I attended and where I first heard this and many other new songs. Morrissey is in great vocal form.
Coming of Age – Foster the People
Foster the People may never live up to, or live down, their breakthrough hit Pumped Up Kicks, but they’ve done a pretty good job trying. I have driven many a commute to this on the radio, and it’s dang catchy.
“And the stars make love to the universe…” Shakira continues to be both awesome and faintly ridiculous. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to make the phrase “And I’m like – woo woo wooooh” the lyrical focal point of your song. But somehow it works, maybe because she really is all like woo woo.
Coffee – Sylvan Esso
Another one of those songs most often experienced while driving. An unorthodox radio hit, to be sure, but gently hypnotic and irresistible. Sylvan Esso’s debut album was a near-miss on the best-of list. Better luck next year?
Water Fountain – tUnE-yArDs
Did somebody say ‘unorthodox’? Tune-Yards easily takes home the award for Weirdest Hit Single of the Year. Likewise their album.
Warm Water – Banks
Also technically not released in 2014, but very predominant on the radio throughout the year. Banks (no relation to Azealia) released her full length debut, including tracks from previous EPs. The record has been justly acclaimed, and just may be the best bedroom album of the year. (That’s totally a category.)
Holding On for Life – Broken Bells
Broken Bells’ was another one of those standout records that didn’t quite make the final cut. A shining example of New Wave, psychedelic and electronic influences all pulled together in a modern way.
Mother & Father – Broods
Also on the Fake New Wave front, Broods are a breakout duo from New Zealand. There are a lot of promising electropop duos storming the world of indie radio right now, and we’ve still to see which ones emerge from the pack as important talents. Broods is definitely one to watch.
Cookie Thumper – Die Antwoord
Die Antwoord have yet to make a consistently satisfying album, but you can count on them to deliver at least a handful of memorable singles. Say what you will about them – they are very much not for everybody – but they are one of the few acts who can boast of a fully formed and truly original artistic vision.
Seasons (Waiting On You) – Future Islands
Future Islands is distinguished from the rest of the Fake New Wave/Electropop field by Samuel Herring’s unique and emotive vocals. Herring has earned comparisons to early-comeback-era Marianne Faithfull, of all people, and I can hear that. I can also hear a lot of Blue Eyed Soul.
Take Me To Church – Hozier
This song went from local hit in Ireland to total worldwide ubiquity in what feels like moments, although it actually took well over a year. The same goes for the artist; a few months ago Hozier was a complete unknown, now he is presumably well on his way to real stardom.
2 On – Tinashe
I happened to catch a Tinashe show at SXSW last year, having absolutely no idea who she was. That show also happened to be the first time Tinashe performed this song. Since then, her star has been rising. Although the commercial-R’n’B market Tinashe is aiming for is not something I normally want any part of, I do find her success gratifying. She has a great voice and I can attest she puts on one hell of a live performance.
You may not know what to make of Die Antwoord, and I don’t always either. They are uniquely, refreshingly bizarre. They’ve been the subject of some controversies, mostly for their videos, which are sexy and sometimes disturbing. A couple of the things they’ve been criticized for were using blackface (very questionable choice) and featuring (some say exploiting) a child with progeria. Along with sexually provocative images of the adolescent looking Yolandi Visser. I have to withhold making an opinion about those things, because of cultural context. Obviously, all of those things being done by an American group would be strictly no-no, but Die Antwoord is representing a culture that I know nothing about, and I’m certain that the images they show us are loaded with meaning that goes completely over our heads here in the USA. The fact that their background is so different is part of their appeal. South African zef culture has never been seen by Americans before, and it’s fascinating. South Africa has been perceived by Americans in two ways; as a hotbed of political unrest, violent crime, epidemic rape and levels of racism to rival our own; or conversely as a tropical paradise of vineyards, high-end resorts and mellow music of the Putumayo world lounge variety. Neither of those images are fully accurate, nor do they reflect the real lives of actual people. Die Antwoord has, for the first time, presented a picture of real South African street culture, or at least their own conception of it. I don’t know how much I trust those two for accuracy. I suspect that a lot the Die Antwoord image is pure performance art. If you look up Yolandi and Ninja’s previous project, MaxNormal TV, you’ll see that their image was very, very different. I’ve read that in the future they plan to segue into film making, possible at the expense of their music career. Given how incredibly well made and original their videos have been, that might not be a bad thing. Theirs is definitely an original and fully-formed creative vision, with themselves as exaggerated characters. It would be fascinating if they did expand into feature film, or some integrated combination of film and music.
An introduction is needed to Die Antwoord. They’re weird and they’re from South Africa. Their music is a mix of hip-hop and EDM influences – rap rave or rave rap, you call it. Their image is Zef, which I guess is kind of the white South Africans’ version of ghetto fabulous. As Yo-Landi Vi$$er says, “Zef is, you’re poor but you’re fancy. You’re poor but you’re sexy, you’ve got style.” They’ve caught on in America, thanks in part to the kind of people (hipsters) who like things that are weird and foreign just because they’re weird and foreign. And also because they’re awesome and unexpected and original and exist completely outside the context of the American hip-hop and/or EDM scene. Besides their music (which is admittedly somewhat hit or miss) they’re known for their memorable videos. In fact, they consider film making an equally important part of their work. Frontman Ninja has said that in the future they may focus entirely on film projects – after five albums, he said, they’d move into movies full time. As you can see, their videos are highly thought out and draw heavily from Zef culture. Most of which of course goes entirely over American audiences’ heads, though I suspect there’s a heavy element of satire involved. They have a fondness for rats and a penchant for wearing animal suits in public. One of their mascots is a kid with progeria. They made a short film with Harmony Korine. Yo-Landi was offered the part of Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s GWDT movie, but wasn’t interested, much to the world’s (my) disappointment. I don’t actually understand half of their lyrics, because they both have very heavy and unfamiliar accents. But it’s all about the attitude and image and discovering something completely different.