Note: As of July 12, 2011, the comments thread to this post is closed. I’m done talking about Odd Future, and frankly, unless you’ve got a constructive argument or a fresh take on them, you should be too.
Last week, Odd Future made an indelible network debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The prolific L.A.-based hip hop collective has been generating a lot of hype. I started hearing about them last fall. Music critics began latching on to their work and started following leader Tyler, the Creator’s Twitter feed, and comparisons to Kool Keith, Eminem, the Sex Pistols, N.E.R.D., Bad Brains, and the Wu-Tang Clan soon followed. Dutifully, I listened to some songs. The group is best recognized for their distinct sound and image, which features an austere production aesthetic and an obsessive focus on, among other things, all the ways people can rape each other.
I think I was supposed to be shocked and offended but frankly I was too bored to make it through more than a handful of songs. However, like many emotional states, boredom is variegated.
Primarily, I’m bored with the hype machine. Critics get duped. Occasionally I’m no different. And we all have a lot of things to reconcile before making any ruling, which informs Zach Baron’s Village Voice profile and Mehan Jayasuriya’s Thought Catalog post on the group.
But ya’ll, these Wu-Tang comparisons are lazy. The only things they share are spare beats and being a gaggle of black men (given Tyler’s recent signing to XL, I hope they also share a keen business acumen that allows them to exist as one entity for a label while allowing themselves to be free agents as solo artists). I think some music critics always find groups of black musicians as exceptional, perhaps because they never encounter more than one black person at a time. Living Colour is a black rock group?!? Even though African Americans helped invent rock music by integrating raced musical forms like country and the blues? WRITE IT DOWN. I can draw a sketchy parallel between Tyler and Method Man’s charismatic presence and conversational flow, but some other members have yet to prove themselves as singular personalities the way Wu-Tang did. Maybe Hodgy Beats is Ghostface Killah. Maybe drawing a comparison between Tyler’s cult of personality and fellow West Coast punk Darby Crash’s would wake me up. I can go a little further with the Keith comparison, though don’t think the group has yet to harness their free associative revelries with the comedic impact and verbal prowess that Keith does. Maybe drawing parallels is a stupid, baseless exercise that belittles all parties.
The second kind of boredom was informed by hipster incredulity, which is why I remain skeptical about MF Doom’s skills as an emcee. Odd Future’s iconoclastic punk spirit is exactly the kind of thing cool kids who don’t actually listen to much hip hop would champion. Odd Future may seem like a rank fart blast of fresh air if you aren’t familiar with, say, the talent on Doomtree or Rhymesayers’ rosters. Granted, their recent performance on Fallon’s show represented something of a passing of the torch. Roots’ drummer Questlove encouraged the booking, which scans as a kind professional gesture. And I agree with Tyler’s recent assertion that people who want Odd Future to stay underground aren’t real fans because they don’t want them to succeed. This tension is kind of fascinating, because it seems to me that Odd Future’s core audience is peopled with hipsters, who as a group skew white and of middle- to upper-middle class origins. In short, they can afford to drop out and stay obscure. Odd Future want mainstream success. I don’t want to make some racialist, classist assumption and say they need it, but they want the mass appeal that stretches past being a blogosphere curio. They want power. They might want endorsement deals too. Too bad they’ll lose a Super Bowl invite to Arcade Fire.
However, as a feminist I’m leery of hipster appraisal. This doesn’t necessarily stem from not wanting to be identified as part of the group. If you think I’m a hipster, fine whatever. Some of the nicest folks I know and some of the worst people I’ve encountered could be labeled hipsters. IDing them as such seems both irrelevant and relativist.
But let’s be honest: hipsters tend to carry a lot of liberal white guilt with them, especially true among the most (pseudo-)intellectual. A group like Odd Future can prompt unwarranted discussion about how their bleak world view dovetails nicely with the United States’ economic recession, which seems like a way for these people to congratulate themselves for constructing an illusion of racial sensitivity. I think this is problematic for two reasons. For one, this is a facile attempt at explaining their cultural relevance that requires greater political nuance. Steve Hyden recently argued that nü metal predicted the cynicism and maverick posturing of the Bush administration. It sounds great, but seems too easy to me. For another, isn’t it insulting to assume the economic recession and Odd Future have anything to do with one another? Doesn’t the assumption that urban-based youth of color are always associated with socioeconomic collapse seem . . . racist?
My surreptitious attitude toward hipsters extends well past my generation. It’s old news that hippies and beatniks sublimated chauvinism and misogyny because straight white guys set the terms. This hasn’t changed radically despite an influential feminist blogogensia. In fact, sometimes I think we haggle over progressive or subversive readings of this stuff when we should probably set all of it on fire. Anyway, I knew some hipsters would rationalize or justify Odd Future’s hate speech, because in this regard we are no different from the suburban smug marrieds we assume we have cultural capital over. I recently overheard one guy describe Tyler’s proclivity for rapping about holding women hostage in basements as a “motif” at a Marnie Stern show. Hooray, your liberal arts education allows you to justify rape in the same way generations of men have before you. I gave him the biggest scowl I could summon, but I wasn’t surprised. How can you be disappointed when you’re already disappointed?
I also share this boredom with my mother. When I was seven, I read Ramona the Brave. The first grade is stressful for Ms. Quimby, as is her mother’s new job and her family’s inattention toward her. At one point, she flies off the handle and starts swearing at her family, who allow her vitriol. Her blue word of choice: “guts.” What I gleaned from this book, as a wiser second grader to parents who then strove to keep a fledgling print shop afloat, is that I would like to start swearing too. Since I absorbed vocabulary from after-dinner conversations and stints in day care, I knew the right words.
My mom bargained with me, perhaps because she shares my belief that swearing children are comedy gold (for a contemporary example, watch Bobb’e J. Thompson steal Role Models from Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott). I was allowed to curse a blue streak, but only at home and never at anyone. I could only apply swear words as descriptors. But after a week of me employing “fuckin'” as an adjective, mom flipped the script! She told me that smart people know how to use curse words sparingly and draw from a larger vocabulary. “Fuckin'” remains one of my favorite words, especially when I’m angry and therefore southern. But she’s right. And that’s how I feel about Odd Future’s rhymes. It’s clear they play with complex language, but a lot of times those S.A.T. words, humorous observational asides, and left-field cultural references are obscured by swear words. And rape jokes. And homophobic epithets. I really don’t want to compare this group to the Family Guy writing staff but both should try harder.
This brings me to the major source of my boredom, which emanates from being too grown for this nonsense. I don’t think Odd Future are subversive. I think they need to grow up. I would like them to broaden their scope, hone their skills, and diversify their lyrical content. I don’t necessarily think they should get into message rapping or “elevate their people” or any of the other things white liberals ascribe to young black people who make them uncomfortable. I also think that some folks’ objection to the group’s rape narratives stem from the racist myth of the black sexual predator, which the group may be responding to. However, I think I’m meeting people more than half-way on that one. Because I never, under any circumstance, find rape funny. I also cannot abide by any of their casual homophobia and jokes about ass rape.
To me, there’s little difference between the intent of many of their rhymes and what the kid who sat next to me in the first grade was trying to accomplish by flipping his eyelids. Or what a high school acquaintance was after when he said that girls who get raped should just lay back and enjoy it. Or why young men (Tyler among them) develop obsessions with A Clockwork Orange (I recommend they read Gary Mairs’ critique of its legacy before donning bowler hats). Or what a group of homophobes are up to when they wail on a couple of gay men leaving a bar. It’s supposed to seem bad and cool, but it’s just childish and frequently awful. And please don’t tell me that as a feminist I have no sense of humor. I do. I’m also really funny when I go off on a rant or spill queso on my shirt. I’m just not laughing because you aren’t funny. You can do better. Odd Future can do better, but I’m not willing to give them the mantle of the new big thing until they do.
However, I have some learning to do myself. Recently Molly Lambert Tweeted about how Syd tha Kyd’s involvement challenges racist notions of the group’s preoccupation with rape (apparently her mom also mentored her in a high school music program–yay, cool moms!). Frankly, I’m somewhat unclear how a female producer accomplishes this outright but I do think Lambert is right to identify Syd’s role. Music producers tend to be men, both within and outside of hip hop. I’m curious about how Syd conceptualizes her role, but I’d imagine asking her what it’s like to be a female producer within a predominantly male group is insulting to her for both personal and professional reasons.
Syd’s participation is particularly exceptional to me because her beats are what I respond to most favorably. Her production aesthetic is minimal to the point of inducing claustrophobia but prone to disorienting passages. The beats bring the ultraviolence to a horror movie where the black kids aren’t always the victims (though I can’t celebrate their ugly tendency to victimize). This is what really gives Odd Future its sense of sonic terrorism, as Syd foregrounds their rhymes by having the voices dominate the mix while giving the listener grooves too slippery and slight to hold onto. It also makes the group distinctive, as they don’t use samples. For this reason Syd is as important as the group’s breakout star, and why I also hope she gets her own contract.
Last summer, I helped teach a music history workshop for Girls Rock Camp Houston. At least one of the counselors was a fan–I think actually was wearing a Best Coast t-shirt at one point. As a music instructor to young girls, the band’s appeal makes sense. Coast front woman Bethany Cosentino writes catchy songs that are easy to teach young instrumentalists. “When I’m With You” employs four simple chords–G, E, C, and D. If you have a guitar, I could probably teach you how to play it in ten minutes and I’ve been playing for almost a year. Also, Cosentino’s a belter. If you’re trying to get pre-teen girls comfortable with their singing voices and help them project it to a crowd of strangers, she’s a good model.
Cosentino’s appeal translates beyond the pedagogical. I remember when one of my friends was single, she mentioned that she could relate to a lot of Best Coast songs. Often her songs are about going on dates with people you’re not really into while waiting for a phone call from the person you do like (ex: “The End,” my favorite song on the band’s debut album, Crazy For You). I’ve been with the same person for over seven years, so I never did the bar scene as a single woman. But I certainly think Best Coast songs are cathartic. Imagine bellowing “I hate sleeping alone!” to your empty studio apartment after last call. Feels good, right? It also leaves a lump in your throat.
Cosentino’s booming voice is also an interesting contrast to her stoner persona. I totally believe her conviction when she sings. I was mounting this comparison with a friend recently, who sensed detachment in Cosentino’s delivery that negates the persona I put forth. While her image and hipster following presumes a blasé attitude, her vocals suggest otherwise. I think she means it, the same way that Shangri-Las’ leader Mary Weiss means it when she sings that “nothing in this world can tear us apart” when she promises her boyfriend she’ll break up with an old love on “The Train From Kansas City.” Maybe the bangs, sunglasses, and bong smoke just hide the tears.
But as I’ve said before, I wish Cosentino would write more songs about getting high, having the munchies, and hanging out with her cat, Snacks, who she’s savvily positioned as an Internet personality. While I like singing these songs in my car, I’m always aware of how much boys–particularly boys who don’t reciprocate–inform her lyrics. Part of this is music snobbery. I liked Pocahaunted, her project with Amanda Brown that was heavy on the drone and drugs. But Cosentino possesses pop sensibilities and can write just as effectively in economic, commercial song form.
A bigger part of my weariness speaks to my protectionist feminist impulse toward young girls. Best Coast songs are easy to play. They probably also speak to pubescent romantic angst, and convey it with more brevity than the Twilight series. It’s not surprising the band get invited to play quinceanearas. I’m more comfortable with girls singing and playing along to songs about cats and weed than whining about boys. You know, switch the script. But I sang “Lovefool” to the yearbook photo of my junior high crush throughout eighth grade and I turned out fine. I even discovered that the Cardigans were a lot darker and cooler than their big hit. Maybe I should just have more faith in girls.
This is ultimately my ruling on Swift, who I think shares similarities with Cosentino. Sure, Swift is ultimately more alpha than Cosentino. As Molly Lambert brilliantly surmised, Swift is a Jack Nicholson who is a virgin who can’t drive. And frankly, maybe the reason I prefer Cosentino–apart from kneejerk, shallow indie identification–is because I have deeper empathy for beta females. Yet both women pen songs about unrequited love in blunt, conversational language bolstered by mammoth hooks. Their regard for other women isn’t always great, though Cosentino tends to just compare herself unfavorably toward the girl who’s got her honey. But this isn’t particular to them. Both women are informed in some way by the girl group tradition. As was Black Tambourine, a Slumberland act recently plucked from lo-fi obscurity by a great reissue of their narrow catalog. Their biggest hit proposed throwing a girl off a bridge so the singer could get the guy. Clearly that’s what Swift wanted to do to Camilla Belle.
Swift and Cosentino’s boyfriends have been factored into interpretations of their music and persona. Again, this isn’t particular to them, as this is how most female entertainers are (mis)understood. Read Sheila Weller‘s book on Carol King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, which detractors could rename How We Felt About James Taylor. Like Carly Simon before them, Swift and Cosentino have a knack for making people wonder who their songs are about. Swift has gotten lots of publicity for speculation around which songs are about John Mayer, Taylor Lautner, or Joe Jonas and when she’ll dish the dirt about Jake Gyllenhaal. The press is interested in casting Cosentino’s on-off relationship with Wavves’ front man (and tour mate) Nathan Williams as this generation’s Sid and Nancy. Both retain some agency through cultivating their persona and marketing by demonstrating fluency with social media.
There’s also a backlash against both women, sometimes perpetuated by other women. I’m part of that number with Swift, though I side with Julie Zeilinger and hope that she’ll adopt feminism. Cosentino has gotten it from folks like Marnie Stern, though I’m more than a little suspicious about how competition is being ginned up by the press. Both are pathologized because of their gender, whether or not the issue is made implicit. Swift, a career woman at heart, gets derided for being ambitious. Cosentino gets mocked for being a cat lady.
So maybe comparing them is a pointless exercise. Maybe they need to stop whining about boys and come together for some huge crossover project. Both have the chops. I hope Swift’s not allergic to cats.
Jennifer Kelly is my favorite writer at Dusted, my go-to music e-zine. Recently she conceded that this year in music had a lot of contenders, but no clear leader of the pack. She then went on to list ten albums she really liked regardless of music critics’ echo chamber. It’s a good list, and I recommend you check it out. I also think you should give some time to Wetdog, a British punk band I learned about from her list.
In many ways, 2010 was an embarrassment of riches. So many big-name artists released career-peak records and lots of up-and-comers made me excited to listen to music each week (day? half-day? quarter-day? how rapid is the cycle now?). On paper, it’s a banner year. Yet I can’t pick one album that defines it. But that’s probably a good thing.
If I were to draft a list, three albums would place at #2. Critical darling Janelle Monáe comes the closest to topping my list. She defied commercial expectations with a pop album called The ArchAndroid about a futuristic metropolis that fused Prince with Octavia Butler. Joanna Newsom channeled Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, and Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan to create the dusky reveries on the enveloping Have One on Me. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy lifted synths straight out of Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and the Eurythmics’ “Love Is a Stranger” while borrowing from Berlin-era Bowie for This Is Happening, which was book-ended by two of the man’s best songs.
The last two artists also managed to follow up and improve upon the albums that made them big tent attractions. Like most great pop music, they transcend their influences and ambitions. Yet each album is weighed down by at least one song. I always skip Happening‘s “You Wanted A Hit?,” which is too long and repetitive, even if it is aware of these things. I won’t fault Monáe and Newsom’s scope, but pruning a few tracks off for an EP or as b-sides might have been helpful. I think “Say You’ll Go” and “Kingfisher” don’t have the impact they could have elsewhere. If Newsom were referencing PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, “Kingfisher” would be her “Horses in My Dreams,” but it’s buried here.
BTW, no one’s jostling for #3. It’s Flying Lotus’ elegantly trippy Cosmagramma all the way.
As with every year, there are albums that are overrated and underpraised. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a perfect #11. It’s got fascinating angst and pathos that recalls another celebrity guilt rock record, Nirvana’s In Utero while squarely situating it as a black man’s experiences with fame. West’s bionic, prog-inflected production is the most potent it’s ever been. “All of the Lights” and “Monster” are among the year’s best songs, though credit goes solely to Nicki Minaj for the latter. But Jesus am I tired of reading ovations that cite the rapper’s Twitter feed. Yes, it provides insights into his process. And yes, it is noteworthy how West made so many tracks available to fans before the album was released (and maybe I’d bump it to #10 if “Chain Heavy” made the final cut). But it’s hardly album of the year or even a career best (in my opinion, he still hasn’t improved upon Late Registration).
Conversely, Spoon’s Transference is an ideal #9. People seem to hold one of America’s best rock bands in lower esteem this year for making an incomplete-sounding album. To my ears, this is an ingenious thing for a band so preoccupied with space and compositional austerity to do with a break-up record. I keep returning to tracks like “Is Love Forever” and “Nobody Gets Me,” yearning for a resolution I know I won’t find. I’d also mention that Marnie Stern‘s latest record (which would probably round out the top five) and Dessa‘s A Badly Broken Code (a peerless #4) were slept on. If they didn’t place higher, it’s only because they didn’t feel the need to announce their greatness and came on as slow burners. The same could be said of Seefeel‘s earthy dub on Faults (possibly #7) and Georgia Anne Muldrow, who had an incredibly prolific year that peaked with Kings Ballad (between #8-10). Psalm One’s Woman @ Work series on Bandcamp has me anticipating her next album. Oh, and since this was a year largely defined by albums about break-ups and shaky make-ups, Erykah Badu’s Second World War (#8) needs your attention.
There’s also lots of new stuff I liked this year that I hope ages with me. I’ve made peace with my misgivings about the limited shelf life of Sleigh Bells’ bubblegum through blown speakers, in part because Treats (#12-15 with some staying power) sounds amazing in the car, which is where all great pop records become immortal in the states. I’d like Best Coast more if leader Bethany Cosentino just went ahead and wrote a concept album about the munchies or her cat instead of devoting so many songs to boys. Sufjan Stevens’ indulgence bored me silly, as did Surfer Blood’s inability to rise past their influences and sound like themselves. Big Boi and Bun B’s ambitious releases deserve their accolades, but they should excite me more than they do. I have yet to fall in love with Robyn the way everyone else has, but Rihanna continues to be my girl.
I’m really into the new Anika record, which is tailor-made for insomniacs. However, I’m certain that a woman with a Teutonic monotone snarling her way through catatonia as producer Geoff Barrow quotes post-punk’s buzzsaw guitar noise holds limited appeal. I always welcome a new Gorillaz album, and Plastic Beach certainly delivered. Among others, I liked new efforts from Baths, El Guincho, Noveller, M.I.A., Grass Widow, Sharon Van Etten, Soft Healer, Beach House, Mountain Man, The Black Keys, Cee-Lo Green, Tobacco, Sky Larkin, Tame Impala, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Nite Jewel, Deerhunter, Vampire Weekend, Warpaint, Antony and the Johnsons, The Budos Band, and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, even if the last two artists essentially release the same great album each time out. And even though I get a free cocktail if Merge wins the Album of the Year Grammy, Matador had a good year for me with Glasser, Esben and the Witch, and Perfume Genius, whose harrowing confessionals will hopefully find a larger audience (Sufjan fans, listen up).
(Note: don’t get me started on the Arcade Fire. I’m going to be mean and unfair, as I’ve been since I gave up on liking Funeral. Suffice it to say, I’m not fond of them and think I can tell you more about living in a Houston suburb than they can. But it won’t be a productive conversation because I’ll tear up my throat launching cheap shots about dressing for the Dust Bowl and wearing denim jackets to prove that you’re one with the working man. It’s not helpful, so I’ll be kind and say they’re fine at what they do but I want no part of it.)
Part of why I can’t settle on a #1 is because I don’t think it matters. I don’t think I need an album to define the year for me. It’s always seemed that selecting one was a fool’s errand. Steve Albini may very well be an insufferable jerk, but he’s absolutely right when he said “Clip your year-end column and put it away for 10 years. See if you don’t feel like an idiot when you reread it.” Last year, I chose Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone. While it helped situate my feelings for the year, it can’t hold a candle to her modern classic Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. But now I’m not even sure what the point is. This exercise doesn’t take into account all of the older music I finally prioritized this year. For me, 2010 is just as much defined by digging through Cocteau Twins and Throwing Muses records (4AD had a good year in all kinds of ways), as well as getting excited about Mary Timony, Jenny Toomey, and Carla Bozulich.
Furthermore, I’ve sometimes lost sight of why I write in this medium. Apart from being vulnerable to having my content scraped by sketchy sites and feeling like I should be doing something more politically important with my time, it can be a challenge to keep the routine of blogging from dulling the impact of your work. This may have more to do with a need to explore scarier forms of writing, like the kind that requires the involvement of a guitar or a storyboard. As a departure, I started a film blog series for Bitch last month. It’s been the right kind of challenging, though I’m not always certain I’m effectively communicating what I hope to accomplish. Music allows for abstraction where films require exposition, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m writing several variations on “I walked to the chair and sat down.” But I’m learning and it’s been a lot of fun.
I’ve also been fortunate this year to contribute content for Bitch, Tom Tom Magazine, Elevate Difference, I Fry Mine in Butter, and Scratched Vinyl, for which I’m grateful and hope I’ve done a service to those publications. In addition to music critics I love like Laina Dawes, Maura Johnston, and Audra Schroeder, I’m excited and challenged by writing from Amy Andronicus, Always More to Hear, Soul Ponies, Jenny Woolworth, Sadie Magazine, Women in Electronic Music, This Recording, and regularly follow podcasts like Cease to Exist and Off Chances.
I don’t mean to be self-effacing toward my efforts, as I’m proud of them. It’s been a good year and it’s healthy to be critical when you’re taking stock. Perhaps I’m responding to a lack of stability. This was a year of change. Some changes were seismic, like when several friends had babies. Others were gradual, like my partner launching a successful music e-zine and me delving into the world of freelance writing in earnest while taking a deep breath and learning to play the guitar. While some friends returned to Austin, others moved away this year and more are soon to follow in 2011. There’s even an infinitesimal chance I’ll be in that number, but the likelihood of uprooting and leaving the food carts and backyard parties of my adopted home is so small and too profound to consider, so I push it away.
But as I’ve thought on these feelings during the year, the lyrics from LCD Soundsystem’s “Home” resonate. Though detractors may note Murphy’s manipulating my generation with lines like “love and rock are fickle things” and “you’re afraid of what you need . . . if you weren’t, I don’t know what we’d talk about,” I’ve taken comfort in crooning them in my car. That’s the best of what pop music can accomplish–taking abstractions and making them applicable to life’s mundane realities, at times clarifying their importance. In whatever medium, I can’t wait for another year of writing about it.
It’s my hope that today’s future ax-slingers who are currently spending hours in their bedrooms learning to play the guitar are regarding Kaki King, Marnie Stern, and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox with the godhead status previously designated to Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eddie Van Halen. It’s also of course my hope that these instrumentalists are transgender and cisgender boys and girls.
I’ve been meaning to focus on Cox for a while and felt that the late September release of Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest was just the opportunity. I don’t have much to say on the album itself, other than it’s consistent with the band and its leader’s beautiful, unsettling output. The influence of girl group pop, Roy Orbison, psych rock, shoegaze, drone, Stereolab and other abstruse curios fetishized by music nerds are still present, culminating in hazy indie pop bolstered by formidable guitar chops. The music isn’t as twinged with the vaguely Lynchian erotic tension of the group’s earlier efforts, particularly Cryptograms, which recalls my experiences driving through the densely wooded areas of their native Atlanta. Steep inclines and tortuous roads determine your course and thickets of pine trees spear the sky. The austerity is breathtaking and ominous.
The proceedings here are deceptively breezy and once again, Cox’s fandom is foregrounded. Neither of these developments are especially new, as Cox worked with Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier on Logos, an album from his solo project Atlas Sound. Both tracks are indicative of his thematic investment with childhood and struggle. His collaboration with Sadier on “Quick Canal,” Logos‘ centerpiece, is particularly compelling as Cox convincingly approximates the late Mary Hansen’s vocal style to imagine a version of one of his favorite bands where a deceased member remains alive by using himself as her vessel. Paired with a profound lyric about trading the assumption of inheriting wisdom by providence for the reality learned with age of enlightenment coming from a balance of success and failure and it remains one of his more redoubtable artistic statements.
However, there remains a productive sadness to Cox’s sound in both projects’ understanding of nostalgia. There is also often a poignant connectedness to Cox’s idols. This album came about in part because of Cox’s fandom of B-52s guitarist and fellow Georgian Ricky Wilson, an innovative and overlooked instrumentalist who was a casualty of AIDS when Cox was three and it was cruelly dismissed as gay cancer.
I invoke all of this then to situate Cox’s particular relationship to indie rock. In tandem with emulating his instrumental mastery, I hope younger musicians are also picking up on his queer, complicated corporeality and making connections to how it informs his work.
First, his body. Much discussion has been made of Cox’s stretched frame that indicates an earlier diagnosis of Marfan syndrome. Some critics, like Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan, have noted thematic connections. Frankly, you don’t even have to go that far to find it. Many of Cox’s songs deal directly with the summer in his youth where he was stuck in a hospital undergoing multiple corrective surgeries.
I appreciate how confrontational Cox is about his body on stage, in song, and through his blog. At times, he’s provoked ableist discomfort from critics and concert-goers who wish the skinny white guy would obscure his form with baggy clothes. Recently I had a conversation with my friend Curran about homophobic panic toward male hipsters, which may manifest itself in people seeking confirmation with questions like “hipster or gay?” or more menacing circumstances. Curran is himself a slender out man and prefers skinny jeans primarily because they best fit his body. However, he is also keenly aware that his wardrobe confirms his orientation and thus makes as mundane an activity as walking around his neighborhood a politically charged act. While we may live in a sartorial moment where huskier men can wear v-neck tees and tight pants, slight men remain under scrutiny for not abiding by normative ideas around masculine virility.
I cannot confirm if Cox is gay. I read that he identifies as asexual alongside journalism that labels him as either gay or bisexual. The ambiguity and fluidity of his identification may actually be productive. What I can aver is that a) Cox is not straight, b) he is gender queer, and c) he isn’t interested in making anyone comfortable about it.
Perhaps we can read Atlas Sound and Deerhunter’s efforts alongside the more assimilable contributions from peer indie act Grizzly Bear. I’m pleased we live in a moment where a band like Grizzly Bear can move units by invoking men’s chorus and not shy away from its queer implications. I’m thrilled that the band’s founder, Ed Droste, writes and sings from a homosexual male perspective. Naturally, I’m ecstatic that both bands’ compositional emphasis on the electric guitar may distance past associations with it as the manifestation of heterosexual male desire. But Grizzly Bear’s efforts are pretty and I’m energized by figures like Cox and his band who like to warp those exteriors.
At the risk of making a tenuous connection, I’d like to close with potentially connecting Cox to recent discourse around the “It Gets Better” campaign. I believe it to be a noble effort in response to recent reports of four gay teen suicides last month. However, I have major problems with it that are best distilled in Everett Maroon’s trenchant blog post on the subject, as well as Tasha Fierce’s tweet that “it doesn’t always get better.” I don’t know if Cox has any interest in commenting, but would imagine that his life as a queer Southern teenager with Marfan syndrome informs the resistive artist he is today.
My friend and guitar teacher David sent me a clip of Barbara Lynn rockin’ “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” earlier today. Given that Rachel at Deeply Problematic recently requested more attention be paid to female instrumentalists, I was inspired to share the performance.
Of course, I don’t want to overlook Lynn’s voice. I’ve encouraged folks to consider singers as instrumentalists long before the formation of this blog and will continue to do so. But I do want to point out two things that excite me about how she weilds her ax.
1. That hammer-on thing she does at :27 is flashy and cool but actually pretty easy to do. David and I worked on it tonight at our lesson and I feel confident that I’ll have mastery over it in a week or so.
2. SHE’S LEFT-HANDED.
I write the second point in all caps because I am also left-handed. I value studying left-handeds guitarists, as the majority of guitarists I’ve seen are right-handed. Guitar models tend to be built for right-handed players as well. This of course doesn’t get into the matter of many celebrated guitarists being white dudes. Surely anyone who reads this blog with any regularity could anticipate that this gets on my nerves and I try to combat this by looking for female role models, paying particular attention to female instrumentalists of color. I only learned about Lynn today, but I’m glad to have her as a teacher.
That said, I’m not as into the idea of playing a left-handed guitar like the Fender Telecaster Lynn plays here. While I know there’s nothing wrong with left-handed models, there’s something a bit off-putting about them to me. I kinda feel defensive about them. Albert King flipped his Gibson Flying V. Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain restrung their guitars and clearly had no problem making music.
I play a restrung right-handed Mako. I’m attempting to save a little scratch for a better electric guitar. My sights are currently on a Gibson SG Epiphone because they’re symmetrical, light-weight, have a clean sound, and can usually be found on Craigslist at a reasonable price ($100-$300). When I improve and come into more money, I plan to acquire a Fender Jazzmaster because I love the high, bright sound they can produce.
I’m a long way from being that good, but I know I’ll get there. And as I develop as a guitarist, I take comfort in left-handed women like Lynn who helped me find my groove.
Readers of this blog may notice a metal deficit. At present, Kristen at Act Your Age and I don’t have a metal section in our Girls Rock Camp music history workshop presentation. In all candor, I don’t know much about the genre, much less female contributors. It was never my thing. Having gotten to guitar late, I didn’t spend my adolescence poring over Guitar World and learning face-melting riffs. Old-school Metallica was never my shit, though I giggled mirthfully at their self-indulgent therapy sessions in Some Kind of Monster. New-school Mastadon isn’t either, though I do like their song for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Movie.
Of course, I also got the sense that metal was teeming with queer tension well before I found out Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford was gay or Patton Oswalt turned hair metal’s homoeroticism into a bit.
I’m not even really sure what metal is, as vanguard bands believed to influence the genre consider themselves hard rock. Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin don’t identify with the term, so I’m not sure what to make of it either. While I think the emergence of all-female cover bands like AC/DShe and Lez Zeppelin are interesting, I’m not sure if we can call them metal.
Now, I’ve been around metal in some capacity for quite some time. My older stepbrother was pretty into Guns N’ Roses growing up in the 80s. As they didn’t embrace the label, I wonder if Paradise Titty do. He later came around to Anthrax, who I will always associate with their appearance on Married With Children. The image of lead guitarist Dan Spitz’s Violator t-shirt is forever in my mind, along with other Depeche Mode fans who formed metal bands.
From other male friends, I’ve developed an appreciation for bands like Slayer, who South Park taught me are especially useful in breaking up a hippie jam festival. Contemporary slowcore acts like Boris have been brought to my attention for their work in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. I’ve also read Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City and Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt. One left me with a sense of amused detachment. The other gave me nausea. I’ll let you guess which title did what.
I know there’s a lot of subgenres, but I can only really tell them apart by RPM. I can’t tell you much about them beyond speed metal and thrash are fast and doom and stoner metal are slow.
So, you could say that my biggest problem with metal is that I don’t know what it is. Thus, how am I supposed to reclaim the marginalized contributions of women and girls if I’m pretty sure Marnie Stern isn’t metal so much as hard rock for indie fans? Therein lies the rub. But I know that there are female metal fans like Laina Dawes, who wrote about the controversy surrounding Burzum frontman and staunch anti-Semite Varg Vikernes’s recent cover for Decibel Magazine on her blog Writing is Fighting. I’ll continue to follow blogs like Feminist Headbanger and The Black Girl Into Heavy Metal and see if I can come to any further conclusions. For now, I’ll briefly outline in videos who I know.
As a child in the late 1980s, I saw these videos from Vixen and former Runaways guitarist Lita Ford.
During my teen years, Kittie developed a following. This was their big hit, and I really liked the vocals on it.
I’m familiar with Jada Pinkett-Smith’s band Wicked Wisdom, who sound like a metal band to me. However, some folks discredit the band’s efforts because of the front woman’s celebrity status and that the group didn’t “pay their dues” on the touring circuit. Seems like racist sniveling to me.
Who are you listening to? Who should I be listening to?