A day before leaving my last job, I received a text message from Kristen at Dear Black Woman, that damn near made me do a spit take. It said “blog request: can you pls tell/explain the love for bon iver? particularly white ppls love for the background story of bon iver?” My reply was “That fucking guy.”
Some of this vitriol isn’t even Justin Vernon’s fault. Frankly, his brand of white boy croonery is too inoffensive to prompt any reaction from me. The same can be said of Fleet Foxes. And while I do like Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles, my fandom isn’t such that I’d staunchly defend them the way I would, say, TV on the Radio or Vampire Weekend or the Dirty Projectors. Nor is my anti-fandom on par with how I feel about Jens Lekman, who does the nervous Woody Allen routine to curry sympathy from women and hides that he looks like a model and is probably a jerk, like Woody Allen. I only opted out of one part of Whip It!, and it’s the pool scene where the couple makes out over a Jens Lekman song. I quite like how Ellen Page’s character cut herself off the line her indie rocker love interest strung her on, but can do without that entire subplot. I kept wondering what the derby girls were up to or if Alia Shawkat was cutting AP Bio to smoke in the bathroom.
This isn’t Lekman’s fault, though. It’s easy to conflate your opinion of a musician with your assumptions about their fanbase. I’m sure lots of chauvinist dudes dismiss Sleater-Kinney as shrill because they’re feminists, which means that all their fans are humorless feminist white women. Thus, we have to take care to separate the work from its popular reception. When I say I don’t like Fleet Foxes, what I actually mean is “if Pitchfork didn’t give their debut Album of the Year status, most people would dismiss them as dad rock for CSNY fans.” When my partner’s dad says he hates Bread, he’s probably reacting against his square older brother and all the schlock he heard in the early 70s when his band was trying to make it. He can’t be reacting against “It Don’t Matter to Me” because that’s a smooth summer groove.
I’d imagine Vernon’s exile resonates with many fans as a sign of authenticity–he was able to write such personal lyrics and deliver them with so much emotion because he led a cloistered life untethered by the modern material world and central heating. That and white people like caring about things. Frankly I’m unmoved by Bon Iver’s origin story, and more than a little suspicious of a white person with the means to retreat. Survivalism came into vogue at the turn of the twentieth century with organizations like the Boy Scouts of America. It may have been intended as a way for boys and men to get in touch with nature, acquire self-sufficiency, and forge intergenerational bonds. I don’t doubt that those lessons continue to be imparted. But it also seems like a neat way for white men to run around in the woods, fetishize a particular kind of masculine ideal, and reconnect with a pioneer spirit while conveniently erasing the racial injustices placed against Native Americans and enslaved people of color. It’s easy to go camping when you don’t have to live in a tent.
I remember back in 2007, when it circulated that Vernon recorded For Emma, Forever Ago in a cabin following his band’s dissolution, an epic break-up, and a bout with mononucleosis, but didn’t seek it out. Look, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote most of Magnolia in Bill Macy’s cabin, too terrified to leave his desk. It doesn’t change that the second hour is a slog, the frog rain is gimmicky but not insufferable, and the Aimee Mann sing along is quite moving. Tom Cruise also gives one of his best screen performances.
People are obsessed with legends and origin stories. If we weren’t, Hollywood wouldn’t continue to exploit this fascination with shitty comic book movie franchises. Likewise, classic albums get integrated into the canon because of surrounding lore and myth-making. Stevie and Lindsey and John and Christine were falling apart during Rumours. Captain Beefheart handed in Trout Mask Replica in six hours. PJ Harvey lived on potatoes during Rid of Me. Kanye recorded “Through the Wire” with his jaw wired shut, which is why he has to Watch the Throne now.
I’m also reacting against the assumption that I would like Bon Iver. I certainly fit his demo–politically liberal, college radio listener, Pitchfork reader, cisgender white lady, alive when Bonnie Raitt swept the Grammys, inclined toward male romantic partners. But I reject the heteronormative assumption that my hypothetical fandom as a white woman would be tied to finding him or his music sexy. When I finally listened to “Skinny Love,” long after Bon Iver signed with Jagjaguwar and he recorded a song with St. Vincent for the Twilight soundtrack, I felt cold, tired, and manipulated. I’m partly reacting against hipster dudes outfitting themselves in rumpled men’s attire that telegraphs fucking in the woods, or at least not copping to Robbie Robertson doing it first with greater success. But the cabin in Northern Wisconsin scenario doesn’t send chills down my spine. Duran Duran recorded a song about getting it on in either an actual or metaphorical Antarctica. It’s not sexy so much as it is deeply embarrassing, though not the most embarrassing song on Liberty.
Part of this contrarianism also informs why I yelled at my TV when Netflix recommends “Independent Features with a Strong Female Lead.” I contain multitudes, Netflix! I don’t want to fit too neatly in a type. But I’m more than a little disconcerted about what that type might say about my race and gender. Just like I don’t want people to think that I believe feminism is predicated on white women’s subjugation of women of color and thus that a movie like The Help would speak to my politics, I bristle at the idea that a nerdy white lady like myself would, by definition, listen to Bon Iver. Or the Smiths. Or Belle and Sebastian. Or the Cranberries. Or that I’d instinctively champion a Miranda July movie, because, as Kristen noted in a post that addressed white lady quirk, where is the black mother of John Hawkes’ children in Me and You and Everyone We Know?
A post on Bon Iver is really a post on whiteness, because over his songs’ crisp acoustic/ambient arrangements, Justin Vernon is articulating a very messy white masculinity. Whiteness has always been at the center of rock music, and frankly it’s hard for me to tell if Vernon’s doing something radically new with collapsing folk and blue-eyed soul. In this supposedly post-racial cultural moment, it’s common for hipster-friendly musical acts to bring the two together. Justin Vernon’s British counterpart is James Blake, a white boy who gets accolades from Pitchfork for bringing his intimate singing style to an of-the-moment electronic subgenre like post-dubstep. It seems robots do cry, most likely to Joni Mitchell records.
Many of Vernon and Blake’s white peers are at home with R&B. Mayer Hawthorne can’t sing worth a damn, but that doesn’t keep him from channeling Curtis Mayfield in his bedroom studio and connecting with a large audience. Jamie Lidell brings soul music’s immediacy into the present, proving himself to be one of the most talented composers and vocalists of his generation in the process. Blake and Lidell also come from a country with a deep, problematic love for black pop music. Jamiroquai wouldn’t exist without Stevie Wonder. Simply Red’s biggest hit was a cover of a song Gamble and Huff originally wrote for Labelle. The Rolling Stones worship Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Solomon Burke. Adele is channeling Dusty Springfield, who in turn was channeling Aretha Franklin.
Lidell was also at home touring with Beck, a full-grown (white) man who’s not afraid to cry or build a bridge between James Brown, Kraftwerk, and countrypolitan. Beck came into cultural relevance in a decade when Jeff Buckley covered Mahalia Jackson, Nirvana covered Leadbelly, the Blues Explosion recorded with R.L. Burnside while being called out as modern-day minstrels, and Radiohead could count Maxwell as a fan. In her essay “The Soft Boys: The New Man in Rock,” Terri Sutton argues that alternative rock was defined by a sensitive, self-reflexive white masculinity, but it also absorbed and appropriated soul, R&B, funk, and other generic expressions associated with black artists.
As Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style suggests, Vernon might set himself apart by having black artists accept him. Kayne West brought him in for “Monster” alongside Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and built “Lost in the World” around “Lost in the Woods.” However, white artists working with artists of color is as old as popular music itself. James Taylor worked with Gilberto Gil. Hall and Oates are embraced by black and white audiences. I believe West’s articulation of a black hipster masculinity, white hipsters’ quasi-ironic, quasi-sincere, deeply nostalgic, and highly performative fan appreciation for quiet storm R&B and new jack swing, and the Internet fostering an uneasy but fascinating integration are the key distinctions.
It speaks to why Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake channeling Color Me Badd for “Dick In a Box” captured so much public attention. It speaks to why a cheesy genre like yacht rock resonates, resulting in Warren G sampling Michael McDonald, Michael McDonald covering Grizzly Bear, and the cult phenomenon of a Web series that imagined the lives of James Ingraham and Loggins and Messina and brought Wyatt Cenac into millions of homes as a Daily Show correspondent. It gets at why I’m thrilled thrilled that any oldies radio format for my generation must include Adina Howard and SWV. It also explains why Bon Iver invokes Howard Jones and Back in the High Life-era Steve Winwood for “Beth, Rest” and it’s not totally left field. And it especially speaks to why Vernon would be involved with Gayngs, a loose assemblage of musicians that includes Andrew Bird and various members of Minnesota-based hip hop collective Doomtree that claims soft rock as its primary influence.
I don’t pretend that Bon Iver will unite a people, any more I can claim that Justin Vernon’s music as my own or that his performance of white masculinity is new or interesting. But parsing out the racial politics of genre hybridization, puzzling through the elision between ironic and sincere fandom and performance, and placing Vernon in that context is better than getting lost in the woods.
You may have seen my recent post about the space in my heart forever reserved for Lauryn Hill. I included a link to an NPR story about her. If you clicked on it, you may have noticed that Hill is one of many artists comprising NPR’s 50 Great Voices. The year-long series is about half-way through its run. Thus, there are still several artists yet to be revealed. Hopefully more hip hop artists will also appear on the list, as Hill is presently holding court alone.
The series’ selection process began with listeners offering suggestions. Kristen at Act Your Age elbowed me to submit a list, which I remember included Édith Piaf, Björk, and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe. From there, a panel pooled together their selections. Between these two resources, a list of nominees was formed, out of which the chosen 50 great voices emerge. Perhaps this process sounds over-involved and potentially off-putting, especially to listeners whose favorites were not chosen. However, at the risk of sound like a shill for NPR, I’ve liked most of the results so far and appreciate what this series is trying to accomplish.
1. It’s not definitive. Note that this is not the “50 GREATEST Voices OF ALL TIME EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE THE END” or some such hyperbole. These are just 50 great vocalists, with the recognition that there are thousands more who are just as great.
2. It’s not particularly interested in ushering celebrated singers into another canon. Apparently Frank Sinatra is not on this list because of his considerable renown. So much the better to discover other voices time forgot. Plus I never see Jackie Wilson in consideration for any canon, and that’s a shame.
3. Its attempts at incorporating a global focus. As the “national” in NPR refers to the United States and has been recognized as one of the many things white people like, I find this quite admirable. While I don’t pretend to imagine there aren’t biases at work, I do think many of the selections are great. Another list may have Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sing for the Middle East, so I’m glad Afghanistan’s Ahmad Zahir is included. I hope this interest in singers outside of a U.S. or Western European musical context remains consistent.
3A. I’m learning about so many female vocalists I’ve never heard of before who are blowing my mind. Hello, Radmilla Cody. Greetings, Asha Bhosle. How are you, Elis Regina? Hope you’re doing well, Esma Redzepova. Nice to meet you, Fairuz. You as well, Sezen Aksu. It’s nice to have you all together with artists I’m a little more familiar with, like Lydia Mendoza (who I learned about at the American Sabor exhibit), as well as old faves like Hill, Ella Fitzgerald, Sandy Denny, Umm Kulthum, and Mahalia Jackson and deserved mainstays like fellow Texan Janis Joplin.
3B. Iggy Pop is on the list, which is awesome. It’s also a personal reminder to check out that standards album he cut a while back.
4. Its emphasis on sociohistoric context, technical ability, and musicianship. Each segment contains lots of good information from scholars and experts explaining their cultural and musical significance.
4A. The archivist geek in me is thrilled to hear some evident sound restoration, as some of the original recordings may not have been in great shape. The more people are given access to music — particularly historically significant music that may have suffered archival neglect or was previously unavailable — the happier I am.
Tune in Monday evenings to hear who the next great voice will be. While I hope some of my nominees will be represented, I look forward to hearing whoever might be included. I’m also happy to keep collaborating on a list here with you readers long after the series concludes.
Alyx, seriously? Today’s post is about an album cover that features the women of Ladytron in bathing suits? Pin-ups for folks who wear cardigans, make library puns, and like skinny girls? Great. I’ll go back to poring over my Tegan and Sarah albums. They look similarly gamine and like streaky make-up but aren’t scantily clad in repose on the grass being shot from above like an American Apparel ad. You keep fighting that fight.
I bring up the cover of Ladytron’s 2003 mix CD entitled Softcore Jukebox for these reasons:
1) The cover is eye-catching, though obviously in a problematic way. It objectifies vocalists Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo, respectively wearing a sky blue tank and shiny black skull string bikini that I hope came from their own closets (but probably didn’t — do people swim in Liverpool?). In addition, it doesn’t even show the rest of the band, which is also comprised of dudes Reuben Wu and Daniel Hunt.
2) The title seems leering and provocative, but is also jibberish. What the eff is a “softcore jukebox”? Is it different from a “hardcore jukebox” in that it works with a crotch patch and doesn’t do penetration? Or would a cadre of queercore jukeboxes have to create a scene for themselves in response to the homophobic, homoerotic hardcore jukebox scene?
3) The cover is a modest revision of Roxy Music’s Country Life cover, which features Amazonian models in see-through underwear boasting serious 70s ladygarden. Country Life was so controversial upon its release that a revised cover had to be printed with the women taken out of the image.
4) Apparently a German artist named Pia Dehne reconfigured Country Life to address the gendered aspects of camouflage and mimicry.
5) Softcore Jukebox came out during a wave of mix CDs that featured dance songs with electronic instrumentation alongside rockier fare. Critics like citing Kings of Convenience leader Erlend Øye‘s DJ-Kicks compilation, but he was hardly the first to do this, as compilations like the Back to Mine series suggest. Hell, he wasn’t even the first person to make a DJ-Kicks compilation. I’d also like to put in a plug for Annie’s DJ-Kicks compilation, which features ESG’s “My Love For You.” Hot Chip’s gets my approval as well, along with any mix that has songs from both New Order and Positive K.
6) A cover that references an iconic album cover seems relevant, especially because the women in the band are the cover subjects and said band created a mix CD of pre-existing dance songs. Seems camouflage and mimicry may apply here, along with reference. This might be characteristic of the band. After all, Ladytron didn’t just swipe the cover of Country Life for their mix CD. They took their name from a Roxy Music song.
Much of my interest in Ladytron is in Marnie and Aroyo. I like how they try to sound like robots (or ladytrons), mimicking their coldness and just-out-of-date technological make-up while singing songs about the inherent datedness and fickleness of fashion, beauty, and youth (see: “Seventeen,” “Blue Jeans,” and “Beauty No. 2″). This juxtaposes nicely with the band’s reliance on electronic instrumentation.
In their later work — particularly the brooding Witching Hour — more traditionally rock instrumentation like electric guitars spike up their sound on songs like “amTV,” suggesting that Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees were as much of an influence on the band as Kraftwerk. Also, I can’t help but point out that TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” features a fuzzed-out bass line very similar to Ladytron’s “International Dateline,” though my hunch is that both bands probably got it from Bauhaus.
This brings me to the mix CD itself, which smashes dance music and rock music against one another, suggesting the band’s influences and approaches. It also unearths a long-obscured truth: dance music has always co-mingled with rock and, later, hip hop. And I’m not talking about The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” as their interrelation has a much deeper, storied history. I always hate it when detractors say things like “not another synth pop track” or “I hate disco,” as if rock music and its studied authenticity doesn’t rely on rhythm sections and repetitive passages of catchy melodies too. As if rock is about the truth and dance music is just piffle. C’mon now.
As for the album’s content? Meh. Some songs work better than others, and some of it is fairly forgettable. Oddly enough, the most effective offerings for me are the rock songs that I didn’t know you could dance to. I’ll stand by The Fall, Wire, Shocking Blue, and Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s classic “Some Velvet Morning,” which is the compilation’s haunting closer. I already knew you could dance to !!!, Fannypack, and Cristina, so they get a pass. You can kind of jig to My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon,” the intro from which Garbage stole for “My Lover’s Box.” I liked that I also like Ladytron’s cover of Tweet’s “Oops (Oh My)” — an ode to masturbation, a premonition for me that Tweet and producer Missy Elliott might be more than friends, Missy’s first “ping!” on my gaydar, and a cherished memory as the “poem” one of my classmates read aloud with deadpan faux seriousness in a college English class. I like the original much more, but I appreciate the band’s effort to suggest that hip hop and R&B influence them. Let’s listen and compare, shall we?
Thus the cover, like song selection and reinterpretation, becomes a messy process for both band and listener that is guaranteed to leave grass stains.
I love lists. At the end of every year, I dutifully check in with my AV Clubs and my Pitchforks and my NPRs and my Dusteds and whatever other publications appeal to politically liberal youngish people trying to keep up.
There’s a special place in my heart for music lists. Back in my college radio days, we used to devote hours (some of them on air) to dissecting the year-end best-of lists. Having served posts at office jobs that require a considerable amount of editing and fact-checking, and thus allow for some quality headphones time, these sorts of lists now serve as a discursive mix tape that I can alternately love, hate, or dismiss.
Yet, I tend not to make lists. It isn’t a matter of feeling like my opinions aren’t valuable. It’s a resistance to canon formation. I question whether the list itself is a useful tool with which to measure history. There’s something so arbitrary about ranking, so temporal about certain offerings, and so glass-cased final about the results. It seems to render the chosen cultural moments accidental, temperamental, and airless. And often the items deemed worthy on these lists have nothing to do with me or anyone else who isn’t a straight white adult male.
To me, the only use a list has is to argue about it with a group of friends over beer, make another list to counter someone else’s (whether it be drafted by a friend or a respectable publication), or scrawl all over the margins of the pre-existing document. Otherwise, the proceedings seem deceptive and unsatisfying to me. And even though I like to wrestle with lists, I don’t really need proof that good things came out each year. Good movies, TV shows, books, and especially music get made every year.
That said, I do believe in favorites. While favorites can shift with time and gathered experience, I’m a big believer in selecting a defining text that encompasses the year. I don’t remember if I originally thought Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver was my favorite movie of 2006, though I know I loved it. When I think about it now though, I remember calling my mother immediately after the screening I attended because the thought of living in the same house as a grown woman with your mother who might be a ghost was too profound an idea not to relate to her.
I remember how TV on the Radio’s Dear Science captured the hope of change promised by the potential election of Barack Obama, especially in the wake of a demoralizing Bush administration that the band gestured toward in previous, more emotionally turbulent albums.
So what of this year? Well, my choice for album of the year picked me.
Before getting into why I picked the album I did, which I established as my #1 way back in March despite keeping fantastic company with offerings from Bill Callahan, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, P.O.S., Fashawn, Micachu & The Shapes, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, St. Vincent, Bat for Lashes, Speech Debelle, Grizzly Bear, Themselves, Memory Tapes, Janelle Monáe, Phoenix, Taken By Trees, Nite Jewel, Destroyer, Julianna Barwick, Fever Ray, The Noisettes, Atlas Sound, Vivian Girls, Gossip, Best Coast, Dan Deacon, Brother Ali, and so many others, I’d like to be candid for a moment. When I think about this year, I think about how I tried to make it a good one. I believe I was successful and I know I have many people to thank for that. But it was definitely a growing year, and usually not in the certain, considerable, triumphant ways that “growth” often suggests itself as a word.
I started this blog at the end of April. While I made a New Year’s resolution to do it, I created it out of a need to control my feelings about a professional setback that rendered itself more heart-breaking than I thought it would when the decisions were finally handed down. Throughout this year, I’ve often (re: daily) reflected upon my future and who I want to be, worried not so much that I lack the ability to progress toward a career I really want and think I’d be great at, but that I’ll never get the chance to develop and move forward. That’s some heavy shit. It doesn’t translate well into party-time chit-chat either, especially when some of your friends are already on the path you’d like to be on someday.
As a result, I tried to broaden my focus and interests. I tried to get some related things accomplished and made some progress. But I also got comfy and more involved with my current job, read more books, saw more movies, heard more music, hung out with my friends, had quiet nights at home with my partner and our cat, got involved with Girls Rock Camp Austin, co-taught some rad music history workshops, paid off my loan, and threw myself into this blog with abandon. Admittedly, it’d be nice to get paid to put this site together, as I could easily be happy making a career out of it. But it’s been so fun and rewarding to write up these posts and have smart, sensitive people follow along and participate. I’ll gladly pay the money to keep the domain name.
But none of this fucking matters when a tornado is ripping up your house or a killer whale is eating your lungs. And with that, let’s get into Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone.
So, the second time I heard this album, I knew it was the one to beat. And before people cry “safe choice!” or “bias!” I’ll point out that Animal Collective secured many publications’ top spot with a crossover hit back in January. And then I’ll add that Middle Cyclone, much like Merriweather Post Pavilion (and Dear Science before it and Kala before it) distilled the musician’s artistic growth. In this particular case (no pun intended), she honed her considerable writing ability, developed her Gothic noir musical tendencies, piled on catchy melodies and haunting harmonies, and showcased a maturing, perfect alto. The issue of vocal range is one of great importance to me, as it means I can sing along with her. We had some good sessions in my car.
It was also the long-awaited follow-up to Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which continued but further shaded the cinematic work the singer had done with Blacklisted. Fox Confessor was a cycle of post-apocolyptic fairy tales about car accident victims, army widows, and fingerless cannery workers.
As is evident in much of her earlier and subsequent work, animals show up. Sparrows, lions, and foxes make often allegorical appearances, though her gendered connection to nature would take a more literal, weirder turn when she decided to record crickets chirping for Middle Cyclone‘s final 30 minutes. Sometimes cover songs get re-interpreted, as on the spiritual “John Saw That Number” and Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” on her follow-up.
Sometimes Case would show up too, most noticeably on “Hold On, Hold On.”
But Case is all over Middle Cyclone. Whether she’s singing about a love-lorn tornado or a biker’s wife or a convict or an owl, she’s singing from their perspective rather than narrating their lives. She’s also often singing as herself, revealing who that might be with lines about being the dangling ceiling of a caved-in roof or threatening to punch a lover in the face if the word “forever” is uttered in “The Next Time You Say Forever.” I also love her assertion that “heaven will smell like the airport” but that we shouldn’t worry about whether we get proof of it is fair in “I’m An Animal.” However, her candor on the title track moves me the most.
Through the liner notes, we even got more of a sense of who she is. Her deprecating sense of humor is evident, as is her confident sense of artistic ownership and her craftiness with collage art and découpage glue. As this was the year Austin City Limits released their cookbook, I can’t wait to try out her recipe for houndstooth chocolate chip cookies. And let’s not forget how many pianos she needed to make this album. She may be a goddess, but she’s also a kooky lady.
This goddess and kooky lady are evident as one on the album’s bad-ass cover. While it’s Neko on the hood of a car, the image is far from Vargas girl cheesecake. This one is barefoot and holding a sword, but she’s also 38 (now 39) and pretending to be an eight-year-old boy.
In sum, Middle Cyclone was a defining and distinctly female work that came about from age, experience, a clear sense of self, some hard knocks, and even more defiance to overcome them. It was exactly the album I needed to hear this year, often and at full volume.
Scarlett Johansson wants to be considered a hyphenate. And not by joining her surname to husband Ryan Reynolds’s. She wants you to think of her as both actress and singer.
Now, I’m not sure when hyphenates like “actress-singer” or “singer-model” or “model-actress” became a punchline, but I think it suggests a certain snobbery toward classical training and finely-honed technique, usually acquired from years of stage work. Having just watched another episode of Glee, I wonder if guest-star Kristen Chenoweth and principal Lea Michele, both Broadway babies, lend legitimacy to the hyphenate. You could sub in any number of singing actresses with considerable stage training for more examples — Patti LuPone, Julie Andrews, Rita Moreno, Bernadette Peters, Vicky Lewis, Jane Krakowski, the mother-daughter legacy that is Judy and Liza.
And yet, if actresses like Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Lewis, and Gwyneth Paltrow try to establish a musical career, their efforts are dismissed with a derisive chuckle (okay, admittedly, GOOP made Paltrow more of a punchline than Duets ever could).
But Johansson is an interesting case, because she seems to want to tap into some of the indie caché that fellow It Girl Zooey Deschanel has cultivated with projects like She & Him, if not at the very least balance it with an attempted career in the imagined, perennially just-emergent film musical revival.
Johansson has made music for some time, having taken music and dancing lessons as a kid. Fans of Lost In Translation, her break-out movie from 2003, were perhaps charmed by her performance of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket” during the scene at the karaoke bar. I know some girls who donned that pink wig for Halloween.
Johansson also leant her vocals to a cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” for a charity album in 2006 and performed with proto-shoegaze royalty Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella back in 2007. Again, anyone who saw Lost In Translation can walk through the big symbiotic moment that results from having the actress sing a song featured in the movie that made her a star. That she is alongside the band that authored such a legendary song in the first place and performing it at such a public, credible venue as Coachella should not be overlooked.
But Johansson’s first widespread effort to tap into hipster-approved musical ventures was her Tom Waits covers record, Anywhere I Lay My Head. Pointedly, this effort was widely dismissed by its target audience. The critics were not kind, dismissing it as a vanity project, discrediting Johansson’s ability, and crying offense that some starlet would dare cover the songs a musical legend like Tom Waits.
Now, I don’t consider Waits’s ouvre or anyone else’s to be a sacred text. Songs are malleable. What’s more, covers are really fascinating. When they’re bad, they test what you actually like about the original. When they’re good, they can be transcendent, forcing you to rehear a song you already know and love. The Wire faced this each season when they re-worked Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” for the opening credits, the original only being heard in season two. Let it be known that I think Steve Earle’s pedantic version for season five that swipes from the theme to Law and Order made me question if this song was actually good. Conversely, The Neville Brothers’ version in season three reminded me that it totally was.
Oh, have you seen The Wire? If you haven’t, you should.
For me, then, it wasn’t so much that Johansson, an actress, dared attempt reworking the songs of the (male) master. I could think of far worse things Johansson could do with her time and resources (get arrested for drugs, get cosmetic surgery, get really skinny, make another movie with Woody Allen).
My big frustration with her Waits covers record, which is where I ended up siding with some of the critics, is that I couldn’t actually hear Johansson. Perhaps putting her vocals so far down in the mix was meant to free her from any tethers to the master’s words. But, to my ears, it kind of sounded more like an attempt for producer David Sitek to upstage her, twiddling knobs and piling on layers of reverb so that her voice lent a “cough medicine/Tinkerbell” vibe to the proceedings. Sitek’s futuristic, anthemic sensibilities usually do it for me, particularly with the work he’s done with Telepathe, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and his own band, TV on the Radio (aka my favorite band, aka the rock band of the 2000s). But here, I was like “oh, this is really his record.” It seems to make all the difference when she sings the song live.
Despite this setback, Johansson continues to make music. Last summer, she covered Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye” for the soundtrack to He’s Just Not That Into You, a movie I did not see because I figured an ensemble rom-com of needy skinny women, aloof men, and Wilson Cruz being underused would make me yell “feminism!” and throw tampons at the screen and that’s why we watch movies at home. I can’t valorize her efforts, because the original is a song that made me so swoony for the beautiful boy singer that I taped a photo of him in my notebook and spent my allowance money on Grace. Johansson’s version, on the other hand, reminded me of Vonda Shepard. Tepid execution of such a powerful song makes me feel like a wet noodle.
But now Johansson has recorded Break Up, an album she did with Pete Yorn (who has not had the effect on me that Buckley has, but he seems nice enough). If you’d like to hear some songs off the album, along with their interview with NPR, check it out here and then thank my friend Kristen for, once again, pointing you (and me) in the right direction.
Yorn had Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot‘s collaborations in mind when composing these songs and casting long-time friend Johansson, who he felt was today’s version of the French bombshell.
The music itself sounds fine, and definitely lines Johansson up more closely with the indie-friendly retro cool Deschanel has found for herself. I still feel like her voice, while more expressive and interesting here, seems a bit flat and projectable. And, of course, there’s something potentially unsettling about Johansson being linked with men like Yorn and Sitek who seem to have a little too clear a vision of what they want to construct instead of fostering a more openly collaborative relationship. One could easily extend this reading into a comparison of patriarchal impulses surrounding production between musicians and movie directors.
So while I don’t want to suggest that Johansson isn’t singing for herself, I also hope she keeps striving to find her own voice.