The final lecture| the Appeal of the WRONG! in pop music
Great lecture. The vast majority of my students missed it. Just sayin’.
The descriptions are taken from my regular weekly column at The Vine.
According to Pitchfork, Zef is a “philosophy of intentional ignorance and crassness”. Die Antwoord, a rave-rap outfit from South Africa, try so hard to be WRONG in everything they do, it feels churlish to leave them out of this series. “She’s taking a dump halfway through the song!” comments one acquaintance. “Eminem did that too, but that was funny because it was Elvis Presley,” says another. “I had a nightmare where that skinny girl came into my room last night,” shudders a third. “She’s so skinny it’s WRONG.”
There’s something really creepy AND alluring about ‘Rich Bitch’. Me? I’m just digging the gold Catwoman look… and the fact I know I’m just buying into the deliberate dumbness. But I can’t help myself. I loved Bush Pig’s ‘Felching The Cat’ for the same reason.
Around a year ago, one of my six-year-old son’s favourite songs was the sound of a “million swarming bees”, the György Ligeti pieces in 2001: A Space Odyssey that employ micro-polyphony, the use of sustained dissonant chords that shift slowly over time (or so Wikipedia has it). It used to drive his mother up the wall. Hello Penderecki. Hello ‘Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima’, one of the most startling, familiar and instantly likeable pieces of music I’ve heard in a long time. The final section where he utilises pretty much every WRONG note cluster possible sounds like a jet plane taking off.
Writes one informed commentator, “Penderecki had to develop his own style of musical notation for this song and had one section of violins tune a quarter tone out and one section tune three quarter tones out”.
It’s quite some video, too.
This is my all-time favourite Presley performance, and I mean no disrespect to The King. It’s one of the few where you can hear the essence of the man.
In these days of iPhones, iPads and continuous documentation – can someone tell me exactly WHY we have cameras in dressing rooms: is anyone’s viewing experience actually enhanced by the intrusion? – the blooper reel has become all-encompassing. Everyone sees everyone’s human side all the bloody time. Beyonce, Tom Cruise, even bloody Tony Abbott… everyone is at it. Back then, about the only time we’d see the façade crack and glimpse the Man inside the Entertainer was on occasions like these, recordings of When It All Went Wrong.
In concert, Elvis used to enjoy changing the words to songs to make them sound funnier. On this particular occasion (Las Vegas, 26 August 1969) he altered the lines, “Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there”, to “Do you gaze at your bald head and wish you had hair” when (as legend has it) a bald man at the front of the audience promptly whipped off his wig and started waving it in the air. Elvis bursts into laughter and continued to crack up throughout the song. The sincerity is tangible, and the way the backing band and singer (Whitney Houston’s mum, Cissy) keep performing is inspired.
Once the King starts laughing, it’s very difficult – if not entirely so – not to crack up yourself. Top-class entertainment all round.
Oh man, this is so WRONG! You ever wondered what it’d be like if Amy Winehouse had been around to tackle the rape culture-promoting megahit of 2013? Thought it might seduce you more than the sight of two seriously creepy men prancing around a video surrounded by their coterie of paid-for coked-out models? Thought that you might forget what you’re listening to in your delight at the way the singer tackles some of the hidden trilling notes, and breathless jazzy punctuated beats? Thought you might fall for it, despite the creepy rape-y lyrics?
Well, wonder no longer. Ms Hamilton – 17 and possessed with more wisdom and musical clarity than a shithouse full of Thicke clones – reinvents the song in her (and Amy’s) image, and in doing so… well, have a listen.
Or alternatively, you could just revel in the whole creepiness of it all.
Tiny Tim. Jesus H. All of my generation knew who Tiny Tim was, even though we never knew why. And we all knew he’d covered this song, even though we’d never heard it. Now we understand. Now we never need to hear it again. How much more WRONG do you want to go? The teeth, the hair, the simpering engagement with his audience, the way he keeps touching himself… that VOICE! That damn voice. Like the six-octave range of Peruvian singer Yma Sumac gone feral. It didn’t really come as any surprise when, upon his untimely death, it was claimed that Tiny Tim had been involved in any number of unsavoury, sordid sexual acts (including even –*gasp* – homosexuality). An odd role model for Dinosaur Jr front-man J. Mascis to base his look upon, don’t you think?
They call it “kawaii” in Japan, this reliance upon the cute and the non-threatening. It’s an aspect of Japanese society that some Westerners have difficulty relating to, especially when it seems to be so focused around females being non-threatening and compliant.
With Babymetal, though… they’ve nailed it, haven’t they? The premise is simple, disarmingly so. Take a trio of Japanese female pop stars – kawaii mannerisms, cute dance moves and vaguely paedophilic dresses and all – and throw in a sludge of dark metallic riffs underneath them. How couldn’t it work? From Ozzy downwards, metal has always contained a strong element of self-parody – and who doesn’t enjoy a monstrous pop tune when presented in the right context? The main problem is getting the fans (of both genres) to accept it.
It doesn’t hurt that the pop stars are cute females and the audience is predominately testosterone-laden male – nor does it hurt that the audience is Japanese, a culture sometimes known for its awesome willingness to accept extremes of taste in the guise of mainstream culture, and also for its commendable ability to reject tired Western notions of embarrassment. (See also Kyrary Pamyu Pamyu.)
This is all to the good, absolutely. (I often enjoy kawaii, for the contradictions it throws up. And it sometimes becomes quite grotesque in its extreme of cute.)
But really, is this all so WRONG? Surface wrong perhaps – how dare these bouncy J poppers pervert metal with their banal singsongs? Or – more to the point – how dare these cod-Satanic beings sully J-pop with their vented assumed fury? But no, it ain’t wrong. Not really.
Imagine the ladies of Babymetal with monster masks on and their voices turned all guttural and male, and you have a whole slew of dressed-up metal-heads from the gore-splattered GWAR downwards. Everyone’s smiling and everyone’s having a good time, and damn if that melody and those monster riffs don’t stick in your heads for week afterwards.
And they look and sound GREAT!
I wanna say I wanna hear more, but… well, one dose of baby metal goes a long, long way, I suspect.
He’s turned this into an elegy. Of course he has, he’s the Boss and what else is he going to do? Of course he’s being reductionist and taking away many of the myriad possibilities that are inherent in the original interpretation – a dreamtime dreaming, a hike through a golden haze of faded memory, a minimalist two-chord swoon of a torch song – but (shrugs) you know sure as shit he feels it. (Or maybe he doesn’t? Does it even matter whether the Boss is authentic or not, bearing in mind this is all one big performance?)
Oddly, I find myself approving this interpretation even if he can’t help but slip a constipated sob into every sentence: he’s turned it into something… not quite… but something that approximates emotion for the great teeming masses, desperate to know their experiences aren’t unique. This is rock’n’roll and this is your religion and this is your prophet and you need your prayers and – give me this over Yawnplay any weekend.
Have you noticed how everyone exists in slow motion in Bruce Springsteen live videos?
Much of the appeal of the WRONG in pop music is about juxtaposition, context. What’s wrong in one culture or setting can be the norm in another. Within the context of rock’n’roll, nothing could be more commonplace than a white middle-class indie band taking The Rolling Stones as their template – hello Oasis, Strokes, Jet et al. Likewise, the idea of ladies shouting or screaming or cussing on stage is hardly revolutionary in this post-post-post-feminist age. Yet shove these bands in the right setting—the Bible Belt in the deep South of the U.S.A.; Tony Abbott’s golf club mates’ annual boat person roast; Putin’s Russia—and they become revolutionary once more. Upsetting. Catalytic.
And so we come to Gavlyn (pictured) – as mellow and laidback and in control of the flow and gently unsettling a rapper as you could wish for. She suffers from panic attacks (not cool!). You could play her to your parents without fear of offending (not cool!). Within the context of 2014, however—and a hip-hop culture that almost insists that any female rappers breaking into the scene are foul-mouthed or shrill or in-your-face bratty—her sound feels all WRONG, and that makes it so attractive. Some folk look for music that reinforces the status quo. We here at the WRONG like to go against the flow.
[I] find Gavlyn massively intriguing, suggestive, secretive almost with her vocals, in a world particularly in which female MCs are almost pre-ordained to attempt to be as flamboyant, forceful and revealing as possible, Gavlyn is the exact opposite, quizzical, poetic, flows trapped somewhere between internal monologue and external confusion.
Who understands better the concept of the WRONG! in pop music then these ladies? When they initially put together this video – of an aborted performance in a Russian cathedral which resulted in the incarceration of several members – they were unknowns. It’s amazing what some judicious editing, a few well-placed neon balaclavas and smoke bombs, and a sense of timing can do.
This is rock music as performance art as provocation as guerrilla street theatre. The whole point of this performance was to excite a reaction: the song is called ‘Punk Prayer’ and it’s a scathing and bitingly funny putdown of Putin’s regime, but without the response of the authorities, the song and performance would have been rendered meaningless.
On the face of it, what’s so alarming about this performance? Some ladies dressed in brightly coloured clothing, enter a cathedral and bounce around in front of its altar for a minute, mimicking rock moves and mock genuflecting. There’s not even any sound (that was dubbed in later, on the edit). Sure, it’s disrespectful – but the art collective these ladies had been previously involved with had done far more shocking acts (public sex in museums, for one). And is it that disrespectful, anyway? One could argue that the church itself, and Putin’s regime, is disrespectful to the desires and wishes of millions of ordinary people… but damn, that’s never stopped them.
It’s all about timing, and placement. Thousands upon thousands of punk and agit-pop bands have written similar songs and conducted similar performances, but very few of them – if any – have been thrown inside for a couple of years, and subsequently had their cause taken up by Amnesty International and the U.S. Government. (God bless those fair-minded people at the American government!)
Perspective is what matters in this case. If the response hadn’t been so disproportionate then the West would have forgotten and/or ignored Pussy Riot within a couple of weeks. The Russian government tried to ban any videos featuring the collective, showing an alarming lack of understanding of the Internet. And now the ladies have been released from prison – a “pardon” that they rightly immediately dismissed as a political stunt – and their standing is even stronger, even more marked.
Even more potent were the artfully-managed photographs and videos of the musicians behind bars. In the West, of course, the idea that rock’n’roll can be subversive somehow – a tool of the revolution – has long since been ridiculed, leaving the FBI’s absurd infatuation with Insane Clown Posse followers out of it. This is partly what made the outrage exhibited on the other side of the Curtain more genuine: ‘it’s only art” came the cry from Paul McCartney and Sting downwards. (Hip-hop is considered more dangerous, but only cos it features young black males.)
As Chris from original Riot Grrrl band Huggy Bear once remarked: “Irritation is one of our greatest weapons”.
And of course Pussy Riot are female.
She’s only 17! OMG! How great is that? She’s emo! OMG! How great is that? She looks nothing like Taylor Swift! OMG! How great is that? She’s the new Nirvana! OMG! How great is… wait. What?
Risky artists change the Top 40 game by the luck of what precedes and surrounds them. Nirvana succeeded where Husker Du and The Replacements imploded; Lorde has benefited from partial successes of tart ingénues like Robyn, Sky Ferreira and Lana Del Rey. Then there’s what the “new” sound pushes aside. Nirvana famously displaced Michael Jackson at No. 1. Lorde’s arrival in the midst of Mileymania felt to many of her fans like a similar intervention.
Finally, there’s the hit itself: a no that blossoms into a yes. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was an emerging generation’s frustrated battle cry, and like “Royals,” it decried the pop industry of which it became a part. Hitting hard, “Teen Spirit” revitalised the idea of what rock could be. Sneaking in, “Royals” suggests that pop can have deeper layers. Nirvana lobbed a Molotov into the charts. Lorde released a virus. Each weapon suited its time.
I’m not trying to be lazy or cynical here. I love Lorde. I love most everything about her: from her studied bohemian chick awkwardness to the movement of her hands to the stilted, truncated beats to the feeling of isolation her music engenders – isolation that is (crucially) shared, the same way Cobain’s isolation was once shared and thus became the touch point for a generation. Her music doesn’t just suggest at hidden, deeper layers: it provides them.
There’s been a confusion around the cutting-edge that separates the underground from the mainstream for a long time now: the reason many popular music commentators are seemingly switching allegiance from guitar-led indie acts to pop manipulators like Lorde is partly because the cutting-edge, and the use and casual abuse of technology that being on the cutting-edge demands – and its attendant aspiration to ideas – is shifting, has shifted a long while back. Take one listen toThe Jezabels new album and you should understand what I’m talking about.
And I love the way Lorde now—with her anti-materialism, anti-rich kids song—is now being feted by the rich, successful folk (the Grammys). They ain’t accepting her because she’s WRONG of course. They’re accepting that little bit of her that feels RIGHT enough that they can slot her in without disturbing too much while giving the illusion of promoting the ‘edgy’.
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by Everett True
My name is Everett True. I am a music critic. This is what I do. I criticise music. The clue is in my job description – music critic. I do not consider myself a journalist, as I do not research or report hard news. I do not consider myself a commentator as I believe that everyone should be a participant. I criticise people and in return I am not surprised if other people criticise me. It is part of the whole deal of being in the public arena. I am Everett True. Believe in me and I have power like a God. Quit believing in me and I no longer exist.