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Scott Creney reacts to Chuck Klosterman’s article about tUnE-yArDs pretty much exactly the way you’d expect him to

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Merrill Garbus

By Scott Creney

Chuck Klosterman, former full-time music journalist (he now writes about the broader topic of ‘popular culture’) shared his thoughts this week with the readers of www.grantland.com about tUne-yArDs.

The album w h o k i l l by tUnE-yArDs was just named record of the year by voters in the 2011 Pazz & Jop poll.

Cool. Good for her. If you’re going to pick the album of the year by consensus, that’s not a bad choice. Personally, I found the album a little long. Some songs blew me away, some couldn’t end soon enough, but you have to admire the innovation, creativity, etc. They certainly could have done a lot worse. (For those of you who don’t know, he’s referring to the annual critics poll in Village Voice.)

I’m guessing this doesn’t mean much to more than (maybe) 10,000 people in the entire country. But there’s something about this situation that I find pretty fascinating, even though it’s speculative and only partially related to music.

Awesome! I love it when people are fascinated by their own guesses and speculations about music, especially when it’s only partially related to music. Me, I’m hoping the other part will be related to French cinema. Or Coldplay.

When (and if) you listen to w h o k i l l by tUnE-yArDs, you are listening to two things: a record that’s very good, and/or a record that will someday seem way worse than it actually is.

Wow. You sure are hedging your bets with that and/or. Got that everyone? People may or may not one day in the future think whokill is worse than it actually is. Have we gotten to the fascinating part yet?

And logic suggests the latter is more likely than the former, even though that’s no reflection on the value of the artist.

This logic is something that Chuck Klosterman just invented — we’ll call it ‘The Klosterman Principle’ whereby every record you like becomes worse and worse as time goes along. Every record you like now? Well you’re going to like it a lot less someday. This is what Chuck Klosterman calls ‘logic’.

I’m not really in a position to argue for (or against) the merits of tUnE-yArDs, simply because I’ve barely listened to w h o k i l l. Had it not won the Pazz & Jop poll, I might not have listened to it at all.

With all these disclaimers, I’m starting to wonder why Chuck bothered writing this fucking article in the first place.

It’s been on my iTunes since whenever it came out, I know my wife loved it, and I had no problem with it ideologically. I just never got around to playing it. Somehow, I hadn’t read a single story about tUnE-yArDs, so I wasn’t even sure what genre of music it was supposed to exist alongside.

We get it, Chuck. You have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about. Now start telling us all about Tuneyards (I write the name however I want).

The only thing I knew was that the words “Tune Yards” were spelled “tUnE-yArDs”, which seemed like reason enough to ignore it (not a good reason, but a reason nonetheless).

Yeah, the spelling thing is pretty annoying — at the very least, it’s a pain in the ass to type. And Chuck, just so you know, the self-deprecation bit is starting to get a little old. If you feel you’re unqualified to write about the album, just don’t fucking write about it.

But then it was voted No. 1 in this poll, which made me think, I should at least know what it is. So I started playing it, totally uninformed and with no motive beside sincere curiosity. This being the Internet, you can listen to it yourself. If you don’t feel like listening to it, here’s enough information to pretend like you did:

It’s ‘besides’ not ‘beside’, and I’m sure that despite your unfamiliarity with this music, as one of the most widely published music critics of the last 20 years, you are about to have all kinds of insights into this original, complex, and at times beautiful album.

1. tUnE-yArDs is essentially one person, a somewhat androgynous American woman named Merrill Garbus. This is her second album.

Somewhat androgynous?

At the top of Chuck’s list of relevant facts: Is she hot or not? One can assume this was not one of Chuck’s primary concerns when he started listening to LCD Soundsystem.

I get the sense that asexuality is part of her hippie aesthetic, because I just looked at the tUnE-yArDs Wikipedia page and noticed that the wiki writer put a lot of effort into never using gender-specific pronouns.

Aside from the fact, that the writing on an artist’s fucking Wikipedia page has ABSOLUTELY FUCKING NOTHING TO DO WITH THE QUALITY OF THEIR ALBUM, let me just say that I’m pretty sure asexuality is a big part of Chuck’s hippie aesthetic as well.

And dude, given the fact that you’ve never read anything about her before, Wikipedia might not be the best place to start. Unless this is just a continuation of your whole ‘undermining my credibility’ schtick. This article in The New Yorker would have been a great place to start.

2. Garbus was formerly employed as a puppeteer, if that sort of thing matters to you.

It obviously matters to you or you wouldn’t have mentioned in the first place. Asshole. And for all I know, Chuck Klosterman worked at a Pizza Hut while he was in high school, but aside from any lingering psychological resentment he might feel, that has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of his writing.

No, Chuck mentioned puppeteer because he thinks it’s funny. And because, on some level, he thinks the music of Tuneyards is a little bit silly (and also to use it against her later – keep reading).

We’re two bullet points in (there’s going to be five in total – that’s 2/5ths if you don’t like to do math) and all we’ve gotten so far is: Merrill is androgynous, asexual, American, has politically correct people writing her Wikipedia page, and likes to play with puppets.

3. The music on w h o k i l l is focused around its percussive elements. You could dance to much of it, but I can’t imagine a social situation in which anyone actually would.

I typed in the words ‘tuneyards’ and ‘dancing’ into Youtube. This one was the cutest.

There are horns, but they’re not overused. It doesn’t sound anything like Stereolab, but it sounds like an album made by someone who believes Stereolab was awesome.

That last sentence is making my head hurt. So it doesn’t sound like Stereolab? But it sounds like someone who likes Stereolab? But what the hell does that sound like?

It’s a sophisticated interpretation of primitive music, vaguely akin to the Moldy Peaches (but less funny and with more looping).

Oh so music made by someone who likes Stereolab sounds like the Moldy Peaches, but less funny and more looping (which at that point would make it sound not at all like the Moldy Peaches, why not say it sounds like The Beatles only without John and Paul singing and more looping).

Actually, it sounds a lot like Micachu from a few years ago, with some more African rhythms thrown in. And yeah, looping. Let’s watch it live.

4. I have no idea what these songs are supposed to be about. The lyrics are superficially indecipherable. There’s one track (‘Powa’) where Garbus briefly and convincingly sings like Robert Plant.

Here’s the full lyrics to ‘Powa’. By the way, they are anything BUT asexual. And I’m assuming the Robert Plant bit is not meant to be a compliment.

 Wait, honey honey Wait, honey honey I will never get to sleep Rebel, rebel, no I can never get to sleep I’m a rebel, rebel, no Hold me til I get to sleep Oh baby bring me home to bed Rebel, rebel, no Lightning dances in my head Devil, devil, whoa-oh-oh Burning steady as a motor Not a pebble, pebble Baby, bring me home to bed I need you to press me down before my body flies away from me

Your power / Inside / It rocks me like a lullaby
Your power / Inside / Oh baby, I just don’t know why
Your power / Your power inside
Waiting for you / Hurry up

Mirror, mirror on the wall Can you see my face at all? My man likes me from behind Tell the truth I never mind Cause you bomb me with life’s humiliations everyday You bomb me so many times I never find my way Come on and bomb me Why won’t you bomb me? Come on and bomb Go on and whoa-oh-a-woah-a-oh-ooh-oh

There’s another track (‘You Yes You’) where she repeatedly screeches the phrase “What’s that about?” and it might be the single most grating musical moment of 2011.

Man, for an asshole, Chuck sure is kind of a pussy. Is it the single most grating musical moment or not? It might be. I have never read anyone so weakly arrogant. Or as Chuck would have put it, “Chuck Klosterman may or may not be one of the more irritating writers I have read this year. Also, he used to work at Pizza Hut.”

5. w h o k i l l is not avant-garde, but it is experimental. It has a cultic, chaotic, stand-alone quality that makes it worth investigating.

In his last point, Chuck starts dispensing compliments, albeit back-handed ones. Is the album good? It’s worth investigating. No, allegations of child abuse are worth inevestigating. This is a record, you listen to it. Chuck probably says he ‘experimented’ with marijuana while he was in college as well. Also, I’d like to announce a Collapse Board Contest. E-mail Scott_Creney@yahoo.com if you can tell me the difference between avant-garde and experimental. The winner gets a free spam virus.

It’s smart. But it will never be popular.

As opposed to Chuck, who is popular but will never be smart.

The takeaway from all this, I suppose, is that w h o k i l l is a creative record, made by an auteur with (at least a modicum of) irrefutable talent.

Retarded people have (at least a modicum of) irrefutable intelligence. Paedophiles have (at least a modicum of) irrefutable good qualities.

But the fact that this subjective opinion has now been validated by the only sector of the media that cares about such qualities puts the 33-year-old Garbus in a strange cultural position.

The Village Voice is the only sector of the media that cares about irrefutable talent? Or is he talking about music critics in general? Or is he talking about Chuck Klosterman articles? Also, it isn’t that strange of a cultural position. It happens every year.

It’s possible that she’s an authentic genius, and that w h o k i l l will mark the “breakthrough” beginning of a major career punctuated by intermittent moments of meaningful innovation.

It’s possible. For Chuck, every opinion must be accompanied by an equivocation. When he proposed to his wife, he probably said, ‘I think I might possibly want to spend the rest of my life with you’.

She could end up like James Murphy or Cat Power.

We should all fucking hope not.

But it’s just as possible — in fact, more possible — that this will not happen.

Oh god in heaven, no. Wait. Are you saying that if Merrill Garbus is lucky, she might one day have a career as great and innovative as FUCKING LCD SOUNDSYSTEM AND CAT POWER? Because James Murphy hasn’t had an original musical thought in his life. [Thank you! -Ed] And the only time Cat Power sounded original was when she enlisted The Dirty Three as her back-up band. I’m starting to think that for a former Senior Writer at Spin magazine, Chuck may not know that much about music.

She will probably just make a bunch more albums of varying quality, none of which will get the collective adoration of w h o k i l l. And then Garbus will end up with this bizarre 40-year-old life, where her singular claim to fame will be future people saying things like, “Hey, remember that one winter when we all thought tUnE-yArDs was supposed to be brilliant? That fucking puppeteer? Were we all high at the same time? What was wrong with us?”

And the gloves come off. Although Chuck has to say that this is only what will ‘probably’ happen.  Which is a gentle, gutless way of saying this is what he thinks is actually going to happen. Which  makes me think that Chuck thinks that ‘modicum’ of irrefutable genius must be pretty fucking small if he thinks THIS is the likely scenario.

By the way, guess who’s about to celebrate their 40th birthday this year? That’s right. Chuck Klosterman. Do you think it’s possible Chuck might be worried that people are sitting around saying, “Remember when we liked to read Chuck Klosterman books? Were we all high at the same time? What was wrong with us?” I think if I were Chuck’s therapist, I might want to back up a bit and examine that last paragraph a little further.

This will be her retrospective penalty for resembling a potential genius, assuming she never actually becomes one: Garbus will become the punch line for highly engaged music fans who want to make jokes about how they themselves were wrong about her.

Chuck has now exited the realm of music critic and is now dealing in curses and fortune telling.

At this point in her existence, I can’t imagine that Merrill Garbus has been able to reap much tangible benefit from her talent.

Before Whokill came out, the booking agent for Tuneyards was asking for a guarantee of $4000 per night from promoters. The day it got Best New Music in Pitchfork, that number went over $10,000. Per show. I bet she reaped a hell of a lot more “tangible benefit” from her talent in 2011 than you did, Chuck.

I’m sure she’s not rich, unless she was born that way (one of her songs was used in an episode of The Good Wife and another was in a phone commercial, but that’s hardly a gold mine). There’s nothing about her music or persona that suggests she’s enamored of the concept of fame and attention.

Well then I guess she probably doesn’t give a shit about any of this, now does she Chuck? It seems the only person who’s worried about Merrill’s fame is you. Which again, if I were Chuck’s therapist…

She is, at least within the idiom of rock, a serious artist. So the only things that matter are (a) her reputation among other serious people, and (b) how she views her own work and identity (which is, of course, partially dependent on the reaction of her audience).

No, how Merrill Garbus sees herself may not have anything to do with the reaction of her audience at all. It might, but it might not. And it’s interesting that the one time Chuck should probably qualify one of his bold statements, he goes the other way and says that ‘of course’ she does – something Chuck couldn’t possibly know anything about.

In other words, her real career starts now. For the next 15 years, she must validate other people’s belief in her own brilliance. There is no other option.

Jeff Mangum hasn’t made an album in 15 years. He has done NOTHING to validate other people’s belief in his brilliance. And yet, somehow, people still think he’s a genius.

Because if she doesn’t, those same people will view her inability to become transcendent as hilarious. They will look back at w h o k i l l and talk about it like it’s Cop Rock. And they’ll technically be making fun of themselves, but she’ll be the only person being criticized by name.

First of all, Cop Rock was awesome.

[Is this video for real? -Ed]

Second of all, I don’t get all this hand-wringing. Van Morrison never made an album as great as Astral Weeks. Arthur Lee never topped Forever Changes. People don’t sit around making fun of them all the time. Even Liz Phair, who topped the Pazz & Jop poll in 1993 with Exile In Guyville, didn’t go on to be a genius. People still think that’s a good album. De La Soul, the 1989 winners, never topped 3 Feet High And Rising, and nobody sits around cracking jokes about them all the time. I think your speculative trip into the future, where you fantasize that people are going to laugh at Tuneyards, is very strange, and not based in any sort of real world evidence.

I am rooting for you, Merrill Garbus. I like your record, and I hope you make many more. I want you to be a genius, and I have no reason to believe that won’t happen. But maybe don’t sell the puppets, because maybe you are doomed.

I don’t think he really likes her record. And I don’t think he gives a shit if she makes another album or not. And if he really has “no reason to believe” she isn’t going to become a genius (now THAT’S a fucking backhanded compliment), then why the fuck does he think she is (maybe – God, what a weak bearded pile of pus you are, Chuck Klosterman) DOOMED?

This article says very little about Merrill Garbus (it may say less than any article I’ve ever read about Tuneyards), but it says a whole hell of a lot about Chuck Klosterman. I’m not a huge fan of Tuneyards, but I think this article is a massive pile of shit. No maybes about it.

Related posts:
Song of the day – 292: tUnE-yArDs
tUnE-YaRdS – w h o k i l l (4AD)
Novel music or better off as a character in a novel about trash munching in America? You tell me.
Pen Tip Rips – 2: tUnE-yArDs
tUnE-yArDs @ The Haunt, Brighton 21.06.11

39 Responses to Scott Creney reacts to Chuck Klosterman’s article about tUnE-yArDs pretty much exactly the way you’d expect him to

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