This morning Chuck Klosterman took to his perch at the ESPN-gone-McSweeney’s site Grantland and tried to figure out why tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l, a record that he wasn’t familiar with (but, he noted, that was loved by his wife), won this year’s Pazz & Jop albums poll. He gave the album a listen, wondered about what Merrill Garbus might have on her mind, and asserted that she “must validate other people’s belief in her own brilliance” in order to live up to her win this year. The piece was a bit “Old Man Yells At Cloud That He Seems To Find Gender-Ambiguous,” to be honest, complete with confused Wikipedia citations, notes about its “superficially indecipherable lyrics,” and so on. There are also attempts to play pundit as far as her future success, with this perhaps being the most eyebrow-raising: “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?'” Sigh.
Most frustrating about the piece, written by one of the country’s most celebrated music writers on a high-trafficked platform: It seems to have been the result of a listening session or two in a vacuum, with only Wikipedia and a couple of preconceived notions about Garbus being kind of “out there” as research assistance. To that end, I’d like to provide a couple of reading suggestions for those still confused by what tUnE-yArDs might be about. I’m not saying, “You have to like this record.” I do, but I also know that it’s pretty divisive—if you look at the numbers, it won on passion as much as it won on number of votes! Rather, I just want to provide a bibliography of sorts, especially since claiming that one is engaging with an album (or, really, any artistic product) while refusing to do so in actuality is really not all that good of a look.
“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.”
“I have no idea what these songs are supposed to be about. The lyrics are superficially indecipherable.”
Eric Harvey actually got into the sensuality underscoring w h o k i l l in his essay on it (and other high-placing records this year), which ran in last week’s Voice. (Pazz & Jop isn’t just about the results, although I understand why someone in ESPN’s employ might feel that way.) A pertinent bit:
w h o k i l l is at its most compelling when Garbus unleashes her most primal desires–the “jungle under my skin,” as she calls it–particularly those that don’t jibe with stereotypical understandings of bodily empowerment. On the sultry slow jam “Powa,” she confesses her preference for ceding control in the bedroom, punctuated with the confession “my man likes me from behind,” before collapsing into a gorgeous orgasmic wail. She one-ups even this on “Riotriot,” admitting an erotic attraction to the Oakland cop she watched handcuff her brother. It’s a quietly stunning moment to hear an artist, especially a woman, so bluntly admit the most repressed form of desire: that which arises when encountering a source of power well beyond your control.
Note the words “sultry” and “erotic”—there’s even a specific reference to “my man” in there.
“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.”
Actually, I can! Because I was at her show at Pier 54 last summer:
This was not a show where people posed for pictures or positions on the Disaffected Showgoer list. She led calls and responses of “yeah” that were lusty on both sides; she asked people to dance; there weren’t many people texting or chatting even during the relative lulls when she set up her loops for each songs. (Indeed, just those licks would, at times, inspire cheers from the crowd.)
I neglected to note that people, including me, did in fact heed her call to dance, erroneously figuring that was implied. (Writing! It sure is hard.)
Matthew Perpetua summed up the highly individualistic appeal of w h o k i l l fairly succinctly in his review for Pitchfork, and its final paragraph serves as I think a fitting riposte to Klosterman’s essay-closing claim that someday, people might look back on w h o k i l l in the slightly embarrassed way that they view curios of other eras like Cop Rock—that whole notion of the “guilty pleasure,” to laugh at the people they were and the thoughts they had then, even though those former selves were key to who they were now. (Also, one would think that comparing a big-budget TV show that aired on a network and widely seen as a failure all around to a solo album that was a modest commercial success and a critical hit released by an indie (a big indie, but still) is a bit of a stretch. But I digress.):
Back in 1983 Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon wrote an essay for Art Forum that suggested that when we go to rock performances, we pay to see other people believe in themselves. A lot of what makes w h o k i l l and tUnE-yArDs’ excellent live performances so compelling is the degree to which Garbus commits to her ideas and displays a total conviction in her personal, idiosyncratic, high-stakes music. This, in and of itself, is very inspiring and empowering. This unguarded, individualistic expression encourages strong identification in listeners, so don’t be surprised if this record earns Garbus a very earnest and intense cult following.
And no, that’s not “cult” in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 sense, in case you were wondering.