A Couple Of Supplemental Reading Suggestions For Those Who Might Still Be Confused By tUnE-yArDs' Pazz & Jop Victory

merrillgarbus_pazzandjop.jpg
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."

Also:

"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.

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34 comments
Mark Wilkinson
Mark Wilkinson

Hmm.  I only read the Klosterman article because of a Mountain Goats tweet, but was a little bit surprised by what I read.  Especially since it seems from further googling around that this guy's held in quite high regard by some.  

To me, the article seemed quite passive aggressive in tone.  To say I wasn't impressed is an understatement.

To spend a chunk of your word count detailing how things might be in the future for an artist you know almost nothing about seems totally redundant, and the smugness with which he presented his opinion was really off-putting.

To start:  I haven't heard any of Klosterman's records.  It doesn't mean you're not allowed an opinion if you don't make music yourself, but you should be especially careful to be respectful if you're not in a world where your own talents are widely known and appreciated.  'Maybe don't sell the puppets' is not particularly respectful.  Say you don't get it, don't get snide.

Also, Klosterman's view of music certainly does not reflect my own or my friends.  To me, the idea that anybody would look back and laugh at a record they'd loved in the past is a little dumb.  Sure, you get older your tastes change, there are records that I loved at 17 that I would never listen to now, but you might still remember the times that you associate with those records fondly (or not - depends on your childhood)

It almost sounds as if Klosterman had spent his life only wanting to listen to music that was 'cool' and then putting the knife in the second that artist wasn't regarded as cool any more.  How pathetic would that be?

Klosterman (and your kind):  Here's how it works for some of us.  A record is released by an artist.  Some of us might like it, some of us might not.  When we go to a festival and that artist comes on, those who like it go to the front and dance, those who don't head to the bar or the bathroom.  We don't expect that having released one great record there will necessarily be another one to follow.  We hope there is for the artist's sake, because they have our goodwill from releasing the songs we already love, but we don't sneer at people whose discography we haven't kept up with.  We pick up on new artists and forget about old ones all the time, but we don't hate on people because their new record sold less than the last one.

Anybody who is putting themselves out there and putting their time and effort in deserves the chance to be heard.  Sure if I don't like what I hear I won't buy the record or follow news about them, but I'm making an informed critical choice.  We don't hate the ones we leave behind, we just find that among the perpetual tidal wave of new music there might be somebody who has better captured the feeling of where we are in our lives now and is hogging our attention.

Merrill Garbus will always hold a place in my heart for the songs she has already written and released.  If she never released another note I'd consider it a shame, but her choice to make.  If she released thirty more records and I didn't like a single note of them, I'd consider it my loss that I didn't get it.  What I wouldn't do is laugh at her for releasing those records.  Merrill Garbus does not have to validate other people's belief in her.  She does not *have* to do anything.  It's beyond me as to why Klosterman believes that she does.

Cactuswax
Cactuswax

I have not listened to "whokill."  But I have played with Merrill several times, both with her former band Sister Suvi and solo - hey, she slept on my couch a time or two when she was in town.  Since I haven't listened to the record I can't speak much on it's future effects - but in a general sense I would describe her songs and performances as anything but "asexual."

ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzz
ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzz

An article about articles about reviews about Tune-Yards? So boring and pretentious... I'm just happy I got to see her at the pier in July, far and away the best concert I saw in 2010.

Dennis
Dennis

I actually listened to tuneyards and think it's a piece of shit.

Choocheroni
Choocheroni

To call yourself a journalist while writing a semi-major think piece on an artist you only know because of one or two listens and a glance at a Wikipedia page? fucking piss on it.

Anon
Anon

Jeez, the guy actually says he LIKES the record (as well as praises the artist) and you're giving him grief because he's not worshipping at the altar properly?  Because he thinks the music is far enough from the beaten path that she will have to sink or swim within a somewhat limited fan base in the future?  It's not about male/female relations in modern music.  He seems genuinely ambivalent about what her place in modern music history will be, given both the rabid fans (like you) and detractors like me, since the loops give me a headache and the songs are way too unstructured for my general taste.

Referencing articles by fellow rabid fans does nothing to diminish Klosterman's basic premise:  that the music is polarizing enough to make an assumption of mainstream acceptance questionable at best.

KidvanDanzig
KidvanDanzig

This is, after all, the man who once wrote "Obviously, the Riot Grrl phenomenon was another was another genre wholly absent of any kind of debased sensual pleasure." Pretty shocked to see the president of the Society For Chinstroking Cock Rock Fans put off by a woman making music while not wearing high heels, or whatever.

I'm glad the first Grantland article I ever read was a collection of A Tribe Called Quest tracks reviewed in Fuck / Marry / Kill style. Otherwise I'd still be reading Grantland.

Ryan
Ryan

The most charitable reading of Klosterman's piece is clarified by his reference (in a footnote) to the rap group Arrested Development, which seems like a much more realistic possibility for what could potentially happen to Merrill Garbus. I have no idea if that comparison holds up, but at least I can see what he's getting at.

jp
jp

Dear Maura, you have done culture a great service in writing this piece. Thank you. 

Runningboard7
Runningboard7

The Klosterman article was just like every Kosterman article ever. "It is like this. BUT IT ISN'T."

Also, it doesn't matter how much he says he likes it, the overall tone is condescending. I agree with him on many points (there are a hundred moments on whokill I find intolerable), but I'd rather hear someone say "Interesting it is number 1 this year, but it is trash to my ears" instead of trying to have it both ways. In two years, the tune-yards will either have another acclaimed album or a total shitbomb, Chuck will be able to say, "I was right...

BUT AT THE SAME TIME I WASN'T."

Bob
Bob

Maura, what happened to you since the Idolator days? You used to be so generous and fun, but now your prose is insular and snide. Come back, old Maura.

Theon Weber
Theon Weber

"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."

surely you are not saying that a comparison of two pop-culture artifacts proposed by chuck klosterman was a bit of a stretch

anyway the article is what happens when someone's job forces him to pretend to have thoughts about something he has no thoughts about -- occupational hazard for some; just plain occupation for others

Hank
Hank

I'm a huge, huge, HUGE Klosterman fan, and I'm also not enamored with tUnE-yArDs, but I thought this column was pretty crappy. A lot of it comes off as, for lack of a better word, silly.

Theheartsleeves
Theheartsleeves

Thank you for writing this. Unlike these other folks I did feel the awkward mental luggage that Klosterman brought with him to listening to the album. I mentioned to a friend who posted the article that it was "The most passive aggressive non review ever. This article is as hipster/awkward and self aware as it is perceptive.. Yet his focus is dead set on telling us how being admired for your work by the fashionable is fleeting and many times double edged.. I had no idea! Music Journalism is a dead art and a live excuse not to write fiction. "  

I don't know who Klosterman is (but that means nothing), but like most critics, he seems to enjoy the shortcut of making all criticism more about himself instead of doing the hard work that once embodied the profession to eloquently talk with passion about music and the love of music. I would not be surprised if his next review was done through a POV of his cat. 

When you don't even listen to the whole album and yet have the balls to write a review, you need to stop lying to yourself. 

Volumeiser
Volumeiser

It's possible Klosterman's comments, this article's declaiming of them, and her winning PnJ poll the all stem from the same affliction: nobody can decide if her music's crap or not.

I don't posit that's an earmark of genius. I'm only suggesting that maybe it can be transcendental AND sucky at the same time. "Music" is a pretty big playground.

Christopher
Christopher

Might have missed the minor point that Klosterman likes the album.  This article isn't a hit piece--it's mainly diagramming the inevitability of Backlash when it strikes an out-of-left-field hit.

No one that matters.
No one that matters.

'Old Man Yells At Cloud'  does not describe Klosterman's piece at all. His assertion that Garbus' later work will have to validate her critical praise and popularity isn't exactly a new point, as casual listeners (of which Klosterman is, at least in this case) are often either dismayed that they used to enjoy what is now awful music (Weezer) or proud that they caught good material that became great material early. This happens a lot.

Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson

Dinging Klosterman for listening to music "in a vacuum" is pretty idiotic. There's nothing wrong with judging a piece of art subjectively without first reading the breathless praise of your critical peers (if we can put you and Klosterman in the same league). In fact, it might even be preferable to people like myself who value opinions that aren't part of the indie feedback loop. 

yourmomhasamodicum
yourmomhasamodicum

I once picked up a book by Klosterman in a book store (remember those?), randomly opened to a page, and read his treatise on the Los Angeles music scene. His take? Los Angeles is phony and fake, compared to other cities.  How...original? Really, that's it? I put it back on the shelf, thought, "Hack," and got on with my life. 

Theheartsleeves
Theheartsleeves

I listened to it and found it pretty damn good and original.. She has a soulful voice. Original ideas.

If you think it's shit, I would be very interested in what you think isn't. I recall an argument between a friend and a customer at a cd shop who said "Johnny Cash can't sing.. He's not good like Shania Twain."

Honestly, if  Klosterman hadn't written such an infuriatingly meaningless piece I might have never checked  tUnE-yArDs out.

That is the point  apologists are missing. I don't care if he liked it or hated it. I want true criticism instead of this egoist's clumps of personal context dumped onto a foundation of: "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."

This is an awkward piece that is wholly about the author with little crumbs about this band that he seemed to mostly pick up from other people. He seems to mistake his issues with femininity, with the artist's intent. He must have loads to say about "Chrissie Hynde".   Worse, he hardly really delves into the subject which is the title of his post: "The Pitfalls of Indie Fame". I bet there is a good story there somewhere. The main pitfall seems to be that Indie Fame may make you the ornament in a Klosterman thought piece.

Every artist, who spends the time creating art, deserves at the very least a serious review or perhaps if that cannot be attempted, then no attention at all. The standards that Klosterman put forth in this piece and that some of you accept for criticism are far below any acceptable line. 

Ramiremj
Ramiremj

congratulations you win! you understand how to read articles with real nuance, and not make knee-jerk reactions or emotionally-driven insults! 

Jesse Fuchs
Jesse Fuchs

It probably doesn't; not that Bob Christgau is anything like infallible, but it's worth noting that he's been raving about Garbus since her debut album in 2009, whereas half of his '92 P&J essay was dedicated to popping the Arrested Development critical bubble as it was happening. A much better comparison would be to Patti Smith's "Horses", clearly a critic's album as well, which would've won in '75 if it hadn't been the year Columbia decided to release a legit version of the best decade-old Dylan bootlegs. But I wouldn't expect Klosterman to know this, because talking shit without doing the research to back it up is his primary modus operandi.

Ryan
Ryan

I don't think calling a fairly underthought article by Chuck Klosterman "frustrating" constitutes snideness.

maura
maura

No offense, but this comment comes off a little bit like you're telling me to smile! 

Lucy Cage
Lucy Cage

I don't mind at all if critics write from a subjective point of view ("all about themselves") but it only really works if there's an interesting/exciting/contrary/perspicacious/astute opinion behind the egocentricity. There's a void at the heart of Klosterman's article because he spends his whole time trying to work out what he should be thinking. Poor bastard.

Grant
Grant

I can decide: it's not crap.

Claire Michal
Claire Michal

exactly! nowhere in the article does klosterman say he was "confused" by the pazz & jop win. to wit: "there's something about this situation that I find pretty fascinating, even though it's speculative and only partially related to music". emphasis added.

he's not confused by the music. he likes it! or at least, he has favorable things to say about it. he's fascinated by the critical reaction (see the headline...) and is interested in the process wherein a respected, admired experimental musician can become the butt of ironic nostalgia, or whatever. which happens! it's not an article about trying to "get" the music.

Matt Carlson
Matt Carlson

Pfft. Old Weezer is, was, and always will be enjoyable. High horse, come off, now, thanks.

Negafulobooks
Negafulobooks

What part about Klosterman not "engaging" seriously with the album before committing to a broadly dismissive opinion did you not get?

Jake
Jake

On the contrary, I don't think he liked it at all. His 5-point analysis of the record is mostly disparaging or irrelevant to the music, and he makes a number of seemingly neutral associations and assessments that are clearly meant to be negative - mainly his jab at her being a puppeteer that he later emphasizes by saying "that fucking puppeteer?"

You say "he likes it! or at least, he has favorable things to say about it." But I don't think it can get much more backhanded than this "compliment": "The takeaway from all this, I suppose, is that whokill is a creative record, made by an auteur with (at least a modicum of) irrefutable talent." He inserts so many qualifiers into that sentence, beginning with the "I suppose" and then using words like "creative" and "auteur," words that imply artistic process and impulse but not aesthetic value. Also, to say that she has "at least a modicum of talent" is pretty weak. My dog has at least a modicum of irrefutable talent - a modicum is a very, very small amount.

He sets up this article to be something he can show to people in ten years if tuneyards never does anything else, to say "see? I told you so." He could have made the same good points - that critical success might be irrelevant unless you can consistently produce at that level - but done so with enthusiasm for her prospects to fulfill that possibility. Instead, he writes as though he is predicting her inevitable demise.

Jake
Jake

On the contrary, I don't think he liked it at all. His 5-point analysis of the record is mostly disparaging or irrelevant to the music, and he makes a number of seemingly neutral associations and assessments that are clearly meant to be negative - mainly his jab at her being a puppeteer that he later emphasizes by saying "that fucking puppeteer?"

You say "he likes it! or at least, he has favorable things to say about it." But I don't think it can get much more backhanded than this "compliment": "The takeaway from all this, I suppose, is that whokill is a creative record, made by an auteur with (at least a modicum of) irrefutable talent." He inserts so many qualifiers into that sentence, beginning with the "I suppose" and then using words like "creative" and "auteur," words that imply artistic process and impluse but not aesthetic value. Also, to say that she has "at least a modicum of talent" is pretty weak. My dog has at least a modicum of irrefutable talent - a modicum is a very, very small amount.

He sets up this article to be something he can show to people in ten years if tuneyards never does anything else, to say "see? I told you so." He could have made the same good points - that critical success might be irrelevant unless you can consistently produce at that level - but done so with enthusiasm for her prospects to fulfill that possibility. Instead, he writes as though he is predicting her inevitable demise.

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