The Music Club
Dear Jonah, Ann, and Jody,
We've got to stop meeting like this—soon, unfortunately, because it's felt like an all-access pass to those "neural pleasure centers" in search of which Ke$ha's ineptly Auto-Tuned, Jack-Daniel's-toothpaste wobble stabs around in vain. Thanks for inviting me to the party.
And thanks to Ann for pointing out the cut-and-didn't-paste error that led to me leaving my fellow Torontonian, K'Naan, out of my Fourth World first draw. People will be hearing a lot about the Somali-Canadian former "lost boy" this year, for two reasons: First, his anthem "Wavin' Flag" has been selected as the official song of soccer's 2010 FIFA World Cup, beginning in June in South Africa. Second, no doubt he'll go out on tour, too, and while I sometimes find his songwriting a bit ripe (that's part of the Fourth World, too)—live, trust me, the guy is a friggin' rock star.
As well, I don't really have the expertise, save as a gobstruck dabbler, to discuss Jamaican dance hall, but it's currently as amazing and vital to noise fission and dirrty-cosmopolitanism (though its sex-and-gender politics are often tough to hack) as the African stuff. In the latter camp, Jody, yes, I would have mentioned Buraka Son Sistema except that I count that record as 2008—a club show of theirs this summer was the most giddy, time-erasing dance party I attended all year. I'd also be remiss not to add Tinariwen, the Touareg rebel-nomad, psychedelic-guitar group you once suggested might be the greatest band in the world, who put out their fourth kick-ass album, Imidiwan: Companions, in 2009.
Were this a mixtape, I'd want to include "Free Love" from England's sitar-rockin' Cornershop; their first new album in seven years, Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast, is generally a not-so-arousing rock record, but the band was dirrty-cosmo before MIA even got to art school, and that track pops. I'd also have to throw in some music from Ethiopia, where they've been making Fourth World sounds for decades, a more recent influence back here due to the superb Ethiopiques reissue series. The two most transcendent shows I saw in Toronto this year took place one weekend in a Polish veterans' hall where 72-year-old Ethiopian saxophone star Getatchew Mekuria came to play with veteran Dutch avant-punk band the Ex, an improbable but gorgeous blending of sensibilities that they've been working on for years in a humble spirit of person-to-person, no-bytes-necessary cultural exchange.
Speaking of person-to-person, let's keep sexing it up. I was startled to catch Ann giving positive strokes to Kings of Leon, who've always struck me as a pedestrian guy-rock band with a few creative hooks. I get that you're from the West Coast, Ann, and so have a sun-kissed appreciation of healthy male swagger. (On that level, I wonder what you think of another Toronto rapper who had a breakout year, Drake—I'm on the fence.) But I'm from a land of long, dark winters, David Cronenberg, Leonard Cohen, and Fucked Up—this year's winners of the Canadian critics' award the Polaris Prize, a flute-and-violins-wielding, hardcore-punk band with leftist politics and a gloriously fat singer who's often found on stage shirtless, pantsless, and bleeding. (Check out their new charity single.) Not to mention the cautionary tale that is Nickelback. Up here, two of our more celebrated feminist works of literature are about bestiality and necrophilia. So I'm more at ease with sexiness that's kinda fraught and pervy.
In my first post I listed the Hidden Cameras' "Underage," which encourages the thinking of forbidden thoughts from a gay-male POV—and, cross-category tie-in, with a marked African-choir sound. And I mentioned my strictly personal favorite songwriter of the decade, Dan Bejar, aka Destroyer, and his sticky, creeping 14-minute "ambient disco" anti-epic, Bay of Pigs. In which the tousled Vancouver indie dreamboat (a new father, incidentally) stalks ladies named Nancy, Christine, and Magnolia "beneath the diseased lighting of the discotheque at night," with pickup lines like, "Please remove your spurs—come to think of it, remove your antlers." It ain't R. Kelly, but as sex jokes go, it's got that swing.
To get, finally, across the border (for immoral purposes), that polymorphous bestial-desire theme is central to Bejar's New Pornographers bandmate Neko Case's remarkable Middle Cyclone. Ann's recent interview with Lady Gaga proved once and for all how much feminist method there is in Gaga's constructed, Matthew Barney-esque madness: Sure, she's Madonna, but a Madonna who's taken Madonna studies, which is a whole other kettle of Madge. But Case (literally) voices a more digested, complex feminism that Stefani Germanotta will take a long time to acquire no matter how much she sings in French and makes anal-sex Hitchcock references.
While animals and nature are the primary images on Case's (literally) wildly imaginative album, and they're clearly meant to represent themselves on the only animal-rights album ever made that doesn't suck (sorry, Crass), these are also mainly love songs, a genre with which Case has always expressed discomfort. That's no doubt in part because of her longtime status as hipster crush object, with her classic Playboy curves and equally voluptuous voice—a smart woman develops some defense mechanisms in that position. Now, in her late 30s, she lives solo on the Vermont farm where this album was recorded, with her dogs and the barn and the wind and chirping frogs. One of the most affecting lines on her previous record comes when she sings, "I leave the party at 3 a.m.—alone, thank God." You can't listen to Kee$ha without holding your breath after that, though Case can kid about it, too—this album's equivalent is, "Next time you say 'forever,' I will punch you in your face."
So here the force of nature is the power of sexuality, especially the feminine kind, as in the ruling metaphor of "This Tornado Loves You." And in "People Got a Lotta Nerve," she sings, "I'm a man-man-maneater," a line that from someone of her generation can't help but be a reference to Hall & Oates' portrait of a femme fatale, drawing a parallel between sexist objectification and speciesist anthropomorphization. But it's also an illusionless take on gender, that just recognizing our equality doesn't prevent us from being human, which is to say being animals, fearful and irrational, lustful, weak, and cruel. And entertainingly ridiculous. It's thanks to the sheer sensual capacity of her voice that Case can be this life-negating and still make you glad to be alive to hear it.
She's got that in common with R. Kelly, too. If I didn't have Christmas shopping to get to, I'd want to talk about how his new album exposes the true nature of Auto-Tune—as the post-human pornographic yodel—which along with Auto-Tune the News, jammin' with Hugo Chavez, rendered Jay-Z's efforts to legislate futile and made for better musical comedy than even the Lonely Island. From there I might talk about The-Dream's incorporating a Kells album into his own musical make-out scenario, and other cases of music-as-music-criticism (which includes that Miley Cyrus song many readers were mystified to see us praise and Art Brut's genuine perplex over why bands want to sound like U2). Which would lead us into my theory of nonfiction music, or maybe back into the purple-state mess of the Kanye/Taylor diplomatic incident, which was another case of teenaged girls getting the brunt of the doubt in pop music as much as it was an inside-out edition of the Glenn Beck show—but was also capping proof of the genuine power of the "Single Ladies" video in the meme-music age of YouTube listening.
Even sticking to sex, we haven't talked about never-been-kissed Susan Boyle or my favorite Michael Jackson tribute, in which Canadian poet and essayist Lynn Crosbie dwells unashamedly on the pop star's penis. How have we managed to get this far and not speculated on how M.J.'s redemption-in-death will affect the music of the next decade?
But that's the thing about the Digits—everything is a link and all thoughts infinitely reproducible. So I'll take a fade and leave it to Ann to play us out.
Carl Wilson is Slate's music critic.