This week, Chuck Klosterman did something kind of gross. There’s just no way around it. He used his position as one of the most highly respected culture writers working in America to serve up thoughtless prejudices directed at an artist who lies outside the norms of indie rock and yet has the power to change its future. As much respect as Mr. Klosterman has earned, this piece is very much worth taking apart.
The article Klosterman wrote was on Merrill Garbus of tUnE-YarDs, whose album w h o k i l l had just won top spot in the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop poll. It’s based on a sneaky bit of intellectual trickery, the likes of which his entire career has been built on, where he claims his point isn’t to critique the piece of art itself, but the public’s relationship to it, but then actually just goes ahead and offers a boneheaded critique anyway. “I’m not really in a position to argue for (or against) the merits of tUnE-yArDs,” he says, before listing the things he does “know” about her: that she used to make puppets and that she’s “somewhat androgynous.” “I get the sense that asexuality is part of her hippie aesthetic,” he reasons, “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.” What he means, of course, is, “I don’t find her that pretty, and she doesn’t fit into my idea of what a woman should look like.” Ugh. But even more patently off-base and infuriating than all his other these tossed-off statements is his assertion that Garbus’ lyrics are “superficially indecipherable.”
It’s a shame that more hasn’t been written about the lyricism of w h o k i l l, an album that contains some of the most directly political, sensual and uncomfortable lyrics being written by anyone today, comparable, as pointed out by the Voice’s Eric Harvey, to P.J. Harvey’s lucid and physical Let England Shake.
W h o k i l l’s opening track, “My Country” is nothing other than a polemic on economic and social injustice, from the opening, thunderous melody of “My Country Tis Of Thee” to the lines, “Well then why is there juice dripping under your chin/When they have nothing, why do you have something” and “Oh yes, there’s a place for you/But that place is underneath the cushion of my behind.”
And how could “Powa” possibly be misinterpreted? It doesn’t take a critical theorist to figure out that the entire song is about sex (and less superficially, power dynamics). “Baby, bring me home to bed/I need you to press me down before my body flies away from me,” and the repetition of “Your power/Inside/It rocks me like a lullaby,” doesn’t seem like too much of a puzzle.
“Gangsta” speaks again to social and economic inequality, gentrification, the link between disenfranchised neighborhoods and disenfranchised genders. “What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangsta/Anger in his heart, but he’ll never be a gangsta,” Garbus sings. Then, “If you move into his neighborhood, he’ll never make a sound.” She repeats the structure for a “girl singin’ from her heart, but she’ll never be a rasta” over a layer of wailing sirens produced by her own vocal loops. While these topics aren’t found as commonly in the straightforward love won/love lost/love unrequited stuff of much songwriting today, it doesn’t mean that a listener couldn’t tune in and pick up the complexity that tUnE-YarDs is able to communicate in so few words.
A little known fact about w h o k i l l was that Garbus originally intended to call it Women Who Kill and collaborate only with other females for the album. She dropped the title and the girls-only idea to make the record more inclusive for listeners. To that end, she succeeded. But Garbus is still very much informed by how feminism relates to music. Last year, Garbus told the Guardian, “I adored [Nina] Simone when I first came across her, because she didn’t fit any typical idea of the feminine voice.” Garbus continued, “Listening to her, I realised that in music, there is this ability to shake off those stifling ideas about what women are ‘meant’ to be.”
Perhaps what makes w h o k i l l so charged is that the album represents a violent and joyous shaking off of things that stifle Garbus as an artist. When it comes to politics, sexuality or economic power, Merill Garbus neatly lines up the dividing walls of a segregated cultural mindset and proceeds to smash them, musically, one by one.
To be fair, Klosterman did end his piece by saying that he was rooting for Merill Garbus’ legacy as a genius, though he warned of possible, impending “doom.” After all, maybe in a warped, tough love kind of way, this piece could be considered a preemptive favor to Garbus and her fans alike. It’s right of critics to doubt and question the “genius” label whenever these unwieldy things get hitched to a musician. But it’s Klosterman’s method of dissecting Garbus that feels snidely less-than-honest, not to mention less-than-informed.
In some ways, this could be because Chuck Klosterman represents a slightly older guard of music critics, the ones stuck firmly in a mostly male-dominated High Fidelity kind of indie-verse. Maura Johnston, music editor of the Village Voice, rightly labeled his position on Garbus as “Old Man Yells At Cloud That He Seems To Find Gender-Ambiguous,” but Klosterman’s piece seems more deliberately irresponsible and misleading than that. Perhaps, “Old Man Attempts to Discredit Artist Who Challenges Gender Binary by Calling Her ‘Asexual’” would be more apt. Thing is, it’s been over a decade since High Fidelity came out. Indie rock is no longer fairly represented by the slightly greasy, slightly antisocial Rob Gordons of the world. Time to get with the times, Mr. Klosterman.
You can follow Sydney Brownstone on Twitter @sydbrownstone