It’s December, which means it’s time for one of the Internet’s most cherished traditions: writing insipid and uninspired analyses of how the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is creepy and “rapey” (to use Key & Peele’s assessment).
Key & Peele’s parody is four years old, and there are plenty that are even older. This year’s is possibly the most vapid and insufferable version to date, as a couple of indie musicians made an acoustic version that’s updated for our modern sensibilities.
I won’t make a comment on the quality of the music itself, except to say that it’s just really twee and awful and I hate it. But most offensive — yes, even more offensive than making a reference to “Pomegranate LaCroix” and thinking it was a witty punchline — is how it attempts to fix all the problematic aspects of the original instead of making an effort to actually understand the original.
The original song — at least the most common version of it — is a back-and-forth between a woman and a man trying to come up with excuses for why she should spend the night. To suggest otherwise robs the woman of any agency and turns her from a modern, self-aware adult into a gullible victim. It also suggests that adults in the 1940s fell into stereotypes and were all either lecherous or prudish, and nobody realized it until the 1970s came along and everybody got woke. In fact, though, the song is a play against those exact same stereotypes.
What makes me so sure that interpretation is the correct one? Well, if there’s one thing The Young People Today love more than overly simplistic gender swaps and song parodies, it’s a bunch of stuff presented in list format. So here’s Eight Reasons Why A More Sophisticated Comprehension of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is Everything In The World Right Now:
The song was performed by a married couple at parties. For years I’d assumed it had been written for Neptune’s Daughter, but it was actually a duet that writer Frank Loesser performed with his wife. So it’s not the stereotype of the cigar-chomping MGM exec who directs a gullible ingenue to the casting couch; it’s the stereotype of The Thin Man-style sophisticates having dinner parties in which they make fun of less-sophisticated stereotypes like playboy and “good girl.”
It’s a duet. In the MPR write-up linked above, the writer describes the song as “like the ‘Blurred Lines’ of the holiday songbook.” It’s not for dozens of reasons, the most obvious being that the woman in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has a voice, instead of just being “the hottest bitch in this room.”
It’s a call-and-response. In addition to being a duet, it’s a back-and-forth between two adults. You have to listen to both sides to get it, and you have to listen to how both participants play off each other before singing in unison at the end of each verse. If Liza and Lemanski wanted to “improve” on the song, then in addition to actually making an effort to sing on key, they should’ve chosen to end the song abruptly after she says “I’ve got to go away.” If you’re making a point about consent, then actually make the point.
The woman’s objections are all about keeping up appearances. She never talks about what she wants to do, but instead about what she should do. It’s about her mother worrying, her father being angry, what the neighbors will think, her sister and brother’s suspicions, the kind of gossip she’ll be subjected to. “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow, at least there will be plenty implied.”
The woman is totally into it. “Maybe just a half a drink more.” “I wish I knew how to break this spell.” “I ought to say no no no, sir, At least I’m going to say that I tried.” “The welcome has been so nice and warm.” She’s looking for excuses to stay, and playfully looking for a way to spend the night while still preserving her reputation. She’s talking herself into it just as much as she’s arguing against the man. At the end of each verse, they come together because they’ve agreed on the story they can tell people the next day: she had to spend the night.
Esther Williams is the star of Neptune’s Daughter. Her character isn’t being taken advantage of or fooled by anyone. She’s perfectly aware that Ricardo Montalban’s character is a “playboy.”
The gender-swapped version makes fun of all the stereotypes in play. The version of the song with Betty Garrett as the “wolf” and Red Skelton as the “mouse” is played as a farcical take on the more wry and sophisticated one, and that fact alone shows which stereotypes they were making fun of. When Garrett is portrayed as being “man-crazy” and Skelton as flustered, it’s supposed to be funny because women aren’t “supposed” to be eager for sex and men aren’t supposed to shy away from it. When Skelton does the absurd Spanish accent, it pokes fun of the image of Montalban as a sexy Spanish lothario.
Viva Las Vegas has the clumsy and obvious version. Don’t get me wrong: if I had to go back and live in a movie fantasy version of the past, I’d totally choose the universe of Elvis movies over 1940s romantic comedies. But the duet “The Lady Loves Me” between Elvis and Ann-Margaret is another perfect example of what would happen if you took the same basic setup as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and removed all the wit and subtlety from it. The two characters are simply arguing, and there’s nothing clever or coy about the woman’s rejections. She’s just parading around for the audience in a bathing suit while getting off on the attention. The “the gentleman’s all wet” bit at the end is presumably a 1964 take on “Grrl Power” that doesn’t actually say or do anything positive.
It’s pretty arrogant to insist that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is supposed to be read exactly as it appears on the surface. In the song, adults could make a wry comment on the idea that “good girls don’t” and that men were perpetually horny aggressors taking advantage of innocent women. Today’s simplistic and reductive hot takes on the song act as if that idea were actually the common belief at the time, and most Americans from 1930-1960 actually did live according to the Hayes Code and network TV standards and practices. Basically, you’ve grown to believe the false version and become skeptical of the real one. (For the record, people didn’t live in black and white before 1950, either).
Okay, so why make an issue of it?
Usually this would warrant about as much concern as worrying about whether Alanis Morissette understands the idiomatic use of “ironic.” It’s well intentioned and at worst harmless, right? Why not remind people about the importance of consent? And isn’t it good to remind guys that they have a responsibility to listen to and respect the people they’re with, and not try to wear them down?
Sure it is, but the problem is that over-simplifications are polarizing. When you find yourself spending years asserting something that’s trivially true — and being rewarded as if you’re making a bold statement — then you gradually chip away at the idea that it’s trivially true. You open the discussion to the idea that the things that are true are in fact somehow controversial, or at least topics about which reasonable people can disagree.
The fact that’s incontrovertibly true about all this is that consent is essential. Only an idiot or a monster would consider that controversial. Idiots and monsters don’t deserve to be part of the conversation, but asserting the shallow and superficial take on an important issue (even if it’s correct) is inviting bullshit to be presented as if it were a reasonable counter-argument.
Reducing everybody who’s performed or enjoyed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the past 70 years to a clueless, sexist stereotype isn’t progressive. It sets an unacceptably low bar for what constitutes progress.
For a couple of months in 1990, I was completely obsessed with The Sensual World by Kate Bush. It didn’t last for too long before I moved on to be obsessed with The Pogues and the Pixies, and I’d completely forgotten about it until just recently. A few nights ago, YouTube recommended I re-watch Noel Fielding’s brilliant parody of Wuthering Heights, and I had a vague memory that oh yeah, I used to be kind of infatuated with her.
I was trying to remember my favorite song of hers based on a few half-remembered details — what’s that one Kate Bush video where she’s against a black background and flinging gold sparkles everywhere? — and a memory of the chorus but not the actual title Love and Anger. That meant stumbling around all her videos on YouTube trying to find the right one, and coming to a series of conclusions, in roughly this order:
Watching these now is like suddenly remembering vivid details from a dream I had 20 years ago.
Holy crap, Kate Bush is brilliant.
Even if I’d tried, I don’t think I could’ve fully appreciated all this stuff in 1990.
I’d forgotten how different the music industry was back before Napster and the ubiquitous internet.
I never thought much about how important context is to appreciating a work of art.
No really, she’s just the best.
Until I went to college in a city that prides itself on its music, I only listened to whatever was popular at the time. So when MTV started playing that video for Love and Anger and commenting on what a big deal Kate Bush was and how significant it was to be getting a new album, it was all lost on me. To me, she was just “that woman who sang on that Peter Gabriel song.” I had a vague memory of Running Up That Hill, but had just filed it away in the same folder as Bonnie Tyler and Total Eclipse of the Heart: a synthesizer-heavy pop song by someone who was apparently a lot more popular in the UK than in the US. I can’t remember if I was even aware of Wuthering Heights at the time; if so, I almost certainly dismissed it as someone screeching over overly-precious lyrics. Knowing myself at the time, I probably picked up The Sensual World mostly for the cover, thinking that she looked like Jane Wiedlin and sounded like Cyndi Lauper and was probably worth a listen.
The album is a lot more interesting and varied than the pop record I’d been expecting. Rocket’s Tail in particular is fascinating; I don’t believe I’ve heard it in 25 years, but it all came back suddenly as if it’s been looping constantly in the recesses of my brain. I also suddenly remembered why I didn’t become an obsessive fan back then, and it’s two of the most 1990s reasons imaginable.
One is just raw early 90s proto-hipsterism. I thought the song Deeper Understanding‘s story about a man who retreats from human contact into his computer was facile and paranoid, the same way there a lot of stories around the same time talked about virtual reality and rogue AIs but didn’t seem to understand how computers actually worked, and instead panicked about a super-advanced, cold cyber-world that looked like Second Life. I dismissed it as out-of-touch and irrelevant. (And of course, I’m saying that as someone who now wakes up every morning and immediately grabs his cell phone to check on Twitter and Facebook).
The other reason is that doing a “deep dive” on anyone’s work was, at the time, an investment. In 2015, I started digging around YouTube, Wikipedia, and Apple Music, and within a couple of hours had seen and heard 90% of Bush’s artistic output since 1978. It’s hard for me now to imagine a time without YouTube, much less a time before the web and even USENET, even though I was a computer-fixated nerd back when a 300 bps Vicmodem was a novelty. But essentially, in a time without hypertext, I didn’t have much chance to appreciate what I was listening to.
There’s a 2014 documentary from the BBC called The Kate Bush Story that’s a lot better than it would seem on the surface. It’s the typical VH1 format, where a bunch of celebrities gush about Bush’s work intercut with clips from her videos. It seems about as vapid as a Behind the Music or I Love the 80s show, right down to the sour note of ending with Steve Coogan making a pun about “bush.” And they have interviews with the usual suspects, where Elton John and Tori Amos and Neil Gaiman say that they’re huge fans of Kate Bush.
But of course they are, right? I’m not being entirely dismissive; I was an enormous fan of Amos and Gaiman (I wrote Gaiman a fan letter on the GEnie network! And he sent a personal response with a great story about seeing The Pogues in concert!). But even my vague awareness of Kate Bush as “British and feminine and lots of pianos and literary references and scarves and dancing” fits solidly and predictably into the same category as The Sandman and Little Earthquakes.
And speaking of USENET, I was aware even back during those days that there was a pretty substantial fandom around Bush’s music. But even there, it was named after a song that was relatively obscure in the US. So I thought of it in kind of the same way as Doctor Who pre-Russell Davies: super-popular in Britain and good for them! but completely inaccessible to me.
So to watch that documentary and see St. Vincent and Johnny Rotten and Big Boi and Tricky pop up to say how much her work influenced them, it didn’t just grab my attention, but put everything into a context I hadn’t considered before. And made observations that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own, but seem kind of obvious once they’ve been pointed out to me.
Ooh, it gets dark!
For instance, that Noel Fielding parody of Wuthering Heights. I’d seen it years ago, back when my obsession of the moment was The Mighty Boosh. At the time, I hadn’t appreciated that it was a parody of two versions of the video: the iconic one of her dancing in a field wearing a red dress, but also the studio version with its cartwheels and 70s video-trail effects.
I also hadn’t appreciated that it’s not a mocking parody but a reverential one. The joke isn’t about how weird or fey Bush’s performance is in that video, but that she’s the only person who could pull it off without looking silly. And for that matter, what a touchstone the performance was for her fans. (Proof that it’s not mocking but instead a love letter from a fan is that Bush included Fielding in her remake of the Deeper Understanding video that year).
It’s also about how iconic the imagery is, and how indelibly it’s associated with that song. In several of her early interviews, Bush says (paraphrased) that she studied dance, mime, stage production, and eventually, filmmaking, in order to make visual extensions of her songs. To someone raised on MTV and cynicism, that could sound pretentious or disingenuous — videos are promotional material used to sell music, and only inadvertently become artistic works. But then you remember that Bush was doing this before videos were a thing. And you remember how strong the imagery is: I’m about as close to the polar opposite of “waif-like” as a person can get, but I still find it difficult to keep from making the same gesture when I hear the lyric “let me into your window.”
And — even more embarrassingly for me — I hadn’t put any thought into what the song was about. As someone with the perpetual mindset of a teenage boy rolling his eyes at “girls’ stuff” like gothic romances, I hadn’t considered that it was the voice of a dead woman appearing at her lover’s window in the night, pleading to be let inside. So what I’d dismissed as just weird screeching was, of course, completely intentional. For a female songwriter and singer in 1978, The Man with the Child in his Eyes would’ve been a much more accessible debut song. And it would’ve been successful; it’s a beautiful and memorable song that, in my opinion at least, evokes Karen Carpenter’s considerable talent and holds its own. But she deliberately chose her first appearance to be literary and otherworldly.
This Woman’s Work
And she’s done that throughout everything that I’ve seen and heard. Her stuff is clearly influenced by whatever else is going on in music at the time, but there’s a sense that she won’t bother doing anything unless it’s something she finds interesting and unique.
When I first saw the video to Eat the Music from 1993, I thought I’d figured it out: ah, here’s where she went through her World Music phase just like Peter Gabriel and the Talking Heads and pretty much everyone else in the mid 80s through early 90s. But it’s gloriously sinister right from the start, with the lyric “Split me open with devotion, put your hand in and rip my heart out.” As the video goes on, it gets even weirder and more sinister, as the spinning becomes unstoppable, and the other dancer’s eyes roll into the back of his head, and it becomes so frenzied that everyone collapses. What I’d mistaken as a novelty song or a one-off becomes (obviously, in retrospect) a crucial part of a concept album about obsession and loss.
Rubberband Girl from the same album sounds a little like an early 90s Eurythmics song, and the warehouse in which its video was filmed is the same one that supplied the backing bands and ceiling fans for countless other 90s videos. But then there’s that choreography, which suggests that her seemingly effortless grace is actually the result of her being pulled, exhausted and against her will. And then it, too, descends into a kind of frenzy that belies the “bend without breaking” sentiment of the lyrics. She’s bound into a straightjacket and is compelled to wave her arms around, all filmed with the harsh light of a Twin Peaks murder scene.
Apparently, all the videos from The Red Shoes are from a long-form video that featured Miranda Richardson (she has a lot of videos that feature British comedic actors) and one of her early mentors, Lindsay Kemp, which explains the non-sequitur beginnings and endings. Hilariously, in 2005 interview she describes it “a load of bollocks,” while I’m here 10 years later trying to make sense of its bizarre transitions. Removed from that context, Moments of Pleasure is even more fascinating — starting with a whispered soliloquy and then showing nothing but her spinning and tumbling over a series of backdrops. It’s at least as beautiful and powerful a song as This Woman’s Work, but what’s most remarkable to me is how conversational, almost extemporaneous, the lyrics are. It seems like the natural impulse for a song about death and loss would be to make the lyrics flowery and poetic, but having something so prosaic against such a moving orchestration just makes it all the more real.
And speaking of This Woman’s Work, I suspect that the real reason I stopped listening to The Sensual World was that it was too exhausting. Even without the video, it’s hard to hear that song without feeling emotionally drained by the end. Even while cynical early 90s me dismissed as “maudlin” to disguise the fact it never fails to get a sob out of me.
Same with Love and Anger, which I still love but had thought was nothing more than a product of its time with a simple “we’re all in this together!” message. Paying even a little bit of attention to the lyrics shows it to be more sophisticated than that: I think it’s about passion and empathy, expressing even what we think of as negative emotions instead of being repressed and “waiting for a moment that will never happen.”
In an interview around the release of The Sensual World, she said that it was her first album that was written from a feminine perspective, since up until then, all her musical and artistic influences had been men. Which, I think, is selling herself short, since so much of her entire body of work is uniquely feminine. In that BBC documentary, Neil Gaiman calls out the maternal aspects of the songs Breathing and Army Dreamers. The song that Americans around my age were likely most familiar with — Running Up That Hill — is a call for empathy disguised as synth-heavy 80s pop with some terrific choreography. (With the fascinating, slightly sinister twist of making it sound selfish with “let me steal this moment from you now.”)
“It’s in the Trees! It’s Coming!”
And then there’s Hounds of Love, which is so good that it kind of makes me angry that attitudes like the one 1990s me had kept it from taking off in the US and so I didn’t get to see and hear it until 2015.
The story I keep reading is that Bush was savvy enough to build on her early success from her first two records, to the point that she was able to free herself from the record label and do everything on her own terms. By the time of Hounds of Love, she was not only writing, singing, and producing her own music, but had built her own studio and conceived of and directed the video to the title track. It’s driving and cinematic and enigmatic, and it’s fantastic in the way that I usually think of Terry Gilliam’s movies as being. (And apparently, she collaborated with Gilliam on the video for Cloudbusting on the same album). In yet another interview, she casually mentions drawing storyboards for the video as if it were no big deal.
One of the reasons I admire St Vincent so much is that she’s able to go all-in on the conceptual art side of her work, and then in “real life” is as personable and down-to-earth as it gets. (Unlike, say, Bjork, who’s brilliant but whom I’d never, ever want to meet in person).
Kate Bush comes across the same way, as a person who pours all her imagination and idiosyncrasies into her work. This results in fantastic things like Sat in Your Lap from The Dreaming, which seems to me as early 80s prog rock as early 80s prog rock gets. And then this wonderful appearance on a British children’s show, where she says she’s lucky because she got to wear roller skates in her video, and she lets a little girl in the audience wear one of the minotaur masks.
It probably goes without saying that Kate Bush is objectively, almost impossibly, beautiful. But even that aspect seems to be something she always treated as incidental — great insofar as it helps the music, but never something that should take away from the music. Experiment IV, for instance, is a sci-fi horror story where she lets a bunch of comedic actors (and her then-partner) take the focus while she takes a bit part as a harpy and a horrible monster.
Most amazing to me is Babooshka from 1980. As with Wuthering Heights, she treats dance as a crucial part of telling the story of the song. She appears both as the scorned wife and as a wild-eyed Valkyrie. The first thing that amazes me about this video is imagining the concept stage: when coming up with ideas of how this alter-ego character would look, evidently Bush saw this piece of art by Chris Achilleos and thought, “Hmm, I bet I could probably pull that off.” The second amazing thing is that she totally does pull it off. And there’s absolutely no hint of pandering and zero sign of the Male Gaze. It has the vibe of an artist completely in control of her work, her appearance, and her sexuality.
Also remarkable to a viewer first seeing it in 2015 is Bush’s interpretation of the song at the time. I doubt it was ever intended to be a “deep” song, but I would’ve taken it as an indictment of the husband for discarding his wife once she was no longer young and beautiful. Bush’s take on it was entirely from the woman’s perspective, though; the husband was mostly incidental but sympathetic. Bush describes the song as being about the wife’s self-doubt and paranoia bringing about her own downfall.
At the risk of reading too much into it, I think that’s a perfect metaphor for Bush’s career. There’s a recurring theme of empathy and love and human interaction throughout her work, but never a sense that she’s defined by anyone else. The songs are inescapably hers, and even when she’s playing a character, it’s a character that she created.
And the final thing I find fascinating about Babooshka is that it sounds so much like an ABBA song. On every album of hers that I’ve heard, the sound is all over the place, reminding me at times of ABBA, the Carpenters, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Peter Gabriel, Kirsty MacColl, the Eurythmics, Pink Floyd, Queen, and probably dozens more that I’d recognize if I had more expansive taste in music. (Not to mention artists like St Vincent and Tori Amos, who’ve declared outright that Bush was an influence on their own work). But even when you can place it in a specific time period, it never sounds derivative or pandering.
If she were pandering, there’d be no explanation for Delius, which is beautiful and memorable and undeniably, unabashedly weird. Or for that matter, the concept album second half of Hounds of Love, which has tracks that are just as melodic as anything from her singles, not to mention an Irish reel that would’ve made me a lifelong fan if I’d only heard it when I was in the middle of my obsession with the Pogues. But it’s not at all concerned with being commercial, and only exists as a purely personal expression.
Even when that expression isn’t high-minded or cerebral, and just putting on costumes and goofing off with a bunch of friends and collaborators.
Stepping Out of the Page
So in other words: yes I said yes, I finally get it now. And what’s more, I wouldn’t have been able to get it in 1990. If for no other reason than I didn’t have Neil Gaiman to explain to me that the title track of The Sensual World was inspired by and referenced Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, and I didn’t have easy access to Ulysses to get the significance of that.
And even if I had, I would’ve thought that the significance of that soliloquy is just a woman’s anachronistically frank and vulgar discussion of her own sexuality. I would have — and did — come to the vapid, simple-minded conclusion that it’s just about being “sex-positive.” But the whole significance is much more than that; it’s how the stream of consciousness is an unpunctuated torrent of the entirety of her experience: vaginas and religion and landladies and chocolates and paintings and gossip and cigarettes and cleaning semen out of sheets and castles and geraniums and breasts and flowers of the mountain. And how she says yes to all of it.
And I wouldn’t have had instant access to decades of a body of work, and all the articles and documentaries and interviews that interpret it and put it in context. So I couldn’t have fully appreciated how that soliloquy would be significant to someone who’d spent years pouring all of her work and energy into sharing her experience without much thought over whether it was commercial or even accessible but just that it was genuine and uniquely hers.
For almost every one of Kate Bush’s videos, I can instantly tell roughly when it was made, whether she was responding to the “look” of the decade or whether she was helping define it. This is mid-to-late 70s, that’s clearly mid-80s, that’s absolutely a product of the early 90s. The exception is The Sensual World, which is timeless. It could’ve been made last year, or it could’ve been dropped to Earth as a response to the Voyager disc.
I’d said that seeing it again recently was like vividly remembering images from a dream, and that’s still the case. But now that I’ve caught up with the people who’ve been lifelong fans of Kate Bush, the images are even more powerful. In that documentary, St Vincent describes Hounds of Love, Stefon-like, as “that thing where it burns like wildfire and then comes alive,” and Viv Albertine describes it like repressed sexuality, as if “the whole song’s on a leash, but you know it’s gonna escape and burst and run free.”
For me, it’s that tremendous moment of release in The Sensual World where she removes her headdress and is dancing barefoot in front of a field of flames. And seeing her confidently and effortlessly dance backwards down a moonlit path in a velvet dress is the most beautiful thing.
The song says that this is no time for confessing, but if I’m going to be talking about St. Vincent (or for that matter, St. Vincent) I’ve got to make a couple of confessions:
First is that while I consider myself a huge fan of St. Vincent, I really only like about 50% of her music. The songs run hot and cold with me, and I’m usually indifferent to at least half the songs on any particular album. But the songs I like, I adore. Actor is my favorite of her albums, even though at this point I treat it as a 5-song EP — but since those five songs include “Black Rainbow,” “The Strangers,” and “Marrow,” that ranks it as one of the best albums ever recorded. And if I’m being honest, I really only like one song from Strange Mercy — but it’s one of my favorite songs ever:
My second confession is that I never really “got” David Bowie, even though I’ve always wished I could see and hear what everybody else seemed to. My first exposure to him was Let’s Dance, and I just didn’t (and still don’t) see the appeal. And then when Labyrinth came out, it was already established that he was some kind of superstar. It really wasn’t until Seu Jorge stripped the songs down in The Life Aquatic that I could appreciate how many really good songs he’d written. Of course by that point, I’d already missed all the years of being exposed to his Persona, which is as much a part of the show as his music.
I mention the first part because St. Vincent is an outstanding album by any measure. Actor is still my favorite, but St. Vincent is probably her best. Most of the reviews, and Annie Clark herself, mention that the album’s more confident and self-assured. Usually I dismiss that kind of thing as meaningless music review talk, about as meaningful as the language used by wine connoisseurs. But it really comes through here. St. Vincent sounds like someone who doesn’t have anything to prove.
She’s an excellent guitar player, and it kind of became her schtick, undoubtedly because of the novelty of it: a beautiful young woman with an angelic voice suddenly pulling out an electric guitar and just wailing on it. I don’t think she ever used it as a crutch; it was never like early Van Halen albums that’d just screech to halt for the sake of “Eruption.” But each song still had the sense of and here’s the guitar solo. (And don’t get me wrong; that’s a big part of why “Black Rainbow” is still my favorite of her songs). But the new record feels as if she said, “Okay, I’ve pretty much got the guitar covered for what I want to get out of it.” Now it’s part of a new sound consistent throughout the album: a drum kit, minimoog, and guitar with none of them drawing too much attention to itself.
In an interview with NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast, Clark described the sound as taking analog instruments and processing them to sound digital and artificial. Actor experimented with a thematic (almost diegetic?) sound as well, and it’s why I love it — my crush on St. Vincent was sealed the moment she described making a rock/pop album inspired by the music in Sleeping Beauty — but I also have to admit it’s a little bit “on the nose.” Take something sweet and melodic and put a dark twist on it: paint the black hole blacker. St. Vincent feels less like an intellectual exercise.
But what really makes St. Vincent work as a complete album is one song: “Regret.” Right at the point when the album could run out of steam and have me reaching for the controls to jump back to “Birth in Reverse,” she launches into a second half that feels as if it has the potential to go anywhere. She’s never been at a loss for a good hook, but dropping everything down to just her guitar and a drum kit instantly evokes Houses of the Holy for me. Then “Bring Me Your Loves” works better than it has any right to; is this turning into a Moog-rock dance album? Apparently not, since “Psychopath” tumbles backwards through 80s pop and then “Every Tear Disappears” turns it into a Berlin record. Combined with the visuals of the “Digital Witness” video and the album cover, it all seems to exist as part of a late-70s sci-fi movie (Clark described the look as “near-future cult leader”) that’s predicting the 90s nostalgia for the 80s, transmitted into 2014.
Which is why I mentioned the second confession: St. Vincent makes me feel like I’m getting the 70s art-rock experience that David Bowie’s fans got but that I missed out on. It’s not as explicit as anything that, say, Janelle Monaé’s doing (or Ziggy Stardust, for that matter) but it does all feel like a concept album. Finally I get glam rock I can call my own!
Best of all, it seems as if my favorite songs from her earlier albums were just a kind of prologue for what’s coming up. They were displays of talent with frequent flashes of genius here and there; this is a burst of creativity. Pulling in disparate influences, experimenting with all the different things she can do with her voice (she doesn’t sound the same on any two songs, much less the same as she did on Strange Mercy), and combining a good old-fashioned hook with an art-rock high concept.
And the whole thing’s got her sense of dark humor running throughout. There’s a laughably defensive article on Buzzfeed saying that the album’s fine and whatever, but St Vincent just doesn’t get the internet, man. (“…extremely condescending toward the diverse range of people who regularly use social media.”) It’d be silly enough because “Digital Witness” perfectly describes the always-connected loneliness for those of us who watch movies or listen to albums while simultaneously trying to come up with clever blog post titles, or now judge every memorable sight based on whether it’s best suited for Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. It’s even sillier when you combine it with “Huey Newton,” which — according to Clark, since the lyrics are kind of impenetrable — is about being in a hotel tripping on Ambien and falling down an Internet browsing rabbit hole.
That sense of humor and self-awareness is what bumps my admiration into shameless fandom. There are plenty of artists whose work I love but would never want to meet them in person; Annie Clark, on the other hand, seems like she’d be fascinating to meet. Hear her talk about guitar technique and pedals and her artistic influences, and it’s clear she knows what she’s doing. Watch her in a video or a live performance and she’s straight-up weird, putting everything into the creativity of a performance. Her teaming up with David Byrne was a surprise to me but seems natural in retrospect: if there’s anybody I can see putting on a giant suit and twitching and shuddering across a stage, it’s St. Vincent. But then she effortlessly turns it off. In interviews, and even between songs, she comes across as completely devoid of pretension or any sense of self-importance. Not as a persona but as a person.
I’ve already listened to the new record more times than I can count, and it’s got me excited about what’s coming next.
It’s The Go! Team, and they’re loud, English, and awesome. This may be a new record for me: I’ve gone from “never heard of them before” to being a mega-fan in 24 hours.
I heard “samples from 60s and 70s kung fu and blaxploitation movies, horns, cheerleaders, and a pretty hot female rapper” and I was sold. As an extra added bonus, turns out they’re also the ones who did that terrific song from Little Big Planet that I was never able to find [“Get it Together” from Thunder, Lightning, Strike, in case that link goes bust]. So I’ve been a fan for years and didn’t know it.
Also highly recommended: “Milk Crisis” and the PBS-in-the-70s-tinged “My World”. I can’t get enough of this stuff. My favorite by far, though, is “The Wrath of Marcie”, which I’m still hearing even when the video’s not playing:
The word on their website is they’ve got a new album Rolling Blackouts coming out in January (UK)/February (US) 2011.
I frequently wake up with some random 80s pop song going through my head, which means I get to spend the rest of the day wondering what it all means. Occasionally it leads somewhere very dark.
Today’s song is “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield. Ostensibly it’s a song about a young man — Mr. Springfield himself, since he wrote the song — infatuated with a woman he can’t have. “Unrequited love,” according to the Wikipedias.
But I can’t help but notice that he seems a lot more preoccupied with Jessie himself than with his girl. We don’t know anything about her, like a name for instance, other than “property of Jessie.” (I’m assuming some kind of mail-order bride type of arrangement). All we know is that she has eyes, and she also has a body (he just knows it). In fact, Mr. Springfield keeps vacillating between wanting her, and being willing to settle with a woman like her.
We know a good bit about Jessie, though. Jessie was a friend — no, a good friend. So good a friend that Mr. Springfield is driving himself crazy thinking about him having sex. As guys tend to do, think about their friends having sex enough to write songs about it. He can’t even fantasize about her, he keeps thinking about her and Jesse doin’ it. It’s like if you couldn’t have a sex fantasy about Catherine Zeta-Jones without including Michael Douglas. The subtext is pretty clear: instead of holding her, why can’t Jessie be holding him in his arms late, late at night? He “feels so dirty” when they start talking cute, which is how they described it back in the 80s before they came up with the term “self-loathing.”
I started to wonder if maybe the whole song is supposed to be creepy-ironic. Like it’s really about jealousy instead of unrequited love. But you don’t usually see that kind of sophistication in a song that rhymes “cute” with “moot.”
Every once in a while I see something that just makes me glad I live in the future. If it weren’t 2010, how else could you see a mash-up of Metropolis, 70s glam rock, 70s prog rock, 40s musicals, disco, millennial hip hop, and James Brown?
Well, if you were more hip than I am, you could’ve seen all that in 2008, apparently, with Metropolis: The Chase Suite from Janelle Monáe. It was a concept album EP about Monáe’s alternate identity Cindi Mayweather, a rogue android who — actually, the liner notes explain it better than I could:
The year is 2719. Five World Wars have decimated the earth. To escape from the ecological destruction, mankind has banded together to create one last great city named Metropolis. Under the rule of the evil Wolfmasters, the city becomes a decadent wonderland known for its partying robo-zillionaires, riotous ethnic, race and class conflicts and petty holocausts….
Into this turbulent world is born Android No. 57821, an Alpha Platinum 9000 named Cindi Mayweather. Unlike other androids, Cindi’s programming includes a rock-star proficiency package and a working soul….
And ArchAndroid is pretty much awesome; it’s tough to think of a musical style she doesn’t touch on in there — funk to big band to Hendrix-style psychedelic rock to straight-up disco. And I liked one of the comments in the Amazon reviews, that described it as somehow sounding even more cinematic and theatrical than a genuine soundtrack.
Big Boi of Outkast is a collaborator and executive producer on both records, and in fact you can’t hear the song “Violent Stars Happy Hunting!” (yeah, that’s the real title) from Metropolis without being reminded of “Hey Ya!” But more than that, I can’t watch or hear any of this stuff without being reminded of how “Hey Ya!” seemed to come out of nowhere — again, for the less hip among us — and blow me away.
But this is like if you took that and added robots!
As far as I can make out, my taste in music got locked in around 1999, along with my clothes. I’ve got friends — friends my age, even — who seem to understand what’s popular on a level that just baffles me; for me, the highlight of my musical year was a terrific concert by The Pogues and another by the Pixies, both of which were just a couple hours hearing music I loved in college.
According to my research, I’ve heard exactly six of the albums released in 2009:
Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future by The Bird & The Bee
Middle Cyclone by Neko Case
The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists
Sad Man Happy Man by Mike Doughty
and the only two that I thought were worth putting on a “best of” anything list:
1. Actor by St. Vincent I’ve already confessed to having a huge crush on Annie Clark now, but I want to say it again: this is some of the best music I’ve heard in years. Best track is either “The Strangers” or “Black Rainbow,” take your pick.
(Incidentally, apparently I had it wrong, and Clark doesn’t call herself St. Vincent, but it’s the name of the band. The name is a reference to St. Vincent’s hospital in New York, which she calls “the place where poetry goes to die.”)
2. The Music of JG Thirlwell for The Venture Brothers
This was just bad-ass and you can also get it on vinyl. And it counts as an album instead of just a soundtrack, because I never really noticed the music that much during the series but I think it’s amazing here. If you can hear “Tuff” and not totally rock, rock out, then you’re a robot.
(And if you like the Venture Brothers music but haven’t heard Thirlwell’s other recordings as Foetus and Steroid Maximus, you should check out Ectopia, the track “Chaiste” in particular.)
I didn’t hear about St. Vincent (Annie Clark) until someone posted a link to her video to “Actor Out of Work” and commented that she was a lovely woman who was opening her mouth so wide she looked unsettlingly anaconda-like.
A catchy song and a creepy video? Reason enough for me to try out the whole album, Actor. But it’s been at least five or six years since I’ve gotten really excited about music, so I didn’t listen to it more than a couple of times, and I didn’t think much other than “it’s interesting enough.” (And still, I’d occasionally find myself whistling some tune that had lodged itself in my subconscious, but I couldn’t quite place it).
Fast forward a few months to October, when I catch this performance on “Austin City Limits”:
I was completely captivated. And when she and the band segued into “Black Rainbow”, it was downright creepy: I knew this song; I’d been hearing it bounce around my head for months.
I think she’s just fantastic, the perfect antidote to everything boring and predictable about popular music. She composed the whole album in her apartment, so it’s not as predictable and soulless as the over-produced pop that has taken over everything. She’s not a pop star who picks up the guitar for a song or hops over to the piano for her big power ballad; she really knows music. And she’s clearly intelligent, but without making a show of it: you don’t get any sense of twee self-important irony that you get from musicians who are presenting themselves as an antidote to pop. Plus, the videos and live performances I’ve seen are every bit the bizarre bursts of creativity you get from musicians like, for example, Bjork, but she can turn it off and be perfectly unassuming and sane. Obviously, I’m completely smitten.
There’s a good interview from TV Guide where she talks about the process and her influences when writing songs. An even better and more insightful interview from ABC News describes her music as “sweetness and creepiness,” which is perfectly appropriate. The interview makes the great point that her music could come across as “precious” — Clark lists the orchestrations of Disney movies like Sleeping Beauty among her inspirations — but that she can also “truly shred on the guitar.” I don’t think the contrast is quite that simple — sweet-sounding songs with sinister lyrics is an easy gimmick, as Lily Allen’s remaining 3 out of 15 minutes are proving — but it’s a big part of what makes it work.
It becomes even clearer when you watch this acoustic performance of “Black Rainbow” with just Clark on guitar and Andrew Bird on violin. It’s a great melody that still sounds epic and cinematic even when stripped of all of its extra layers of production; it doesn’t depend on a gimmick to make it work. As orchestrated for the album, though, it turns into the pop song equivalent of the Winchester Mystery House: ending with St. Vincent tearing it up on an electric guitar in a climax that just keeps building before cutting off abruptly, like a staircase that leads to nowhere.
The title of this post is from my favorite song off “Actor,” the first track, called “The Strangers.” The album version really is best, since you get the background vocals and the keyboards and the full effect of the production, but this live acoustic version is almost as great:
I can tell you the first CD I ever owned: it was the White Album, and I got Abbey Road at the same time, but I opened the White Album first because it was my birthday, and I wanted to hear “Birthday.” It was 1987, and the CD releases of the Beatles catalog were being promoted as A Very Big Deal, with people going on about all the subtle nuances they’d never been able to hear before.
I can also tell you when and where I first bought Revolver: it was at Downtown Records in Athens, GA, around 1991, and I bought it on cassette to listen to in my car, and I was convinced that I’d gotten hold of some super-exclusive collector’s edition with an all-instrumental version of “Taxman” until I realized that it was just that the right speaker on my car stereo had given out again.
I’d only call myself a “moderate” fan of the Beatles — I’ve listened to the White Album and Abbey Road about a billion times since 1987, but there are still plenty of songs by the group that I never heard before tonight — and I can still vividly remember all the details about my first exposure to each of their albums. There are bands I like at least as much — Led Zeppelin and the Pixies, to name two — but I couldn’t tell you anything about the first time I heard Physical Graffiti or where I bought my copy of Surfer Rosa.
And the reason for that is the Beatles have always been presented as a phenomenon more than as a band. People have been going back and forth on the merits of their music for as long as I’ve been alive: for everyone who claims that they’re the greatest musicians of the 20th century, there’s somebody else who complains that they’re just an overrated pop group that in 2009 have become completely irrelevant. Whatever you think of their music — and personally, I’m closer to the “brilliant composers” end of the spectrum than the “overrated pop band” end — it’s only part of what makes the band such a big deal, still relevant 40 years later. Because the Beatles were talented musicians, ridiculously talented and versatile composers, and innovative geniuses (with George Martin) at audio engineering. But I’d say their real genius was in self-promotion.