Anti-Climacus


"Thou shalt not extinguish thine anger, but shall master it, that thy conscience may not be blunted by adjustment to wrong causes."
-The Dutch Ten Commandments to Foil the Nazis

26.11.12





In my desire to explain the difference between what used to be indie music, and what now qualifies for indie, comparisons may be helpful. In the interest of not stacking the deck, even accidentally, I've attempted to pick two songs with some (but not great) notoriety, both sung by women, and with something like the same subject matter. The first song is "Land," by Patti Smith, from Horses; the second is "Portions for Foxes" by Rilo Kiley. I recognize I am dating myself by choosing a 'new indie' song from eight years ago, but the point will stand even so.

"Portions for Foxes" is a good song, and I personally like it, but it's good in the way post-2000 indie music is good: it is mannered in its style and meticulous in its execution, right down to those always-varied guitar counter-rhythms, which staccato just as the vocals get particularly legato. It's a controlled performance.

It's also a song about sex. The listener knows it because Jenny Lewis drops the word itself on a few occasions, and indirectly refers to it several more. It's a song about jealousy and desire, but the desire is opaque. The lyrics, as was noted at the time, seem particularly attuned to the presumably shy average indie boy to imagine he might get to sleep with Lewis (this act culminated in the video that was shot with actual porn stars, lest the nonexistent subtext still prove too subtle; it's also worth noting that Lewis has gone on to do more substantive, and better, work as a solo artist, and seems to have toned down on this element), and there's nothing in the song to undercut that: her sexuality is on display, and there's nothing revelatory about it: it's a 'naughty girl' confession, the substance of which plays directly into an assumed male heterosexuality. It's a performance.

The genius of "Land," by contrast, is that it borrows a series of motifs from a number of different sources and intentionally blurs the boundaries between each, while making the whole thing appear at least partially improvised. The ambiguity begins early on: "the boy took Johnny/ he pressed him against the locker/ he drove it in he drove it home he drove it deep in Johnny" plays at whether the 'it' is a knife or a phallus, and from there: horses, the ocean, angels, death, more of the knife/phallus imagery, and the liberating potential of rock and roll, none sticking around for too long before giving way to another (and, at a few moments, two or three different images going at the same time).

This is a consequence of Smith's own vocabulary, which draws from a variety of sources: the (male, white, 19th century, French) homosexual poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud and the (male, black and white, 20th century) music of the more primitive rock and rollers, whose combined vocabulary somehow provides the basis for an examination of (straight) female desire, but in terms that, because of their strangeness, aren't crass or exploitative.

That strangeness gives the song texture and nuance, and the Rilo Kiley song has neither: indeed, its lack of either is the point, being confessional. The consequence is that you hear the song and, assuming you've understood all the words in it, the song's meaning has been exhausted. "Land" resists that approach to listening: there's nothing to do with it but listen to it again.

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