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Artist: Marnie Stern

Album: Marnie Stern

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Review date: Oct. 4, 2010


Marnie Stern - "Transparency is the New Mystery" (Marnie Stern)


Marnie Stern is an unique artist. She plays a kind of music that is precise, with discrete parts, perhaps best described as staccato, or at least rough moving. At the same time, however, she is quite good at writing pop melodies, vocal hooks and harmonies, and so the songs have this tension between the smoothness of the pop and the abrasiveness of the math rock/post-rock/metal/whatever. At the same time though, what makes her more than just a genre mash-up artist is that she’s skilled at hiding that tension. The songs on her self-titled album are so well-constructed that the uneasiness between the two opposing forms never makes her songs chaotic. She makes it seem natural for there to be a pop vocal riff over some particularly complex finger tapping. For a less skilled artist, one would overpower the other or seem out of sort or tonally off.

There’s something else about Stern, though, that makes her music appealing. I started to think about the first real wave of commercialization in indie rock back in the late 1990s, where a number of artists began to sell their music for use in car commercials. This was, of course, in the wake of the first real dramatic changes to the indie music-making model. One pressure came from Napster and later other P2P clients, Bitorrent, Sendspace, etc. Now, anyone with the ability to use a computer program could get an album for free. Another pressure came from the series of financial crises that reduced the amount of leisure money people actually did have. For those that did want to support artists and labels, food and rent came first. And so the model for making music and making a living off that music began to be squeezed from two directions. So alternatives had to be made, and that’s when there was a major shift to commercialization.

Couple this with a breakdown in cultures and sub-cultures (“indie” culture’s fascination with mass culture rap and R&B, mass culture’s absorption of palatable indie rock thanks, in part, to teen shows on The WB and Fox), and it becomes obvious that these artists are going to be sought out and used in commercials. On average, nothing as blatant as Outback’s use of Of Montreal’s “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games),” but still, heavily featured. And Kevin Barnes’ rationale was lucid and understandable, not based on greed, but rather on the desire to have enough money to put on the kind of elaborate stage show they imagined performing. Commercialization itself is truly difficult to condemn. For any artist with a day job, the dream is being able to have enough money to dedicate one’s time to creating. A comedian starring in a commercial or an indie rock band selling their song to one allows them to free up their time from the drudgery and energy-sapping nature of office work. However, it’s still problematic. In the end, it does take whatever the meaning is of a particular song and replace it with images of consumer goods and services. Artistic independence versus the destruction of the meaning of your work is not an easy argument to suss out.

There was resistance to this model as well, either consciously or unconsciously from the artists, but the late ’90s and early 2000s showed an increase in popularity of genres like noise and New Weird America, genres which couldn’t be easily commercialized or were too niche for mass appeal and therefore, outside of a radical ad campaign, were not readily able to be co-opted by the capitalist class.

Marnie Stern made me think of all of these things because part of Stern’s real appeal is that in many ways she’s like these acts – not easily commercializable or easily able to be co-opted – but without being a niche act. Genre and aesthetic transformation in music move swiftly these days due to all the interchange online, but in 10 short years, we have an artist that has transformed the Lightning Bolt/Hella end of the noise spectrum through pop music to create a sound that has a mass appeal on a visceral level but seems rather resistant to commercialization.

Not that Stern wouldn’t if she could. In an interview from a few weeks ago, she was asked about selling her songs for sponsorship, to which she replied:

    Oh, fuck yeah, I’ll sell, I am so poor. Plus I never understood that thing because anything I put out I’m really proud that I did it, so I’ll put it anywhere, anywhere. Like, here it is, I made it! I’m real proud. I don’t feel embarrassed. But, if I was making money off the record, if I had more choices. But considering that I’m so in debt all the time…

At the same time, separate from her willingness to do so, I doubt the commercial validity of her songs. In the end, the argument isn’t that she’s so out there that she’s the underground’s artist, but rather that she writes amazing, heartfelt songs, interesting in tone and composition and full of aesthetic tension, and because they’re so singular they resist, by their very nature, a kind of corrupting symptom of making art in such a chaotic era. Maybe not. I guess the ball’s in your court now, Subaru.

By Andrew Beckerman

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