Upon getting tUnE-yArDs latest album whokills, a friend warned me about its severe Vampire Weekend vibe. Thereís nothing essentially wrong with that. Vampire Weekend isnít great, but they can write catchy melodies, and while I donít seek them out, they certainly donít offend me in any real way. What Vampire Weekend does, and what tUnE-yArDs do as well, at this point is standard: scads of upper middle-class twentysomethings are digging through the "third world" for musical forms to adopt and marry with indie rock. On its face, this isnít outright obnoxious or distasteful. Culture should be open and people should work with as broad a palette as possible and be open to as much of the art in the world as can be beheld. At the same time, the West has an abhorrent history of plundering from Africa and from the East, and rich kids from the suburbs who want to play around with African polyrhythms have to deal with the uncomfortable fact that in some way, theyíre joining in with the 1,000-year-long project of exploitation, even if itís in a minimal way, and even if itís done with the best of intentions.
I wrote what was easily the most-reviled review in Dustedís history when I discussed how Animal Collective, among others, use their privilege to take from other cultures. While some, Iím sure, objected to my dressed-up academic language, a lot of people responded virulently because I had noted that this popular band has wealth and privilege and that gives them advantages others donít. I think people Ė fans of the band (of which I number myself, incidentally) Ė saw this as an attack on their own lifestyles. Race, class and culture matter, though, and if you get pissed off because someone calls you out on your privilege, thatís because you inherently recognize it in the mirror. People get pissed when it gets called out because it means they canít stick their heads in the sand any longer and ignore it, and to further ignore it means to be complicit. Itís like not going to the doctor because you donít want to know you have cancer or herpes or sexually-transmitted Non-Hodgkins, because once you know, you have to do something about it.
Like Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, though, and the thousands of others who are playing around with other cultures, this isnít condemnation, but rather, simply unpacking whatís there and saying, ďHey, this is in the music. People should be aware itís there.Ē While many just want some music to dance to or snort a line to at some DJ night featured in a Village Voice slideshow, thereís still facets that shouldnít be ignored. But if that offends you, feel free to start a Tumblr where you photoshop my face onto turds.
This being said, that there are elements of privilege in w h o k I l l s and that thatís not negative but still is in the music anyway, the real question is: Is the album any good? Well, sort of. Garbus has a strong, inventive voice and an ear for melody. Mark Richardson noted, in a review of her first album, BiRd-BrAiNs, that she sings with abandon, which is as good a characterization as any. Thereís a freedom in her voice and a joy that is apparent. The sparse-at-times, polyrhythmic instrumentation offers a nice contrast to this without just being a bare background, and her switches between singing and a more conversational mode give different weight to what sheís singing, as if there are different voices or characters, which gives the songs a full feeling.
However, these days, what Iím really looking for in music, and art in general, is truth: Does the music feel like itís genuinely emerged out of the existence (not the life experience) of the musician? That is, an artist can make up a situation to sing about or play with musical styles from places far across an ocean, but if it feels truthfully done, then itís a good piece of art, but if it feels like a pretense or like a toy, then the artist hasnít done a good job. So, in listening to tUnE-yArDs, I may enjoy her harmonies or the strength of her voice, but what Iím asking myself is, regardless of privilege and plunder and all the issues acknowledged above: Does it feel like a real person is making this or does it feel like a thin put-on? This doesnít mean one canít try to write from another perspective or that one canít sing as a character, but itís about finding out whatís true about that perspective. There are times tUnE-yArDs hits it and it feels true and honest, and there are other times that I feel itís fake, and I tune out. For an album that is pretty consistent musically and catchy throughout, thereís a lot of unevenness when it comes to feeling real. I leave it to you to decide if this is fair or not, but like the video for ďReal Live Flesh,Ē I watch this and ask myself Ė not knowing the answer Ė is this being genuinely artistic or is this just a fashion statement devoid of meaning? Do the two have to be mutually exclusive?