“The Man Who Knew Too Little” Might Know More Than We Think

A couple days ago, the New York Times published “The Man Who Knew Too Little,” a story about Erik Hagerman, who has withdrawn completely from hearing about the news since the election of Trump. There were a variety of responses to this, mostly negative about either the article or its subject. Some felt it was a waste for the Times to use precious article space on this doofus. Others felt that the man’s method of complete ignorance and withdrawal was loathsome, a luxury afforded by his privilege and total lack of regard for others.

I found the article fascinating for a variety of reasons. I was amused at the lengths Hagerman went to in order to avoid hearing the news, and the article approaches his grand experiment with a proper “look at this guy” tone, particularly when he tells a friend “I’m now officially cross with you” when she breaks his self-imposed “blockade.” But beneath the chuckles at his eccentricities, there is some real insight here into privilege and the way people use it.

The prevailing opinion on Hagerman is that he is privileged and his blockade is the workings of a selfish man who wants to shut off from the world instead of confronting problems head-on. This is true to an extent, but also an oversimplification that doesn’t draw a key distinction: that following the news is not the same thing as actually being politically active. In fact, following the news passively and commenting on it — while also being fully aware that it only minimally affects you — is its own form of privilege that Hagerman has opted out of.

It is hard to call Hagerman’s blockade admirable, but there is an element of self-awareness to it that I respect. For various reasons, not everyone is cut out to be a political actor, but many people (including me) continue to comment on politics on social media and in real life as if it makes any difference. Hagerman, on the other hand, acknowledges his limitations, plainly stating that he never did anything productive in his years of following politics. While this isn’t the type of attitude that will win person of the year awards, his awareness of his shortcomings is something that others can learn from and I am sort of envious of it.

So this article caused some self-reflection, in that I’m a privileged guy who follows the news a lot and have really been no more productive in terms of creating actual change than Hagerman has been while obliviously listening to white noise in his headphones at the coffee shop. I’ve had an internal struggle lately over whether I should be doing more or less. As much as part of me wants to be the type of person who really makes a difference, there is also the truth that I can’t really stomach a lot of politics, am deeply cynical about the way the system works, and frankly just lack the networking ability to really make anything happen. My contributions have been limited to random donations, which is something that can be done independent of plugging into the gross news cycle.

Hagerman has figured something out here: that shutting up and going away is possibly more valuable than the counterproductive patterns I and many others engage in, of treating politics like entertainment and spending so much of our day reacting to circumstances outside of our control. Even though he likely reached this conclusion through self-preservation, there is real value in shutting off the 24/7 news faucet. Of course, those who have the passion and drive to make a difference in politics should do so. For the rest of us, sticking our head in the sand might be an improvement.

Vyva Melinkolya is a Reminder of Why Shoegaze is Great

I watched lot of figure skating and icedancing during the Olympics. In those competitions, contestants receive two different scores during the routine: there is the technical score, where the judges determine how well they executed certain elements of their routine, then there is a program component score that measures their artistry, interpretation and presentation. Honestly, it’s a pretty baffling scoring system for a sport and it is communicated very poorly to the viewing audience, but it got me thinking about how I evaluate music, especially shoegaze.

There is a very established shoegaze formula, and like those figure skating routines, there are certain elements I really want the performer to nail. It comes down to a certain balance of the reverb and noise of the guitar with the vocals and the melodies. Everyone who makes this music is aware of that framework and there’s a large supply of technically competent shoegaze out there. Where I’ve found artists struggle most is in that “program component” area: a lot of shoegaze will sound the way I want, but it’s hard to make it feel personal and meaningful, which is how the formula can be transcended.

I found this album on Bandcamp by Vyva Melinkolya, and it stands out because of how it nails the technical aspects of shoegaze while also having a personal touch — it’s a melding of the shoegaze formula with the type of intimate recordings that Bandcamp makes possible. On a technical level, the sound of this album is like a tribute to all the shoegazers of the past, and it’s easy to hear the inspiration from Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and others. But what I really love about it is how it has a real sense of individuality and purpose. While shoegaze can so easily be impersonal and focused purely on aesthetics, this album suggests that, beneath all the layers of reverb and noise, it can be a way for an artist to express their true self.

Alyc Diaz is the artist here, and this self-titled album really feels like it reflects her personality and experiences, even if a lot of it is kept under a veil of noise. To that end, she helps with any problems deciphering the lyrics by adding intimate little notes on each song on Bandcamp, which could have been handwritten in a different era. They give the impression of an artist who is passionate about this style of music and is trying to figure out who she is. The note on “Identity” says it’s “about a lot of things. Gender, trauma, seeing things that aren’t there, transitioning.” In the song, she sings “I look in the mirror, don’t even know me.”

The uncertainty in the lyrics is a natural match for the shoegaze style, which can allow a singer to remain hidden from view. Beneath the sheets of guitar, Diaz carves out a little world for herself, proving the universal power of shoegaze: it doesn’t care about your gender, the language you speak, or really anything else as long as you can get that chemistry right. In track after track, Diaz finds the right balance of loudness and quiet and ugliness and beauty.

Her talents are immediately present on the first track, “Love’s Easy Years (Nonbinary Heartbreak).” Its title, which references the Cocteau Twins’ “Love’s Easy Tears,” along with the heavy opening riff make it instantly clear that she knows the history of this music and how to recreate it. There is a feeling of longing in the song and its lyrics, when Diaz insists “love’s easy years will come to me if I truly believe.” Like the rest of this album, this song functions as an ode to what makes shoegaze great and as a powerful personal statement.

This New Janelle Monáe Song is Not Good

On her debut full-length, The Archandroid, Janelle Monáe established herself as a unique and daring voice. The album refused to belong to any one genre, instead blending funk, hip-hop, soul, folk, and psychedelic rock. Its lyrics might have been even more ambitious: inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Monáe’s songs were based around the concept of a messianic android named Cindy Mayweather and touched on themes of afro-futurism and cyborg feminism. It felt completely new and it justifiably made her a star.

Eight years later, it’s hard to find a starker contrast to The Archandroid than one of Monáe’s new singles, “Django Jane.” While her first album felt like the work of an artist with something to prove who was overflowing with creative energy, on “Django Jane” she reveals herself to be someone who has become complacent and bought into her own celebrity hype. Where once there were lyrics that told fantastical stories with deep, thought-provoking themes, now there are only smug boasts. “Already got an Oscar for the casa,” she brags about winning a meaningless award chosen by the same group of voters that gave Crash best picture. “Runnin’ outta space in my damn bandwagon,” she later adds, smirking as she revels in her popularity.

It’s hard to argue with the last part: Monáe is massively successful now, a star of music and film, and this single was met with a wave of admiration on social media. Many are empowered and inspired by her music, and who am I to tell them they’re wrong. But I find this type of pop song, that’s so focused on the artist’s own success and greatness, to be possibly the worst thing in music. If someone walked up to me on the street and started bragging to me about the awards they’ve won and how many people love them, I wouldn’t find them inspiring. I’d find them annoying. And I would probably think they were compensating for something.

It’s not just the egotism of the lyrics that grates. Musically, there is no attempt at innovation or genre-bending like on The Archandroid. Monáe spends most of the song half-rapping while autotuned over generic pop sounds that anyone could have made. It makes such poor use of her phenomenal ability that it almost feels like self-sabotage. There are few other ways to explain why this artist whose music once exuded musical freedom is content to put herself into this tiny box.

In a promotional interview with The Guardian, Monáe flaunted her independence, proclaiming that “you don’t own or control me.” It’s a good message in theory, but it’s hard to reconcile that quote with this song that sounds so desperate for external validation. The Archandroid was the work of a truly independent artist who clearly did not care about how people perceived her — ironically, it sounded more confident than this song because it took risks and didn’t conform to any expectations. “Django Jane,” on the other hand, feels like an artist who is under the control of the music industry and her own increasing thirst for fame and adulation. Its pandering lyrics and generic sound indicate an artist who craves the approval of the puppet-masters who run the Grammys more than one who is interested in music as a form of real self-expression.

As is often the case with pop music, I suspect what makes me absolutely hate this song is what makes other people love it. It’s that Monáe, to use the parlance of our times, “gives zero fucks,” and is simply owning her stature as an artist and giving herself credit. She came from nothing to be what she is today and has earned the right to brag about it. I can see how her confidence and lack of restraint in showing it could be empowering. As a white man, I’ve never had to be empowered ever, so I’ll concede that this song potentially has a power to many listeners that I can’t fully know.

But I do know Monáe’s music and what she’s capable of. I remember being so absorbed by The Archandroid, wondering with excitement about how she would follow it up, and thinking that she could be another Björk — an artist with otherworldly talent who merged different genres and existed outside of the typical pop/indie divide. So to hear her sink to the level of this song is really depressing. The artist I initially loved never would have made a song that sounded this lazy. “Django Jane” could generously be described as an intriguing political statement, but it’s barely music.

The Landmark Feminine Vision of “Hounds of Love”

One of the words I’ve become most wary of as a dude writer is “badass.” It was one I used a lot to compliment women musicians who made heavy guitar-driven rock music — the idea was that they were beating the men at their own game. The problem with this is that it framed them in comparison to men, evaluating them based on how they fit into a certain masculine ideal of rock music that existed in my head.

I had a major “badass” phase where I loved artists like PJ Harvey, Karen O, Alison Mosshart of The Kills, and Sleater-Kinney, who all made aggressive rock music. These are all artists I still like to varying degrees (Harvey in particular subverted and transcended the idea of guitar rock), but my love for them was also based on insecurity: their badassness (badassitude?) let me listen to women singers without feeling like I was enjoying “girl stuff.” I was so drawn to the idea of women beating men at their own game of traditional rock music that I overlooked artists like Kate Bush who were playing a different game entirely.

Bush’s 1985 masterpiece Hounds of Love is one I’ve wanted to write about for awhile because it changed how I perceive music. In my personal canon, the enduring legacy of this album is that it is not “badass” at all. It is distinctly, uncompromisingly feminine and doesn’t fit into any male-established framework of what rock music should be. This made it more difficult for me to initially latch onto than my other all-time favorite albums. It required me to remove those sexist male blinders and rewire the whole way I was consuming and interpreting music. Not that I’m perfect in that regard now, but this is one of the albums that pushed me out of my comfort zone and deepened my perspective.

There aren’t many albums that feel like they emerged from the aether with no antecedents, but Hounds of Love has few easy comparisons to anything that came before it. Even Bush’s previous albums don’t quite have the same feeling for me; I’ve struggled to get into The Dreaming, which is so busy and ambitious that it’s like a code I’ve never been able to crack, and I find songs she made at a very young age like “Wuthering Heights” to be too precocious. These were criticisms Bush faced at the time, and Hounds of Love is where she harnessed her boundless imagination and talent to make her most cohesive and listenable album. It could almost be described as restraint if this wasn’t still such an audacious work.

Hounds of Love is split into two parts: the first half is a murderer’s row of some of the most forward-thinking and creative rock/pop singles ever recorded; the second half is a suite of conceptually linked experimental songs (dubbed “The Ninth Wave”) about being lost at sea and the ephemeral, sometimes frightening nature of dreams. Bush has resisted touring forever, instead preferring to make intricate, complex studio creations that aren’t weighed down by expectations of live performance. Her production on Hounds of Love is fittingly detailed and obsessive, with a dense combination of synths and strings on most songs.

The opener, “Running Up That Hill,” is one of Bush’s most iconic songs, yet I often think it’s one of the weakest parts of this album — not because it isn’t great, but because Hounds of Love is at a level that so few artists have reached. It still serves as a useful introduction to this album and shows how Bush approaches making music in a different way. While the badass music I loved was often about sounding cool and tough, Bush’s performance embraces traditionally feminine conceits: emotion, drama, and fragility.

Bush is known for making quirky music with odd storytelling, and it only works because of her conviction. She pours herself into these songs, committing to everything she does with an intense focus. It’s heard in her voice, a rich soprano that lends itself to dramatic flourishes, and in her arrangements, which have a level of detail and thought that speaks to the effort she puts in bringing what’s in her mind to life. I always love artists who seem almost maniacally dedicated to their craft, and Bush is one of the forbearers of that type of music.

The album’s fifth track, “Cloudbusting,” is where Bush shows her ability to tell a story befitting of a novel in a five-minute pop song. Inspired by Wilhelm Reich and his fantastical pseudo-scientific “cloudbuster” machines that promised to bring rain, Bush sings from the perspective of his young son, Peter, who witnesses his dad get in trouble with the government for his experiments. She inhabits Peter and his childlike innocence — especially his steadfast belief that “something good is going to happen.” The repetitive string arrangement also has that sense of  young wonder and naiveté, which is contrasted with the ominous imagery of the government “in their big black car.” Like all great storytellers, Bush finds the universal truth in this strange tale and its characters, expressing that moment all of us have as kids when we realize that the adults we look up to are flawed.

“Cloudbusting” is one of my favorite songs and it crystallized what this album means to me. Bush singing from the perspective of a boy and conveying those universal feelings is where I realized this isn’t “girl stuff.” It’s “human stuff.” The empathy and humanity in her music is something I can connect with beyond just appreciating her artistry, and I think it’s what makes her an artist with a large following for someone who makes very strange music.

As good as the album’s singles are (the title track and “The Big Sky” are also classics), “The Ninth Wave” is where Bush shows a different kind of genius. Together, the last seven songs form one story of a woman who is lost at sea and trying to find her way home. She brings out the entire kitchen sink of vocal and production techniques to make this story come to life, though it starts out on a simple note with “Of Dream and Sheep,” a piano-driven lullaby that describes the protagonist being lost and wishing for sleep.

From there, things get weird in a hurry. As the protagonist falls asleep (or possibly hallucinates),”Under Ice” and “Waking the Witch” show Bush twisting her sound into something frightening and strange. The latter sounds like a fever dream; Bush includes some other voices and alters her own to convey the illogical, twisted nature of weird dreams and the feeling of your own mind turning against itself. It’s the hardest song on the album to listen to, which might also make it the most effective.

Bush’s natural tendency towards musical exploration really works in “The Ninth Wave” because all the different styles and elements give it that scattered dream logic. The woozy pop of “Watching You Without Me” dissolves into scary nonsense at the end, as if the listener is being woken up abruptly. It’s followed by an Irish jig, “Jig of Life,” which sounds out of place with the rest of the album, but I think that’s what she was going for — dreams are often inexplicable and sometimes our brain wants to hear a fiddle for some reason.

Eventually, the protagonist gets rescued on “Hello Earth” and on the album closer “The Morning Fog,” awakens to a brand new day with a new lease on life and a sense of optimism. That song represents a return to normalcy in the lyrics, but also in the music, as it’s more in line with the pop style of the first half of the album. The production and vocal performance by Bush makes it sound like when you first wake up in the morning after a night of dreaming and aren’t exactly sure where you are.

The idea of “influence” in music is often described in a linear sense where one artist directly inspires another. I’ve often found that to be overly simplistic, and it doesn’t really capture the impact Hounds of Love has had, even on artists who aren’t necessarily fans of it. In my head, I think of it more like a door being opened. The existence of this album established a new framework for music that was feminine, musically adventurous, and focused on storytelling.

A lot of artists I love walked through that doorway, even if they didn’t know who opened it, and there are days where it feels like everything I’m listening to is indebted to Hounds of Love. I roll my eyes when every creative woman musician gets compared to Kate Bush, but it’s also easy to see why it happens. This album cast such a long shadow and was ahead of its time in so many ways that its impact feels biblical.

Two Talented Artists Find Their Voices as The Green Child

I have this moment of panic every January, after finishing my year-end reflections and starting with a clean slate, where I can’t help but wonder if this is the year where everyone finally runs out of ideas and there is no more good music that can be made. Then there’s always that icebreaker album that reminds me that music is great because it’s this infinite thing, always building on itself, and there are always new artists, collaborators, and ways to reimagine the form.

It’s fitting that my icebreaker album this year is by The Green Child (named for a 1935 novel I’m not smart enough to have read), a long-term and long-distance collaboration between artists from two bands I like that I didn’t even know was happening until the album dropped. Mikey Young is a guitarist in the Australian post-punk band Total Control, while Raven Mahon was a member of the defunct Grass Widow several years ago. They worked across continents on the album over a period of several years and the result is a mostly synth-driven collection of psychedelic songs that perfectly meshes their two styles into something that feels really different, like music that exists out of time.

That was a trait I always felt like Grass Widow had: their music was uncanny and strange, but also tuneful, and they were probably too original for their own good in terms of picking up more than a cult base of listeners. While the members went in separate directions, the music they’re making still has that feeling in it. I’ve raved endlessly about Hannah Lew’s band, Cold Beat, and Green Child shares some of that project’s sensibility in its refusal to do the obvious and the way it effortlessly blends different styles from different eras into something cohesive.

This is most evident on this album’s major highlight, “Her Majesty II,” which I’ve been listening to on loop for days. It starts with a reverbed guitar riff that I wish would go on forever, which is joined by a recurring synth part and Mahon’s eerie and distant (yet still expressive) vocals. Every element of the song feels like it’s from a different decade; combine them all and the song sounds like it’s from the future.

I was so enamored with the sound of “Her Majesty II” that the lyrics snuck up on me. Mahon sounds serene, but her words are brutal. She takes aim at privileged people in power: “Captive under the weight of all you consume,” she sings. “In time you’ll rot with the few to replace you.” It’s unclear if these lyrics are inspired by anyone in particular — perhaps even a businessman-turned-world leader of some kind — but they make a clear point while also having a dark poetic beauty.

While it’s hard for the rest of the album to stack up to that track, it is all effective psychedelia that is easy to get lost in.  “Traveler” opens the album with a hypnotizing vaguely middle-eastern synth part and Mahon’s spoken word vocal producing more abstract imagery of “going into a green oblivion.” “46 Timelines” has a soaring dream pop chorus as Mahon’s voice blends in with shimmering synths.

The spirit of collaboration underpins this entire project: this is two talented musicians experimenting with the different sounds they can make together, and the songs on The Green Child bring out the best in both of them. Every song has a different feeling to it, but the consistent retro-futuristic vibe makes this an addictive listen and an early contender for the most pleasant surprise of 2018.

Why “The Kid” is an Instant Classic

One of my favorite musical moments of the year comes at the beginning of “To Feel Your Best,” the final track on Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid. After about 25 seconds of bubbling synths, lyricless vocals and cosmic swoops, there is suddenly the sound of horses galloping. It only lasts a few seconds, but it’s one of many little moments on this album that make me think it’s one of the most special accomplishments in years. It represents not only the merging of nature and electronics that is such a part of Smith’s music, but also the journey of life that The Kid describes as the clomp-clomp-clomp of the hooves signifies moving constantly forward.

That sound of the horses galloping says so much without needing any words, and it illustrates the imagination and attention to detail that makes The Kid such a vibrant album. It’s hard enough to tell a story with songs, but to do it almost entirely through sound like Smith does, and to have this much feeling and meaning in it is a monumental feat. It’s made even more incredible by how overambitious and trite its concept sounds on paper: “the story of a life.” I would forgive anyone for assuming it’s impossible to execute on a 51-minute album. But Smith pulls it off, and does it in a way that feels personal while also being completely universal.

What really resonates with me about this album is how its sound has this kid spirit in it — I kept thinking it sounded like what would happen if you let a really smart eight-year-old loose in the orchestra room and they started playing with all the instruments. It is hard to say that without it sounding derisive of Smith’s abilities, but it is meant as a high compliment: her music captures the inner child all of us have, and for an adult to be able to pull that out through her music while still making it sound beautiful and sophisticated is an intricate balancing act. It’s why I loved all of its whimsical instrumental asides, like the opening of “A Kid,” which gradually piles synth sounds on top of its playful beat.

I find that kid feeling especially powerful in 2017, where the political situation and the internet has turned every day into a deluge of bad news as we’re made all-too aware of every bad thing that is happening in the world at any given time. What I’ll remember a lot about this year is that feeling of wanting to disconnect from the constant news cycle, but also feeling like putting my head in the sand and embracing ignorance is even worse. The Kid really taps into a nostalgic feeling, a desire to see the world through unjaded eyes and appreciate life’s beauty, and does it in a way that is wholly original.

And far from preaching ignorance or naivety, The Kid celebrates the process of learning, questioning the world and seeking self-improvement. As its themes move past early childhood into young adulthood, its sound gains a more cerebral touch while also maintaining its playfulness. The most lyrically-driven of these songs, “In a World, but Not of the World,” describes a process I relate to heavily, of finding joy in questioning and proving myself wrong, especially after growing up with certain beliefs I was certain were true. Intellectualism has never sounded this joyous.

Now in my late 20s (which is insane to think about, but let’s move on), I’m still mired in this likely endless process of self-improvement, of trying to do a little better each day and hopefully at some point become decent at life. It’s very internal and solipsistic, and not the kind of thing that would seem to lend itself to music. “Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am” is a song where barely anything “happens,” as its just some repeated synth noodling with bird sounds over it for five minutes, but it has that feeling of contemplation and pondering the self that describes a lot of how my 20s have been.

Songs like this are also crucial to the pacing of The Kid, which excels at all the minutiae I love to overanalyze in music. Smith shows a cinematic understanding of rising and falling action, separating some of the album’s more powerful moments with ambient exercises that strengthen their impact through context. In this way, The Kid mimics the ebbs and flows of life, which isn’t just a series of constant thrilling events. There are usually long stretches where not a lot is happening (but it’s still sort of interesting in its way), then something major happens, then not much happens again for awhile. In this case, “Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am” sets up the final three songs, which form an awe-inspiring conclusion.

Which I guess brings me back to “To Feel Your Best” and those horses. After a lot of time spent thinking about the self, the end of The Kid is about making room for someone else, and “To Feel Your Best” is about losing them. What I really love about about this ending is that it is so much more powerful and moving because of everything that came before it. We know how life always ends, but this album creates a relatable journey through childhood that gives this song maximum impact. It’s also ambiguous in the best way: the idea that we start and end life alone after all that growing can be depressing, but I suspect it is meant more in a Zen-like spiritual sense — Smith sees a certain beauty in this universal beginning and end that almost all of us share.

I am honestly a little uncomfortable with how effusively I’m praising The Kid, but I really think this album is going to stick with me for a long time. There is even more I want to gush about: how it’s an actual album that is strengthened from playing it start to finish, how it challenges the listener with its sound and lets you draw your own conclusions, how Smith as an artist is learning and growing in parallel with her story. I imagine its avant-garde (maybe even New Age) style won’t appeal to everyone, but adventurous listeners owe it to themselves to go on this journey that Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has created.