When I drive, I listen to music from my car’s CD player, which can hold up to six discs at a time. I’m aware that I could easily buy a way to listen to music from a more modern device that could hold a million times more music, but I’m too lazy to get one and part of me likes the old-fashioned CD listening and burning my own discs, which rotate predictably with each trip I make.
With only six slots available, it’s a fierce competition to see which music makes the cut. One of the slots is permanently Loveless, which never gets old and is fun to blare out the windows, but the rest are pretty much up for grabs. Lately, one of my favorite discs has been a collection of my favorite Stereolab songs that I burned a few months ago. I figured Stereolab would make for good “driving music” because of their use of the repetitive motorik beat, which always has the effect of keeping me focused and helps reduce some of the driving anxiety that I still embarrassingly have.
For most of my years as a Stereolab fan, that has been my relationship with their music. Because of the driving beats and lyrics that are often in French, they were my go-to “background” band that I listened to when I needed to get work done and didn’t want to be too distracted by lyrics. Many of my college papers were written to a soundtrack of Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements, and Mars Audiac Quintet, but I was usually too focused on the work I was doing to really analyze what the songs meant. I primarily just liked their sound and their style, with the motorik beat, Tim Gane’s noisy guitars and electronics, Laetitia Sadier’s understated singing and the ba-da-ba backing vocals from the late Mary Hansen.
When I’m driving, though, I pay close attention to lyrics, because there isn’t really anything else to distract my brain. And while listening to Stereolab in the car, I started to notice some of the band’s lyrics and they began to really resonate with me, particularly after the election of Trump. I knew the words to some of their songs before, but it took that massive political shitstorm for me to realize that they were much more than some abstract political jargon.
The song that initially sparked this was “Les Yper-Sound,” off Emperor Tomato Ketchup, which had been one of my favorite songs by the band because of its addictive bass groove and its simple lyrics:
You go in that team
I go on this team
A flag or a number
Make ’em opposites
So there’s a reason
OK now we can fight
Just put it all flat
OK now you can fight
In the last few months, this has gone from being a song I just enjoyed for its sound to one that I feel describes what is happening on 2017 on a number of levels, despite its being written in 1996. On a macro scale, the song is about pointless nationalism and the way we’ve separated mankind into arbitrary states, countries, etc that are used as reasons to kill each other. But it makes me think a lot about one of my most mulled-over topics, which is the internet’s effect on communication, and how it has resulted in massive tribalism and divisions among people over stuff as stupid as a Ghostbusters movie. This song seems to predict the massive divisiveness that our culture faces now, as well as hinting at a person like Trump being the ultimate benefactor who divides and conquers.
“Ping Pong” is another song that is fun and groovy on the surface, but contains a powerful anti-war message about the costs it has on other cultures while it is used to prop up our economy. At the end, it sarcastically quotes Bobby McFerrin: “Don’t worry, be happy, things will get better naturally. Don’t worry, shut up, sit down, go with it and be happy.” It’s a definitive lyric from the band, because so much of their music is about questioning the status quo, which makes many of their songs feel like anthems for the skeptics and contrarians of the world.
And while a lot of their lyrics could be interpreted as being cynical, there are also songs like “The Noise of Carpet,” which blatantly criticizes “fashionable cynicism” as “the poison they want you to drink.” In tandem with songs like “Ping Pong,” a message emerges in Stereolab’s music: “this world will give you anything,” but it’s also important to be critical and questioning of what other people tell you. I fall back on cynicism a lot, and grumble about how things will never change, so “The Noise of Carpet” is a song that legitimately motivates me to do better. It’s also one of the songs that separates Stereolab from a lot of other politically-minded artists, who are more interested in preaching or pandering to their audience than in actually using their art to help make sense of the world. Even if don’t agree with their politics, the band will make you reconsider ideas that you might have taken for granted.
“Wow and Flutter,” my favorite song by the band, might be the one that feels the most different since the election. Its opening lyrics, “I didn’t question, I didn’t know” capture that level one mindset where you are just accepting what people tell you, especially with regards to the idea of American exceptionalism, which is spoonfed to all of us through various flag-waving rah-rah rituals. Stereolab blow all of that up with three words: “the dinosaur law.” Even the mightiest, who seem “eternal,” eventually will fall. And after the election of Trump, America looks much less mighty than it did before.
The temptation here is to think Stereolab’s music was predictive, much in the way that Radiohead is credited with “predicting” the alienation of the internet generation with OK Computer. The truth is that Stereolab was right the whole time and I just didn’t realize it until I was confronted with it first-hand in the last election, which blew up a lot of what I thought I knew about America and politics. That they resonate now speaks to how smart their lyrics are and, more depressingly, the way history tends to repeat itself as societal problems persist, which can make lyrics written in 1995 feel relevant even 22 years later.
The word, “challenging” is used a lot in music, usually to describe artists who are making aggressively weird sounds that most listeners can’t handle. Stereolab were a challenging band, but in a different way: through their lyrics, they challenged listeners to think harder about the world around them and to question ideas that are deeply ingrained in their culture. That independent spirit was also conveyed with their sound, which embraced peculiarity and was some of the most forward-thinking pop music of its time. It makes them such an enduring band to me, and one that is especially worth revisiting now.