Bury Our Friends: On the New Sleater-Kinney and Being a Fan

When I last checked in on Sleater-Kinney, my once-favorite band, I despised their single “The Future is Here” and had pretty much divested myself emotionally from their new album, the ironically-titled The Center Won’t Hold. Since then, the band has embarked on one of the oddest, most comically disastrous album hype cycles in memory: they had a boring performance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon after which longtime drummer Janet Weiss quit the band, citing the obvious “change in direction” I pointed out, leaving Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker to promote the album themselves. They’ve spent the last three weeks grimacing while giving “no really, this album is great, we totally love it” interviews while the release date lurked ahead like an oncoming apocalypse.

Now that the future actually is here, it’s hard for the music to live up to all of the drama and speculation surrounding its release. In the end, The Center Won’t Hold is what I expected from the early singles: it’s poppy, corny, and probably the most disappointing album I’ve ever heard given how big a fan I was of all the people involved.

But before I bury this thing and pretend it never happened, I want to clear up some of the spin I’ve seen from other fans and writers. Disliking this musical direction does not make someone a misogynist or a bad fan. It’s insulting to the members of Sleater-Kinney, who are grown women who have been in the arts scene for over two decades, to uncritically pretend their art is great and to attribute any criticism to sexism as if they’re children who can’t take the heat. Given Weiss’ departure, I also think it’s outright delusional to pretend everything went great here. If some fans do like this album, then all power to them — but they must have been enjoying Sleater-Kinney for much different reasons than I did.

What made Sleater-Kinney a great band was that every song felt like it mattered to them and it gave their music a sense of urgency and originality. Most of the credit for that goes to Weiss and Tucker — Weiss’ thundering drums added a level of intensity to every song and Tucker had a voice like no one else’s, a sort of banshee wail that filled the room and jolted any listener to pay attention. Brownstein was never a third wheel by any means and is a great guitarist, but the Tucker/Weiss core is what defined Sleater-Kinney to me and was the backbone of most of my favorite songs by them.

There are a lot of theories on what is going on with The Center Won’t Hold that caused the new sound and look and the eventual departure of Weiss. Let’s just say that anyone who speculated that it was a result of Brownstein bigfooting the band will feel vindicated by this record. She is by far the most prominent member on this album, taking a frontwoman role on most songs while Tucker is left in the background and Weiss barely even registers. This is part of why The Center Won’t Hold barely sounds like Sleater-Kinney — Brownstein, as talented as she is, was never the reason people listened to this band, but she seems to think that’s the case. The unique group dynamic and chemistry is totally missing here with little interplay between Brownstein and Tucker and uninspiring drum parts for Weiss. This isn’t the band evolving or growing; it’s the band becoming something entirely different, something decidedly lamer and less interesting to listen to.

If someone is a fan of Metallica, it’s probably because they play those crushing metal riffs that can fill an arena. If Metallica became a solo Lars Ulrich project where he played the accordion, their fans would stop enjoying the band because it would lack the qualities that made them fans in the first place. People wouldn’t say “I guess those Metallica fans just hate change because they’re not down with this Lars Ulrich accordion album.” My dislike here isn’t out of nostalgia for the good old days. I wanted Sleater-Kinney to change things up, to try new things and push the boundaries, like they did on The Woods. That’s part of what made them a great band. But this album does not fit into that framework because it doesn’t even feel like Sleater-Kinney anymore.

I suppose to some people fandom is this ride-or-die thing where you have to support everything the artists do. And I do think fandom is more than purely transactional — you gain a respect and admiration for the artists over time and want to support them even when their work isn’t connecting with you like it once did. But it’s also up to the band to meet the expectations of the fans, who have grown attached to their work being a certain way, and I imagine one of the great difficulties of being in a band is figuring out how far to stretch those expectations before reaching a breaking point for some listeners.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the members of Sleater-Kinney had to know the cost of doing business with this album, and so I don’t feel particularly bad that I hate it. I think they knew this would upset some “purist” fans and were prepared for this outcome. But let’s clear up another thing: I’m not even opposed to the idea of Sleater-Kinney making a poppier album, and I like pop music a lot more than most people I know. The problem is that these aren’t very good pop songs. What ultimately is most alienating about the album is that it lacks any sense of vitality or purpose, the traits that used to define Sleater-Kinney. Usually when a band enters into a new musical space, it energizes them (like it did on The Woods), but everything here feels flat. A lot of this comes down to the sound and production by Annie Clark, which has buried the band’s intensity and emotions under a layer of glossy sheen.

This album still has its moments, usually involving Corin, like “Reach Out” and “Ruins,” but even on those, I often find myself fighting to enjoy the band through the production and gimmickry. The new style also doesn’t really fit their lyrics, which admittedly were never amazing, but usually the band was kicking so much ass that I could look past the occasional awkward line. Now the heavy-handed lyricism is very noticeable and it drags down the songs, which already need all the help they can get since the sound is so generic and unengaging. “Can I Go On,” for example, pretty much sounds like children’s music or a commercial jingle. “Bad Dance” is another attempt at a Carrie-fronted dance-pop song that is trying so hard to be upbeat and zany that it’s embarrassing to listen to. The sing-along chorus on “The Dog/The Body” is sickeningly sweet, and one of the many moments where the band tips into being maudlin. The overall sense I get is that the band and Clark are putting in an inordinate amount of effort to try to make Sleater-Kinney sound like mediocre artists who could never make music as great as Dig Me OutOne Beat, or The Woods. Why one of the greatest bands of all-time would do this instead of being themselves is the vexing mystery of The Center Won’t Hold.

On “Entertain,” one of the highlights of The Woods, Brownstein mocked backwards-looking unoriginal bands with a venomous delivery:

You come around looking 1984
You’re such a bore, 1984!
You star child, well you’re using it like a whore!
It’s better than before, oh it’s better than before!
You come around sounding 1972
You did nothing new, 1972!
Where’s the ‘fuck you’?
Where’s the black and blue?
Where’s the black and blue?
Where’s the black and blue?
If your heart is done, Johnny get your gun!
Join the rank and file, on your TV dial
All of these criticisms can now be applied to The Center Won’t Hold and it’s part of why it’s so dismaying: a group that once stood for defiant, individual rock music has become another in a sea of generic pop-aspiring bands. Sleater-Kinney was never about riding waves or trying to be trendy, but that’s what this album feels like more than anything else. Worst of all, it’s not even all that good at doing the bad thing they were trying to do. The harsh reality is that this album isn’t even a particularly fascinating blow-up — this beloved band came undone over some forgettable pop songs.

I Wish This New Sleater-Kinney Song Wasn’t Crappy

The act of reuniting your band is inherently sort of pathetic. Even if it’s done for reasons other than shameless cash-grabbing, it’s often an attempt by the members to recapture their glory years, like a popular kid returning to high school years later. Maybe the saddest part of some reunions is that one often gets the sense that the artists involved could be doing something new and cool, but instead they’re stuck acting as old versions of themselves, playing the same songs because they felt a need to give in to fans who always want more.

I know all of this, but when Sleater-Kinney reunited, I convinced myself this would be different. I ignored some of the obvious warning signs, like Carrie Brownstein’s burgeoning career of making hipster jokes on Portlandia and appearing in American Express commercials. When their reunion album dropped, I wanted it to be great more than anything, but after a couple listens I knew it wasn’t. I figured it was their first album back and maybe they just needed to get back in the swing of things.

Now they have a new album coming out produced by Annie Clark, which would have been my dream about ten years ago, but now feels like a worst case scenario for all people involved. The latest song, “The Future is Here,” confirmed all of my worst suspicions about this project: it’s a trainwreck that I’ll use as exhibit A when I argue for making band reunions illegal in front of the Supreme Court.

About the only positive thing I can say about this track is that the band tried something different rather than rehashing their old music, and I think it came from a place of wanting to push themselves artistically. But what they’ve done is take everything that made Sleater-Kinney cool and unique and replaced it with boring, generic sounds. This isn’t Bob Dylan going electric; this is like if Kevin Shields followed up Loveless with an album of acoustic Imagine Dragons covers.

The twin guitars and harmonies of Corin Tucker and Brownstein are absent here, replaced by some stale synths that make the song sound like a mid-2000s Yeah Yeah Yeahs album track. The other vital element of Sleater-Kinney’s music has always been Janet Weiss’ drumming — the urgency and intensity of the band’s sound came through in her aggressive style, which conveyed a sense of passion, like the song you were listening to really mattered. On this song, she’s marginalized to just playing a simple, lifeless drum beat, which renders the entire song limp and purposeless. The lyrics don’t exactly help either — it’s not like S-K were ever masters of subtlety, but the “actually, iPhones are bad” theme doesn’t inspire a lot of deep thought, which might be why half the song is spent on “na na na”s.

I’m trying to mentally picture what happened in this recording session. Clearly the band wanted to push themselves in new directions and Annie Clark was happy to oblige. I was critical of Clark’s last album, which I thought pursued a generic, soulless pop vision that prioritized superficial gimmickry over real artistry. Now it appears S-K has been caught in her vortex of making corny, instantly dated pop. The album cover has the image of Brownstein with her backwards butt exposed, which is an image that feels inspired by Clark’s recent propensity towards contrived, phony “weirdness.” My best guess is the band and Clark were shooting for some poppy-but-deep artsy thing, but they really did not succeed on any level. It’s enough to make me lose faith in everyone involved, all of whom were at one point among my favorite artists in the world.

It had been awhile since I’d really listened to Sleater-Kinney, so I decided to throw on The Woods on my drive to work to see if maybe I had just outgrown the band. That would have been sad in its own way, but preferable to the reality this song presents. It turns out The Woods still kicks ass. Just listen to “The Fox” and compare it to this song. That album was the ultimate farewell, a band going out in a blaze of glory by unleashing every emotion they had left and leaving on top of their game. Instead, it’s become another cautionary example for future bands and their fans: sometimes its better to quit when you’re ahead.

Burger King Wants to Be Your Friend

If you have the good fortune of following my often hilarious and always insightful Twitter account, you know of my deep distaste for advertising, specifically this recent trend of “cool” ads where brands try to ingratiate themselves with customers by tweeting like 16 year-olds and speaking about progressive issues. Out of all the dystopian aspects of the internet, this way we have let corporations hang out with us in our communication spaces is maybe the most unsettling. Instead of being on billboards or TV, ads are now basically sitting in our living room, commenting on news, replying to things we say, and trying to make funny quips to make us laugh. Yesterday, Burger King reached a new nadir of this form of advertising.

I’m going to link to the video, but I feel it requires a warning, in the same way you tell someone they might not want to view footage of an athlete gruesomely breaking his ankle or watch a murder. What I mean is, this video will reveal to anyone who views it a darkness in humanity and society that they previously did not know existed. And once that darkness has been revealed, it will always be with you. It will become a part of your soul and haunt you until the day you die. With that out of the way, let’s take a gander at this ad.

I’m going to put in a filler paragraph here just to give you some time to catch up and process what you just witnessed. If you’re like me, you may need to watch the video a second time and rub your eyes, just to make sure it’s real.

When I intensely hate something like this, I do think it is important to put myself in the shoes of someone who likes it. This ad seems widely loathed, but I’m sure some people sincerely appreciated the positive mental health message from a company like Burger King that has no obligation to “speak out” and spread awareness of such topics. But to me, that’s precisely why this ad is so uniquely evil and cynical: it’s using a deeply important societal message as a means to make you feel good about the brand, to buy their product, and to become loyal to Burger King.

I will tell you the one thing Burger King cares about: making money. That’s the only reason why companies make these ads. If the profitable ad strategy was to instead have a guy stare at the camera and say “all of you losers and weirdos are pathetic and have no hope in life, so you might as well eat our shitty burgers at Burger King,” that is what we would be seeing instead. And not only would that be more entertaining, but it would also be more admirable, because it would at least be coming from a place of honesty. But it’s obvious based on recent trends that companies are putting a lot of stock in appearing woke and progressive, presumably as a way to appeal to young people, especially on liberal-skewing platforms like Twitter.

I suspect they do this because it not only can create positive feelings, but because it inoculates the brand from criticism. Anyone ripping on this ad can be written off as someone who is opposed to the message of the ad itself. And who would want to listen to some asshole who doesn’t care about mental health issues? It is often hard to criticize stuff that is really corny and lame, but ultimately coming from a good place with fine intentions. I think it is important to differentiate this malicious ad from that type of media. This commercial is designed to manipulate and fool people.

There are numerous substantive things Burger King could do to make the world a better place. For starters, they could pay their employees more and treat them better. They could serve healthier food that doesn’t contribute to obesity and make people feel like they’re about to die after eating it. They could like, stop existing as a company and just give all of their profits over to mental health charities, if they really cared as much as this video indicates. But instead they want to have it both ways: to appear virtuous and caring while also being a ruthless money-making corporation.

Luckily, I think people did see through this BK ad because it was so poorly conceived. For one thing, I can’t imagine people are interested in approaching a counter or drive through window and saying the sentence “yes, I’ll have one DGAF meal please” out loud to another human. They really sat there in the board room fantasizing about all the clap emojis people would tweet because the burger joint now has something called a “yaaasss meal” (the actual content of these meals, as far as I know, is a mystery). And they thought the best way to make a difference when it comes to mental health was to serve their food in different-colored bags.

To actually think these things, and to believe this would be an effective ad, requires an incredibly low view of humanity, which is really what is at the core of this entire strategy of marketing. It reveals a certain insecurity that the brand doesn’t feel like they can just say “we have good burgers,” but instead has to try to capitalize on people’s emotional weaknesses — in this case, the justified anxiety and stress many have on earth in 2019. And doing it under the pretense that they’re like your friend and care about you is capitalism at its most absurd and distasteful. No matter how positive their message may seem on the surface, these brands deserve nothing but contempt.

Look What You Made Me Do

Last week I decided to drive to work downtown instead of taking the light rail because it was a Friday night on a long weekend and I figured there would be light traffic at most. Minutes later, I’m waiting in a line of cars just to get into downtown and I realize something horrible is happening. I look out the window and see an endless line of semi trucks outside of U.S. Bank Stadium emblazoned with Taylor Swift’s face. She’s staring at me, judging me, while she makes me late for work.

It is a fitting incident because Swift is the one pop star I can’t seem to get away from. While I am generally like a 90-year-old man when it comes to being up on current pop music because I just don’t care, Swift sticks in my mind more than I’d like to admit. I have an entire list of grievances towards her: she was born a day before me so I always hear about her birthday on the eve of mine, my college roommate played one of her albums non-stop, and I absolutely despise her music in an active way despite knowing I shouldn’t have an opinion on it. I hate her, in a weird way I kind of admire her, but more than anything, I fear her.

As I type this, I am terrified of Taylor Swift. Because I know that if any massive pop artist were to ever find a random blog post like this and sue me for slander, set her fans on me, or possibly pay to have me killed, it would be her. Nobody in the music industry is more cutthroat and ruthless than Taylor Swift. I believe her life ambition is to make every single person on earth a fan of hers, and she’ll squash anyone who stands in her way like a bug. She once put her music back on Spotify just to get people to listen to her instead of Katy Perry’s new album. Cursory research indicates that she and Perry have “mended their friendship,” but it’s likely just a prelude to Swift’s final unexacted revenge.

Much has been made of Swift’s penchant for writing vengeful songs at various exes and the general sense of neediness that comes out in her lyrics. I view it all as an extension of her weird pathology that requires everyone to love her. While most pop stars have no interest in me listening to their music, Swift badly wants me on her side. Even in the face of massive popularity, she remains obsessed with her “haters” and she writes lyrics about boyfriends who like “indie records that are much cooler than mine.” No success she achieves will ever be enough to satisfy her ambition and ego. A more warmhearted person than I could probably have sympathy for Swift and her inability to be satisfied with anything, but I find everything she does too grating to have any sense of compassion.

The Swift empire isn’t built on any kind of musical ability, but on a carefully curated brand image and the presentation of the character Taylor Swift to the public. Her business acumen is far more interesting than her music, which I find to be dull even by pop music standards. It gets overlooked because Swift is a cute young woman, so people underestimate her and make the sexist assumption that a bunch of men are probably controlling her career. But I think much of Swift’s success is due to her own knowledge of how to play the pop music game and her ability to take advantage of people who underestimate her. She is always in control of her own narrative, and every move she makes is calculated.

The moment that always sticks out is at that one Video Music Awards, when Kanye West stomped all over Taylor Swift’s moment, setting forth the narrative that Kanye is an egotistical dick and Swift was the put-upon and maligned girl next door. You’ll never convince me that this wasn’t a scripted plan, executed like a professional wrestling angle, and it influenced the way people perceived both celebrities. Swift has spent the rest of her career playing off that image of the nice girl who always gets mistreated, partly because it blandly appeals to the most people possible.

It’s fitting that one of Swift’s most famous songs is “Blank Space,” because that’s kind of what she is as a musician. Her music is apolitical, it doesn’t inspire the imagination, and it doesn’t really show any kind of prodigious musical skill. It’s just a series of sounds that exist to advance Swift’s image and narratives about herself. It’s an approach that I find utterly loathsome and antithetical to everything that makes me love music, but I have some begrudging respect for how Swift doesn’t even pretend that her music is about anything but making money. If the concept of capitalism became human and pursued a career in music, it would take all the same steps that Swift has.

Swift’s ability to become one of the most popular musicians on earth while possessing little to no musical talent is a testament to her true genius as a marketer and businesswoman. Maybe this is a misanthropic viewpoint, but I don’t think the actual music really matters anymore when it comes to being a pop star. It’s all about marketing yourself, having an image, and probably paying certain people to do certain things. Once you’ve established a fanbase, you can do pretty much do whatever the hell you want in today’s era of creepy, cult-like fandoms, and through years of shrewd machinations, Swift has built an army of people who will defend anything she does, even if it’s “borrowing” a hook from Right Said Fred.

Swift understands all of this because she’s smart, and she’s figured out that success in today’s climate isn’t about music. The songs I heard from her last album were so half-assed that for a moment I almost thought it was some kind of Lou Reed anti-art thing. But it’s more Swift realizing that all she needs to do is get the internet buzzing for her, positively or negatively, and that means having some vaguely controversial lyrics and tinkering with her image/persona, not having actual good songs. All of her detractors, including me, got their zingers about those songs in on social media, but as always, it was Swift who had the last laugh: Reputation was the best-selling album of 2017, she sold out both of those shows at U.S. Bank Stadium, and she made me late for work.

 

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.

Savages’ Regressive Revolution

Savages are the kind of band I used to love. This is documented for posterity in my post about them back in 2013, when their first album Silence Yourself was released and I penned a historically bad “review” where I completely bought into the band’s hype and stupidly defended them against some detractors I had seen in my Twitter feed.

It was easy to be fooled by Savages, who marketed themselves as an exciting new rock band, and back in 2013 they looked and sounded the part. Their music was very striking and confident while their lyrics were strident, almost like a call to arms. Some songs, like “Shut Up,” even came with mission statements. These were virtues I admired a couple years ago, but since then my sensibilities and tastes have changed and I’ve become more aware of the phoniness of Savages and their “mission.”

With a new album, Adore Love, on the horizon in 2016, Savages are once again positioning themselves as the self-appointed saviors of rock. One of their new songs is called “The Answer,” fitting the band’s perception of themselves as the solution to all of music’s problems, while the video shows them melting people’s faces in an underground punk show like hardcore rockers. The album’s cover is literally a closed fist in the air, further signalling that Savages are a Revolutionary Band. The video for “Adore,” which the music press breathlessly labeled “stunning,” features singer Jehnny Beth STARING into the CAMERA INTENSELY, as if waiting for viewers through the screen to congratulate her on her bravery and fearlessness. It’s a video that reeks of effort and desperation as the band painfully tries to will their own self-described importance into existence.

Beth’s performance in the “Adore” video serves as a useful proxy for my experience watching the video and listening to the song. I stared blankly at my screen for five minutes, waiting for something to happen that never did. The song goes nowhere and ends with Beth unconvincingly shouting “I ADORE LIFE,” a trite lyric that is delivered like it’s the most radical thought anyone has ever had. This “adore life” message that seems to be the primary theme of their album rings particularly hollow given that Savages are possibly the least fun band to ever exist and make Radiohead look like Andrew W.K.

While I initially liked Silence Yourself, it quickly left my rotation in 2013 as something about the band left me cold. I didn’t figure out why that happened until I discovered a band called Nervous Trend from Australia. They had just released their first demo tape, which I saw linked on Twitter, and when I listened to it I was blown away. This band was drawing from many of the same influences as Savages, but made something that sounded much more original and exciting, without any of the manifestos and other media branding nonsense that had made Savages a small phenomenon.

I don’t think Nervous Trend and Savages are in competition with each other, and I can easily see people liking both of them. But for me, the Nervous Trend demo (keep that in mind, it’s a demo) exposed a lot of the flaws in Savages that I hadn’t considered before, and it helped explain why Silence Yourself had held up so poorly. Beneath all the imagery and attitude, the actual music Savages made wasn’t as inspiring as their portrayal of themselves indicated it was. Nervous Trend showed what a band drawing from similar influences could sound like, and how to have socially-conscious lyrics without being pretentious about it.

Part of my bitterness here is that Savages are a relatively big band, while Nervous Trend remain obscure — they just released an EP last year that I didn’t even hear about until yesterday, because the band doesn’t have a Twitter or Facebook account and has zero traction in the music press. It illustrates to me how Savages are a sanitized version of much better music, but have built themselves into an “important band” through branding, non-musical elements, and a music press that eagerly bought into their self-mythology because the band provides easy talking points.

Savages end up being a particularly brutal combination: a band that believes deeply in their own importance and ability, but makes music that is regressive and uninteresting. There are tons of bands, from the 80s through today, that have worked in a similar musical space and are much better, but aren’t as known because they lacked the flashiness and eye-catching press releases of Savages. It also makes it more insulting when Savages are perceived as fresh and exciting, when their music is mostly an imitation of bands like Bush Tetras.

Savages have ended up being a useful band for me personally, as the original post I made about them was a turning point where I realized I was too frequently liking music and thinking it was important because I was told to by others. It also made me far more skeptical of any band being trumpeted as exciting for reasons that don’t have much to do with their songs. The music decides whether a band is important or not, and in that regard Savages fall woefully short.

“Ho Hey” and the Scourge of Mainstream Folk

I’m hard-pressed to think of a song in recent years that I’ve hated as much as “Ho Hey.” It has to be one of the most inexplicable hits ever. For one thing, just on the most basic level, the song is annoying to listen to: it has people saying “ho! hey!” in the background after every line, which makes me want to punch all of them, something I believe is a rational, human reaction to anyone saying “ho! hey!” But like any song I truly despise, what makes “Ho Hey” so detestable is a unique combination of being overplayed, loved by people who should know better, and the musical trends that the song represents.

What’s most frustrating about “Ho Hey” isn’t necessarily that it’s popular, but it’s the people that it’s popular with. A few years ago, The Current was a station that offered a reprieve from the overplayed music that we were forced to listen to when we went to shopping malls or grocery stores or parties. Now, its listeners just voted “Ho Hey” as the number one song of 2012. Interestingly, they didn’t have other pop songs on there like “Call Me Maybe” (which is an actual good song), indicating that the same people who love “Ho Hey” also think of themselves as educated listeners with discerning tastes. It’s easy to picture a Lumineers fan scoffing at those who listen to corporate pop artists while simultaneously listening to the most overplayed song in music today.

In this respect, The Lumineers (along with other folk bands like Mumford and Sons) have pulled off the biggest trick of all: they’ve become massively popular while somehow maintaining a certain amount of “indie cred.” Music critic David Greenwald dubbed this genre “festivalcore,” calling Mumford and Sons, despite their popularity, “the kind of band your friends might not know if you ask, the kind that feels like a secret.” The Lumineers seem similar: despite the fact that they’re literally everywhere on the radio, people who listen to them still perceive themselves as special, as if they’ve uncovered a diamond in the rough.

The success of “Ho Hey” is really just the chilling and horrific end-game of our unfortunate national love affair with mopey bland white guy folk. It takes popular trends in indie music (guys wearing silly antiquated clothing! soft guitars! non-threatening vocals!) and boils them all down to a nonsensical two-word catch phrase. One gets the impression that literally thousands of bands in the country could have written this song, but The Lumineers were the only ones willing to stoop to this level of pandering simplicity. Credit to them I guess: they seem like decent enough people, and I’m sure this has been a wonderful, unexpected surprise for them.

That doesn’t make the bewildering success of “Ho Hey” any less annoying. It just really bums me out to see this kind of deliberate mediocrity become huge while many more deserving indie bands remain underground. And this isn’t some indie snob thing: I can appreciate a well-written, mainstream-oriented pop song. But “Ho Hey” is none of those things. It’s a dashed-off, stupid song that is only popular because it shamelessly caters to our culture-wide fascination with sad, goofy white guys that play the banjo. (I keep saying dudes or guys because this genre is completely male-dominated, which makes it even worse than it already is.) Surely we can do better than this.

It’s almost like “Ho Hey” is popular in part because it’s so terrible. The Lumineers are “real” because they can’t write a hook and use gibberish instead of real words for lyrics, unlike those fancy pop stars who have legitimate talent and write songs in actual English. Sort of like how some people worship Adele because she doesn’t look like the other pop stars, maybe people worship The Lumineers because they don’t sound like the other big-name musicians (because they’re horrible)?

Whatever. I’m done trying to figure this one out. This one’s on you guys. I had nothing to do with it.