9 Nov 2011

Political Visions/Political Actions: The Apposite Voices of tUnE-yArDs and John Maus

I’ve spent a little time at the Occupy London camp since its establishment last month, though not nearly enough to feel in any way qualified to be a representative of the protests. However, I am proud to say that I was at least there on the first night, in the exhilarating chaos of the first assemblies and the comprehensive yet unconvincing police encirclement. At that point there really was a very broad range of protesters represented: long-haulers and day-trippers, established British socialist groups and a huge number of European students showing solidarity with concurrent protests overseas. There was a slew of different aims, obsessions and strategies represented (although a good number of fundamental ideals were clearly universally shared).

In this article, I'll try to locate some of the differing (and at times warring) qualities of these young contemporary activists, as represented in the new political music of two artists giving early voice to this new political movement: tUnE-yArDs and John Maus. By comparing these two artists, I also aim to demonstrate two very different ways in which pop music can engage explicitly with politics.

New Music for a New Movement

The worldwide Occupation movement is one of the most exciting and inspirational events to reach London in my personal recollection, and for someone who's previously (rather uncreatively) separated some fairly radical core ideals from an otherwise near-sighted optimism towards mainstream politics, it has had a galvanising effect. I also genuinely believe that the Occupation, and related or similar movements, have the potential to penetrate deeply into, and help define, a totally new zeitgeist within international youth culture (and, by natural extension, within mainstream Western culture as a whole).
I would argue though that - as much as ideals, dialogue and real-world issues must stay at the forefront of any political movement - in order to cement a strong and enduring culture of politicised youth, radical idealism and urgent criticism, this movement needs its artists.

While popular music, now inextricably married to mainstream culture, has continued to reflect and in some instances affect political trends and, especially, social outlooks (just as it has always done since ancient times), its more explicit involvement in conscientious socialism has been rather muted during the last two decades. Instead, there have been plenty of vocal advocates of heroic neoliberalism and ruthless financial individualism within recent pop music, although the establishment rarely acknowledges these artists for the incredible influence that they’ve exerted over a generation of young people. As youth politics has become a very niche domain - more freak subculture than genuine counterculture - so political pop has been pushed right into the domain of the truly 'alternative', with stalwartly fashion-impervious pockets of cliché-ridden troubadour-folk and puritanical trad-punk continuing to fight nostalgically the battles of past generations.

With a completely new political movement comes the urgent need for a new politicised pop medium. Recent albums by tUnE-yArDs and John Maus both present very strong models for this, even while sounding totally different to each other, and operating distinctly in approach, method and aesthetic philosophy. These two records, in their own ways, signify two different types of modern protester that I’ve encountered at Occupy London and within the international web-based encampment that surrounds it, as well as two quite contrasting ways in which these people approach the movement. While I will argue the merits of each separately, I would also say that the political power in pop music can come directly from our considering the music of each and from comparing the two, since this very act of consideration should lead to the production of creative and critical political thought.

tUnE-yArDs as Protest Music

s p e c t a c l e . . .

Merrill Garbus is the perfect pin-up for a new political youth. Her performance persona epitomises the kind of super-charismatic young women that I’ve seen time and time again, naturally assuming the role of arbitrators and voice-pieces for these difficult, heterogeneous gatherings. Garbus’s brightly-coloured garb suggests the vibrant, individualistic theatricality advocated by groups like UK Uncut, to disarm the drab mythology of ‘realist’ austerity defeatism with an outraged and outrageous sense of the carnivalesque. And her voice above all: there could be no more fitting clarion for dissent than her megaphonic roar, itself cast - on her most recent album w h o k i l l - as the leader of a gang of equally raucous saxophones, providing the perfect noise for righteous disruption along the numbest arteries of our most preoccupied urban centres.
'My country 'tis of thee,/Sweet land of liberty,
How come I cannot see my future within your arms.'
As politics go, tUnE-yArDs represents the activist's activist - on the front-line, demonstrating for real, practical social change. The album’s most direct protest tracks - ‘My Country’ and ‘You Yes You’ - share a lot of the rhetorical spirit of the Occupy Wall Street memes - criticised by some for being non-specific but in reality expressing a universalised shout against the mute acceptance of scandalous inequality.

Much of her music fits with this wild and rebellious optimism; the pan-cultural references relying particularly heavily on African vocal practices, the pounding celebratory drums and the cascades of looped vocal runs on tracks like ‘Bizness’ all remind me of the tremors felt from the ubiquitous marching samba band at recent London protests, bringing earth-quaking party music into combat with the cult of teeth-gritted austerity. Vitally though, tUnE-yArDs’ music goes beyond harmless spectacle. Her music is loaded with the potential for real action, even kegs of quite extraordinary violence, giving weight to a formidable determination. ‘Riotriot’ is an obvious example of this, rekindling the socially-wired volatility of a lot of race-conscious music in the eighties.

'Pop go the windows,
So we can see you more clearly...
If you do nothing, you still do something,
Do you see it?'

Throughout her arrangements, Garbus derails and ignites her uplifting melodies and energising grooves with carefully planned and executed harmonic and structural coups, frustrating and magnifying the sense of disruption and urgency. On a very basic level, she fabulously orchestrates a style which balances familiar and seductive pop with well-integrated avant-gardisms, allowing her music to be as provocative as her lyrics (something which most protest folk and punk has no interest in) while remaining raw and spectacular enough to ease accessibility.

My Country - Tune Yards by tracks_arte

. . . p r a c t i c a l

Of course, Garbus has her special-interest areas too, and a lot of the album is focused on socio-cultural issues surrounding women, the kind of issues that have been foregrounded in a lot of liberal political art over the last few decades and are now deeply entrenched within the fabric of all left-wing youth movements. Her defiant rage extends to the subject of body-image on ‘Es-So’, to a very complex examination of gendered sexual power relations on ‘Powa’, and to a more general marrying of social protest with rekindled feminism on ‘Killa’.

'What's a boy to do if he'll never be a gangsta?
Anger in his heart, but he'll never be a gangsta,
If you move into his neighbourhood, he'll never make a sound.'

This final track adds yet another element to tUnE-yArDs’ political mission, in that Garbus takes aim at that most difficult (and pressing) of conundrums - the awkward relationship between a new social consciousness amongst the youth and the self-ironising vortex which is contemporary hipsterdom. In this way, Garbus as political pragmatist highlights one of the biggest effects that contemporary pop culture could have on the movement, which would be to deal with the traps of youth disenchantment. On ‘Gangsta’, she clearly and concisely addresses the culture panic of urban youth, urged to validate their identity through conformity to certain media-sanctioned and branded ‘counter-cultural’ groups, at the expense of broader social engagement. In context, this is particularly penetrating as a critique of the hip co-option of ‘outsider’ ethnic and socio-economic signifiers, the ebb and flow of gentrification, and the distraction that all this creates from a universal identity built around righteous protest against real oppressive power systems (and the kind of uncommercialised authenticity that could well come with it as a cultural reward).

If the Garbuses had complete consensus at the Occupation, then every day would bring a new demand, the streets would be awash with acts of theatrical disobedience, and the protesters would soon become an army of micro-level wrong-righters, changing the world step-by-gradual-step via the recognition and exposure of every new injustice.

John Maus as Radical Theorist

r e m o d e r n i s t . . . 

Whilst tUnE-yArDs provide a model for a new musical activist, fuelled mainly by righteous anger at real social injustice, the music of John Maus fulfils quite a different political role. It does this by dreaming up, and simultaneously embodying, a new utopian aesthetic whose post-capitalist politics are implicit by extension. Maus’s model is altogether more ambiguous and academic. As with a lot of contemporary art, he surrounds his albums with his own critical discourse, disseminated largely through interviews. He is that very rare pop musician willing to theorise his own work, albeit quite evasively, and this propensity (along with his publicised status as a doctoral student in political philosophy) instantly encourages other theorists to get involved (check out Adam Harper's new book on Maus which I have yet to read - Heaven Is Real: John Maus and the Truth of Pop. Looks good, no?). He’s also eminently quotable, so much so that I could double this article in length with John Maus quotations and they’d all be relevant and enlightening, but instead I just strongly recommend that you read/watch these, and I’ll stick to quoting lyrics (even though: 'the protest lyric is a poor caricature and a poor substitute for a radical political philosophy or some kind of guerrilla entering into the logic of insurrection.' - JM).

Maus’s music functions politically by presenting itself as an aesthetic manifesto, and accoutering this ‘formalist’ statement with more explicit politicised lyrics, slogans and interview quotations, as well as the additional medium of his rhetorically ‘performative’ live shows. His music could be described as ‘retro-futurist’, through its references to the technologically-determined progressiveness of ‘80s synth timbres, the calculated sincerity of ‘pre-digital’ production values and the New Wave signifiers redolent of some of the avant garde pop of that era. Yet Maus’s relationship with the ‘retro’ paradigm is more complex than this.

'Heart to heart, mind to mind,
We are the ones who seem to travel through time.'

Aligning himself with Ariel Pink, Maus has denounced the trends that music followed in the 1990s - the beginning of retro feedback loops which mired culture in alternately sentimentalised or ironised versions of the imagined past, branded with greater detachment on each diminishing return. Maus’s retroism represents none of these things. In opposition to Garbus’s liberal post-postmodernism, bringing new sincerity to postmodernism’s pluralist aesthetic traits, he espouses a return to pop’s progressive teleology. In a way, he attempts a return to the pop modernism which cut a furrow through the 20th Century, right up to the early ‘80s, before completely disappearing in a mess of fragmentation and jouissance, identity politics and hybridisation, abetted by the egotism of grunge, the vacuousness of Britpop and the street-level, community focus of hip hop. In contrast to this, Maus presents a ‘big picture’ sound - towering, frightening and quite serious - a vision of a post-apocalyptic (read: post-capitalist) future founded on the ellipsis which proceeded from the idealists of late ‘70s/early ‘80s experimental electronic and ambient music, and was subsumed into the abstracted realm of dance music while pop continued off in other directions.

Miraculously, Maus makes the intervening quarter of a century seem like the most momentary of pauses, a breath mid-sentence, and he follows on from this ‘80s project smoothly but with an experimental logic and audacity which still makes his music seem utterly new and challenging. As a gesture which ignores the purported inescapability of flexible, digital, consumer-centric late capitalism, it is a radical imagining.

JOHN MAUS - Believer (free mp3) by Upset the Rhythm

. . . r e v o l u t i o n a r y 

'Somebody tell me the truth
Someone just tell me the truth
Somebody tell me the truth
And the rain came down
Down down down...'

For this reason, I would associate Maus’s politically-conscious music with those protesters who are genuinely advocating total revolution, for an end-of-days to the capitalist age and the establishment of an entirely new system. Like these political theorists, Maus’s music is very tuned in to the progression of history. This is one key difference which distinguishes him from Garbus; while her politics condense/transcend space, calling on multi-cultural borrowings to signify an inclusive global movement, Maus’s condense/transcend time. He references time travel on ‘Quantum Leap’, and borrows extensively and uniquely from the modality and textures of medieval sacred music. A good portion of his lyrics are timelessly epic in quality (‘...And The Rain’ has a particularly Biblical cadence to it), and he constantly advocates progression and forward momentum.

Particularly relevant to this concept is ‘We Can Break Through’, one of the most infinitely fascinating musical objects that I have encountered this year, which assimilates a very unusual metre, tonal structure and borrowed medievalist tropes into what sounds like a journey through hyperspace, but might as well be a blast forward in time. Its message of ‘Break through this!’ is as clear a slogan as any for a movement of massive political change, and it is perfectly illustrated in the track's cosmic middle-section digression, within which what seems to be the collective voice of a huge choir can be just heard singing behind some barrier (in time or space). We can only imagine what utopian future is calling out to us at that moment.

More inspirational slogans are provided in ‘Keep Pushing On’ and ‘Believer’, while the very title of the album - We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves - is a fantastic injunction for a movement which cannot afford compromise, but must strive for absolute perfection. His message is more optimistic than Garbus’s then - envisaging a great future rather than raging against present injustice - but he is also far more radical. His musical politics are much less likely to be co-opted and watered-down; tUnE-yArDs’ tunes are more generally accessible and comprehensible, thereby making her politics more vulnerable (for instance, she’s more likely to be played in Starbucks). He bolsters this radicalism through the use of some particularly elliptical lyrics. The sole lyric on ‘Matter of Fact’ - ‘Pussy is not a matter of fact’ - alienates while demanding real contemplation (I’m still trying to get my head round it), and in this way preserves the predominance of his musical style as a vessel for meaning. Lyrics like these help detach and dehumanise Maus the individual persona from his music, and thereby remove the associated obstacles to universalism.

John Maus - Keep Pushing On by pollo asado

Two songs about murder

'Policeman shot my baby as he crossed over my doorstep.'

An interesting comparison can be made between Maus’s ‘Cop Killer’ and Garbus’s ‘Doorstep’ - two different songs on a very similar subject: hostility towards the police. The tUnE-yArDs track uses subtle musical irony to deal with a very pressing contemporary issue in a didactic manner, telling the tragic tale of a police shooting with great humanity but no sentimentality. In this way, she captures the reasoned yet deeply empathetic earnestness of many of the most practical activists on the streets and the blogs today. Maus, however, adjoins his futurist aesthetic to a challenging invitation to ‘kill every cop in sight’, followed by a chorus which baldly states: ‘Against the law’. In answer to the determined empathy of the Garbuses, willing to argue their case on the ground to whoever will hear, the Mauses (or Mice?) refuse to involve themselves in debate. The song is a provocative advocation of absolutes - to ‘kill every cop’ - which fits into a more general message to approach social change with radical, visionary discipline.

In the shadow of St Paul’s, where the People’s Assemblies demand a perfect democratic process, the two approaches of practical activism - battling society’s ills - and visionary activism - striving for socio-economic perfection without compromise -will often undo or counteract each other. While the Occupy movement is still too small to fragment, these approaches will have to concede to each other, but elsewhere (and probably in the future), both models are working independently and powerfully to develop a better world. Moreover, through representation in art and culture (as, for example, on these two albums), the two approaches can learn from each other and hold an open dialogue which can be projected through society as a whole.

. . . c l a s s   o f   2 0 1 1 . . .

For all these irreconcilable differences, I do think there are also some very interesting similarities between these two artists, which are particularly indicative of the new political moment. First of all, while both projects are driven by solo composer-performers, many of the arrangements on both albums are thick with layered vocals, creating a sense of congregated voices in stark contrast with the lone troubadour of traditional folk protest songs. The electronic looping and processing of these additional voices can even be heard as an echo of the new 'global' community, in which people are joined together virtually through the faceless channels of the internet.

Secondly, both artists make resolutely ‘city music’. This is important because many of the socially-conscious indie artists of the last decade have routinely turned to folk (and the countryside and nature), as a kind of reaction to consumerist culture and to our increasingly virtual existence. There are many interesting and productive ideas within this 'natural' aesthetic, in particular a great potential to foreground the importance of green politics, but in turning away from the cities, musicians also risk turning a blind eye not only to our greatest social problems, but also to our most heinous financial crimes. This very interesting recent article in the Guardian discusses this idea penetratingly, albeit focusing on British folk-inspired music (specifically Florence and the Machine) which in general I have far less time for than the American brand (although this could be that US indie-folk has, for me, an exotic quality derived from my own foreign-ness to it). So, a lot of tUnE-yArDs' relevance stems from Garbus's exploration of urban issues, symbolised by the turnpike squall of the saxophone ensemble, while the Maus album’s crowning track - ‘Head for the Country’ - succinctly prophesies Brazil-style social alienation, community apathy, and a consequent epic diaspora:
'This is where human being finds itself - in a locker,Somewhere, somewhere there’s a crime being committed.We'll head for the country.'
It is early days in a new political era which can only get stronger, if just because everything else can only get worse. I’ve painted these two musicians as representative of two models of politicised music, and corresponding with two types of young activist, but I’m quite sure that there are many more approaches to the movement, and to the documenting, exploring, supporting and deconstructing of it through pop music. I hope that more artists begin to explore the political potential of music in earnest. 

John Maus - Head For The Country by Upset the Rhythm

p o s t s c r i p t : POLITICISE THE HIPSTERS !

One of the greatest achievements that alternative pop music could achieve in the coming years would be to politicise the hipsters. By turning this difficult, disparate but very powerful cultural group into one with more of a sense of community purpose, social obligation and creative optimism, a massive number of influential, charismatic and socially-connected young people could be properly mobilised. There is potential there: the urge to deconstruct and culturally criticise, the support for social diversity, the disdain for the large corporate mainstream. All the hipsters need now is some sincerity, an anti-consumerist sentiment which runs a bit deeper than a simple rejection of the most unfashionable of big-name brands, and a little more empathy for the untrendy poor. I see no reason why political radicalism couldn’t become genuinely cool again - and it might even go some way to help modern hipsterdom avoid the mounting scorn reserved for it by posterity. So everyone wins! (Except the capitalists...)

1 comment:

  1. NB NB NB

    PART II of this article -
    'Performing Autonomy: Revisiting John Maus and tUnE-yArDs Post-Occupy' is now online:::


    Ideas developed, new ideas added, take a look!!!