Who Truly Feels It All?

Feist overshadows the subversive sirens blaring down South

DISCUSSED
Feist The Reminder (#11 album)
"1234" (#4 single)
Carrie Underwood "Before He Cheats" (#172 single)

No, Leslie Feist didn't win Pazz & Jop this year. She can take solace, though, in winning an equally competitive and meaningful competition: Stereogum's Indie Rock Hotties of 2007, handily defeating Jenny Lewis and St. Vincent and even Sharon Jones (c'mon) for the top slot.

Fifteen or so years ago, if boys of a certain ilk wanted to attempt to understand women, they might've listened to Liz Phair. Maybe Courtney Love. They might've felt a little nervous. They might've felt told-off. In the absolute worst case, they might've capitulated to Lisa Loeb—cloying and far simpler than those around her. That the Loeb paradigm is the one that's lasted can only be seen as an indictment of our times, for now we have Feist. A shame, as she's maybe one-fifth the songwriter of a Nellie McKay or a Regina Spektor, less willowy than Norah Jones, less French than the unreasonably precious Keren Ann. She's the pretty girl who used to hang with the punks and is still nice enough to let them think they might have a chance. All in all, she's Colbie Caillat for NPR listeners. (She may also be directly responsible for Ingrid Michaelson, but let's leave that for another time.)

A paragon for our Age of Accessible Hotness
photo: Marry Rozzi
A paragon for our Age of Accessible Hotness

There's been a remarkable amount of consensus surrounding Feist this year: critics' lists, bloghype, that damned iPod ad. (Gawker headline: "Summer Is Over: Stop Listening to Feist." Bless.) But The Reminder feels like a shrug, an apology. It's light, empty, and maybe a bit whimsical: the sound of maturing out of your rebellious teenage years, but still winking back at them. Sound familiar? Of course it does. This is essentially lifestyle music for critics, lulling, comfortable, and detached. Worse, the record has an overall tenor of emotional feebleness and submission: "We don't need to say goodbye/We don't need to fight and cry"; "I'll be the one to hold the gun." It feels regressive, playing to male fantasies of being admired, in control, and responsibility-free. Not every song follows that script–"The Limit to Your Love," for example, has sharp teeth–but on the whole, The Reminder barely lifts a finger in its own defense.

Its simplicity is also an act of savvy. (Co-producer Gonzales 'fessed to the Times about his commercial ambitions for the record.) Really, Feist is just a singer for our Age of Accessible Hotness, e.g. Ellen Page, Cobie Smulders, Kristen Bell. And her clean sound is at the nexus of several unfortunate trends: the rise of Starbucks pop and the valorization of ambience. The growing-up and streamlining of indie rock. And the firming-up of a media-driven alt-beauty hierarchy, which too often feels like a weak response to traditional norms. (Hey, our girls are hot, too!)

Critics also melt for M.I.A. (P&J #3, Stereogum #4), another artist coasting on music beneath her reputation—and her IQ. Maya Arulpragasam is the unusual case of an artist who makes pop music—and Kala, like Arular before it, is undeniably pop—that's barely popular at all. (Expect her back on an indie within two years.) Except among critics, that is, who laud her for her musical adventurousness and her political righteousness, because those are things that critics like. Certainly if she rapped about love, she would be fearsome; she can be withering when she has something—say, the American government—in her sights. But (romantic) love barely registers in M.I.A.'s music—it's almost studiously avoided. And while this marks her as an outsider, it makes her somehow safer, too: M.I.A. will never reject you.

But the blondes will. Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Nettles are glamazons, the sort who are too easily dismissed in intellectual discourse, the sort who were probably inaccessible back in high school. Call it fear of the other: It's one of the things that makes mainstream country music barely a factor in the critical conversation—a result of severe class bias, and even more severe regional bias. White-on-white crime, sigh. (Miranda Lambert, who's become a cause célébre largely for not being Carrie Underwood, is a recent and notable exception.) And so critics bemoan country's literal narratives and sometimes laughable themes, because trying to decode Animal Collective's fourth-best album is, you know, more important.

But fuck being hard—Music Row can be complicated, too. Even reigning genre princess Carrie Underwood is something of a cipher. "Before He Cheats," a 2006 country hit, became an unlikely 2007 pop hit, with rotation on VH1 and Z100 (American Idol bona fides notwithstanding, an accomplishment for any country singer). A sassy and brash first-person revenge story, it positively swaggers. So what if this is where feminism now resides—in plain sight, where no one is looking? Even though Underwood's Carnival Ride is far more uneven than her 2005 debut, Some Hearts, it still marks her as a singer more serrate than Faith Hill or Martina McBride or even, truth be told, Gretchen Wilson. Filter out the affirmation-pap— the music geared for viewers of The View and the Lifetime network—and what's left is knottier: a one-night stand that becomes a wedding ("Last Name"), a young military bride turned widow ("Just a Dream"), and an intense cover of Randy Travis's "I Told You So" (with Vince Gill on harmony). The latter is a neat inversion: Here, it's the woman who's the cad and the man she left behind who's moved on. It's positively Jens Lekman–y.

Underwood's got company in Sugarland's "Stay," powered by Ms. Nettles, possessor of the biggest, most nuanced voice in country music—it emboldens this song that captures a mistress's evolution from cowering to indignation. This is a fuck-you that's raw, accessible, affecting, and smart—and it captures more emotions in four minutes than Feist musters in 50. And while these moments are complex and frictive, they're likely subversive, too. This kind of stuff means much more in an environment generally hostile to feminism and female empowerment than when it's just preached to the converted. But on the other hand, listening to Feist, it's unclear whether the converted are truly so.

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