We Should Be Less Cynical About Albums That (Want to) Change The World
One of the most talked about songs on Taylor Swift's Speak Now was a ditty called "Mean," which my BFF Theon Weber focused on in-depth in his review for this paper.
"It's chipper and funny, because the narrator is predicting escape from someone she dislikes: 'Some day, I'll be living in a big ol' city/ And all you're ever gonna be is mean.' And then, slipped in casually, a glimpse of the submerged shadow: 'Someday, I'll be big enough so you can't hit me.'"
This was early enough that it hadn't caught wind yet that Swift had been quoted as saying the song was actually about the unthinkable: infamous music industry blogger Bob Lefsetz. See also: We Should Be More Cynical About Albums Claiming to Change the World
The story that Swift had written a song "lashing out at her critics" was what got picked up by most subsequent outlets and became a point of distaste in subsequent reviews; it was arguably the turning point where her detractors came out of the woodwork and pegged her as more of a polarizing figure than surprise critical darling. And yet the evidence of the song itself was right there in the lyrics suggesting this was a privileged star's most empathetic tune yet, embodying a child's definition of "big" as her only hope to avoid what's explicitly termed being "hit." After the Lefsetz story went around, very few reviews used the word "abuse" or even "bullying." The way her detractors talked about the song you'd think they were describing Amanda Palmer being shocked that people found her poem about the Boston bomber suspect in poor taste.
And yet if you listened to the tune and knew nothing about Swift's foibles in the gossip columns, you're more likely to come away without an argument that song describes a victim of something more physical than bad reviews. That is an example of PR hurting the discourse about a record, where most reviewers got down to cases with how the artist wanted to perceive her and actually ignored the evidence in her work itself. So it's easy to understand where Luke Winkie is coming from when he writes that the new Knife album is being glorified by a press and public "incredibly eager to unpack all the philosophy and radical social themes allegedly imbued in Shaking the Habitual" because that's what they said the record was about in Pitchfork.
As evinced by how quickly the critical consensus turned on Lana Del Rey after it was discovered she was some kind of calculating, rich-daddied, Interscope-signed fakearoni and not merely a shy trailer park discovery uploading home movies to YouTube that she Instagram-filtered all by herself (aww), many critics have a fear of being hoodwinked by artists whose sole musical purpose is engineering themselves into the perfect position to score an 8.7. Feminism is currently en vogue again, thank fuck, and scumballs like Rick Ross--who rose to prominence in the wake of once-beloved artists like Liz Phair and Courtney Love being sacrificed on the altar of the 2000s like embarrassing parents--are finally being dealt with harshly for being the ignorami they are.
See also: Other Heinous Rick Ross Lyrics
It might seem opportunistic that The Knife have suddenly released a 100-minute, bright-fuschia feminist opus in a post-tUnE-YaRdS world after seven years of incubating in the off-season. But even as far back as 10 years ago, from Deep Cuts, the album mostly known for spawning their hit synth-pop trifle "Heartbeats," Karin Dreijer's voice was pitched down to a man's register for a track parodying the patriarchy: "I keep my dick hanging out of my pants/ So I can point out what I want/ I was chosen by standard procedures/ And I assure you I don't mind."
Now that the group is more known for mutating Dreijer's voice into something illegible and alien over increasingly dark, minor-key drones and artificial gamelan symphonies, it can indeed be musically tough to excavate explicit statements like how she's "ready to lose a privilege" on the Occupy-spirited "Ready to Lose" or the indictment of how we "rewrite history to suit our needs" on the my-empire-is-bigger-than-yours "A Tooth for an Eye." Over the distractingly doomy pulse of "Full of Fire" it's especially hard to notice the band meta-mocking other potential exploiters hiding behind good intentions--the line "liberals giving me a nerve itch" updates Phil Ochs' "Love me love me love me/ I'm a liberal" for us post-Reznor vermin. Dreijer twists the phrase "my story" the way the "signori" she sings about pimps her out as Joe the Plumber: "Get the picture/ They get glory/ Who looks after my story."
To not "think about male privilege" as Winkie put it, when shards like "Not a vagina/ It's an option/ The cock/ Had it coming" go by, is to have simply not heard them. A huge argument could be mounted against The Knife's medium, which as Rich Juzwiak noted on Gawker, "fails to start a conversation amongst anyone but Knife fans," and ones willing to indulge their most difficult record at that.
Say what you will of "Accidental Racist," but the lyrics are clearly enunciated. And their aesthetic clearly fails a large sector of listeners who, like Winkie, will not be moved to read the lyrics they can't hear, much less shell out for the physical package of a double album that includes them, on the other side of foldout comics that dream up university classes where students are taught to not desire $65,000 pairs of sunglasses. It goes on to spoof Michael Jackson's "Heal the World." Most criminally buried--take it from this belated convert--are this band's senses of humor and pop history, which dovetail when they flip an old Salt 'n' Pepa hit among other things: "Let's talk about gender baby/ Let's talk about you and me."
But it sounds presumptuous to say "all of a sudden those instrumental dirges morph into brilliant symbolic takedowns in our heads." It's not hard to imagine the industrial scraping of "Fracking Fluid Injection" evoking what my BFF calls the "nightmare background noise of postmodernism" in a blind writing exercise. Calling Shaking the Habitual a Big Political Statement is symptomatic of the aforementioned fear that the critics' subject is some worry-inducing monolith that would get the upper hand. It's a big album in length and scope, full of smaller ideas worth exploring, from environmentalism to intersectionality.
No albums are "important" or world-changing in 2013, which doesn't make the proud few any less noble, especially when the artist appears to practice what they preach, not playing festivals without 50% female representation in the lineup, or most remarkably, manufacturing a single-disc version of the album, for fans who'd rather stay within budget than own an extra 20 minutes of ambient noise. They've had a pop hit, they've worked with Robyn. A rock star touting "End Extreme Wealth" as a slogan is novel, like it or not.
Even if they only influence Knife fans, well, that could go a long way, considering many of those were borne from a 2006 album of the year designation by a site that used to more traditionally chide conscious ambitions as half-assed. There needs to be more political music, not less, and trivializing the people who create it, particularly women, is part of the problem. The Knife are adept satirists, documentarians, disturbers of the complacent norm. Their album works on a purely musical level too--being musicians, it would be a failure if it did not--and it's fine to not subscribe to the words, find them unfinished, etc. But that's very different from saying they are not there.
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