Kimya Dawson looks legitimately terrified. “I’m totally weirded out,” she announces to a sold-out, mashed-in Sunday-afternoon crowd at Southpaw, largely underage and entirely flush with adoration. Kimya both senses and fears this. “It’s great that you’re all here, but treat me normal,” she continues. “Please don’t run up after me. . . . Just walk up to me . . . or I’m gonna go into hiding [pause]. I’m just kidding [pause]. But seriously [pause]. We’re all friends here.”
Yes, Kimya suddenly has a lot more friends. Too many, perhaps. By the time you read this, the relentlessly childlike, cringingly sincere thirtysomething folk singer may be the driving engine behind Billboard‘s No. 1 album. This is gonna feel really, really weird. For everyone—and particularly for her.
If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of Juno, the atrociously fey teen-pregnancy comedy currently barnstorming multiplexes and whooping up Oscar talk, by all means, have at it. It is sweet and heartwarming and winsome in its utter preposterousness. Just the fakest dialogue imaginable. Pop-culture-savvy sarcasm as suburban religion. Teenagers who talk like thirtysomething screenwriters. “Cool” parents who talk like teenage screenwriters. A 16-year-old heroine who actually says things like “Just looking to secure a hasty abortion!” and “Just dealing with things way outside my maturity level!” and (grits teeth) “Swear to blog!” Just appallingly cute cute cute CUTE CUTE. You’ll probably really like it. And there on the soundtrack, bobbing and weaving amid the obligatory “indie” blockbuster tunes (Belle & Sebastian, the Kinks), is Kimya Dawson, her primal, primitive odes to tire swings and vampires and roller coasters goosing us along, her wobbly voice and furtively chicken-scratched double-time guitar like a terrified little kid who just ditched the training wheels and is now somehow barreling down a mountain. Might not be an Oscar ceremony at all this year, of course, but if there is, it’s not at all inconceivable that Kimya could get her vastly uncomfortable Elliott Smith moment, onstage in front of millions with her mushroom-cloud shock of hair, her labret piercing, her enveloping arm tattoos and her striped socks, sweetly mumbling through “Anyone Else But You,” the pulverizingly twee power ballad from her old band, NYC “antifolk” heroes the Moldy Peaches, which provides Juno‘s saccharine closing movement. This is a Garden State situation, with all the fearsome backlash that entails. (Hoo-doggie, Jim DeRogatis is pissed.) My fiancée immediately wanted to use “Anyone Else” as our first wedding dance. I, uh, did not.
Of course, now I’m watching Kimya at Southpaw, sheepish and guileless and awkward in a way that you really can’t fake, with her loopy, yammering banter (“My old water-aerobics teacher always told me I had to work on my posture”) and jittery odes to not caring about whether or not she’s cool, or at least thinking she doesn’t, or something, and next to me is a baby strapped to Mommy, upright and facing outward at eye level in one of those BabyBjörn things, and the cooing baby’s fists are balling up happily, and I’m like: Yeah, I’m gonna fuckin’ hate this music the baby likes, Jesus. This is the Kimya Dawson conundrum: hard to hate and even harder to enjoy.
To start with, you gotta divorce her from Juno. Even if you fall for the flick, it requires you to turn off that part of your brain governing skepticism, cynicism, and rational human conversation, and it plays up Kimya’s clunkiest, most aggravating tunes, particularly the grating “Loose Lips,” which, of course, is her last and most rapturously received song at Southpaw, the crowd yipping delightedly along. In a darkened theater, she’s easy to dismiss as hollow affectation. No one over 10 years old can actually be like this. But Kimya’s own albums are much tougher to shake off, particularly 2006’s Remember That I Love You, the one Juno most frequently plunders. If you think dissing something a baby is actively enjoying is bad juju, try speaking ill of “My Mom,” when all that rushed, amateurish clunkiness turns suddenly devastating:
The human body’s made up of good and bad bacteria
But the antibiotics and the antibacterials are killing all the good ones
And the bad ones just get stronger
And become superinfections
It’s harder to destroy them and it’s harder to detect them
And there’s something in her blood
And there’s something in her leg
And there’s something in her brai-ai-ai-ai-ain.
Looks ridiculous in print. No one else on planet Earth can sell that. But hearing Kimya bleat those lines can obliterate an awful lot of discouraging words. The Moldy Peaches, most famous for Kimya’s bunny suit and their dubious distinction of having released an album that included the song “NYC’s Like a Graveyard” on September 11, 2001 (song titles like “Who’s Got the Crack” and “Downloading Porn with Davo” were much more instructive), proved easy to dismiss as some bewildering art-school prank, the East Village feigning mental retardation as a defense mechanism. But as a solo entity since relocated to Seattle, Kimya has flourished by regressing even further, and her Southpaw set hits its stride with a string of children’s songs that sound like they were written by children as well. Farts are a major motif: There’s an alphabet song in which E stands for “elephant farts,” S for “stink,” T for “turd,” U for “uh-oh,” and Z for “farts that smell like the zoo.” The killer, in fact, is “The Smoothie Song,” in which a pregnant Kimya (she’s now got a daughter named Panda Delilah, which I couldn’t have made up in a million years) demands a smoothie because she’s scared that her unborn child hasn’t moved in awhile, and smoothies reliably create a sensation “like a fart in a tub inside of me.” It’s impossible to imagine anyone else singing that, or Kimya singing anything else.
That you’d put music like this on for pleasure is highly unlikely. And wrapped up in something as arch, as cloying as Juno, it sounds increasingly contrived by association. The film even reprises Garden State‘s much-loathed “The Shins will change your life” trick, but this time it’s hapless living-in-the-past loser Jason Bateman raving impotently about Sonic Youth. (I repeat: Jim DeRogatis is pissed.) If you come to Kimya’s music through this movie, the first step to increased enjoyment is to forget she was ever involved with it—even if it occasionally helps her. The soundtrack includes both the original Moldy Peaches “Anyone Else But You” and the version used in the film, sung during the fade-out by stars Ellen Page and Michael Cera themselves. The Peaches’ version is tremendously cloying, but the one sung by two Hollywood celebs portraying impossibly cloying teenagers somehow feels much sweeter, much more honest, much more real. I don’t have an explanation for this; neither, in all likelihood, does Kimya Dawson. That music so unguarded and guileless might propel her to some small semblance of “stardom” is somehow mortifying, but again, to her especially. When her Southpaw show ends, she instructs us to stand in a circle and hold hands. Cautiously, she shuffles out into the crowd and triggers a massive group hug, a mosh pit of reckless love, a strange but fitting attempt to use a large crowd to protect herself from a large crowd.
Kimya Dawson plays the Juno soundtrack release party on Tuesday, January 15 at Sound Fix Records, 110 Bedford Avenue, and then headlines Europa, 98 Meserole Avenue, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on Wednesday, January 16.