California Demise: Tyler, the Creator and EMA Feel the Bad Vibes


Tyler, the Creator is stuck inside “Yonkers” with those California hate-fuck blues again. Don’t ask him what the matter is—you’ll get an album-length spleening in response. He’s rap’s nouveau old-model bad boy, showing the kids that “breaking rules is cool again,” rhyming impolitely about his problems with, well, everything. Many spent the year trying to gauge the murder-minded messiah MC. On Goblin, he came across as so ferociously indifferent, it was hard to imagine he could give a shit about anyone at all—including himself.

He’s unlike all the other cool California kids of recent memory, who wrote songs that seem to have picked up where David Crosby’s sailboat docked. They’re obsessed with the various qualities of sand, sunshine, friendship, and/or the waves, and they’re too high to take a position on much else. Last year’s chillwave wave was the latest iteration of California’s musical posi-vibe, all bright smiles highlighted by a deep tan. Chillwave’s methodology of easy hooks submerged in reverb and delay served as a constant reminder of being distant and of singers floating in their own, womby worlds.

With decades of this cheery jangle as a cultural inheritance, it’s easy to see why Tyler’s Wolf Gang wants to kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out, and then kill God, and why EMA came blazing for “California” with nothing but middle fingers and lick shots for the left coast. Can you blame them? The thrill of popping that bubble is undeniable. Tyler’s most (or only, depending on whom you ask) obvious talent is antagonism, a puerile needling that knows to go for the jugular—to say the exact thing you don’t want to hear, flippant and cruel in equal measure. Although plenty of Californian MCs have paired rage with ridicule, Tyler’s effusively macho hate is less Straight Outta Compton and more like that of the man who made it his trademark: Henry Rollins. (This time around, Syd’s got the 10 1/2.)

Historically, California punk has had its share of post-teen loathers with suicidal tendencies. Rollins is Tyler’s clearest primogenitor (Eminem be damned!)—the myopic focus on bad feelings, a hangover of confused adolescent tumult tangling hard with violent solutions. Tyler’s sober indifference isolates him from the other California girls and boys, and the intensity with which he doesn’t give a fuck belies just how much he actually does. It’s the most un-L.A. thing he could possibly do.

So much is the same for Erika Anderson—known on-record as EMA—even though she is, in essence, Tyler’s inverse. Born-and-bred Midwestern riot girl rides west in search of new liberation in noise, gets grown, and explodes her heart and head open on Past Life Martyred Saints. It’s a violent real-girl reveal: She’s done with the archetypes and instead has an album full of blood and “20 kisses with a butterfly knife.” Self-preservation is not a principal interest—she is gutting her guts and blunt about the trauma she has known instead of engaging in the apathetic yearning that typifies indie rock’s notion of a “confessional.” Like on Goblin, the volatility and capriciousness is unsettling—it makes you believe she’s howling her truth.

When Anderson faces her audience, foot up on the monitor in confident rock-star repose, and begins noosing herself with the mic cable, her methodical calm is what shocks. Her easy acquaintance with violence makes her shows seem less like performance and more like a visceral expression of how little (or much) she cares. She’s a spectacular songwriter, coaxing howls of beautiful scree from her half-stack, a tall, beautiful blonde calmly cooing, “I used to carry the gun/The gun, the gun, the gun.” In the underground, she’s as much of a “walking paradox” as Tyler.

Both artists goad unease for different reasons (EMA’s violence is directed inward; Tyler’s viciousness is often directed toward queers and girls), but discomfort is crucial fuel for their spectacle. The placement of “Yonkers” and “California” in this year’s poll offers evidence that listeners are taking them up on the vicarious thrill of their Cali-kid violence—whether it delights or disgusts.