2.03.2009

I'm Not An Animal

"We are living in a Post Merriweather Post Pavillion World," writes Carles, "and I am a conceptual bro." Perhaps we are all conceptual bros. The new Animal Collective album, probably the most hyped thing ever, has been settling into the heads of music fans everywhere for the past couple weeks, to the point that it recently debuted at 13 on Billboard's Hot 200 albums (right below Andrew Bird's latest--this probably says more about the shrinking demographic of album-buyers than it does about some kind of musical zeitgeist). It has been reviewed at Resident Advisor, where I thought I would be safe, Kanye West posted the "My Girls" video on his blog, and don't even get me started on all the cover versions flooding youtube. Make no mistake; this is for real, and it's serious. I'm sure you've heard it all before from your neighborhood's resident Animal Collective apologist, but witness Simon Reynolds's baffling a priori vitriol for anyone who dares question the consensus on Merriweather Post Pavilion:
It's funny watching AC haters frothing at the mouth isn't it? They can't help it, their loathing is so visceral, such an uncontrollable gut aversion to the sound: its maculate, confusional qualities seem to be intolerable, a real affront to sensibility--the way the music mixes levels, categories, registers like so much spin art (or more apposite in this case, like tie-dye).
WTF, bro?

I've never been a follower of the band, so I can't comment on their earlier stuff. But on MPP, a singular aesthetic shines through; this is the work of a group that knows what it is doing. A frequent comparison is to the Beach Boys, but with the exception of the relatively enjoyable "Bluish," I don't hear it. What I do hear is more unsettling, yet openly acknowledged: "Merriweather Post Pavilion" is the name of the arena where the Animal Collective boys saw their first Grateful Dead concert.

Ah-ha. Other touchstones fall into place: the cloying harmonies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, the starry-eyed navel-gazing of hippiedom, the breezy multicultural appropriation inclinations of white sixties aesthetes, and so on. Guess I missed the meeting when we decided we now consider CSN and the Dead appropriate influences for a band in 2009, but there you go. Animal Collective are hardly the only rock group to mythologize the Sixties, and their take is really not all that different from the rest. The cultural myth of the Sixties falls squarely into line with the way Roland Barthes defined myth generally, as "depoliticized speech." The effect is,
The world enters language as a dialectical relation between activities, between human actions; it comes out of myth as a harmonious display of essences. A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature, it has removed from things their human meaning so as to make them signify a human insignificance. The function of myth is to empty reality; it is, literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a haemorrhage, or perhaps an evaporation, in shot a perceptible absence.
Ahistoricizing as well as depoliticizing, this kind of mythologization of the sixties does not concern itself with radical movements in the third world, with feminist and queer aspects of the sexual revolution, with class struggle. What it comes away with are essentialized, reified concepts of liberation, antiauthoritarianism, diversity, and so on, the signifiers of which are wholly incorporated into capitalist culture. For this generation, the vestiges of the Sixties--of which a primary marker is the write-their-own-songs/play-their-own-instruments Rock Band, a group that with few exceptions must be white--result in, to once again quote Carles, something like a "non-profit lifestyle brand."

Consider the analysis of Christian Lander, the creator of the somewhat cynical website Stuff White People Like. From the Atlantic:
It's strange that we are the kids of Baby Boomers, right? How the hell do you rebel against that? Like, your parents will march against the World Trade Organization next to you. They'll have bigger white dreadlocks than you. What do you do?
The answer? You don't rebel. What's the point? There are other things to attend to, as we are told in MPP's first single, "My Girls."

Written by Panda Bear, the lyrics take a confessional tone: "Is it much," he begins, already wishy-washy, "that I feel I need/A solid soul and the blood I bleed?" Personally I think that the post-Cartesian paradox of a "solid soul" actually is a bit much, but we can put that aside for now. Mr. Bear proceeds to tell us what he really needs, which is his "little girl," his "spouse," and "a proper house." (Never mind that there was no need in this case to be gender neutral, spouse rhymes with house okay?) After informing us that he doesn't want to have to get a job ("take part in a precious race") in order to pay for this house, he goes on to set his convictions in stone: "I don't mean to seem like I care about material things, like my social status/I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls." Hey, a third world-style house with adobe walls! Pretty alt!
Now, our boy Panda is no sellout. He realizes what a boomerist resignation it is to want a house. He's quoted in this New York Times article as feeling kind of guilty about it. "It's a song about wanting to buy a house, but then I sort of felt bad about writing a song about wanting to buy a house," he says. "'Social status' and 'material things'--just that kind of mindset was what I was apologizing for." This self-righteousness finds the latent solipsism of Sixties counterculture elevated to mythic proportions. Railing against "material things" has always been easy for children of privilege who have picked up some countercultural notions; what they don't realize is that along with the "precious race" of labor, they have summarily dismissed any potential criticality about class structures under capitalism. "Material things" matter; to ignore them abandons any sense of society rather than of just individuals, any interest in imagining and constructing new forms of social organization.

As for its sound, the song has a central synth riff blatantly jacked from Jamie Principle/Frankie Knuckles's seminal house track "Your Love." Nothing against jacking shit but in this case I keep waiting for that sublime bassline to kick in and needless to say it never does. (Actually, that kind of sums up how I feel about this album pretty well right there.) The song is heavier on rhythm than most of the album, though. The effusive "Summertime Clothes" may better represent Merriweather Post Pavilion, with all of Animal Collective's sonic trademarks in full effect, a gentle 4/4 thump not really adding up to anything like a groove. The bouncy loop backs up a trite evocation of that most boring of Rock figures, The Wanderer. In the dominant post-Sixties wave of Rocka trope that once gave voice to actually homeless people in country and blues music has again parted from material conditions and become merely another "non-profit lifestyle brand." True, the Wanderer of "Summertime Clothes" does not wander alone; the chorus swooningly bellows "I want to walk around with you!" Whether it's directed at a girl or at a bro is not directly specified, but you know how these Wanderers are. They never pass up a chance of getting laid.

You may have recognized the title of this post as a line from the most disturbing song on Never Mind the Bollocks ("Bodies," described by Robert Christgau as "effectively anti-abortion, anti-woman, and anti-sex"). "Summertime Clothes" brings to mind another bunch of punks. Every time I hear Animal Collective droning on about walking around with me, I'd like to think that the voice of Joey Ramone calls out in response from 30 years ago, as in a classic tune on the first Ramones album:
I don't wanna walk around with you
I don't wanna walk around with you
I don't wanna walk around with you
So why you wanna walk around with me?

5 comments:

  1. i heard people talking about this album and a friend burned a CD for me. i have to say it isn't really offensive, but i just don't care. the fact that this is so overblown really speaks to why i don't listen to much music that has "rock" appeal to it anymore. i am just disconnected from that aesthetic almost entirely.

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  2. "Ah-ha. Other touchstones fall into place: the cloying harmonies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, the starry-eyed navel-gazing of hippiedom, the breezy multicultural appropriation inclinations of white sixties aesthetes, and so on."

    The idea that AC are an over-hyped echo of the grateful dead is much less controversial than you seem to think. no need to flatter yourself with a tone of investigative journalism.

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  3. I'm with you on the all around blue-balled feeling you get from Animal Collective's music, though I think My Girls has quite a catchy payoff. So catchy I actually missed any notion of post-post- baby-boomer countercultural contradiction etc. This clearly means I'd make a shitty music critic, but I think you're analysis of the lyrics are overwrought. For me, you could have stopped at "stoner". These guys seem like unapologetic traditional psychedelics, The boomers they have digested are hallucinogenic. I think you're reaching to impose intellectual failings. This becomes clear when you juxtapose a Panda quote with your own writing and it sounds like Chomsky chomping on a frat boy.

    Now to the music. Since I can tell from some of your writing you are (at least) a golden age hip-hop fan, I'll use the on hand example of "It Ain't Hard To Tell", the fluidic closer to Nas' 1994 debut. Large Proffessor samples "Human Nature" by Michael Jackson, and here he has more than "blatantly jacked a central riff" from a "seminal" track from a seminal album of seminal albums. Thriller, as you may have heard recently, was released in 1983, and is the greatest selling album of all time.
    Anyone who likes sampled music has gotten used to the idea that jacking can be cool as fuck or heartbreakingly abusive, and it's all in the hands of the jacker. This can be illustrated by playing "It Ain't Hard to Tell" (cool as fuck) next to that billionaire barnyard bunk, Kid Rock's hit, "All Summer Long" (which, if you've never had to lay up and play the radio coming back from New York, blends "Sweet Home Alabama" with "Werewolf in London").
    I've been chewing on this recently and it's relation to comedy, which has a more visceral judgement paradigm: not laughing. The only difference between Carlos Mencia and, say, Dave Chappelle is that Mencia is not funny, right? This is clearly the reason he was called a racist when he started joking about Katrina. Do you really think Chappelle, or even a great white comedian, would be unable to land a joke about Katrina?
    I just think it's interesting the way humans get cagy and defensive about things they might actually be totally cool about, if they simply didn't think the product sucked. This is constantly the case in sample-based music. In a sense, you're always emptying the original piece of it's history and filling it with nature. To me, for the most part, I find that thrilling actually... Immortalizing in detritus, etc. You just need to pay off if you're gonna take something that's still breathing. For me, My Girls does that.... but I'm not a big house fan.... yet.

    Anyway wonderful article.

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