Wednesday, February 3, 2010

FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF: Gypsy Punk edition

I had a delicious sandwich the other day. Roast beef, provolone, pepperoncini, steak sauce & horseradish, grilled on whole grain bread. Awesome. It also got me thinking about things, and that's what I'm going to write about here.

You'll note that this is a new column. Why another column? Well, two reasons, inspired by a conversation I had with gentleman blogger Eriq Nelson at the grand Crappy Indie Blog karaoke party. He expressed a belief that sometimes you just have to be a dick- and I agree. I feel that I can explore that by making a column framed around my own personal snowclone. Second, he let me know that "Musical Etiquette" is coming back. I'll have three columns to his one, I hope that's enough to keep up. So without further ado,

"There are five stages of grief in this town, and they're all GYPSY PUNK MUSIC SUCKS."

You know, I was once asked in a discussion about the merits of 'Irish punk music' how precisely that genre might be defined. My response:

"None of the above."

By way of explanation, take a singer with an accent (real Irish or not), put him in front of a band with the pathetic hollowness of The Clash, add fiddles, then top it all off with incomprehensible lyrics about shenanigans and shires and a potentially offensive stereotypical obsession with alcohol. The result: fookin' shite, Jenny. A further result? If you really really want me to listen to an Irish punk band, then here they are:

At least they had good musical taste before they got famous:

Yes, I do not require reminding that taste is a subjective manner. My dislike of the Dropkick Murphys of the world isn't based on any laws of physics. It isn't kneejerk, though, and I've built a sort of rudimentary fire triangle of confirming how those bands give off a certain cloying insincerity.

1. Their members, when questioned on artistic/stylistic matters, will give responses that offer this basic statement: "We don't care about any of that stuff. We just want to rock/move people's booties/keep it real."

2. They are, in some fashion, trying very hard. This may involve vigorous performance, incredibly earnest writing, or clever gimmickry. Local band Floater, the only time I've ever seen them, gave a workmanlike and unremarkable show of psychedelic metal, which the crowd was ignoring while they waited for Living Colour to come out and play "Cult of Personality." It was only when they unleashed their clumsily ironic faux-Irish song "Ode to Danny Boy" that the crowd reacted. Woohoo! Yeah, guys! So funny! Fuck off.

3. This may be the trickiest leg to kick out. Deep down beneath any assertions or demonstrations of sincerity is the feeling that they really just don't mean it. The lines between parody/satire and failed parody/satire are blurry, but I believe that the unclouded human heart is able to detect them. A band may insist that they are vikings/Scumdogs from Flabquarv 7 here to destroy the earth with rock/metal, but if they have really embraced the fun and stupidity of that we don't care. Who are you going to give a dollar to, the filthy beggar with the sign that says "WIZARD NEEDS BEER BADLY", or the young healthy guy with spotless British Knights off ebay and a sign that says "HOMELESS KOREAN WAR VET PLEASE HELP GOD BLESS"?

It may seem like I'm wasting a lot of vitriol on everything BUT gypsy punk, but you have to put in hard work climbing a mountain before you get to the top. So what is gypsy punk, exactly? We'll be getting into some funky genre waters here, and we've certainly discussed the difficulty of that before. Maybe before we do, we should go right to the source.

This is Eugene Hutz, from the band Gogol Bordello. I tried to find the stupidest picture of this douchebag, but thanks to google image search that was like dipping into a 50 pound bag of rice and trying to find the riciest rice. RICE. If you delve at all into the gypsy punk thing, Hutz and his band immediately come up. So who is he, other than someone you don't want watching your kids or operating your reactor? Hutz is a Ukrainian born musician, and claims to be 1/4 Rom, for whatever that is worth. He also supports the cause of ending world antiziganism. Which is cool. It's also not apparent in his music- I didn't watch the video for "Start Wearing Purple" and immediately think, "Gee, I'd better do something about the plight of Travelling people worldwide!" Which leads me to my first objection- the racist name of the genre, which Hutz may or may not have coined.

Have you every been gypped? If you said either yes or no, you've just dealt with a racial slur. Mind you, it's one that has passed into common usage over five centuries, and even law in some places, but still. Many varieties of Travelling people claim to have emigrated from India long ago, and their dark skin at the time led ignorant Westerners to conflate them with Egyptians. (Where's the Egyptian punk music, that's what I want to know!) The Rom and other Travellers have been persecuted and objectified ever since, so it seems tasteless to name a genre of music after victims of attempted genocide. Yes, yes, N.W.A. I know. That's different.

So enough about its provenance. What is the music like? Well, bringing this back to the beginning of the blog, it's a bunch of goofy yammering with really amped up fiddle and accordion. Punk rock! Say it enough and it will be true, right? I will give Hutz and his Google Bordello this... they've got some energy, and there is definitely musical talent involved. It all seems to be kind of a schtick, though, a vehicle for the frontman's spastic clowning, which owes more to every hipster excess (mustache, a-shirts, vests, accessories) than it does to any recognizable style. In fact, take away Hutz's Waits-esque croaking, and all you've got is the Cirque de Soleil backing band.

Oh crap, what a great segue to the next part. Brother-in-arms to this gypsy punk nonsense is the modern cabaret music revival. Bridging them together is a common love of Bohemianism, and something else that I only recently put my finger on. Mugging. Constant, annoying mugging. In certain types of performance that might be expected- mime, for example. In music, especially this type of music where they are knowingly blending theatrics, it's just distracting. Here's a tip: you're already breaking the fourth wall by playing to the audience. You don't have to crawl inside their ass and leave a message in greasepaint.

Modern cabaret music is of course intertwined with the burlesque revival, a fact which might grant it some fertile ground, but does nothing to improve its aesthetic offenses. If you'd like to know what kind of music goes on in these places, Portland is crawling with them. Wikipedia even credits Stumptown as being one of the cities with a thriving burlesque scene. When I first got whiff of this phenomenon years ago, I asked someone who had been what these 'burlesque' performances consisted of. "Ugly girls not taking their clothes off," he replied. That may be harsh and unfair- and untrue, but it hints at part of the problem. The appeal of la vie Boheme, of the Orientalist den, the burlesque haus, is that we are able to transgress the values of a bygone era, and enjoy a simulacrum of what that libertinism must have been like. Unfortunately, doing it in this fashion is moving the target closer, removing the challenge of truly breaking taboo and also removing a great deal of the personal risk.

The ladies get to wear a gartery outfit, drop some innuendo, and by proxy access the whorish spirit of another age. The men get to prance about in face paint, breaking their usual reserve, or attempt with mannered dress to reclaim some fabled dashing masculinity. The performers and the audience have fun, everyone wins. Except for open-eyed critics.

What is the primary offence, then, of our Irish, gypsy, and cabaret 'punks'? Not long ago I attended a performance of the Yard Dogs troupe. They are a burlesque/variety musical act. I'd heard nothing but great stuff about them, but when it came down to it, a competent group of performers were simply rehashing the same old tropes and throwing them in your face. There were mustaches, vests, accordions, shitty hats, all the mugging you could ask for, and a style of music that never broke free of being derivative, and even at its most intense simply conjured up a coked-out Raymond Scott. A fundamental lack of originality, while not particular to this genre, is simply exacerbated by its outrageous trappings and superficial cleverness.

I will give a shout-out to a local boy- Noah Mickens, who as ringleader 'William Batty' of the Wanderlust Circus (openers at the Yard Dogs show) would seem to be a primary target for my bile in this piece, with his face paint, and vaudeville affectation. However, I believe that he may be a sterling example of how to do it right- Mickens puts his all into it, and that gives 'Batty' a gravity that belies his origins.

That's it for now- I think I'm done with the grieving process. As always I welcome your comments and conversation. Of course, I'm sure the haters will be out in droves on this one, but please at least do me the favor of reading the whole piece before you jump my shit. Good night!

Oh, and just so you don't think I forgot, here's some Egyptian punk music!


t wiggins said...

Jess, I feel you on alot of this. I don't like throw-back or revival kitchy music (can we call this act "squirrel nut zipping"?) so much. I think an artist can wear their influences on their sleeve without coming off as retro or old timey, but alot of this genre is silly... maybe thats the point.

The thing that confused me was when you referred to

" the pathetic hollowness of The Clash"

please explain! The Clash isn't a perfect band, but they are one of my favorites.

Amber Dawn said...

For this, all I can say is thank you, thank you so much.
though I do like the Clash. But I hate gypsy punk.

Jess Gulbranson said...

Squirrel Nut Zippers, I think my brain had blocked them out. You have chosen precisely the right word in 'kitsch,' and I stand by Adorno's definition that it is a "parody of catharsis." I would modify that to say that a 'mockery of catharsis,' as parody might imply something that actually worked. I also think Baudrillard was on the right track in theorizing that we resurrect these past eras and their arts in such a manner because we are attempting to demythologize the past.

Kid Tyger said...

#1 Why is that first picture not loading? Maybe just my computer.

#2 Thank you for mentioning Living Colour. I love them so much I actually own a comic book that details their ascent into fame put out by Revolutionary Comics in the late 80's. And yes I also own the Public Enemy/2Live Crew one.

#3 I ain't no Glamour Boy, I'm Fierce.

Jess Gulbranson said...

Ryan, I knew we were brothers. I'd love to see those comics. I have (somewhere)an AC/DC one, an Alice Cooper one, and I think Aerosmith. Yeah, Living Colour is one of the great unsung bands.

After you left karaoke Goldie and I were debating the merits of the various Jesus Christ Superstar casts, and I was telling her how badass Corey Glover was as Judas.

dancilhoney said...

You definitely have the "gift" of dealing with the complex issues involving the multi-faceted areas of loss. grieving steps

Jess Gulbranson said...

Way to ignore the rest of my article on aesthetics, and only focus on the framing joke. Nice strawman fallacy. Here's some grief for you: why don't you lick my straw butthole?