Some Songs Considered #008: The Weeknd, The Yamasuki Singers, and The Killers
Welcome to Some Songs Considered, a column that recognizes they can’t all be zingers and truly appreciates the ones that are.
The Weeknd – “Can’t Feel My Face”
by Bryce Rudow
If you are a hip, sexually active individual between the ages of 23 and 33, there is a good chance you have had sex to The Weeknd. It’s practically a part of the 20-something indoctrination process to smoke a joint and fool around passionately to “High For This“.
But that sound, much like great sex, couldn’t last forever.
Even though there is a noticeable evolution in The Weeknd’s sound if you listen to The Trilogy straight-through, 2013’s follow-up Kiss Land cemented that Abel Tesfaye had a very specific sound# and that, like formulaic television, you didn’t have to experience it first-hand to ‘get it’. Even newer releases like the Prince-ish “Devil May Cry” and the recently-released single “The Hills” steer into his typical sound’s curve, giving more ammunition to anyone wishing to pigeonhole him as a one-trick pony.
Then, three days ago, “Can’t Feel My Face” got released, and now it’s a whole different story.
Tesfaye has been adamantly claiming for years that Michael Jackson was a musical idol of his, but apparently all it takes is adding super producer Max Martin (whom you might know via his work with N’Sync, The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, and Taylor Swift…) to give us the closest approximation of what the King of Pop might have been like in 2015. That bass line is pure butter too.
It takes a really hot pop jam to melt my cynical icy heart, but this is it.
Abel Tesfaye, crawl out of that sonic niche you’ve been living in, and welcome to pop superstardom.
The Yamasuki Singers – “Yama Yama”
by Charles Bramesco
(Loosens tie) Thanks for coming out tonight, everybody. (Dabs at beads of sweat on forehead with handkerchief) I’d like to talk to you today about cultural appropriation. (Takes desperate, futile sip from glass of water)
Put simply, cultural appropriation is defined as “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture.” But because nothing in the world of identity politics is simple and encyclopedias are written by white men, critical discussion necessitates a more specific operating definition.
When people on the internet argue about cultural appropriation, they’re usually displeased with a white person or group of people or white-run corporation for unduly claiming elements of a nonwhite culture — fashion, food, what have you — and repurposing it for their own benefit. Sometimes, it’s mercenary and calculated; H&M has drawn flak for marketing a tribal headdress in their stores. Sometimes, it’s cluelessness; Just as the first gentle snowfall marks the beginning of a new winter, scads of furious tweets over thoughtless girls arriving at Coachella clad in bindis and war bonnets heralds the official start of music festival season. But in all instances, it’s to be frowned upon. White people have profited off of stuff stolen from nonwhite people since time immemorial, but now it’s more insidious than ever.
Transposing the debate to the realm of art complicates matters, however.
Culture’s development would’ve ground to a halt centuries ago if not for the exchange of ideas and styles across cultures. John Ford’s all-American westerns helped Akira Kurosawa find his voice, the Beatles expanded their sonic palette after a revelatory sojourn to India, and electronic music aims to eliminate cultural barriers completely by blending sounds from all corners of the globe. A lively international flow of pop-culture is vital for the continued evolution of global culture, and yet, there’s still something troubling about it.
The Beatles example, in particular, has rankled a few armchair culture critics around the web. Some people have taken none too kindly to a quartet of cheery Europeans traipsing into the subcontinent, staying for a comfortable amount of time, and then jaunting back to England to imitate Ravi Shankar’s sitar-driven ragas. For a more recent instance, think back to the hullabaloo that ensued in the wake of Hannah Montana’s admission that she wanted “something urban, something that just sounds black” for her single “We Can’t Stop”. Shit, rock and roll was invented by black bands and then popularized by groups with the business sense to white it up and sell it to small-town listeners.
It’s a complex predicament with no easy solution. It’s easy to loudly and proudly announce that you’re boycotting Macklemore on culturally appropriative grounds, because Macklemore is terrible and that’s no great loss. But at the same time, it wouldn’t be right to give other artists a pass just because we happen to like their music.
Some figures make it easy on us by crafting a form of ethical cultural appropriation, in which the sampling of another culture comes from a place of earned respect and admiration. Amy Winehouse, for instance, used interviews to recount her girlhood raised on R&B and to profusely shout out her influences. Going back to the Beatles, George Harrison (brain behind the Beatles’ eastern-tinged psychedelic tracks) saved a lot of face by publicly advocating for Indian welfare, even going so far as to throw the legendary Concert for Bangladesh as a fundraiser for refugees.
All that being said, it still doesn’t resolve the main problem, and you bet your ass it predates the advent of online squabbling: what do we do when art we like is made by people we don’t?
Which brings us to this week’s Some Songs Considered selection, a case study in the tangled moralities of cultural appropriation.
For your persual: The year is 1971. A Belgian named Jean Kluger has already established a good working relationship with France’s own Daniel Vangarde.# After the success of a rendition of a Russian standard called “Casatschok”, the guys decide to try another jet-set experiment in imitation. They record Les Monde Fableux des Yamasuki, an album of Japanese-language pop songs from the fictitious Yamasuki singers. When the cult-classic disc was reissued in 2005, the liner notes described it as “A fuzzed-out educational multi-cultural psych-rock-opera from 1971. Proto-psychedelic hip-hop with overweight drum beats and basslines!”
It is, by anyone’s account, funky as hell. But is that enough to justify looking the other way as a pair of white guys jack wholesale swag from the Japanese musical tradition? Does their choice to hire an actual choir of Japanese schoolchildren and a black-belt in judo to contribute vocals make a difference? Is there any such thing as ethical consumption under late capitalism?
In order, no, yes, and who even knows anymore. It might create a little cognitive dissonance, but I like to think we’re all grown-up enough to be able to listen to music without drawing black-and-white absolutes about its moral character. Just stay mindful of the album’s complicated backstory, discuss the problematic implications of its global position, and hope that interest in this album might breed curiosity about homegrown J-pop. And remember the spirit in which the album was conceived in the first place; Le Monde was founded on the radical principle that dirty-sexy wah-wah guitar can produce sufficient funk to break down the cross-cultural divides that separate us. Admittedly, the chorus of “Yama Yama” lacks a functional understanding of the dark history of colonialism. But stick a Frenchman and a Japanese guy in the same room and put the record on, see what happens. They don’t understand one another’s words, but they both speak breakbeat.
The Killers – “Smile Like You Mean It”
by Julian Kimble
I’ve been listening to The Killers often as of late. I know, their oft-maligned, oft-imitated, sound was popular way back in the mid-2000s#, but their first two albums actually include a lot of enduring music. And because it’s the season of high school graduations, I’ve been thinking about youth quite frequently—specifically, how mine seems so distant. It also has me revisiting “Smile Like You Mean It,” one of the group’s best songs, and an ode to youth, its inevitable passing, and the moment of clarity that accompanies that acceptance.
Brandon Flowers’ of-age realization that “dreams aren’t what they used to be” is acknowledgement that adolescent desires fade over time, and the things you long for as an adult are more pragmatic. It seems obvious, Class of 2015, but when you assess the vast difference in your priorities in the 10 years between 18 and 28, you’ll be in awe. Everything is temporary.
Eventually, someone else will inhabit the house in which you were raised. The girl you’re with at the moment? You two will likely outgrow each other; no matter how sacred what you share seems, you will be replaced by someone else in the future. That’s why the refrain, “Smile like you mean it,” warns to seize the moment while you’re in it. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
Coping with aging is a continuous process, but it seems to get easier over the years. Youth is only wasted on the young because they’re unaware that the sand in life’s hourglass never stops moving. One day, that truth creeps up and slaps us all in the face.
Like what you read? Share it.
(That helps us.)
Love what you read? Patronize Bryce Rudow.
That helps us and the writer.
What is Patronizing? Learn more here.