Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Bringing sexy back.

In the past few days, the Brit and I have been getting into discussions about The Sexy in music. He maintains that most American music is, ultimately, kind of boring because it lacks frisson, or maybe just friction--an ineffable thing that can make sloppy, rowdy music by a bunch of lower class British dudes co-opting American blues (for example) into something magical and transcendant, something better than it has any right to be. I maintain that he is looking for something different in rock music than many people are, and also that he brings a giant cultural weight to bear upon the way he listens to music. I can't argue with him that American bands (that he likes) such as, say, Pavement don't have that extra something: there's something sort of distant, disaffected about their music. Then on the other end of the spectrum you have punk bands whose music is exciting but is maybe more about an ethos, a lifestyle, than about The Sexy. Probably there's just too much irony and simultaneously too much earnestness floating around in America. Earnest music ain't sexy. Neither is ironic music. Both can be entertaining, though.

I dunno. I'm no cultural critic, but I have some ill-formed theories about the cultural superiority/inferiority complex that's endemic in England, and I think that has a lot to do with both how Brit bands make music and how Brit music lovers, or at least the one I know well, listen/s to it. In a culture that is admittedly uptight and still completely mired in the idea of class, music sort of has to be transgressive or epic in some way in order to mean anything. I do believe that this is where The Sexy comes from. It's always about the whole being more than the sum of its parts. Well, and frankly, that's just what makes a good band, no matter where you're from.

You probably shouldn't even try to debate me on this because my house of cards will fold. I totally don't know what I think about it, except that I proposed the other day that The Sexy in American music shows up much less in the straight-up rock world and much more in R & B (that nebulous blanket term for, basically, black music). I was thinking about that again in the car today, as I listened to the radio, and my idea was writ large when they played The Pixies followed by James Brown. I think I may have said out loud "now see, THAT'S what I'm talking about." Because James Brown was by all accounts a messed up, autocratic, misogynist freak and his music is sexy. It has The Sexy all over it, and that's in the voice and the personality and the element of danger that surge electrically through the music.

I did come up with Bruce Springsteen, when we were talking about American rock music, and the Brit admitted that it was a good call. I really don't think you can fault early Springsteen and I think his music has The Sexy, even though his music also has the country-roots vast landscape thing that usually compels the Brit not one iota (I think this is also cultural--I think landscape is huge in music. More on that another time. Maybe). One thing about The Sexy is that it has to be authentic. If it is adopted as a pose, then it doesn't count, even if the music is compelling. So it could probably go without saying that current pop music can't really enter this discussion. What about it, internets? Sexy American rock music of the present and past: discuss.

There has been a lot of post-Kaya discussion on the part of the children. I don't remember if I ever recounted this story, but when Henry was about two or maybe even a little younger, he got into a discussion with my dad about death. Who knows how it came up. My sister's family lives near a cemetery, so that may have inspired it. Basically, my dad was breaking it down for Henry: that bird will die, that flower will die, it's normal, it's part of life. Henry thought about it and then took my dad's face in his hands and said, "We will all die." The kid is deep.

So he gets it and has gotten it for a long while. "Why did Kaya have to die?" Jude wondered, matter-of-factly. "Well, because she got very old and things stopped working and her heart stopped and she stopped breathing," my dad told him. (Euthanasia is for a different Learning Moment.)

"Everything dies," my dad continued. "All living things die. It's part of life."

"I will not die," Jude announced.

"Yes you will," Henry countered. "What if everyone got old and died at the same time?" he asked, a little saucer-eyed.

"That would never happen," my dad assured him. "Babies are being born all the time."

"But what if it did," he said. This is just like Henry, to get philosophical and hypothetical. Jude, meanwhile, is like: not me, suckers.

"I will not die," Jude insisted.

"Jude," Henry said reasonably, "everything gets old and dies."

"I will not die," Jude maintained, deeming the entire idea bullshit.

This is all very consistent with their personalities.

I believe I had more to share with you, but look, it's 2:15 and I have to shower and go teach. It's another fabulous day. Oh, I know: My sister's Em's friend El Presidente has a blog, along with another friend of theirs. They take on such topics as Black Babies vs. White Babies, "Am I racist for being pretty sure that Barack Obama is magic? Because from where I'm sitting all signs point to he's magic," the crazy/beautiful as an aesthetic category, etc. You will laugh AND cry.


  1. I've been thinking about The Sexy in pop music all day. The only person I could come up with was Bonnie Raitt, but again she's using that whole blues thing.

    You're right; so many performers can capture the feelings of yearning, regret, love, etc, but sexy is another story.

  2. You're speaking my language, but I'm in a state of hungover exhaustion. I will return.

  3. Wendell, I was thinking of BR too--early BR, that is. She's got kind of the same thing going on as Springsteen. But I wouldn't necessarily call her a rock musician.

  4. I used to be way into LOUD music, mainly due to its sexiness factor: VOD, Tool, Deftones, RATM- somewhat related to the element of danger you mentioned- but more about their explosive passion and rowdiness. These days I'm more of a Dead head...but thems was good times, and I still resort to my American screamers when I need a lift.

  5. Steve Ray Vaughn? Super sexy. Bluesy too but most authentic rock is straight from the blues, no? Lenny Kravitz? Is he too pop-y? Maybe his music lacks Le Sexy, but he sure don't. Jim Morrison? Janis Joplin? Jimi?? "Tire tracks all across your back, I can-I can see you've had your fun. . . ." Are those too obvious?

  6. Lenny Kravitz himself is sexy, but I don't think his music really is. He seems like he's posing a little bit. Jim Morrison is kind of a given. And so is Hendrix, even more than Morrison in my opinion, because he was edgier. It's funny that most of the folks you mention are of the same era as most of the music the Brit fixates on--you know, all that British Invasion stuff. It's hard to come up with current rock music that fits the bill. Everything is either ironic or earnest now, like I said. Yeah Yeah Yeahs might be sexy, Jack White's projects are pretty sexy.

  7. Yea, after I thought about it a bit, I was stumped on current rock sexiness. Though I was going to mention Jack White today. But then again, it's not like I know much about newer stuff. As Nas says about hiphop, the same may be true of rock: It's dead. Rock: Dead.

  8. Trip hop is pretty sexy most of the time but in a totally different kind of way. What Justin Timberlake mentioned in your discussions? I mean, he's poppy & all, but his new album is kinda good as much as I kind of hate to admit it.


  9. The thing about JT (and almost all pop music and pop personalities) is that the sexiness is basically self-conscious. It's like a goal of the music to be sexy, and so there's nothing subtle or particularly authentic about it. It's like the difference between the Victoria's Secret catalogue and, I don't know, Frances McDormand in "Laurel Canyon." One is telling you: I AM SEXY. The other just is.

    I loved Justified minus the ballads (haven't listened to the latest, eek), but kind of because it was ridiculous and dance-y and posed booty music. Not because it evoked any real epic swells in me or anything.

    So I reiterate the challenge: current American rock and roll that has The Sexy.

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  11. What about Beck? Midnight Vultures is full of The Sexy.

  12. I will definitely give you Beck--Beck is in fact one of the Brit's favorites, and I dig him too, even if he is a Scientologist--but his Sexy is an arty, intellectual, aloof variety, not the carnal, visceral, id variety.

  13. Sexy and even The Sexy is fairly subjective, is it not? I will focus on "carnal" though and try to not mention early adolescent fantasies of Trent Reznor after listening to Pretty Hate Machine. That felt pretty carnal at the time . . .