Of all the impossible-to-recreate sounds made by the Beatles, George Harrison’s lead guitar might be the most elusive. Jayson Greene teases out its haunting essence with the help of a few Harrison acolytes, including his son Dhani.
By Jayson Greene , October 13, 2014
Recently, Dhani Harrison was rehearsing “Let It Down”, from All Things Must Pass, when a member of his band told him he was playing his own father’s song wrong. “I was doing my own solo, not the one in the song, and he couldn’t take it,” Dhani laughs. “And he was right! I was fudging the chords a bit. I sighed and said, ‘OK then, let’s go back and figure it out.’”
Of all the impossible-to-recreate sounds made by the Beatles—Ringo’s drum fills, Paul’s bass lines—George Harrison’s lead guitar might be the most elusive. Even his own son has spent most of his life struggling to grasp its essence. “For most of my early life, I tried not to learn my father’s music,” Dhani says dryly. He’s joking, at least partly: He has spent years preserving, protecting, and archiving his father’s legacy, and he knows every note, down to which guitar played it. In September, he oversaw the remastering and reissuing of Harrison’s first six solo records, which were recently released on Capitol as The Apple Years: 1968-1975.
So if you are looking for someone to explain the near-mystical quality of George Harrison’s guitar playing—or at least grapple poetically with its spirit—Dhani is your best bet. “My father once said to me, ‘I play the notes you never hear,’” he remembers. “He focused on touch and control partly because he never thought he was any good, really. He knew he was good at smaller things: not hitting any off notes, not making strings buzz, not playing anything that would jar you. ‘Everyone else has played all the other bullshit,’ he would say. ‘I just play what’s left.’”
I just play what’s left. There probably isn’t a more self-effacing way to describe it. But Harrison’s playing, both in the Beatles and in his solo work, has always sounded this way, like whatever resounding truth remained after all else was exhausted; it is an inner music. Like a chess master who stares motionless at the board while the pieces move in his mind, Harrison’s hardest work always happened before he began playing, as he painstakingly arranged and rearranged chord shapes: In her foreword to his memoir I, Me, Mine, Olivia Harrison fondly remembers her husband writing at home, one ear cocked to the side, endlessly working and reworking chord formations.
“He looked very hard for the notes that were most suggestive of the whole,” Dhani says, offering something close to a defining philosophy behind that rounded, softly glowing tone. There is something almost metaphysical about its loneliness. His lead guitar was never a “lead” in a traditional sense; it is just one voice in an imaginary choir. His lilting solo on “Something” is both foreground—you can sing every note of it—and background, as misty and distant as the orchestra behind it. You could never imagine reaching out and touching it.
Maybe it’s due to this remoteness that his style has quietly resisted cliché or aging out of fashion. Bands that would never cite rock-god contemporaries like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page regularly namecheck him as an influence. “His chords were sometimes more a cluster of notes that, to my ears, are beautifully dissonant,” says Weezer guitarist Brian Bell, who recently took part in a massive benefit concert called George Fest. Like all Harrison acolytes, Bell’s appreciation zooms in on granular moments. “The turnaround lick over the last chord in the chorus of the Beatles’ ‘Help’ functions on many levels,” he explains. “It’s such an innovative use of the open G and B strings ringing out, while a minor 3rd shape chromatically descends below it.”
“He mixed playing chords and single-note runs similar to a jazz player,” agrees Matt Mondanile, guitarist for Real Estate. Mondanile is a similarly unshowy player, someone who seems to convey the meaning of every note he plays so completely that you occasionally forget to notice him. He hones in on the way Harrison’s lead lines wind around lead vocals. “I do that all the time,” he says. “On ‘Fake Blues’, ‘Beach Comber’, ‘Green Aisles’—basically any time an arpeggio floats around the melody, I’m playing Harrison,” he laughs.
When I ask Dhani which of his father’s guitar lines linger with him today, he points instantly to the opening of “I’d Have You Anytime” from All Things Must Pass. (“I think that’s the Les Paul from ‘Gently Weeps’,” he muses.) Talking about the part, he uses the word “riff,” but it sits wrong—a “riff” is generally flashy, hard-angled, designed to snag your attention. The line on “I’d Have You Anytime”, with its hesitant dips and quavers and sudden, weightless leaps, rarely rises above a murmur. Like a lot of Harrison’s most lyrical playing, it feels more like a product of breath than hands.
This is not an accident. “When my dad was growing up, a lot of the pop music he loved had all these horn parts—Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis,” notes Dhani. “A lot of the great solos that he heard growing up were actually played on horns, and you can hear some of that turn up in his playing. As he got better and better, you started to hear less fret noise, and there was almost this laser-light quality to his sound—the pick disappeared.”
It is this liquid quality that is hardest to pinpoint. The tone evokes a zither, a clarinet—something more delicate, nuanced, and lyrical than an electric guitar. His style was so careful it was nearly self-annihilating—appropriate for someone so concerned with Eastern concepts of self. He was, after all, the Beatle who famously sat with Ravi Shankar and attempted to master the sitar, and although he failed to become a professional (or even passable) player—”I should have started at least  years earlier,” he lamented in I, Me, Mine—the study led him to new possibilities on the guitar neck. The precise string-bending on “My Sweet Lord”—that famous swan-necked swoop of a melody—would have been impossible if he hadn’t sat for three years, trying to master the “diri diri da ra da” of Shankar’s exercises. “As far as writing strange melodies and also rhythmically it was the best assistance I could have had,” he wrote.
I ask Dhani how he knows, within seconds, if a player has been directly influenced by his father. “There’s two ways,” he answers. “Not to sound like an asshole, but there’s the cheap, easy imitation, and then there’s the person who is genuinely influenced. Anyone can try and replicate that slide sound; I’ve heard it in records before and just thought, ‘God, we have to sue those guys.’ But then you’ll hear someone like Blake Mills, or—and this is a bit of an off-the-wall one—Josh Homme. I don’t know if he’d be offended by my saying that”—he laughs—“but I mean it as the highest compliment.”
Ultimately, it is a kind of restraint, a way of seeing, that distinguishes Harrison’s playing. His ear was drawn to the smallest possible units of motion, his “quiet Beatle” stillness allowing for a heightened form of listening. “I’m really quite simple,” Harrison told Derek Taylor in I, Me, Mine. “I plant flowers and watch them grow…I stay at home and watch the river flow.” He was mocked, sometimes, for the self-seriousness of these statements, but this attention radiates from the center of his music. “It’s not suppression, it’s just discipline,” says Dhani. “He’s the reason no one can really cover the Beatles faithfully. The songs and the harmonies are one thing, and you can kind of work those out, but at some point there’s going to be a George Harrison solo, and that solo is usually perfect. So what do you do? If you start changing it, thinking you’re going to do something better, it’s not going to work out for you. It’s hard to go in and start replacing things in those songs, because that’s the way that they are.”
- The iPod, like the Walkman cassette player before it, allows us to listen to our music wherever we want. Previously, recording technology had unlinked music from the concert hall, the café, and the saloon, but now music can always be carried with us. Michael Bull, who has written frequently about the impact of the Walkman and the iPod, points out that we often use devices to ‘aestheticize urban space.’ We carry our own soundtrack with us wherever we go, and the world around us is overlaid with our music. Our whole life becomes a movie, and we can alter the score for it over and over again: one minute it’s a tragedy, and the next it’s an action film. Energetic, dreamy, or ominous and dark: everyone has their own private movie going on in their heads, and no two are the same….Theodor Adorno… called this situation ‘accompanied solitude,’ a situation where we might be alone, but we have the ability via music to create the illusion that we are not.
A week ago today I sat together with you outside the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s library, a teacher among other teachers, a university member beside students, 13,000 strong. The weeks before had felt quiet: at the three previous all-student meetings around the Goddess of Democracy statue, you listened respectfully to guest speakers—past student union presidents, a student who had been arrested on July 1, Leung “Longhair” Kwok-hung from the League of Social Democrats. There were not many of you, but you raised your hands and made gentle suggestions about what time last Monday’s rally should start, about how you could be photographed studying outside of class, about making public art by folding paper stars.
So I was surprised when I arrived at the campus plaza on Monday. Under a relentless late summer sun, you filled the entire campus mall. On the impromptu stage, white banners read, “Student Boycott, Take a Stand!” and “Be the master of Hong Kong’s future!” Throughout the afternoon a “Democracy Wall” rose at the far end of the crowd; some of the messages you attached to it simply gave support for the strike and Hong Kong’s democracy, some of you filled poster-boards to the brim with righteous indignation: “The National People’s Congress has seized our right to universal suffrage…you are not the emperor!” You bore brightly-colored flags that bobbed in the sunlight, representing your universities, your departments. The atmosphere was ebullient. You cheered and waved when a photography drone passed overhead. You chanted slogans with yellow ribbons tied around your wrists. You sang songs with your arms in the air.
I was and am inspired, most of all by your words. To begin the student rally, Alex Chow and Lester Shum declared that you were all there as Hong Kongers, as the future of Hong Kong society. They affirmed that Hong Kong society had to be awakened, that Hong Kong must be the master of its own future. Shum explicitly described Hong Kong’s present as colonialism, ruled from the ground by its tycoons and from afar by the Communist Party. Today, he argued, you take back Hong Kong’s future. Chow’s answer to the idea that the student protest has no hope: “It is not because we hope that we strive, it is only through striving do we glimpse hope.”
I am inspired by the way you understand your role in society. After Chow and Shum’s speeches, a group of you stepped forward to explain why you have joined the movement. You told us that you study social work, you described extreme inequality in Hong Kong and people living in human cages, and you said that you defend social justice. You explained that you were studying to be a lawyer, and you outlined the idea of the rule of law. You said that you were going to be a doctor, and you asked what diseases plague Hong Kong. Your job is to come to the rescue, you said, and your job is to cure. Your words echoed down the length of the plaza and reflected the writing on the “Democracy Wall” of the medical sciences building, “Medicine is fundamentally a revolution: above, it heals the nation, among us it heals people, below, it heals the illness.”
I am inspired by your ability to teach yourself, as you organized activities following the rally and moved to a week-long boycott in Tamar Park. I went to the teach-in and saw your mini-university and watched you streaming between the simultaneous lectures. You had come of your own accord. You were taking assiduous notes. You broke into groups and talked about the meaning of direct action, of civil disobedience, of protest. You wrote to tell me how the boycott made you understand society more deeply, and I smiled when you confessed that it was so far a superficial understanding, that you would have to read more books to combine theory with practice. What teacher would not be filled with joy to watch his students seize learning so independently, so concretely, and with such passion? If we shed tears at this moment it was because we saw how you did not need us anymore, you could learn and act on your own.
I am inspired that you are making the student boycott your own. Earlier I had written that you were inspired by May Fourth and the awakening of social consciousness. But observing you I have come to realize that this interpretation is far too simplistic, that initial reportage did not give you enough credit for both adaptation and innovation. Some have invoked May Fourth, and some—like Longhair when he spoke to you—lectured on Gandhi and Martin Luther King. No doubt their examples have inspired you. But reading the Chinese University boycott magazines and your reportage in Ming Pao, I see that your examples are recent and cosmopolitan. You are looking to 1968 in Paris, the 2011 Chilean student boycott, and 2012 in Quebec. You self-consciously organized the preceding campus meetings to follow Quebec, to be as democratic as possible, to give each of your classmates ownership. What I thought had been naïveté was a careful imitation of a model you had identified to be successful. So, though elements of your protests may have historical roots, I salute you for seeking a new model for Hong Kong, one which—your leadership tells us—will influence student movements to come.
But as I listened to you, I was and am fearful. During the rally on Monday my eyes followed one of you, my own student, as he spoke on the stage. Was it less than two years ago that he was one of the silent ones in class? When had he grown so tall, so articulate? And where had that beard come from? As I watched you tremble with the rightness of your words, with the fury of the wronged—when you shouted that you would make the Chinese state come to its knees—something clutched my heart with fear. At that moment I suddenly felt old, in a way that wrinkles and grey hair have not chilled me. When I was young, I too had many dreams.
I am afraid for you, and as I told my friends on Saturday it is less a fear for your arrest, or bodily injury—although events since Sunday have shown that perhaps I should fear this too. More than this, I am afraid of what happens if and when the world you hope to create does not come to be. When one of you wrote to say that your parents laugh at your foolishness, or when you speak of your helplessness in the face of society’s indifference, I am afraid of your losing your dreams. The self that swelled with pride to see you organize a teach-in is the same me that does not want to see your heart break. You are young, you have barely even been to China—except maybe with your parents on a package tour, or with me last summer—and it is too early for you to be old.
I wish it could be otherwise, and perhaps the outpouring of public outrage and support since Sunday will lead to what we both hope for. But I am fearful when I see the indifference that you have already experienced, when a subway car playing footage of handcuffed students does not cause anyone to look up from their mobile phones. I was stricken when, on Sunday night when tear gas caught me blocks away from the protest, I looked up with stinging eyes to see the swarms of people glassed inside the Apple Store, furiously shopping. If these scenes make me despair, and I’m not even a Hong Kong citizen or a permanent resident, what can it mean for you? I am afraid for your loss of faith. On Saturday, a local friend who is a parent and a teacher wept as she wondered aloud why it is that the students are leading and where the grown-ups are. And I cry with her because I don’t know what to do either. But I also wonder if the people you describe as unfeeling, if the parents you describe as too self-interested, if they too weep in the dark.
Against my fear, I see that you hope, so I hope for you as well. I am hopeful that through this you will learn better how to teach yourself and teach each other. You want to raise everyone’s consciousness, including your own. You write to me that the boycott will lead your classmates to “break out of the ordinary style of learning, it will cultivate a platform for political consciousness, and it will give us first-hand knowledge of what it is like to face-off against the violence of political power.” This has turned out to be all too true; paper stars have been replaced by goggles, face masks, and umbrellas.
I hope that through this you will better understand Hong Kong society, even if it reveals many dark sides. I see that you are disappointed that not all students are on the boycott, but you join anyway. I know that you realize that there are barriers between the enthusiasm of the student leadership and the participation of the average student. You are heady with the idea that the student movement has set the wheels of Occupy Central into motion, but you are clear-headed enough to know that divergence among various leaderships must be carefully negotiated. Even now, as students dressed in black stream towards University Station and middle-aged women hold up signs by the entrance condemning police violence, you are uncertain of a future course. You have just come to my office to confess that the students are exhausted, that you do not know how much more they can take.
If my fears lie in seeing you as still too young, my hopes rest in your being able to stand on your own. In the past weeks you have taught me a great deal, and I know that you are not naive. Some of you openly state that boycotting classes won’t bring true universal suffrage. Some of you maintain that beyond the horizon of these weeks, resistance may one day bring Hong Kong an electoral system that can truly serve the people. In the meantime, my hope is one that you have expressed, that you will “stop for a moment and think about what [you] can do for Hong Kong,” that this experience will enliven how you pursue your studies and your future. Not all of you must be activists, but I hope that you will be active, that the flame you carry today will illuminate your way, in darkness and in light.
Meredith Graves (Perfect Pussy) Talks Andrew W.K., Lana Del Rey and Authenticity at Basilica Soundscape 2014
This weekend at the amazing Basilica Soundscape festival in Hudson, New York, Perfect Pussy singer Meredith Graves gave a spoken word piece that just might have become a manifesto. People wept, people laughed, people cheered, the New York Times enthused and one of Soundscape’s organizers suggested that Graves run for president. It was the talk of the whole festival and no one who saw it will ever forget it. At the Talkhouse, we figured you might want to read what all the excitement was about. Here is Graves’ piece, in its entirety. We invite your thoughtful comments.
— The editors of the Talkhouse
“If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.”
— Mother Theresa
I am at the baggage carousel of Katowice International Airport in Poland, contemplating the unshaven neck of Andrew W.K.’s hype man as he watches peoples’ slowly looping belongings. He looks like guys I’ve known who work in kitchens, or maybe a car mechanic cleaned up for a funeral. The night before, we were in London in a warehouse meant to serve as a green room for 20 bands, with food and drinks set out on long, labeled tables. My bandmates examined with scientific precision the table set for Andrew W.K. and his crew, noting with awe everything that was different between his table and ours. Unsurprisingly, I was off in a corner trying to get drunk as fast as possible, so I can’t remember anything specific they ate or stole.
They were really excited, though — the boys, unlike me, were obsessed with the myths. He sings about getting wasted but he’s sober! He’s married to a bodybuilder, he had a TV show and the producers thought it would be zany to have him live in a sorority house for a weekend; the sisters found him to be odd but generally alright. They were shocked when they found out I didn’t know anything about him. “You’ll just have to see for yourself,” they said, “it’s really hard to explain.”
Andrew W.K.’s first album came out when I was 14; there he was on the cover, blood from his forehead and nose covering his face and running into his mouth. There were boys I knew back then who loved that album — only boys — and two of them I remember very well, a rude, round nerd and a mama’s boy who, according to popular myth — started by me — was a premature ejaculator. They were best friends and they lived in my neighborhood, and they liked picking on me enough to keep me around. They were the only “indie-rock” boys in our small rural high school, obsessed with Death Cab and the Get Up Kids, trying to be a little more like Seth Cohen every day. The squat nerd with the bald spots and his shitty little sister was an ardent supporter of Andrew W.K., obsessed really, but maintained that he only liked it ironically. Some of the other boys I knew were more sincere in their love, but boys — all of them.
Unfortunately, I’ve met more of those boys since then. They’re the pretentious boys who, when they meet a girl who likes metal, only find it fair to insist she recite the Slayer discography in reverse chronological order. If she likes comic books, she has to know every character’s origin stories as well as subsequent changes and how they correspond to different decades and illustrators. The same boys who, a year later, when I was 15 years old, still on dial-up and not yet part of the world, scoffed when they found out I had never heard of a website called Pitchfork. They were 18 and I was just young and stupid, I clearly wasn’t a real music fan. The ridicule and questioning were constant.
Women are called upon every day to prove our right to participate in music on the basis of our authenticity — or perceived lack thereof. Our credentials are constantly being checked — you say you like a band you’ve only heard a couple of times? Prepare to answer which guitarist played on a specific record and what year he left the band. But don’t admit you haven’t heard them, either, because they’ll accuse you of only saying you like that genre to look cool. Then they’ll ask you if you’ve ever heard of about five more bands, just to prove that you really know nothing. This happens so often that it feels like dudes meet in secret to work on a regimented series of tests they can use to determine whether or not we deserve to be here. The “fake geek girl” test is one, door guys stopping female musicians carrying gear to make sure they’re actually in the band and not just somebody’s girlfriend is another. Big rock magazines that interview male musicians about gear and female musicians about sexual harassment — that’s up there too.
And even if you pass all their tests, you’re probably just a gimmick, there so the guys in your band seem progressive, or because you’re cute, or they couldn’t find anybody else. Worst of all, they might compliment you, and tell you that you’re good — for a girl. Regardless, you’re never considered “real,” you’ll never meet their idea of what a real musician or real music fan should be, because the standard is male.
So Andrew W.K. was on our flight to Poland and the guys in my band were unbelievably excited. But we couldn’t really see him because he was in first class and we were in the back of economy, surrounded by screaming children. At Immigration, one of our guys was trying to make everybody laugh by loudly announcing “Where’s Andy? Did they rush him to the front of the line?” and I crimsoned and my shoulders shrank up to my ears in that helpless gesture of secondhand embarrassment because I had seen him, not five places behind us, patiently waiting in the back of the line. I knew he’d heard them and I live in fear of doing anything that others could perceive as rude — rudeness is high up on the list of things “young ladies don’t do,” the opposite of “boys will be boys.” I pretended to casually look around, and I’m awkward so I was basically staring straight at him, expecting to meet the offended eyes of the King of Partying himself.
But he was staring off in space. His NYPD ball cap had made a thick dent in his long hair; he’d obviously been napping on the plane. His gray sweatpants were cut off at the knees and frayed over a hundred washes. He was wearing the sort of wraparound shades you see on old ladies at the bus stop, those Robocop-looking visor shits designed to go over your regular glasses.
I feel weird about eating these days or leaving the house, or existing in a material form at all, because having a body that talks too much and sweats and makes mistakes is exhausting, and here’s this dude just standing around with dented hair and a Napalm Death shirt over sweatpants shorts and it’s almost as if the whole world isn’t scrutinizing what’s in his cart at the grocery store, what he looks like without makeup on, how his gender affects his authenticity as a performer. I was looking straight at this spaced out, sweet-faced, charming guy, just standing there, calm and existing.
It didn’t make sense at first. The only people I’d known who liked his music — which at that point I had never heard and knew nothing about — were those sensitive indie boys who idolized Andrew W.K. because they believed him to be the comically outsized personification of the base, dudely desires they claimed they had somehow managed to suppress. Guys who think they deserve sexual favors because they’ve read The Catcher in the Rye. Guys who cuff the sleeves of their cardigans in case they spill while playing Edward 40-Hands. Guys who bitch incessantly that they can’t meet a girl who’s “actually into music.” To them, Andrew W.K. represented the parts of masculinity from which they had distanced themselves, that they could now appreciate “ironically.” But the second you see the guy, it’s obvious that he’s nothing like the image they’d built up of him. I was perplexed and vowed to investigate.
Which brings us forward a few hours to 4:00 PM on a 95 degree day in Katowice, as Andrew W.K. is sprinting past me in a skintight white shirt and jeans onto a giant festival stage illuminated with rainbow strobe lights and heavy with fake fog. His drum machine is so loud and determined and violently annoying that it makes Big Black look like a high school AV club meeting. His hype man was running laps around him, all for the amusement of maybe a thousand teenagers who were going absolutely ballistic. Every single song started with an extended, Rachmaninoff-esque classical piano introduction that would then sharply and jarringly increase in tempo the second he launched into the actual song, all of which were odes to partying and getting wasted. He leapt into the air and headbanged to every single song, hair in his eyes, while bashing out these meticulous five-finger chords with the skill and determination of Jerry Lee Lewis.
He addressed the audience directly and reminded them, “We are not musicians — this is our show, we are performers!” I wrote that one down to use later. It started to pour rain. He played a New Year’s Eve-themed song that began with him making the audience count down from 100 before screaming “Happy New Year!” It was August 2nd. He ran through an uncomfortable rap song, doing synchronized choreography with his hype man, and then it was over. He had played for an hour straight.
As they finished their performance and came running off stage, his face instantly deflated and went back to that quiet, contemplative look I’d seen in the airport. One of my bandmates was grinning ear to ear, as amazed as I was at what he had seen, and stuck out his hand for a high five. And Andrew, who probably recognized him as the rude guy from the airport, blew him off completely.
I was possessed. I was in love! It was the most intense performance I had ever seen! That night I holed up in my little hotel room and read everything I could find. Here I had thought this guy was the patron saint of butt metal and frat parties, whose genuine positivity and desire to shut off brains in the name of fun had been co-opted by pretentious music snobs who were basically making fun of him — and here I find that he’s a classical, university-trained pianist who began studying at the age of five. He spent his adolescence playing noise and experimental music, and later played in Current 93 and the Boredoms. He was a motivational speaker at a Brony convention, lecturing about positivity and the good, healthy community surrounding a creepy, reprehensible and disgusting fandom known for appropriating and sexualizing a cartoon made for little girls. He’d had multiple TV shows, written advice columns in international newspapers — there’s nothing this guy hadn’t done, and he wasn’t a moron, he was really talented and probably a genius.
But the facts still weren’t lining up! I couldn’t find a logical bridge between the happy guy I was reading about — the same guy I’d seen on stage, the guy who had accomplished all these incredible and strange things — and the mellow, almost morose guy I saw in the airport.
Some people went totally nuts when it came out that Lana Del Rey was at least partially an industry construct. After surviving teenage alcohol dependency and moving to a trailer park in Jersey to record a first album that by all accounts bombed, she reinvented herself by a process that seemed to combine the two overarching themes in her life: her obvious, deep sadness and her part of the collective experience of being sexualized as a young woman. And when it worked — good for her, she put in many years of hard work! — she immediately became the victim of targeted attacks and constant negative commentary about her authenticity as a performer. This woman, who really does tour and write songs and suffer scrutiny, is written off as a fake. But never mind her anxiety-ridden early television appearances, people came at her for possibly having gotten lip injections. It was like Jezebel and the dogs — she started singing exclusively in her lower register because she felt it would help people take her more seriously, dyed her hair darker, and used a sexier stage name, and suddenly there were people trying actively to ruin her career.
Tavi Gevinson put it brilliantly when she said that Lana Del Rey “has many different qualities that women in our culture aren’t allowed to be, all at once, so people are trying to find the inauthentic one.” Early on, when Del Rey was asked if she was enjoying her new success despite all the backlash, she said, “I never felt any of the enjoyment. It was all bad, all of it.”
Which is why I was shocked when I found out that years ago, Andrew W.K. held a public press conference after some bizarre legal trouble, later attributed to a blackmail-driven spat with a former friend and producer, where he announced that it was time to admit the Andrew W.K. persona was a fake character invented by him, his lawyer-professor father, and a record label. The entire thing was a cleverly planned piece of living theater that was meant to seem very real, but the ruse had gotten too large and complicated to maintain. He wasn’t even the first person cast in the “role” of Andrew W.K. But unlike Lana Del Rey, he is granted not only leeway, but an entirely new cultural importance.
I have read a dozen websites dedicated to exposing Andrew W.K. as an innocent pawn of the Masons or the Illuminati, calling him the kidnapped victim of a decade-long government mind control plot. There are semi-scholarly articles debating whether the man, the persona or the music is the real “art” of the Andrew W.K. “concept piece.” Fans gather on forums to compare pictures from shows in different countries, trying to determine if it’s the same “Andrew” on stage every night.
It is twisted that people only seemed to love the idea of Andrew W.K. more after the truth came out. The truth is so interesting! He’s fearless, talented, he has a dark theoretical and critical mind. He’s on television with Glenn Beck talking about being afraid of abortion. But it was transformation into a party dude at the hands of the music industry that made people pay attention to him. Meanwhile he’s up there with Ian Svenonius at the Guggenheim talking about how his early experiences exploring the interstices between “pure music” and “unwanted sound” have shaped his intentionality in the “Andrew W.K. presentation.” The kids in Katowice were there to have fun and get wasted. It’s Harmony Korine playing dumb for Letterman back in the ’90s, over and over and over again. In a way, everybody loses. It’s like nobody was listening when he himself told them at point-blank range that he isn’t real.
But when a female musician is in any way fake, she’s denied creative agency, written off as uninventive and talentless. Beyoncé is accused of lip-synching, even when she isn’t. Music rags run articles exposing pop stars’ real names, highlighting Lorde, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus. But being that these are the most successful female artists in the world, one has to assume that their fakeness — or, as we should be calling it, “reinvention” — is necessary for women to succeed in the music industry. It’s the basic principle of survival, period: adapt and evolve, or die. And of the women I listed above, look at what they’ve done that gets them called fake: taking on more seductive names and more assertive personas, getting breast and butt lifts and lip fillers and wearing makeup, wearing more elaborate, sexy, sometimes borderline-fetish costumes — everything that men claim they want out of women! But no, that’s not good enough — those qualities have to be both present and completely natural in order for spectators to be satisfied.
Those spectators being, in many cases, the party-hard, ham-headed, get-wasted dorks who are willing to stand out in the rain to count backwards from 100 with a man whose entire career is built around tricking those morons into thinking he’s one of them.
What then for Andrew — not Andrew W.K. but Andrew, the person, who confuses the hell out of me, who I’ll probably never be lucky enough to see again and who, if he ever finds out about this essay, will probably file for a restraining order — who seemingly receives nothing but support for being a complete fake? As talented a musician as I’ve ever seen and ridiculously smart, but who must be as affected by the pressures of maintaining this persona as any other performer? If he permanently gave up the code-switching and explored the space between the keg party and the Guggenheim, if he decided to perform as himself? This is one of those rare occasions when I will whip out a line I usually loathe, that “feminism is for men, too” — but look at this double standard of gender and authenticity through the lens of our culture and it all makes sense.
And what’s more, it’s sad — Andrew W.K. the persona might be the ultimate wicker man for dudes of my generation who were raised, as all men are, to repress their feelings. Not wanting to become their fathers, who worked their way through the ’70s and ’80s when men were still adjusting to workplace equality and the elimination of the ’50s patriarch role, an identity crisis that often resolved itself in heavy drinking, they internalized that aimless masculine aggression and sadness — but in the navel-gazing ’90s and 2000s, backed by capitalism and the assembly line homogeneity of music, culture, even food, they had no option but to make that crazed, bottomless feeling ironic, make it about loud, repetitive, boring music, partying hard, and insisting that you’re having fun — all a convenient excuse for the ultimate cure for confronting your bleak feelings, “getting wasted.” And Christ, they would rather attribute it to an Illuminati kidnapping plot than take responsibility for their actions.
After a month of thinking about the bizarre truth inherent here — that real women with fake names are somehow considered exponentially less authentic than completely fake men harboring a real, hidden sadness — I’ve come to one conclusion; that the cult of personality surrounding artists exists because of an unfeeling world that loves nothing more than breaking sensitive, talented people. The oppressive systems that surround us have forced us to assume personas like castles have moats — they can’t protect you forever but they might work for a little while to keep the bad guys from coming in. That’s not safe or good for human hearts, regardless of their respective privileges in regard to class or gender.
I’m reminded of another artist who suffered the pressures of maintaining a public persona that wasn’t at all indicative of his inner struggle: the late Robin Williams, who used to tell a sad joke about this, where a man goes to the doctor and begs, “Please help me, doctor, everything is meaningless and I have nothing to live for. What should I do?” Doctor says, “The cure is simple. Go and see the great clown Pagliacci, in town for one night only. He can make anyone happy.” His face falls, the man cries out, “Doctor, I am Pagliacci.”
By Rob Mitchum; September 12, 2014
Time was, the recipe for a superstar artist to create a Big Event Album was well known—a few teaser ads in the music mags, a lead single for radio, some late-night talk show appearances, then sit back and watch the fans line up at the record store on release day. But now that basically every entity in that sentence has been culturally marginalized, and the propeller churn of social media refuses to tolerate slow-burn marketing, the best—and, perhaps, only—way to get everyone talking about your record at once is to release it with no warning. U2 being U2, they’ve taken that strategy one step over the line into indisputably queasy territory, aligning with their old friends Apple to insert their new album, Songs of Innocence, into all of our libraries without consent. By updating the old Columbia House Record Club scam to the digital age, U2 and their Cupertino buddies have created a new avenue of opt-out cultural transmission, removing even the miniscule effort it takes to go to a website and click “Download.”
That U2 would willingly play corporate house band at a watch announcement to achieve this rollout in 2014 surprises exactly nobody; the album release was even framed by Bono himself as the 10th-anniversary celebration of a commercial. But the insistent mode of distribution says a lot about the band’s addiction to attention in their 38th year. “Part of the DNA of this band has always been the desire to get our music to as many people as possible,” Bono wrote, and after the commercial squib of 2009’s gloomy No Line on the Horizon, everything about Songs of Innocence seems desperate to be the global, cultural “experience” fix U2 needs to survive, even if it means giving away the album for “free.”
Accordingly, the music itself aims for a one-size-fits-all, vaguely inspirational tone, with a lean approach to details despite the press kit assertion that it’s all “very, very personal.” So a song about Bono meeting his wife is given the non-committal title of “Song for Someone”, and a song called “The Troubles” isn’t a callback to the prolonged Northern Ireland conflict that inspired their first great song, but a bunch of self-pitying platitudes (which uses guest Lykke Li to mimic adult-contempo Duran Duran hit “Come Undone”). Even Bono’s opening love letter to Joey Ramone is only given specificity by the title’s parenthetical, a generic “last night a [fill-in-the-blank] changed my life” tale that could be adapted to the idol of your choosing. It’s all emotional content left intentionally formless, vaingloriously hoping to fit around the experiences of millions.
Songs of Innocence also continues a decade-long trend of U2 showing little interest in re-examining themselves as a band or as pop stars, the approach that sustained them artistically throughout the ’90s. Despite jettisoning their Eno/Lanois/Lillywhite comfort zone in favor of Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, and a host of other moderately intriguing producers, Songs of Innocence is perhaps the album where U2 most self-consciously plays itself—or more distressingly, risk causing a temporal paradox by swiping moves from mantle-carriers Arcade Fire and Coldplay, akin to time traveling to the future and sleeping with your own grandchild.
A few promisingly weird moments, such as the eerily synthetic Beach Boys chant at the start of “California (There Is No End to Love)” or the breathy rhythms of “Raised By Wolves”, are quickly diluted by stock verse/chorus structures. The watery disco-punk beats of “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” and “Volcano” are thin gruel for a band that once seemed aware of current pop trends, however ill-advised the attempts were to engage with them. Only “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” manages to feel fresh from start to finish, with burbling synths and pillowy strings occasionally disrupted by the Edge at his fuzziest-sounding. Elsewhere, there seems to be barely any resistance to the gravity of doing what a U2 song is supposed to do and little else.
That gravity has a name, and it’s four letters long, and at this point even those letters are wearing sunglasses. The two brief moments where Bono drops his global-rock-ambassador persona—the deranged, filtered first note of the “Raised by Wolves” chorus, the brief return of the “Lemon” falsetto on “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”—are jarring enough to expose just how overblown his crooning is on Songs of Innocence. While the album’s liner notes contain a moving, train-of-thought reflection on a childhood made up of witnessing car bombings and sneaking into Ramones shows, almost none of that insight makes it into the actual songs, which are a celebration of self-absorption: “You are rock and roll” quickly amended to “You and I are rock and roll.”
Perhaps the upcoming companion album, inevitably named Songs of Experience, will contain all the darker, cynical stuff from these sessions. Regardless, U2 have already squandered any remaining integrity to invent this needy, invasive breed of the Big Event Album, an Album that lacks any kind of artistic statement to deter from the overwhelming Brandiness. Where Beyoncé used her iTunes sneak attack late last year to make a bold pop proclamation of sexuality and feminism, U2 have used an even more audacious release platform to wave their arms and simply say, “Hey! Everybody! We’re still here!” Bono may have self-deprecatingly described Songs of Innocence as “the blood, sweat and tears of some Irish guys…in your junk mail,” but it’s not even that interesting—it’s just a blank message.
'She's Lost Control' was about a girl with epilepsy – an affliction Ian Curtis shared, of course – who used to come into the Job Centre where Curtis worked. “One day she just didn't come in anymore,” said Bernard Sumner. “[Ian] assumed that she'd found a job, but found out later that she'd had a fit and died.”
joe price on march 31, 2014
Yung Lean is a name you’ve probably heard about in passing, possibly as a joke. You might have chosen to simply ignore. It’s easy to brush off his surreal lyricism, lazy flow, and broken English as a celebration of Lil B’s utterly bizarre “based world” and not much else. But Lean’s appeal is deeper than that. Last week I had the chance to catch Yung Lean performing one of his first UK shows at Birthdays in London, and it was perhaps one the strangest live experiences of my life.
The show was sold out, and if you’ve been keeping up with his YouTube views and Twitter followers (which include Diplo and Ellie Goulding), this isn’t a surprise. I arrived at the venue two hours before the show started, so I managed to see everyone arrive, one by one. Within minutes of setting foot inside Birthdays, I noticed a t-shirt with Japanese text on it. It was Yung Lean casually walking around the venue. As more and more fans came in, I noticed a trend. The number of people in the room wearing bucket hats was steadily increasing, and it was somewhat alarming. After a brief episode of bucket hat-induced panic, I made my way outside to queue for the actual gig.
In the line for the rap game Michael Cera, I earwigged a few conversations whilst I analyzed my increasingly weird surroundings, and what I heard was equally as strange. A few guys walked past, clearly idolizing Yung Lean with their appearance, talking about how emotional seeing him live is going to make them. These bucket hat-donning Tumblr kids were infatuated with both his image and his sound. The youth’s attachment to yet another trend isn’t anything new, but Yung Lean’s fanbase reaches a new level of post-irony.
It raises the question: how many people were actually there because they genuinely enjoy Yung Lean’s music? It’s hard to tell, as the lines between genuine enjoyment and frivolous appreciation continue to blur.
It raises the question: how many people were actually there because they genuinely enjoy Yung Lean’s music? It’s hard to tell, as the lines between genuine enjoyment and frivolous appreciation continue to blur. Lean and his music are stuck dead in the center of this, with it becoming increasingly hard to distinguish whether people are sticking with him due to finding comedic value in it, like some internet inside joke that only the in-the-know cool kids can fully “get,” or because they simply adore his gloriously eccentric slur-rap.
I find myself in the latter camp, and I was very seriously looking forward to seeing him live. I didn’t really know what to expect, since I know he’s not “technically” a good rapper. Everyone else lining up outside the venue appeared to be equally as anxious, except for the surprisingly deadpan Sadboy followers sporting gold chains. I heard one guy behind me say, “I get the feeling he might be a little bit shit live,” while another said, “I reckon there’s going to be moshing.” There was a clear mix of attitudes toward his music, with some only going because they thought it’d be funny, and others going so they could post Sadboy selfies alongside copious floral patterns on Tumblr.
If these people were still treating it as a joke, then why are they going through the effort to buy the ridiculous hats and import Arizona ice tea? It’s transcended meme and become a subculture, even if that subculture seems empty or shallow. It goes against everything that’s traditionally acceptable in hip-hop, but it also parodies it to the extreme. It’s all connected through a bunch of contradictions that only serve to heighten the appeal. Yung Lean doesn’t take it seriously, but at the same time he’s absolutely committed to it.
I’m also guilty of jumping on board with the humor myself. I’ll admit: I attempted to bring a can of green tea to the gig to have Yung Lean sign it, but it was confiscated by security before I was allowed in. That was probably the saddest thing that happened at Birthdays, because outside of that, the night possessed an insanely positive, and dare I say it, “based” atmosphere.
As we were let into the venue, we were treated to a DJ set that consisted mostly of trap bangers. As Tory Lanez was stressing about how he needs a new kitchen, it dawned on me: Yung Lean is living out his own rap fantasy. He’s only 17 years old and he’s already touring the world with his friends, to numerous sold-out crowds. It’s not on the same level as Lorde, but it’s equally as impressive when you consider how niche his outsider hip-hop is.
With a short DJ set by the Sadboys preceding his onstage appearance, the sense of irony in the room started to dim. The set was a phenomenal showcase of their signature production style, and eventually the crowd was worked up into a chant of “S-A-D-B-O-Y-S.” It was surreal to see this kind of Tumblr-ism come to life, and the peculiar atmosphere was further fueled by Yung Lean’s eventual appearance. Arriving in a full-body poncho of some kind, it was obvious he was going to put on one hell of a show. But would it be a hell of a show because he’s an odd, funny spectacle, or because he could actually perform?
It wasn’t long until there was crowd-surfing to songs about iced tea, and moshing to lines as obtuse as, ‘Eat her out wipe my face with a serviette.’
To the surprise of many, he delivered. He wasn’t hitting every line perfectly, but his excitement was positively infectious, and the whole crowd felt it. It wasn’t long until there was crowd-surfing to songs about iced tea, and moshing to lines as obtuse as, “Eat her out wipe my face with a serviette.” It was just like any other hip-hop show, but it was prefaced with a half tongue-in-cheek vibe that added a fun element without dominating the event.
Surrounded by bucket hats obscuring my vision, I was amazed at how hyped up the crowd was. In between songs I began picking up on the peculiarities of the people around me. A few kids besides me kept referring to Lean as “the black A$AP Rocky,” a small group of white girls were casually dropping the N-word. Some of these molly-ridden Tumblr fiends seemed harmless and amusing enough, but others were twisting the fantasy into something ignorant.
Stuck between those who believe they’re too cool to even move and those who simply can’t stop, I attempted to move closer to the stage during “Gatorade.” Unfortunately for me, I forgot I was wearing my glasses. They started to slide off my face, but through evasive maneuvers they ended up in my hands and not the floor. It was a close call. I almost forgot where I was for a moment. Then the build-up of “Kyoto” began.
The whole room was chanting along to the entire song, leaving behind their “sad and sassy” e-personas. Stopping for a brief moment, even Yung Lean himself realized the absurdity of it all: “You could be anywhere in the world, but you’re right here.” Serious or a joke, he’s awfully endearing from either angle. But after around 50 minutes of performing, he was gone as quickly as he arrived. The bucket hats slowly dissipated, and I made my way out of the venue.
If you’re having an internal conflict as to whether to like him or not, then his music probably isn’t for you.
In a deadpan devotion to his craft, there’s something clever about the young Swede’s music. It possesses an oddly charming quality to it that’s hard to describe without being in on the humorous side of it, but it’s not the type of music for those looking for an explanation. If you’re having an internal conflict as to whether to like him or not, then his music probably isn’t for you.
Seeing him live just confirmed what I already knew: he’s anything but a good rapper, but’s he’s still a damn fine entertainer.
Eccojams predate the vaporwave genre and in truth, it is more of a method than a subgenre. Nevertheless, given that it is the production style of choice for most vaporwave, the two have almost become synonymous.
Eccojams are sample-based tunes, in the vein of chopped and screwed music like DJ Screw. The name comes from Chuck Person’s (Daniel Lopatin alias, of Oneohtrix Point Never fame) Eccojams Vol. 1) Originally coined as “echojams”, the name was changed up to connect Ecco the Dolphin, reflected in the cover art for the cassette.. Samples run the gamut from smooth jazz to dance-pop music. Pure eccojams were “popular” before the coining of the vaporwave genre but have been subsumed into the larger vaporwave umbrella.
Segahaze is another informal subgenre of vaporwave at least partly rooted in Eccojams: Vol. 1 because of the invocation of the video game aesthetic. Similarly, segahaze invokes sound and imagery associated with early 90s video games (for example, games found on the Sega Genesis and Saturn). Like most vaporwave subgenres, this aesthetic has significant overlap but there have been a number of artists and releases that fall distinctly within this realm.
Distinct from post-internet vaporwave in that segahaze is not explicitly unsettling and not as screwed as eccojams. Segahaze bears a more ambient quality.
To quote from the Mallsoft facebook page: “Mallsoft is distinct from its cousin Vaporwave by using ethereal, vague music that is very easily looped as ‘background’ music. The genius of mallsoft is that it’s not meant to be paid attention to, it’s not distinct. It’s meant to be left on repeat while the ‘listener’ does other things. The repetition of the music eventually forces its way into the listener’s mind subconsciously, to be recalled at later date as a memory of something that may or may not have happened. Mallsoft is the ultimate commentary on our ADD, twitter-obsessed generation that can’t focus on one task at a time, much less an entire album.”
As distinct as mallsoft is argued by listeners, the concept of ambient commentary about consumer culture is not new and mallsoft fits easily within the spectrum of vaporwave.
Imagine a dark recess of the Internet, a corner made and once frequented and now left to decay: Geocities, Angelfire, or any number of poorly coded Chinese websites. You don’t remember it being this odd or alien but the memories it evokes are now left with a different dimension to you.
To some, I may have described vaporwave at its base but post-internet vaporwave is the uncanny side of the coin. It’s the negative of nostalgia, it at once can make you long for the past and also discomfort you. This is one of the original founding ideas of vaporwave before it broadened itself. This subgenre contains releases that offer aesthetic heavy sampling of sounds and music(ak) that are, in essence, a celebration of Internet culture. Post-internet as a term exists beyond vaporwave but also functions within the genre.
Second-wave vaporwave, starting around late summer 2012, saw vaporwave take a more dancey approach. This may have been due to the surge in popularity from フローラルの専門店 (Floral Shoppe), particularly the track “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー” which in turn caused many new vaporwave producers to sample primarily 80s music. At this point, vaporwave began distancing from the post-internet tendencies of its beginning and as such, a simultaneous split and transformation for the genre occurred when a new crop of artists took center stage.
Backlash against this trend and vaporwave as a whole caused the derogatory term "broporwave" to be applied (in reference to a perceived similar bastardization of dubstep called “brostep”). This type of vaporwave-esque music is characterized by sampling of 70s or 80s dance/disco music, sometimes with a beat applied. The level of manipulation runs the gamut but the result is typically a dancey track. More often than not, the term “broporwave” is used to slander vaporwave that may not necessarily fall under the distinction (vaporwave made with little manipulation, etc.).
Although some admonish the term, many have embraced it and rather than submit to the criticism of certain vaporwave fans, they have continued to enjoy success within the umbrella of the genre and its trappings.
An informal, yet integral subgenre of vaporwave. Whereas much of vaporwave has been characterized as hazy or even noisy, muzakcore admonishes this approach and achieves a clean sound. It is noted for sounding sterile, inoffensive, corporate, and even basic. The name comes from the vague grouping of music it draws inspiration from, muzak, which is commonly described as music for commercial settings. Whereas mallsoft is ethereal, post-internet becoming a technological psychedelia, muzakcore is the sounds we are accustomed to and experience all too often. Not surprisingly, this can be a little uncanny for listeners.
Despite being greatly linked in aesthetic to most vaporwave in some manner, muzakcore in the strictest sense is scarce. However, the few releases that constitute it have been some of vaporwave’s most lauded albums.
This is perhaps the most straight-forward of vaporwave subgenres. There is a spectrum within vapornoise, but the unifying characteristic is the utilization of noise, culture-jamming, or subversion of the easy sounds that characterizes most vaporwave. Some releases are strictly sampling of commercials or advertisements, with added effects whereas the far end of the spectrum involves borderline harsh-noise overlays. Vaporwave fans have speculated about a subgenre along this lines but there exists a great deal of releases under this name. Vapornoise grew in popularity following second-wave vaporwave, when the growth of satirical releases and criticism of the genre was high.
Fringewave is a word for understanding releases that are either confused often enough for vaporwave or borrow a lot from vaporwave elements. However, these releases are not vaporwave. Much like “broporwave”, a great deal of this music comes along with the second-wave of vaporwave and they deviate significantly from the core of the genre.
These releases are sometimes considered vaporwave for these reasons:
1. Released on a label known for vaporwave releases (like Beer on the Rug).
2. Tagged as vaporwave or related tags on music sites like Bandcamp or Last.fm by an artist either to gain listeners or to force the genre.
3. Released around the time of vaporwave’s advent, and thus mistakenly absorbed into the umbrella.
4. Employs certain aesthetics that vaporwave is known for. This is usually the case when retrospectively looking at releases by artists like Oneohtrix Point Never.
5. Employs curation techniques.