The Marx of the Beast

Until yesterday I’d thought, naïvely, that music journalism was free from the ethnocentric identity politics common in Marxist and postcolonialist cultural studies. But then I read a review in Dusted Magazine in which these hermeneutical tools are used to scan Animal Collective’s seemingly innocuous new EP, Water Curses, for traces of racism. I’ll spoil the ending for you: It’s seething with the stuff. Yes, capitalist hegemony might be blinding them to the fact, but the band are thoroughly racist, classist and colonialist all right.

I should note, though, that said hermeneutical tools are like a Geiger Counter with a knob of enriched uranium jammed in its spout – faulty, in short, prone to false positives. So the off-the-scale reading is hardly a surprise. We’d have seen the same result had the subject been a packet of crisps or a thunder cloud.

Animal Collective, though, were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. The review could have hijacked as his vehicle any sentimental “white” folk record. While music is ostensibly the subject at issue, it’s a façade. In reality, the reviewer had three noxious and clumsily-prosecuted aims: to introduce a tangential third-party article, to pass it through the prism of his own politics and, lastly, to somehow crowbar the whole bloody abortion into a record review.

Said third-party article – linked in the review – is the postcolonialist “Race, Rock and the New Weird America” by one Kandia Crazy Horse. It attacks as racist the New Weird America movement as a whole and Devandra Banhart specifically; Animal Collective are scarcely mentioned. If her piece is representative, this Ms. Horse is a demented race nut. The review describes her language as “a bit purple”, but her spectrum is limited to two more prosaic colours. The reader will guess which.

There is a tendency in a number of these musicians, Animal Collective being at the forefront, to fetishize nature in the way that, say, Devandra Banhart fetishizes Karen Dalton, saying of her, as Crazy Horse quotes, “…she’s got the most far-out, fucked up, amazing soul. She’s the most soulful singer in the universe.” In other words, her music and the way she sings cannot just be a natural function of her life or her cultural or historic context, but somehow surpasses that, takes on a mystical quality, becomes unnatural and in doing so, transgresses the boundaries, becomes something strange or alien, wholly Other. In doing this, Dalton is fetishized for who she is, and the agency for creating her art is taken away from her, replaced instead with this “far-out, fucked up” quality.

So, Animal Collective fetishise nature and Banhart, someone with no direct connection to Animal Collective, fetishises Karen Dalton. How do we know? Well, he described her music as “far-out” and “fucked-up”. That Banhart could have been using the terms typically – to mean “extraordinary”, “eccentric”, “disturbed”, etc. – has apparently been disconfirmed, by a process the review doesn’t judge necessary to explain. No, the forces behind Banhart’s choice of term must have been malevolent: he must think she “transgresses the boundaries” and so cannot be the creative force behind her own work.

(Dalton, incidentally, was half white, so her “white half” presumably must have been the victim of the same injustice. That, though, mightn’t be the way it works. Identity politics can quickly get confusing – confusing and fucking daft.)

But it’s worth looking at the original interview for context: “She is one of the most amazing musicians in the universe. Forget about the amount of soul she’s got — she’s got the most far-out, fucked up, amazing soul. She’s the most soulful singer in the universe. But the technicalities, her timing and her phrasing is perfect. It’s beyond perfect. You can’t even try to imitate it because it’s like beyond, it’s brilliant. She’s also an incredible song interpreter… She makes every one of the songs that she covers her songs.” Numinous though the terminology might be, it’s clear that praise of ability is its crux.

Anyway, Animal Collective, the review tells us, fetishise nature – a concept – in the same way someone else entirely, Banhart, fetishises Dalton – a person. Thus, Animal Collective are tacit racists. This, incidentally, was meant to have been the “deeper” of two criticisms.

Elsewhere, the reviewer intimidates the reader into submission instead of persuading them with argument – a tactic common in cultural theory.

One particularly nasty example is the claim the band are too ignorant to realise their racism or insufficiently righteous to atone; as a corollary, we are too, if we don’t agree. (In a dazzling a non sequitur, a Chomsky quote is offered in support.) The reviewer, of course, stands rare and rarified, enlightened and virtuous both.

That’s the most egregious instance. The stupidest, though, is where we learn part of Animal Collective’s “problem” is they inhabit an area designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also built parks: building parks is depraved, apparently. The reviewer’s implied mastery of Hegel is then presented as a forged intellectual passport under which he smuggles this gibberish past the reader.

Perhaps there’s nothing in the reviewer’s environment to tell his as much, but, in sum, the review is a foul smear and the magazine should apologise. As both Noam Chomsky and Panda Bear say, coolness is having courage, courage to do what’s right.

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