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My First Indie Band: Rilo Kiley

June 23, 2015 Leave a comment

I didn’t really start listening to music until around my junior year of high school. For most of that year, I listened to maybe five bands: Oasis, Muse, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, and The White Stripes. These bands don’t really have much in common, and in some instances it’s hard to even come up with an explanation for why I liked them in the first place. I think it was mostly just that they were there. I had no real knowledge or context when it came to music, so I went for whatever bands fell into my lap. Not that I was totally a blank slate without opinions: I knew there was music I hated, like Smash Mouth. But I didn’t really know what kind of music I actually liked.

My earliest favorite bands are also an indicator of what kind of music is “there” if you’re a teenage guy who is interested in rock music, but isn’t really putting in any effort to find it. It’s mostly a lot of dudes playing guitar. So even though I never related much to traditional masculinity and had already developed a strong hatred for “bros,” listening to women never really entered the equation, because there was no representation of them except in pop or country music (which I wasn’t interested in).

Over the summer heading into my senior year, I finally started to get at least a little bored of listening to the same five bands over and over, so I started looking around online more and heard about Rilo Kiley. At the time, the band had just released their fifth album, Under the Blacklight, and were getting more of a mainstream push after signing with a major label. They appeared on the cover of Spin and were heralded as the next Fleetwood Mac. In retrospect, this is all funny, because Under the Blacklight would end up being the band’s last album, and unquestionably their worst. It’s pretty much the sound of a band that had run out of gas, and I remember not being particularly surprised when they quietly split up a couple years later.

That said, when I listened to Under the Blacklight back in 2007, it immediately grabbed me, just because it was so different from everything else I had heard. I really didn’t have friends and had gotten used to just not talking during the day and being alone with my own thoughts. The bands I listened to at the time all spoke in the same voice — a voice similar to the one always running in my head. Rilo Kiley offered a completely different perspective.

That came from frontwoman Jenny Lewis. While Rilo Kiley allegedly had other members, Lewis was the clear star, and their best songs were built around her bittersweet vocals and blunt, sometimes-personal lyrics that often touched on themes of sadness and depression. What made her really intriguing at the time was that she played off my ignorance about music and people in general: I was conditioned to expect music to sound a certain way, and I had preconceptions about how a woman singer would express herself. Lewis’ gift was her ability to subvert those expectations, by sounding sweet and looking pretty, but then writing lyrics that cut deep and were nowhere near what I expected. Their music was similarly subversive — it frequently had bright guitars and bouncy bass lines, sounding relatively poppy, which masked the dark subject matter.

Under the Blacklight lacked her more personal lyrics, instead focusing on third-person stories of the sleazy underbelly of L.A, which is part of why I feel the album was a bit of a dud.  It was only when I listened to the band’s other albums  — particularly The Execution of All Things and More Adventurous — that I really got hooked. The peak of my Rilo Kiley obsession was probably my first year at community college. I had a pretty bad attitude about going there (I felt I belonged at a “real” college despite my awful grades and lack of extracurriculars), so I continued to spend a lot of time by myself instead of meeting people. I would bring my 50 MB iPod shuffle that my dad got for free after signing up for a bank account or something and my junky $10 pair of headphones and would sit on benches or lawns on campus and just listen to their songs over and over and over.

I still wasn’t at the point where I was thinking all that deeply about music, but listening to Rilo Kiley is where certain ideas began to seep into my brain and a lot of my preconceptions were erased. The biggest realization was that music could be this way to get outside of my own thoughts. Instead of telling me what I wanted or felt like I needed to hear, I liked being challenged with a different perspective from a singer like Jenny Lewis. At the same time, I also realized that just because a singer seems very different from me, that doesn’t mean we don’t have similar experiences or feelings — some of Rilo Kiley’s songs about depression articulated how I felt much better than any songs I had heard up to that point.

When I look back on Rilo Kiley now, what also really stands out is how personality-driven the band was — at least to me, it was all about Lewis, and there was a feeling that through their music, I really got to know her and she became like a friend. Ever since then, I’ve tended to gravitate towards really individual, charismatic artists, who put a lot of themselves into the music they make. It’s part of why I got into music instead of movies or TV: I like how individual the medium is, that you can really know or understand someone through their songs. As someone who has never had a wide circle of friends and has consistently lagged behind socially, artists like Lewis have been important as a sort of form of social contact, and it’s why I prize them above those that lack that personality and honesty.

After my Rilo Kiley phase is when I really kicked my music exploration into overdrive, and soon the band was pretty much left in the dust. There was so much other music to discover that it was hard to justify listening to a band whose songs I’d already memorized. Lewis embarked on a solo career and made a record with Jonathan Rice, but none of it really grabbed me until last year’s The Voyager, in which Lewis, now in her late 30s, reflected on a life spent on the road, acting in movies as a child or performing in bands. It had a combination of toughness and vulnerability that reminded me of why I was so attached to her music years ago.

Listening to The Voyager, I couldn’t help but be a little nostalgic for the Rilo Kiley days, when everything was so new and exciting. It is kind of the ironic tragedy of someone who loves music: the more you listen to, the harder it is to truly love it, to feel the level of almost child-like attachment I did with Rilo Kiley. Though I’ve sometimes felt like I “moved on” from them, I really never did: their presence reverberates through almost all of the music I listen to now. They were the gateway through which I discovered that music could be so much more than I ever had thought it could be.

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Björk and the Cyborg Manifesto

June 18, 2015 1 comment

I actually wrote this in college in January 2012 as part of a writing course on the subject of “body modification” (don’t ask). In the class, we read “A Cyborg Manifesto,” and, while it’s a very unwieldy, often difficult to understand essay, I noticed parts of it that reminded me a lot of Björk. One of my hobbies in college was writing really esoteric papers about subjects that only moderately related to the course’s subject matter, and this was probably my crowning achievement in that area. I didn’t post it at the time because I wasn’t confident that it even made sense, or that I interpreted “A Cyborg Manifesto” correctly, but the release of Vulnicura got me thinking about it again and I thought it might be of interest to one or two people in the world. If you are insane and want to read “A Cyborg Manifesto,” you can do so here.

Enjoy.

In her 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway put forth what she saw as an “ironic dream,” a vision of a metaphorical cyborg that “can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.” At the center of Haraway’s essay was the image of the cyborg, a cybernetic being that would resist traditional ideas of gender and boundaries between humans, machines, and nature. The cyborg was her image of a being that was not bound by Western ideas, one that “would not recognize the Garden of Eden” because “it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.” Haraway essentially saw the potential for the cyborg to be a utopian force, one that connects ideas that humans had previously seen as being incompatible with each other. As things like gender and the relationship between nature and technology continue to be questioned, Haraway’s theories become important to consider. Perhaps surprisingly, the person that might be the closest to her cyborg image comes from the world of music: Icelandic singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir. Through her music – particularly her albums Post, Homogenic, and Biophilia – and other forms of multi-media engagement, Björk has attempted to erase the dualities that exist between humans, technology, and nature much in the way that Haraway envisioned.

At the time of Haraway’s writing, Björk was in the short-lived post-punk band KUKL. She rose to fame as a member of the alternative pop band The Sugarcubes, but had her most success after the band broke up in 1992 and she embarked on a solo career. Björk is perhaps most recognizable for her signature singing voice, a robust soprano that is identifiably hers. Alex Ross, a music critic for “The New Yorker,” described it “instantly recognizable. You hear one or two notes from it and you know it’s Björk.” The individuality of her voice, along with her sense of eclectic experimentation, has allowed Björk to become a singer that transcends many genres and segments of listeners, much in the way Haraway’s vision of the cyborg would transcend limitations that humans had placed on themselves. In fact, according to NPR’s Guy Raz, Björk’s voice itself has utopian qualities: “There’s something celestial about that voice, as if it comes from a fantastic and colorful utopian world.” That sense of the utopian is significant in Björk’s work, and is part of how she shares similarities with Haraway’s cyborg image.

Haraway saw the cyborg as a being that could erase dualities, and much of Björk’s music is about that same idea. Peter Webb and John Lynch claim that “she sees herself as a generator of a type of energy that flows in circuits and which crosses time and space, whether pagan or electro, preindustrial or postindustrial.” It’s particularly present on her 1995 album Post, which was named by “Rolling Stone” as one of the 500 greatest albums ever, in part thanks to its ”utter lack of musical inhibition.” It’s perhaps the peak of Björk’s genre-hopping powers, as songs range from the grinding industrial opener “Army of Me” and the big band style “It’s Oh So Quiet” to the epic, jungle-beats driven “Isobel” and string-laden pop songs like “Hyperballad.” Post established Björk as an artist whose music was a unique distillation of genres. Haraway’s cyborg theory was based around shattering dualities, and Post can be seen as the musical equivalent of that: It blurs the line between experimental and pop, avant-garde music and dance music. And the natural emotion that comes from Björk’s voice, along with the sounds which are made by electronics and machines, makes it the closest thing musically to Haraway’s utopian vision of humanity and nature being intertwined.

Björk’s next album, 1997’s Homogenic, would further that relationship between humanity, nature, and technology that Haraway speculated about. After the eclectic sound of Post, Homogenic focused primarily on one style of sound, which was based around darker beats and strings. The album’s sound is cold and machine-like, at times sounding like an imagined soundtrack for cyborgs. She also sought to make an album that was an ode of sorts to her native country of Iceland. In the September 1997 issue of “Oor,” she talked about her thought process for the album:

Well, in Iceland, everything revolves around nature, 24 hours a day. Earthquakes, snowstorms, rain, ice, volcanic eruptions, geysers… Very elementary and uncontrollable. But at the other hand, Iceland is incredibly modern; everything is hi-tech. The number of people owning a computer is as high as nowhere else in the world. That contradiction is also on Homogenic. The electronic beats are the rhythm, the heartbeat. The violins create the old-fashioned atmosphere, the colouring. Homogenic is Iceland, my native country, my home.

Based on her own comments and the interpretations of others, Homogenic can be interpreted as a love letter to her homeland. It clearly represents one of the main dualisms that Haraway theorized about in “The Cyborg Manifesto,” which is the relationship between technology and nature. It’s best exemplified on one of the album’s standout tracks, “Jóga,” which Björk envisioned as being a national anthem type of song for her country. It uses violins and other strings to create a majestic, stately sound, while she sings lyrics like “emotional landscapes/they puzzle me.” The phrase “emotional landscapes” evokes feelings of both humanity and nature, but the song itself is futuristic, with an unprecedented mix of classical strings and modern electronic music. Along with the music video, which showcased the terrain of Iceland, “Jóga,” uses technology to create a musical landscape about nature and humanity, much in the way Haraway hoped her cyborg would.

Homogenic also included the most obvious example of Björk’s ideas of post-humanism in her music video for “All is Full of Love,” one of the singles off the album. The video shows two robots or cyborgs being built, with Björk’s face digitally shown on them. The cyborgs are completely androgynous, without hair or other traits associated with masculinity or femininity. The two begin singing at each other with Björk’s lyrics: “All is full of love/all around you.” Much like Haraway, Björk does not see human emotions and technology being independent of each other. In the video, she envisions a world where there are post-gender cyborgs, but they are still able to feel love and other human emotions, mirroring the utopian image that Haraway had dreamed of. More than any other song or video in Björk’s catalogue, it shows her breaking down the dichotomy between emerging technology and humanity that is also inherently present in her music.

Last year, Björk took possibly her biggest step yet in breaking down the nature/technology dichotomy with her Biophilia project. Designed as a series of interactive iPad apps to go with the album, it was an explicit attempt to connect science, nature, technology, and music into one package. In an audio message that appears on her website, bjork.com, she outlined her ambitious thought process behind the project:

With Biophilia comes a restless curiosity, an urge to investigate and discover the elusive places where we meet nature: Where she plays on our senses with colors and forms, perfumes and smells, the taste and touch of salty wind on the tongue. But much of nature is hidden from us, that we can neither see nor touch; such as the one phenomena that can be said to move us more than any other in our daily lives: sound. Sound harnessed by human beings, delivered with generosity and emotion, is what we call music. And just as we use music to express parts of us that would otherwise be hidden, so too can we use technology to make visible much of nature’s invisible world. In Biophilia, you will experience how the three come together: music, nature, technology… We are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovations.

While Björk had always shown interest in the intermingling of technology and nature, Biophilia was an ambitious attempt to literally combine the two. For the album, she created instruments that made sounds based on gravity. Each song came with an iPad app that would feature some type of combination of nature and music in and interactive form, such as the app for “Virus” that allows you to watch the life cycle of a virus and then use it to create your own music. Each song tied human themes like love into ideas of nature (“Virus” compares being in love to the relationship between a virus and its host). Björk even took things one step further, setting up classroom workshops that sought to teach young people about music and science using her apps.

Biophilia can be seen as a culmination of Björk’s career-long efforts to destroy the perceived dichotomies that exist between humans, technology, and nature. When Haraway wrote “there is no fundamental, ontological separation in our formal knowledge of machine and organism, of technical and organic,” it’s not hard to imagine that she had a project like Biophilia in mind. In many ways, it’s a revolutionary album. The iPad app packaging was an unprecedented attempt to turn the old album format into something interactive, and it also attempted to be something more than just music as the project grew into a massive multimedia endeavor. For an artist whose trademark has been breaking down boundaries in music, Biophilia was perhaps her most ambitious attempt at it yet – and the closest that she’s come to approximating Haraway’s cyborg vision.

As Björk said, we really are on the brink of a technical revolution. As technology continues to increase and environmental concerns continue to be raised, at some point the two will need to be combined instead of being considered opposites. At its core, that’s the most important aspect of Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” and Björk’s music: The concept of erasing dualities and arbitrary lines. Each, in their own way, sees ways to unite these ideas in the modern world, to embrace technology without losing our humanity. On some level, Björk’s popularity despite being such an unorthodox artist is likely a credit to the ideals she portrays in her music. Haraway’s ideas of uniting people and concepts is something that seems to appeal to many as our society seemingly becomes increasingly fractured. Björk’s work shows the power of erasing these dualities, and the way music and art can be used to do it.