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Wednesday, July 30, 2003
A letter I may or may not send to Pitchfork:
Those who'll tell you that nothing's shocking are, generally speaking, full of shit. Sure, it's tempting to cop a jaded wince and react to everything with calculated disinterest, but in a world where the quiet, seemingly emotionless among us often wind up hanging from the rafters of dank apartments, one has to wonder how many reactions of shock and trauma are silently repressed and denied. We're often taught not to register our emotions, but when those unexpressed feelings finally boil over, the results are virtually always shocking, and it's that simmering combination of rage and terror that often fucks things up in the most horrific ways.
Look guys, I'm glad you like Xiu Xiu, but let's watch the rhetoric, OK? Sure, you can say they're good, and that you like them, but "disturbing"? "An album for the mad and the ill, the suicidal and those near death"? And what about the weird intimations of familiarity about a band that I've never heard of outside of PF--"I'm not even getting into the stories that circulate about this deviant" and "the infamous cover sticker" etc.
First off, let's talk about this "those who'll tell you that nothing's shocking are...full of shit" business. There's a big difference between shock in music and shock almost everywhere else. What's shocking in music are things like sudden volume shifts, odd instrumentation, impossible melodic lines or harmonies, etc. So think of Shellac's "Mama Gina" or Black Dice's live shows. But it's been a while since there was anything like the riot at the opening of The Rites of Spring--a ballet. Instrumental music, absent a cadaver made into an organ or skulls used as bongos, has largely lost its ability to really, truly shock.
But you're talking about lyrics. Even there, though, in the context of popular music they've become utterly shock-less to your average listener (the shockability of a "oh my stars! *faint*" PTA member notwithstanding). After all, the aesthetics of rock as developed in the 60's emphasized shock and rebellion and all that jazz (contra Meltzer's way better formulation which concentrated on stuff like banality) so anyone with any experience in the form has been conditioned to expect such shock, and so while artists can continue to try new and different ways to shock, if it succeeds at all, it is seldom long-lasting. Popular music is good for a lot of things, but shock isn't one of them.
What is shocking? Well, lotsa things, sure. Ann Coulter re-starting the Joe McCarthy fanclub--I'm still reeling from that. A very clean, nude person walking down the street. The building catching on fire. Lotsa stuff. But very little in music, I think. You can be surprised, sure--but that's different from shock. Surprise is how you react to emotional freak-outs: "what the hell just happened?" Shock is how you react to a naked guy fellating your grandparents at a school assembly: "I can't believe they're doing that!" And incidentally, shock is rarely the cause of suicide; it's usually the kind of slow-burning despair that's more the province of country than rock. But, christ, could we not bring suicide into this?
The problem with focusing on all this shock and transgression stuff with Xiu Xiu is that it's super unconvincing to me and, I hope, anyone over the age of 17. (Not to say anything bad about them, but I know from, er, personal experience that this kind of stuff has more coin when you're suffering through adolescence, and that's cool.) It makes me way uninterested in the band. I mean, honestly, do you expect me to be able to read the line "Cremate me before you come on my face" as anything other than a reasonably funny joke? "Shocking"? "Unsettling"? Really?
The issue of humor came up in the review of the first Xiu Xiu album, and indeed, the line cited--"THIS IS THE WORST VACATION EVER-- I'M GOING TO CUT OPEN YOUR FOREHEAD WITH A ROOFING SHINGLE!"--is pretty fucking funny, especially with the way it's delivered. So if this is funny, why not lotsa other stuff about Xiu Xiu? Is it because it would be bad if it was funny? Or because you hear minor tones and assume it has to be sad? Aw hell, I dunno, but it does seem to fit into a wee bit of a Pitchfork pattern, which is especially weird given that the four Xiu Xiu reviews were written by three different writers.
So I'm just saying keep your mind open. Hey, maybe Xiu Xiu is actually like Andrew WK--one big joke, right? Of course, given that comparison Xiu Xiu don't look so good, since they're way less fun to listen to. They are a pretty goddamn good joke, though.