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Wednesday, March 22, 2006
My brief, list-based SXSW summation is up at Flagpole if you want to read--it tips my hand somewhat, but I'll try and flesh things out over the next few days. To wit:

SXSW Wrapup #1: The Sexy

I finally got to see Of Montreal, and--let's be clear about this before proceeding--they were very good, and I would like to see them again, if for no other reason than to re-experience the awesome keyboard solo. But as I stood there listening to them, something struck me about the particularities of their sound, a particularity that I think is shared by a lot of bands these days. Indiedom's embrace of dancability has been widely publicized, whether they're taking inspiration from latter-day dance music or just the general cheery grooves of 70s pop, especially--in my mind at least--ELO.

But dance music, to my mind, should be at least a little bit sexy, and there does not seem to be a whole lot of sexy in indiedom today, at least not beyond the superficial "ooh the lead singer's hot" kind of sexy. There are not, in other words, many albums I would like to fuck to. (Make out to maybe, but fuck, not so much.) And thus my semi-rhyming aphorism: prowl and pounce, don't just bounce. Of Montreal's songs were dominated by a bounce that was dancable but so jaunty it was almost musichall, and it did not seem to stop so much. I hear the bounce in a lot of other bands, too--the Shins springs to mind first but there's also the Decemberists and Belle & Sebastian and Love is All and lots and lots more. But bounce isn't sexy--bounce is walking. Sexy has a little stutter in its step, a little hitch in its stride, just enough to throw you off and keep you looking. Steady as she goes is not the rhythm of sex--it's irregular, like the "robots fucking" break on Beck's Midnite Vultures.

The alternative, of course, would be those bands whose sense of dancability descends from disco, new wave, electro, and (to a much, much lesser extent) house. I think the "originators" here, the Rapture (who I owe you a big piece on), actually succeeded in making a fairly sexy album, one that's even arguably more sexy than the the ostensibly non-indie LCD Soundsystem album. But almost every other band that could be described as "dance-punk" seems to have taken that jittery tendency in Prince and amped it up to a full-on spazz, turning the disco rhythm up until it loses any swagger it ever had. Prince's little outbursts are sexy because, again, they're little stutters, small interruptions. But a sustained spazz isn't, as I think its practicioners might envision, appealing in a sort of pentecoastal ecstacy way, but just spazzy. (Note: I'm sure this does not prevent them from getting laid, but I also kind of doubt they listen to their own music while fucking.) Alternately, they're taking the shiny surfaces of disco and electro at face value, amping up the kitch while losing the groove.

This is all immensely ironic, because the reason dance had to be brought back into rock was ostensibly the 90s. But check out "Smells Like Teen Spirit" again: Kurt might have wanted to use ugly girls as cheerleaders in the video, but the strippers they ended up using are dancing sexy for a reason. Krist is playing the bassline under the verse like it's fucking "Billie Jean"'s panther-crawl, and that's what makes the chorus so big--it hasn't been merely bouncing along, but tension's been building, and all that loudness is even more of a release. Nirvana may have hated Guns 'n' Roses, but that band's rhythm section fucking swung like hell, and there was still an expectation at the time that rock should serve as the soundtrack for hot girls to dance to. I'm not quite sure who to blame for that disappearing, as I suspect it's late-90s grunge inheritors misinterpreting the past, but just for convenience's sake, let's say Pearl Jam. (Sorry guys.) And as much as I hate K Records and Calvin Johnson, there's no denying the sexuality there, even if it was a creepy sexualty. The muddy bass sound of the 90s is annoying but it also encouraged that sort of creep when it wasn't just rocking out to punk rock eighth notes all dugga-dugga-dugga-dugga. And this isn't even taking into account people like PJ Harvey, who were both sexy themselves and made very sexy music, or Kim Deal, or Kim Gordon.

So yes, while there was a lot of sexuality on display at SXSW, there was not much actual sexy, and there isn't much in most ofthe albums I get these days, except for the electro stuff, which I think despite its popularity in music crit circles does not have much traction in the indie mainstream. And even in the mainstream, bands that have a sexy image still don't make sexy music. (The Killers could make sexy music if they weren't so damn ridiculous--which is one of the things I love about them, but still, I think that whole "I got soul but I'm not a soldier" rondelay might really break the mood.) I don't think this should be too hard to remedy--it just requires bands going against a lot of the instincts they've inherited from their most recent influences, like hardcore, jambands (how a genre can be so enamoured of funk but so relentlessly unsexy is beyond me), grunge-as-an-abstraction, and twee. You have to play a little slower, swing a little more, not let the easy signifiers of sexy stand in for the real thing. You can do it guys--I believe in you.