Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Pair of Post-Something Band I Like

The Decembrists

The Decembrists have emerged as one of my favorite bands over the last couple months. I was originally intrigued on Pandora, but it was my friend Justin’s recommendation that got me to actually purchase an album. They can be incredibly dark, but very sweetly so. People die in Decembrist songs with a frequency comparable the novels we read in high school English. By my count 61% of the songs in 'The Crane Wife' and 'Picaresque' involve a death of some kind[1]. The Shankill Butchers is the best example. It is an intoxicatingly beautiful song about religious massacre that I find myself singing to my little girl in the grocery store:

And everybody knows if you don't
Mind your mother's words
A wicked wind will blow
Your ribbons from your curls

Everybody moan, everybody shake
The Shankill Butchers want to catch you awake

But they can also be sweetly dark (with the stress on the sweet). Charis and I have often danced around the living room to After the Bombs:

After the bombs subside
And this long, low campaign
Calls it good for the night
We meet in the streets
Will we meet in a bar’s cold light?
We grip at our hands
We hold just a little tight

Then we’ll go dancing
Yes, we’ll go dancing
Won’t we go dancing?
Until it all starts over again

But the other day it suddenly struck me, the Decembrists are the quintessential postmodern band[2]. Now I use the word postmodern[3] neither as a pejorative nor as an epistemological savior. I don’t believe in ‘the good old days’ philosophically but I don’t believe we are marching triumphally forward either.[4] Postmodern values and tendencies are often beautiful and true and often flawed and dangerous…putting it in good company with every world view permutation that we have been through. But at the heart of what postmodernism means[5] is the rejection of meta-narrative, large stories with explanatory power for vast swaths of reality, in favor of situated story telling that has limited scope but can be easily adopted as part of a fragmented mosaic of meaning. Most indie bands might be horrified to learn that they are still desperately modern, appealing to broad moral categories to tell their angst ridden, over arching tale of establishment failure.[6] But not the Decembrists. They are all about situated narrative.

Colin Meloy is a story teller. Nearly every song The Decembrists sing has characters and a narrative arc. And, as if being a story telling inde band didn’t make them distinctive enough…as if to exacerbate the role of situatedness in their music…the stories often are set against a backdrop of a specific historical event.

The Crane Wife 1, 2, and 3 are based on a Japanese folk tale
Yankee Bayonet is a love story from the Civil War south
Many think The Island is based on Shakespeare’s Tempest
The Shankil Butchers is about anti-Catholic violence and terrorism in the Northern Ireland conflicts of the 1970’s that included late night abductions and throat slashing
The Bagman’s Gambit is probably based on the late 80’s sex for secrets scandal
The Mariner’s Revenge Song and A Cautionary Song are set against the nineteenth century Atlantic maritime trade though the former definitely borrows themes from the book of Jonah

Even their name – The Decemberists – refers to a specific movement of proto-communist revolution in early 19th century Russia

Additionally, they experiment with non-linear story telling, often cited as another symptom of postmodern sensibility[7]. The Crane Wife album opens with its most lovely song. The Crane Wife 3, however is the conclusion of the album’s 11 minute bifurcated ninth track.

The Decemberists are certainly not ideology free. Colin has some strongly held and widely know beliefs. But they do not engage in a didactic, ideological frontal attack. Instead they tell stories that can be adopted as discrete units of meaning into our navigational apparatus fragmented by information overload.
Rilo Kiley

I am relatively confident that Rilo Kiley would also self identify as a postmodern band. At times it even seems like they are trying too hard with song titles like: Don’t Deconstruct[8] or Science vs Romance. But, while they intentionally tap into postmodern themes, they are not as experientially postmodern as the Decembrists[9]. However, while I was listening to my favorite Rilo song the other day (Picture of Success), it struck me, they are the best example of a post-Feminist[10] band I listen to. By post-Feminist, I neither mean that feminism has failed nor that it has yet accomplished all of its valuable societal goals. What I mean is that it has been a widely accepted ideology and we are currently living with two types of consequences of that acceptance: (1) intended and (2) unintended.[11] I think Rilo Kiley’s music explores the emotional costs and benefits of navigating these consequences.

First the relational and sexual themes:

They question the value of marriage on the title track of More Adventurous:

Wanting to say I will as my last testament
For me to be saved and you to be brave
We don't have to walk down that aisle
Because if marriage ain't enough
Well, at least we'll be loved (More Adventurous)
Yet seem to long for a sustaining beauty and commitment that is, at the same time entirely original and unlike the relational norms provided by previous generation:

I'm only a woman
Of flesh and bone
And I wept much
We all do I thought
I might die alone

So let's take a loan out
Put it down on a house
In a place we've never lived
In a place that exists
In the pages of scripts
And the songs that they sing
And all of the beautiful things
That make you weep
But don't have to make you weak (I Never)

But she is startlingly honest about the fundamentally unsatisfying nature of contemporary relationships and sexual gender roles, where sex comes too soon and seems encapsulate the vast majority of male interest. She seems disillusioned with the results of post-Feminist sexual expectations:

There's blood in my mouth Because
I've been biting my tongue all week
I keep on talking trash but I never say anything
And the talking leads to touching
And the touching leads to sex
And then there is no mystery left
And it's bad news Baby, I'm bad news
I'm just bad news, bad news, bad news
I know I'm alone if I'm with or without you
But just being around you offers me another form of relief
When the loneliness leads to bad dreams
And the bad dreams lead me to calling you
And I call you and say, "C'MERE!"

There's a pretty young thing in front of you
And she's real pretty and she's real into you
And then she's sleeping inside of you
And the talking leads to touching
And the touching leads to sex
And then there is no mystery left (Portions for Foxes)

It seems to me that the sexual revolution was a remarkably clever hoax. The male sexual urges were projected onto women by suggesting that equality of professional and personal opportunity was somehow validated by, in the famous words of that skinny, shoe-philic, blond character that used to be on HBO, “having sex like a man”[12]. I suspect that if I was an alien that was studying earthlings during the 60’s and 70’s[13] I might have concluded that an arrangement had been made: men would open professional opportunities to women in exchange loosening the extramarital sexual ethic. This is, obviously not how it went down. Professional and sexual opportunities were both intended consequences of the movement. But, in my opinion, only the former was pro-woman.

I think Rilo’s more interesting post-Feminist themes, however, deal with the juxtaposition of opportunity and expectation. Consider the following excerpt from Picture of Success.

build your own television receiver
staying home can't be that bad for me
cause i'm not scared
but i'd like some extra spare time
easily earn me big money
i'm a modern girl but i fold in half so easily
when i put myself in the picture of success
i could learn world tradeor try to map the ocean
they say california is a recipe for a black hole
and i say i've got my best shoes on
i'm ready to go (ready to go)
i'm ready to go X15
these are times that can't be weathered
and we have never been back there since then

The line ‘I’m a modern girl, but I fold in half so easily’ is at the heart of why I consider this a post-feminist anthem. She has nearly unlimited options, and is equipped with a world view of equality and capability, but finds the world brutal and dehumanizing (highlighted by a ubiquitous, alternate theme of death interspersed throughout the track).

I guess Picture of Success could be a basic coming of age song. I personally resonate with the themes deeply. But there is something decidedly feminine about it. The resolution of strapping on your best shoes and taking on the task of being a modern girl gives me the impression that Jenny Lewis is facing different coming of age challenges than I am.[14] Lewis skillfully articulates the tyranny of unlimited possibility…the loneliness of individual expectation…and uncertainty in the face of multiplying demands. Most of us resonate with these themes, but I think contemporary western women have more societal expectations than either gender bore in previous generations.

I am much more interested in the intended and unintended consequences of Feminism since I became the father of two girls. Honestly, I think I really started connecting with this band after Charis was born. I am thrilled that she will have nearly unlimited professional opportunity[15]…but I am nervous about what the cacophony of contemporary (and often conflicting) demands women navigate in our culture will do to her. And I desperately hope that she rejects the hoax of female sexual conquest and anti-marriage sentiment. I want to do what I can to raise her with a brave and confident expectation that she can do anything she puts her hand to…but that her value and humanness are not defined by those tasks. _________________________
[1] More disturbingly, he will sometimes sing about rape like in The Island or A Cautionary Song. I read somewhere: ‘One thing I like about the Decemberists is that they put really horrible stuff in their lyrics without trivializing them.” I think that is a pretty interesting analysis. (Footnote on the footnote: I love this youtube clip that also includes A Cautionary Song. They are at Messiah College, a Christian school where my friend Tiffany went...and someone throws a bra at Colin.)
[2] There are occasional existential themes as well…most notably “A terrible autonomy/Is grafted onto you and me/Our trust put in the government/They told their lies as heaven-sent” – which is surely influenced by Sartre.
[3] I know that ‘postmodern’ has never had a single meaning and has become even less descriptive as time has passed. But I have not encountered a better signifier of the half dozen or so, cultural moods that typify our post-Cartesian thought forms…so I will doggedly continue use it.
[4] As Tim Keller says, ‘Our grandchildren will almost certainly be embarrassed by huge swaths of what we believe.’
[5] Or at least used to mean.
[6] And, to be fair, I usually love it.
[7] You can see how this would undermine the importance of meta-narrative and focus attention on the specific contribution of a narrative fragment.
[8] This might indicate that they see themselves a post post-structural or something like that.
[9] It has often been said that as soon as you start talking about post-modernism in categories of system you are being modern. This is certainly what I am doing in this essay, and strikes me as what Rilo is up to.
[10] Again, I realize my categories lack precision here. But this is a theme I would like to explore so I will proceeded within the limitations of my sparse understanding.
[11] Feminism has also had positive and negative consequences (and I would argue, more positive than negative), but these do not have a 1-to-1 correspondence with the intended and unintended.
[12] I have never been able to tolerate ‘Sex in the City.’ But I do think that, in a sense, they were dealing with the same post-feminist themes of opportunity, expectation and, mostly, if the sexual revolution was actually a win for women…or a masculine hoax.
[13] So I could make visual observation undetected by didn’t understand language.
[14] And then there is her voice, which (I think intentionally) exudes brave little girl in a big scary world.
[15] And am hopefull that this will be even closer to a reality when she actually leaves our house.


Michial said...

Have you heard the album Jenny Lewis did with the Watson Twins, "Rabbit Fur Coat"? I never liked Rilo Kiley very much, but that record has much more of a country flavor, and I think it sounds really great.

It's interesting, too, because she takes country and gospel--the most religious American musics there are--and applies them to these songs of disbelief. But she makes disbelief sound like belief.

Anyway, good post.

Ford said...

"It seems to me that the sexual revolution was a remarkably clever hoax."

I agree wholeheartedly.

In addition to feminism's pro-male development of loosening sexual standards, I think Roe V. Wade was another pro-male development. I am not a down-the-line pro-lifer, but I do think it is interesting that in the days since abortion became such a hot-button issue, the debate from the abortion lobby has centered around women's choice, as if they are the only ones responsible for the "mistake."

Both sides of the debate share blame for this error in judgment forcing this to be an issue primarily about the rights of women or the unborn. Totally removed from this debate attempting to make a god-like determination based on two polar opposites is the whole notion of a male's responsibility. The right to choose and the right to life have zero possibility without the man's involvement in the situation.

I am not saying this to insinuate that males should have a role in the decision-making process concerning abortion. Quite the contrary. They made their decision when they decided to have sex with a woman who wasn't prepared to have a child.

My point is that Roe v. Wade was the final step in giving the male gender a blank check for sexual satisfaction: no rules, no obligations, no consequences.

Kel said...

Ford, that last comment about Roe V. Wade is an interesting one, and one that I don't think we really think about much. (I'm pro-choice, with a heavy emphasis on education and affordable health care to work towards reduction). Anyhow, just thought it was an interesting way to look at it.

Ford said...

In rereading my comment I realize that I overstated my point (such is the danger of internet comments-easy to click post before needed reexamination). I should have replaced "was the final step" with "played a role in." I don't think Roe V. Wade can shoulder all that blame, but I think it definitely played a role in it.

Thanks for understanding my point even though I overreached.

stanford said...


I am vaguely aware that Lewis has other work. I'll check it out.

I think your genre analysis is interesting. 'The Absence of God' is a great example of making disbelief look like belief.

'The Absence of God will bring you comfort,' is such a great line. For a while I thought she was just making a plain statement of disbelief...But I suspect she is saying something a little more sophisticated…as if disbelief can also be emotional crutch.

Ford, I agree with Kelly, very interesting perspective.

Michial said...


You're talking like a fourth-wave feminist, my fiancee's latest obsession. Have you read any of the work of Wendy Shalit? She suggests that the sexual revolution was a revolution only for men.

Ford said...

Intriguing. Ironically, my grandmother can be credited for this shift in my thinking. She volunteered at a pregnancy center years ago, and she witnessed a mother and daughter receiving counseling about the daughter's pregnancy. The mother said, "She made a mistake." It made my grandmother irate because she wondered why the girl was shouldering the blame for the "mistake." Who would have thought that my grandmother would qualify as a Fourth-Wave feminist?! I'll have to take a look at Shalit's work. Thanks for the heads up.