Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I'll Wear That Jacket in the Nighttime Too

By far my most favorite lyric of Sunday’s evening at the Greek Theater with My Morning Jacket is from "If You Touch Me I'm Going To Scream, Pt. 2:"

If you touch me/I'm going to scream/because it's been so long/since someone challenged me

Although similar sentiments have appeared in Ani DiFranco, Fiona Apple, and even Sarah McLaughlin’s songs, I have never heard a male rock singer admit to this feeling. He's going to scream? Like, in a falsetto? Because it's so overwhelming to be touched by someone challenging? Yes. Yes he is.

The origin of my surprise: I have never seen an all-male rock band play a show that progressively threw off, then put back on, again and again, the mantle of aggressive masculinity that permeates most of their genre. My Morning Jacket has (maybe unintentionally) made themselves into examples of a new masculinity, in both their songwriting and onstage personae. This is a style of being male rock stars that my generation seems ambivalent about spotlighting in the mainstream. This is a masculinity not solely dependent on the phallus, however able it is to wield one. Rock music that isn't phallocentric has open spaces for listeners to get taken into trances; it creates a sense of enveloping, rather than a sense of driving forward motion. It is collaborative as much as (or more than) it is virtuosic. It can build to a climax without seeming goal-oriented. Watching a band so beautifully negotiate traditional male rock-n-roll-ness and some other, more cooperative, almsot vulnerable kind of showmanship is exciting. I call it “new” masculinity in part because it simply can’t be the same as the friendly 1970s-fuzzy-beard-and-tight pants-type of male sexuality which MMJ recalls more than anything I can find in our current culture. It can’t because we’re living in the textual-media-universe of 2008, where that style is blatantly nostalgic.

I'd heard MMJ described as a "jam band," and so as a Phish fan, I expected a certain longevity and looseness to the songs that MMJ have actually chosen against, for the most part. They work together, they improvise, but it's clear the whole time they're playing a Song, and that in the Song they want to go a few different places—granted they’d like to go to maybe three or four places, which is two or three more than you're allowed on a pop hit—but there's a plan to the journey. This is what makes them teeter on the edge of a traditional masculine aggression: they're following a structure and plan towards a goal, which is a masculine activity, according to literary critics. They often stand with their legs open wide and their guitars right at their crotches, like familiar icons from the 80s, which is a masculine activity, according to me. And yet, they're noodling around a bit here and there on their instruments, they're tossing their lovely locks all over the place, they're wearing capes and dancing around stuffed teddy bears, and they're singing in falsetto. Often.

Contrast this latter list of behaviors to another performer’s I saw recently: Nick Cave, who came out on stage looking like a goth pimp and growled "Get ready to shoot yourself" as an opener. Sure, he had flamboyant cuffs on his shirt and occasionally flipped a wrist around, but Nick Cave makes music that can't be mistaken for un-masculine, even if you don't find it sexy. He’ll bend you over anything waist-high and pull your hair while he’s at it—whether his sexual object is male or female, it’s clear he’s the top and the audience is happy to be the bottom.

My Morning Jacket tows an unpredictable line--multiple genres, multiple moods. Jim James won me over with a brief speech about how wonderful it was to see everyone "participating." I think that was the most incredible piece of the MMJ mystique: everyone is participating in something that is at times eerily familiar--a melody that sounds like an old Doobie Brothers song, a harmony that invokes the Bee Gees, a transcendent U2-ish chorus--and at other times so bafflingly surprising it must be brilliant. It was like seeing a nostalgia band and the Next Big Thing, at the same time. Is that possible? How does the band get people to buy into this craziness? They've somehow freed their audience from the "smug hedonism, short attention span, and hunger for hits" Camille Paglia once warned rock stars against, and transformed even coolness-paralyzed Los Angelenos into patient, willing attenders.

I've read a few critics of postmodern art and have a rudimentary knowledge of music, and so it seems clear to me that My Morning Jacket, which is both rooted in the familiar and spilling into a sense of newness, provides a rich text to work with even if that text is problematic (because it risks caricature, parody, and worst of all, pastiche). MMJ might have a song that ends up soudning too much like the Doobies, or another that falls flat because their repetition of two chords is less like a trance and more like a ring-tone. However, the reason I don't think MMJ slips into these problems permanently, and why they have far more moments of genuine greatness, is that they are willing to keep pushing forward with an authentic experiment that isn't on a delineated path towards the Ultimate Expression of a particular Genre. If they were trying to achieve only one new take on one old sound, they’d likely succeed commercially and fail artistically. It’s their lack of perfect marketing built in that makes them interesting. They actually manage to be unique, even though you could name all kinds of artists and genres that seem to have influenced them. The trick is you just couldn’t name one or two—you’d have to think of five. So the fact that they are as successful as they are actually gives me some hope.

People who like watching great rock musicians are impressed by proficient solos, naturally. But jam bands, especially those whose musicians are truly genius, are impressive in their accepting the challenge of collaboration in a genre that didn't set out to accomodate it. They have to have some kind of jazz-mind. This is yet another way in which MMJ tumble a notion of manhood on its side: as much attention as Jim James gets as a frontman, this is a band that needs each other. Onstage, they aren't a bunch of ego-driven virtuosos deigning to play together for the chips a record company has promised them. They are bouncing in rhythm as a team, moving towards each other during the jam sections to watch each other carefully. They’ve matured since the exclusive head-banging antics they once displayed on Conan O’Brien. And maybe that’s the greatest compliment I can bestow on them: they write for people with adult emotional complexities, and manage to escape the cynicism and irony-addiction that are so ubiquitous in 20/30somethings. I’m tired of music for large, libidinous children. I love My Morning Jacket for making music for grown-ups with kinetic brains and conscious bodies.

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