Disavowing Jacko and Pixies
Why the idealizations of our favorite artists must be protected against these artists themselves
Question: What do betrayed Pixies and Michael Jackson fans have in common? Answer: Denial.
In the past month, two albums were released bearing two of the most resonant names in pop history. These are Indie Cindy by Pixies and Xscape by Michael Jackson, and other than their respective stamps of holiness, there’s little to connect the pair. However, both have received mixed press, with some mouthpieces welcoming solid if unsurprising returns from their idols, and others piling on enough condemnation to start a minor religion. This latter reaction is pretty curious, since it’s been exhibited by writers who’ve rejected the two pieces of merchandise largely on the basis of failings and issues that also impinged to varying degrees on earlier efforts by the two respective acts, efforts these same people so zealously revered. I contend, however, that a certain breed of fan and critic was either unwilling or unable to acknowledge unflattering truths that have held for much longer than a few months, and that one of the reasons why they’ve come out so harshly against both Indie Cindy and Xscape is that these two releases threaten to unearth and expose such truths to the cold light of 2014, to encapsulate everything negative that can be said about Pixies and Michael Jackson. Therefore, if nothing is done to undermine the possibility that both albums might actually be representative of the output that preceded them, they could potentially dethrone two sacred cows from their unimpeachable positions in the musical Pantheon.
Well, at Tiny Mix Tapes, we’re not that fussed about sacred cows, which is why I wrote two reviews that more or less adopted the reverse tack, and since they ended up sharing the same underlying perspective, we’ve decided to collate them into a feature. Enjoy. Or not.
Where Is My Band? How Indie Cindy marks the transformation of “Pixies” into a name that no longer signals the reality of its bearers
You all know the timeless Wildean adage: “There are only two tragedies in life — one is not getting what you want, and the other is getting it.” Well, here it is, exactly what some of us have been dreaming about for more than two decades: a new Pixies album, and it’s every bit as fantastic as you could’ve imagined. Seriously, the largely grey, generic, faceless microwavable rock of Indie Cindy is fantastic, precisely because it serves its proper and only function: to furnish an occasion for the strengthening of the canonical, mythologized status of its sibling records. Gone are the batty vocals that ripped from unsavory whispers to ballistic whelps, gone are the penetrating dynamics that jabbed from off-kilter innocence to disabling shitstorms, gone is the girl-monster counterpoint between Deal and Black, gone is the inventive palette that ranged the band from perversely tender funk (“Hey”) and savage noise (“Rock Music”) to surf-y pop (“Here Comes Your Man”) and ghostly anti-ballads (“Where is My Mind?”); in their place is a vacuum cleared by inoffensive mall-rock of the most dismissible order, so dismissible it permits a legend to be embellished without any viable competition from an imperfect present.
Toeing these histrionics to one side, Indie Cindy is simply an average rock album, but it’s fascinating insofar as it presents a near-perfect case study of how music fans/critics will strive to disassociate a band from itself when that band veers too far from the mythemes tacked around it. Admittedly, pretty much everything you’ve read about the album’s material is more or less true, with songs like the faintly mawkish “Greens and Blues” and its comatose melody or the bar-room hard rock of “Blue Eyed Hexe,” liable to push overgrown children into a sullen despair. But there’s one thing denied by certain commentators and eulogists, and it’s that the album is in continuity with Pixies’ earlier incarnation, that it picks the band up almost exactly where they left off with the overrated and occasionally mundane Trompe Le Monde, and that rather than being a body-snatching anomaly, it fixes nicely onto the tail-end of the Bostonians’ “natural” trajectory.
Take “Planet of Sound” with its alternation between two-note bass line and headbanging riff, the kind of open-note phrase any high-school metal band could spit out without losing too much saliva; or “Letter to Memphis” and its one-gear slowpoke through nondescript three-chord rudiments, decorated by overbearing, obnoxious guitar fills and an EQ that had already assumed a chunkier, less distinctive tonality. How are these Le Monde songs fundamentally distinct from Cindy opener “What Goes Boom,” wherein the band seesaws between chugging distortion and a playfully sentimental chorus, or from “Snakes,” whose harried skipping between 6/8 and 4/4 introduces a slither of tension into its mid-paced racing? The difference is only one of degrees, of quantity rather than quality, with Black’s singing and lyrics arguably conveying more of a manic urgency in its earlier versions, and with the interplay between quiet and loud being slightly more palpable. And yet over the past months, it’s been said the (now) three-piece have been "wiped clean of their basic essence," that they're an "uninspired simulacrum of a once-great band", with the intention here being to divorce Pixies from themselves, or rather to identify their brand name not with flesh and blood, but with an abstraction, a sanctified, infallible image that had been doctored over the course of their absence.
Taken further, this process of disassociation becomes a way of perpetuating that absence, of implying that the real (read "virtual") Pixies are nowhere to be found, despite the patent fact that the band is right in our fucking faces. Moreover, its disavowals serve to protect the idealized nostalgia surrounding the band from a form of guilt by association, from the implication that their earlier output harbored comparable flaws, and in this light, it's telling that so much of the criticism surrounding EP 1 and EP 2 has focused more on denial and negation, on what Pixies no longer are rather than on what they've become, as if to imply there are so many voids, lacks, and negativities infesting the group that they are consequently suffering from some ontological crisis, that they're on the cusp of vanishing into thin air. Hence, the creepingly hushed "Magdalena 318" simply becomes a lesser track from Bossanova or Teenager of the Year, rather than a quietly atmospheric skulk that exists in its own right. Similarly, title track "Indie Cindy" is "more like a Francis solo career off-cut," that is, more like the shadow, negative, or receding echo of a former glory than a self-standing play between embittered, descending rants and earnest professions of being "in love with your daughter." So it quickly becomes apparent that, even if the band had turned in some genuinely innovative, shit-hot experiments in gamelan-Krautrock-free-jazz-noise-pop, there would still have been a contingent of pissed-off diehards, all incensed that each item on their checklist hadn't been crossed off, and all struggling via repositionings and rationalizations to salvage their gilded notion of a rock band.
Even if the band had turned in some genuinely innovative, shit-hot experiments in gamelan-Krautrock-free-jazz-noise-pop, there would still have been a contingent of pissed-off diehards...
Their fixation on suspended, purified memories has at least one unfortunate ramification, because in failing to acknowledge that the sedated guitar chimes and lukewarm tremolo-picking of a gentle clip like "Ring the Bell" might actually be very faithful to the lives and mindsets of three middle-aged and perhaps resignedly doleful men, it betrays a disregard and disrespect for the verisimilitude, the realism, the faithfulness that still in fact presides as a foundation of the group's art. And this deafness risks undermining the band's legacy, implying such artistic fidelity to life and experience was never a factor in the love that accumulated around Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, and Bossanova in the first place, that we adulated these (brilliant) records only to the extent that, aside from "rocking," they complaisantly accommodated parts of our egos and fantasies. In other words, you never loved Pixies because they were "Truth," and the hostile takeover of their name is evidence we didn't care about or respect the band qua artists, but only as entertainers and indulgers. So instead of preserving that name, a certain hardcore of fans and their cocoon of hyperbolic distraction sully it even further.
Pixies (top), "Pixies" (bottom)
But to usher this all to a close, at the root of their censorship and exaggeration is perhaps one fundamental problem. Being an unquestionably influential entry in pop history, an outfit that has echoes in every band from Nirvana to U.S. Maple, the latter-day emergence of Pixies necessitates that everyone now sounds like them and they now sound like everyone. "Another Toe in the Ocean," with its palm-muted verses and sub-anthemic chorus, could easily be the work of any Nickelback, Foo Fighters, or Green Day, and as a result, there are some who suffered the compulsion to disown the band. Any relation between their present and their past is therefore refused, since to affirm such a relation would be to affirm that the whole Pixies oeuvre isn't as an exceptional as we'd like to think, that its elevation above the herd is primarily a matter of time and place, and not a matter of style, structure, and substance. And perhaps this is the nub of the problem, with the trio being a self-extension, an existential prosthetic for so many of us that we find it difficult to accept a 21st century Pixies. We can't look at the reflection the band offers us in the present context, since it tells us, "You're not special," "You listen to a homogeneous band and must therefore be a homogeneous person," and so we retreat into insanely pointless 10.0 reviews of albums everyone already knows about, into the comfort of musical folklore, where assorted figures preside as inimitable singularities that reinforce our own deluded sense of singularity.