The Idler Wheel
Styles: pop, memoir, talking cure
Others: Joanna Newsom, Eleanor Friedberger, Drake
“The thing that scares me most is Tumblr… Instead of kids going out and making their own moments, they’re just taking these images and living vicariously through other people’s moments. It just kills me. Then you’ll meet them and they’re just the biggest turkey in the world. They don’t actually embody any of those things. They just emulate. It’s scary man, simulation life that we’re living. It scares me.” –Drake, November 7, 2011
“Everybody out there that’s watching this world — this world is bullshit. And you shouldn’t model your life — wait a second — you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself. Go with yourself.” –Fiona Apple, September 4, 1997
What’s in an act of confession? Bravery, perhaps; exhibitionism, almost certainly. Human motivation is a twisted, tricky thing; our capacity for dissonance is infinite. We can belittle exhibitionism, diminish it. We can praise the fearlessness, the bracing honesty of a moment of revelation. No matter how we feel about such behaviors, we must acknowledge their existence, the proliferation of these acts, curated across the internet, confession’s ruthless, ever-willing accomplice.
We can ask ourselves arbitrary questions. Which is higher on the hierarchy of needs: release or attention? To pick a side would be foolish. Social networks provide enough evidence to prove that both matter, most of all when the urge to divulge takes hold. We can discourage the neediness that drives the behavior, while admiring the naïve purity of these acts. Or at least we can tell ourselves that we’re able to revere only the good parts — the truth-telling, the catharsis — without having to confront the ways in which we enable disconnection, self-absorption, and misery.
The exhibition is problematic, but we, in the audience, are the greater problem. We lust for authenticity, for our own moment of insight or interconnection. Everything is commodified nowadays, and a real, ugly thing is a rarer find than the synthesized pleasantry of most products marketed and consumed. Boil it down to supply and demand, if you must. We turn hobos into hotspots, piggybacking our need for constant stimulation over the more primal requirements of others, debasing ourselves in the process.
Once our needs and desires are sated, we become comfortable, uncritical; we stop making connections, we lose the threads of our thoughts and feelings. What is it that we’re trying not to think about? What is it we don’t want to admit?
A recorded piece of music can be a mode of confession, but for it to succeed as such, it must be unmitigated, unfiltered, something difficult, if not altogether impossible. Otherwise, what we take for reality is really just a well-edited segment of prose. Some artists can Orson Welles themselves sufficiently. From the alarm, the panic in their voices, we infer some kind of documentary status. We are so seduced by the illicit thrill of realness that we fail to recognize the expert craftwork that goes into the selling of this sort of deception.
Is it possible that our critical encouragement and financial support is just another moment when we forget that we’re not supposed to feed the troll? Surely it would be unfair to blame the artist for our own gullibility. Drake can complain all he wants about negative effects of the internet, but how much more simulated can life become once you’ve recorded your own drunken voicemails and stitched them into a lead single? In order for his career to continue, he has no option other than to embrace dissonance; he must be real, so that he can curate this realness, so that it may be produced, consumed, processed, and shat out. He can reject technologically-augmented modes of confession, while trafficking in little else but. It’s okay, we reason, exhibitionism is a sound business decision. We all want to be reassured that those artists whose work we follow — especially the good-looking, successful ones — are just as lonely and unhappy as we think we are.
Maybe this would all be easier to parse were we honest with ourselves. A little more realness couldn’t hurt. The art is worthy of acclaim; the talent, skill, and self-possession required to express such sentiments convincingly are deserving of praise. Why do we not, then, laud the crystallization of a theme, the sanding and sharpening of personal elements into a hardened, physical form? Why is it the fearlessness, the lack of shame, that draws our attentions? The act of focusing in on what we interpret as authenticity lessens the impact of the work itself, not only in terms of the finished product, but also in regard to the brutal labor of its creation.
For some reason, I think of tightrope walking. Are we awed by the risks incurred or because we understand on some level that, with enough discipline and training, a person — one of us, even — could do what seems impossible? And whether or not we’re aware of it, there’s always a safety net — not that awareness of it should detract from the awesome spectacle of the performance. Maybe most damaging of all is the confession that we want it both ways; the illusion of danger is inseparable from the comfortable distance that art allows us. It’s possible that this is the realness we can’t stomach. A stranger’s self-disclosure is almost always a performance, and no matter what it makes us feel, it can’t harm us. We’re the only ones with the ability to do such a thing. Whether or not we choose to disclose the things best kept to ourselves, we are damaged by our willingness to mistake performance for truth. We make suckers of ourselves, ready to commit unquestioningly to causes we still do not fully comprehend, motivated by urges about which we’d really rather not think.
How does The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do fare according to either of these poles? There’s a commitment to over-sharing; the album provides a perverse, titillating first-hand glimpse into the romantic failures of a long-time celebrity, a level of access typically reserved for late-career memoirs and unflattering journalistic profiles. Whatever the art is worth as art, it can’t help but succeed along these prurient parameters. The anger, the intimacy, the insecurity gives the listener a nervous thrill; we are repulsed, but not as often as we find ourselves gratified. It would not be unreasonable to argue that the pleasures of The Idler Wheel are not dissimilar to those of petty, commonplace schadenfreude. By record’s end, we’re likely to feel better about our own lives, about the minor, passive disappointments that occur continuously to us. It feels liberating to know that we could have it so much better, and yet also much, much worse.
Can the album be judged solely on the merits of the music? Can we ignore the matters inferred — authenticity, biography, cultivated closeness — and focus instead on some objective standard of measurement? Trying to ignore the words, the pitch of the artist’s voice, is difficult, but even through pinched ears, it requires a good deal of obstinacy to recall the name of an album that does this sort of thing, but better. Although minimally composed, there’s a wide range of emotions represented within the album’s 10 songs. The Idler Wheel’s ramshackle, barely-holding-it-together aesthetic can’t be anything but carefully constructed, but in an artistic sense, that’s a virtue, not a vice.
The best and worst thing that can be said is that no matter the album’s — as well as its artist’s — capacity for ugliness, there’s little risk in recommending it to your mother, your partner, that guy who works in the cubicle next to yours. There’s no such thing as universal appeal, but The Idler Wheel, despite its brittle sound and frequent fury, is galactic, at the very least. Should it debut at the top of the Billboard 200, there will be little cause for shock. When you first hear one of these songs re-purposed on a rapper’s mixtape, you should find yourself similarly unsurprised. It takes no stretch of the imagination to picture Drake downloading The Idler Wheel off iTunes and instantly proclaiming it to be the realest shit he never wrote. Perhaps the most damning thing you can say about this album is that it possesses the ruthless understanding needed to market transgression to the broadest possible audience. Even at its bleakest, The Idler Wheel is a four-quadrant smash hit.
Over-thinking is exhausting, ultimately. Would it really be so bad if, in the end, after all of these ouroborian, half-parsed digressions, we submit to the illusion of authenticity? How can we know definitively whether Ophelia is more attractive than the actor playing her? It would be, at the very least, easier than continuing the attempt to understand the relationship between the dishwater lives we lead and the unflattering, sordid fantasies with which we pacify ourselves. Sometimes, all we want is to be tourists within the minds of others, even knowing that this particular desire can’t ever be requited. There are any number of reasons we can supply for our enjoyment of this record, most of which should be credited to the artist. Justification is a fool’s errand; that we feel anything at all about it should be more than enough.
Fiona Apple deserves top marks; we’re the ones who are failing.
01. Every Single Night
05. Left Alone
09. Anything We Want
10. Hot Knife