You might have noticed an invasion in art, design and music by the ridiculously cute. Every hip gift shop you walk into these days is flooded with cut-out deer necklaces, porcelain bunnies or vintage floral pinafores. You’re not allowed to be in a band any more unless it has an animal in the title, and images of innocence and youth – however distorted – flood contemporary art scenes. In a 2-part blog post, The Cultured Animal explores the significance of these trends.
The Animal Invasion
Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, Animal Collective, Patrick Wolf, Wolf Parade, The Mountain Goats, Band of Horses, Deerhoof – oh god, I’m getting dizzy, and I’ve only listed a couple of the hip bands.
I like to think that the presence of animals in pop culture serves to remind us that we’re part of something bigger and that we should eat a slice of humble pie. Philosophical thought from Aristotle to Descartes and beyond has a history of separating humans from the rest of the animal kingdom on the basis of our superior rationality, and this is a concept we continue to struggle with today. Yet we are precocious creatures, and our brains have built our civilisation by taming a planet that, with climate change, is apparently coming back to bite us on the arse. We think we’re so clever, but we really do some stupid things. Just look at Fukushima.
A friend of mine once professed to worship monkeys. They’re smart enough, but not so smart as to get the better of themselves. The evolution of the ape went just one step too far, and now we are clocking over into self-destruction (that is, if you go down the common train of catastrophic thought that can’t seem to fathom a way out of this mess).
Now I’m thinking about the Pixies’ “Monkey Gone to Heaven” – okay, it’s not new, but it is great.
The Animal Passion of Neko Case
One of my favourite contemporary musicians, Neko Case, has progressed stylistically in her musical career from her hillbilly rock’n'roll roots to an obscure style all of her own, which is richly poetic in its lyricism, and non-linear and complexly layered in its music. Thematically, she is concerned with reinserting humans into nature’s hierarchy. The opening track of her last album Middle Cyclone, “This Tornado Loves You”, is on one level a love song, yet the narrator’s destructive passion is grafted onto the metaphor of a catastrophic tornado that tears up everything in its path. The theme is continued in “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” the third track and first single off the album. Its chorus (“I’m a man man man, man man man eater/But still you’re surprised when I eat yer”), delivered with Case’s strong but feminine vocals, might sound like a bit of old-fashioned femenism upon first listen. But in fact the man eater in question is not a femme fatale (although no doubt she is playing on this), but nature itself. The tone of the album as a whole is that of bereavement; the lyrical imagery paints a picture of an emptied world, all of which works on the double level of the real dangers presented by a dying planet, but also, on the personal level, of a dying love.
Multifaceted Music for a Multifaceted World
Case’s progression from a simpler, twangy rock sound to something more complex is just one example, but rock music today seems to be getting increasingly complicated, and perhaps that’s fitting for a world which is also becoming more complicated. The trend is in no way surprising – after all, the musical influences are only getting more numerous, plus new technology means kids these days can not only access it like never before, but have an orgiastic array of choice when it comes to going about producing noise. This type of rock has a rhythmic pop sensibility, fused with the vocal gymnastics of a Motown hit, and glorious harmonies to boot – these kids aren’t afraid to sing. It’s clean but messy: well-produced with digital precision, but there’s so much going on it’s hard to contain the chaos (and why would you want to?).
Fleet Foxes wrote a self-titled concept album that’s basically entirely about a bunch of animals and people living in a forest. It’s got some beautifully poetic lyrical imagery, and the dreamy, folky guitars are accompanied by reverb-drenched vocal harmonies that are nothing short of heavenly. But much of the complicated layering going on in bands these days is about mixing this kind of lightness with darkness, bringing together the heavy with the high to illuminate the shadows of our world, and a possible path through them. Akron/Family’s “Silly Bears,” from their latest album, the obscurely titled Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, is an onslaught of stampeding drums and distorted bass-notes mixed with the ridiculous fun of noisy-but-happy – anthemic, even – guitar riffs, celebratory harmonies and all sorts of other interesting noises (and, of course, silly lyrics). Grizzly Bear are also worth mentioning here – their stand-out single “Two Weeks,” off their 2009 release Veckatimest, starts with a rhythmic, trebly piano riff that’s quickly interrupted by what sounds like an elephant landing on its arse. But the elephant bounces – the song is infectious, brilliant, and carried by, yes, fantastic harmonies.
Okay, so he may be more pop than rock (although I’m not going to delve into what does or does not define a genre here), but Patrick Wolf is also pretty good at juxtaposing heaviness with light. His poptastic 2006 single “Accident & Emergency” is joyously catchy, embellished with (distorted) chorusing children and cute, toylike sounds. It also has a heavy, club-influenced bass-line and catastrophic lyrics (“Accident and emergency/Terrorist catastrophe/Drop this agony and misery …”). The reference to serious issues, delivered with tongue-in-cheek humour, is playful and endearing, but the positive message is clear: “Accident and emergency keep bringing out the best in me.”
These trends are largely about putting the fun the back into rock. The references to dirtier influences are swept up in the technological chaos that defines the youth of today. There is a mood of optimism, even if it’s undercut by a lingering hint of darkness. The big scary Grizzly Bear just want to be your friend. Gone are the days when it’s cool to smash guitars and throw TV’s out the windows of opulent hotels. Being decadent and squandering the riches of an excessive lifestyle is no longer cool in a society that is potentially ruining things for its children by living the good life today. Being green has not usually been all that sexy, but if rock music can remind us where we belong in nature’s plan – and that it’s okay to just be nice – then I think maybe it’s starting to be.
Playfulness in music also serves as a sort of disclaimer that a band isn’t taking itself too seriously. Because can art really be that serious, when there are far more pressing issues in the world? (I’m opening a big can of worms here, and don’t I know it). Injecting a bit of humour also means that when someone does try a heart-wrenching ballad or a serious verse, it feels all that more poignant in contrast.
Stay tuned for part two on this topic when The Cultured Animal discusses childishness in contemporary art, fashion and design.