The Music Club

Eminem, Mark Kozelek, Robin Thicke, and Ariel Pink: Middle-aged white dudes could learn a lot from “Weird Al.”

Entry 9: The year’s many lessons for middle-aged white dudes.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images and Ralph Arvesen/Wikimedia Commons.
Eminem and Mark Kozelek.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images and Ralph Arvesen/Wikimedia Commons.

Dear Ann, Lindsay, and guests,

Dammit, Ann, we have to stop meeting like this—can’t believe you beat me to singing Wussy’s praises, as I’ve been a devotee of the gospel according to Chuck Cleaver (and then Lisa Walker) for 20 years, going back to the early Ass Ponys days (1993’s Grim, with this unutterably ’90s-indie lyric: “Standing on the highway/ My pants around my knees/ I’d write her name out in the snow/ But I can’t piss ‘Denise’ ”). One of the aspects I adore about Attica! is the way it incorporates not only personal history, those fading tattoos Ann mentions, but also musical history, the worn band T-shirt to match. For the die-hard music lover, the two can be tough to disentangle, as Walker outlines in the album’s levitating first track, “Teenage Wasteland,” with its “Baba O’Riley”-referencing title and its opening lines: “Do you remember the moment when you finally did something about it/ When the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of your heart?”

I remember, but it’s getting to be a damnably long time ago. As long as we’re noting personal losses and ailments, this year I had surgery for a double-fractured wrist and then, just while we’ve been chatting, was hit by an immobilizing first-ever attack of kidney stones. It’s inevitably left me mulling getting older and how to make not-the-worst of it. Music is bound up with our culture’s notions of youth, but it’s also deeply fit to limn and soothe the ravages of age, in part because its very nature as a medium is to mark time. (Jason, I was struck and moved by your comparison of D’Angelo’s comeback to Linklater’s Boyhood as an artistic time machine.)

In those terms, one of the most startling tunes of the year was Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” the only song I’ve ever heard written from the front end of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis—the twist to the title line being that he won’t miss his wife because he won’t recognize her. She’ll be going through hell, and the great country-pop crossover star (the Taylor Swift of the late 1960s and early 1970s) knows it, but, he sings, “It’s never gonna hurt me when you cry.” How often does a singer convince us that he’s singing to us from a future he won’t live to see? It reminds me of the frank self-eulogies Warren Zevon recorded for posthumous album The Wind while dying of cancer a decade ago, but with an even more tender brutality.

That’s the thing about genuinely mature artists: You really can express so much when you have no fucks left to give. The more awkward stage, especially for pop musicians, tends to come just after the lucratively youthful phase, when they’re still clinging to the desire to compete and either get hits or just stay cool. Earlier this year I wrote about a new tribute album that aimed to reclaim some Bob Dylan songs from the 1980s, and while there were lots of reasons those songs were scorned in their day, from production styles to lingering suspicions about religious agendas, I think mainly it felt unseemly to witness Dylan vying for sales against Huey Lewis and the News.

This year it felt like Mariah Carey got stuck in that position, particularly vis-à-vis Ariana Grande. But with the music business in the state it’s in now, that’s a quixotic hope. Mostly veterans focus on other ambitions. Along with some already named, I’d mention the new albums by Bryan Ferry, Marianne Faithfull, the Reigning Sound, Sinead O’Connor, Swans, Bob Mould, Pere Ubu, Neneh Cherry, Tori Amos, Steve Albini’s Shellac, Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys (American Interior, a wonderfully weird concept album about an ancestor of his who was commissioned in the 1790s to travel the States in search of a Native American tribe supposedly descended from lost Welsh explorers), the New Mendicants (a supergroup of the obscure, with Joe Pernice, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, and the Sadies’ Mike Belitsky), and that grand enigma Scott Walker in cahoots with drone-doom-metal band Sunn O))).

Among the many sorts of wisdom these artists are able to mete out, the ones by older white guys in particular often reflect on their own past indulgences and sins from a more tranquil height—as I wrote in Slate this fall, the likes of Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III can offer a kind of role modeling to young hipster dudes about how not to repeat their bad behavior. That’s especially valuable when so many other straight-male artists are still being exhausting embarrassments.

Forget Robin Thicke and Eminem (whose refusal to grow or learn was deliciously skewered last month by Molly Lambert). Look at supposed bohemians like Ariel Pink, whose music I’ve wrestled with on a love-hate level for a decade but whose childish attempts at provocation have settled the needle permanently at yuck. Worse yet is Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon (formerly Red House Painters), whose mopey music I’ve long admired, and who hit one of his peaks with this year’s deep storytelling collection Benji. He’s always been sulky and petulant with audiences and venues, but he outdid himself in 2014 by beefing endlessly with the band the War on Drugs over sound-bleed issues at a summer festival, culminating in a musical screed against them that Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy pinpointed perfectly as “male-pattern violence.” (Graves’ outspoken writing makes me love her noisy band all the more.)

As Graves’ quip hints, there’s a middle-aged syndrome lurking in all of that, too, a kind of curdled sourness that you often sense emanating off white male musical auteurs who feel their genius has never been given its due—they might have spurned conventional success as young above-it-all artistes, but shouldn’t it come along anyway? Resentment is a much worse look than bald spots and love handles, guys—let’s beware it.

That’s one reason, I think, that it was such an unexpected delight for “Weird Al” Yankovic to have his extended moment in the midsummer sun this year. Yes, it was a careful marketing coup, but it was also a pretty big achievement for a novelty artist decades into his career. As much as I appreciate Pharrell’s “Happy,” I was grateful that Weird Al, as so often, found a way to offset its ubiquity by needling its shallow underbelly with his ecstatic video “Tacky.” But more so, Weird Al shifts not only celebrity conceitedness but straight white masculinity into the only mode it often felt like it merited this year—parody. That humble, inherently self-questioning, funhouse-mirror view of social power is one that guys like me can learn from: We need to apply the same analysis to gender progress that Chris Rock brought to racial progress—it doesn’t mean the repressed party somehow becomes “better,” but that the dominant side stops being quite so crappy.

(By the way, between Questlove’s roles as drummer and facilitator on Black Messiah, soundtrack impresario for Rock’s Top Five, producer and bandleader on the fine new Roots album, and writer behind his series of essays on hip-hop and black America for Vulture, let’s just hand him his MVP trophy for the year here and now, yet again.)

Powerful interrogations of masculinity also came from queer men and other gender nonconformists this year. There’s a reason the ancient Greeks portrayed their greatest sage as one who’d lived each side of the gender divide. Several of us put Against Me’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues on our album lists, for frontwoman Laura Jane Grace’s retooling of the band’s politicized mall-punk sound to tell the story of her recent gender transition in the rawest of terms. An airy, funky futurist queer sound was found on Perfume Genius’ breakthrough album Too Bright. And Owen Pallett’s In Conflict, as the title signals, is a full-length exploration of the fine line between deconstruction and breakdown, of the psychic costs of social and sexual binaries, and the struggle to locate a viable adult self among them. That may make it sound laborious, but the Montreal-based Pallett is also a prodigious melodist and arranger whose skills only become more overwhelming with every release. The songs sweep you up in cascades of sound, then lower you gradually but inexorably toward the rocks beneath the surface.

This is one of those uncomfortable moments when I have to disclose that, in the years I’ve been covering his work, Pallett and I have become friends, but I’m pretty at ease that my assessment of his talent would be the same either way, as it’s rather widely shared. He was nominated for an Oscar this year for his work on the soundtrack to Spike Jonze’s Her, toured as a collaborator with the Arcade Fire, and wrote some of the year’s best music criticism (his half-ironic yet rigorous musicological analyses of pop hits for Slate). He also contributed strings and arrangements to two more of my favorite 2014 albums, Pink City by the visionary Toronto singer-songwriter Jennifer Castle, and Ontario Gothic by Foxes in Fiction, a gorgeous, elegiac project from Toronto via Brooklyn, from Warren Hildebrand of the indie specialty label Orchid Tapes.

Finally, both maturity and manhood are at issue and under fire on the second album by the duo of El-P and Killer Mike, Run the Jewels 2. Even without Killer Mike’s impassioned (and viral) speech from a St. Louis stage the night of the Ferguson grand jury decision, there’s an energy to this album, a presence that (even in its raunchier moments) constantly underlines the message that black lives matter. It testifies by force of sheer persistence, in the voices of two underground heroes (one black and one white) who’ve not just survived but stepped up past the often too-short lifespan of rap careers to a new plateau.

I’m well aware RTJ is one of the standard crossover picks among white critics, though. I fell behind this year on new hip-hop—I was impressed but didn’t dig deep with Young Thug and YG, haven’t listened to J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hill Drive yet, and am neutral on newbies like Rae Sremmurd and Bobby Shmurda. So the rest of you will have to fill me in on what I missed, especially our guest clubber in this round, Craig Jenkins, who covers hip-hop and other music for many venues, including Pitchfork. I do co-sign Jason’s endorsement of the dizzying Azealia Banks album, though. (It would have made my list if I’d heard it sooner.) And I’d ride for a few others, such as Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s killer Piñata and Isaiah Rashad’s Gen Kendrick debut Cilvia Demo.

Speaking of which, did you all see Lamar premiere that new untitled song (“What Does the Black Man Say?” maybe) the other night, as the last musical guest ever on Colbert? It totally knocked me out. It made me fantasize about the records he’ll make when he’s in his 60s, if we’re all lucky enough to last that long. 

So says the great professor of all there is to know,