Devendra Banhart; photo © Chris Buck, 2003
Race, rock and the New Weird America
by Kandia Crazy Horse
The roles that we construct are constructed because we feel that they will help us to survive and also, of course, because they fulfill something in our personalities; and one does not, therefore, cease playing a role simply because one has begun to understand it. All roles are dangerous. The world tends to trap you in the role you play and it is always extremely hard to maintain a watchful, mocking distance between oneself as one appears to be and oneself as one actually is. - James Baldwin, "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy," Esquire (May 1961)
Ota Benga got his own MySpace page this fall. Despite the fact that the so-called pygmy, who was exhibited at the Bronx Zoo's Monkey House a century ago, died in 1916, the New York Times' commemoration of Benga was the third freakiest marker of 2006 – after the ascension of psych-folk godfather Arthur Lee and the apotheosis of Georgian singer-MC Cee-Lo via Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewhere. Somehow, it seems no accident that the strange case of Ota Benga, an African victim of white America's insatiable appetite for freak spectacle and abiding will to define itself against projected savagery, should resurface in this year when minstrel-rap plagued Anyghetto, USA and the genre dubbed 'freak-folk' infiltrated primetime (even the GEICO caveman, the year's O.G. freak with his Jurassic snark, ain't got nothin' on Ole Ota – laughin' wit' ya, Jimmy Castor).
The New Weird America of the freak-folk looks and sounds an awful lot like the Old Weird America (per Greil Marcus), begot by the Good Ole Days that sustained minstrelsy, Stephen Foster and race records. And, as the older movement had Marcus applying his myth-and-symbolist lens to 20th century icons Elvis, Robert Johnson and The Band, the virtually all-white New Weird America sports psych-folk singer-songwriter and 21st century space cowboy Devendra Banhart as its chief curator – reluctant or no. California, too, is a unifier between the two overlapping musical eras: Marcus worked for Rolling Stone and wrote Mystery Train from his perch in Berkeley; Banhart resides in Los Angeles, while many of his freaky, cackle-voiced fellow travelers flit in and out of the Yay Area seemingly impervious to the parallel hyphy cultural revolution that's extended its reach from San Francisco across the nation. Call this cult-nat meets freaky-deak redux – except this time (unlike in the ‘60's), a siege mentality is causing young white freak-folk stars to erect a sonic preserve fit to buttress against the pop centrality of such colored genres as dirty South hip-hop, hyphy and reggaeton. That this is going down in a year when College Republicans at Boston University offered a whites-only scholarship ain't no joke. The crux must be that biracial Canadian rock band the Dears' released the Song of the Year: "Whites Only Party."
In reviewing the year 2006, I was inspired to respond to the above-ground eruption of freak-folk (aka 'psych-folk,' 'nu Americana,' 'avant-folk,' 'folktronica,' etc.) because of three factors: the death of my redbone Mother, with whom I planned to attend America's 400th anniversary at Jamestown; a chance meeting at April's racially-fraught Experience Music Pop conference (ask Stephin Merritt) with the publicist for this season's key reissue, Karen Dalton's In My Own Time; and a blog post at Mudd Up! challenging someone to examine the unbearable whiteness of the New Weird Beard movement. The post featured a disturbing photograph of bare-chested Banhart in his Williamsburg flat, wearing what looks like a homemade Plains Indian war bonnet and sporting tribal-looking tattoos. Ota Benga, Banhart and Gnarls all co-exist on MySpace (ED NOTE: Ota's page is now down), but who's zooming who in the circus of the White Man's Burden?
Of course, as a DC native – and Native American -- I come by my interest in this movement naturally: in the 1950's and 1960's, the Old Weird Americana's illuminati, the so-called East Coast Blues Club, coalesced in the Nation's Capitol and in adjacent Montgomery County's hamlets Silver Spring and Takoma Park. The latter burg's name – which also graced the label of the city's finger-picking freak-folk icon John Fahey (1939-2001) -- reportedly comes from an indigenous word meaning "high up near heaven." Fahey serves as appropriate template since he heeded the siren call to California and his aesthetic ran to Native American, raga and blues styles, setting a precedent for his idiosyncratic 21st century acolytes... Banhart, Asa Irons et al who are re-constructing American folk music awash in the Mystic.
Growing up in DC, one sees the literal U.S. Constitution early on, and yet I was born knowing that we have never been one nation (and not just because that document enshrined slavery – or that our local team was dubbed the Washington Redskins). 'We, the People' remain a complicated, violent rogue's gallery of savages, freaks, turncoat hustlers and dominant whites, unable to just get along. In this moment of persistent racial division and cultural warfare hinged on the relative power of Hip-Hop Nation, New Weird Americana looks like the end result of ruin triggered by Master of Disaster Columbus dancing across the water to the New World. It thus seems no accident that freak-folk – a willful, aesthetic adoption of colored signifiers – is attaining currency when whites have become the minority in California (and several other states, including Hawaii). Or that the movement incubated in a state named for an African queen where nonetheless whiteness is manufactured by Hollywood for America to export to the world's darker regions -- and where the country's pioneers and later outlaws (literal, cultural) have historically fled to wrestle with the limits of Manifest Destiny. The devotees of NWA (not the rap group but New Weird America, as I'll occasionally refer to it in this essay) and its response appears to be the painstaking, handcrafted construction of a sonic utopia, an aesthetic gated community, if you will – like Hollywood's much-cherished "somewhere over the rainbow," SF band Vetiver refers to their cyberplace as the "vetiverse."
Like the embryonic 1960's San Francisco Scene that was sparked by Texan impresario Chet Helms, the cosmic cowboys of Virginia City, Nevada's Red Dog Saloon and their house band, the (original) Charlatans, Banhart and his peers (Animal Collective, Akron/Family, Grizzly Bear, Espers, Feathers, etc.) seem in thrall to the Myth of the West. They're definitely obsessed with a lost American pastoral (as Joni Mitchell once sang, "We got to get ourselves back to the Garden... some semblance of a garden..."); these bands' lyrics and album art are nothing if not woodsy. This is supplemented by Southern gothic elements from such key players as Vetiver's Andy Cabic (a native of northern Virginia who formerly lived in Greensboro, NC), Alabama duo Brightblack Morning Light, Texas' Brothers & Sisters and Florida's Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine, who originally hails from South Carolina). Do these primitive fetishists perhaps envy the stark simplicity of the western code... and that era's violent solution to ethnic cleansing? These artists have benefited from the American frontier's pursuit of tribal tabula rasa, after all, and it's yielded the self-renewing agency to achieve cultural purity by denying whatever dark obstacles should dare to present themselves on the nation's stage. And thus, the past within the present rears its hideous head in the season of Thanksgiving, the rebirth of Christ, of Borat's scathing exposé of Ugly Americans (and their debilitating racism) and the meditation on the fall of the Mayan Empire that is Apocalypto (the latter has already prompted Maya chic, as one can now get Maya-Inca astrology reports done online).
The outlaw trappings and apostate nature of the freak-folk bohemia is not without precedent, of course. Just think of painter/boho chic icon Augustus John and his muse Dorelia's ménage in rural England. Or legendary occultist Aleister Crowley's floating Thelema cult (a key precursor to Scientology), fleeing from societal outrage across Europa. Nineteenth century French Romantics were peculiarly guilty of bootlegging Africana into modernity and of denying their European selves and bourgeois origins. While Baudelaire shacked up with mulata prostitute Jeanne Duval and blighted her black bottom with syphilis, Flaubert ran amok in Egypt, chasing a "visionary alternative in contrast to the grayish tonality of the French provincial landscape." Excusez moi -- this quote seems to have trickled up from the subconscious of Grandaddy's Jason Lytle, who retired this year, and hopefully will not succumb to freeway rage and sprawl-zilla after his move from Modesto to La La Land.
Hailing his friend/lover/rival Rimbaud as "the splendidly civilized, carelessly civilizing savage," Verlaine ushered in the long season of the "white negro." And so it goes from that day to this, with Fergie patently "sampling" Gwen Stefani's Blonde Venus shtick (as Gwenihana did her cousin Madonna in her turn). The Fergalicious One traded up on the cultural tip, following her royalty-referencing moniker to its end point by loudly proclaiming the grasping Anglophilia of her Londonlondonlondon (sadly, no relation to "London, London" by Banhart hero Caetano Veloso). A tussle over the much-prized Golden Negress throne thus ensued between Fergie, baby-besmirched Gwen and no-longer-so-fair Lady Madge, who bought herself a black manchile in Malawi to prove to Angelina Jolie just who is Mama Afrika (will liverlip and bluegum surgery follow the celebutot bitch-slap?). Beyoncé, Gwen's soul yodel rival, just kept trying to channel Josephine Baker (for Madge and Jigga's sakes, let's hope a 21st century Rainbow Tribe ain't next).
When self-consciously dubbing their work "elegiac, humorous, bizarre," is it the Dadaists of Zurich's Cabaret Voltaire talking or the Californian denizens of New Weird America?
Was it Tod Browning's peeps or colored folks who cry in the urban jungle, "One of us, one of us"?
Has freak-folk enjoyed a sonic boom in 2006 because white rockers feel like they're the last of their race? Certainly, that über-California babe Stefani, de Angel-baby o' Anaheim, seems to suggest so, showing her ass and co-optation exhaustion during the disastrous December Saturday Night Live performance sampling "The Lonely Goatherd" (I predict a minstrel rap gold rush for The Sound of Music soundtrack). Per the great David Swerdlick in Creative Loafing: "Gwen's had a good long 10 year run of appropriating other cultures--from her hybrid punk/Chola look to her quartet of Asian American backup dancers." The erstwhile SoCal rocksteady delight is toasted; guess lovin' dat Londonlondonlondon will do you (and your aesthetic muscle) in.
Not that the western version of masking is always bad news. Troubadork (per Slate) "Weird Al" Yankovic rode the mystery train of his intransigent whiteness to triumph with a reconstruction of Chamillionaire's hit "Ridin'" as Straight Outta Lynwood's "White & Nerdy." While spitting such meta-mirthful rhymes as "MC Escher--that's my favorite MC," Yankovic slyly clowns the "suburban wigga" that is hip-hop's largest audience. The New Weird Americans, children of the ‘80's, are Yankovic's unacknowledged spawn too; he first hit in the year of Banhart's birth, with "Another One Rides the Bus," itself a revision of the disco cash-in of Queen, an iconic classic rock band fronted by an African. For over two decades, with those key Ray-Gun Era minstrels reveling in "white opportunities" (per Donald Bogle) -- Michael Jackson and Madonna -- as vital early muses, Yankovic's been one of minstrelsy's greatest critics, his lessons largely unheeded in our midst even as the odd hit has been praised ("Fat," "Smells Like Nirvana," "Amish Paradise"). The December SNL digital short, "Dick in a Box," co-starring Andy Bamberg and Southern white Negro Justin Timberlake (the funniest thang I seen last year), expertly played on blue-eyed soul, seeming to take its cues from Yankovic's genius (as remixed by Dave Chappelle). "White & Nerdy" (and its hilarious video) was the year's most direct and honest freak expression, a reminder that the "Weird" portion of Yankovic's moniker is very important. It ties with Borat in trenchant pop summary of the mid-2000's American mind.
However, from across the Pond, British-Jewish singer-songwriter Lewis Taylor's classic soul passion was just as honest on the Stateside re-release of Stoned. On the strength of his songs which dominated my internal landscape in '06 – from Stoned and the just-released Lost Album -- I can hang because Lewis Taylor is black like me. The devastating news of Taylor's retirement back in July suggests the Monkey House bars he thought were illusory turned out to be all too real.
Those former "New Beatles," OutKast, also found itself amidst a crisis akin to Ota Benga's in 2006, with the long-delayed release of their crunk-meets-Calloway musical Idlewild. The country-assed opus had some highlights (dance sequences at the Church speakeasy featuring a hybrid of the Lindy Hop and Rag Top) and was brimming with talent (Bobb'e J. Thompson as a junior version of Big Boi's gangsta-with-a-heart-of-gold "Rooster;" some of the previous generation's greatest conceptual artists of alternative California culture, Fishbone), yet was undermined by director/OutKast cohort Bryan Barber's reluctance (inability?) to strive for intellectual brilliance on par with the technical. Idlewild disappointed precisely because it seemed to desire a reference/echo of the trenchant, cleverly anachronistic work of an Ishmael Reed (think Mumbo Jumbo, as the flick was '30's-set). Yet the failure to challenge the long-standing, evil racial tropes embedded in showbiz turned the spectacle into a high-tech minstrel show. And so, for all their vision and creativity, OutKast did not evade the dark cloud and egg on their faces that followed their misbegotten redface "Hey Ya" debacle at the Grammys (the Gods must be angry?).
Because the New Weird America scene has emerged from a culture of insecurity – the post-civil rights nation in which OutKast can co-opt/clown Beatlemania – these artists' responses seem to be mapping a new aesthetic terrain of whiteness to attain privilege via sound. Thus, the New Weird Americans are professional savages, holding their public in thrall to high lonesome spectacle.
To be sure, I'm no innocent. In this skirmish of the culture wars, I too am unclean. Erstwhile NY Press editor John Strasbaugh, author of Black Like You, would claim I am racist in wondering about/probing the curious whiteness of the New Weird Beardites, because I am foregrounding race as these artists' inescapable causal noose instead of dismissing it as pure socio-scientific construct – because the thrust of this screed relies on the myth that America has ever had a white male monoculture. Yet I am at least shadowboxing with my sub-cultural demons onscreen, trying to work out just how I feel about the New Weird Americana for, as the late great James Baldwin said in his rebuttal to Norman Mailer's infamous "White Negro" essay, "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy" from Esquire: "Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable".
Thus far, I've fence-sat regarding the past three or so years' flowering of freak-folk's "Whites Only Party," catching the odd exultant feature in Arthur magazine. I remain both attracted and repulsed by the movement. Yes, my concerns about it are racial, stemming from my precarious position on the American scene as creolized, gendered Other – because my primary work in the 2000's (while this music has flourished as the stepchild of 1980's and '90's anti-folk) has centered on the entrenched resistance to the African presence in rock & roll as founders and practitioners. Per my colleague Tom Terrell's incisive PopMatters column, "Racism Killed Rock: Part II" (which can be read here):
"Never mind what Elvis did; this [the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band] was the defining moment in American pop-music culture's Great Racial Divide. [...] Post-Sgt. Pepper, rock became – by default or design – the musical embodiment of the Manifest Destiny / White Man's Burden Darwinian Genetic Principle."
Terrell goes on to discuss the ways in which various arms of the white male rockbiz and Rolling Stone upheld and archived this shift in the 1970's, anointing the new heavy white groups and only tokenizing those Woodstock highlights, Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix. Of Sly, he comments:
"The subliminal suggestion is that Sly was this schizo black musician who needed chemical stimulants / hallucinogens to transform his simple R&B tunes into bona fide rock anthems. In other words, black people can't rock without getting high." (emphasis added.)
And, on Hendrix, the Other par excellence:
"Jimi's head was hippie-freak zoned, his heart was 100 percent American and his soul was too black, too strong.
"Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold as Love were the first records by a black musician to impact heavily on rock music's evolution since Chuck and the boys. The media worked overtime to explain why a wild-haired Negro was the new King of Rock. They called him the Wild Man of Borneo, not-of-this-earth, or an idiot savant. Chalked up his success to the white boys in his camp…They de-emphasized his race until, as Pino says to Mookie about Prince in Do The Right Thing, Jimi's "not black, he's... different.
[...] Once these two genius black rockers were "put in their place," rock was once again all about white boys playing electric guitars."
This history and mindset remains so entrenched that no real boogie-woogie bruhs have officially appeared to heavily impact the freak-folk cloister as yet (and revolutionize the music in process). It's also why two of the year's most important music world events – the (re)appearance of Sly at the Grammys in March and the death of Arthur Lee in August – garnered a lot of bloggery but no mainstream media attention that was not wrongheaded in its rush to overemphasize both artists' nigger pathology since the death of the sixties. As of this date, neither rock genius has received a related Rolling Stone (MOJO, if you prefer) cover or shut down VH1 Classic in the manner of lesser white lights in the game and commensurate with their cultural impact in ‘06. And their chief heirs in this cultural moment, ATLiens Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse, who've overtaken their Dungeon Family brers OutKast as the New Beatles, have made pop history, are Grammy frontrunners. And yet the Brothers Gnarls have vocally opined (even the relatively taciturn Danger Mouse) about having their work dismissed as a mere novelty or fluke – that St. Elsewhere's paradigm-shifting song cycle is merely the harvest of dat ole negro quirkiness. Why, they must be high. Certainly, Gnarls Barkley is different. Meanwhile, hordes of white rock fans were still awaiting the Second Coming of Axl at year's end as if it were the return of the Nazarene Himself.
I would argue that although the freak-folk elite have dubbed Nick Drake "a saint" and treat Vashti Bunyan as Holy Mater, their movement's essential and preternatural dark seam derives from the seismic changes that Lee, Stone and Hendrix wrought amidst 1960's hip (as well as the efforts of Carlos Santana and even more unsung players (in the NWA canon) like Richie Havens, Odetta, Oscar Brown Jr., Len Chandler, Linda Lewis et al.). And as Terrell cites Prince, isn't it likely that he with his array of day-glo colors, more than any other artist, truly serves as Pied Piper of psych-folk possibility for Banhart (born 1981) and all the movement's other children of the 1980's (if only on a subconscious level)?
Meanwhile, all of these electric African magi-forebears remain dark faces at the bottom of the well, mostly persona non grata in freak-folk's Graceland despite their ubiquity in international culture. Why did brilliant, sophisticated, peerless, far-seeing Jimi, the greatest auteur of electricity since Nikola Tesla (if not the masters of Kemet in antiquity) have to be the Wild Man of Pop, while the freak-folkies – even in the days of rock's final death throes and at the end of White America as sustainable monolith – are awarded unlimited power in their self-conscious amateurism and performance of white negro-cool poses? If they get baked in the field at Bonnaroo and go native with the drum circles, why is it a heralded cultural moment – see my colleague Will Hermes' freak-folk spread in the New York Times from this past summer -- instead of an affront to the status quo or a threat to the nation state like Sly and Jimi's compositional and lifestyle adventures in freaky-deak?
The savage double-standard obviously abides: Jimi and ‘nem get high, it's merely their nature; they're not tortured artists whose art derives from brilliance and angst. Freak-folkies get high – and, moreover, unburden themselves of aesthetic rigor inherent to European models of cultural production – and they are ushering in a sea change in rock, tapping into the vein of pure art. So the key question remains whether or not these New Weird Americans are the aesthetic equivalent of nativists, engaged in what they view as valiant struggle to preserve Eurocentric traditions inherited from the Old World – even if this gate-keeping only trends to venerating the 1960's wing of English folk, posing with lutes, dropping out to run amok in Goa or Eastern Europe and appropriating colorful Roma garb.
As the unwitting (?) poster-boy for freak-folk (as Jack White is for garage punk), Devendra Banhart is an instructive mirror in the attempt to begin to sort some of these conundrums. Like Rimbaud before him, Banhart's "the splendidly civilized, carelessly civilizing savage," a boy prince, and by virtue of his position as the New Weird America movement's decider, serves as its audience's Promethean figure. While his name is Hindi for "king of Gods," the musician was born in Houston, capital of screw-and-chop music, to a Venezuelan mother. While his maternal roots are not made explicit, it seems an inference could be made from such album titles as Niño Rojo that Banhart, like The Band's J. Robbie Robertson before him, has aboriginal blood – and is perhaps just as prone to mask it in plain sight (I have always wondered if Robertson – of whom I'm a lifelong fan – intentionally penned his songs on the eagle wings of American archetypes fit to rest in the thorny valley between James Fenimore Cooper and Ambrose Bierce because that enabled him to ethnically dissemble? Certainly, one aspect of this process is that The Band's oeuvre replicated Robert Frank's Les Américains in some respects). Just like Cher, proto-mater of freak-folk transmogrifying her Armenian taint to white blondness (it's no mistake that Gregg Allman was the love of her life), Banhart's a half-breed whose status as a white ethnic perhaps engenders confusion and anxiety. And masking is vital in the pursuit of "white opportunities."
The aforementioned photograph of Banhart at home in Brooklyn's über-hip (and very white) enclave -- Williamsburg, itself, being a de facto gated community courtesy of gentrification (but the gates derive from cultural capital and wealth) -- in the war bonnet gave me pause because race perception, speech and appearance still impact the notion of human status in 2006 America (ask Sean Bell's family). Is Banhart attempting to identify with repressed savages in this portrait and out himself as a person of color – or is he merely translating mockery in visual form by donning the costume to foreground the power of his white self and its ability to frame the Other (and claim or reject its freaky nature at will)?
Pitchfork's review of Banhart's Sgt. Pepper/Incredible String Band-referencing Cripple Crow would counter "hell to the naw," taking pains to prove his ethnic bona fides:"The artwork conjures Native America, an attribute Banhart seemingly alluded to in a recent email exchange, admitting that he's "a little terrified at how white most of the people are," but reassuring me that "68% of the people on the cover have Native American blood." Indeed, Banhart strives for ethnic diversity on Cripple Crow, boasting the highest concentration of Spanish-sung tracks of any of his albums (he was raised in Venezuela where Spanish was his mother tongue), and finding him moving further beyond "freak" territory and into a worldly blend of various exotic approaches." (emphases mine.)Even more telling to me is Banhart's veneration of the late Greenwich Village folksinger Karen Dalton and her influence on his vocalizing. Dalton's In My Own Time (1971) is the year's most welcome reissue. She was a southern woman (Alabamian) of native descent (half-Cherokee) who Bob Dylan famously referred to as his favorite singer from the early 1960's New York folk scene. Dalton also rolled with Fred Neil and the Band but did not equal their success with her two releases and died homeless (likely of AIDS) in New York in 1993. Hauntingly beautiful and containing some stunning performances (a cover of the late Richard Manuel's "In a Station," the traditional "Katie Cruel"), In My Own Time rightfully deserves the universal accolades it has garnered this fall. Yet the myth-spinning surrounding Dalton, from devotees such as Banhart and critics alike, is offensive and frustrating – the predilection for comparing her horn-like alto to Billie Holiday's voice (which the folksinger loathed) and obsession with attributing otherworldly qualities to her twang. For example, Banhart on Dalton: "...she's got the most far-out, fucked up, amazing soul. She's the most soulful singer in the universe."
So, is Banhart troubled by his cultural milieu's overwhelming whiteness or not? On the one hand, he's conjuring the redbone to counter it, painstakingly measuring and subtracting to achieve a vital blood alchemy that decreases the power of the Family's paleface oblige. But sadly, on the other, he's trapping Dalton's spirit by reducing her genius – as critics and audience did her Cherokee cousin Hendrix before her – to being merely the inevitably "far-out" and "fucked up" essence of a savage.
Through forked tongue, Banhart seems to be saying the grrl cain't he'p it. None of the admiring chorus stops to question how this reception afflicted Dalton (she was the envy in real time of other ambitious female folksingers who aspired to her look and exotic Indian-ness), how her probable astute reading of her audience and the record industry's will to fancy and misperception contributed to her subsequent addiction and alcoholism. In death, Dalton remains a colored cipher and empty slate made to be constrained by the listener's prejudices. I feel for the poor sister's redbone corpse being so weighted with expectation and fantasy even in the spirit world.
Like the duo CocoRosie (whose label is Voodoo Eros (!)), who are also of Cherokee provenance, Banhart had an itinerant childhood above and below the border. Doubtless, the alternative lifestyles of Banhart's youth would have thrown into stark relief the race that dare not speak his name, and I suspect the visibility of whiteness for a conflicted boy growing up on the margins during the apogee of Reagan America would have caused considerable internal turmoil. As the veteran of a gypsy childhood in former outposts of European imperialism, whose first language was also Spanish, I know that the surreality this flux breeds provides both the strength of independence and insecurities, a cultural anxiety at the same time. So for his work to bear hallmarks of surrealism and worldview to be inchoately contradictory is no surprise.
What's also interesting about the young artist is that through his person and influence, the New Weird America is strangely feminized: his name and vocals have often caused Banhart to be misperceived as a woman. He and his Hairy Fairy (or whatever whim dictates) band mates famously donned drag in the New York Times style magazine this past spring in echo of San Francisco's radical '60's Cockettes troupe (the Men's Fashion of the Times issue, no less). The (tellingly) black & white Mondino images were accompanied by the heading: ‘Gender Trouble' - "It's a boy. It's a girl. It's androgyny. Daphne Merkin peeks under the skirt of fashion's latest passion" (Is the Devendra-Courtney Love remake of Donald Cammell's Performance in the wings? Shudder to think). And Banhart's primary influences are heroines – Dalton, Bunyan, Billie Holiday, Nico, Linda Perhacs, Ella Jenkins. Also, most intriguing of all, the original title of the recording that garnered Banhart attention from the wider public (also meant to drop as a tome from a French surrealist press - shocker) was: Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Negress and Being Washed by Her Floating Beard. Could this complicated son of miscegenation be giving down-low praise to the Nubiti of ancient Kemet – or her corporeal heiresses Amanitore of Kush and Makeda of Sheba? Like, radical. Or is this a wink to erstwhile Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson, the only sistagurl in the buttermilk of anti-folk and its offshoots?
If NWA is meant as a gauntlet in the face of pop culture which is currently dominated by (distorted) African American vernacular via hip-hop and the macro society in which white males and whiteness itself have been rendered irrelevant, then it's curious that Banhart and the others should react to cultural redundancy by embracing the feminine – or, per Michael Gibbons (aka 500mg), by "all these artists... pursuing very personal music and making very human sounds." In the late 19th century, the period when the American type and much of what came to be termed folk music was codified by the nascent entertainment industry and the industrial revolution led to the societal changes afflicting us today, the way an American identity of rugged individualism was fashioned was by rejecting the feminine and other weaknesses associated with Victoriana. What has changed in the intervening century-plus? Have the dystopias that modernity and the world wars wrought inevitably led to first Aquarian Age jook savages, then the 1970's "sensitive man" embodied by James Taylor and now the sometimes androgynous, organic-leaning manchildren of freak-folk?
Further, NWA is inextricably linked with California, the coastal paradise where freak flags have flown high since the early 20th century. Beyond the eco-chic associated with the movement, it's unsurprising that these artists should flourish way out west – especially the Pacific Northwest, since slavery was excluded from the former Northwest Territory for it was viewed from the git-go as a "whites only preserve." If the material benefits of being white have decreased drastically in the last 25 years, the psychological benefits remain potent. Hence must be the lure of freak-folk as a subculture and "Whites Only Party" – which makes these artists as dangerous, if not more so, as another of the year's media sensations: the white supremacist sister act Dresden Blue.
Obviously, there's a fine line that separates Dresden Blue's preservation of Northern European values in song and, say, Joanna Newsom's – and the line's rendered a tightrope by audience, venue and intent. Although none of these NWA acts don the equivalent of minstrelsy's burnt cork blackface (yet what are we to make of the men's flagrant, flamboyant hirsutism?), the cool pose of their anachronistic identities, misty mountain hops, tribal markings and peasant garb is still alienating.
As a postmodern Natty Bumppo and heir to the Romantic Movement, Banhart cannot be shackled by domesticity and women if he's to become a true rock star. The American frontier hero cannot marry a woman of flesh-and-blood (or even savage nature); he must relate only to the frontier, the wilderness, the sea. And these primordial elements are the substance of many NWA songs. As a potential person of color, not so fair, two-spirit Devendra can never truly become white, just as his whiter friends in the movement can never truly do more than play at being Indians.
See Part 2 of the Freak Folk article
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