R’n’r Confessional: Animal Magnetism

Rock ‘n’ Roll Confessional

Perhaps it’s time I started treating this column more like its namesake.
I have a confession to make.
If you read my last posting back in December, you may remember me demanding to know whether Animal Collective has any fans.  To me they’ve always been one of those bands that people only like in order to garner cred; for whatever reason, liking Animal Collective makes people think that you either have an extremely refined ear or are incredibly pretentious.  This is sort of like being one of the seventeen people in America that regularly eats Brussels sprouts.  No one actually listens to them and enjoys doing so.
Or so I thought.  I noticed my façade cracking when I succumbed to the numerous year-end lists that put AC drummer Panda Bear’s solo record near the top and downloaded Person Pitch from eMusic.  I found it odd that I read as many reviews of Strawberry Jam, the Collective’s 2007 record, as I could possibly find.  Like a dog sniffing around fresh blood, I poked around the group’s MySpace and even downloaded the song “Peacebone” – you know, just to see what all of the hype was about.  I am, after all, a journalist, and it is my responsibility to be informed.
And then, like a junkie with hit in hand, I pounced.  I bought 2005’s Feels and devoured it secretly over the course of two days, letting Panda’s driving percussion and singer Avey Tare’s howls pulse through my head while Geologist and Deakin crammed as much noise and sheer feeling in while I wasn’t looking.  But I needed more.  I bought Strawberry Jam within two weeks and was no longer hiding my habit from my friends.  And now, with the publication of this article, my love for Animal Collective is officially out in the open.
What makes Animal Collective connect with the people who love them is the ambiguous but amplified emotions that their music seems to embody.  Beneath – or maybe among – the stacked layers of electronics, acoustic guitars, screams, samples, reverb, feedback, etc, is an honest intensity and conviction that drives the group’s music.  While the form of their songs may not make sense (and I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I understand everything that’s happening in “For Reverend Green”), the tones of the music seem to jibe with Tare’s sing/screaming.  Like when looking at a good impressionist painting, when we listen to a song like Strawberry Jam’s “Fireworks,” we have a general idea of what is happening without being given the maximum amount of details.  As Mike Rodgers noted in the October ANTIGRAVITY, the vast majority of AC’s lyrics are nonsensical.  I honestly have no idea what “Fireworks” is about, but I have no problem applying it to my own life.
I don’t know that this is necessarily a good thing.  I’ve noticed lately that the artists I talk to claim to create their art fully aware of the fact that it will be appropriated by its consumers and, because of this, they refuse to assign meaning to any of what they do. This is a problem because it begs the question of why we should bother making art at all, or, to take it further, why should we ever express ourselves in any way, if we’re going to refuse to allow our words to mean anything.
It works both ways, too.  When we misappropriate a work of art, when we fail to take the author’s intent into consideration and instead warp its meaning to meet our needs, we are not only being selfish but ruining the work’s artistic merit.
Take a song like “Every Breath You Take” by the Police.  For what it is, it’s a pretty good song.  People have it played at their weddings.  And without really realizing what he’s doing, the groom will look into his wife’s eyes and, in full view of her parents and extended family, sing to her, “Every vow you break, every smile you fake, I’ll be watching you.”  The bride and groom think that this is a pretty song (and, to be fair, it does seem romantic if you don’t pay it any attention).  And it is a good song.  It’s a good song about a stalker.  No matter how much the bride and groom romanticize it, nothing can change the fact that Sting is singing from the bushes through a window.  All art has a meaning, whether it’s clear or not.
I’ll grant you that I’m being uppity.  I’ll also grant you that I’m an insecure artist who’s scared to death of having his work misinterpreted.  But if we’re going to be passionate about music – which we very well should be – we can’t suck the life and meaning out of it just to make it fit our current mood or situation.
As for Animal Collective and all of the other bands that flirt with ambiguity, their songs are filled with meaning.  They’re filled with meaning because people whose lives are forever being shaped and changed, whose various worldviews cannot help but be expressed in what they do, created them.  After all, to claim that a work is meaningless is to assign it a meaning.
So maybe that’s the real confession this month.  Not that I like Animal Collective, but that I take precious expression and confession from people and, rather than listening to what they’re trying to tell me, tell them what they should be talking about.  And really, the only thing worse than being a snotty hipster is to tell someone that their opinions and convictions aren’t terribly important to you.

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