Merrill Garbus & The Wokeness Unto Death

For being an “outside artist,” Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards has never lacked in critical applause. The lo-fi Afrobeat of her 2009 debut Birdbrains immediately established her as a singular voice in the freak-folk music world. The gigantic production and stylistic leap of Whokill, her 2011 sophomore effort, landed her on many year-end best-of lists. More recently she was commissioned to create the theme music for the New Yorker Radio Hour. As a fan, I’ve worried with each new release she’d morph her authentic weirdness into easily digestible hipster marketability. But she’s resisted that impulse. Unlike the manufactured weirdness of a Lady Gaga, her introspection and restlessness have kept her music from becoming self-help dance muzak. Her defiant neuroticism resists any easy boxing-in.

It’s a sign of the times, then, that her latest effort, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, referred to in the press as her “white privilege album,” seems in lockstep with mainstream discourse. Since 2016, hysteria and a blinkered self-loathing have become facts of life for large segments of the white population trying to make sense of themselves in context of the Evil at Large. But unlike some of the woke offerings of Oscar season and late-night talk show hosts, Garbus’ exploration of whiteness in her latest music is not an amnesiac about-face of self-satisfied enlightenment. It proceeds out of the same self-lacerating quest for self-knowledge that’s fueled her work thus far. Understanding the cost and gains of that quest just happens to be the number-one project for liberal culture as a whole.

Garbus’ freak flag spoke to my own wounded masculinity upon first hearing her (somewhat late to the party). “What’s a boy to do if he’ll never be a gangsta” was Whokill’s central yawp. When I heard that, it cut to the bone as a defining question in our success-and-hardass obsessed culture. While young white men began their steady, murderous ravaging of our nation’s schools and public areas, Garbus’ queerness allowed me to sidestep for a moment the broken promises of masculinity. Garbus’ mustache (until recently Google’s third “Top Search Suggestion” after her name) for me became a symbol of hope for Some Way Out. “A detour is coming, it’s coming on strong/So take my hand and we’ll both sing along” she sang–and I listened. Her manifesto-like album sparked hope for a community of social outcasts who’d dance atop the falling structures of the cancerous status quo.

Garbus’ outness resonated with me as a conscientious objection to participation in a (capitalist) system that inflicts economic and spiritual violence on its subjects. Whokill especially was preoccupied with such violence on a macro and individual level. In her words and music violence is almost inescapable. Isolation through mental illness and self-destructive behaviors seem one of the few viable, moral options. Her daring references to binge-eating disorders (unprecedented in rock) mirrored society’s devouring of its marginalized and young. “All my violence is here in my song” she swore on “Killa,” but such a sublimation of those inter- and intrapersonal stakes wasn’t immediate or entirely successful. Continuing through 2014’s Nicki Nack, Garbus’ self-crucifixion shined light on society’s unjust underpinnings while damaging the host.

Alienation allows Garbus to express solidarity with victims of racism and post-colonialism. As Rap Genius notes in its helpfully obvious manner, Garbus often slips into “writing as America’s disenfranchised.” It’s important to note, however, that Garbus’ (and your author’s) relatively privileged conscientious objection is not equivalent to alienation experienced by materially oppressed victims of racism. Solidarity is rare, and we should usually treat it as if it’s in good faith. However, it’s also important to examine the roots of that solidarity so as to discover its potential limitations. Occasionally, Garbus’ fascination with the oppressed has resulted in unfortunate lines. In “Jamaican,” the self-directed loathing of “She’s not Jamaican/She don’t have any soul” barely conceals an awkward resentment towards a culture she reveres. Also, in the imagined post-apocalyptic world of “Sink-O,” she complains “Don’t say you don’t judge by the color of skin/When I showed up at your door you wouldn’t let me in.” The delivery is so direct and aggrieved it comes off almost as some complaint against reverse-discrimination. But these missteps aside, her use of third-world sounds and perspectives has always been more honest, source-referring, and righteously political than such bands as Vampire Weekend or Animal Collective. Her anxieties have always floated near the surface.

That’s why I was a little confused when I read that white privilege would be the subject of her latest album. Hasn’t that always been one of the topics at hand? I feared that Garbus’ penchant for self-loathing had found a trending, relevant bed of nails on which to lacerate itself. In 2014’s “Real Thing” she sang “You never have what you got/What you are you’re simply not”–the freedom in that de-centeredness allowed a certain personal and political catharsis. Would that lesson be forgotten in the exploration of immutable, toxic identity?  Since 2016, a myopic form of identity politics has threatened to reduce the Left to infighting and paralysis. Could a pop artist do any better?

The press has seemed equally unsure how to handle such hot material. Garbus has been treated with a distanced respect by most reviewers. (One website ran with the unfortunate headline “Tune-Yards Make White Privilege Fun”–better suited to indie darlings such as Bon Iver.) They treated Garbus as one might treat a child who expressed the “correct” opinion a little too earnestly and fanatically. “Well, yes, but try to keep cool…” Hysteria forces the audience to either fully assent to or reject the argument. That’s uncool in polite society where maintaining the status quo is valued more than getting to the root of the matter. Garbus has been afforded a tempered, grudging respect in her supreme moment of topicality.

In ICFYCIMPL, white privilege is examined most closely in the song “Colonizer.” Here Garbus begins to sing out her doubt about the process of identification and appropriation that defined her earlier work. It’s a direct companion piece to her “Hatari,” Birdbrain’s standout track. That song was an evocation of her college trip to Kenya as a music major. The song fuses African musical language with her own emotional restlessness and defiance to such an extent it’s impossible to tell where each flow of feeling begins or ends. “Hatari” means “danger” in the east African language of Swahili, but it also evokes “Ataria” and “hate”–solitary games of pain and anomie.

“Colonizer” provides a running commentary on that musical trip and appropriative stance as a whole. Atop a quick dance beat, Garbus repeats verses such as “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travel with African men.” The weirdly catchy verses are interrupted by the spare refrain of an African voice atop ukulele accusing Garbus of being a capital-C “Colonizer.” It also sounds like “colonize it”–Garbus is evoking an almost primal psychic state in which colonizing the downtrodden is an instinctual urge. It’s admittedly not fun—I bet anyone stepping to the first verse will stop dancing once they’ve caught on to the song’s conceit. But crucially, the self-critique doesn’t feel yucky, self-indulgent or pitying.  Garbus dramatizes the visceral temptation of colonization without a blink. And the song is not a simple, hand-washing repudiation of “Hatari.” She isn’t trying to erase it from her discography. “Colonizer” deepens the audience’s hearing of her earlier work. Garbus provides an additional layer of meaning and reflection on the narrative arc of her career. She broadens its scope and raises the stakes.

Paradoxically, there are virtually no black people, African or American, featured as subjects in the album. Like Kenrick’s DAMN., she’s scaled back on the epic, sweeping quality of her previous work. Now she’s laser-focused on her immediate field of reference. It’s as if pop artists have felt a need for constraints—reorienting themselves toward a haiku-like minimalism in the wake of 2016’s profound ideological and narrative collapse. But Garbus’ turning-in, rather than being solipsistic, allows her to objectively analyze the conditions of her whiteness. She gathers in all the doubt and contradictions so as to make possible something new and better.

That laser-focus on the immediate and tangible separates her album from the other dominant field of white privilege discourse–the Twitter left and it analogues. It’s become almost redundant to criticize missteps of online race-politics. And it’s important to note that for young white activists, the overzealous policing they’re decried for is mostly an attempt to create a socially responsible identity in a world where their inherited status has been revealed to be unearned and deplorable. That online left, which self-righteously savages allies for slight missteps, is often taken to be the left (thanks to the propaganda of reactionaries). So it is imperative for even old-school leftists befuddled by recent happenings to remain in dialogue with the younger generation, in what must become a give-and-take.

I suppose the current practice of discussing every political and pop culture event in terms of immutable, irreconcilable raced realities has its origins in academic studies of the past. In the Academy, race was consciously noted, analyzed, and critiqued in a world where “common sense” relegated race-talk to the strict confines of athletic and cultural achievement. Critics and activists demanded that that discussion also include practical matters such as economic gain and political representation. It’s important to note, however, that the techniques and critical lenses developed were intended to create a more nuanced, truthful view of existing conditions. Nowadays, it sometimes seems as if we use the tools cultivated by those disciplines as a shortcut to black-and-white conclusions that constrain our vision instead of providing deeper insight. Race becomes an immutable construct we obsessively take note of and dogmatically uphold. I know firsthand that that way of seeing the world can result in a frozen view of black people as some kind of abstract entity, metaphysical representatives of an entire history of suffering–to the disregard of the unique instance of humanity before our eyes. Such a method of analysis has less to do with any reality principle than with the will to chastise the self and others. A whole generation right now is figuring out what it means to see the world with such a righteous lens that cuts both ways.

The mysterious “you” in I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is many things– including this self- and reality-killing will to abstract perfection. “If you erase what you embrace/Then what will the good girls do?” Garbus sings on the title track. The album avoids manifesto-like anthems. Instead, it’s one of the few albums that deals with the psychological realities of the post-2016 world in a realistic, as opposed to a sentimental way. (Kendrick’s DAMN. and Yo La Tengo’s There’s A Riot Going On are two other examples.) Nate Brenner’s twitchy, thinking bass propels us through that collapse on such songs as “ABC 123.” On that one, Garbus frantically and terrifyingly announces we’re “living in a new reality.” But she also details the continuing search for communion and solidarity–“I called you up because I’d like to see it your way.” Also, in perhaps the one anthemic moment, she implores “Next election–/No abstentions/Vote your ABC’s” (the new, not-totally-clear but sought-for political imperatives of the era).

I think there’s something to be mourned on an aesthetic level in the loss of the Afrobeat inspired musical orgies of Garbus’ previous work. Her new album does not provide easy catharsis is the manner that earlier songs like “My Country” did. But at times on the album it seems that, as she’s cast off her self-reportedly wrongfully appropriated style of the past, she’s also discovered her own unique musical language. Her crime of appropriation is an inescapable fact of her musical development. She’s learned however, to recognize and talk back to that. On “Free,” the album’s closer, she alternates rising, ecstatic exclamations of “FREE” with the psychotic demand “Don’t tell me I’m free.” Declaring freedom and transcendence at the end of such a harrowing album might seem like a cheap rhetorical device. But in that moment, and throughout the album, by making music that embraces struggle and contradictions, she earns that right.

In a recent interview, Garbus was asked if she ever wanted to go back to making the spare Afrobeat arrangements of her earlier career. “Not really,” she said, “I was really sad and lonely back then.” Her answer reminds us that insight is useless if it leaves us dejected and paralyzed. The struggle for better social conditions can only be undertaken by those who’ve seen the ugliness inside and then came out on top. On ICFYCIMPL, Garbus takes the plunge into the abyss of white supremacy. Then, she comes back and sketches for us a rough map of the way out.