I have lost my origin/and I don’t want to find it again . . .
Genre is drag. Embedded in musical genres are all sorts of projected, culturally inscribed rules and expectations about race, gender, sexuality . . . authenticity. Musicians fucking with genre, working across their established or expected boundaries, is a form of cross-dressing, assuming the power and privilege encrypted in gear/grooves. That’s partly why a dope female rapper or rocker strums viscera, stokes frisson. For all our evolved consciousness, for all the femme energy/creativity that has fed rap and rock, there’s still a lingering reflex to view them as masculine avenues of expression. So even an inarguable rock icon like Chrissie Hynde or as flawless an MC as Bahamadia triggers the thrill of subversion by being herself, retooling “masculine” prerogative and staking claim. That’s also why, despite the root of blackness in American punk (see Bad Brains), Negro practitioners still get side-eye glances. And so on . . .
There is no bigger or badder drag queen than Björk.
Her album Volta is a return to form (beats, beats and more muhfuckin’ beats) that eschews formula. Who else but Björk could repeat herself and not repeat herself? Forlorn foghorns, tribal drumming layered over what sounds like the watery mush of soldiers marching through puddles, dusted-off effects from old “rave” anthems, tweaked disco modulations, funky breakdowns, splintered and looped horn lines, a base of brass under artful grime and gleaming surfaces. Timbaland in small but potent doses is more effective here than he was anywhere on his recent solo CD. This is ecstatic music in the true sense of that word, with subversion edging in from all corners. Political commentary is filtered through Björk’s singular anime-dervish persona: “We are the space intruders,” she sings in the disc’s opening lines, “we are the paratroopers, stampede of sharpshooters.” On “Wanderlust,” she takes aim at religious fundamentalists (“I am leaving the harbor/giving urban a farewell/its habitants seem too keen on God/I cannot stomach their rights and wrongs . . .”), agitating for a return to the rules of nature and pagan communion. The chorus to “Innocence” gives a club-banger spine (very Truth Hurts meets Kelis) to words that celebrate the necessary yin and yang of courage and fear shacking up in a single mind. But one of the most glorious tracks on the whole disc is “The Dull Flame of Desire,” taken from a translation of a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev. “Flame” is a tremulous but sturdy duet with Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), who sounds like a more muscular Joey Arias channeling of Billie Holiday. It shows to great effect one of Björk’s greatest singing tools, the way she blends accent and affect, fracturing words and creating new syllables, going from clipped swallowing of sound to a note-leaping guttural wail that sharply focuses the ear on the word being sung, underlining meaning. So, when she sings, “I love your eyes, my dear . . . ,” the simplicity — if not banality — of the words is brushed away to reveal the lover’s awe and the power of the sentiment.
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Drag, conscious and unconscious, is used to unleash some inner self (the real or the desired). It’s used to funnel inner truths, to shape perspective. That’s how Björk uses her unclassifiable genre hopping. Amy Winehouse seized that power on her debut CD, Frank (where she absorbed and re-created jazz divas to tell her tales), and then refocused her shtick on her wonderful sophomore album, Back to Black, where she took Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop” (concept and vocal steez) to album length and pulled art from girl-group artifice. But she was also wading in turbulent waters of appropriation and mimicry, stepping into a complex history of Jewish performers “doing black” in order to reveal something of themselves. Winehouse was liberated. Ironically, “doing black music” hamstrings a lot of black musicians.
Case in point, the ridiculously talented singer-songwriter Ryan Shaw, whose CD This Is Ryan Shaw plays like an oldies radio set — there’s some Jackie Wilson, some Percy Sledge, a whole lotta Bobby Womack, all appearing in Shaw’s vocals and in the sound and feel of the CD. He easily vaults into the upper echelon of modern soul singers. But he doesn’t push himself or the material. His voice is a throwback to a kind of grittily emotive but elegant black masculinity that thug-gangsta drag suffocated, and it’s like a tonic. It helps you ride through faithful covers and originals that are all steeped in retro soul writing and production. But it’s almost too precise and doesn’t resonate much beyond its immediate and surface pleasures. It’s blackness as a restricting cloak. And the one time he fucks with formula is a misfire. On his cover of Womack’s classic “Looking for a Love,” Shaw rewrites some of the original lyrics. Womack sang, “I’m looking for a love/someone to get up in the morning and rub my head/someone to fix my breakfast and bring it to my bed/someone to do a little housework and [come] back with me again . . .” Shaw changes the lines (which he enunciates oh so clearly) to “someone to help me cook the breakfast, then go right back to bed . . .” and “someone to help me do the housework and then make love again . . .” Evolved? Enlightened? Sure. But he also strips away Womack’s unintentional and unintentionally humorous revelation of love’s narcissistic greed, of the fact that loneliness can simply sharpen the grasping and demanding me-me-me within a man (or woman). Yeah, the sexism is gone. But so is the honesty.
BJÖRK | Volta | Atlantic
RYAN SHAW | This Is Ryan Shaw | Columbia/One Haven/Red Ink