“So Everyone,” from Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s new Lie Down in the Light, is probably the first indie folk song to offer frank talk about oral sex, exhibitionism and the joys of combining the two. Both parties — Will Oldham (the bonnie prince) and female vocalist Ashley Webber — sound game. Both sound excited. It’s a happy song. And why shouldn’t it be? People compelled to bury their face between each other’s legs outside the privacy of the home are either so deeply in love that they can’t be bothered with strictures of social conduct, or they’re prostitutes.
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Bonnie “Prince” Billy is very happy to see you.
While it’s not common for his species to talk about sex, Oldham has always made it an integral part of his songwriting. On his first album, 1993’s There Is No One What Will Take Care of You (as the Palace Brothers), he exclaimed, “Top me off, tide me over, make me a man!” — a reasonable favor to ask. A few minutes later, on “Riding,” he confesses, “I love my sister Lisa most of all.” Tetchy. Dozens of releases later, he still hasn’t turned into a creep or a ribald; coupling, for him — as for most people — isn’t easily reducible to back-seat contortions, hilarious innuendo or even a skillful entrance on a microfiber sofa while D’Angelo thumps in the wings.
For Oldham, it’s inextricable from a metaphysical bond. In “So Everyone,” when he and Webber sing, “Oh kneel down and please me/Oh lady, oh boy, show how you want me, and do it so everyone sees me …sees that you love me,” they’re not only exploiting both the messy and nonmessy forms of the verb “love” but binding them together. Granted, in Oldham’s past work, that bond has meant “a friendship with another man’s wife,” but, well, at least his adultery felt compassionate. Going down on someone in public — it graces the humor of sex, but it also suggests sexual dare, lust, pride and vulnerability. If Oldham sounds scared, it’s partially because he’s breaking a law, but it’s also because he’s never been inspired to such abandon, never risked so much of himself. Ultimately, the couple show the world how much they care by making each other come as hard as humanly possible.
Rap music takes a lot of flak for retarding healthy attitudes toward sex in young men. And often it does. (Project Pat’s demand to “slob on my knob, like corn on the cob” is still my favorite locus of these problems; it’s not only mean, it’s impractical advice.) But rap often exists as a scapegoat when there’s an equally culpable offender: indie.
I take “indie” to be more a sensibility than a sound. For the most part, men in indie bands have distinguished themselves from rock & rollers — bulging cocks in tight pants — by avoiding sex entirely. Sexuality, in the indie aesthetic, is permitted to operate as a poetic obscurity, if at all. In the ’80s, bands like Sonic Youth and Beat Happening made music for young white people to gently bite each other’s ears to, even if they didn’t sing about ear-biting directly; now, it’d take a dog to pick up a human stink.
(Ever-disheveled Steve Malkmus of Pavement stank of hetero sex, but when it came to actually talking about the mechanics of it, the closest he got was, “Blasted concept and my cherry area is just a little scary to be around right now, so keep away, my friend,” which suggests a level of terror and bafflement at female genitalia only slightly less paralyzing than RZA’s when he said, “Used to fuck her when she menstruate but it made her hyperventilate.”)
In putting the primacy on the feelings of relationships — the metaphysics — most men in indie-rock bands forget that there’s actually a lot of joy and communication in fucking. Consider the Arcade Fire’s Funeral — an album with plenty to say on the triumph of love and humanity in a postapocalyptic world but not a lot of details on how to repopulate it. And there are actually women in the Arcade Fire (and they appear to be fertile).
Indie’s shame and reluctance to dignify sex isn’t just condescending to its girlfriends, it’s misogynistic too: If sex is treated as tawdry, then a girl’s primary function is as a tape measure for her man’s emotional state. There’s almost certainly sex taking place, but it’s fastidiously concealed. (The new Hot Chip album is titled Made In the Dark; 2006’s The Warning featured the lyric, “The smell of repetition really is on you” — vague metaphors mixing sex and machinery that probably don’t make either party feel particularly desirable.) This kind of attitude keeps most young men in a holding pattern. It perpetuates the myths of women as dark, wet labyrinths of mystery that begin when health class divides into sexes. It’s the same shame-propelled ignorance that leads Christian youth to believe that God still considers them virgins even if they’re having anal sex willy-nilly, or drives teenagers to fools’ gambles like the pull-out method.
(To be fair: Indie isn’t the only genre to avoid sex; most contemporary music doesn’t really talk about it at all anymore. A first-time visitor to Earth would assume nonprocreative sex is an errand only for the wacky [R. Kelly], the unnervingly clean [Usher] or robots [T-Pain].)
In 2002, Oldham told The Observer’s Sean O’Hagan that he’d write until late at night, and “masturbate every day.” Which, according to most national and international surveys on the subject, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Will Oldham’s innovation isn’t that he’s a freak, it’s that he’s not suffocated by shame. Some might giggle when he sings about how great it is to go down on the woman he loves, or about a man slipping his finger into his wife’s ass on Ease Down the Road’s “Rich Wife Full of Happiness” — is Happiness his finger’s nickname? — but they’d be missing good advice. Some might recoil at the title “You Have Cum in Your Hair and Your Dick Is Hanging Out” (from 1996’s Arise, Therefore), but they’d be missing that he’s singing about the brutality of sexual betrayal — about how the colloquialisms of sex mean as much to a relationship as vows, as poetry.
This is a perspective young white men of a certain proclivity — non-mainstream-music lovers — desperately need. I know I did. I know I still do. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ deep catalog does not a proper education make. Sex, of course, isn’t the only subject Oldham dotes on. He also, unsurprisingly, finds interest in death and God. But like Al Green, Marvin Gaye or the aforementioned R., he interjects sex into these musings until it becomes part and parcel. Nothing exists as a distillation. Everything sloughs together dreamily in confessions like, “Death to everyone is gonna come/And it makes hosing much more fun” or “I’ll let your spider eat my fly, if I can scratch your belly,” the latter of which could either be about dying for a loved one, psychosexual bondage or a much grosser, more liberating — and, crucially, more mutual — maneuver.
BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY | Lie Down in the Light | Drag City