Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: twisting the knife in indie rock's death-wound

OK, so picture the following: it's Saturday night in San Antonio, and I'm visiting my friend Spencer. We're sitting in his shitty, ant-infested, university-provided apartment, killing time for an hour before going to see Wedding Crashers, and I turn to him. "Hey, wanna listen to that fucking Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album? You know neither one of us is gonna want to do it on our own." Spencer thinks for a second, then says "Yeah, you're right. Let's do it." I plug my laptop into his speakers, and we listen to the unimpressive sounds of yet another band who revere 1978-era post-punk, deeply unmoved. Periodically, Spencer turns to me and says sadly "My life hasn't changed yet. You?" I shake my head. Later, while driving, he will periodically stop, clap his hands twice, and offer a sarcastic "Yeah."

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah like the same albums as me, I just know it. They play so derivately that I can't hear the band themselves; all I hear is Talking Heads guitars, a strong bass-drum four-on-the-floor pounding backbeat taken from any number of current indie-rock practitioners who just want the kids to dance, and a vocalist who melds the whines of both Thom Yorke and Rufus Wainwright, with occasional yelps from David Byrne. In and of themselves, they're innofensively generic indie rock: strummed electric guitars within slightly tweaked dance structures and a vocalist who takes himself very seriously, moaning lyrics about death and life and love (to the point of a song called "Is This Love?"), a lack of memorable melodies or hooks or instrumentation or harmony or texture. But nothing, as Chuck Klosterman, is ever purely "in and of itself" and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have been required to save the entire indie generation this summer.

Apart from an impressively absurdist penultimate number called "Gimme Some Salt," which makes the title a repeated bit of litany, there's nothing too bold or outrageous about this production. It sounds prototypically "indie": thinly produced, afraid of overly dramatic gestures, always trying to make more out of less. Yet like their spiritual predecessors the Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have been anointed as not just a juggernaut of powerfully emotional music which stands defiant in the face of death and despair, but as an indisputable juggernaut at that. Check out the comment of one Bryce on metacritic, who declares that "If you can't enjoy this you can't enjoy music." I'm blaming this, as with so many other things, on the (thorougly lovable) indie agenda-setters of, who in their absurdly overheated review of The Arcade Fire's Funeral declared, manifesto-like:

Upon the turn of the 21st century, we have come to know our isolation well. Our self-imposed solitude renders us politically and spiritually inert, but rather than take steps to heal our emotional and existential wounds, we have chosen to revel in them. We consume the affected martyrdom of our purported idols and spit it back in mocking defiance. We forget that "emo" was once derived from emotion, and that in our buying and selling of personal pain, or the cynical approximation of it, we feel nothing....So long as we're unable or unwilling to fully recognize the healing aspect of embracing honest emotion in popular music, we will always approach the sincerity of an album like Funeral from a clinical distance.

The implication is clear: not liking the Arcade Fire isn't just a matter of musical taste, it's a statement of cynicism. Spencer's provided a nice reductio ad absurdum of this position: "if you don't like this music, you're just cynical. And that's ridiculous: it's a version of rock history which blames Pavement for causing everyone to be disaffected slackers. It's a dull, self-righteous stance: some of us didn't go apeshit for the Arcade Fire because their outsized emotions currently outpace their melodic skills, not because we hate love and life and passion. Until indie rock gets over itself and starts prioritizing musical quality over generic emotion again, I'll devote more time than I probably should to exacting formalist pop song craftsmanship.


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