Hoptellectual: On Anonymity and Artwork

Editor’s Note: Today’s Hoptellectual was written by a good friend of ours here at MwBC, Kyle Sparks. Kyle’s writing appears in The Daily Cardinal as well as Madison’s A.V. Club. He also has a Tumblr and a Twitter (@kylesparks), so get in touch.

Growing up, my favorite children’s book was The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. In it, we hear the wolf’s side of the story—that the pigs had completely misjudged the wolf’s intentions and had given generations of youngsters false assumptions about his woe-some species. It’s a travesty, if it’s true.

I’d like to hope I’ve matured to a place where the brand of intellectual rigor that fact-checks these sorts of things is more commonplace. But I think it’s fun to look back at old children’s stories and apply this same intellectual rigor to all different circumstances. Specifically, I’m thinking of Goldilocks’ systematic deconstruction of the Three Bears’ house, and how the process of elimination guided her through our story. As we heard it, the first bowl of porridge was too hot and the second too cold. But whatever—Mama and Papa Bear know how to make some porridge, and you can bet your ass they had more of a problem with the cooties on their spoons than the temperatures of their oats. What I’m saying is that it’s all subjective.

That’s the same line of thought I found myself walking along while working a few weeks ago. I had put on the new WU LYF record, wherein cascading guitars and synthesizers tumble about under the crooning wails of Ellery Roberts. And I feel obligated to stop right now and mention how privileged even that much information is. Nearly everything you’ll read about WU LYF (short for World Unite! Lucifer Youth Foundation) is about how nobody knows anything about them. They have declined press interviews and released as little information about themselves as possible. And only now, three years after their first appearance and upon releasing their first full-length, have they released so much as the names of the members in the group.

This sort of purposeful anonymity has been tried before—most notably with swedish pop duo jj, and the ethereal YouTube project known as iamamiwhoami. But the problem with jj and iamamiwhoami is that neither of them have released anything as terrific as WU LYF’s first LP,Go Tell Fire to the Mountain. I cherry-picked jj and iamamiwhoami because they’re terrible, but there are other recent success stories—Unknown Mortal Orchestra being the most recent example of a band that wrote a bunch of great songs while purposely avoiding the fanfare of record promotion. Because sometimes bands generate interest by creating mystique; and sometimes bands just have a lot to hide.

But even more than the iPod-commercial-ready Unknown Mortal Orchestra, what makes Go Tell Fire such an interesting success story is that its art, unlike its back story, is not in the least bit hushed or reserved. It moves in glaciers, with Roberts howling, cathartic groans of pure expressive freedom. So you can imagine the kind of reception a record so unabashedly loud can have on the crowd in the Italian deli where I work.

“It’s not angry enough,” said one coworker.

And hell, he’s right. For all its hell-fire and brimstone, Go Tell Fire is extremely gentle and measured. It’s a careful and gentle reflection on very coarse and hard-hitting ideas. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? The wonderful thing about Go Tell Fire is its ability to take something spiteful and ugly, and turn it into something engaging and, well, beautiful.

You’ll be careful to notice how I’ve chosen my subjects thus far, because it’s important to note that what makes Go Tell Fire so wonderful are not necessarily the same things that make WU LYF so wonderful. That’s the whole point behind their anonymity—it forces us to judge them not on their background story or superficial images, but on their art alone. While jj and iamamiwhoami sought to profit from their image-as-blankness ethos (because lord knows they couldn’t squeeze as much out of their often boring output), WU LYF seem intent on the anonymity of art as detached from a creation story. It is what it is.

So when we, the listeners, say Go Tell Fire is not angry enough, we are measuring this anger against something inherent in ourselves (our thirst for anger goes unsatiated), as opposed to identifying a thematic disconnect between the band’s media and the band’s message. The band doesn’t have inherent inconsistencies, so the inconsistency has to rest somewhere between the band and us.

That’s why it’s pointless to pick through what could have or should have happened with a piece of art when we can actually observe what did happen. Because “could have” and “should have” are subjective phrases tantamount to saying, “I would have enjoyed this more if it was catered more to my life,” as if art cares. Because, ostensibly, everything sounds/feels/tastes/appears good to someone, otherwise it would’ve been trashed before you’d ever had a chance to consume it. Remember that next time you’re testing the temperature of your porridge. Or beer, for that matter. It’s all the same, isn’t it?

Is your music taste offended? Get over it and yell at us. We’re on Twitter (@midwestbeer), Facebook or just send an email to mwbeercollective@gmail.com.

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