The first time I saw tUnE-yArDs, the avant-pop project of Merrill Garbus, was in 2011 at Fun Fun Fun Fest. She was dressed as if she had fallen in a trunk of costumes with a painted face and was pounding on a taped-up ukulele while creating intricate loops on top of her now-signature yelp and flow. Behind her were two shirtless guys, one on bass, one on sax, rocking neon green body paint and dancing like it was the last time they ever would. After two days and dozens of bands, it was safe to say I was hard to impress, but as the crowd jumped and screamed to "Gangsta" I knew I was witnessing a wholly new moment in pop music. An oasis of novel expression in the desert of borrowed guitar riffs and overplayed drum beats that filled the festival's stages.
Last night at the Gothic Theatre I was reunited with Tune-Yards. It was in the middle of the tribal prayer that is "Time of Dark" that I realized I was somehow, unexpectedly, bored. I felt like I had seen all these theatrics and schtick before. Not just from her -- from Miley Cyrus. Pop music has taken "subversive" on-stage spectacles to unthinkable heights. It's Miley Cyrus singing to an inflatable version of her dead dog and Lady Gaga letting someone vomit on her while bass and strobes pound from behind. And last night, Garbus singing in a multicolored dress accompanied by too many back up singers and a playful stage set up, featuring a creepy giant eye felt eerily similar to those pop-stars she's tried so hard to distance herself from.
Gone for the most part was the impressive use of ukulele and spontaneous vocal and rhythmic looping, now replaced by synthesizers and extra musicians. Missing was the sense of playfulness and experimentation. Instead there was controlled performance of new songs that probably worked better in the recording studio. Nothing happened on stage that was inherently bad. There were no missteps. Yet somehow I couldn't help but feel that it was lacking, uninspired. As much as Garbus is trying to be this on the fringe, experimental critic's darling, she is honestly more like the mainstream pop-stars she probably despises. Both rely on intoxicating beats that you lose yourself to dance in, both are built on schtick and production that make you simultaneously fall for and question what you're watching. Even certain artistic choices can be seen through the same lens. Katy Perry got in trouble for a geisha-inspired performance, and there has been a lot of talk of Garbus' use of cultural appropriation for her sound. (That is an argument for another time, but I will say it's bold for a New England white girl to stand before a packed crowd and sing "I come from the land of slaves" over Haitian drum cadences).
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Before readers storm the comments section with points like "but tUnE-yArDs sings about real issues and Katy Perry has a song dedicated to her lover's birthday," let me say you are correct. Yes, Garbus is reaching towards a moral high ground, while "Birthday" is both a horrible metaphor and mediocre song. But both make me dance like an idiot and passively sing along, and isn't that the point?
Maybe it's that pop music is catching up with tUnE-yArDs, or maybe it's that tUnE-yArDs learned her iconoclastic, twisted version of pop had a short shelf life and she has to creep slowly toward the middle to survive. Either way, it seems these two trajectories are racing towards each other and the path she's taking was laid bare at the Gothic Theatre.
But that isn't a bad thing.
If tUnE-yArDs is the future of pop music, then all hail Queen Merrill! Because while she may be dipping into the same bag of tricks used by Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, you won't see either of them utilizing ukulele melodies or looping their own voice or ever imagining lyrics about domestic abuse. Not even Katy Perry and her many number one hits could perfectly mix Weezer guitars with Liberace-esque keyboards or build up an insanely catchy song like "Water Fountain" only to completely deconstruct it to the brink of chaos. tUnE-yArDs proved last night that pop music, while all based on the same aesthetics, can be more than just the surface and deserves to be. Songs can be about more than hooking up in a club, and naturally strong vocals can be used in creative and inspiring ways. You can sing about people not having enough water while using playground claps and childlike rhymes to get the crowd engaged. If tUnE-yArDs has to tone down the primal screams and melodic disorder to get that idea to a larger audience, that's fine by me.
The best moment of the night came from the first song of the encore. According to Garbus, someone had stolen the set list and written in "Fiya," so she happily rewarded the thief. It was simple and slow and let Garbus' voice shine, accompanied by subtle ukulele picking and delicate percussion. It was as if fourteen-year-old Hannah Montana had suddenly appeared to interrupt Miley Cyrus's twerking, naive passion and all. No matter which direction tUnE-yArDs or pop music goes next, that one song, the "under-rehearsed and underplayed" "Fiya," was the real tUnE-yArDs.
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