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Let’s Talk About Love Week: The Sound of Post-Taste Pop: Future Islands play “Seasons (Waiting on You)” on David Letterman, March 2014

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Love Week, in celebration of the new edition of our now-classic 33 1/3 title by Carl Wilson (affectionately referred to as LTAL around these parts). In this newly released expanded text, Carl’s original groundbreaking treatise on taste is joined by the reflections of numerous other writers, musicians, and tastemakers, including Nick Hornby, James Franco, Sheila Heti, Ann Powers, Owen Pallett, Krist Novoselic, Mary Gaitskill, and more. Carl was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule (as the Slate music critic, among other bonafides) to write a few more words on the subject of taste, particularly as it pertains to buzz-band Future Islands and our current “attention economy.”

A gig on a late-night TV show has been a box to check off in any buzzed-about North American artist’s ascent, especially in the past decade – and if you count Saturday Night Live, of course, much longer. But it’s often a bad bargain. The artist trades a large helping of mystique for the dubious benefits of being tacked on to the tail of dull celebrity chat, performing a song on an overlit studio stage to an applause-sign-enthused crowd and a forced-grin-wearing host, often with poor sound, and a temporary bump in YouTube metrics.

But then there was Baltimore band Future Islands’ performance of “Seasons (Waiting on You)” on Late Night with David Letterman in March – an obscure group that had put out a couple of nicely received albums of synth-pop on boutique label Thrill Jockey suddenly hitting the screen like a watermelon thrown from a rooftop, prompting losing-his-shit thrills from Letterman himself, and soon racking up a million-plus online views, shares and other capital in the attention economy.

Breaking it down, the song scoops into mid-1980s U.K. synth-soul brie, a logical successor to “Yacht Rock” as a genre due for semi-ironic reclamation, but also has a hook that’s hard to forget. There’s a tight band that doesn’t get in that music’s way. And, most of all, there’s a frontman, Samuel Herring, who delivers it with utter earnestness, does an insta-GIFfably goofy dance, looks like nobody in particular and all kinds of somebodies at once (the young Marlon Brando,  a pudgy Henry Rollins, Jim Parsons from Big Bang Theory, Morrissey as portrayed by Jack Black – scroll the YouTube comments to watch the random-association darts fly), and sings in a voice that somehow phases from Tom Jones and Rick Astley to Captain Beefheart and Napalm Death.

With Future Islands, it’s like they’ve put the post-coital cigarette at the beginning of the song and ended it with the casual accidental meeting. The storyboards of their relationship to the audience are cut and shuffled and fanned out and scrambled – and yet by the close, like a street magician, they look up and smile, and say, “So was your card the King of Hearts?” And we say, yes, goddamn it, yes, it was. How did you do that?

More compelling than its constituent elements, though, is the way the Letterman clip positions the band on the very borderline of taste – which may be the place that taste is happiest and most carefree in 2014, in a culture that sometimes (as I argue in the new Afterword of Let’s Talk About Love) carries off at least a convincing imitation of a “post-taste society.” Is it great or horrible? It depends upon the observer: As each commentator praises its passion or guffaws at its gawkiness, it seems to rearrange its particles to suit the description.

Its croony romanticism and Herring’s math-teacher mien seems to put it beyond the reach of cool. But then the singer’s occasional startling dips into heavy-metal growls and avant-sprechstimme act as a semaphore that he’s completely conversant with cool-subculture performance gestures. The combination willfully spurns the embrace of either audience. Listeners then have the choice to see it as a laughable meme of failure a la Rebecca Black – or else to feel compelled to expand their own definitions of success. Its sound calls a new audience into being, broken out and reassembled from past configurations. And that’s a good litmus test of a deeper, more historically overarching kind of cool.

For all these reasons, I love it, but I’m suspicious. Herring makes me feel like he’s slipped into my dreams like the Sandman and collected evidence of how to dismantle my censors. Or maybe like he read my book. But so what – why does that threaten me? I think, like many people, I look at pop culture knowing that it’s trying to seduce me and wanting to imagine I can control the moment in which I succumb or refuse.

With Future Islands, it’s like they’ve put the post-coital cigarette at the beginning of the song and ended it with the casual accidental meeting. The storyboards of their relationship to the audience are cut and shuffled and fanned out and scrambled – and yet by the close, like a street magician, they look up and smile, and say, “So was your card the King of Hearts?” And we say, yes, goddamn it, yes, it was. How did you do that?

But I don’t exactly want to know how they did it. I just want them to do it again, so I can watch, and be struck again by the end of the trick with wonder. I want to know if, somewhere in the culture, perhaps in some neighborhood in Baltimore, there’s a whole avenue of reconstituted dreams where I can witness musicians pulling off endless sleight-of-ear tricks with my taste, baffling what I think I know.

There’s some justice to the fact that this particular addition to the Letterman show’s musical highlight reel came shortly before the great broadcaster announced his retirement. The Letterman of the 1980s was the impresario of comic uncertainty – were we meant to take Larry “Bud” Melman or Brother Theodore or any of the other guests and characters as freaks or as jokes, and if they were jokes, were they in on it? Was it even moral to be laughing?

Letterman always either knew better or didn’t give a damn, which was the same thing. He’s been indicted for that by critics of late-capitalist irony; I’ve always felt too implicated (and seduced) to be able to blame him for it. He was the forest; we breathed his air. But Future Islands turn that equation ass-up for a new century – again it’s hard to tell how to take them, but one thing they’re clearly not is a joke. It’s schmaltz that via either semiotic brilliance or lucky poetic misfire plays for higher stakes.

Future Islands…. In the future, if the climate-disaster scenarios are right, most of the islands will be submerged, covered in risen waters, so strictly speaking they won’t be islands any more. Just as no man is. But Samuel T. Herring’s choreographic and vocal lunges at the deluge tell us that perhaps he fears he is an island, and wants to know how not to be – without going under. His aura of rapturous panic announces that there will be no tasteful answer.
The new edition of Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, with a new afterword and essays, is available now from Bloomsbury.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Let’s Talk About Love Week: Video Vault, Episode 25 | 333sound

  2. Pingback: 33 Things: April Edition | 333sound

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