Oakland-based project self-analyzes the white perspective
The Santa Clara
January 25, 2018
How should straight, white musicians pay respects to the origins of the music they’ve become famous for creating? Tune-Yards, an Oakland-based project by songwriter/producer Merrill Garbus and featuring electronic bass parts from Nate Brenner, aims to examine just that. “I can feel you creep into my private life” is full of both danceable, poppy anthems reminiscent of Garbus’ time spent DJing in an Oakland club and the experimental, worldly production fans of previous albums have come to know and love. Garbus has talked about the influence early DJs of the house scene had on this track. “In fact, those guys (and, I presume, women) were referencing the records they were listening to in order to create these new, complex rhythms … I wanted to have an effect that was rhythmically off—really syncopated and unexpected,” she said in an interview with NPR. Additionally, the album exhibits obvious influence from house and 80s pop, two genres that owe their origin to the creativity of both the LGBTQ+ community and people of color. Garbus understands that she owes her success, at least in part, to these communities and goes out of her way to acknowledge their influence in her interviews and lyrics.
One of the central themes of the album, according to Vox, is Garbus’ social position as “a white woman from Connecticut who is painfully aware that her music draws from black and queer traditions.” How is she to tell when her knowledge of that music is expressed as inspiration rather than appropriation? Garbus takes an introspective look at that awareness of social privilege through her lyrics, which utilize a backdrop comprised of mostly poppy dance numbers to play down their heavier meaning.
The first single from the record, “Heart Attack,” initially reminded me of the house music popular with the rave scene in the early 1990s. That reaction is part of Garbus’ point—the general population doesn’t always immediately recognize the origins of the music we listen to. Even as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I failed to recall house music’s initial importance to both queer and/or black folks in the club scene towards the end of the 20th century. House gave those communities something in common to dance to in safe places that they had designated for themselves.
Following TuneYards’ last album in 2014, Garbus told NPR she “couldn’t not speak about whiteness in [her] work.” In order to learn more about race in America and her social role as a white woman, she attended a “six month workshop on race at the East Bay Meditation Center,” she confirmed to the New York Times.
One of the albums most provocative tracks, “Colonizer,” is the result of her new education and reflection on her social position. The opening lyrics, “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men,” take another dancey house beat and add a heavier meaning. The accessibility of dance music gives this song an edge in spreading its message. Perhaps Garbus is hoping her music will gain popularity and encourage other people to investigate their relation to race and art.
The album’s third track, “ABC, 123,” is a political rallying cry and a tale of introspection. The most blatantly activist lyric, “But we’ll unite before the very next election / No abstentions, vote the ABCs!” comes towards the middle of the song and calls for the listener to vote for civil rights in upcoming elections.
In keeping with the introspective theme of the album, however, it seems this is not the primary purpose of the song for Garbus. While “ABC, 123” does contain one line calling for mass action, the majority of the song is an exercise in self-evaluation for Garbus. She sings “I want so badly to be liked / I ask myself, “Why was I nice?” / I ask myself, “What should I do?” / But all I know is white centrality.” Garbus’ ability to analyze her own behavior is in itself a type of rallying cry as well. By following her example, white folks can begin to address the world outside the bubble of whiteness and understand the gravity of racial issues in the United States.
“I can feel you creep into my private life” is a musically complex, but otherwise accessible album, upon first listen. However, Garbus gives the album meaning through her selfaware lyricism and by emphasizing her deep consciousness of the influence she holds with her social position. Her explanations of each track, which are available in interviews for both NPR and The New York Times, add a level of depth that the average listener might not initially perceive.
Garbus’ efforts to look into herself and think deeply about who she is and how she lives are as important to the album as any single track.
Contact Ethan Beberness at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.