Acting is like lying. The art of lying well. I’m paid to tell elaborate lies.
— Mel Gibson
I never really write on this blog anymore because Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism now publishes my ramblings on the economy and like matters. I return to write a short piece on music — which I used to do from time to time on this blog, so it seemed an appropriate place to publish it.
This week I encountered a band called The Dresden Dolls. Apparently they’re rather popular — and that doesn’t surprise me too much. At first I thought their music was quite good, even though I found their presentation rather distasteful. They dress up in funny costumes, a bit like Rasputina except with Rasputina there was less of the sense of over-the-top theatrics and craving for fashion shoots that you get from the Dolls.
Anyway, I kept listening to the music and I eventually started moving from liking it to disliking it. This rarely happens to me. More often I initially don’t ‘get’ something and then, after a period of growing accustomed to it, I finally begin to like it. But in this case it was completely the opposite. I started off by thinking I’d found a new band I could listen to a great deal and then gradually moved toward disliking the music.
At first I couldn’t really figured it out. The music was good, especially the drumming which was fantastic (you can really hear the influence of Einstürzende Neubauten and The Birthday Party and the like). But there was something putting me off. And then I realised that it was a combination of two things that were by no means unrelated to each other.
First of all there is the theatrics. The music is self-consciously theatrical. Theatrical for the sake of being theatrical, even. By that I mean that the theatrics don’t follow from the emotive power of the music, as is the case in Neubauten or The Birthday Party (or, even more recently, in Gogol Bordello). Rather the music is a sort of vehicle for the theatrics. The band refer to themselves as ‘Brechtian Punk Cabaret’ and this is quite accurate — except that they’re more interested in the ‘Brechtian cabaret’ than they are in the ‘punk’.
This leads to the second problem with the band, namely the shallowness of the lyrics. They are, to put it bluntly, paper thin. Some of the lyrics are very clever and well put together but they sound like something lifted from a script rather than an attempt at self-expression. Again, we return to the theatrical aspect of the band. My impression is that when they write lyrics the Dolls are doing what Mel Gibson and other actors do when they act. That is: lying.
The lyrics, it seems, are largely about having sex. But they’re not about sex itself. They’re not erotic. They’re more so just about having sex. I’d almost go as far as to say that the lyrics are as sex-obsessed as most contemporary pop music but are actually less erotic. Even in pop music you get crude allusions to the act of sex itself, why it is desired, what it feels like etc. With the Dolls you just get sex as a sort of shallow act discussed endlessly but never truly broached in any real terms.
Compare this with some of the Dolls predecessors. Again, take The Birthday Party or its offshoots (The Bad Seeds etc.). That music was pretty sex obsessed too. It was also, like the Dolls, a far cry from the pop music of today. But it was darkly erotic. It harked back to the old Romantic and Gothic traditions of dark and death-obsessed eroticism (a trend that has been resurrected in a more shallow way by the recent Twilight series of films for a mass audience).
The Dolls have none of this. They hint at it, yes, but they never really embrace it. It’s almost as if they ‘sell’ the aesthetic without ever truly taking it upon themselves. In many ways, even the Twilight series is more honest in this regard.
The tragic thing is that I think the Dolls could be a great band if they dropped the theatrics and engaged with their lyric writing and presentation more honestly. The Dolls’ drummer Brian Viglione, for example, played on a recent Nine Inch Nails release (Ghosts I-IV) to great effect. That album was far more emotive and honest than anything the Dolls themselves are putting out.
The Dolls need to stop hiding behind their theatrics if they want to fully realise their potential. And in a sense you can detect that they know this. In their song (‘Sing’) — the last on the Yes, Virginia… album — Amanda Palmer sings that “life is no cabaret”. Perhaps she should take her own advice and write her lyrics accordingly. In the meantime, they should probably also lay off the photo shoots.
The Dolls remind me of an immature art student who nevertheless has great potential (the Dolls’ target audience?). Just beneath the surface you can see an articulate talent which cannot come to fruition because it is halted by a slightly confused personality lacking self-assurance. All the pomp and bluster that the student puts forward — pomp and bluster that usually takes a crude politicised form — is just a means to avoid the truths that could make them a great artist. While the Dolls don’t (usually) degenerate in politics, their theatrics serve a similar role. But “life is no cabaret” and neither is good art or music.
The interested listener would be wise to check out some of the older bands that started the tradition the Dolls try to pull off. Chief among them — excluding those already mentioned, of course — are a somewhat forgotten band from Britain and a never remembered band from Australia.
Sex Gang Children are a fine example of early-80s British death punk (yeah, I hate labels too…). And The Moodists are a curious creation that emerged from the excellent punk scene in Australia in the 1980s. Below I’ve posted a song by each to give the interested listener a taste.