Tune-Yards bring politics to the dancefloor

Illustration courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

By Alannah Balfour

Although Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner are no strangers to delivering social commentary through pop music, their most recent album “I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life” is a confrontational look at identity politics. Fans will be familiar with its infectious beat: Garbus’ time as a DJ clearly influences her connection of sounds and rhythms, which emphasizes verse with pulsating electronic notes. The second member of the band, bassist Nate Brenner, hovers in the background. Garbus’ voice cuts through as a powerful sound that distinguishes Tune-Yards as a unique band within the indie-pop genre; however, the intermediate instrumentals are occasionally jarring and its structure rarely changes.

When a song is close to stalling, Garbus’ voice pulls you back into her work. Her vocal range is impressive and memorable, but it is the lyrics that demand the listener’s attention. The fourth track on the album, “Now as Then,” begins with distortion breaking apart the lines, “I am exceptional, I am an exception / That’s for me, that’s also for me,” commenting on how ignorant she has been in appropriating African-inspired rhythms without understanding the history while continuing to draw from Haitian and Kenyan music. “She had this thing on her shoulders, couldn’t sleep on either side / face up to the ceiling, nowhere to hide,” relates to Garbus struggling with her role in a racist society as a white woman. The next song, “Colonizer,” is the hardest to digest, with repetition of “I turn on my white woman’s voice to contextualize the acts of my white women friends / I cry my white woman tears carving grooves in my cheeks to display what I meant.” In between the verse an unrecognizable voice cries, “Colonizer, colonizer.” Although the vocals are soft, calming as if coming from a trance, the instruments are harsh and hard to listen to, paired with both a broken speaker and a distant war cry. The song cuts off in the middle of a lyric, imparting shocking silence before Garbus chimes in with the name of the album: “I can feel you creep into my private life.” This is a powerful inclusion; although not released as a single, it appears as if Garbus and her production team worked to draw attention to it in particular.

On the track “Home,” Garbus dramatically changes the speed of the album. Piano replaces the persistent electronica and a faded voice repeats, “She is a fool.” Garbus acknowledges her lack of true understanding, her past mistakes and her inevitable future ones. This is a white woman from a middle class Connecticut neighborhood singing about the intricacies of race in Trump’s America. The whole concept of this album is precarious, and Garbus acknowledged this in a letter to the press prior to the album’s release.

“I wonder if this album can reach people without the erasing the work of others,” she said in an open letter. “(The album is) a vessel for a cisgender, white woman in a heteronormative relationship to explore her place in the world.” There are many artists of color releasing music about their experiences, and Garbus does not want to impose on their space to create but perhaps does so regardless.

“I wanted people to dance,” Garbus said in an interview with GQ. “I know there’s a lot to think about with this music, but when essentials of music take over … seeing people be literally on the same wavelength? It’s super powerful.”

Garbus clearly describes the nuances of her perspective over the course of the album, fresh from her first race seminar. Music absolutely has the ability to unify a wide audience, and Tune-Yards’ attempts to share a well-meaning, albeit potentially misdirected, message. It has the ability to alienate — but least you can maybe dance to it, right?

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