Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Natalie Merchant (2006)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, APR. 1 - This originally posted on, 4/24/06


Prejudices should be flexible; the mental hardening that first exerts itself in one's thirties can be offset with a little mind yoga. Last year, when I finally sat down and drafted my list of Top Ten Hated Musicians, I had the foresight to leave half the slots open. This flexibility has served me well. When I glimpse yet another indistinguishable "emo" band while flipping TV channels, there is the smug thought that
they just made the list. It doesn't matter that I don't know the band name, or that the genres, haircuts and fashions of this decade seem like part of an elaborate hoax. What matters is the illusion of control.

My top five Hated Bands are anchor slots, blue chip positions, and have remain unchanged for the last decade;

1) REM
2) Dave Matthews Band
3) Lou Reed
4) Nick Cave
5) Natalie Merchant

REM and Dave Matthews Band are symptoms of the same problem, my problem. I may not care for their particular brand of simpering, fussy preciousness, but I have no problem with anyone who does. My beef is entirely aesthetic. If someone can squeeze some emotional state stronger than 'pooped' out of either band, more power to them. It's a free country.

Nick Cave and Lou Reed are something different. My dislike for both musicians lies outside art, in the realm of politics. Both are disciples of a fatal self-seriousness, and I find it hard to trust anyone who likes either artist. I hate their music the exact same way Republicans hated Bill Clinton; as a substitute for something larger, something generational.

Both groups are subsets of Adult Contemporary That Doesn't Know It Is Adult Contemporary. I understand that this is a made-up category. Personal taste leaves a lot of room for small hypocrisies. David Byrne, Henry Rollins, and Miranda July have all dabbled in the studied or the self-important, and yet, inexplicably, I continue to grant all three a free pass. At its root, style is random. I don't enjoy the music of Sonic Youth and I don't know them as people, but my strong impression of the band is that they are fundamentally decent human beings. The source of my judgments is outside my perception.

So why is Natalie Merchant on my list? I don't have an easy answer for this, either. There is that dopey, long-ago disappointment that her first band, 10,000 Maniacs, did not, literally, sound like ten thousand rampaging maniacs. And yet the same letdown from my first exposure to Suicide and Television (I know now that I'd expected both bands to sound like James Chance;
bonkers) never led to a grudge against Tom Verlaine or Alan Vega. Merchant's tender, mannered delivery also would be a reasonable culprit if I didn't overlook the same sin in so many other artists (Blonde Redhead, Cat Power, occasionally Nico). Nothing explains why my brain has singled her out for persecution. 10,000 Maniacs' career didn't intersect with my listening history, so her music holds no particular bad associations. By the time the band cracked the Top 40, in the summer of 1987, I was already on my way to college in Manhattan, no longer at the mercy of classmates' bad tastes in music (James Taylor in specific, the only artist to simultaneously hold two slots on my list).

The specter of misogyny hangs overhead. Is Merchant, with her wide-hipped, slightly horsy femininity, too much woman for me? I want to say no, although the notion has a certain disturbing plausibility. Indigo Girls and Patti Smith don't threaten or engage me, but there is something about Natalie's persona that rings strange bells. When I hear her gossamer recital voice it cues old triggers of insufferable college girls I have had to share classes with, episodes of "Dr. Quinn. Medicine Woman" I have mistakenly watched. There could be something here.

If only she'd chosen a stage name! Technically, I can't "hate" Natalie Merchant any more than I can "hate" someone I pass on the freeway. We don't know each other; "hate" sounds as if she'd keyed my car, or groin, or placed a lien on my house. "I hate everything Natalie Merchant stands for" isn't accurate either. The woman has foolproofed herself by embracing most of the world's noble causes. The most precise thing I can say is that I hate having her music forced on me in public spaces, which is a diluted, wussy sort of statement, a mincing of words as bad as the worst Michael Stipe lyric.

That, however, is exactly what I hate. It's bad enough to have to hear her voice while on hold, or over a supermarket intercom, or in the background of TV shows. But it is somehow worse knowing that there is an anonymous human intelligence behind this imposition (the studio mixer, the cable radio programmer, the network TV music director) that felt that Natalie Merchant would be a safe bet for the entire population. This is the same imposition that happens every time a decent citizen has window-rattling gangsta rap imposed on them from the next car over. Except that gangsta rap is meant to be oppressive, minor revenge on the white race for 400 years of slavery and, by extension, vengeance upon all squares. Merchant's music seems designed for a consensus that was reached while I was asleep.

Since I'd never actually listened to one of her songs head on, I downloaded a live version of “These Are Days” in the spirit of scientific empiricism. I was familiar with at least the chorus, so the exercise didn't seem entirely masochistic. In fairness, I came to understand that Merchant is only a vocalist, so the song's inhuman melody couldn't be blamed on her. But the essential quality of my discomfort remained elusive, perhaps something physiological in my own brain. At times, she can
sound as if she is smiling (former Power 106 DJ Lisa “Kool Aid” Seltzer shares this ability) which is as much as I could glean before my breathing grew labored.

Then there is the Angry Young Man theory. This is the lingering feeling that Ms. Merchant's art is inauthentic because the bulk of it has nothing to do with
reality, that her work barely hints at avian bird flu, or child soldier armies, or nuclear annihilation. The 17-year old Discharge fan in me still wants to believe this. The 36-year old me understands the trap; this is the same thinking behind gangsta rap. Without lifting a finger, without ever knowing a thing about me or my strong value system, Natalie Merchant has ensnared me with logic. The best I can hope for is that someday, out of sheer boredom, she will Google her own name far enough to reach this page. But what am I hoping to say to her?

News comes this week of a 33-year old Oregon man who, fed up with life and high on methamphetamines, fired twelve shots into his skull with a nail gun. He eventually made his way to a hospital complaining of a headache; after careful surgery with needle-nosed pliers, and some psychiatric counseling, he was sent on his way. State privacy laws hide his name, or his exact motives. This too, rings strange bells. I want to say that this is what Ms. Merchant's music makes me feel like. But perhaps more scientific inquiry is in order here as well.