Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs: Not Your Fantasy Girl

I’ve been listening to tUnE-yArDs via YouTube most of the morning. I am wild about the African-inspired polyrhythms and harmonies, the booming, surprising, versatile voice of founder and chief-creative genius Merrill Garbus, the edgy, Jah-Wobbly bass of Nate Brenner, the discordant post-bop Fela-infused horns of Matt Nelson and Kasey Knudsen. Here’s a live studio rendition of “Real Live Flesh” from their EP Bird-Droppings (the “official video” is awfully cute and fun to watch as well):

I just discovered this band today, randomly selecting “Gangsta” from their second album w h o k i l l to play from a list of new Alt/Punk releases on Rhapsody and falling for it right away. It always stuns me when a band I have no defenses against provokes strong negative reactions in others, and from my morning of exploration of this band, I’ve encountered a lot of viscerally negative remarks (which the kids these days call “hating”) among the comments on every one of their videos.  It’s not just the music that people are reacting to. I guess it never is, really, but in tUnE-yArD’s case, most of it is inspired by the un-pop-star, androgynous quality of front woman Garbus.

To be fair, there seems to be this same confusion among people who are intrigued and charmed by tUnE-yArDs, and especially by Garbus. Half of the comments on the videos are arguments between people who like the music and comment on Garbus’s androgyny and those who attack anyone at all for commenting on her androgyny. I confess that when I first heard her voice (and I heard it before I saw where it came from), I was not sure if I was hearing a man’s or a woman’s. She hits registers in the alto range in a voice that might be described as husky.  (At its sweetest, it reminds me a lot of Roberta Flack’s.) Many of the commenters on the videos seem unable to tell her gender even by looking at her (which is ridiculous, frankly). She plays drums–with a lot of power.  She is not conventionally beautiful (though truly charismatic and riveting as a performer, which gives her an ancient kind of beauty). She wears make-up, not in the usual feminine way but in the form of war paint-like stripes across her nose and cheeks. A whisper of a mustache lines her upper lip.

An ancient kind of beauty: Merrill Garbus of tUnE-YaRdS

It’s horrifyingly fascinating to regard the deep rage in the culture toward gender-bending. What is it about that kind of ambiguity that so profoundly disturbs people? Why the urgent need to draw sharp distinctions between the sexes? Ok, I won’t play naive. I know this essentialism around gender runs deep in human society. Even in the secular West, though we don’t literally segregate men and women as the Chasidim, for instance, do, we still call the girl children “sweetie” and the boy children “bud.” As a rule, we still put dresses and fingernail paint on girls only. We still call boys who fuck up at sports girls or ladies.  It does make you wonder if the rage over gender ambiguity is rooted in jealousy that we’re not all “allowed” to engage in it. Only the brave are.

Some of her critics on YouTube complain (disingenuously, I think) that Garbus’s music is derivative. One claims he’s heard it all before and better from Steve Reich and Meredith Monk . What a strange criticism! What music is not derivative? Garbus is not shy about crediting her influences. “Any African music that it sounds like I’m stealing, I’m stealing,” she told Paul Caine of A.V. Club. The question is, does she put her influences to work in a unique way? I would find it difficult to argue that songs like “Real Live Flesh” and “Gangsta” fit this bill any less than “Tumbling Dice” or “Midnight Rambler” by the Stones, which steal from and bow to the blues, do in their way. Or, for that matter, than Steve Reich’s borrowings from African and Indonesian music do.

One  sourpuss accused tUnE-yArDs of reeking of “granola.” There was a time in my life when I might have made a remark like that about some band I thought wasn’t sufficiently punk or was too boho. I don’t know if tUnE-yArDs would have drawn that kind of ire from me if they’d been around 30 years ago or if I were that age now. In any case, this criticism is not aimed at the music but, again, at the image–at the feathers, the face paint, the lack of polish. I now find this flouting of standard concepts of hipness totally charming. I wish there were more of it in the culture at large. More in the youth culture. All this incessant coolness is cramming a big stick up the hipsters’ collective wazoo. A little looseness might be a good thing, kids, huh?

But is Garbus’s music even the slightest bit “crunchy?” I don’t hear it. I hear the same raw, slicing edge in tUnE-yArDs that I hear in the best African music. Earthy, yes. Crunchy? No.

I am always grateful for a musician or band who is able to shake me and wake me, even in this jaded era at my jaded age. So thank you, Merrill and tUnE-yArDs. Looking forward to hearing more.

UPDATE 9/26/11: tUnE-yArDs just released the official video of  “Gangsta


12 thoughts on “Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs: Not Your Fantasy Girl

  1. Pingback: Ethan Hein's Blog › Tune-Yards

  2. Even the lgbt community seems to have bias but count me in for having fun with androgyny. I agree all art is stolen. My son paints his toenails and my daughter can kick your ass. Not tring to “hate”, just coming back to identity basics. Did you notice that most of the “haters” couldn’t spell moustache ?

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  4. Heres my take on it: Just shave the damn mustache. Its literally the only reason anyone thinks shes “androgynous”. And having a skeevy ass teenager mustache is not, and never has been, aesthetically acceptable for ANY gender or sexual orientation. Men shave. Women shave. Its basic bodily upkeep. If she had spinach in her teeth nobody would be called sexist for suggesting that maybe, you know, she brush them.

    That being said, i think she is awesome in every way. Im tired of seeing all these female indie singers that look like a bunch of barely glued-together bird beaks who would suddenly cry if you shut a door too hard near them. Merrill Garbus is strong, and powerful, like her music. Its primal, like a tribal heartbeat, almost warlike. Every song feels like a call to arms.

    People should be focusing on the music, and they clearly arent, and the reason why is obvious, and its a very easy problem to solve so i say the most rational thing to do is make that one very small concession in the same daily ritual literally billions of human beings engage in every single day and lets leave this entire discussion behind. By pretending its not a big enough deal to be worth doing anything about, youre paradoxically making it a much bigger deal than it has to be. Mustaches are historical symbols of dictatorship and paternalistic oppression anyway.

    • Your anti-peach fuzz bias is showing! You made me laugh, anyway. But I have to say, I think it’s her call. Hair of any kind is fair game for the winds of fashion and taste. Perhaps in 20 years, some young women will be dying their mustaches or spelling words on the upper lip with them. And it will only seem strange to the squares. All’s fair in hair fashion.

      Totally agree with you about the power of Garbus’s music. You put it very well.


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  6. I too happened upon the Tune’s by chance. A most pleasing happenstance thank you! Lucky me and lucky you for “finding” them. Little impresses me musically these days, so I say these anomalous misfits are just what the doctor ordered.

  7. Remember the annoying kid on the diving board who screamed, “Look at me! Look at ME! LOOK AT ME!!!” and then took a halfassed flop into the pool?
    She grew up, and she’s still desperate for your attention.

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