Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 21, 2009

Geek Rock Fever: Susan Boyle, Anathallo & the End of Music Marketing


Okay, I know it isn’t rock, but have you noticed how frumpy old Susan Boyle from Britain’s Got Talent has taken the world by storm this week? And it’s about time, too. It seems the time is ripe for us geeks, wallflowers and late-bloomers to have a champion of our own.

I also know it’s still early, and the whole American Idol/Britain’s Got Talent thing is still going to be mostly about image and packaging, even after this current trend. In other words: crass capitalist Simon Cowell and his ilk are still holding alot of the cards. All the more reason to enjoy the Susan Boyle moment, though. Boyle even caught my wife’s attention, and Sue hardly cares at all about internet buzz or pop culture.

Why is Ms. Boyle catching on? As many are saying, I think that as an opportunity to set aside cynicism and see the beauty of ordinary people, Ms. Boyle and the series’ producers have provided (and cannily edited) a unique opportunity here. We embrace our inner geek when we look beyond her lack of style and simply recognize her genuine musical gift.

Meanwhile on the non-televised, non-pop side of the music business, the last days of the hair band, and of rock’s great era of excess, are at hand. The playing field has been leveled — by the internet, cheap home studio technology, the economic downturn, and an idealistic generation making choices based on new definitions of talent and beauty. This change is also perhaps the reason that writer-director Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire became such a hit: our values are definitely shifting, even downshifting, if you will ( BTW, Danny and Susan are not related, but it’s an interesting coincidence, ain’t it? ).

Sure, the rock star and movie star types are still out there, as are the “playas” in hip-hop land, and the big-money posers in other genres, like Jessica Simpson (I still can’t accept her as a country singer, even though that’s probably where she belongs). But their crown of creative and economic dominance has been stolen. The kids have taken over the candy store. Despite what I read today about the success of last weekend’s sexier-than-it-used-to-be  Coachella Festival at, I am quite enthused about the rise of hundreds of new unsexy, do-it-yourself bands in this decade — acts that have both the look and the lyrical/musical concerns of what we used to call geeks. It’s almost as if the late Nick Drake and Elliott Smith are up in heaven, running the show.

We geeks and ugly kids are taking over. Resistance is futile, Tommy Lee. Go back to the couch and yell at your tv, Fred Durst. Please don’t bother us with your faux spirituality, Madonna and Britney.

You probably know the bands I mean even better than I do, if you’re under thirty. They’re represented on the Garden State movie soundtrack, among other places. We’re talkin’ about the sensitive, quirky chaps and chicks. Not necessarily Goth or emo quirky — which are okay, don’t get me wrong — but more like the post-collegiate sort of quirkiness, intelligence, social conscience and intensity that might bear some resemblance to R.E. M., U2, or perhaps one of David Bowie’s many self re-inventions.

For the record, on the U.S scene, we’re talking here about artists like Modest Mouse, Sufjan Stevens, TV on the Radio, OK Go, The Decemberists, M. Ward, Gnarls Barkley/Danger Mouse, Psalters, System of a Down and Ben Folds. [Feel free to make some obscure additions of your own in the Comments area below.] Among the women, I’m thinking of Cat Power, and Feist (though technically she’s Canadian). Maybe some of the Lilith Fair crowd — those earnest daughters of Kate Bush. And I know I’m being sexist in my current inability to name more women… sorry, ladies. If it helps, I’m probably also being racist in naming so few non-whites (for example Kanye West, despite being so popular and cross-over, is actually pretty geeky and weird if you look at him from the right angle.) A terrific older African American band that fits the geek-conscious bill, though, was Living Colour, from whom Michael Franti and Spearhead may have taken the mantle.

The geek rockers are the people who put glockenspiels on their records. They borrow from Hungarian folk, like my buddy Eric Brandt of Minnesota’s Urban Hillbilly Quartet. They’re multi-instrumentalists from places like central Michigan, Greenville, Illinois or Scranton, PA (is an Office Battle of the Bands  in the offing?) They’re the poets with nervous tics, in resale shop clothing, who know what polyrythms are, and how to rhyme something with “orange” (porridge?). They’re the superb guitar finger-pickers who don’t really care to compete with a thrash-metal player, and who may actually have some music theory instruction in their background. Not that there’s anything wrong with the old unschooled pub band– the three-piece, three-chord, in-your-face approach of Nirvana or The Who. It’s just nice to see some invention and new instrumentation still happening.

Back when I was a geeky high schooler and college student, Talking Heads, Devo and even alt-country’s Lyle Lovett  fit the geek rock bill quite effectively, as did Elvis Costello (who once had the gall to do a “country” album, and has always been a genre bender). To jump to a relevant reference that reaches back still further, these new kids are like the anti-Elvises — for Elvis Presley was probably the first and best example of a genuine talent and a smart genre-blender (blues, country, rockabilly, gospel), eventually ruined by insecurity, over-packaging and excess.

There were a handful of other early successes for the geeks, of course. A few geeks, hicks and losers have always had their place in the pantheon. Call it the Buddy Holly School of Self-Made Stardom, based on talent recognized — instead of style heavily marketed.

Some of what separates these new singers, musicians and songwriters is how they defy genre, or create new sub-genres at will. They mix ska, bluegrass, and heavy metal like alchemists chasing a magic potion. Sometimes they camp up or cannibalize the slick, anthemic, often dumbed-down music of previous generations. Or else they look to the best of it, learn from it, and then write deeply personal songs that are an homage to their heroes. For instance, I hear geek pioneer Green Day’s new disc, due in a month or so, is their attempt to recapture some of the angst, humor and social critique of mid-Sixties British Invasion stalwarts like The Kinks.

Finally, what led me to take on this subject was to perhaps move Anathallo — a local Chicago favorite that I saw put on a great live show last night– up the ladder and into the above rollcall of great geek rock practitioners.

The cover of their current album, Canopy Glow, features a painting by an old friend of mine from church, painter and musician Tim Lowly.

Like the art above, the band’s music (click for listenable Myspace samples) is mystery and eclecticism of the highest quality. Their implicit goal seems to be nothing less than a re-defining of beauty and devotion (to God, to community, and to accepting one’s own quirky vision).

Anathallo (which means flowering or renewal in Greek) is a Midwestern U.S. version of what’s good and interesting about Susan Boyle’s story– though their music is not much like the showtunes and mainstream, old school pop Ms. Boyle sings. Instead, Anathallo’s complex “Melodramatic Popular Songs” are created by a multi-talented collective of Michigan villagers (Boyle’s word) making a strong, lovely and quirky statement about you and I, or about astronaut Neil Armstrong’s ring-finger injury in a farm-equipment accident (true story).

They’re bound for a European tour, through the end of May 2009, as of this writing. But keep your eyes and ears open this summer, and definitely give a listen to this new disc.

The geeks are taking over, and I am their court jester… signing off for now.


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