Music

Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold Addresses Making Music As A ‘Straight White Male’ In 2017

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Fleet Foxes was a defining indie band of the late 2000s, so with Crack-Up, their third album and first since 2011, coming out in just a few days, music fans are going to be talking. That includes the good folks over at Stereogum, who published an early review of the album on Friday (ahead of its June 16th release). Tom Breihan, the author of the piece and a senior editor for the site, had mixed feelings about the album, and seemed disappointed that Crack-Up was more about Pecknold and his feelings than the world around him:

Crack-Up is a personal album, one that addresses the inner workings of Pecknold’s skull rather than the things happening outside it. […] It bums me out to hear Pecknold and his band coming back, after six years, in total sleep-mode.”

Music writers don’t necessarily expect the targets of their criticisms to actually read them, but Pecknold caught wind of Stereogum’s piece and had enough feelings about it that he was compelled to pen a lengthy, 900-word response. In the article’s comments, one of the main points he addressed was the challenges of making meaningful and culturally aware music as a “Straight White Male” artist:

“Also. Speaking as a Straight White Male music listener, I’d say, generally speaking, that the Straight White Male is the last voice of ‘cultural relevance’ that I’m actively looking to, or sympathetic to, in this particular cultural moment. Just, who cares, you know? This obviously creates a problem for the Straight White Male artist who still desires to make relevant art – do you attempt to gentrify the landscape, White Savior yourself, and demand through inference or testimony that your voice is that of a leader for these times, when your phenotype is culturally inert if not malignant, and that even presuming to have something genuinely important to add is arguably an invocation of privilege? This approach seems like a fool’s errand to me.”

Pecknold went on to write that “this record is more present-aware than you’re giving it credit for, it’s just more from the perspective of an observer, or participant, than it is from that of one sent from on high.” He later added that to him, “biographical details and lyrics” are two of the elements he finds the least interesting about music, both as a creator and consumer, saying he is “most moved by and interested in chords, melody, dynamics, structure, texture, arrangement, flow, scale, invention, instrumentation, mood, contrast, depiction, et cetera.”

For the record, Breihan took Pecknold’s thoughtful and non-combative comments in stride: He later tweeted, “My man from Fleet Foxes came through with the most civil, thoughtful response to a bad, petty review (mine).”

Full text of the comments below:

Tom,

Sorry the record didn’t do it for you. I clearly didn’t do a very good job of setting this record up for people in advance, partly because I’d consider too much blogosphere-facing narrative control to be pageant-ish, and partly because I wanted listeners to come to it without too many preconceived notions as to what exactly it was. That said, I obviously let the “successful band dude goes to college” thing metastasize into a louder storyline than it should have been, by virtue of there being nothing else provided to frame the album around. Truthfully, my short time at college didn’t have much to do with this album. All the arcane lyrics you mention (which are really only found on three imagistic songs) were written before I went back to school. I picked up a couple music theory tricks that helped with arrangements, but most of the brainstorming as to what this record would be was done in 2013, including the title, and college mostly just served to delay its making and release.

Also. Speaking as a Straight White Male music listener, I’d say, generally speaking, that the Straight White Male is the last voice of “cultural relevance” that I’m actively looking to, or sympathetic to, in this particular cultural moment. Just, who cares, you know? This obviously creates a problem for the Straight White Male artist who still desires to make relevant art – do you attempt to gentrify the landscape, White Savior yourself, and demand through inference or testimony that your voice is that of a leader for these times, when your phenotype is culturally inert if not malignant, and that even presuming to have something genuinely important to add is arguably an invocation of privilege? This approach seems like a fool’s errand to me. I instead mostly took the tack that I was using my particular set of cultivated talents to make a Use Object, something useful, a balm, something experientially or aesthetically moving, a reprieve. If you think I should be trying to muscle my way into a position of cultural relevance that I don’t deserve, in a culture that is currently filled with far more interesting and sympathetic perspectives than that of the Straight White Male, then I can’t really help you, because I am a little too self aware to have tried to do that. I can still comfortably and with a clear conscience make music that is beautiful and useful to people who are receptive, but I don’t do so from a sage-like position at all. You obviously care enough about music to place musicians in positions of veneration, and I do too, but I’m sooner doing so with Frank and Kendrick and Solange at the moment than I am with any straight white male artist currently in the landscape, and obviously (duh) I’m not alone in that, as they are enormously successful, beloved, and influential artists.

That said, this record is more present-aware than you’re giving it credit for, it’s just more from the perspective of an observer, or participant, than it is from that of one sent from on high. “Cassius” is explicitly about participating in protests following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last summer, as well as the death of Muhammad Ali. “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me” and “Crack-Up” are about post-election confusion and anxiety, alternative facts, as are portions of “Third of May” and “I Should See Memphis” – how are references to the American Civil War not also relevant to 2017, and how is an album title like “Crack-Up” not obviously a reference to our current political climate as much as it is a reference to any personal psychology? If some of the lyrics are more imagistic than explicit, they’re still more engaged in the present world than anything on our first album, where the lyrics were just pure RPG fantasy, and they are at least more graceful than “If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore.”

It always confuses me to read reviews that focus on biographical details and lyrics. In the taxonomy of concerns relating to music, biography and lyrics are the two I personally find least interesting, as both a listener and as an artist. I’m most moved by and interested in chords, melody, dynamics, structure, texture, arrangement, flow, scale, invention, instrumentation, mood, contrast, depiction, et cetera. If the things that excited me in the making of this record didn’t do anything for you in the listening, I completely accept that. But I’ll say in conclusion that recording this album was the first time in my creative life that I really felt in control, and like I was making something very closely aligned with my values and my own listening predilections, that I couldn’t write off to myself as pastiche, trend-hopping, genre exercise, or a bald-faced attempt to crack 9.0 on Pitchfork. Buoyed by this feeling, I would often then have the competing thought that this self-assurance was a bad sign, as the insecurity and desire to please others that often guided me in making music before had also payed off in the pleasing of the arbiters of the blogosphere. It was a gamble then, and I lost that gamble with you, Tom, but thanks for listening and giving it a chance in the first place.

Read the full piece here.

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