Yo La Tengo and the Case for Pretentiousness

Tony Kushner, who is only one of the most important playwrights of the last fifty years or so, told the 1995 OutWrite Conference, “Pretentiousness consists in attempting an act of bold creation regardless of whether or not one has sufficient talent, emulating the daring of which only genius is truly capable.” For some reason, Kushner’s speech (called “On Pretentiousness”; it can be found in his collection of essays, a play, two poems, and a prayer called Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness) always comes to mind when I’m listening to Yo La Tengo, especially their last two albums: 2006’s excellent (and wonderfully named!) I’m Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass and this year’s even better Popular Songs.

Bear with me here.

Yo La Tengo is an iconic indie band (some smartass might be inclined to joke about how you can’t be indie and be iconic, but 1) independent music has to do with distribution, not hoping that nobody likes your stuff 2) anymore, “indie” is a meaningless genre title for “rock and pop that the radio doesn’t like.” While I think the radio would sound better if it played some so-called “indie” music, I don’t think all indie music is somehow inherently superior. I believe, for instance, that Wavves is considered indie and they are fuck-awful), co-occupying the pantheon with the likes of Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and maybe Guided by Voices (Tom Waits is in there somewhere too – he’s like the Originator, from whose thigh entire armies of indie artists sprang fully formed). As such, they can be frequently dismissed as hipster rock, despite the fact that what Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan, and James McNew are, when you get right down to it, is a triumvirate of musical dorkitude. They’re nerds who love to listen to music and play music and when either of those activities is going well, they want to go on doing that forever. If that sounds like I’m trying to justify the three long jams that end Popular Songs, maybe I am. With one exception, which we’ll discuss later.

Over the last decade and a half (really, since McNew joined the band permanently), Yo La Tengo has seamlessly blended myriad musical styles into some of the most beautiful pop I’ve ever heard and Popular Songs might just be their most beautiful record from start to finish. But it’s not without out its pretension. You can tell from the song titles: “Avalan or Someone Very Simliar,” and “Periodically Triple or Double” (which also features a pretentious and squally organ solo) come to mind. And then there’s “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” which is nearly ten minutes of repetitive pretentiousness that is also possibly the crown jewel of Popular Songs.

At the end of the day, the degree to which I can forgive a band’s pretentiousness depends on the degree to which their music is, on musical merits alone, listenable. And Yo La Tengo is fast becoming one of my favorite bands (I know they’ve been critical darlings for a long time, but I don’t blindly leap on bandwagons) because their songs are, on the whole, pretty fucking amazing. “Here to Fall” opens Popular Songs with sweeping orchestral rock, but the album (true to its title) contains several short, sweet bursts of great pop: “Nothing to Hide,” “If It’s True,” (a great duet between Kaplan and Hubley) and “All Your Secrets” number among the best pop songs of Yo La Tengo’s career.

Over that career, YLT has dabbled in the occasional film score (including the score for the Don DeLillo-penned Game 6, starring Michael Keaton as a delusional Boston Red Sox fan) and some of their slower songs feel like they’re paced to underscore cinematic moments, which can be both good and bad. On “The Fireside,” it’s too much – the song is too repetitive and far too long to be of any use. “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven”, however, feels like the sort of music you’d want near the triumphant climax of your film. Its lush strings and shimmering guitars roll out a red carpet down which the vocals leisurely stroll, stacking harmonies upon themselves unto infinity. You want pretentious? If “More Stars” was a blanket, I’d be wrapped up in it while I write this. Tony Kushner also told the OutWrite conference, “…the joys of pretentiousness are more alluring than its humiliations are forbidding.” “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” then, is simultaneously one of Yo La Tengo’s most pretentious moments and one of their most alluring.

And it doesn’t matter who’s doing the singing on much of Popular Songs either. All three are capable (if very quiet) vocalists and they all showcase their talents here. While most of the album is dominated by Kaplan and Hubley, James McNew takes the mic for “I’m On My Way,” a charming and meditative love song that admits, “I tried to be brooding and dark/ but it all fell through.” Pretentious or not, that’s a pretty earnest sentiment and the song’s promise just to be there should ring true for a lot of listeners, unless Yo La Tengo has an entirely heartless fanbase.

Tony Kushner, in his great lecture, told his audience that “Pretentiousness, if it’s done well, performs a salutary parody of carving out, in the face of the theorilessness and bewilderment of our age, meta-narratives, legends, grand designs… By pretending that such grandeur is still possible, we acknowledge how absolutely necessary, and indispensable, an overview, a theory, a big idea still is.” On Popular Songs, Yo La Tengo built a ladder to their biggest musical idea yet, a song so beautiful that it renders the two that follow it almost completely unnecessary. “And the Glitter is Gone,” the actual album closer, is actually fairly tolerable despite its length; but “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” has a finality to it that would rival Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” for an album closer, if Yo La Tengo were to resequence Popular Songs. But, like Neko Case’s incredible Middle Cyclone, cutting the album off at the right moment (for Neko, just skip the last track; for YLT, stop after “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” or skip “The Fireside” and listen to the noisy 16 minute epic if you dare. Most people won’t like it, but I do – it reminds me of “Third Stone from the Sun”) will leave you with the impression that you’ve just heard something monumentally beautiful.

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One thought on “Yo La Tengo and the Case for Pretentiousness

  1. Pingback: The (Siamese) Dream of the 90s is Alive and Well in the Joy Formidable « Bollocks!

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