Friday, 8 March 2013


Three years ago, I reviewed the single 'Real Live Flesh' by tUnE-yArDs, from the album BiRd-BrAiNs (using formatting that the website no longer supports, if you're wondering). I gave the song 7.5/10 - a decent but hardly ecstatic response. I then forgot about it, wrapped up in early 00s indie and post-punk, not enormously compatible with the afro-beat-style jazziness of tUnE-yArDs; I re-discovered them recently after finding 'Real Life Flesh' on Youtube coincidentally, and realising how great it was. Since their first album, tUnE-yArDs have released a second, whokill (a different, but comparable, affront to grammar). However much of a challenge it is to remember the stylised spelling of their releases, it's worth seeing past the indier-than-thou typography of tUnE-yArDs, because musically, they're brilliant.

whokill follows the same essential patterns as BiRd-BrAiNs, but they've developed the production and perhaps a slightly higher quality of songwriting since 2009. The stylish experimentalism and ingenuity of whokill is not to everyone's taste, but I think that they develop particularly strongly-attached fans. Tracks like 'My Country' are so vibrant that it's hard to respond to them unemotionally.

Though an exploration of their other material uncovers some similar gems, 'Real Live Flesh' is still one of my favourite tracks of all time. One of its main charms is its self-deprecating lyrics.

I'm not your fantasy girl.

I'm not your fantasy love.

I'm not your fantasy flesh

That fits you like a tight glove.

Real Live Flesh by tUnE-YaRdS on Grooveshark

The song is about sex; in that sense, it doesn't challenge any norms. However, when was the last time you heard a woman singing a sexy song in which she's not deemed perfect, gorgeous or beautiful? Flesh is taboo; fat is demonised. In the real world, the world beyond simulacra, people can respond sexually to non-fantasy bodies; non-porn bodies; bodies which aren't 'perfect'. I see 'Real Live Flesh' as a song about accepting deficiency and yet still feeling empowered to enjoy sex - not being an ideal, yet still having the sexual confidence to suggest you'll be good in bed. The woman in 'Real Live Flesh' is definitely female (she doesn't take on a 'male' role or anything like that) but she takes the initiative; she makes offering sex an act of self-assurance, not submission. It's almost unique - songs about female sexuality tend to be much more passive than this - "LOOK AT ME" songs, or "TOUCH ME" songs. Alternatively, they're about self-esteem more generally, about trying to find your own beauty - 'Born This Way' (Gaga) or 'Ugly' (Sugababes), for instance. In my opinion, trying to get people without symmetrical faces to think they're pretty is not the most useful response to mass beauty culture; we need to offer ways to transcend physical attractiveness as the core criterion of value. 'Real Live Flesh' is what I listen to when I want to remind myself of the possibilities of escaping the "beauty=worth" trap.

If you like that track, here's a great live session showcasing a few tracks from whokill - with visuals this time!

One annoying type of response to tUnE-yArDs is a response to the appearance of the lead singer. People always defend her against such ignorance, which is nice - after all, her voice is exceptional; she clearly has her preferences the right way round. But I still come up against something, even while trying to forget appearances. When a woman self-consciously avoids presenting herself like a pop-star, choosing not even to wear make-up onstage, then do you mention it? What's more, what if she doesn't dress up, lose weight, dance in a feminine way? I have a problem here because to normalise something, you have to try and make a point of ignoring it. I'd love it if women felt they didn't have to do these things to be musicians. Then again, I am endlessly intrigued by Garbus' reception in the real world, by fans, by her record company. Is she making a statement, or does she genuinely not feel affected by the same pressures as other musicians? Are pressures increasing as she gets more famous and popular? How would she react to a full make-over for a photo shoot (something which is accepted practice in the music industry, which you'd really have to work to refuse)? Basically, what is it like being a woman that doesn't follow some of the implicit rules about being stereotypically appealing?

When I ask these questions, and want to find the answers, I face a barrier: if she doesn't raise it, it can't be raised, because to ask the question would be akin to asking, "So, why don't you try to be attractive?" And even when it's deliberate, and lots of people notice she isn't complying with the usual rules, the question is inappropriate, and would come over petty, sniping, ignorant. I hope that one day someone has the tenacity and moderation to ask the questions in a friendly, comfortable way - or that she offers a response herself. As you can infer from this interview, she'd probably have a well-worded answer.

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