tUnE-yArDs, Trololo, and artistic freedom
My ears perked up as I was doing the breakfast dishes yesterday while half-listening to Morning Edition. Merrill! As a musical coda to yesterday's piece in their American Dream series, NPR brought on Merrill Garbus, the artist behind tUnE-yArDs, one of indie rock's hottest and coolest acts. And that's no oxymoron. For those who haven't had the pleasure, Merrill is without doubt the most outstanding electric-ukulele-strumming, percussion-banging, digital-looping, crooning, cooing and crowing singer-songwriter-composer-performer ever to come out of Smith College. The Wife and I had the pleasure of meeting Merrill and her parents in Easthampton last year before her excellent show at Flywheel; she was even better at Montreal Pop last September.
Politically outspoken, Merrill has performed several times for the Occupy protesters in New York City. And while her commentary on NPR may not have been punditry of the highest order (neither would mine have been if I were on), agree with it or not, it was more intelligent than the norm for such things. Even better was the way she explained how her beliefs were reflected in the way she wrote and performed her song "My Country" (check out the video), right down to the reason for the "weird, unexpected note" at the tune's end. It was great to hear such invigorating music so early in the morning. But what really made my soul jump was Merrill's final comment: "The ability to speak my feelings about my experience as an American is absolutely a part of my American dream." YES!!! An artist who recognizes and enjoys her artistic freedom? You go, girl!
(Digression: For those who've ever said that pop may be OK for enjoyment, and suitable for short attention spans, but that only classical merits attentive, long-form listening, please listen to the entirety of tUnE-yArDs's "WHOKILL" CD ("My Country" is the first track). After doing so, please tell me that its separate tracks don't cohere into a complete artistic statement, that the composer was not as attentive to every tiny detail as would be the composer of a classical work of similar length, and that this "work" (I dare call it) isn't as "important" (I dare say) as the best new classical music now being written. Plus, doesn't it rock like crazy?)
Compare Merrill's comments about artistic freedom with the plight of "Mr. Trololo," Eduard Khil, who died on Monday at age 77. The classically-trained Russian baritone became a popular crooner in the 1970s Soviet Union for his rendition of folk songs, then faded from the limelight. Why would such an obscure singer merit an obit in the New York Times and in just about every other major news outlet? And where did the "Mr. Trololo" nickname come from ? The internet, of course. A 1976 television clip featuring Khil onomatopoetically lip-synching a ditty called “I Am Glad Because I Am Finally Returning Back Home” was uploaded onto YouTube two years ago, and quickly went, as they say, viral. If you haven't seen it, and have a taste for the bizarre, do check it out. For the squeamish, perhaps the NY Times description will suffice:
"The “Trololo” clip, as YouTube fans called it, opens with a kaleidoscope of rainbows on a golden background. Mr. Khil then emerges wearing a car salesman’s double-breasted brown suit, a mustard-yellow tie and an ear-to-ear smile under a helmet of brown hair. As he tests his voice, he pantomimes a carefree walk and waves to imaginary passers-by. He sings joyfully, without ever using any actual words."
While I'd guffawed with the rest of the world over the utter goofiness of the video, I didn't know until the obits came out why Mr. Khil did the song the way he did. As the most common story puts it, he and his co-composer Arkady Ostrovsky, concerned over likely censorship, decided not to use the song's original words about a happy cowboy riding along the American prairie. No positive depictions of the decadent West allowed. So out went the words, in went the nonsense syllables, turning the song into a kind of Soviet scat. Another explanation was given by Ostrovsky's son in a different obit, but the censorship story is the more frequently told.
When you watch the video again under those circumstances, perhaps it will take on a new meaning. Rather than being a clueless clown, perhaps Mr. Khil was reacting to the absurdity of life as a Soviet artist with the only tool he had: absurd art. In a country where only happy music was permitted, all a singer could do was act the part of a smiling ventriloquist dummy while some apparatchik provided the voice and the movement. I know that interpretation may be a stretch, but I'd also like to give Mr. Khil some credit for intelligence and integrity. I also love the fact that rather then being embarrassed by his new-found fame, he came to embrace it, at least after a while. That's an entertainer for you. Rest in peace, Mr. Trololo, and may you find the unfettered artistic freedom that Merrill Garbus joyfully extols in the next realm.