I don’t like to look this fact square in the eye, but every day brings me more evidence that this entire world is simply a simulation created to keep my brain busy while my body generates electricity for the machines in the Matrix. How else can you explain the fact that several of my favorite musicians — Pat Metheny, Natalie Merchant, Sara Watkins, The Black Keys, and a few others — have all decided to leave their major distribution deals in the past few years and move to Nonesuch Records, my favorite label? It’s far too comfortable a coincidence.
Any doubt I harbored about this theory was depressingly dashed when the Fleet Foxes announced a reunion and a new album to be released on… you guessed it… Nonesuch. This is what video game designers think of as resource conservation. If I’m only interacting with one record label here in the “real world”, the others can kind of fade away into the background, the same way that many video games don’t bother to fully render objects until the player’s point of view focuses on them. Here’s another example of this: The less thought I give to BMW, the less distinct their new models become. It’s been ten years since I seriously considered the purchase of a new 7 Series. During that time, the car has basically faded into a generic shape. Am I right, or am I right? Don’t bother to answer; you only exist inside my head. If I need you to answer it will just happen.
Those of us who signed up for early delivery of the new Fleet Foxes album directly from Nonesuch have already received digital delivery of the the track Third Of May / Odaigahara. It’s an utterly brilliant song, sort of a Fleet Foxes Greatest Hits in just six minutes. As is often the case with the Foxes, the lyrics range from obscure to deliberately private. Not to worry; the website Genius.com exists specifically for people to offer their ideas and theories regarding a song’s meaning. And if you click the link directly above, you’ll be taken to the Genius site for this new track, and you will see that there are several notations that are, for lack of a better phrase, curiously authoritative.
Although the “Fleet Foxes” are a touring band that famously included Father John Misty nee Josh Tillman as a drummer for a few years, when it comes to writing and recording the music the “Fleet Foxes”, like “Steely Dan”, is much more compact. Robin Pecknold writes virtually all of the music, performs most of it, and produces the records himself. “Third Of May” is no exception.
According to Robin,
My friend and bandmate Skyler Skjelset’s birthday is May 3, and our album Helplessness Blues was released on May 3, 2011. The song “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” is about my relationship with Skye. It addresses our distance in the years after touring that album, the feeling of having an unresolved, unrequited relationship that is lingering psychologically. Even if some time apart was necessary and progressive for both of us as individuals, I missed our connection, especially the one we had when we were teenagers, and the lyrics for the song grew out of that feeling.
I know this because he wrote it on the Genius website, along with individual annotations for most of the lines in the song. Let me start by saying how much I respect, and admire, Robin’s willingness to experience and share those feelings in $THE_CURRENT_YEAR. In the decades following the Woodstock era, Western culture has undergone what I would like to call a re-sexualization of society and public life. We’ve been taught to regard much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as “prudish” and “repressed” and “closeted” but what actually happened is that Western culture managed to lift the massive burden of sexuality off public life. For the first time in human history, not everything had an explicit fucking-related undertone.
Our primitive ancestors were obsessed with sex, as were the Westerners of the Renaissance and the Elizabethan era. Read a Shakespeare play with attention sometime; they are full of deliberately bawdy interludes that were probably far more so in the actual public performance. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales devotes an entire section to heterosexual and homosexual ass-licking. The daily practices of fifteenth-century England would not be out of place in modern Section 8 housing, right down to teenaged pregnancy with disputed parentage. We need not discuss Greece and Rome here; they made a virtue out of pederasty.
The Victorians broke from the whole of human history by conceiving the idea of a separate public persona that was non-sexual. They forcibly de-sexualized public dress, conversation, behavior. And in doing so, they chained that Robert Bly calls “the nether beast”. Human beings were finally free to focus on something else. It is no coincidence that the years between 1850 and 1970 saw more technological progress than the fifty thousand years proceeding them. Call it repression, call it sublimation, call it whatever you like — but the fact remains that the Egyptians and the Chinese and the Romans and the Greeks together did not manage to invent the airplane or the internal combustion engine or the vacuum tube or the semiconductor.
In the decades since the Sixties, we’ve managed to roll the clock all the way back to Rome. Everything is now viewed through a sexualized lens. It is no longer acceptable to be unfuckable, or to be uninterested in fucking. But since we now believe in equality above all, to a degree that would have caused Diana Moon Glampers to pause for a moment’s reflection, we’ve simply expanded the definition of fuckability to include everybody and everything. Fat or thin, straight or gay, cis or trans, furry or fetish. Everybody must fuck, everybody must be sexual. There are no exceptions permitted. It is a sacrament as universal as the Eucharist was in the Holy Roman Empire. Even the involuntarily celibate are expected to be sexual, albeit as masturbatory consumers of media only. We need the incels so all the feminist strippers on Patreon can make their rent payments. There is no excuse for not participating in the sexual economy.
One particularly repugnant consequence of this re-sexualization is the suppression of honest emotion between men. We have woven sexuality, and homosexuality in particular, so deeply into the thread of public discourse that it’s now difficult for two men to express any affection towards each other without tossing in the obligatory “no homo” afterwards. This is a graver consequence than you might suspect. Young men need to form affectionate bonds with each other. That’s part of how we learn to be men.
As a child and teenager, I formed affectionate relationships with male role models and with peers that helped shape me. I had my “BMX hero” Rich who told me about women and the Army and how to do a proper cross-up over a short tabletop. I had my friends with whom I spent dozens of hours every week. We did everything from shoplifting to building BMX jumps to just sitting around and listening to Zeppelin. It was innocent in the truest sense, and it was a refuge from the soon-arriving demands of adult sexuality.
This is something that men need, whether we admit it or not. We need to learn to be men, and we need to learn that from other men, and it has to be protected from the demands of sexuality. This is even true for gay men — hell, it might be especially true for them. They need time away from their sexuality to discover who they really are outside of that.
If you take away this protection, if you sexualize every context, if you co-ed and queer-friendly all the things, then you wind up with the Millennial men that we have today. They were raised by women, surrounded by women, smothered and suffocated by women. They can’t tie their shoes without looking to some woman for approval. Robert Bly talks about this with regards to the process of “stealing the key”, by which he means make your own decisions as a man without seeking your mother’s approval:
I recall talking to an audience of men and women once about this problem of stealing the key. A
young man, obviously well trained in New Age modes of operation, said, “Robert, I’m disturbed by this idea of stealing the key. Stealing isn’t right. Couldn’t a group of us just go to the mother and say, ‘Mom, could I have the key back?’?”
His model was probably consensus, the way the staff at the health food store settles things. I felt the souls of all the women in the room rise up in the air to kill him. Men like that are as dangerous to women as they are to men.
No mother worth her salt would give the key anyway. If a son can’t steal it, he doesn’t deserve it.
“I want to let the Wild Man out!”
“Come over and give Mommy a kiss.”
Men need each other. But you really can’t say that in an era where the majority of media-approved messages regarding male companionship are deliberately sexualized. Every camping trip, every hunting trip, every male-only experience has to be viewed through the lens of “Brokeback Mountain”. We have to have gay Scoutmasters because God forbid that young boys spend a weekend without getting a gay viewpoint on things. Everything has to be about sex. Even innocent childhood experiences that should be entirely free of that. Again, this goes for male children of all sexual orientation. It’s not about rejecting homosexuality or sending a negative message to gay kids. It’s about preserving the innocence of children so they can grow up to have complete and fulfilling lives, whether they are straight or gay.
So when Robin Pecknold (yes! we’re back on topic!) writes about his yearning for his friend, his unfeigned and unconcealed affection, that resonates very strongly with me and my heart goes out to him for being forthright about it. We need more of that, not less. The song concerns itself with the value of a relationship between two men. This is a common theme for Robin: “Blue Ridge Mountains” is about a man who is trying to protect the secret of his brother’s extramarital affair, and it invokes the memories of a snowy winter that the brothers spent with their “terrible” or frightening grandfather when they were children.
That’s a guess on my part, mind you, because Robin hasn’t gotten around to annotating that song yet. And there’s something valuable, something interesting, about having the freedom to interpret the song that way. Other people on Genius.com interpret it as a song about two brothers who are gay. I could not disagree more, but I support their right to their own interpretation.
Which leads to this: there’s something slightly worrisome to me about Robin’s decision to provide Word Of God regarding his own music. It’s slightly antibiotic, or perhaps vaccinatorial. I think about when I was a kid, buying vinyl albums that sometimes didn’t even have the lyrics printed on the sleeves. Some bands didn’t give you pictures of the artists, even. Who knew what the Pink Floyd guys looked like? Even if you went to a concert, there were no giant screens to give you a close-up. (Yes, I just coined the neologism vaccinatorial, meaning “to prevent the reader from forming his own opinion via the early introduction of artist commentary.”)
Once upon a time, the consumption of art involved distance. You didn’t get to talk to Picasso or e-mail with Chaucer or participate on a web forum with Jimmy Page. That distance gave you space to have your own interpretation, your own meanings. To get slightly lit-crit about it, that distance allowed you to create a competing intepretational text. Somewhat ironically, the more distance an artist gave you, the closer you could feel to the art.
One of the greatest temptations an artist faces is the temptation to enforce his own viewpoint on his readers/listeners/viewers. To obliterate any competing critical theories or interpretations with the Word Of God. To forthrightly say, “THIS is what I meant, and nothing else.” The temptation is particularly strong with something like Fleet Foxes lyrics because Robin must, at some level, worry that the listeners won’t get everything if he doesn’t make it absolutely plain. I suffer from this myself, particularly regarding the stuff I write for Road&Track. I’ll sneak something in there, like making the story a shot-for-shot tribute to Beowulf or building multiple layers of phrases that reference a particular chapter in Moby-Dick, and then I sit there in anticipation hoping somebody is a sharp enough reader to pick that up. It makes me want to print out an Appendix and mail it to every subscriber.
In the end, it comes down to this: Some things simply need to breathe. Young men need time away from sexual matters to discover who they really are outside the bedroom, away from the influence of women. Art needs distance from its creator in order for its consumers to form a personal and meaningful relationship with it. And artists themselves occasionally need to separate themselves from the artistic process so they can be conscious about it, so they can feed that old wood-fired stove in the heart that makes them want to create in the first place. That’s what I keep reading about Nonesuch, by the way: they stay out of the artist’s way. It’s why Pat Metheny left Warner Jazz. It’s why Robin left Sub Pop, whether he admits it or not. And it’s why we all feel better when we take a moment to unplug from the electronic media circus, whether you do it on a bicycle or in a car or in the woods. So here’s “Third Of May”. Interpret it as you will.