Robin Pecknold Is A (Major Contibutor To The) Genius (.com Music Website) But Maybe He Shouldn’t Be

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 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 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.

32 Replies to “Robin Pecknold Is A (Major Contibutor To The) Genius (.com Music Website) But Maybe He Shouldn’t Be”

  1. AvatarPat

    Well… I’m going to have to read this again, and maybe then a third time, because I’m in the odd position of perhaps not agreeing with your diagnosis, but absolutely agreeing with your prescription.

    And thanks for your neologism, because I might use vaccinatorial myself, and soon.

  2. AvatarRon

    A few random thoughts between Ops disasters at work:

    – You could provide the appendix to the R&T stuff here, thus making it’s consumption optional for readers. It might even let them create and flesh out their own interpretations, then compare them to yours.
    – While I agree with your thoughts about the need for young men to form non-sexual bonds, I fear we’re too far down this path to get back to that. We may have to travel the full distance through this fell beast before we can recreate what the Victorians built.
    – If I’m really just a figment of your imagination, I would like to have a few words with your Id about the f@#$%d condition of my knees on delivery.

      • AvatarRobert

        No, you’re a figment of _my_ imagination. I’ve been in a coma since my head injury in 1988. My back hurts all the time because I’m stuck in this bed, not all the motocross crashes.

  3. AvatarRick T.

    So maybe one day it will be again be possible not to anguish over whether it’s okay to sit next to your buddy in an uncrowded theater or better to leave a seat between you. Or for that matter, just go to a movie with your buddy.

    I’m on the dark side of 60 so musically my taste led me recently to Allison Krauss’s new ‘Windy City’ recording – the voice of an angel.

  4. Avatar98horn

    Also consider: everything that you consider “solid” is largely made up of empty space. For example, a hydrogen atom (the simplest) is 99.9999% empty space. If a hydrogen atom were the size of earth, all the “solid matter” inside it would fit into a sphere about 2 football fields in diameter.

  5. Avatareverybodyhatesscott

    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.

    It’d be nice if school provided guys with some masculinity but it doesn’t. One of the most important things ‘talking to girls’ is never covered at any educational level. Us expecting guys to ‘just get it’ is ridiculous. Especially for bookish introverts. My dad was/is in my life and I still didn’t get this till late, I can’t imagine how tough it is for boys raised by single moms.

  6. AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

    Most women claim they want a kind, gentle, non argumentative male as a mate. That last’s only until they are with one for a while. In almost every case, they prefer a “manly” man next. Not one that beats or abuses them, but one who is not afraid to make a decision, or voice a contrary opinion. The rub is, as Jack points out, nobody has taught these boys how to become men like that.
    Every gender needs some time with their counterparts, just to balance the scales at times. If you look at a group of bikers, you will notice that they hug each other regularly, Nothing even remotely gay about it, just an expression of happiness to see someone you might not have seen for a while. I never learned that growing up (mid time boomer), but did later in life.

  7. AvatarRobert

    I’ve had the writer’s Word of God mess up my enjoyment of a lot of songs, even whole albums. Bruce Dickinson’s Accident of Birth (which may as well have been an Iron Maiden album, most of the band is there much of the time) upset me the most – I was hearing brilliant songs about the nature of existence, the end of the universe, the nature of God… then I read the liner notes. Nope, they’re all about aliens.

  8. AvatarDjarum

    I’m not entirely convinced that everything in a boy or a mans life has become so highly feminized or sexualized as your suggesting. Is it worse now than it was 20 years ago? Sure. Now we have magazines telling men how to dress, what to where, and how to act so that they are more sexually attractive. Men can no longer be “men” and still be accepted. They have to compromise much more now than ever. Some of it is good, some of it is bad.

    Now, in regards to artists and their art breathing, I entirely agree. While this band and music is not my cup of Tea, one of my favorite bands, Tool, never released lyrics right away for their music. Maynard would even often change the lyrics of songs during live performances slightly.

  9. AvatarWheeTwelve

    Can this be a sticky? Are there stickies around here?

    Wait… No, no, that’s not… Hang on… Dammit!

  10. Avatarrwb

    1. There is some richness in the paragraphs about all contexts becoming sexualized and the correlated downfall of polite society, coming from someone who may have forced a sexual reference or innuendo once or twice in their time.

    2. Is indie rock the new adult contemporary?

  11. Avatarrich

    Once again Jack you knock it out of the park. My biggest regret is I won’t get to hang out with you. Not because I want to bump uglies, but because I have so enjoyed your terrific writing over the past 3/4 years or however long.

    I really hope you do finish your book. For sure, there will be no money in it because only Chelsea Handler’s books make money…. but I guarantee you everybody who read it would treasure it, and it would not just wind up on someone’s coffee table.

    All the best !

  12. Avataryamahog

    “Somewhat ironically, the more distance an artist gave you, the closer you could feel to the art.”

    That’s a romantic thought and perhaps it matters to some. And maybe I’m just some rube who doesn’t get it (I’m trawling for a deal on a Prius V and/or a YZ250 2-stroke on my other tabs). But it seems as though the value of art goes in two directions –

    1. Do you feel something new?

    2. Do you feel something familiar?

    Getting up close and personal with the art / artist / process might impair one or the other but probably not both. I’d wager for you that learning how the artist means something might break the sense of familiarity you get from the art (and indeed, rather than enjoying the new music you’ve taken this as the impetus to write about something (new?)).

    It’s ironic and expected and a sign of the modern world that learning about how someone else views something would affect our own perceptions. But if that affects the value of the art, it means you weren’t enjoying the art so much as you were enjoying that mental state associated with the art. Luckily, the artist is in the business of creating new content and you’ll want new content more as they ‘ruin’ the old content for you.

    There’s a conflict between the individual / individuation / concrete identity and roles within society. The conflict on whether or not you use a buffer seat with your bros is real and a consequence of more things than I can address in this comment but I’d submit that the Modern Man would simply make a choice he could live with and would be well served by finding a friend who would do the same. The question shouldn’t be “do I say ‘no homo’ ” or “should I leave a buffer seat” but “what would I prefer?”. The reality is that the buffer seat doesn’t matter (just like the art) what we value is the mental state. The short cut is finding someone who’s fine with you chasing that state, and perhaps the wisdom is finding out that what you want is already there.

    Recently I’ve had two fantastic meals – a bowl of ramen that showed me a new dimension of savory and a cup of Senor Rico’s rice pudding from Aldi’s that tastes like the rice pudding my grandma made (she passed away 10 years ago). The ramen was new and the rice pudding brought to tears in front of my girlfriend (who was perplexed that the first time she’s seen me cry was over a cup of rice pudding while watching Bar Rescue…).

    But a bowl of ramen is just a Japanese pasty with some broth, it could be familiar but for some reason it was new (probably some effective marketing somewhere). And the senor rico’s rice pudding wasn’t identical to my grandma’s cooking – it could have been a new dimension of rice pudding instead of a time machine back to her kitchen. You have the experience you want until you don’t and that’s why you get hooked chasing the next mental state. And if you don’t believe me, I’ll send you $1 to get a senor rico of your own and you too can see the proof is in the pudding.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Part of it is that art is occasionally greater than the artist. Think of all the great movies you’ve seen over the years where the actors and actresses turned out to be these horribly vapid and shallow people in real life — or just plain stupid.

  13. AvatarJD

    I think I will get into trouble if I begin too deep of a response to this and I could talk about this for days because the topic fires me up. I agree with what you’re saying. Everything IS sexualized and it drives me nuts. I agree that men need men more than anything.

    But, I don’t think it’s any different for women, at least not for me. Especially when other women find out about my previous relationships, I can sense that they are treat me differently. I can tell by they way they look at me when I give a compliment that they are wondering if it’s harmless or just me trying to get into their pants. Go shopping together and share a dressing room? Absolutely not. Change in the same locker room as me at the gym? Nope – they’d rather go into a stall and drop a sock in the toilet. I’ve actually made it a point to avoid pronouns with new friends because of this fear. Can’t I just have a normal friendship and not have to worry that they will be analyzing every time I tell them that I love them?

    But it’s not just women who question my affection. I had the same best friend for nearly 25 years. When we turned 18 we wanted to do something we couldn’t do when we were 17, so we got a tattoo together. Unprepared we went to a shop and sat down with 15 minutes to spare before they closed. We didn’t want to put anything on our bodies that didn’t mean something to us. So we got each other’s initials.

    For years I was teased about having her initials on my wrist, by even my own father, that she was my “girlfriend” and I was a “lesbian.” Little did he know that I was actually with other women at the time, but the point is that my best friend’s initials on my wrist was far from sexual. It never was and never will be. We just cared about each other. We were each others other half. People still don’t understand her initials on my wrist and its 2017.

    I am happy to say that I never hear any men my age throw out the “no homo.” I do recall this growing up in grade school quite often. I sadly also do still hear older men say this still.

    I do agree that things need to breathe – especially art. It’s kind of a hard toss up though. As an artist, I hope that what I create would give my audience the emotions that I was going after, but at the same time, letting someone else interpret and create their own context is just as important, if not more important.

    I had never listened to Fleet Foxes until yesterday, and now I’m hooked. Don’t tell Bark M. I’m streaming it through Amazon…

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Agreed that women also need the company of women — but I don’t think I’m qualified to talk about that beyond agreeing with you.

      There are a lot of Fleet Foxes references strewn throughout this site; they will make some sense to you now 🙂

  14. Avatarkvndoom

    Earth gives birth…

    Strife makes life…

    {When the child-like view of the world went
    Nothing replaced it… nothing replaced it… nothing replaced it…
    I do not like being asked to, though I’d do if I could replace it…

    other people replaced it
    someone who knows}

    From the ocean
    First living motion
    From sea to land
    Then flies to the skies

    Then race into space, it
    forgot its own place
    Searching for just one sign
    Leaving behind

    its own, its kind
    It never will find
    A spark, a sound
    or any sign of life…

    it’s so dark… down there

    river, it takes
    one man home

    like all the rest
    he’ll be… gone

    No more
    time left
    for this earth
    They burned the world so they could prove a point

    feels a Sorrow

    no tomorrow comes

    lives forever
    once it’s touched by
    the hand of man

    Now he dreams everything
    as it was…

  15. AvatarAoletsgo

    I agree Men need other Men to relate to in this world and not just as young men but as older men also. The key is Men make their deepest friends during intense engagement. It could be the military, football, music, racing bikes or cars. As I get older the body has rebelled against basketball and soccer but is still okay for cycling and nordic ski racing and the teams/friends from these are so important.
    The below link says this much better than I could ever write:

  16. AvatarDirtRoads

    Jack, you’re spot on, as you usually are. I grew up with buddies where we’d hang out and listen to records, smoke a little weed and go hiking or camping all the time; it’s what we did. We’d talk about girls, but none of us lost or virginity way early in life. Conversely, there wasn’t even a thought of doing it with each other. That’s not why we were hanging out together.

    But you’re right, that did change. My teenage years in the 70s may have been that century’s last decade of innocence, Woodstock be damned. The 80s were disco/coke crazed, and the rest of it most of your audience lived through already. In the 60s I could ride my bike the three miles into town to see my friends, and nobody thought anything of it. Kids were safe until after dark, was the parental thread of thought.

    There’s a documentary on Netflix you MUST see, called “The Red Pill”. It was made by a feminist. At least she started out that way. My wife turned me onto it and even though she’s not a feminist, she’s even less of one now, having seen this documentary. I wish it would go viral.

    Please write that fucking book Jack you lazy bastard. I’ll buy 10 copies and give it to people I respect.

  17. AvatarPanzer

    A very thoughtful article, it articulates very clearly some of the things i’ve been thinking about for awhile, especially about the importance of men hanging out with one another and achieving tangible things together.

    That Bly quote where he says that those men are dangerous to women also hit the nail on the head for me. About a year or two ago here in New Zealand, a scandal erupted over a Facebook page known as ‘The Roast Busters’ where a bunch of 16-18 year old boys would coerce young girls (a few years younger than them generally) into having sex with them or performing sex acts with them, and then would post photos/videos of that activity on the fb page to publicly humiliate the girls involved.
    There was alot of hand wringing involved at the time about ‘rape culture’ etc.. but the thing that stuck with me was when I saw the photos of the perpetrators in the newspaper and realised these guys would be the first spineless fucks to get knocked out in any barfight. And it got me thinking, these boys are clearly spineless and weak, but they can still hurt others and dominate when they see the opportunity to do so. And I realised this was because they probably never had good decent fathers in their lives to teach them all the good traditional aspects of masculinity, like how to be a strong independent man who also respects women.
    Not defend the perpetrators in this case, but since then, i’ve always felt that part of the reason some boys and men behave this way towards women is because they have an unarticulatable, but still very real rage (or misogyny, if you will permit the feminist vocab) against the women in their lives for trying to repress their masculinity and remake them as some sort of inoffensive, slightly effeminate man. Which leads us again to the importance of present fathers and male primary school teachers – positive male role models.

    Jack, I salute you for being there and doing shit with your son. You won’t always get it right and he won’t turn out perfect, but he’ll be a well adjusted man regardless.


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