Edwin Arnaudin – Staff Writer
It’s been a while since I’ve been as intrigued with a group as I currently am with tUnE-yArDs. I also can’t remember a group with whom I’ve had such an odd history. Indeed, if tUnE-yArDs and I were in a relationship on Facebook, our status over the past few months would read “It’s Complicated.”
Slightly over a year ago, their album W H O K I L L came out and was promptly hailed as one of 2011’s best. I didn’t get around to hearing it until the week of Christmas, having waited until my local library added it to their collection. After 1.5 listens, I named it my #21 non hip-hop album of the year and, with a nod to the strength of 2011’s offerings compared with the year before, had this to say:
21. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
This year’s Yeasayer (and I’m not sure they would score this high in 2011) in terms of being the most interesting sounding album. Not everything works, and some elements are downright annoying, but it’s innovative and never boring.
(Note: I initially refused to accept the band’s mixed-capitalization spelling, not believing it to be essential. Now I kind of enjoy the exercise of typing it up.)
I was also convinced that the lead singer was a man. A man with upper-register range, possibly of Latino descent, but a man nonetheless. Growing up accustomed to the likes of Michael Jackson or Prince hitting high notes on a regular basis, I’d like to think that such a conclusion is logical. With all that followed, however, I’m not so sure. Skip ahead to March 29, listening to The World Cafe on my commute home, and I nearly wrecked when I heard that the group is fronted by one Merrill Garbus…a woman.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I believed David Dye and told myself, “It’s unexpected, but things aren’t always as they appear.” Garbus’ speaking voice is unmistakably feminine, but her singing voice is so distinctly non-ladylike that I remained confused and, it being radio, sought visual proof. Perhaps she was actually a key member of the group and its spokesperson, but not necessarily the singer. I was in the car, where I’m often distracted (by, um, focusing on driving…), and I’d probably misunderstood her role in the band. Video would clear that up and, hopefully, prove my initial assessment right. After all, nobody likes to be wrong.
I first watched an in-studio performance at Seattle’s KWXP of my favorite song from W H O K I L L, “Bizness,” followed by an exceptional NPR Tiny Desk Concert. I hadn’t misheard: Garbus is the singer and in both videos, from multiple angles, yes, she definitely looks like a woman.
But that voice!
It just didn’t match and the more I watched, the more the discontinuity was enough to make me doubt the whole deal. Loathing myself for doing so, I looked more critically for signs that it might all be an androgynous hoax, and, to my idiotic satisfaction, found enough to keep me unsure. Despite the feminine garments and…well….breasts, Garbus’ left profile does look slightly masculine. The manner in which her hair is cut on that side further encouraged my bizarre quest. Even straightaway, it’s as if the length of hair on her right screams “woman” while the closely cropped left side comes back with “man.”
I wasn’t alone in my confusion, either. Scouring the Net for tUnE-yArDs articles yielded plenty of similar responses, though besides a scattered message board or two, all seemed to leave the ambiguity to Merrill’s sound and shy away from sexual politics. Furthermore, these other writers consistently used feminine pronouns when referring to her, not once considering that there might be an alternative.
Merrill herself was likewise no help, telling Pitchfork how she grew up wanting to be “a powerful woman singer like Cyndi Lauper or Debbie Gibson.” But that was just her furthering the mystery, right? What could she gain by a tell-all, if there was indeed something to tell? Thinking I was sitting on a major scoop, I was ready to take my suspicions to the highest musical journalism authorities. I would reveal Merrill as…something…I still wasn’t sure, and that would show, um…someone…
I was confident and doubtful, a schism of accusations and common sense, of pride and humility, daring and chickenshit.
Thankfully, that’s about the time a writer, whose debut novel made me want to give up reading, helped me decipher it all.
In Chuck Klosterman’s essay on Grantland, he notes, “I get the sense that asexuality is part of [Merrill’s] hippie aesthetic, because I just looked at the tUnE-yArDs Wikipedia page and noticed that the wiki writer put a lot of effort into never using gender-specific pronouns.” That single sentence was enough to snap me out of my conspiracy theorist stupor and get me thinking logically.
Of course Merrill is aware that her vocals are unusual. In a time where everyone and their grandmother is in at least three bands, Merrill’s voice is her central asset and gives her sound more appealing qualities than that of the average above-average singer. W H O K I L L is a smart album from a smart artist, and what better way to flex one’s intelligence than to accentuate one’s distinct aspects? So, she cuts her hair in a manner that further plays up the gender mystique. Surely she’s also aware how the ‘do meshes (or clashes) with her similarly non-traditionally feminine bone structure. The visual ensemble lured me in; had it not done the same for thousands of others?
And yet regardless of any smoke and mirrors I or anyone else may have suspected, none of it matters as much as the music. After much soul searching (and gleeful repeated listening of W H O K I L L), I’ve come to the conclusion that Merrill’s all-star voice transcends gender boundaries. Her voice is not Barry White’s, nor is it Charlotte Church’s, but something that twists and turns all places in between and I can think of no greater compliment than to deny it a label. As for Merrill herself, I no longer see a reason to go against the grain of the journalistic community and am confident that she is woman, who may roar in any manner she sees fit.
On June 6, Merrill took the stage at The Orange Peel and Asheville got to see this special talent do her thing. If I were to revisit my 2011 album rankings, I’d now place W H O K I L L just outside the top 10, but for those in attendance that Wednesday night, her concert could easily be a top 10 lifetime musical experience. My journey with Merrill has been a strange yet rewarding one, and I have a feeling that it’s just begun. Our relationship remains complicated, but I’m confident that some day it will evolve into something more mature.