Why Do People Hate CocoRosie?
An Examination in Six Parts
CocoRosie are a divisive, if not flat-out widely disliked, band. The twee, folkadelic, fond-of-beat-boxing sister act's last three albums have landed in the 2.3–5.1 range of Pitchfork's 10 rating system—worse than it sounds given that the big hump of that site's bell curve sits in the 6–8 area, making anything under 5 kind of a slap. Metacritic's more forgiving metrics (it averages the ratings of many reviews) give those albums a mean (in the mathematical, not the snarky sense) rating of 59, 60, and 67 out of 100, respectively. In academic terms, those are Fs and (to quote Kanye West quoting Radio Raheem) "Ds, motherfucker, Ds."
Beyond the numbers, of course, people just say mean things about the sisters Sierra and Bianca Casady. Spin, in a zero-stars review of their 2005 sophomore album, Noah's Ark, memorably said: "They make each shimmer of postnatal whimsy seem like an eternal gulag of the spotless mind." One particularly bone-picking (and off-base) critic, writing for Brainwashed .com, called them "Cocoracist" (for reasons we'll explore later) in an article subtitled "You're So Worldly, How's Mom's Audi?" Why all the hate? The Stranger attempts to get to the bottom of this pressing issue in popular music.
Call this the Vampire Weekend argument, and it's as specious here as it is with that band. In terms of privilege, Sierra and Bianca grew up roaming the Southwestern United States and Hawaii, the children of an artist/teacher mother who encouraged them to drop out of school and a father devoted to Native American/psychedelic shamanism. The pair started the band while living in Paris, la-di-da, and recorded their first album, La Maison de Mon Rêve, in a (presumably claw-foot) bathtub. Sierra studied opera; Bianca worked as a model. This apparently luxe life rubs some folks the wrong way, especially when the sisters start dabbling in hiphop tropes or talking up the influence of the Wu-Tang Clan (cf. Vampire Weekend and Afropop, Lil Jon). But even if you're a class warrior, it's just bad form to discount someone's artistic merit because of her supposed socioeconomic background. And it's equally dense and antiquated to accuse CocoRosie's magpie style of unfair "appropriation" when we live in a culture that is, now more than ever, cross-pollinating, globalized, and polyglot, where people can listen to and engage with and produce all types of musics without necessarily being tourists or neocolonialists, where no one "owns" hiphop, etc. (Besides, they claim Syrian and Native American ancestry, so there.)
Although, to be fair, so did John and Yoko and Patti Smith about a million years ago. But context matters, so let's cut to the CocoRosie song in question, "Jesus Loves Me": "Jesus loves me/But not my wife/Not my nigger friends/Or their nigger lives." The song is obviously sung in character, its affected Billie Holiday warble (David Sedaris's is better) and lazy back-porch, blues-guitar plucking an antique grotesquerie in keeping with the band's frequently deployed old-timey affectations. It certainly lands like a reminder that some things from the old-timey times FUCKING SUCKED. Like slavery. And ragtime. Still, this kind of face-value blackface revivalism reads a lot less powerfully than Lennon/Ono's or Smith's pointed uses of epithet as analogy. If you're going to try to shock, you better not forget to awe.
This is the argument that CocoRosie get more shit for all their lame crap than they would if they were dudes. Without pretending we live in some postgender paradise, it's safe to say that all the hate heaped on Vampire Weekend for grappling with the aesthetics of class or, say, any number of white male rappers for playing fast and loose with hiphop's codes of race and authenticity proves that guys get called out on this nonsense, too.
The Casady sisters have a thing for deliberately bad cover art (previously: crayon drawings of unicorns fucking) and they may like to play with hiphop idioms, but the cover for their new Sub Pop debut, Grey Oceans, has a loooooong way to go before it gets around the horn to being so bad that it's good, à la Pen & Pixel's mighty, Master P–fueled run of deliciously lowbrow digital excess in the late '90s. This just looks like their avatars for World of LOLcraft.
This one hits especially close to home for some Seattleites who hold our local mega-indie in almost mythically high regard (and who, just maybe, think their demo should've landed them a deal before these two boho bozos got theirs). But this objection also falls apart pretty quickly when you consider that Sub Pop's storied catalog is full of oddball, occasionally awful records alongside its grunge canon; it has never shied away from signing an unusual act, especially if it might stir up some good controversy.
Okay, so this one is subjective, but it's also the only good reason for hating the band. It's not damning that they engage with hiphop or affect old-timey mannerisms; it's that the results are so facile and fallow and precious. It's that their songs somehow manage to be both grating and yet so flimsy that they're barely even there. Your ears will prick up for the nicked Eastern rhythm and melody (and ignorable playtime rap) of "Smokey Taboo," for instance, only for the tentative goodwill to be dashed by the cloying ragtime intro of "Hopscotch Teardrop." The appealingly múm-like lullaby and hollowed-out trip-hop beat of "R.I.P. Burn Face" turns over into three straight songs of raspy babytalk nonsense. You'll enjoy the music for a moment before those damn elfin, have-one-on-Joanna-Newsom vocals kick back in and you notice the daft lyrics. Repeat ad nauseum.
Or better yet, don't.