Anna Minard claims to "know nothing about music." For this column, we force her to listen to random records by artists considered to be important by music nerds.
The Pleasure Principle
Gary Numan, an old-school guyliner fan, makes music the interwebs call "synth pop." Listening to The Pleasure Principle in the context of this column, I got the feeling that perhaps he was among the first to do this thing that he does. That doesn't change the fact that the thing itself, decades later, doesn't sound particularly refreshing to me at first.
But I gave it a full-faith effort and was rewarded for my time. It was a cloudy day. I was boiling beets. The beets had dyed my fingers a funny sort of ombré magenta; Gary Numan's made-up eyes stared back from my computer screen, his half-smile making me like him, his music leaking around the edges of things.
On the first listen, I was distracted by life until track four, "Films." Suddenly, a jet-engine sound thrums and string-like synths swoop in. It sounds like a sexy horror-movie scene in a dark dance club in slow motion. Next comes "M.E.," which not only is captivating, but I think has been sampled for some sort of hit that activates my brain's slumbering music banks. (I googled it: Basement Jaxx's "Where's Your Head At," anyone?)
The Pleasure Principle is good alone-time music. Not too moody, not too upbeat. Good for things like cooking vegetables and looking at overcast skies (or applying your elaborate eye makeup, Mr. Numan). I recognized "Cars," too, and not just via a sample or karaoke. I'd never actually listened to the words, but they are great: "Here in my car, I feel safest of all/I can lock all my doors, it's the only way to live/In cars/Here in my car, I can only receive..."
On second listen, other things started to pop out—the strings on "Complex," the energetic tambourine on "Cars," the military drumbeat on "Engineers."
Our staff music writer, Dave Segal, is some sort of bionic mystic, a robot-monk-man mesmerized equally by the glimpse of a young woman's underbutt and the perfect tone of his favorite bathroom fan's whir. (Those last two things are truth, not jokes.) I assume he likes Gary Numan's sexy digital palace—the chirping computer birds on "Engineers," the way half the songs have the same ingredients, like a fashion collection that uses the same fabric over and over in different ways.
So, Dave, I ask you: What should I learn from Gary Numan? Where, precisely, is Freud's id-driven pleasure principle located on The Pleasure Principle? And oh yeah: What's so great about synthesizers if I don't have a robot heart? I look forward to your tutelage.
Dave Segal literally "knows everything about music." For this column, he gladly relistened to a record by an artist considered to be important by himself: The Stranger's biggest music nerd.
The Pleasure Principle
Back before Anna Minard was born, people thought Gary Numan was a humorless cold fish who caked on the makeup too zealously. Many probably still hold this belief, and there are likely more than a few grains of truth to that portrait. But, boy, could Gary Numan write an indelible tune, coax sublime sounds from keyboards, and program danceable beats. He was a pop star in his native England, where folks in the 1970s and '80s vigorously embraced androgyny in musicians and didn't, ipso facto, consider synthesizers the playthings of "faggots." (If you lived in Midwestern America during the new-wave era, it was common to hear rockers hurl homophobic slurs at keyboardists.)
Speaking of the Midwest, in the Detroit area where I grew up, Numan's "Cars" blanketed the radio in 1979–1980 as "Billie Jean" would do three years later. Most people in the Motor City interpreted "Cars" as an anthem for automobiles (because JOBS), not the ode to paranoia and anomie that it actually is. Nothing else on The Pleasure Principle penetrated American consciousness, though, and Numan remained a one-hit wonder here.
Anna's assessment of The Pleasure Principle is, per usual, interesting. For one, I never think about the tambourines on "Cars." For two, her description of "Films" is spot-on. For three, the album is "good alone-time music." But before I run out of room, I should answer her questions.
"What should I learn from Gary Numan?" That a social misfit can create songs enjoyed by millions—some of whom are social misfits. That exaggerating one's phobias can be commercially and artistically viable. That a man-child's whiney bleat can inspire profound pathos. That white Brits can be foonky. Pleasure Principle tracks "Metal," "Films," "M.E.," and "Cars" have been sampled by loads of hip-hop and electronic-music producers.
"Where, precisely, is Freud's id-driven pleasure principle located on The Pleasure Principle?" I think we're supposed to grasp the title as sarcasm; Numan presents himself as way too neurotic and estranged to indulge in anything as fundamentally base as pleasure. Paradoxically, though, the music therein delivers a surfeit of the stuff.
"What's so great about synthesizers if I don't have a robot heart?" Please divest yourself of the notion of synthesizers being frigid generators of inhuman sound. Or perhaps ditch the idea that "human" sounds are inherently the most desirable ones. What's so great about synthesizers is that they can achieve tonalities that conventional, "real" instruments cannot. In the right hands, synthesizers can produce mind-blowing sonics that can trigger novel ways of feeling... with your dear old human heart.