[Article by Lukas Clark-Memler]
Anarchy in the USA:
Tyler, The Creator’s New Brand of Punk
On November 6th, 1975, Johnny Rotten walked onto the stage of London’s St. Martin’s College and changed the world. Although the Sex Pistols’ debut performance was cut short by the College’s dean, who ostensibly called the music “extremely loud,” Rotten still had time to spit at the audience, destroy his amplifier and fight the soundman. It truly was one for the history books.
Fast forward 36 years, and we find a similar occurrence at the Majestic Theatre in Detroit, Michigan. Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA) had to cut their concert short after one of their more provocative numbers caused mass rioting. And when a broken glass bottle was thrown at a doorman, it was decided the ten-member hip hop collective must vacate the premises. Three days earlier, at an album signing in Boston, hundreds of youth congregated outside Newbury Comics eager for a glimpse of the already-infamous crew. A few members of Odd Future scaled neighboring roofs and reportedly riled up the crowd with pugilistic cries of revolution, and anti-police taunts. The teenage crowd responded in kind, with anarchic rioting that resulted in the hospitalization of a police officer and the incarceration of a 13-year old schoolgirl.
Welcome to the strange and frightening world of the Wolf Gang.
The parallels between Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All and the Sex Pistols are surprisingly many considering their reversed polarities. Both embody the punk ethos of anti-status quo, and strive for the upheaval of regularity. And Odd Future’s oft-masked quixotic leader Tyler, The Creator (birth name: Tyler Okonma) is remarkably Rotten-like in character.
Lukas likes to write about music. He is vaguely respected as a critic. His musings have found their way into a wide range of international magazines and a variety of credible websites. He tends to err on the side of the quixotic and has an insatiable thirst for good music. You can reach Lukas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like Rotten, or perhaps more appropriately, the late Sid Vicious, Tyler is a symbol of rebellion and contention; transcending his 20-year old asthma-afflicted body. He revolts against what is mass consumed, what is mass marketed and what is perceived as ‘in.’ While Tyler, Johnny and Sid may share a similar nihilistic manifesto, their means of generating social disorder differ entirely. But this is less to do with the individual, as it is to do with their generational gap. In the late 1970s, Vicious’ raw power chords, ripped jeans and safety pins, made him an antihero capable of subverting an entire nation. In contemporary society, the Vicious model makes up half of the current whiny and pretentious alt-rock scene, which in turn subsidizes the hegemony of corporate record labels – a pseudo-anti authority façade obscuring the compromised artistic integrity beneath. The Sid Vicious of 1975 would no longer seem so radical.
Enter Tyler, The Creator with a new punk aesthetic that threatens to overshadow the Sex Pistols’ formative era. Tyler’s sophomore release Goblin is to 2011, as Never Mind The Bollocks… was to 1977. But Tyler has inherited an inherently more difficult cultural milieu than his predecessors. Namely he is faced with the question: how does one shock a desensitized generation raised on Grand Theft Auto and Tarantino-brand violence? How can one be seen as radical in a society where social revolution happens over the Internet, and anyone can slander the government via the omnipresent Blogosphere? The answer lies in heightened levels of obscenity; Publicizing one’s darkest and most taboo thoughts; Expressing gratuities that were previously left to horror directors and sociopaths.
However labeling Tyler, The Creator as punk has problems that did not exist in the genre’s halcyon days. The issue with conventional taxonomy is that once a genre tag is used to categorize subversive behavior, or capture a transient zeitgeist of revolutionary nature, it loses meaning. Once the term punk was applied to radicalism of the ‘70s, it generated hordes of imitators and followers. Corporate America began selling the “punk” image. Major labels began producing punk artists. The punk lifestyle was for sale at your local superstore; half price. Today, punk as a subculture preaches conformity more than rebellion. Through years of commercialization and gentrification, punk was pacified. So in associating Odd Future with punk, we are inadvertently perpetuating the idea of followership – painting Tyler and his disciples as descendants rather than insurgents; their revolt an imitation rather than an organic response to current social trends. Odd Future embody the original punk ideal of cultural subversion – rather than simply occupying the punk sound.
In fact Tyler, The Creator’s sound is not punk at all. Rather more akin to early ‘90s hip hop – the likes of The Neptunes, Anti-Pop Consortium or N.W.A. But Goblin is far more introspective and reflective than any of its hip hop, rap or indeed punk influences. The sound is reminiscent of the dramatic renderings of Beat poetry, with solo instrument (for the Beatniks it was the bongos, for Tyler it’s stark piano chords) punctuated by sporadic verse and calculated silence; the elements of an intense theatrical performance. Tyler’s is a therapeutic reconciliation with his past – a purging of his long-buried subconscious. The post teen prodigy proudly wears his heart on his sleeve, and exorcises his demons with unnerving candor. Far removed from the well-tread tropes of punk culture, the Wolf Gang collective seem hell-bent on creating a subculture of their own. A culture founded on shock and misogyny. Violence and racism. Tyler tackles these subjects with a disconcerting gusto; an air of nonchalance that juxtaposes the generally-unmentionable lyrical themes. The subversive imagery exudes a certain punk ethos; one of rage and frustration with authority. But it’s Tyler’s authenticity and conviction that saves Goblin. Tyler’s cavalier promotion of rape, his rhapsodies on murder, his overtures to violence – they all seem to be, inasmuch as these subject matters can be, authentic. So how does one rationalize the vulgar and morally reprehensible musings of this gifted and articulate young poet?
Tyler’s own justification for his obscenities comes in the title track of Goblin:
“They claim the shit I say is just wrong. Like nobody has those really dark thoughts when alone. I’m just a teenager who admits he’s suicide prone.” Herein lies Tyler, The Creator and Odd Future’s populist appeal – they voice what was previously left unvoiced. Tyler’s latest release could have been named after 2010’s unequivocal best record: Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That is Goblin: a beautiful dark twisted fantasy. As Tyler told the Guardian, “A lot of people have sick, twisted fantasies, so why not give them something to relate to?”
If record sales of Goblin are anything to go by, it seems that a lot of people indeed have sick and twisted fantasies. Which is exactly why the album is creating such a stir. The venerable sage Leonard Cohen once told us that, “there is a war between ones who say there is a war, and the ones who say there isn’t.” Odd Future is the crude articulation of angst and depression in a nation that swears it doesn’t have any; shameless denial from a Prozac-dependent populace. The aforementioned war is between two clear groups: Tyler and his cohorts (and indirectly every person who helped Goblin break into the US Billboard top 5), against everyone who denounces Tyler’s musings as “ego-maniacal nihilism” (LA Times). Tyler sheds a light on the dark thoughts society refuses to acknowledge. The Wolf Gang scream loudly and profanely that this unjust and morally corrupt society must have an extreme effect on our lives – repercussions that are not voiced in fear of disrupting the social flow. Tyler’s harrowing pleas may shock, but ultimately they attempt to reawaken our dormant and listless youth; youth who are consoled by MTV, who live vicariously through Sims and who escape from the real world, rather ironically, via social networking. That’s what Goblin is: A hypnogogic jerk, accompanied by a vertiginous feeling of falling – jolting us awake. We need it, no matter how much we protest and resist.
Goblin begins with the voice of Tyler’s therapist (Dr. TC: Tyler’s Conscience) welcoming him back to the couch: “It’s been a while since our last session. So, tell me what’s been going on.” Thus, the album is a clear follow-up to 2009’s criminally underrated Bastard. Though it seems that Tyler has not made much improvement psychologically over the past two years. If anything, things have gotten worse. Success and celebrity endorsements have created an unbeknownst pressure: “Since Kanye tweeted tellin’ people he’s bumpin’ all of my shit, these motherfuckers think I’m supposed to live up to something.” Bastard was a giddy Kafkaesque exegesis of internal retrospection – hazy mordant beats, undercut by frighteningly raspy albeit mellifluous vocals (think Tom Waits meets Gil Scott-Heron). Goblin takes a step in the licentious direction of maturity – an interesting paradox. In fact paradoxical is perhaps the most appropriate term to define an album that is as indefinable as they come. “Yonkers,” Tyler’s most accessible track marks the pinnacle of his short but triumphant career. The spoken-word fugue sends Tyler straight to the annals of independent hip hop. Like The Clash’s “London Calling” condemned Beatlemania and Brit-pop in general, “Yonkers” attacks a current musical obsession: corporatized hip hop and contemporary R&B. “Yonkers” is a bold statement against the prescriptive banality of the studio sounds – Bruno Mars and B.O.B. are both viciously damned.
Goblin is an album of dichotomies: Dr. TC’s avuncular bonhomie is no match for Tyler’s aggressively bipolar thematic swings. “Radicals” is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s The Wall’s adolescent anarchism, and with its scream-along refrain – “kill people, burn shit, fuck school” – it’s impossible not to get swept up in the maelstrom. On a humorous note, the track begins with a disclaimer: “don’t do anything that I say in this song. Okay? It’s fucking fiction. If anything happens, don’t blame me White America.” On the other end of the spectrum is “Sandwitches” – which explicitly encourages attacks on the same ‘White America’ Tyler just warned. No disclaimers here. When the listener is urged to “buy guns and kill those kids with dads and moms, with nice homes, 401ks and nice ass lawns” the mood is more envious than violent: a cocktail of self-loathing jealousy and bilious frustration. An envious kid, still hurting from the rejection of his father. Then just when you thought you had Tyler all figured out, he throws you a curve ball with the sprawling instrumental “AU79.” The somnambulant interlude offers us a chance to digest the past 13 tracks, and revel in the haunting sonic shades before the chilling final curtain call.
Goblin is an unpunctuated and sprawling labyrinth; monolithically dark from its hopeful start, all the way to the final murderous showdown (spoiler alert: Tyler kills the rest of the Wolf Gang at the end of the therapy session). Goblin takes you headfirst into the solipsistic nightmare of Tyler’s life. It’s an album of contrast: hopes and dreams, turn into doubts and fears as fast as Tyler spits his lyrics. It isn’t always easy to consume, but the naked, hypnotic beauty of the soundscapes Tyler has created, overshadows the disturbing lyrics. At first listen, Goblin resembles a Clockwork Orange-type anarchy – disarray, amorality and graphic violence. But like Kubrick’s brilliant psycho-satirical opus, Goblin reveals hidden depths the more you experience it. The von Trier-esque gratuities are there not to offend, but to shock; to catch one off guard, and break through the bourgeois veneer we hide behind in fear of revealing our pathological dark side. But after a few tracks the obscenities fade into the background – we become desensitized – and Tyler’s angst and profoundly, if not profanely, articulate lyricism take center stage. However, brevity is not one of Goblin’s strong points. The album runs for a lengthy 73 minutes, and is too unabridged to function as a coherent narrative. What begins as inspired, slowly morphs to insipid. Fascinating to tedious. And the third act of Goblin comes across as self-amusing petulance. Tyler’s creation ability is indisputable, but his editing skills need some work.
In the wrong hands Goblin could come across as social voyeurism: a tantalizing glimpse of a lifestyle few could truly fathom. Taken literally, Tyler’s sexual innuendo and Technicolor depictions of rape and murder would disgust and offend all sects of society. But this is an album that should not be taken at its word – Tyler, The Creator says what goes through his mind, he expresses his darkest thoughts; he says what he means, but one should not automatically conclude that he means what he says. The two are not the same, as Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter knows only too well: “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!’”
The ethos of Odd Future is simple and effective – and it relates back to the central punk thesis. This is best articulated in the hyper-addictive “Sandwitches” (which features Wolf Gang comrade, Hodgy Beats): “They are them, we are us, kill them, all.” An ‘us vs. them’ mentality, where ‘them’ is pretty much everyone: critics, artists and listeners; consumers and producers; rich and poor; black and white. You’re either with ‘em or against ‘em – though they will always be against you, despite your allegiance. This gives Goblin an exclusive feel. It explains the preternatural hype, and suffocating Internet buzz that Odd Future has received. We love exclusivity, and the idea that we can experience the happenings of their private club, is enough to tempt even the most chaste. We are clandestine listeners, skulking at the top stair, ear to the closed door, eye to the keyhole. (In this context Goblin does seem to pander to voyeurism). But this also lets Tyler off the hook for his wanton, ultraviolent imagery. Because it is the Odd Future universe we occupy. We abide by their compromised values. But in the end Tyler knows we will never truly understand the Wolf Gang: “They don’t get it ‘cause it’s not made for them.” But who ‘they’ refers to is not clear. ‘Everyone’ seems to be the likely answer.
So don’t be surprised if you don’t ‘get’ Tyler’s messages. The music was not made for you, or me…or anyone else. He made it for himself, as Tyler said directly from his Tweet-machine: “It’s funny when people think (an) artist made an album for them to enjoy or like personally. No, Goblin was made for me to listen to.”
Don’t write Goblin off merely as a perverse murderous diatribe. Instead, try to appreciate Tyler’s unique attempt at psychoanalysis. Experience the self-therapy of Goblin and the insecurities and sick neuroses that are uncovered. The listener gets a rare chance to occupy Tyler’s headspace, and by the end of it you may just understand what makes a teenager possess such dark thoughts. Or, it may just be the source of recurring nightmares.
Yes, the lyrical themes of Goblin are not easily consumed; they aim to shock and to disarm. Some topics are offensive and wrong; crass and detestably juvenile. But the dissatisfaction of an entire generation is not a pleasant sound.
The world of the ‘70s needed a Sid Vicious. But in our turbulent and unhopeful times, Tyler, The Creator could be a prime candidate to lead the current wolf pack to social justice. Goblin is Tyler’s vehicle; his manifesto of disillusionment. It is not for everyone, and is as disturbing as anything to come out of pop culture recently. But Goblin is a masterpiece for those capable of stomaching young Tyler’s debauched yet thought-provoking musings. One that will surely leave a firm mark on generations to come.