Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is often dubbed a postmodern classic. But what is that even supposed to mean?
Music doesn’t beg for an intellectual lens. Even the most experimental music can often be enjoyed for simply sounding out there, forsaking the interpretive energy that equally experimental or conceptual art basks in. One can speak productively about minimalist composition and Musique Concrete in terms of modernism, but the timelines don’t always mesh with the detailed canonical narratives of modern art and architecture. So for the most part, academicians avoid this stuff.
And yet, music writers, PR scribes, and fans don’t always exercise the same caution. A perfect example of where theoretical concepts collide with the mainstream involves the term, postmodern. A Google search of the terms “Wilco” and “postmodern”, for example, yields at least a few hundred matches. But why? And what is it supposed to mean? Often, it seems this invocation of postmodern doesn’t mean anything much or that it kind of means everything, a way of referring to contemporary culture in general.
Of course, these offhand references to postmodernism are intellectually lazy, but with a concept so slippery by nature, one that describes how modes of interpretation are undermined, such sloppiness is an easy trap to fall into. As with such terms as "punk" or "war on terror", it can be daunting to try to find a real core of meaning, though Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism; or the Logic of Late Capitalism gives it a very productive go.
But despite the difficulties and abuse of the term, the intellectual framework of postmodern theory can be quite useful in discussing music, as long as there can be a shared understanding of what the terminology is meant to invoke. By looking at a record that has been called a postmodern masterpiece -- Wilco’s 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- in conjunction with Thomas Pynchon’s seminal work of postmodern fiction, The Crying of Lot 49, some practical understanding of how a rock record can productively be called postmodern may be arrived at, and the term defined in reverse.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot begins with the clamor of a minute or so of the heaped sounds of droning organs, static, xylophone, mildly detuned pianos, and abused autoharps. Following the lead of a conspicuously audible click track, the drums, sloppy at first, enter and begin to tighten the tempo as the competing layers of instrumentation congeal. The lines “I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue” follow, and the album's first track “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, starts to take shape. While some tuneful and catchy moments follow, the melodic, crisp portions of the song are never sustained long before some new sound enters the fray, off -kilter or off-pitch, ripping at the song's seams.
Lyrical coherence fares no better. After the enigmatic, alliteration-heavy first lines, the jumbled stanzas following offer no lasting topical or thematic consistency. Poetic style varies greatly as well. Part of the lyric consists of a surreal string of non sequiturs:
I want to hold you in the bible black predawn
You’re quite a quiet domino, bury me now
Take off your band-aid cause I don’t believe in touchdowns
What was I thinking when we said hello?
But then there are also confessional interjections: “I always thought that if I held you tightly / you would always love me like you did back then.” The seeming sincerity of the first-person speaker is lost in the song's lack of pattern, making emotional definition loose. We are given just enough direct voice to know that the song does have a specific speaker amid the imagistic form of the other lines, but the horizon of that subjectivity is unknowable. Finally, the singing subsides and the instrumentation descends into a cacophony even more abrasive than the opening.
Wilco is a rock band, not avant-garde composers by any traditional definition, but still this song raises many questions that the average rock song does not: It draws specific attention to the process of its creation. Studio production is usually meant to make a song sonically crisp and leveled; here the production wanders from that role and in doing so undermines the primacy of instrumental performance to noise. The lyrics employ a similar tension, defying listeners to determine whether they are the product of some confused but sincere emotion, or a soulless exercise in wordplay based more on alliteration than personal expression.
"I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" holds within it the search for its own identity. It presents no definite version of itself, making no aesthetic or thematic claims that it can sustain throughout. As Wilco's leader Jeff Tweedy says in Sam Jones’ documentary about the making of the album (also called I Am Trying to Break Your Heart), “The record is the thing that you’re making … and there are a million ways that that thing can be.” This points to the broader issues of identity and meaning that confront anyone attempting to create something. The overwhelming number of options and information makes decision an anxiety-inducing task; the postmodern condition is in part the artist's confrontation of too much possibility.
This in turn reflects the surfeit of information those living through postmodernity must sort through, bereft of the certainty that comes with absolute, established limits, with faith in absolutes themselves. Lost in a world of seemingly infinite suggested meanings, signposts, and clues, the postmodern subject is ridden with a sort of anxiety induced by hypersubjectivity. While such subjectivity should not in and of itself be regarded as code for postmodern, it can arguably be seen as the foundation (or anti-foundation) on which postmodern thought and art take root.
Photo by Sam Jones
Like Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which concerns Oedipa Maas's efforts to preserve a workable conception of self and of the world in the face of evidence of a conspiracy (or hoax) of massive proportions, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” revels the artistic process as a mirror for the process of identity formation. It stumbles into the world, bumbling and unsure, leaving big questions -- whether or not order is arbitrary or preordained, what to make of the infinitude of possible meanings in the world -- waiting to be resolved. Despite these things, there is an album to get on with.
So, how can a workable identity or posture be forged within this crisis of meaning? There is too much information, too much history and not enough of either can be eliminated for a hermetic answer to exist. Wilco occasionally retreats into the shoes of just being a rock band making a rock record. In “Heavy Metal Drummer,” the singer says, “I sincerely miss / those heavy metal bands / I used to go see / on the landing in the summer.” It’s the nostalgia for the security of identities that come prepackaged and fully formed. Likewise, The Crying of Lot 49 at times outwardly parades as a classic detective tale, with the daring Oedipa sorting through clues, tracking down and pressing sources for information. But it is never long before the novel collapses into some other mode.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot cannot sustain this carefree resignation to traditional form, before realizing that it’s a bit of sham or a performance (“shiny shiny pants and bleached blond hair”). There is no system of meaning or aesthetic that holds up absolutely and independently to cope with the landscape of post-millennial America. The cooption of generic form exists purely on the level of artifice, choices of clothing picked, for a time, from the many outfits scattered across the floor.
Both Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and The Crying of Lot 49 synthesize the influence of high and low culture, grab at genres but ultimately give up. In the latter moments of Wilco's “Ashes of American Flags,” a sample of a Stravinsky symphony runs in reverse through a chain of effects pedals. A thin and cheap sounding electronic beat that sounds like it is bleeding from a 1980s drum machine drops into the mix and the transition to “Heavy Metal Drummer” takes place. These moments of chaos stand in contrast to the modernist tendency toward order and hierarchy and suggest a refusal of value judgments and cultural stratification.
On the cover of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a picture of two slightly askew high-rise apartment buildings, the Mariana Towers in Chicago, set against a sepia sky. In his essay “Five Songs,” from The Wilco Book, Rick Moody claims that rumor has it among locals and residents that the buildings are in fact tilting. Whether the buildings are structurally sound, as management no doubt contends, or headed toward eventual collapse remains an issue of speculation, but nevertheless, the possibility of structural failure looms over those below.
This anxiety, captured by the cover, is rooted in an inability to know which possibility is the case, to know the source of danger, to know what details in the spectacle of contemporary society are of any relevance. Tweedy has spoke of such issues as influential to the writing of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album that he describes as unified by the theme of America: “Is buying cigarettes and Coke evil, or just cigarettes and Coke? Is the cash machine evil, or is it just blue?” In the conception of the postmodern, everything is in play -- it is the game that is uncertain. Who knows that a record is supposed to be?
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s penultimate track, “Poor Places”, contains the record’s most dense and grating soundscapes. As it draws to a close, Tweedy’s voice and strumming are overtaken by static squeals and drones. Eventually a monotone and emotionally void female voice enters, repeating the words "yankee", "hotel" and "foxtrot". The sample comes from the Conet Project, a collection of found shortwave-radio recordings. Also known as numbers stations, shortwave radio transmissions have long been the subject of mystery and speculation. Often consisting of voices reading series of numbers or repeating single phrases, the stations are rumored to be part of government espionage (which echoes the irresolvable conspiracy theme in Pynchon's novel). The eerily vacant voice intoning the album’s title could be transmitting coded instructions to carry out a hit or perhaps just performing diagnostic tests of frequency reception. And we will never know which. The record seems to ask: If all we ultimately have is the mystery, can such things have meanings in themselves, beyond those we assign to them? Maybe, as the song “Jesus etc.” suggests, you “can combine anything you want.”
As “Poor Places” sheds the stacks of sound it has accumulated, “Reservations” begins with a lone voice searching for something to hold onto. “I’m bound by these feelings so easy to fake / none of this is real.” It is in the failure to give a concrete assessment of the questions of how meaning is mediated, and workable identities forged and maintained, that the record responds to and reflect the paradigm of postmodern America. “I would like to salute the ashes of American flags / and all the fallen leaves filling up shopping bags." Can the assignment of the iconic to the former be trusted over the haphazard of the latter? The patchwork of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot reflects the enigmas of the world from which it emerged: Shards of history, high and low culture, multiplicities of form and symbol (for which the signified is both clear and unclear) commingle. With authoritative appraisal impossible and claims of absolute interpretation ultimately no more than the subjective elevated to the dogmatic, the individual is left without bearings.
In Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa’s refusal to acquiesce to either of the poles of the subjectivity-relativism spectrum, her acceptance of ambiguity itself, represents a sort of newfound courage. She shows the ability to stand in the face of information onslaught and remain standing. While more overtly sentimental (its ballad form seems to require it), Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s “Reservations” expresses the same idea. The voice in the song shares in a similar sort of paradox of both resignation and revelation: “I’ve got reservations about so many things / but not about you.” In the swelling seas of experience and information, both perceptible and imperceptible, staying afloat is perhaps all one can reasonably ask for. And as for the remainder? As Pynchon suggests, “we can fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey.”