September 21st, 2011 12:44am

Thrills I Can’t Describe

Tune-Yards @ Le Poisson Rouge 9/20/2011

Do You Wanna Live? / Gangsta / You Yes You / Es-So / Riotriot / Bizness / Powa / Doorstep / Not Dead Yet / My Country // Hatari / Killa

Tune-Yards hasn’t been in heavy rotation for me in the past couple months; it was a thrill to see these songs performed again and be reminded not only of their incredible quality, but of my own connection to the music and lyrics. And the performer! The audience is more crazy about Merrill every time I see her perform — the cult is growing and getting more intense. She really earns this incredible adulation, and the more love the crowd gives her, the more she gives back. It’s so nice to go to a show and see the audience and the artist be so totally into it. Everyone was having so much fun.

Tune-Yards “Powa”

I don’t know much about Merrill Garbus’ life, but I feel like I know a lot about her voice, which might be a separate thing. Garbus sings like a person who, at some point in the not-too-distant past, stopped caring about holding herself back. “Powa” starts off sorta gentle and demure, but as it progresses, there’s a clear physicality to her vocals — a startling, defiant swagger. Unlike a lot of “swagger” you hear in modern pop music, it’s not a put-on or thinly veiled insecurity. It doesn’t sound like control or a desire to be controlling either. It’s more about self-possession, and making a clear decision to be exactly who you are and go for what you want, and take what you deserve after years of feeling unworthy. “Powa” is a song about sex, and it feels triumphant and glorious, like a long-earned reward. There’s still conflict and angst, but it all disappears in moments of pure pleasure, as when Garbus’ voice shoots up into into high notes, yanking us up with her into her giddy stratosphere. You feel her pleasure along with her, but you know that it’s an abstraction. If you really want it, you’ve got to get it for yourself. You’ve got to be more like Merrill.

I’ve lived with “Powa” for a while now, and I’m pretty confident in saying that it ranks among my favorite songs of all time. I feel like I could gush endlessly about it — in addition to what I wrote over a year ago, I know I could go on and on about every detail in the structure, performance and production of this piece. But the thing that really blows me away is this: “Powa” is a song about love and sex that factors in insecurity about one’s body. When you think about how common it is for people to feel awkward about their bodies — if not outright disgusted by them — it is shocking to realize how rarely this comes up in songs about love and sex. Sex tends to be idealized and abstracted in music, in a way it’s not that different from Hollywood or pornography. “Powa” is astonishing not only because it presents the singer as a fully-formed person with body image issues and stress and real world problems, but because it expresses genuine love and gratitude for someone with whom she has true intimacy. Aside from Carole King’s wonderful “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” I can’t think of many songs on this level of quality that articulate this sort of feeling.

(Originally posted 1/4/2010 and 4/15/2011.)

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