Sympathy For The Devils – Ann Powers FEBRUARY 28, 2015 10:20 AM ET

The Lonely Existence Of The Outrageous Musician In An Age Of Civility

Josh Tillman's latest album as Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear, is a sincere and shocking catalog of the main character's adventures in sex and love.

Josh Tillman’s latest album as Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear, is a sincere and shocking catalog of the main character’s adventures in sex and love. Emma Tillman/Courtesy of the artist

It’s been five years since Kanye West raised his glass to “the a—holes” in the song “Runaway,” a poetic taxonomy of bad behavior that formed the emotional center of his masterwork My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s a sad song about romantic failure, but also a strong statement connecting West to popular music’s longstanding practice of being dangerously outrageous. From Jim Morrison to James Brown to Morrissey to Courtney Love, rock and soul has housed huge personalities who upended and offended the bourgeoisie within performances that melded messily with larger-than-life personal styles. Today, however, the big bad personality in pop has mostly receded. Troublemaking characters still ruffle feathers — the men’s-rights poster boy Ariel Pink, the often problematically frank rapper Azealia Banks — but these Twitter warriors don’t really register as major figures. Today’s pop elite tends to be much more careful, tamping out feuds as soon as they erupt and dancing together at music industry pseudo-events to dissipate any real tension. A few stars inhabit the pose of the bad girl or boy in ways that resonate: Rihanna‘s made it the center of her complex and distanced choreography, and in those realms of rock that appeal to the youngest fans, bands like Falling in Reverse (whose latest single, “Just Like You,” has a lyric that echoes West’s) tout impudence as a self-esteem booster. But civility seems more marketable today, and therefore it’s favored. Even West might be wondering if he had the wrong mentality as he sits down to a West Village bistro bite with his former scorn victim, Taylor Swift.

Even Kim Gordon’s much-discussed dissection of Lana Del Rey, a justified rant if ever there was one, seems to be ending in a wash of reasonable talk. Gordon, the musician, conceptual artist and fashion trendsetter best known as the bassist in the now-defunct, longtime reigning indie band Sonic Youth, recently published her memoir Girl in a Band; among other trenchant opinions expressed therein, she originally included a paragraph suggesting that the theatrically depressive balladeer Del Rey should just “off herself” instead of playing at self-destructiveness merely for the cameras and in the recording studio. After backtracking some, and publishing a much more benign takedown in the book’s final version, Gordon has clarified her comments in ways that are smart and refreshingly withering, comparing Del Rey to the 58-year-old rock crooner Chris Isaak (a funny swipe, though somewhat unfair to Isaak, who does what he does impeccably) and, like a serious liberal feminist, urging Del Rey to “take responsibility” for her weird and affected masochist persona. Gordon’s ripostes may seem unsisterly, but they aren’t unwarranted: As a thirty-year veteran of edgy rock and art scenes known for confrontational risk-taking, and an intimate of several particularly tragic lost souls from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Kurt Cobain to Mike Kelley, Gordon has every right to be repulsed by Del Rey’s caricatures of pain — and to be rude about it. She has a vision of how popular music should encounter and communicate emotional extremes, she’s been honing it for decades, and she knows what rings false to her.

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