tUnE-yArDs’ ‘Nikki Nack’: The Polarizing Masks of Merrill Garbus

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Midway through tUnE-yArDs’ new album Nikki Nack, an interlude splits the album in two. Merrill Garbus adopts a belch-like voice and proselytizes the benefits of eating “tots.” At first you assume tater; turns out she means children. This interjection recalls her puppeteer days and echoes her self-branding as the wacky pedagogue. Critics have deemed this one of Garbus’ most egregious missteps on Nikki Nack, but after a few irksome listens, it actually strikes up a dialogue regarding Garbus’ bold, perplexing, and sometimes controversial qualities: she’s a favorite among “cool” lovers of experimental pop while embodying the “uncool” extroversion of stereotyped thespians. In a similarly contradictory fashion, critics don’t know whether to critique her for her appropriations of African pop or to laud her for paying homage to it. It’s in these juxtapositions that Garbus’ vision lives.

Those less entranced by Nikki Nack claim she’s made a full conversion into the realm of Deschanelian quirk — a personality type turned into an overwritten Internet joke. The aforementioned moment pushed Noisey’s Sophie Weiner over the edge. She accuses Garbus of having crossed the threshold into the aesthetic territory of “crocheted food on Esty.” One does, automatically, imagine the interlude being voiced by old sock puppets — but Garbus’ work is always darkly multilayered, so you kind of imagine the socks crusted with an ex’s bunion skin and blister ooze.

The reason quirk has become the bane of critics is that it’s characterized by meaninglessness. Its sole goals — after having been co-opted by the mainstream with a panoply of “manic pixie” (I refuse to finish the phrase) types — are to be cute and different. The visual vocabulary of Garbus’ work may support this impression, and she does undeniably court cutesiness: casting herself in videos as a modern Pee-Wee, consistently using children as back-up dancers, playing a ukelele. But the content of her work is also incredibly complex. In context, these flourishes bring to mind Welcome to the Dollhouse and Palindromes director Todd Solondz more than Deschanel. Solondz’s gleeful color palette and childlike brand is just the language through which he expresses the deeply troubling subject of sexuality’s imposition on childhood, but no one would ever accuse him of twee-ness.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbiFcPhccu8]

From the beginning, Garbus has used the outwardly twee charm of puppet theater to cushion heavy insinuations. In the “Bizness” video, I saw Garbus’ voice come out of a child — someone too young to have ever experienced the types of addictive/destructive relationships Garbus chronicles — before I ever knew Garbus’ own face. Just like a puppet, the child acted as an avatar for Garbus, providing a neutral shell through which to better lyricize adult themes.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQ1LI-NTa2s]

When Garbus does appear in her videos, she’s often contorting her features to the point where it’s hard to tell what her painted face actually looks like. Despite her use of literal puppets in the “Water Fountain” video and child-puppets in the “Bizness” and “My Country” videos, her own contorted face and voice are her most critical puppets. She applies to them the same exaggeration she uses in her puppet-show interlude, and with their boisterous, contortionist abilities, they embrace the uncool realm of theatricality and, yes, quirk.

Garbus’ musical exuberance likewise speaks to her “appropriation” of African pop. Questioned for committing the most serious crime we online culture writers are willing to broach, Garbus is outspoken about the influence of African pop on her music. When asked about taking cultural precautions, Garbus replied, “I don’t think anyone should be careful as an artist or in music — I think they should, however, engage in the discussion.” Perhaps Garbus is drawn to something outside of Western indie-pop because its dominant trend at the moment continues to be a general sense of unflappable “chill,” á la Blood Orange. If that’s the case, why not engage with a musical heritage more aligned with one’s natural form of expression?

In the interlude, Garbus utters her cannibalistic query, “Oh how did we live before dining on tots?” The placement of this question within an album steeped in influence seems strategic. Art itself is cannibalistic, swallowing its influences and predecessors and regurgitating them as something morphed, strange and new. Indeed, if imitation is the key to communication, why are we so afraid to be influenced by other cultures? We’re becoming so scared and PC-policed out of engaging with anything “non-Western” — whatever that means these days — that we risk ignoring it altogether. It’s one thing to pull a Katy or an Avril and appropriate through exoticism and exploitation — to offend by virtue of being lazy. It is another thing altogether to truly engage with non-Western forms of art, as Garbus does.

From the barrage of influences to the ways she purposely weirds herself up, I do get a little annoyed by tUnE-yArDs almost every time I listen. But I also feel exhilarated and emboldened. I’m thankful to have an artist whose act continues to confuse my senses and bludgeon me with her genuine theatricality and curiosity of other cultures. In other words, I’m thankful to be annoyed.