New Orleans, perhaps more than any other American city, is a tottering coat rack of clichés. We hang all manner of cultural labels on the same rickety skeleton, some of them old and tobacco-stained, with holes in the elbows, others sleek and luxuriant, speaking to oily, Uptown affluence. Others still are flamboyant and rowdy, exploding with mismatched color. Jambalaya and Mardi Gras, jazz brunch and pirates, beignets and etouffée: there is no shortage of imagery the mere name of the place can conjure.
Well, I’m here to tell you that that rack of clichés is a lot like the coat check at a hot club. Sure, it holds a part of what’s happening inside, but it’s the least interesting, supervised part. In New Orleans, anyone with good sense scoots past the rack and penetrates the dark corners to find real action — they escape Bourbon’s lurid neon for the malt and miasma of Bywater dives and soul sets at Mimi’s. They leave Emeril be and slurp turtle soup at Mandina’s. They ditch downtown casinos for an oyster loaf, dressed, at Domilice’s. And maybe, just maybe, they forego “When the Saints” at Preservation Hall for sounds uncoiling in the shadows of the underground. Maybe, if they’re brave and clever, they flee the tired labels and find Backporch Revolution — a label, for true!
Backporch Revolutionaries don’t play standards: they filet them. Geisterfahrer’s ethereal drones and Archipelago’s swampy idylls bloom like toxic gas, sweet and vagrant as Binx Bolling’s malaise. Potpie splinters classic rock and then braids the strands into fugal loops, like a cannibal weaving jump rope from his supper’s locks. Other artists on the label record within beer distillery tanks, their bedrooms, and dilapidated studios. The lot of these weird experiments are then released on CD-R and occasionally spun on college radio. It’s all decidedly post-coat rack.
So whether you make a pilgrimage for the Gras a fortnight hence or remain cloistered on campus, I’m telling you: don’t get stuck fingering the coat rack’s glut. Stumble (or click) your way to the back porch. That’s where the revolution awaits.
Beyoncé. Mary J. Blige. Bono. Garth Brooks. Sheryl Crow. Renee Fleming. Josh Groban. Herbie Hancock. Heather Headley. John Legend. Jennifer Nettles. John Mellencamp. Usher Raymond IV. Shakira. Bruce Springsteen. James Taylor. will.i.am. Jonas Brothers. Stevie Wonder.
Throw in a hundred marching bands, Yo-Yo Ma, and a pheasant in a sour cherry chutney, and you’ve got yourself an inauguration. Slate’s Jack Shafer recently described Barack Obama as “an ocean that refuses no river,” and the smorgasbord of inaugural music seems to confirm that appraisal. Obama’s also been called the first president of the iPod generation, thanks to the eclecticism of his musical taste (first revealed in Rolling Stone last summer) and his popularity among blog darlings like The Arcade Fire and their fans. Don’t doubt the shrewdness of this particular medley, though: Obama is gunning for the pleasure centers of pretty much every demographic except metalheads and noiseniks. My parents will nod approvingly to the crooning of James Taylor and Garth Brooks — Garth Brooks?! — even though it’s likely that my dad wouldn’t know Beyoncé from Blagojevich. “If you liked it [the Ill. Senate seat], then you shoulda put a ring on it [my corrupt gubernatorial finger]!” My sister and I will suffer through Sheryl Crow and Josh Groban for the sake of Mary J. Blige.
A lot of the pundit chatter since Nov. 4 has been speculation about what kind of president Obama will be — liberal? centrist? spendthrift? pragmatist? — much of which has been fueled by supposed discord in the blogosphere regarding his Cabinet choices. With these musical selections, I think we can see yet again that Obama’s initial strategy is to cast his net wide, pitch a rather gigantic tent, and build his coalition big. No red states, no blue states… Ladies and gentlemen, The United Playlist of America!
Perhaps all of this is just inaugural bluster that will dissipate as soon as the president-elect is done high-fiving the Lincoln Bible. We will all retreat to our respective Blogspots and Twitters — Republicans to lick their raw electoral wounds, Democrats to gloat and hope. But for now, I think it’s worth noting that for at least a few days, the Beltway has become the click wheel of the world’s largest iPod: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States … so help me Steve Jobs.”