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Graceland: Pop Classic or Boring Dinner-Party Soundtrack?

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Graceland: Pop Classic or Boring Dinner-Party Soundtrack?

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of Paul Simon's biggest success, we settle the debate, once and for all. 

Graceland is a terrible album
By Michael Edison Hayden, GQ

1986 was a good year for pop music. In England, New Order's Brotherhood gave birth to the spiritual club anthem "Bizarre Love Triangle," The Pet Shop Boys released the lush, satirical Please, and The Smiths released their romantic masterpiece, The Queen is Dead. In America, dead-end white communities found a voice for Reagan-era feelings of neglect with Slayer's Reign in Blood, Janet Jackson tangled pop airwaves with black female eroticism and feminism in Control, and Run-D.M.C. infused a sense of moral urgency into rap with the near-perfect Raising Hell. With so many fascinating '86 albums to revisit, why has Paul Simon's politically impotent co-option of African rhythms, Graceland, seen such a large critical resurgence in recent years?

In 2002, hipster music bible Pitchfork put Graceland on its "top 100 albums of the 1980s," praising the album's influences of "Zulu mabazo choral music, zydeco, and country." Never mind that the correct name of the style is "mambazo," and, years later, the careless misspelling remains firmly linked to the website's front page. That typo actually points to one of Graceland's main artistic failings. The record evokes the feeling of having had some kind of profound, exotic experience; it never does the dirty work of expressing what that experience is. Unsurprisingly, no actual "zydeco," "country," or "Zulu mambazo choral music" albums made Pitchfork's list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s. 

It's a passive album with as much cultural profundity as you might find during "diversity day" at an MFA writing program.

Throughout the aughts, Graceland's adult-contempo album cover was on proud display at many dinner parties. It had gone from a record that was considered cringe-worthy by indie fans for Raffi-esque singles like "You Can Call Me Al," to something you'd tell other people you liked to indicate your sophistication. Graceland had become, in a word, fashionable. The zenith of the record's resurgence arrived in 2008 when Columbia University's Vampire Weekend released their goofy debut. The self-titled album strongly evoked Graceland's defanged Afro-pop; the album cover, appropriately, featured several faceless blonde girls mingling underneath a fancy chandelier. 

Listen: "You Can Call Me Al"

 

If America is going to matter culturally, records like Graceland need to be cast into the dustbin of history. It's a passive album with as much cultural profundity as you might find during "diversity day" at an MFA writing program. The record, while indeed performed by a multi-ethnic cast, was written for wealthy, white adults (like Simon himself) who prefer to ignore the urgency of everyday life that is rapidly catching up the rest of us in 2011's broken economy. The song "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," with its flat stereotypes and blithely sung vocals, ranks among the most infuriatingly empty meditations on class in the American songbook.  

Listen: "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes"

 

If you're looking for a less one-sided multicultural collaboration that does manage to say something about race and class, stay far away from this album. Instead, download De La Soul's collaboration track with Teenage Fanclub, "Fallin'", from 1993's all-but-forgotten Judgment Night soundtrack. And to those who have elevated Graceland to its current critical status as one of the most important albums of the 1980s, I quote: "You played yourself."

Graceland is an amazing album
By Stephen Deusner, Pitchfork.com

Paul Simon will never be cool. Even with artists like Vampire Weekend citing him as an influence, he will never have the cachet of other '60s veterans or even of his musical progeny. As one half of Simon & Garfunkel, he was too stiff and studious for the New York folk revival — the straight-A student among the misfits and theater kids. As an older artist discovering the possibilities of world music, he was that one thing that everybody can scorn: a middle-aged white American male who had been popular a few decades back. This Baby Boomer demographic may in fact be the easiest to critically disregard, although admittedly they brought it on themselves by constantly reminding younger generations about a time when music really mattered, man.

It's not an illegitimate perspective; it's just one we've heard from too many times. And to his credit, Simon toyed with his audience's expectations, and not simply by penning self-deprecating lyrics. Rather than looking backwards, as so many of his peers were doing in the '80s, Simon started looking around him, specifically at the music being made well beyond the U.S. borders and outside the confines of American pop music. As a result,Graceland ranges musically and emotionally, from Africa to New Orleans to east Los Angeles, and from solemn to playful. His performance on "You Can Call Me Al" is as deadpan as his appearance in the video, almost comically contrasted with the percolating rhythm section. That energy should be enough to make you forget the dated keyboard sound.

Simon's musical curiosities are very real, which makes Graceland more approachable for a younger generation that is currently reappraising the album and disputing the common criticisms
against it. 

By traveling to Johannesburg to work with local musicians, Simon might have thought he was tracing American pop music back to its earliest roots, but fortunately, nothing so dryly academic infects the music. Rather than stay cerebral and inward, Graceland reaches out and engages with the world. Simon's extroversion is apparent in the burbling rush of details in the state-of-the-world opener "The Boy in the Bubble" and the narrative crackle of the fairy-tale "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." And for a guy in middle age, Simon sounds actually witty, even agreeably goofy at times, whether he's putting the moves on a woman on "Gumboots" or schooling his son on "That Was Your Mother," singing, "You are the burden of my generation," like everybody's embarrassing dad.

Listen: "The Boy in the Bubble"

 

Unfortunately, Graceland picked up a reputation as a yuppie signifier in the 1980s, a means for listeners to congratulate themselves for listening to world music through an American conduit. But no artist can control his audience. Simon's musical curiosities are very real, which makes Graceland more approachable for a younger generation that is currently reappraising the album and disputing the common criticisms against it — namely, that it's little more than a dinner-party soundtrack and, worse, that it represents a risible act of cultural piracy.

First, dinner parties need music, too, and no doubt somewhere Graceland is on shuffle with more acceptable albums like Emperor Tomato KetchupPainless, and Kid A. That's pretty good company, right?

As for the accusation of musical exploitation, Simon is often presented as some monocled imperialist raping the land and converting the locals to Christianity, but the truth is much more complex. It's a worthwhile line of questioning, but only insofar as it leads to a stance more nuanced than cheap naysaying. That point of view loses sight of the collaborative nature of the project and focuses entirely on the appropriative aspect. And it's far too easy to slam Graceland for what it isn't — edgy music made by young people. It's much harder to engage it for what is really is — music that expresses a middle-age point of view while struggling to transcend it.

Listen: "The Myth of Fingerprints"

 

Ultimately, Simon's musical curiosities, which had been guiding him even with Simon & Garfunkel, are very real. Moreover, Graceland never falls into academic re-creation — a pitfall of David Byrne's work with Talking Heads and Brian Eno, who don't get the same kind of grief for their world-music proclivities. Songs like "You Can Call Me Al" and "The Myth of Fingerprints" remain musically inquisitive and creatively enthusiastic, explaining the album's durability and popularity even a quarter-century after its release.