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Reluctantly Feist
Leslie Feist, like Wilco or Arcade Fire, is an artist who's grown beyond pigeonholes, but some fans always want to keep them there. Carl Wilson listens to Metals and wonders why taste divides us.

In her lilting 2004 breakout single, “Mushaboom,” Feist sang about the feeling of yearning for a country home when really you’re stuck in a downtown-Toronto apartment: “In the meantime, I’ve got it hard/ Second-floor living without a yard,” she sang. “It may be years until the day/ My dreams will match up with my pay.”

Of course, Leslie Feist’s paygrade got a big bump three years later, when an iPod commercial made her boppy “1234” a global smash and Feist an art-pop star who can sell out venues across the western world and even have a cameo in the new Muppets movie. The last track on her first new album since then, Metals, closes a circle from “Mushaboom.” “Get It Wrong, Get It Right” is an ode to the rural retreat she’s now built not in her fantasies but on solid ground, north of Toronto: “River dam, lake fills up the land/ Skippin’ stones… build a home.”

In a sense, what we’re hearing in this gentle pastoral is Feist finally working out her relationship with money. As “Mushaboom” shows, she was never indifferent to success, or at least the comforts it could bring. Yet there’s a part of her audience–and, it sometimes seems, of Feist herself–that persists in imagining her as an “indie chanteuse” too pure and vulnerable for all that money-and-fame business.

Feist occupies a niche in music today beside groups like Wilco and Montreal’s Arcade Fire, all figures from local indie or alternative scenes who’ve crossed over to the mainstream. Predictably, some of their former devotees then reject them as supposed sellouts. Certain other fans react by cheering that the world has for once embraced “quality” music. They’re invested in this music being smarter, more sophisticated and representative of higher values than the supposedly manufactured, out-for-a-buck stuff they hear on pop radio. (You could catch that tone in September when The New York Times’ Jon Pareles contrasted her music to “the glossy, computerized, impersonal pop of the 21st century.”)

Yet the music of Feist or Wilco isn’t exactly groundbreaking. If anything, they’re more conservative than much chart pop, which for a decade has been loaded with new-math beats borrowed from scenes like dubstep and the future-shock vocal effects that make Lady Gaga or T-Pain seem like wild hybrid aliens. Feist’s tunes are mostly pretty, her lyrics elliptical but not cryptic. Whether upbeat or contemplative, most of her songs would be suitable dinner-party music. I don’t consider that an insult, but a fair number of Feist fans would get mad if you proposed that not much separates her music from that of Norah Jones, Coldplay or even Sheryl Crow.

Feist seems hesitant over her pop status herself. After her meteoric rise, she went through a protracted writer’s block, and came back on Metals mostly with minor-key, introspective tunes full of unresolved modal progressions, not exactly the stuff of potential hits. (There are also, it should be noted, a few songs fiercer and more challenging than any on the last two albums.)

Most of all, though, that ambivalence always has been present in her voice. While unquestionably gorgeous, her singing carries an anti-pop reticence: She half-swallows some words, and when she gets intense, it’s with a shivering sigh rather than the kind of diva-style climax known in the business, not for nothing, as “the money note.”

To some people, that restraint is enigmatic and intriguing. Others find it frustrating and dull. (Internet critic Alfred Soto’s two-word review of Metals‘s first single “How Come You Never Go There?” was “Accurately titled.”) Indeed, a lot of so-called indie music today features vocals that are mumbled or yelped or shaky or otherwise wanting in traditional terms. Why do some listeners seem to prefer that?

When it comes to music like Wilco’s or Feist’s, which otherwise have the trappings of classically well-made pop, I think it’s in part so fans can reassure themselves that they aren’t over the hill.  Rock didn’t die before it got old, but with its generation-gap legacy, many people don’t like feeling they’re listening to “dad” or “mom” music, as they might label Sheryl Crow’s. Sure, Feist is soothing for the baby and goes down smoothly with a glass of wine. But, it’s indie, it’s postmodern, it has irony, it’s sung noncommittally (it’s red wine).

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Recently, Feist teased a Huffington Post interviewer about his self-admitted “cornball comments”: “You can say that’s a joke your dad would make,” she said, “but you’re [the one] saying it. All you’re doing is contextualizing them as your dad’s jokes. … You’re going to stop contextualizing them in, like, 10 years.” Substitute music for humour and the point’s the same: There’s nothing actually wrong with enjoying what a teenager would consider lame, but if you’re still haunted by that idea of cool, there’s that urge to add some kind of skeptical parentheses.

On the other hand, it also has to do with the way different audiences read different genres of pop. In styles from R&B and country to metal and rap, after all, Feist’s murmuring or the gratuitous bits of dissonance in otherwise tuneful Wilco songs wouldn’t fly, because in those genres virtuosic skill and showmanship are a big part of the draw, vouching for the artist’s commitment and work ethic. However, for decades there’s also been a counter-strain of more bohemian musicians whose styles are sloppier, more ungainly, from Bob Dylan to punk, Pavement and much of today’s indie ilk. Feist’s music is more polished, but her vocal mannerisms pay homage to that lineage, in which eccentricities are lionized as signs of true-to-self integrity.

But there’s another way to take those stylistic quirks, and that is as symptoms of privilege: A mainstream pop fan might hear a singer who seems to feel above the need to entertain, secure enough in his or her given status not to need to chase any brass rings. Sometimes when Feist slurs or gulps down a melody, it can seem she’s vaguely complaining, as if her gifts weighed on or embarrassed her. And perhaps it’s this that holds her back from making tracks that would sound as vital crackling out of the speakers at a Coffee Time as they do floating around a Starbucks.

By contrast, the Grammy-winning gang in Arcade Fire usually sound as if they couldn’t be more excited to be performing; while they’ve certainly done their share of yelping, their style gets smoother and more arena-friendly with each release. Perhaps it’s because they’re of a slightly younger, less guarded generation, or (as my fellow critic Ann Powers suggested to me) their broader range of backgrounds, particularly accordionist Rgine Chassagne’s Haitian heritage. But it’s also that they’re a band with explicit political leanings, who feel they have things to shout to the rooftops, reasons to win over the multitudes. They treat their privilege less as a burden than as a mandate for action.

This is not to deny the place of melancholy and inwardness in music. But frankly if some listeners still fetishize traits like wallflower vocals because they imagine that thereby they support a bohemian, anti-commercial ideal, it’s worse than sentimental. It’s politically backwards. Much of what was 20th-century counterculture, after all, is now ruling-class culture–a punkish shock aesthetic is everywhere from reality TV and grossout comedies to high fashion; “lateral,” “outside the box” freethinking is the mantra of the high-tech management consultant. If you sat down with the founders of Google, which would you expect as dinner music, Taylor Swift or Feist?

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, a pioneer in illuminating the economic subtexts of taste, documented a division in aesthetics between people of roughly the same class whose status depends on material capital (money and property), and those whose positions rest on cultural capital, knowledge workers like Richard Florida’s “creative class.” As the writer of this article, I’m obviously among the latter, and I’ve found we tend to be the people who get attached to the semi-pop of Wilco or Feist (who was born into those ranks herself, as the daughter of two visual artists) rather than the more action-oriented side of the musical spectrum.

Fair enough. We’re all drawn to art we can identify with. But I think it’s also important for our cultural pursuits to help connect us with people not like ourselves, especially at a time when the middle class is shrinking and polarized politics and the echo chambers of social media further segregate us. Taste ghettos can feed a narcissism of minor differences, reinforcing that inner voice that keeps telling us we’ve got it especially hard and neglects how many other people’s dreams don’t match their pay.

One of my favourite songs on Metals, “Comfort Me,” appears to be about a lover. But it equally could be aimed at a culture that finds it much easier to gratify such cravings for self-affirmation than to awaken any deeper commonality: “When you comfort me,” Feist sings, “it doesn’t bring me comfort, actually.”

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Carl Wilson is the Toronto Standard Culture Critic and the author of Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.

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