Day 156: On Arctic Monkeys, Miley Cyrus, and Cultural Cribbing

by Tom Noonan

There’s been a lot of debate this summer about cultural cribbing in music, pop stars “borrowing” from genres and creative pioneers they don’t completely understand to turn a profit.  Most of this debate swelled around Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, which, if it wasn’t a prevalent piece of our pop-cultural consciousness, could pass for a lavish high school art project on Marvin Gaye researched by watching his top 3 YouTube video results then reading the first paragraph of his Wikipedia entry.

Then everything got a whole lot uglier when Miley Cyrus’s tongue showed up at the VMAs and excitedly treated human beings dancing alongside her the same way Dennis Rodman treats foreign policy.  It got so bad that when she and Thicke dueted on “Blurred Lines” a few minutes later, you wondered if the inclusion of blackface was something seriously considered during the duo’s dress rehearsal.

The VMA performance was the worst form of cultural distillation, breaking down a vast, complicated history by latching on to, and misrepresenting, a single wrung of its DNA.  The spectacle of it all was probably meant to delineate some sort of artistic credibility for Cyrus but ended up outlining just how dangerous giving any form of creative control to a former child star who aspires to write “black” music (her words) can be.  For those who somehow managed to escape seeing it, imagine Anna Kendrick rapping “No Diggity” in the middle of the lawn mower scene from Mad Men and you’ll be about 50% there.

The backlash was instantaneous, from Twitter to the New York Times, and even the people with their heads in the right place (a.k.a. the ones who didn’t jump right to calling Cyrus a whore or Thicke a pedophile) were rightfully astonished that something this lacking in self-awareness made it to air.  It was like watching an in-the-moment, baiting Don Imus remark that you later found out had been heavily rehearsed and given the OK by execs who should have more respect for themselves.  It was just downright hard to look at, a truly ugly pop culture moment.

This brings me to last night when I sat down to listen to the new Arctic Monkeys record, AM.  I knew a little bit about the record, mostly that Alex Turner had told NME, “It sounds like a Dr. Dre beat, but we’ve given it an Ike Turner bowl-cut and sent it galloping across the desert on a Stratocaster”, so I was both excited and genuinely nervous to press play.  I knew AM would either be a great example of cultural cribbing done right or yet another argument against white people trying to draw influence from “black” music (Miley Cyrus’s words).

Then I pressed play on “Do I Wanna Know?”, the smokey swagger monster that opens the record, and quickly Googled the NME interview only to find that the copy and pasted Dre quote was just a bit misleading since it was followed by Turner saying things like he wanted the record to “sound less like four lads playing in a room this time” and, more to the point, “if you can find a way to manipulate the instruments or the sounds to the point where it sounds a bit like a hip-hop beat that’d be boss in your car, then I think there’s something quite cool about that.”

As it turns out, AM isn’t cribbing culture as much as its cribbing vibes, and even so, all the band’s reference points, from Ike Turner to Pharrell Williams, are touched on with the same kind of humbled respect Martin Scorcese shows Orson Welles.  AM gives its influences room to breathe, to appear as massive as they should.  It’s a record that manages to be respectful to the history surrounding it without ever feeling too nostalgic or derivative.  When fun. tried to do this, they got by on the magnetism of Nate Ruess’s voice, but AM is a different kind of record, a better constructed record, one that carefully explores the mostly uncharted center of the venn diagram between hip-hop and rock and roll.  It isn’t a fun. record; it won’t reach that kind of market or those kinds of iTunes numbers, but it’s certainly an accomplished one, a piece of pop culture that should make us feel less cynical about the idea of cross-cultural collaboration.

Listen to “Do I Wanna Know?” below: