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No Expectations 025: Vibeology
On the differences between “songs artists” and “vibes artists.” Plus, the Norwegian satire ‘Sick of Myself.'
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A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed a musician about their new album and they said something that stuck with me. According to this bandleader, they often felt like they were more concerned about setting a particular mood and referencing a specific era in the studio than the actual songs on their early records. “Sometimes in the past, the sounds inspired the songs but [on this new album], the songs informed the production,” they said, jokingly referring to their former approach as being “stuck in ‘80s jail.” Artists tend to be pretty hard on their old stuff, especially when they have something new in the tank. Though I thought they were being unkind to their previous albums, which have incredible songs, their new one is clearly their best.
That throwaway quote from the interview clarified something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. So, naturally, I tweeted my takeaway in a pretty hyperbolic post. I wrote, “There are “vibes artists” and there are “songs artists.” No matter the genre, the former is bad while the latter is good.” I also wrote, “I won’t be explaining further but it’s true.” I lied. I have a weekly Substack and sometimes you gotta flesh out your tweets if you need an idea for the newsletter. Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have used “good” or “bad” to delineate the two but I still stand by it even though it rubbed some Twitter Blue users the wrong way (here’s a binary we can all get behind: people who pay for Twitter and smart folks who don’t). What makes this distinction between vibes and songs fun is that it’s entirely a matter of subjective taste: there are “songs artists” that other people are going to think are “vibes artists” and vice versa. (To be clear, the band I interviewed is a bonafide “songs artist,” despite what they said about their old tunes).
You obviously can’t cleanly boil down all of recorded Western popular music to a “songs” and “vibes” binary but it’s a fun thought exercise to examine why people like the things they do and why certain artists have longevity. It’s also a way to demand more from the music you listen to and to demand more from yourself as a discerning listener. When you’re checking out new music, so much of it is just fine. It’s serviceable, and maybe good to soundtrack a dinner party. It sounds like an inferior version of something you already like but it’s ultimately pretty forgettable. Go through an algorithmic playlist on a streaming service broadcasting new tunes and chances are you’ll only find three or four worthwhile out of dozens.
This glut of unremarkable music is from “vibes artists.” It’s style over substance music-making that might be good for an H&M dressing room, bumper music on Catfish, or to fill a quota on Spotify’s New Music Friday, but there’s very little to grab onto. It’s the difference between a cool band and a great band. It’s window dressing. The typical “vibes artist” will usually be a couple of years late on musical trends, sounding eerily like something better, but still garnering a fanbase because it’s close enough. The “vibes artist” mines nostalgia for content and empty references, where the listener’s easy recognition of a musical homage becomes the point. It’s like a Marvel Easter egg or tossed-off callback joke set to music. It’s “lo-fi chill beats to study to” as musical philosophy.
Too often, I’ll check out a buzzy new act and wonder where the songs are. I’ll listen to an entire album and afterward not be able to hum a tune, remember a hook, or take anything away besides who the artists’ influences are. “Vibes artists” can become massively popular thanks to marketing, the artist’s likability, and because people actually enjoy the songs. You’ll read a glowing review but it spends most of the time talking about the act’s biography, the acclaim they’ve already received, but breathtakingly little about what the music is actually like. Even if it sounds good, chances are you’ll just want to listen to the better act that already did something similar. This applies to all genres: the same things happening in indie rock and pop are also happening in country, hip-hop, and dance music. You have to dig to find the good stuff.
The three worthwhile songs on a playlist? The thing that made you stop and think, “Wait, what’s this?” More likely than not they were made by a “songs artist.” This is when the cream rises to the top, where a tune feels like its own self-contained world. What “songs artists” make has its own perspective and its own personality. It’s filtering the sounds of the past into something new and interesting rather than regurgitating them. You listen to something from a “songs artist” and you want to hear it again immediately. After the first try, it’s probably already burned in your brain. These are artists who are obsessed with the craft, whose songs by their own merit cultivate a vibe rather than slot into one that already exists. These are the artists whose catalogs are legacy-building bodies of work to be ripped off by “vibes artists” for years to come. These are the songs you’ll keep revisiting over the years, not the ones where years from now you’ll say, “Wow, remember this band? What were we thinking?”
This isn’t to say that “songs artists” are artists I like and “vibes artists” are artists I don’t. You can easily enjoy music because it sounds good even though it might be ephemeral and dislike something even though you recognize it’s well made. The distinction is about quality: beneath the PR, the hype, the trends, and the celebrity, are the songs there and worth holding onto? Is this furthering art or a retread of something greater than already happened? This boils down to taste and everyone’s mileage will vary but it’s worth exploring as you dissect your own listening habits. To be sure, very few artists will think of themselves as “vibes artists.” No one is trying to make background music for cool kids; they’re writing songs that in their minds are timeless, authentic, and long-lasting.
I’ve purposely held off on specifically naming bands here because I think the larger framework is a good starting point to discuss and debate music. Reasonable minds can disagree and that’s the fun of it. That said, I’ll give a few examples of bigger names to show what I’m talking about. Taylor Swift is a “songs artist” while Adele is a “vibes artist,” whose songs are mostly just vessels for her incredible voice. Beyonce and Rihanna? Both songs. Jack Antonoff is vibes but Max Martin is songs. Drake is songs but J. Cole is vibes. Mac Miller is songs but Jack Harlow is vibes. Despite making his whole marketing thing about how he’s a theory-obsessed, perfect-pitch-possessing songwriter, Charlie Puth is 100% vibes. Sometimes people think acts are “songs artists” but are actually “vibes artists” like Lana Del Rey or The 1975 (don’t get mad, if you’re a fan, chances are the reasons you like them are more what they represent and not what the music sounds like). And sometimes artists are mistakenly viewed as “vibes artists” but are actually classic examples of “songs artists,” like Steely Dan or Mac Demarco. Say what you will about the latter guy but he practically inspired an entire class of “vibes artists” trying to capture what he does so well. The same goes for Alex G and Tame Impala.
This isn’t a perfect system and it’s clearly a spectrum. Most “songs artists” are never exclusively that, either they test out the waters as “vibes artists” or they come out hot and lose the magic after a few LPs. Sometimes “vibes artists” can strike gold and make something totally unexpected and tangibly level up. This distinction gets even more knotty when talking about jazz, ambient, and less pop-and-Western-oriented genres, though I’d argue the craft and songwriting are integral to the overall effect even on instrumental and experimental tunes. That said, there’s value in thinking about substance and longevity in art. What’s trend-hopping and what’s going to be something long-lasting and important? Is a song just a soundtrack to the mundane or something more? Vibes only can do so much.
As someone who writes about music but is first and foremost a fan, close enough isn’t good enough for me. It shouldn’t be for you either.
What I listened to:
Gig report: Indigo De Souza and Sluice at Thalia Hall (5/18)
Two acts with 2023 Album of the Year contenders played Thalia last week. I’m a huge Sluice head and seeing these songs live really made me appreciate Radial Gate even more. Witnessing these tunes come alive so well behind just a three-piece setup ruled, especially when the Thalia crowd screamed in affirmation when Justin Morris sang “fuck the government” during “Mill.” Drummer Avery Sullivan did double duty playing for both opener and headliner.
Over three albums, Indigo De Souza has amassed a pretty untouchable catalog and live it’s so clear she’s going to be playing rooms Thalia’s size and greater for years to come. I don’t really have much more to say than that because what else is there? She’s so clearly talented, an impeccable performer, and an undeniable songwriter that the gig was probably one of the best things I’ve seen all year.
Gig report: The Walkmen at Metro (5/19)
One of the few Truly Great American Rock Bands, The Walkmen went on an indefinite hiatus in 2014. They’ve been sorely missed and reunited for a string of 2023 shows, kicking off with an appearance on Colbert where they played “The Rat” before ever rehearsing. You can’t really tell. It’s sick. They did a residency last week at Metro Chicago from Wednesday to Saturday and I was lucky enough to catch the Friday gig. The setlist was perfect— I realized it doesn’t really differ night-to-night but I’m grateful they decided to play the hits—and hearing songs like “Red Moon,” “Angela Surf City,” and obviously “The Rat” live after all these years was a pretty overwhelming experience. I kept remembering the first times I’d heard these songs—on mix CDs from high school friends or at earlier gigs. I’ve loved this band for over 15 years and they’re one of the few acts to hit the Spoon-tier of consistency. I hope there’s a new album.
Gig report: Knox Fortune at Parson’s Block Party (5/20)
I’ve known Knox for years and love his songwriting. In my career, his work has shown up a bunch over the past decade: either with me interviewing him for Complex or writing about his production and feature work for artists like Chance the Rapper and Joey Purp. We’ve since become buds, so I’ll just say it was great to see the now New York-based guy play Chicago backed by Lane Beckstrom and Peter CottonTale.
What I watched:
Sick of Myself (directed by Kristoffer Borgli)
My friend Max told me about this movie a few weeks ago. It was playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center but the weather was so nice we decided to just hang around outside instead of spending part of the day in a movie theater. The trailer stuck with me because it seemed exactly like the kind of movie I really love: a pitch-black satire that’s as biting as it is funny. I trend toward films that genre that are more like Triangle of Sadness or Bodies, Bodies, Bodies than The Menu or Glass Onion. Listen, I don’t care that you didn’t like ToS. It’s fine to be wrong.
Basically, the pitch for Sick of Myself is “what if Ruben Östlund directed Safe instead of Todd Haynes?” If that sounds like something you’d dig, the film is available for rent and purchase on Apple. It’s worth the $15 bucks. It’s a really bracing comedy about millennial narcissism, art, victimhood, shallow inclusivity, sycophantic journalism, and the ways selfishness manifests itself differently in people. There are make-up jump scares that feel Cronenberg-ian and a sex scene that’s honestly so brilliant it should stop the puritanical debates about whether or not scenes like that are gratuitous and don’t forward the plot. I need to dig deeper into Norwegian cinema because, between Borgli and Joachim Trier (Worst Person In the World), there’s probably a whole world to sink into.
What I read:
In addition to her vocal prowess, Turner had a commanding stage presence that was often characterized as "electrifying." This descriptor somehow always seemed like an understatement: At the microphone, Turner vibrated with energy, like a simmering pot about to boil over, and she possessed natural athleticism that translated to lithe but powerful onstage dancing.
The No Expectations Weekly Show Calendar
Thursday, May 25: Lifeguard, Post Office Winter, Flower Grease, Friko (solo) at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Thursday, May 25: Fenne Lily, Christian Lee Hutson, Work Wife at Thalia Hall. Tickets.
Friday, May 26: Laura Stevenson, Oceanator at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Friday, May 26: Daydream Review, Strange Foliage, Dogs at Large at Schubas. Tickets.
Saturday, May 27: Macie Stewart & Lia Kohl, Eliza Niemi, Dorothea Paas at Constellation. Tickets.
Saturday, May 27: Pet Symmetry, Retirement Party, Camp Trash at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Saturday, May 27: Pedro the Lion at Thalia Hall. Tickets.
Monday, May 29: Lane Beckstrom, Living Thing, Javi Reyes at Empty Bottle. Free.
Wednesday, May 31: Jess Williamson, Kara Jackson at Judson and Moore. Tickets.