Last night, I saw Zola Jesus perform through a head cold to about 130 people in Austin. It reminded me of the kind of show that I used to go to as a younger man. T-shirts hung behind the merch table with tape. The band took the stage with no fanfare. If fans wanted to hear "the hits," those hits all came from records released within the last handful of years.
Zola Jesus is a contemporary artist, in the upswing of her career, touring on a shoestring and making the music she wants to make without the influence of a major label marketing committee. Her sound is distinctly hers--as though she made it on an alternate Earth where SWANS were more popular than The Beatles and where Album Oriented Rock meant deep cuts by Iannis Xenakis instead of Journey. It's not difficult listening--it's clearly rooted in the Pop tradition--but it is undeniably left of center and more than a little melancholy.
Her songs weave together experimental and early electronic music influences, dissonant noise, dance rhythms, torch song vocals, and pure pop hooks in a way that probably frustrates a lot of potential listeners. But I love them. She pushes most of my musical buttons and more than that, she's sincere. Watching her take the stage and belt out an enthusiastic if often alien-sounding set, I was reminded of my favorite artists; the ones who commit to their art and take it seriously. When you are cutting your own path as an artist, that's an incredibly hard thing to do. It's so much easier to be aloof or frivolous and project to people that it's OK not to engage with the music seriously because you don't take it too seriously yourself.
If my social media feeds are to be believed, most everyone I know now is interested in bands who peaked 20 or more years ago, or in multi-day festivals with as many corporate sponsors as bands. And that's fine, if that's what you like. I mean, I wish people would be as excited about someone new like Zola Jesus coming to town as they are about KMFDM lumbering through another tour, but whatever.
What drove me towards the music I liked when I was younger was its otherness. Today's taste makers and creative directors would have you believe that everyone remembers their experiences of Depeche Mode, Joy Division and The Pixies from the 80s and 90s. The truth is that most of the kids in my high school listened to Guns N Roses, Boys II Men, Vanilla Ice, and Metallica. I got made fun of for my Violator and Meat Beat Manifesto shirts. I could count on one hand the number of people I knew who actually listened to David Bowie records. Nine Inch Nails wasn't even really a thing until MTV decided to burn The Downward Spiral into the collective consciousness. The music that got me excited in those days was not the dominant cultural force that 2017's look back at those times would have you believe. And that's part of what made it appealing. If you already felt like an outsider for not liking football and hot cars and hamburgers or whatever, it helped to find music that was likewise disinterested in the white picket fence, suburban Amercian dream.
So when someone like Zola Jesus comes to town, I get excited. She's not here to run through a set of oldies. She's not part of some hacked-together musical monolith or trendy movement. She's not riding the high of some viral sensation that overshadows her music. She's not sacrificing her art to dip into the kitsch and nostalgia coffers. She's just playing her songs, singing her heart out, and dancing awkwardly when the mood strikes her.
(No ticket since no one uses tickets anymore.)