One of the most polarizing figures in music today, lo-fi pioneer Ariel Pink released pom pom this week, his third record with 4AD and first without his band, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. In 2010, after years of recording cassettes at home in relative obscurity, he and his band found major label success with their single “Round and Round,” which was named the best song of the year by Pitchfork. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Pink and his non-conforming antics. One was more likely to hear about the dress he wore or the meltdown he had onstage than anything specific about his music, though. With pom pom’s release, it seems not much has changed -— he continues to stir up controversy with inflammatory remarks, and the music itself is more gimmicky than ever.
The opening track, “Plastic Raincoats In the Pig Parade,” sets the tone from the beginning, letting you know that nothing Pink does should be taken completely seriously. Backed by xylophones and a shouting chorus of children’s voices, it could pass for a song from an educational kid’s TV show. That is, until it introduces sirens, horse neighing and starts to rewind mid-song.
Pink’s record is littered with obvious examples of Frank Zappa’s influence — particularly the commercials Zappa recorded for products like Luden’s Cough Drops. There is even a track called “Jell-O,” which is a fake commercial for the product that is almost too similar to what Zappa was doing to be influenced, instead delving into the realm of imitation. He has always drawn comparisons to Zappa, and for good reason — this album features a healthy dose of absurd animal noises, industrial street sound, rewinding tapes and a great deal of sardonically sweet melodies. Unfortunately, Pink lacks Zappa’s talent for arrangement and knowledge of theory, which allowed him to change time signatures, modes and genres at the drop of a hat. Similarly, Pink’s band lacks the technical prowess that led to memorable solos and instrumental interludes on Zappa’s work.
The other pop music icon that Pink is sure to invoke in listeners’ minds is David Bowie. Again, the invocation is not in the sense that he has made anything near as original or important as what Bowie made. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Tracks like “Not Enough Violence” are not just modern takes on Berlin-era Bowie or other new wave bands like The Human League; they are Pink speak-singing in a deep baritone register over cheesy synth lines in an attempt to sound exactly like them. The problem is that it’s hard to tell if he is making fun of the music or genuinely trying to recreate it. Either way, it was new and interesting 25 or 30 years ago, but now it’s just derivative.
That’s the problem with this album and Pink’s persona as a whole — he puts on a completely different voice from song to song in an attempt to hide himself. Switching characters so often makes it impossible to know which one is real and which one is satirical. This perpetual state of irony is what allows him to publically deride Madonna and 4AD label-mate Grimes, or say misogynistic and homophobic remarks in interviews. He can always distance himself from his statements and later claim that he was joking, or acting as part of a larger meta-commentary. The problem is, he never gets around to stating this honest commentary or revealing his true self. This is the inevitable fate of a career that is based almost completely on tongue-in-cheek imitations.
The closest he gets to a song that is not a reference to someone else is probably “Goth Bomb,” a two-and-a-half-minute punk song about his goth days in high school. Still, he can’t resist putting on his Iggy Pop voice and slipping into barking as he repeats the chorus of “Why can’t I write the words?” over and over. This track is a reworking of his previously released “Where Does My Mind Go,” and is one of many that are just reworkings of material we have already heard. Other than a few added words, “Lipstick” sounds the same as “Shower Me With Lipstick” off of his YAS DuDette compilation with Haunted Graffiti, and “Nude Beach a Go-Go” featuring Azealia Banks actually came out on her record first.
“Exile On Frog Street” is at the other end of the spectrum of “Goth Bomb” in terms of its originality. Aside from the title being a play on The Rolling Stone’s classic 1972 album Exile On Main Street, the track leans heavily on the crutches of frog and duck noises, strange accents and a long spoken monologue about Pink being kissed and turned into a prince. Though some might genuinely like the song for its humor, an artist can only have so much material that imitates an annoying commercial or a repetitive children’s show intro before the humor and value of it is outweighed by how actually annoying and repetitive it is, and you forget that you’re listening to a 30-something hipster darling and actually feel like you’re listening to The Wiggles.
Ariel Pink is not the only eccentric slacker character whose rise to fame can be more accurately attributed to the cult of personality that surrounds him than anything particular about his music; people like Mac DeMarco and Tyler, the Creator can be described similarly. The difference is that even these wild characters at some point show their listeners what they stand for by aligning themselves with something. By making fun of everything, Pink, on the other hand, defines himself only by what he dislikes and what he is not. It doesn’t matter that none of pom pom is original, difficult or sincere; you can still be a fan of the way he stirs up controversy by putting down mainstream artists in interviews, or his knack for cross-dressing, or the pink donuts and pink nail painting being offered at the release parties in Los Angeles this week. In a way, Pink’s fans who cite these gimmicks when asked why they like him are no different than those who cite Miley Cyrus’ twerking or Justin Beiber’s current girlfriend when asked why they like them. Like these artists, pom pom is bastion to modern music’s commitment to spectacle over substance.