We need to talk about STEMlord Funk
What is it about Snarky Puppy, Vulfpeck, Dawes and Hiatus Kaiyote that makes white people lose all their home training?
Well, here some of us (certainly not all) are again. Is it good? Is it right? Who knows.
Unfortunately, not kissing a girl until the summer after my senior year of high school has consigned me to an adulthood needing to feel near the beating heart of the social world for validation. And so here I am, composing blog post introductions on the dance-floor at Nowadays and scurrying off to the benches outside write them down because of their no-phones-on-the-dance-floor policy, all the while shooing away acquaintances’ boyfriends asking if “I’m okay” (obviously not) and assuring me that they’re “right over there if I need anything” (sure). And here you all are, reading my little blog posts about it all. I pray we all find healthier ways of spending our single, solitary lives, but until such a time, welcome back to Critical Party Studies, a blog dedicated to the indispensable, delicate and doomed art of going out.
Theo Katzman is a former vocalist of the… band Vulfpeck, and he performs his “What Did You Mean (When You Said Love)” here with musicians Vulfpeck and Dawes.
How the hell does it always end up this way? Well, actually, I think I know. Somewhere along the way, we give one too many begrudging passes to handsome young crackers in Ray Bans—your Jack Harlows and Buddy Riches—and I invariably end up in a scene like in the above Youtube video: surrounded by the squirming bodies of the future members of the professional-managerial class as they grunt their pleasure to the reanimation of some undead negro genre.
Well, it’s happening again. STEMlord funk, Joe Rogan jazz, philosophy seminar funk, call it whatever you want to call it. It’s happening again.
I’m not trying to be mean, but we really need to get a handle on this phenomenon before it gets even more out of hand than it already is. Even if you don’t know this genre by name, you probably know it by the artists that comprise it: think Vulfpeck, Dawes, Snarky Puppy and [shudder] Jacob Collier. It’s called “funk” and “jazz”, it’s definitively white but it makes a point of being analogue, emphasizes instrumental virtuosity, and ogles Black musical history with an almost-surgical interest, and then mimics it, often with a self-aware flare. When I was in college—it really ran shit at the “eating club” I was a member of—it was sometimes clumsily referred to as “Afrobeat.” Even Hiatus Kaiyote, the Australian blue-eyed neo-soul outfit whose album I just reviewed favourably for Pitchfork, is arguably a part of this phenomenon. Whatever you want to call it, the bottom line is we’re letting band kids get too comfortable.
The moral panic at the Lil Nas X music videos is misdirected; here’s the real threat to America’s youth. We need parents to talk to their gangly, AP Calc-aceing, Redditor teens. They’re getting radicalized: the Youtube algorithm is feeding them Scary Pockets videos, and before you know it they’ll be getting their startups incubated and trying to impress girls with Charlie Hunter solo albums.
It’s the musical equivalent of when someone tries so hard not to come across condescending that they come across extremely condescending. It’s the kind of concert people who get cocktails somewhere where the bartenders wear suspenders go to see after they leave. It’s jazz for Bumble dates, the kind of thing that happens when well-meaning young people who post about having “gifted kid burnout” have their parents purchase multi-thousand dollar educations to learn to play complex polyrhythms and refer to chords as “spicy.” Again, I’m not trying to be mean, and I would have no place to, as someone who actively entertained this subculture for several years.
And it’s often good! That’s the thing. The song in the above video is good. That’s what’s fucked up. Because the thing I really just can’t excuse is that, even when this genre is good, it has cultivated an audience culture that is just totally unacceptable.
The problem is that for whatever reason this seems to be the kind of music that people with liberal arts educations feel like they can really let loose to. And when they let loose you just inevitably get 30 year old white men roaring and grunting and white women screaming “oKAY!”, and momentarily forgetting that even though they text like that they don’t actually talk like that.
And I’ve been on enough Terrace dance-floors to know if there’s one thing non-black people are going to do, it’s use Black music as a conduit to access eroticism. This sort of third-hand libidinality positively courses through STEMlord jazz, as audiences practically force themselves to groan their pleasure at protracted multi-modal solos. And there I am, trying to enjoy the free beer and forget about the essay I didn’t hand in that afternoon.
And, I really have to reach for all this collegiate terminology when discussing this music, not only because a lot of these groups emerge from colleges, but they play at colleges like the one I went to, and build up fanbases of people who first encountered them in college, probably because those people also make music like this. And then making music that musicians like becomes its own special kind of hell, a death march from one liberal arts college gig to another, playing for dedicated audiences of tuition-paying Jazz performance majors and their girlfriends who are humoring them, for now, until you collect enough bass players who really think they either are or are about to become Joe Dart that you sell out Madison Square Garden.
I don’t want to use the m-word, but there’s something in those “YES!”es, in the jubilant affectation and the showboating proficiency that I just can’t help but find kind of stinky. As much as they perform reverence for it, you can’t disguise the genre’s bald use of Black music and language and to arrive somewhere aspirational, to some destination where—whoops—there aren’t any actual Black people (but there’s so much reverence for them, so much attention paid to the reenactment of their essence, that, fuck it, who needs ‘em, anyway).
There’s also something to the fact that the genre’s strange emphasis on the past and the revivalist impulse look directly and determinedly past the like, actual Black jazz, funk and r&b that’s still being made today. Maybe the excessive pedestalizing and reenactment of the Black music’s past wouldn’t feel so weird and minstrel-y if there was any interest in where those traditions are in the present. Again, not trying to be mean.
Just… cool it.
Why can’t you guys just be into Steely Dan or Phish instead?
If you’re an acquaintance or an acquaintance’s boyfriend wondering if I’m okay and whether I need anything, the answer to the latter question is almost always “money,” which I don’t make a lot of, and in the single most random twist of all time was actually not born with a lot of either. So give me some here!
As always, the Instagram for this project is @CriticalPartyStudies and you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to talk. Subscribe and tell your friends if you think it’s good!