Xiu Xiu: The Failed Experiment

Jeff Merrion lays out his case against the dissonant, disturbed indie pop of Jamie Stewart’s Xiu Xiu.

I want you to boycott Xiu Xiu. And you, the reader, are most likely thinking, “Great. Another asshole complaining about dissonance in pop music, or about the shocking content of Jamie Stewart’s lyrics.” For the record, I love dissonance in pop music. I love dissonance outside of pop music. And I love amusical noise releases too. Furthermore, I don’t take issue with the grotesqueness of Jamie Stewart’s lyrics per se. I enjoy the grotesque, occasionally. I think there’s value in the literature of Georges Bataille, who makes Jamie Stewart’s lyrics sound like a trip to Disneyland.

Now that that’s out of the way, I want you to boycott Xiu Xiu. Even if you like his music and his lyrics, you should boycott Xiu Xiu. Here’s why:

A Promise

This is the cover art of Xiu Xiu’s A Promise.

In an interview with a popular indie music website, Jamie Stewart said that he took the picture himself on a trip to Asia. The man in the picture is a prostitute. Stewart solicited him for sex. When they got to his hotel room, Stewart took the pictures, tossed the man a couple bucks, and sent him on his (not so) merry way. But look closer. The man’s body, according to Stewart, shows evidence of years of physical abuse and violence. Stewart claims, “[The cover] is about what that person has been through and what his life is like.”

No, it isn’t. Stewart is being provocative just to be provocative, and he does so at the expense of a man forced to live an unimaginably terrible life. If the cover really was about “what that person has been through,” Stewart could have included the back story in the press junket and asked his listeners to donate money to some charity whose aim is to help abused prostitutes in Southeast Asia.

Did any of the proceeds from the record go to this guy?

Did Jamie Stewart sympathize with this guy because he was forced by circumstance into being a prostitute? Clearly not, if Stewart was soliciting prostitutes in a poverty-ravaged country. So then, in the best-case scenario, the album cover is basically making this statement: “It sucks that my prostitute regularly gets the shit kicked out of him.”

Would you pay your best friend to go to a foreign country and take a snapshot of a discarded human before discarding that human again? Then why would you give Jamie Stewart money to do the same?

Further, the cover art’s mindless provocation also underpins much of the musical and lyrical content on Xiu Xiu’s albums.

One reviewer wrote that Xiu Xiu “set[s] out to disturb their audience in pursuit of higher artistic goals.” But what are those higher artistic goals? Does Stewart obliterate the boundaries of pop music by whisper-singing half-assed melodies about sexual deviance against beds of alternating pretty pop and noisy shards? If so, a thousand bands have done that since the Velvet Underground (and I guarantee that it was much more disturbing in the ’60s to have Lou Reed tell you to “kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather” than to hear Jamie Stewart’s affectation-laden whine ask you to “come on [his] lips.”)

Come to think of it, Stewarts lyrics themselves sound like something culled from episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. For example, “I can’t wait to tell you your grandpa made your mom play stripper while your uncle watched.” Disturbing? Sure. Pursuit of some lofty artistic goal? I think not. If Ice-T is on the case, it’s not pushing the boundaries of pop music.

Xiu Xiu fans claim that Stewart’s music is “experimental.” Is it experimental to distill the influences of twenty years’ worth of indie rock into a single band? When I think of music that is successfully experimental, I think of bands that explode genre boundaries, or probe new lyrical territory in meaningful ways. Xiu Xiu does neither of those things. Their music is indie rock. It doesn’t do anything new.

Consider a quote from the venerable Marquis de Sade. To all those who think that Xiu Xiu’s cavalier lyrics open up some forbidden realm of existence heretofore never put into writing, keep in mind that the following was written more than 200 years ago: “Vernuil makes someone shit, he eats the shit, and then he demands that someone eat his. The one who eats his shit vomits; he devours her puke.”

It turns out that the great dysfunctional history of humanity has given us more of the disturbing, macabre, and sexually deviant than we could ever hope to digest in a lifetime. So, you don’t have to punish your ears by listening to a singing voice that sounds like a sex offender is trying to give you a wet willy. Also, you don’t have to listen to music that sounds like the out-takes from a teenage Joy Division cover band that smokes too much weed.

Just listen to Joy Division while reading the Marquis de Sade if you really need to feel uncomfortable.

While he excels in most other areas, Jeff Merrion’s spatial logic falls within the lower third percentile of United States citizens. He is a Religious Studies major and, as such, has a long life of administrative assistantship awaiting him. To potential employers: Jeff makes a mean cup of coffee.