Sometimes you just wake up with a thought in your head. Most of the time it’s nonsense, but occasionally it’s a Serious Question that needs to be answered. Like this one: Where is John Maus?
Ever since the masterful We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves in 2011, the musician and composer has largely disappeared. There was a rarities compilation in 2012, and the occasional new track, but that’s about it. Maus himself has been silent, too — he surfaced to psychoanalyze Ariel Pink a while back, but apart from that, we’ve heard nothing from the most voluble and interesting man in music. Where is John Maus? Is he doing another PhD in some sort of esoteric field of philosophy? Is he working on a new album? Has he retreated to rural Minnesota?
In all seriousness, though, the music world needs more people like John Maus. True oddballs (and I use that term with all due respect) are few and far between these days — genuinely weird pop stars like, say, Prince have been replaced by determinedly weird ones like Lady Gaga (remember her?), and the world of indie is more beige than ever. There’s been plenty written about the changing economics of music, and the way that record companies are ever less likely to bet on anything they think isn’t a sure thing. You can see the same pattern in Hollywood, with the endless parade of sequels and reboots and comic book adaptations, along with pretty much every other aspect of popular culture. The merciless logic of the “free” market reigns supreme.
All of which is to say, music isn’t necessarily more boring than it used to be, but it feels more compartmentalized — not so much by genre, because all in all I think people are less adherent to genre loyalty than they used to be, but by the sort of role it plays in culture. We have pop music, which exists as both a genre and a sort of commercial descriptor (it is, quite literally, popular music); then we have less popular music that is still financially viable for its creators (what we call “indie” music, for instance); and then we have crazy, weird shit that will never be commercially successful and has no aspirations toward being so (whoever’s playing at Red Light District in Far Rockaway on any given night). People who exist entirely outside this structure are few and far between.
John Maus is not one of them, and doesn’t pretend to be — his music flits between the two latter categorizations, and for all its strangeness, it still clearly works within the stylistic strictures of pop music. (Theodor Adorno, of whom Maus is apparently a big fan, sets out these strictures here — the tl;dr version is that all pop music exists within a standardized framework, and it’s a given song’s relation to this framework that gives that song part of its meaning.) This framework is as much capitalistic as it is stylistic, and Maus clearly recognizes the way that music works within the context of capitalism: he often discusses exactly this, which if nothing else makes him about a gazillion times more self-aware than many of his peers.
This all comes out in Maus’ writing and interviews, but he’s an interesting case because his music doesn’t necessarily discuss the ideas that seem to inform it. Or, perhaps more accurately, it doesn’t do so explicitly — you don’t find him speaking earnestly about post-structuralism or Žižek in his lyrics. Far from it, actually — this is a man whose last album contained a song whose entire lyric consisted of the phrase “Pussy is not a matter of fact” repeated ad infinitum, and who’s also given us such gems as “It Takes Time” (sample lyric: “Oh my, grandma’s peed her pants again/ And I got it on my hand”) and “Don’t Be a Body” (“Sex with car/ Sex on top of car/ Sex inside of car”). His songs are strange, funny, absurd, and slightly menacing, often all at once.
In this respect, they’re far more interesting than they would be if they were just Žižek set to music. As French composer François Nicolas argues,
A musician’s interest in a given philosophy will be most effective if he is above all interested in the part of the philosophy which does not deal with music. Conversely, a musician who is interested in a philosophy essentially for what it says about music would be interested in this philosophy narcissistically, as a mirror of his art, in other words he would miss this philosophy as philosophy.
That seems to sum up the way Maus’ ideas affect his music: his music manifests as part of a larger world view, one that is as idiosyncratic and fascinating as his songs are.
That said, John Maus clearly thinks a lot about the nature of music. His thoughts on music are so esoteric, in fact, that you might think he was taking the piss, if he wasn’t so entirely serious about it — indeed, the thought that people might find his work and ideas to be anything less than perfectly earnest seems to horrify him. He told an interviewer around the release of Songs, in 2006,
I do not intend in my work a sneering take on pop. Often, though, my work has unfortunately been interpreted as sneering or amusing. Interpretations are insignificant as all of us have a different one… what is significant is the truth that interrupts all these interpretations, and that is what I intend to bring out in my work.
In the same interview, he said, “Following the thought of Badiou, musically, I hope I ‘favor’ nothing but music’s truth, and in this respect remain the ‘pitiless censor of myself.'” (The last Badiou quote, of course, became the title of his third record.)
This idea of “truth” turns up again and again in his interviews, and it seems to me that the relative simplicity of his songs, both lyrically and musically, is a way of getting at fundamental truths. Perhaps the best description I’ve ever read of his music comes from the MausSpace forum, where someone who’d just discovered his music wrote something to the effect that, “I don’t know why I find this cheesy music so emotionally affecting, but I do!” Indeed! Truth is a slippery and subjective thing, but as far as music goes, at least, you know it when you hear it. And even if you knew nothing at all about John Maus’ worldview, I think you’d still feel that there’s some strange and wonderful truth that manifests in his strange, wonderful music.
Can you think of another artist who’s so… fascinating? John Maus, come back! In these bleak post-millennial years, you’re the hero we need!