Dirty Projectors played the House of Blues. Think about that for a second. Dirty Projectors, a band whose dedicated a career to making the most acutely uncategorizable experimental pop in the world, played a characterless, big-box franchise club that would be welcoming Kottonmouth Kings to the same stage only a month later. In 2012 people ages 15 to 55 fought for parking, waited in line, spent 30 dollars, drank shitty beer, crowded a swampy floorspace, and kept in a shocking, cathedral-like quiet for 90 minutes, all to see the Dirty Projectors.
Obviously, this is a pretty unique development. If you’re of a certain demographic, you’ve probably spent the last decade seeing Dirty Projectors in places very unlike the House of Blues. In fact, their most frequent stop in San Diego used to be a place called the Ché Café, which also sports a vegan buffet, a stacked zine library, and ramshackle, co-op collectivist ideals. That all seems so long ago now, but again, if you were there, Dirty Projectors’ current place in the world can lead to some obvious cognitive dissonance. How the fuck did a band like this get to where they are now without sacrificing a single ounce of their credibility? How have they maintained the respect of everyone from the snottiest indie-rock lifers to Jay-Z, Questlove, and NPR listeners? Frankly, this level of cultural ubiquity seemed well out of Dave Longstreth’s DNA, and I’d like to think he felt just as confounded when he found Bitte Orca in the Starbucks rack.
My parents didn’t really know anything about the Projectors, but I took them along just to see what would happen. They enjoyed themselves, or at least they felt enriched. We recapped everything on the drive back; “I’ve never heard anything like that before,” the words tumbled out of my Dad’s mouth a few moments after the encore. It’s the predictable sentiment from anyone who’s brushed up against something miles outside of their universe, except he was actually interested in tasting more. My parents, my high school English teacher, and the rest of the mildly curious American public, have spent the last three years totally enchanted by some of the most pretentiously brilliant music in the world. And the more I think about it, the less surprising it seems.
There are many different types of baby-boomer, all annoying for their own reasons. Some sit happily with their Bowie records, quietly blocking any accelerating trends, some pretend they were at Woodstock and get shamelessly hoity-toity about how great the youth movement was, and some listen to Ted Nugent’s political commentary. But there’s always been a consistent thread of older dudes mourning the fairytale notion that pop used to mean something. Sure, it’s super annoying and ultimately fallacious, but you can sort of understand how a generation who grew up when bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, and Talking Heads were legitimate superstars might be a little miffed at the 21st century’s more… let’s say “streamlined” approach to billboard songwriting. The one artist my Dad connected to Dirty Projectors was Frank Zappa, another guy who made inexplicable music and still earned a ton of fans. They’re both framed in the same über-specific place culturally. No matter how opaque the Longstreth’s music is, the mere fact that it’s dense and distinguished is received like a breath of fresh air. There’s always been a place in the world for something unimaginably outlandish and still close to the core. Dirty Projectors aren’t broadening taste as much as they are staging a disposition—a disposition that makes my Dad clap his hands over his head.
I’m not sure if Longstreth likes the idea of being some grey-hair rallying point, probably because he listens to a lot of Lil Wayne. But that an avalanche of people who have absolutely no interest in anything outsider or avant-garde have found something deeply compelling about his music can be taken as a tribute to his own ingenuity. He is easily the most unlikely pop star the world has ever seen. I remember Einstein once said something like “If you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t understand it well enough.” It might as well be the Dirty Projectors’ slogan. Through all the clattering noise and warped experiments, they’ve actually struck something profoundly universal, something that actually makes sense to everyone. There was a moment halfway through the show, where the girls launched into one of their ridiculous ping-ponging harmonies, (you know, the ones that make you question the fabric of the universe). I looked over at my Dad and he was stifling a smirk, a smirk that seemed to say “Alright, you got me, this is my shit.” That actually seems really noble to me. I’m not saying Longstreth is revving up a revolution, but I do like the idea of him bringing the curiosity back to a community that didn’t have much to rely on outside of phoned-in reunion acts. Anyone who’s demolishing scene-restriction is fighting the good fight, even if it means playing the House of Blues.