this is not america
nicolas jaar - sirens
By Samantha Potter
On a Times Square billboard in 1987, yellow neon letters displayed ‘This Is Not America’, transposed onto a glowing outline of the United States. The elusive message was the work of Chilean conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar who, in a time of turbulent US-Latin American relations, was addressing the false conception that America means just the US, and the consequent erasure of Latin America from the map. “It would be like the French calling themselves Europe”, Jaar told the New Yorker.
The outwardly plain and simple vinyl cover of Nicolas Jaar’s new release Sirens includes an American quarter. Scratch off the entirely lottery paper-covered sleeve with that coin and an image of his father Alfredo’s billboard reading ‘This Is Not America’ is revealed.
Sirens is the official follow-up to Jaar’s 2011 critically-acclaimed debut Space is Only Noise, which made him a defining figure in electronic music in creating his own downtempo subgenre combining psychedelia and dance music. As well as starting up his own record label ‘Other People’, the five-year gap between the full-length releases was intercepted by the release of Psychic, a side project as one half of Darkside with guitarist Dave Harrington; the release of the Nymphs EP series, and the creation of Pomegranates, an alternative soundtrack to 1969 Russian avant-garde film ‘The Colour of Pomegranates’. The unpredictability of Nicolas Jaar’s releases owe to the experimental nature of his music, in which Jaar somehow manages to craft disparate sounds together into transcendent dance (though not always danceable) music. Sirens builds on this experimental sound – it is spacious, largely beatless music filled with sound effects, though it is much more vocal-centred than his previous releases.
This focus on vocals points to one key advancement of Nicolas Jaar’s music in Sirens: there is an attempt at creating a political undercurrent. Teaching at Boston’s Berklee music school in 2013 after the April marathon bombing, Jaar became consumed by the question of whether electronic music can - or should – be political. “Can we protest though instrumental music?”, he asked. And so, the experimental producer began experimenting with the potential for dance music to be political, to serve as protest music.
After nearly a minute of silence in the opening track Killing Time, the first sound on the record is a flag flying in the wind. Then, after five minutes, the vocals begin: “I think we’re just out of time/Says the officer to the kids/Ahmed was almost 15 and handcuffed”. ‘Ahmed’ is the 14-year old Muslim boy who was arrested in Texas for possessing what was thought to be a bomb after he took a homemade clock into school. This reference alludes to the wider problem of racial injustice to which Jaar is expressing his discontent in Killing Time. The melancholy lyrics dwell in the sombre piano melodies, before the track progresses with the addition of reverberating percussion. The lyrics “Money, it seems, needs its working class…We are just waiting/For the old thoughts to die/Just killing time” express hope that the current generation may (slowly) outlive racial prejudice. The track dies down again, leaving sounds lingering, occasionally interrupted by harsh sound effects of what sounds like shattering class, as if to leave the listener’s thoughts on the dismal lyrics to dwell.
Returning to the billboard featured on Sirens’ album cover, it’s message ‘This is not America’ is just as pertinent now as it was in 1987, or perhaps even more so. With Donald Trump now at the forefront of US politics, extreme nationalism and xenophobia have been injected into the US on a radicalised scale. For Trump, this (the US) IS America, and he plans to build a wall at the border to concretise it. In Leaves, the third track from Sirens, Jaar uses excerpts from old tapes featuring himself as a young boy talking with his father in Spanish. The song Leaves itself is the most minimalist on the album, starting with a traditional Japanese stringed melody before three minutes of near-silence and the slight sound of the recordings at the end. Although there is something eerie about it, the content of the recordings is highly symbolic, as Jaar stated in an interview: “I put that in there because my dad literally is saying, ‘Go to the wall, go to the wall’.”
After Leaves on the album comes No, its Reggaeton vibe with Spanish vocals entirely contrasting with the preceding track. The core of the lyrics references the elusive line on the album cover, reading ‘Ya dijimos no pero el si esta en todo’ (‘we already said no but the yes is in everything’), alluding to a 1988 campaign to end the dictatorship in Chile. In a referendum on whether the country should continue to be ruled by Pinochet, voting ‘no’ was essentially voting ‘yes’ to democracy. By stating ‘the yes is in everything’, Jaar implies that, though the vote led to the ousting of Pinochet, the hope that was offered in the historical referendum ultimately dwindled as little change was brought to the people. The album is one that certainly needs to be listened to as whole in order to understand, if at all, the political commentary Nicolas Jaar is trying to convey. The conversational home recordings appearing in three of the tracks are discretely linked to the symbolism of the lyrics and the mystery around the line on the album cover. Further, in No especially, but in general throughout the album, Jaar’s lyrics recount the history and politics of his home country and relate these accounts to denounce the current state of affairs. “Old values are being reinstated, and these ghosts are coming back on a very scary and deep level”, Jaar stated in an interview.
The last track on the album, History Lesson, returns to the opening track’s theme of social injustice, condemning the actions of those in power, though in a more satirical manner with its comparatively cheerful, 50’s inspired music that contradicts the dullness of the lyrics. The ‘history lesson’ portrayed in the song is simple: “Chapter one: We fucked up/Chapter two: We did it again, and again, and again, and again /Chapter three: We didn’t say sorry…”. Referring to the ease with which governments have not been held accountable for crimes against humanity repeatedly throughout history, Jaar’s final track is a harsh critique of political systems and power holders in general. Unlike the preceding tracks on the album, the statements of History Lesson are direct, though its satirical undercurrent and simple approach does in fact contribute to the general melancholy of the album: it suggests a sense giving up, of accepting the way the world is. This since of pessimism is reflected generally throughout Sirens, detracting from Jaar’s political aspirations for the album.
Sirens, in Nicolas Jaar’s attempt to be political, turns out to be more fundamentally personal. By looking outwards at society as a whole, Jaar, as he admits himself, “started looking even deeper in”. The inclusion of personal childhood recordings and references to Chilean history are more the artist bringing into question his own identity, though he does reflect upon his own circumstances in relation to wider issues of today, making the music essentially political. Attempting to draw a political message from the eccentricity of the tracks is difficult – the lyrics are often quietened, distorted or competing with powerful sound effects, and some messages are even more subliminal in those home recordings. The key to the political aspect of Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens is its elusiveness. It’s lyrics, sound effects, and even its silences are completely open to interpretation. Even the first thing we hear, supposedly a flag waving in the wind, may not be exactly what we think it is. Whether the album carries political significance is entirely up to the interpretation of the listener. The messages of Sirens are so oblique that you don’t have to understand Jaar’s intentions to enjoy the music, or you may not even be aware of any political purpose at all. Nicolas Jaar’s newfound fascination with dance music’s political potential has produced his most thoughtful and intelligent music yet, but at least for now, the crowd won’t stop dancing to listen.