An Eclectic Gastronomy of Sound
Everybody likes a good mystery, and while I may have come to it a little late, it’s still an intriguing tangle of threads. A little while back I stumbled upon a video for a song called “Play” by an artist called iamamiwhoami.
It struck me as a pretty freaky video and something a little different than the norm (to put it mildly). The music, a brooding yet curiously upbeat electronica/ambient/dance/pop hybrid, was out of the ordinary as well. A cursory viewing of some of the other videos by iamamiwhoami revealed even more strangeness. Who was this person (group?)?
I came to find out that my reaction was exactly what the artist intended. At the end of 2009, the first video/song by iamamiwhoami was released to an unsuspecting Internet with no identifying information. This was done intentionally to create buzz. Other equally mysterious and bizarre videos were released periodically, still with no info beyond the name “iamamiwhoami”. Even the blond singer’s image was distorted in the early videos so as to make her unrecognizable. All the songs had numerical codes as their titles, which in part, when decoded spelled out mandragora officinarum, the latin name for the hallucinatory mandrake root. Mandrake folklore imagery appeared throughout these first videos, as well. Adding another twist, each video ended with a drawing of a different animal. The next batch of videos all had one letter titles and began with an animal call. Eventually, the seven videos spelled out the word “bounty”, which also corresponded to the onomatopoeia of the above-mentioned animal calls. In other words, the animal calls could be made to approximate the pronunciation of the English word “bounty”. Confused yet? Yeah, me too – but it’s still an interesting web of connections which a lot of work was put into.
Meanwhile, followers of iamamiwhoami were trying to figure out who this mysterious artist was. Many thought it might be Christina Aguilera, though this was much more sophisticated and just plain obscure and offbeat for such a mainstream artist. Suspicion came to center on Swedish singer/songwriter Jonna Lee, though her record company strongly rejected such speculation. Eventually it was revealed that it was indeed Lee, but the intended marketing effect had worked well, helping to generate much more interest in Lee’s music than previously in her career. In fact, this marketing approach goes all the way back to the 1960’s, when the band Chad Allen and The Expressions released their first single and the record company credited them as The Guess Who? Everybody was trying to “guess who” the band was, some even thinking it was really The Beatles, and a multi-million selling recording career was put into place quite effectively.
Adding another layer of interest to this story is the fact that Jonna Lee radically reinvented her image and music for iamamiwhoami. One can also trace this approach to others before, most notably Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos, who were both recording as relatively lightweight, pop-dance artists before their early/mid 1990’s transformation breakthroughs. Both Morissette and Amos made their music much more dark and confessional and went for a bit of the “shock effect” in some of their lyrics. Compare the Jonna Lee of these earlier videos: Lake Chermain, My High – all fresh-scrubbed bounciness, sun, trees, acoustic guitars, jamming with her band – with, well, with any of iamamiwhoami’s songs/videos.
Back to the iamami saga – after the “Bounty” set of videos, came a series of videos with dates as the titles, which led to a live webcast of a “concert” recorded in a forest in Sweden. It’s really not so much a concert as an elaborate performance piece, telling a story about…well, I’m not sure. It has to do with love and death, though. But, take a look for yourself. The first 10 minutes or so are pretty dull, but then it starts gaining momentum. There’s some mildly disturbing scenes as well as some fairly silly scenes (unintentional or intentional, I’m not sure). It definitely leaves an impression, either way.
The next batch of videos (yes, there have been even more) has led to the recent release of the first official iamamiwhoami album “Kin”, from whence the song “Play” (which started this long essay) comes. There’s probably a story line in these as well (involving people dressed as mops?) and the surreal images and experimentalism continue unabated. Furthering the aura of mystique, “Kin” comes packaged in a plain black and white cover, merely listing the song titles. As images are so crucially linked to iamamiwhoami, it comes with an accompanying dvd containing each song’s video.
So, how’s the music? Listening without video accompaniment lets one consider the music on its own terms. Because, let’s face it, she’s marketing herself as a musician first and foremost, so the music better carry the image. In simplified terms, it’s eerie pop electronica. Throughout iamamiwhoami’s songs are also elements of dance and ambient musics. It’s very creative, if not always successful on its own, separated from the accompanying video.
At times, such as in the layering of voices in “Play”, I’m reminded of the work of Kate Bush. In fact, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the Bush connections. A whole crop of female musicians can trace their lineage back to Kate Bush, from iamami to Tori Amos, Bjork, Goldfrapp, Bat For Lashes, Florence and The Machine, and more. Even Madonna has borrowed from Bush, with her 2001 “Drowned World” tour at times a carbon copy of the theatrical pieces included in Kate’s 1979 “Tour of Life”. One can draw a straight line from Bush’s 1980’s videos for “Babooshka” or “Breathing” to the videos of iamamiwhoami. In fact, at times during iamami’s forest concert, I half expected Kate Bush to jump out of the mist singing “Wuthering Heights” a la this 1978 video. I can’t help but feel that the style of music and video fusion iamami is doing has been an objective of Kate’s career since the beginning, but that Kate has not been as successful at it (“The Line, The Cross & the Curve” film anyone?). For every “The Sensual World”, there’s slightly embarassing videos like “King of the Mountain”. Iamami, on the other hand, has consistently managed to fuse these two arts well, and has continued doing it well so far. (However, I’d argue that Kate’s body of music is much stronger and diverse than iamami’s, which will give it more longevity.)
It’s been said that “everything that’s old is new again”, but sometimes there’s enough real new in the reinventions to keep you interested and engaged. I’m looking forward to what iamamiwhoami creates next.
And maybe she’ll get over that underwear fixation she seems to have…