“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and Questions of Avant-Garde

The more pertinent narrative of the aughts’ defining avant-garde work begins after Wilco’s fall from and return to Warner Music Group. By 2001, the major label system was noticeably and emphatically falling apart as a consequence of the Internet’s perpetuation of widespread intellectual property devaluation. As a result, Wilco weren’t the only band to be stilted by the evil and shortsighted music industry; nearly every music fanatic you know has a story about some band with some album from the time between 1998 and 2003 that never saw the proper light of day and which you absolutely must hear.

Though great fodder for fantasy, the reason Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became such a success has nothing to do with whether or not Wilco “beat” or “showed up” the corporate suits that wronged them by gaining their masters back and releasing them to the public for free. Rather, because Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the first mainstream album giveaway, Wilco became the heavy-hitter foil to a falling castle of antiquated greed for an entire generation of musicians and audiences. Of everything to be said about the album, this is probably – ironically – the least hyperbolic bit of praise one can heap. Whether they knew it or not, on September 18, 2001 the members of Wilco redefined how band and audience interact by streaming the album on their website alongside the near 20 engineer demos already to be found on the P2P stratosphere.

Lester Bangs, who once notoriously referred to rock and roll as the first true democratic art form, seemed to continually struggle towards the end of his life with the reality that there was no perceivable democracy in contemporary music, regardless of its populist façade. Though Bangs died in 1981, many years before the Internet age solidified in American life, perhaps he would have had something to say upon witnessing Jeff Tweedy and Co. continually take the stage in the winter/spring of 2001/2002 to uproarious audience calls for a slew of recorded Wilco material that hadn’t formally seen the light of day – songs that even casual listeners were already considering the best of their career. Wilco of course obliged and continues to do so to this day: At a concert at Tipitina’s in New Orleans in 2008, Tweedy announced (in reference to the band’s ongoing offer to let fans vote on songs to be played at their performances), “I’m starting to think our roadies or someone backstage is just screwing with us, because in every city we’ve been in this has been far and away the most requested song” before launching into “A Magazine Called Sunset” (a YHF-era tune that only appears on the free internet EP More Like The Moon) to the crowd’s vindicated delight.

Wilco further obliged its audience when, on April 23, 2002, they formally released Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for physical public consumption. By this time, it was practically a for-granted fact that the album was one of the best in recent memory, a universal opinion whose integrity lies more in record’s unprovoked, effortless surrounding hoopla than the hype machine of journalistic media. Critically speaking, there would be no tail-wagging-the-dog phenomenon at work; there was no telling a well-informed, analytical listening audience anything other than what they inexorably knew. Brent S. Sirota, in his review for Pitchfork in 2002, summed it up perfectly: “Beneath the great story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, there are all the tropes and symbols and coincidences of a little mythology; but under that is a fantastic rock record. And why tell you? You all already knew this.”

In that quote may lie the particular reason for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s place in rock and roll history. More specifically, to give Wilco all the credit for the record’s universal acclaim would do disservice to the people who actually gave the record its acclaim. YHF‘s importance owes at least as much to the band’s perfect execution of the entire endeavor as it does to audiences who weren’t tone deaf to the album’s greatness and its story’s larger picture. Because of this, perhaps no album in the last 20 years captures so thoroughly the confluence of economic turmoil, information technology and cultural literacy. As such, it is often the measuring stick by which quality is judged in the modern indie rock world. We’ve just arrived at the pinnacle of avant-garde.

Recently, respected pop culture purveyor Chuck Klosterman appeared to grasp the minutia of such a concept when he haphazardly dissected the music and image of Merrel Garbus (aka tUnE-yArDs) while speaking of her sophomore record. As he succinctly put it: “w h o k i l l is not avant-garde, but it is experimental.” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on the other hand, depending on who you talk to and the subjective definitions with which they operate, may or may not be an experimental piece of rock and roll. But it is undeniably avant-garde. At this point, sonic miscellanea are practically irrelevant to the question of why the album is one of the best of the 2000s. Even if, on its face, it is nothing more than an alt country band’s abandonment of its roots in favor of a standard – though phenomenal – alternative rock milieu, somehow it is avant-garde and everyone knows it, and it literally defines a turning point in music history, and everyone knows it. By reining in a sea change in the way that people consume music, interact with artists and think critically about both of them, what Yankee Hotel Foxtrot represents is not just the pushing of boundaries but the wholesale obliteration of them.
photo credit: Eric Guinness

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One thought on ““Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and Questions of Avant-Garde

  1. Nice to see someone simultaneously knocking YHF off its pedestal a little bit while not discounting Jay Bennett’s huge role in the record. Disagree with yr Brainiac comment, though. Jim O’Rourke came through St. Louis frequently throughout the ’90s (Cicero’s Basement Bar was a standard stop on punk/indie/avant tours from Chicago etc., folks getting through the midwest, I think he may even have a track on the “goodbye to Cicero’s” comp. CD put together by Jim Utz of Vintage Vinyl). Jeff “produced” an early Dazzling Killmen 7″, and was friends with Darin through working at various record stores, not the least of which was the Vintage Vinyl in Granite City just across the river from STL, which Darin managed into the ‘oughts. Darin and Jim were close via Skingraft and general anti-music/noise/freerock stuffs crosspollinating twixt STL and CHI. Also Jeff’s lady was booking the Lounge Ax in CHI, which became for awhile the CHI hub for indie stuffs.

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