Funk for the Fearful (Pandemic Playlist)

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David Byrne and Talking Heads performing in the US

BY GRACIE JAMISON //

Us humans process things in strange ways, often without realizing it and to the great confusion of the people around us – even more so when situations get complicated and our brains start desperately trying to make sense of it all. So you can imagine what happens when the world stops on a dime and time turns upside down – like the moment we’re in now.

I myself was getting deep into funk when everything got crazy, and figured that my new musical interest would keep me movin’ and groovin’ even if I was unsure what my next step would be. As the days went by, however, I noticed that the stuff I was listening to was funk, sure, but funk for the fearful – ominous, weary, as dystopian as it was danceable. My music was holding up a mirror, reflecting my concerned face as well as the chaos behind me in its freaked-out lyrics and frantic beats. In a strange way, though, it was comforting- the music displayed a confidence that comes from doing the absolute best with what you’ve got as well as a determined desire to dance, even among the ruins. The songs on this list moved me, and I hope they move you. 

First, it should be noted that not everything on the playlist is bonafide funk. In fact, not much of it is, but genres really mean very little when you get down to it and every song incorporates funk influences. One of the reasons I started listening to funk in the first place is the influence such music had on my beloved Talking Heads; there are three of their songs on here, but not without good reason. “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” is haunting but pulsing, with the Afrobeat-influenced polyrhythms keeping us trapped in whirling motion – we are outside ourselves, helplessly watching our bodies move while deriving a strange, twisted delight in being out-of-control. There are also two tracks from Fear of Music, an album that encapsulates the isolation mindset better than any album out there, and both continue the interplay between bleakness and backbeats heard in “Born Under Punches”. In “Life During Wartime” (I chose the superior cut, the iconic one from Stop Making Sense that is also arguably the best live performance ever), the narrator sings of how routine insanity has become to him – he hears gunfire off in the distance, but he’s getting used to it now. Disorientating yet familiar, the song has a rhythm you can’t quite run to, but one that is perfect for jogging. How funny that a song about street guerrillas and inner-city warfare is taken at a leisurely pace, but that’s where we’re at now, with the mad becoming mundane. Moreover, the contrast between Byrne’s concerns over what hairstyle to have versus where to find hidden grave-sites resonates with a world of people that are trying to reconcile a massive health crisis with our own private anxieties. “Cities” is a herky-jerky hypnosis record, with Byrne pulling and pushing against Jerry Harrison’s keyboard, trying to wrest control and maintain that he’s found a city to live in and that he’s got it all under control.  

The starting track, however, is not a Talking Heads track but rather Funkadelic’s masterful “Cosmic Slop”, the sonic encapsulation of our current moment. Singing of a mother who tries to hide from her children the fact that “life is really tough” and did questionable things to protect her kids, Garry Shider gives us hallucinatory vision with no illusions. The song, along with the two War tracks- “The World is a Ghetto” and “War is Coming Blues Version”- bring to mind Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a swirling, churning mix of bright colors and youth and fire and tension and rage, alternating between lazy, simmering slowness and searing punches, a trance that fascinates and frightens. 

Later, in the “The Payback”, James Brown growls his frustrations over a groove, gets down even as he’s about to erupt. The anger, the frustration, the desire to do something, and the knowledge that there’s somebody to blame- emotions we’re all currently feeling, no doubt, and ones supported by the cyclic grooves so crucial to funk steeped in fear and frustration.

The next-to-last track, “All Along the Watchtower” howls with an adrenaline that can only come from apocalyptic visions, as a thief and a joker quick-step at lightning speed, with no time to talk falsely as two riders approach and wildcats, along with Hendrix’s guitar, begin to growl outside the gates.  

The final track, “Maggot Brain”, is out-of-this-world, transcendent, taking your breath away and sending chills up your spine as the beat slowly turns and Eddie Hazel plays like he’s holding the world in his hands, reveling in the power he’s got over the instrument even as he’s deep in his own despair. It’s a magnificent song, funky and fearful but ultimately beyond description and outside time and space, much like our current moment seems to be.

PLAYLIST :

  1. Cosmic Slop by Funkadelic 
  2. Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) [Live] by Talking Heads
  3. The World is a Ghetto by War
  4. Right Place Wrong Time by Dr. John
  5. Cities by Talking Heads
  6. Unfunky UFO by Parliament
  7. All Along the Watchtower by The Jimi Hendrix Experience
  8. California Dreamin’ by Eddie Hazel
  9. The Payback by James Brown
  10. Life During Wartime (Live) by Talking Heads
  11. War is Coming (Blues Version) by War
  12. Maggot Brain by Funkadelic  

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