Sacked in the City?

TV on the Radio and the existential crisis of popularity

Popular taste is often cultivated and pruned in New York City. The city ostensibly excretes popular culture into the atmosphere on a regular basis and the rest of the nation invariably adjusts to what Manhattanites inform them is cool.

Many of the television shows and movies you watch are filmed in Manhattan. Many of the newspapers and magazines you read operate out of Manhattan. Actors and rock stars often either live, work or party in Manhattan.

Even the current U.S. financial crisis, the fiscal calamity on Wall Street that has the potential to malign the American economic system, is happening in Manhattan.

But if you thrive on the notion that you’re above what big city advertising and marketing executives try to sell you everyday, that you’re some how immune to popular culture and the widelyheld perceptions of what is cool — especially if you’re an emerging Rock phenomenon — Manhattan can be as difficult as trans fat to digest.

For TV on the Radio, the New York-based Punk Jazz Rock fusion quintet, gathering steam in such a city creates a problem, especially when you live in one of its boroughs. The band has been creating a steady but low buzz since their debut album OK Calculator in 2002, and while they have been on an upward trajectory since, they’ve operated generally below the radar.

However, 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain garnered a staggering amount of positive reviews, ranking fourth best album of the year in Rolling Stone, second best on Pitchfork Media’s Top 50 Albums of the Year and it was named Spin magazine’s Album of the Year.

“It’s really weird, but it’s more surreal than weird,” drummer Jaleel Bunton says of TVOTR’s newly-found fame. “It’s really great to start playing bigger venues and to have some validation as an artist. That’s a great feeling and it’s something that all of us spent most of our lives going without.”

Many factors contribute to Bunton’s fame-based surprise, one of them being that neither he nor his bandmates have any formal musical training.

“Nobody went to (music) school,” Bunton says laughing. “No one has had any kind of formal instruction. When you see us play live, that’s pretty obvious.”

In September of this year when their latest effort Dear Science hit the shelves, expectations were running high for TVOTR to make an album to rival Return to Cookie Mountain. And by all accounts, this album could be poised to make them superstars.

The first track on Dear Science, “Halfway Home,” paves the way for a holistic and remarkable sonic experience and could couple triumphantly with the getaway sequence of any action film. The track begins with the maniacal hammering of a singular energetic note, followed immediately by a Joey Ramone-esque sequence of doo-wops and scatting. When the vocals finally chime in, they bleed softly into blankets of richly contrasting instruments. The bed of sounds seems delicately discordant until the chorus breaks up the chaos: “Is it not me?/Am I not folded by your touch?”

While pleased with the adulation TVOTR is receiving, Bunton does maintain a host of other emotions about success. “It’s a great new experience to kind of embrace the praise for the things that we do, but it makes us a little distrustful,” he says. “It’s kind of hard to just accept when you’ve prepared yourself to have a career and a life without any kind of validation.”

TVOTR’s work has become increasingly more visible. Their songs have been used on the soundtracks of several major network television shows and they’ve done every major music festival and talk show. Lead singer Tunde Adebimpe will even appear with Anne Hathaway in the film Rachel Getting Married due out later this year.

But what celebrity giveth, the city taketh away. Popular taste is arguably decided in the city, but ironically when it leaves the quarantine of the five boroughs and tries to flourish outside its confines, that’s usually when the architects of pop-culture turn on it, branding it cliché or common.

The city could turn on them if they become overexposed and commercial, and a certain amount of interest will diminish, making them more of a commodity and less like artists. Or TVOTR may just be conducting a social experiment by being quietly famous and keeping a low profile, the veritable antithesis of celebrity.

“The most bizarre thing is that so little has really changed,” Bunton says. “Our profile has kinda gotten bigger and the venues have got bigger and we have lot more media exposure now. But I’m still gonna be riding my bike around Brooklyn.”

“It doesn’t feel like we’re living a different life at all,” he says.

And maybe they’ll never have to.

TV ON THE RADIO plays Bogart’s Saturday with The Dirtbombs.

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