The Heart Music Group Showcase was a study in opposing approaches to “crowd-work.” The phrase “crowd-work” is itself a piece of comedian terminology used to describe the way a comic chooses to engage and control an audience. For most musicians this aspect of live performance gets chiseled down to the far less demanding description of “stage banter,” and for many bands that take the stage during CMJ, merely nodding your head every couple of songs and mumbling, “Thanks…” at the end of a set will be treated as some sort of compelling display of raw charisma. Though there are a variety of ways to work a room—obviously Fucked Up whips its audience into a frenzy in very different ways than Lady Gaga does—it really comes down to two options: empathize or antagonize.
R E A L M A G I C, the irritatingly punctuated moniker of 26-year-old Drew Englander, is an example of extreme empathy. Hailing from Denver, Englander plays a dance-ready take on electronic gauze-pop that begs to be headphone music for a lonely teenager with big art school dreams and a SoundCloud profile. Though many of his lyrics are soaked in reverb and delivered in a fey, Zach Condon on ecstasy cadence, the message is loud and clear: We’re in this together. It’s dream-pop as grand unifying statement for misfits and weirdos.
On stage Englander plays the part of lonely teenage dancing machine perfectly, moving wildly, limbs flailing everywhere, leaving behind his soundboard to wiggle in the crowd. At one point he covered Robyn’s loner classic “Dancing On My Own” in an effort to make the sub-text text, or maybe underline and use a big highlighter on the text itself. Some skittering 808 beats gave just enough of a sinister edge to keep the music from floating into an ether, and I found the whole thing to be simultaneously goofy, indulgent and charming. Sporting a billowy white T-shirt with the words “I’M YOU” scrawled across the front, Englander did everything he could to engage a crowd that mostly wanted to sip its drinks and nod politely. At one point some a-hole in the audience yelled out, “You suck!” I guess you can’t ever really escape the bullies, but at least you can drown them out with blown-out synths.
Perhaps in acknowledgment of the you-suck dude, Cities Aviv, the rap project of Memphis musician Gavin Mays, began his set with some harsh words for the audience and didn’t let up with the half-serious/half-joking antagonism through most of his set. “Fuck bloggers!” was the phrase of the night, a hilarious middle finger to many of the people who have helped to make Aviv such a buzzed about name in hip-hop. Later, before introducing his final song, “Float On,” which features Aviv rapping over Blackbird Blackbird’s cover of Modest Mouse’s hit, Aviv paused to yell, “Fuck chillwave!” after someone in the audience mentioned the genre-that-shall-not-be-named. This type of critic-bating and genre-trashing is, of course, nothing new. No artist wants to be defined or limited by a set of pseudo-parameters created by music writers, especially one as inherently dopey as chillwave hip-hop, yacht-rap, cloud-rap or whatever new Tumblr tag being cooked up as I write this.
All the chill-accusations are a distraction from the fact that Aviv can be a funny, thoughtful and emotionally potent rapper, capable of gracefully toggling between juvenile nihilism, stoned-out-of-your-gourd mysticism and on-point meta criticism about hip-hop and race. And his ear for beats is more sophisticated than many of his Internet-haters would have you believe; at least half of his songs show a string of old-school classicism and Southern influence at work that goes beyond the lush, Clams Casino ethereal overload style. And, let’s be honest, a lot of the ethereal stuff is laid-back fun. Songs like “Coastin’” and “Voyeurs” worked their breezy charm on the crowd, proving Aviv wasn’t joking about really wanting the audience to enjoy itself. Toward the end of the set, an appearance by Philadelphia rapper Lushlife provided a needed shot of adrenaline, upping the energy of the set just as things were threatening to get a little too bleary and narcoleptic. As a songwriter, Aviv relies on garbled, half-shouted choruses a bit too much for my taste, but his lyrics show a cunning and occasionally droll mind at work with a real beating heart beneath all the “fuck everything” posturing. Despite his antagonistic tendencies, it was hard not to empathize with the guy.