When art rock first emerged against the counterculture explosion of the late ’60s, its ability to slyly insert societal and political remarks into avant-garde arrangements and multi-sensory experiences (think Warhol’s relationship with The Velvet Underground) was a real piece of modern renaissance. As the ’70s transitioned into the ’80s, art rock’s prime offspring (punk rock and new wave) began to shed the subtle nuance of prior decades in favor of more blatant, less open-to-interpretation lyricism, albeit with a wider distribution network for the multi-media aspect, thanks to MTV. Now, thirty years post-Cold War, in an era where creative dissenters can directly confront public figures by tagging them on Twitter or re-appropriating their image on TikTok for the whole world to see, such explicit callouts have become the status quo in art rock.
And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that COVID-19’s created a lot of discourse worth responding to. Among the many supplying contemporary commentary is Austin songwriter Thom Kurtz, who, since 2016, has contributed his fair share of off-kilter cross-genre observations with his project Friends To The End. Although Friend To The End’s averaged at about two singles per year, we haven’t heard from Kurtz since last summer’s “ROBOT ODDiTY”.
Today Friends To The End tosses us back into the satirical trenches with “Chinese Underground”. When you watch its blunt lyrics flash over the cartoonishly-hyperbolic imagery of its music video, “Chinese Underground” seems like a straightforward mockery of Mao Zedong on a surface level. But try digging into “Chinese Underground” by recognizing the subtext of its oriental orchestration (akin to the implementation of African sounds underneath David Byrne’s blight-biting lyrics on Remain in Light) as a stylistic choice rather than a reinforcement of potentially harmful sonic stereotypes. Once you do, you’ll appreciate this infectious ’80s-style oddball tune through a whole new lens – as a reflection on the invincibility of an idea.