The Life of Reilly

CALL ME CONTRARY, but when local media darling Ike Reilly opens up his mouth and sings the sprightly, Pepsi-jinglish chorus of "Put a Little Love in It," I have to restrain myself from calling up the man myself and telling him to put a little sock in it. While I'm at it, I'd like to cork the kisser of every one of my friends who has jabbered on about Reilly for the past few months. And although I truly have great respect for the local journalists who have praised Reilly's Salesmen and Racists (Universal), the fact that no one has challenged the man's reign over Twin Cities music coverage has compelled me to sound my barbaric yawp of disagreement: I don't like Ike.

What music critics interpret as Reilly's biting social commentary strikes me as nothing more than a lousy rhetorical stance--or maybe just a media ploy. According to a glowing feature in Pulse, Reilly considers himself to be a "worker" and not an "artist." In other words, not only is Reilly unlike those pretty, prefabricated teen stars who rule the pop charts; he's also not a drippy-nosed aesthete. No, Reilly is a world-hardened, working-class rocker, a self-made man with the savvy to blow the lid off the scam that is the music industry with a song like "Cash Is King." Now that's a shocker, isn't it?

In the aforementioned Pulse article, Reilly worried that, as a fortysomething musician from Libertyville, Illinois, his background was "too white, too middle-class, too boring" to lend him the guise of a genuine poet of the people. And so, on his Universal debut Salesmen and Racists, he takes up the very issues he didn't have to struggle with during his seemingly normal, white, middle-class upbringing--race, class, and gender. We're all hip to those issues, of course, that trinity held holy by all good liberals. But aren't we also sick of having to be, you know, sensitive? Isn't that a chore for a tired "worker" at the end of a long day of rocking out?

The critics who love Salesmen and Racists laud Reilly's social commentary. (In the trade publication R&R's "Exclusive Look at the Cutting Edge of Alternative," one writer praises Reilly for being "non-PC/nonconformist"--as if the two terms were synonymous.) Yet Reilly mostly espouses the kind of rhetoric that would generate serious reservations if it came from someone outside of Reilly's presumably left-leaning clique. Although Reilly isn't gay--in fact, he spends much of his time singing about women's thighs and asses--he feels at liberty in live performances to sing about "all the pretty faggots" who come on to him. He is, of course, just using the word as a flirtatious and sexually liberating term. Yet when it comes to the album version of "Angels and Whores," the lyric has been changed to "all my pretty gay friends"; Reilly is actually, it would seem, an insider in the gay community--his pretty gay friends apparently don't mind him calling 'em as he sees 'em when he's at the microphone.)

According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Reilly means for the title Salesmen and Racists to insinuate that all Americans fall into one (or both) of the titular categories. Yet he doesn't extrapolate upon what that generalized statement means or what its consequences are. Can you imagine this "racism-conscious" man ever reclaiming use of the word nigger as he does the word faggot? Perhaps Reilly's pretty black friends might not be so understanding--not even if he were a lost member of N.W.A. composing a Pansy Division concept album.

Throughout Salesmen and Racists, Reilly's "social commentary" often manifests itself as nothing more than a wry smile, a complacent attitude that purports to be facetious or self-depreciating. This means that Reilly never really has to own up to the dubious motives behind his remarks. For instance, in "Angels and Whores," he finds nothing wrong with looking at his female fans and determining which of them falls into which of the titular categories. And in "Last Time," Reilly brags about not being fooled by his orgasm-faking partner whom he wasn't able to please. "I didn't think you'd mind, 'cuz I'm funny!" Reilly quips. Um, think again, Ike old buddy. Read a few pages of Woman: An Intimate Geography and then maybe we can talk.

Reilly's sketchy lyrics are compounded by the cheaply buoyant quality of his music. On "Last Time," an overly bouncy ska-like beat bolsters his aimless confessions: "Last time I had dinner with a racist...last time I got a little bit wasted." (When someone like Stephen Malkmus is nonsensical, he makes thoughtful poetry for listeners to dissect. When Reilly is nonsensical, he makes magnetic poetry that has been pieced together haphazardly with overused words.) The too-simplistic-to-be-this-loud drums on "Put a Little Love in It" try to cheerlead for what amounts to Chicken Soup for the Self-Satisfied Bar Rocker's Soul. And on "Hip Hop Thighs," the jangly guitars betray Reilly's conservative, white-boy blues aesthetics even as he insists, "Hip hop has blown my mind." Critics have praised Reilly for his edgy songcraft, but the music--like his blanket political statement about having to contend with a nation of salesmen and racists--seems too generic and glib to be meaningful.

If Reilly is right about his album's title, then he should prepare himself to be accused of his own charges. I could also prepare myself for the accusation. But even if Reilly "puts a little love" into my personal copy of his CD, I don't want what this guy is selling.

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