By Daniel Garrett
Van Hunt, Use in Case of Emergency
The titles of Van Hunt’s songs, such as “Sexy” and “Her Smile” and “Saturday Laughs,” offer some indication of the mood of his collection Use in Case of Emergency, which has been made available through the internet to critics and other music listeners: the music is warm, relaxed, sincere, calling to mind Smokey Robinson and Prince and the more mellow and seductive exponents of the rhythm-and-blues and popular music tradition. Van Hunt’s song “Attention” is rocking, with a heavy beat, and features a complaint about a relationship, but it is digression from what is his dominant approach in the musical set Use in Case of Emergency, which is very appealing but far from groundbreaking. The song that follows “Attention” advances a sultry funk, and is a call to dance, while “Hidden Charm” is a soothing song of encouragement and in it Van Hunt’s voice achieves a timbre that evokes George Benson: clearly, it is easiest to entertain while drawing on appreciated, established traditions; and it is just as important to note that not every musician is genuinely entertaining (thus, being entertaining, as Van Hunt is here, is an achievement).
So much of popular musical art is concerned with expressing behavior and flaunting speech rather than the examination of impulse and thought; and if Van Hunt’s thematic focus is too narrow that is not an anomaly: love is his subject and it is, very typically, a contemporary entertainer’s subject as much as the traditional subject of a serious poet. Are Van Hunt’s declarations and observations supported, in his songs, by the particularities of daily or public life as evidence? (I do not think so.) It is as if the world has been ignored and certain experiences—love, seduction, friendship and the frustrations involved in accomplishing them—have been isolated and interpreted as ideal, as ideal struggles and gains. The arts—not only music but also literature and film and drama and dance—provide metaphors and paradigms that critique, model, parallel, and summarize human experience, but Van Hunt’s Use in Case of Emergency offers pleasure, not rigor. “Come Tomorrow” is delicate and sensuous, while “Man of the Year,” about a rapacious woman, rocks; and “0405” is instrumental funk. “Funny” is another song of reassurance and “Tingle,” a little jazzily psychedelic, is soulful. Of course, sometimes sound—and the sensation it delivers—is all that positively roots us; and thus we want it, and accept it, without further question. What else might Van Hunt have written about? What other approaches might he have taken? It is important to move beyond declaring hope or love to learning how to sustain and fulfill them: the attention, compromise, and sacrifice hope and love require are difficult to live with, but some people do, while many of us do not. If we do not know or perform the hard work of hope and love, we are engaged with nothing more than fantasy—though it is a seductive fantasy.
Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist Changing Men, founded the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner, Edward Bannister, and Reginald Madison for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and American Book Review, and about international film for Offscreen and Cinetext, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His e-mail addresses are D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com and firstname.lastname@example.org