For Your Consideration: On TV on the Radio's Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, Magic Negroes, and Undervalued Classics

For Your Consideration
Martin Douglas

KEXP is counting down our listeners top voted albums of the last 50 years in conjunction with our 2022 fall fundraising drive. In conjunction, KEXP's Editorial team is presenting 'For Your Consideration' some of their all-time favorite albums and what they mean to them. Today Martin Douglas reflects on TV on the Radio's 'Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes' Tune into KEXP from Oct. 15-21 to find out what makes the list. Love KEXP's programming and want to support our work? Make a gift to KEXP today 

There is no greater parallel to being the lead character in a magic nigger movie than being a Black artist in America's contemporary rock music scene.

I think a lot about the iconic first words of TV on the Radio's debut full-length, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, although the opening track "The Wrong Way" touches on a spread of Black perspectives through the sharp lens of self-interrogation. But no lyric has ever grabbed me by the throat as tightly or had its hand print on my neck last as long as: "Woke up in a magic nigger movie."

Maybe we as Black people don't take into consideration how powerful white guilt really is. If this is truly the case, it's most certainly because it doesn't hold a candle to how white people still manage to wield white guilt as white power.

But such guilt doesn't derail the idea that white people spent decades rewriting rock music and its origins in their own image; to the point where early in the 21st Century, it was virtually unfathomable (to them) for an art-rock/"alternative" band to be mostly staffed by Black men.

As I ventured further into participation in my local rock music scene, the bright lights were cast upon me as a metaphor. I've written about it a bunch of times; Black Americans largely serving as a stand-in for the conscience of the country, how we're used as an (often shallow) avatar for the grace of humanity and the reflection of the ills of white supremacy. I've written specifically about my admiration of TV on the Radio and how an unbridled respect for their work has brought forth both the reward and burden of representation.

"The Wrong Way" is, in my sometimes-not-so-humble opinion, the best song ever written about the complexities of being Black in America surrounding the dawn of the 21st Century. With its shronking saxophones and juke joint rave-up vocals, the opening track of TV on the Radio's 2004 opus Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes is more than the song where their debut full-length derives its name; more than the punch to the bridge of the nose its opening line suggests. The distorted jazz-punk stunner takes aim at blood diamond-rocking, capitalist flossbeasts and respectability politics-obsessed New Negro politicians in equal measure. Kyp Malone — he of clarion falsetto and aesthetic-defining natural hairstyle — takes lead on the song, which often leads to territory weirder than the gut-wrenching soul of singer Tunde Adebimpe.

Photo by Kyle Johnson


There is a visceral sense of urgency in the singing of both Adebimpe and Malone; a wringing of emotion that often made people wonder how one band could hog two of the genre's most gifted vocalists. The combination attack of "The Wrong Way" and its immediate successor on the album, "Staring at the Sun" (a remastered version of arguably the band's most thrilling and important single, originally released on 2003's Young Liars), proves this point emphatically. Desperate Youth is an album equal to something much greater than the sum of its parts, but to take away its fantastic singing would be to reduce it to an experimental indie-rock album almost as good as Broadcast's Tender Buttons.

I remember reading an interview where producer/multi-instrumentalist Dave Sitek said that he conceived Young Liars to be "a studio album recorded in a bedroom" and Desperate Youth to be its exact inverse. The intimacy — claustrophobia, even — of the latter is striking compared to the wide open, slightly desloate, pre-gentrified Brooklyn streets Young Liars so exquisitely evokes. Of course, that Sitek quote has been lost in the digital ether, possibly a nugget of gold dug out of my memory from the now-bulldozed mountains of alt-weeklies. 

Photo by Matthew B. Thompson


Musically, there was no clear precedent for TV on the Radio; no matter how many times early-aughts rock critics tried to shove Peter Gabriel into our ear canals. "Dreams" takes barely-there micro-apartment drums, Sitek's grinding rumble of guitar (interrupted by a screeching drone that sounds like the emergency brakes of a passenger train being applied), and Malone and Adebimpe's austere interplay and makes a foreboding showstopper out of those elements. This goes a step further than merely saying TV on the Radio are not from the paint-by-numbers school of songwriting, but that they have utilized their individual genius to craft music so flatliningly original; something that doesn't hit the same without every component in its right place.

Even still, a messier sense of creativity comes into play when taking in Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes; disparate sounds and shapes congeal and dissolve frequently during the album's hourlong runtime. The six-minute "Poppy" starts with an 808 bounce augmented by hard rock guitar and ends with barbershop harmonizing. Along with the intimate lurch leading to the prismatic climax (pun intended) of "Wear You Out," TV on the Radio proved themselves capable of crafting music's weirdest sex jams not written by one Prince Rodgers Nelson.

Even the lesser-talked-about cuts on the album possess a boundless sense of creative exploration. "King Eternal" fuses thumping, sampler-driven kick drums with the faraway freight train of Sitek's guitar; "Don't Love You" is an expansive, twilit breakup song for the ages; "Bomb Yourself" is a dub-funk banger that better articulates American complacency in the face of total annihilation better than any slab of Rock Against Bush protest pop-punk ever could.

Photos by Stacy Cornett


If I can be allowed to get meta for a second — said the critic to the groans of his audience — we've been having a lot of discussion behind-the-scenes at KEXP Editorial about what exactly is being considered in these For Your Consideration pieces. When I thought about what I wanted to write while sorting through every great album released in the past half-century, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes kept coming up. I thought about how frequently I read reviews that said it was a very good album, bordering on great, that paled in comparison to the immaculate Young Liars. (Which is true to a degree, but running most albums up against one of the defining pieces of music produced this century is a fool's errand.) I've observed commentary that said it was too long or that it plods by the end. (This from many of the same people who would consider Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a flawless listen!)

We are approaching headlong toward two full decades since Desperate Youth dropped, and yet white music critics are still allowed to write about "what it means" for Black musicians to create in rock music spaces. If anything, that line of "discourse" has gotten even wilder, even more flagrant and pernicious than it was in 2004. Even if we are deigned the purportedly great honor of being paid to speak for ourselves sometimes. It just goes to show that no matter how loud the magic nigger can be, white people are mostly only inclined to listen to each other. 

Photo by Gregory A. Perez


Of course, Desperate Youth was just the beginning for a band who has yet to break up, only to reform in the cash-grab reunion tour circuit. (This is not a dis; plenty of my money goes to these sorts of endeavors.) In the interim years, TV on the Radio have experienced enormous highs (winning the brief-lived Shortlist Music Prize for this very album, signing to a major label, releasing their revered Return to Cookie Mountain, establishing themselves as one of the few intellectually and artistically fascinating mainstream bands left) and plummeting lows (the tragic death of Gerard Smith, an accomplished guitarist who learned bass shortly after the release of this album to join the group, in 2011 to cancer). 

The most striking thing about Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes is how fresh it all sounds after all these years; how well it holds up in the face of so much that has come after it. How few musicians of lesser talent could even come close to copying what makes it a classic. The singularity of this band called TV on the Radio. More important than the job none of us want, teaching white people about themselves, this band has crafted an incredible body of work overflowing with brilliant treatises on the human experience on the back of their magnificent debut LP.

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