Sometimes I like to trip out and wonder what might have been if Prince had never had that fateful 1997 meeting here in Music City that set him on the road to becoming a Jehovah's Witness, finding some semblance of spiritual stasis by locking all his nasty songs up in a purple bunker. If nothing else, technology has changed cultural sexuality in such a way that we need someone to navigate the waters of sexting and Craigslist hook-ups in as raw and danceable a fashion as possible. So for that alone, we should be thankful for Har Mar Superstar.
Back in April, when the Minnesota Rollergirls had their end-of-season blowout, the Old School team dressed as Prince, the New School team dressed as Har Mar — that's an honor only select Minnesotans ever get.
Superstar's 2004 B-side "Sextape" is the most perfect distillation of proto-electro/"Rude Boy" pin-era Prince that a music fan could hope for, finding the missing link between the Dirty Mind and Controversy eras with every LinnDrum sidestick roll poking your spine in the funkiest of fashions and every LM-1 clap sample making your soul jump. But Har Mar, one of many musical outlets for musical polymath Sean Tillman (including Gayngs, Sean Na Na, Neon Neon, Fur Pillows and Marijuana Deathsquads) is no purveyor of pastiche or one-man cover band. He's got a thing for figuring out where hip-hop, strip club anthems, advanced gender theory and rock crunch intersect, then working that point until it gets overwhelmed with sweaty, funked-up exhaustion.
He understands the viscerality of R&B — the velvet demands of a Teddy Pendergrass or Bobby Rush, the smooth confessions of a Bobby Womack, even the forbidden doors of an R. Kelly. There's an immediacy to loverman music that you just can't get from hipster rock or trap rap — even more so when it's the kind of hairy, sweaty, skin-baring immediacy you get from a Har Mar Superstar live show. It's the indie-rock show as a form of sexual performance art. That he can just as easily work in the pop idiom — his songs have been recorded by Jennifer Lopez and Disney's mid-Aughts tween-pop juggernaut The Cheetah Girls, which is equally amazing and terrifying in its subversion — is a testament to Tillman's versatility as an entertainer.
Anyone who can craft a high-powered business world oral-sex anthem like 2002's "Power Lunch" (featuring Gossip diva Beth Ditto) and still find every moment of timeless melancholy in Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" has a gift for taking conflicting impulses and finding a way to make them work together. Take "Dope, Man" from Har Mar's most recent album, Dark Touches. It's a bright, Motown-peppy track that lyrically delves into the emotional hurdles of the hand-to-hand weed hustle. Likewise, his electro-crunk board-game anthem "Game Night" embodies his "anything for a groove" ethos nicely, as if one found in Beck's Midnite Vultures a philosophy toward catchy, propulsive music and followed it to its ass-shaking apotheosis, finding a sexy equilibrium for social discourse and humping it into the subconscious of the audience.
Coming off a weekly residency at New York's Bowery Ballroom, Tillman's latest tour is coming to 12th & Porter, which should be something very special indeed. If it doesn't end in sweaty trauma, it could be the kind of transcendent experience in which the city's more standoffish crowds are won over by the musky effervescence of hard-working entertainment. You never know with Nashville. But you can certainly depend on the Superstar.