Married duo Mates of State are just as famous for being in love as they are for writing music, and it’s difficult for me to draw a line between an appreciation of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel’s music and the love that drives it. Meandering through the crowd at the Middle East on Wednesday night, I heard six people describe their live show as “soooo cute.” Indeed, a certain amount of voyeurism is required of any true Mates Of State fan, making the relationship between the fan and the music — and even between the fan and the musicians — untouchably personal.
Enough happened this year to make me question the glory of love: Prince got divorced, Hoopz ended up not really loving Flav, K. Fed blatantly used Brit for her celebrity status, etc. But the Mates Of State had a daughter. And stayed in love. And they still give each other those huge-eyed looks during performances, the ones that make the music sweeter simply for being between them. The set flowed from song to song, and somewhere between watching a group of frat guys overcome their homophobia and start dancing shamelessly to “Ha Ha” and a group of girls with black eyeliner overcome their self-loathing and start singing along to the cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” I realized that though each audience member’s relationship with the Mates of State seems intensely personal, it also appears to be one-sided. Maybe even unrequited.
Because the Mates of State perform live in much the same way they write their music: by themselves, for themselves. And if their love story attracts as many fans and sells as many CDs as the actual music itself, then Kori and Jason don’t seem to realize it. They’re not selling themselves or their love story to an audience. In fact, other than a few brief “thank you’s,” they hardly seem to notice that we’re there. (One of the few things Kori says to the crowd regards how highly she thinks of openers the Starlight Mints, who worked out well as tour-mates because “they have kids, and we have kids.”)
Not all of the lyrics make sense to us because it’s more a private conversation between them; we’re the voyeurs, listening in, and they don’t seem to know it. Or maybe it’s that they don’t care. You can see it in the way Kori plays her keyboard, leaning away and then towards it, ass out and head forward, stealing looks at Jason. And there’s Jason slumping over the top his drum kit, leaning forward towards Kori, watching. Every now and then he mouths words to her in between songs. I can never tell what he’s saying but it makes Kori smile, or nod, or stare at him in a way that says “yes.”
These two perform as if they themselves are the music, and everyone else is just so much fucking noise. But I’ll give credit where credit’s due: they have pop sensibility and a stage presence that’s just as cheery and delightful as the songs themselves. But at the intersection of delightful and adorable I find myself feeling very small, uncomfortable, like I’m staring at a couple making out on a bench. Not that I’m complaining. I just can’t draw a line where my appreciation for their cute love story ends and my appreciation for their music begins. I can’t help notice how they really are “soooo cute.” And already, in noticing it, I am done with it. Or maybe it’s done with me.