Saturday, December 20, 2014

Little Drummer Boy

A superhero always doubles down on his value set. You can rely on Peter Parker to put the mask back on even if he's decided to be Spider-Man No More. And the inevitable question is always, is he just doing this for himself? Or is he just trying to sustain a personal brand?

Whiplash, a movie about a shy boy from a broken family, bitten by a radioactive band director and thus imbued with the powers of a great jazz drummer, is no different. The plot builds towards a statement on the relationship between power and responsibility: can you be a superhero and also just be regular teenager? Just how much space can you afford to give your alter ego before your hero work starts to slip? And how's a nice, gifted white kid supposed to cope in a world so full of confusion and mediocrity? The answer to that last question is obvious before we even see our Peter Parker, pretty much from the first audio cue of the movie: you double down on your value set. You become Great. And if you have to drop Gwen Stacy off a bridge yourself, so be it. 

Most of the movie follows Peter Parker, whose pseudonym here is Andrew Neyman, as he works himself toward greatness: dragging his bed into a practice room, offending his friends and relatives (his cousin is on Carleton College's famously mediocre football squad), breaking up with his girlfriend (she hadn't decided on a major yet, so fuck her), and working himself into a spasmodic frenzy in practice sessions. He plays double-time swing at 330 BPM, for example, until drops of blood fly from his blisters and pool poetically on the white snare head. Finally, at the end, through some plot devices, with everybody who ever loved him alienated or forgotten, he finds the recognition he's always wanted onstage at Carnegie Hall and ends the movie on a hard cut to black.

In the interim the movie behaves exactly like every other in the supra-Hollywood edifice of American prestige pictures. Like a conservatory, it's misogynistic, airless, and humorless. Miles Teller's performance is rote naturalism and the only person who seems like he's having any fun is J.K. Simmons. The atmosphere is halfway between the self-importance of Black Swan and the self-importance of The Social Network. Technically the movie is a funhouse of film school tricks: tightening the shot to induce claustrophobia, heating up the lighting a few kelvins so you feel Andrew sweat, switching to handheld after the ridiculous truck accident to induce a feeling of disorientation. Few of these techniques are well-integrated; in particular, the slick editing during rehearsal scenes, which cuts like a music video along with Andrew's drumming, feels like it's grasping at hipness, like a professor of jazz studies doing an arrangement of a Hozier song. Spidey's wisecracks can't conceal the boy beneath the mask.

Whiplash, for all its bluster, is inarticulate, self-conscious, and bound by convention. This is true of every teenage superhero; it's also true of every mediocre elite-sanctioned art form, from Alessandro Algardi's busts to Dave Brubeck's music. The thing that makes Whiplash an exemplary specimen, though, is that unlike most Oscar bait it's essentially a college application essay. 

It isn't just a movie about a young jazz drummer at an elite conservatory, it's a movie written and directed by debutant filmmaker Damien Chazelle, born 1985, who a) played jazz drums in high school and b) went on to graduate from Harvard. Whiplash isn't really a naturalistic look at the world of jazz, nor is it an allegory for the position of the artist in our society. It's a movie about Damien Chazelle's alter ego, who never gave up jazz drumming and went on to become Great. And, ut pictura poesis, it's also about Chazelle himself. The slick cutting I mentioned unites drumming and film technique. The correspondence between Chazelle's Harvard and Whiplash's Shaffer Conservatory unites the drummer with the unseen figure of the filmmaker. And so this movie about jazz drumming also becomes a movie about the history of its own creation.

With every beat Andrew drums the great and magisterial power of Damien Chazelle into existence; every step in his personal growth, every new leap in his confidence and ambition, serves to imbue Chazelle with legitimacy. At the end, when he cuts off both solo and film, uniting the drummer in control of his band and the director in control of his set, he has affirmed his own talent and the talent of an immense and terrible new auteur, and affirmed by the same coin their respective places in history. 

Affirming your own talent is what you do for a living when you share Chazelle's class and values. I mentioned in my article on Lorde that for an ambitious white kid from the suburbs, talent is about being a showoff. High school and early college are where you find the profit motive at its most sublimated and also its most naked. In every college interview and every high school piano recital, talent is not demonstrated by the steady production of excellent work but by projecting Greatness at all times. It's about bombarding people with the evidence of your genius until they finally believe it. In a word, it's about branding.

Both Andrew and Damien Chazelle are essentially marketing themselves throughout the movie. Neither has anything in particular to express with his art, nor does either seem interested in any broader artistic discourse (Andrew has no favorite drummers except for Buddy Rich, a known replicant). In their preening superficiality they resemble nothing more than Spinal Tap. Their aesthetic philosophy is as shapeless as capitalism itself, with the same underlying values: it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do it more, bigger and louder than anyone else. It could be drumming or it could be film. Chipotle or McDonald's. LucasFilm or Marvel. Spiderman or Batman.

Whiplash is a bad movie, but it's worth an anthropological look if only because it represents some kind of inflection point in this great cultural hyperbola. Every piece of art has to do some work to justify its own existence, but if Whiplash couldn't congratulate itself then it wouldn't exist at all. The whole thing is a tautology, a commercial for itself, a smug ouroboros patting itself on its scaly tail and occasionally licking its own unmentionables. Andrew's apotheotic drum solo is, in the words of the Chicago Reader's J.R. Jones, "one of those horrible, endless jerk-off solos that give jazz a bad name", and the movie is doing very little else but jerking along with it. 

People keep going to Lincoln Center, though, and Damien Chazelle has positioned his brand extremely well with Whiplash. Thousands of shy boys in the suburbs will be bitten by his radioactive movie and become imbued with the powers of great artists. It's their gift, their curse.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

When A Carrot Is Just A Carrot: The Copyrights and the Redundancy of Hope

"Everything is over." - Teenage Bottlerocket, "Another Way"

At the beginning of "Grown Folks Business," on The Copyrights' split 7" with the Dopamines Songs About Fucking Up, Adam Fletcher sings:

"How many times can I write the same song / About my sick life and my shit job / I'm getting old and burned out / Putting the same words to the same sounds / You've gotta pick up the slack here / Cause I'm all out of ideas "

In pop punk circles, there's a common saying: "Pop Punk Is Dead". The days of Green Day and Blink on the radio are over. But the buck does not stop at pop punk. The Copyrights understand that in the 21st century you will never not sound like someone else. It's easy to sing about the oncoming apocalypse over the sound of thrash guitars or fucking authority with a double kick behind you; it's easy to sell records when you're singing about a fantasy and transporting somewhere else, saying that everything is going to shit or one day it's going to be better. The world-weariness of The Copyrights' lyrics is a perfect match for their heard-it-before pop punk guitars; both of them suggest that things might stay just the way that they are, and, further than that, that it's a mistake to think that things haven't always been this way. They play music you've heard before, not because they are not smart enough to be "avant-garde", but because they recognize the dishonesty and the redundancy of doing anything else. Music has ceased being "world-disclosing" in Habermasian terms, in no small part because we have disclosed the world plenty enough already. The problem is that, after every story has already been told, so many people are still trying to find a way out. Today, the extreme of utopianism on both the left and the right is just to hope or fear at all.

Fletcher echoes exactly this sentiment on "Holidays" when he sings:

"We all know much too well/There's no heaven, there's no hell/But we can dream/We can dream/That the calendar is full of holidays instead of numbers/Instead of work weeks/Instead of deadlines"

The Copyrights recognize that there's no transcendence on this world or the next. The utopia that they dream up isn't even the Marxist utopia of an unrealized freedom in solidarity. It's a negative statement; they just don't want to work. When everything speculative has been stripped away, the best we can do is celebrate every birthday at the bar. The holiday utopia is the best we can hope for exactly because it's a negative utopia. Things will be the same as they are now, just without all of the boring parts. We've exhausted every other hope that we had. It's all tied up and accounted for.

This isn't just about politics, it's also about personal aspiration. On "The World Is Such a Drag" Fletcher sings:

"Running after carrots on a stick / One day you'll finally catch up to it / And it tastes just like a carrot/Supposedly they help you see/But you don't wanna see that clearly/Better off in a world blurred slightly"

It's a familiar cycle. Whenever you get what you want, it's exactly what it was all along, and the thing that you wanted reveals itself as just a dream. Providing a twist on the beloved Louis CK bit "Everything is amazing, but no one is happy", "The World Is Such A Drag" suggests that nobody is happy because everything is amazing. If you get everything you ever wanted, you don't live happily ever after. You get miserable. You taste the carrot and realize that it's just a carrot. The rest of it is a pack of lies, and while you might need a lie to get you through the day, a lie won't save you.

What happens when you stop chasing the carrot? The other possibility is spelled out quite explicitly. On the record Dream Homes by Dear Landlord, which shares multiple band members with The Copyrights, the lyrics read:

 "We're both sort of right / I don't have much to sell / I'll die penniless, alone / I'll do what I like, you'll do what you know / That's just the way of things I suppose"

You can spend your life hoping that things will be better, or worry your whole life that things are going to be worse. You can chase the carrot. But Fletcher and his friends will still be drinking in the basement when you've hit your highest heights and lowest lows. The transition is from Kant's "What can I hope?" to "How can I run out the clock?" Beyond the apparent cynicism of this sort of thinking is a hungover-and-dead-sober humanism. It's a humanism that holds that we'll all be better off if we stop mistaking the lies we tell ourselves and one another for reality.

The chorus to "I Live In Hell" from Dream Homes goes:

"What does your dream home look like?/It'll take you years to even tell/And I'll be sleeping well/Here in Hell."

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

...But Who's Counting?: DJ Spooky's Aesthetic Imagination

"Things are always happening. It seems wherever I go there is drama. People are like lice, they get under your skin and bury themselves there. You scratch and scratch until the blood comes, but you cannot get permanently deloused ... I want the whole world to be out of whack, I want everyone to scratch himself to death. "- Henry Miller

"I'll do a mix to highlight different styles of scratching ... I have works from John Cage, Joseph Beuys, different mechanical pianos, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis ... you'll hear them all mixed and collaged. It's always interaction- human gesture, movement, inscription ... "- DJ Spooky from the lecture "Turntablism as Performance Art "

Paul Miller, AKA DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, is an electronic musician and academic. I became interested in him partially because of how integrated his artistic and critical practices are: his critical writing clarifies his music and vice versa. This may be because he refined his DJing while studying critical theory at Bowdoin College, and it reflects the fact that one activity of the DJ-sampling- brings paradoxes surrounding authorship to the fore. DJ Spooky, I think, is indebted to both turntablism's roots in John Cage's project of rigorous banality (Imaginary Landscape no. 1) and to hip-hop sampling. In fact, his work suggests their overlap and ultimate indistinction.

Sampling problematizes authorship. When MF Doom constructs a beat by looping a snippet of a Steely Dan song, he uncovers expressive potentialities within the sample that were not present in its original context. When an element of a song is shown to be loop-able, reproducible, it's functionality and tonality change. DJ Spooky borrows John Cage's notion of sound as information. In the essay "Loops of Perception" , he clarifies this somewhat austere notion by quoting Don Delillo's "Cosmopolis": "In fact data itself [is] soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process." In another novel, "Underworld," Delillo writes, "Capital burns off the nuance in a culture ... Not that people want the same things, necessarily, but that they want the same range of choices ." The sample, in DJ Spooky's hands, reduces a piece of music to a form of information that can be endlessly manipulated- "customized" - by capitalist subjectivity. What room is there for authorship in this paradigm, where a song is basically fodder for remixing?

One of DJ Spooky's better known projects is "Rebirth of a Nation," a cinematic remix of DW Griffith's 1915 silent film "The Birth of a Nation". The film portrays the antebellum south, where actors in blackface wreak havoc and are ultimately subdued by the heroic Ku Klux Klan. The film was revolutionary in terms of technique- the film is a technical masterpiece and an indispensable part of the medium's history. "The Birth of a Nation" was made ​​possible by technological advances brought` about by the accumulation of capital. The film itself, a supposed recounting of history, effected the real world it was supposedly independent from: after it's release, there was a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activity, the film acting as a recruitment tool. Techniques of reproduction - or converting lived experience to information- the proliferation of which is intrinsic to the growth of capital, creates necessarily this sort of hyperreal echolalia that defines modern western existence.  By applying DJing techniques to the film, turning portions of the film into manipulable samples, DJ Spooky highlights their contingency. Above I asked "What room is there for authorship in this paradigm?". Rather than reinforcing the rigidity of the information age, the author (in this case, the DJ)'s artistic decisions obviate the fact that, to quote Foucault, "[things], in their substance, can change."  Authorship as provocation. For DJ Spooky, who sees a world turned into information as his palette, a sample can reflect an unnerving paradigmatic contingency (for instance in his project sampling and mixing auditory, visual and statistical information regarding climate change's effects on Antarctic ice, information that documents the total instability of our mode of life), the play of sampled information emanating from DJ Spooky's turntables and projectors suggests the randomness of all information, creating an effect in the private mind of the listener that is akin to the shattering of a wineglass when a soprano belts a high C.

On the track Asphalt (Tome II)  off of his record "Optometry", DJ Spooky and jazz pianist Matthew Shipp provide a stammering background for Carl Hancock Rux's smooth spoken word delivery. Rux delivers an oblique narrative about the dissolution of solidarity and artistic integrity in the hip-hop scene. The recurring phrase throughout the song is "I like it." After describing the disintegration of a scene, Rux's wry announcement of "Yeah, I like it" is sampled and repeated, becoming part of Spooky's mix. This implies, ultimately, that the eternally "current" coolness of hip-hop is indistinguishable from the vigilant boredom of Cage (see 4:33 ). By fostering an aesthetic that pursues the indistinction between the ultra-cool, live-streamed present and nowhere, DJ Spooky reminds us that, in his words, "another world is possible".

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Back in May, the Italian director Matteo Garrone gave an interview to Variety about his new project, a movie called The Tale of Tales. He had just begun shooting the film, which is based on a 1636 book of fairy tales by the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, after a painstaking search location from Sicily all the way to Friuli. Which, fine. Directors from Europe are after all free to mine the rich cultural and geographic holdings of their countries, Still, going all the way back to folklore is something we might expect from Alexander Sokhurov or maybe Guillermo del Toro, certainly not from Matteo Garrone, who has up to now seemed like the meanest motherfucker alive in realist cinema.

Garrone's big hit, Gomorrah, which swept film festivals around the world in 2008, begins with a gang murder carried out in a tanning salon and concludes with the image of the corpses of two boys carried to the edge of a deserted beach and dumped, by a bulldozer, in the surf. In between, five stories form a picture of almost unbelievable poverty and hopelessness as the outskirts of Naples tear themelves apart under the influence of its latter-day mob overlords, the Camorra. The Camorra, according to Garrone and Roberto Saviano, who wrote the source novel for the movie, are not only violent and cruel but increasingly inextricable from the world economy—a title notes at the end that the Camorra clans were the largest organized contributor to the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. So Gomorrah is a pretty fulminant piece of social criticism, a real work of consciousness-raising about globalization and its attendant woes, and it's a surprise to find that Garrone seems to be abandoning politics completely.

In the Variety interview, Garrone's very vocabulary is suspicious. He goes into some detail, in particular, on the "fabular" quality of his work. "Fabular" is not really a signal word for political commitment, nor is it one I would think of when I was trying to describe Gomorrah; it is, however, Italo Calvino's official epithet-along with "inventive" and "delightful," it's one of the words that Anglo-American critics use to patronize Calvino in relation to his big brothers Borges and Nabokov. Garrone, in fact, name drops Calvino, who of course had an affinity for folk tales and who apparently described Giambattista Basile as "a deformed Neapolitan Shakespeare." So what's going on in Garrone's career right now? Is he a realist hardbitten going soft? An ossifying radical? An overpraised director indulging himself? It's instructive, of course, to look at Calvino's own artistic trajectory—Calvino did, after all, begin literary life as a dedicated communist and chronicler of the Italian resistance—but to answer the question we really have to widen the field of criticism to look at Garrone's most recent movie, which came out in 2012, and at Italian cinema as a whole.

I pointed out in my last article about Italian movies that no other national cinema in the world is so concerned with its own mythology. You can go back and read the post if you want. Keeping this in mind, though, and keeping also in mind that this is the country of neorealism and its long, long legacy, I trust you to understand that it's a pretty daring maneuver, dialectically speaking, to title your movie Reality, which is what Garrone has done.

Reality is the story of a Neapolitan fishmonger named Luciano, a charming, hardworking man, popular in his community but desperately poor, supporting his children with help from a smuggling business That his wife coordinates through her ​​job at a local shopping mall. His living situation is a bizarre, postmodern amalgamation, an apartment in a rotting nineteenth-century tenement full of bright, cheap plastic furniture from the mall. As a favor to his kids, he auditions for Big Brother, and then, when he gets a callback, sinks into obsession with disturbing, pathetic speed. His perspective on life shifts drastically. Suddenly everything in Naples is speaking to him—customers from Rome are undercover TV people monitoring his behavior, beggars are wearing wires, and even celebrities are in town to watch him. The world is no longer simply a place to exist; it's a living organism with a mind made ​​of pure judgment, and that mind is for the moment trained on him. Fixated on earning the approval of his newfound judge, he begins to give his possessions to the poor; he sells his fish stand; he sinks money into expensive clothes and, finally, when it's impossible to avoid the truth that he is not going to be on the show, he becomes catatonic.

Luciano is played by Aniello Arena, an ex-Camorrista serving a life sentence for murder, and most of the movie was shot on location in a Neapolitan tenement. These two features, location shooting and nonprofessional actors, are of course the hallmarks of neorealist mise-en-scene, and considering them alongside the title I think it's clear what this movie is gunning for: neorealism itself, the sacred cow of Italian cinema, and all of its stylistic descendants.

Anglo-American readings of neorealism have trouble with the term "realism." Our understanding of the term is contaminated by the "analytic" realism of 19th-century France, a style epitomized by Émile Zola and his approach to literature as a kind of science—variables care fully controlled, laboratory conditions maintained, causes and effects scrupulously recorded. Neorealism, ironically, follows in an older tradition. Italian art in the 19th century was inflected by a pretty idiosyncratic reading of Hegel, focusing inordinately on idealism and subjectivity and the world-spirit in order to be ideologically palatable in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Materialists like Zola were therefore unwelcome. Mussolini, obviously, doubled down on this. As a result, what Rossellini and De Sica and the first generation of neorealists had to refer to when they approached "realism" was not Zola and Flaubert but a neoclassical relict, a style that ultimately came down from Aristotle. With certain modifications, this bloomed into neorealism, a relaism peculiarly concerned with the mind.

The analytic approach is still current, especially on film and especially in the era of globalization—just look at Syriana, Traffic, The Wire, The Class, or, if you really want to, Babel. All of these, to some extent, show us society from butterfly to hurricane. Since the 19th century, the influence of this approach to realism has become so pervasive that it's tempting to apply it to neorealism. But on close analysis it rarely holds up. If Zola (or David Simon) had directed Bicycle Thieves, we would meet the corrupt officials who built its hero Ricci's house, the absent father who drove the eponymous thieves into poverty, and so on. Bicycle Thieves instead strikes its main character cruelly and randomly with disaster, and the story that unfolds thereafter takes place in a Rome so dreamlike it's practically a De Chirico. Ricci and his son repeatedly turn a corner and find themelves on the other side of the city, and wherever they go there are people whispering messages, metaphors, prophecies, in some cases shouting them. Neorealism was, with few exceptions, a fantastic, fabular movement.

Critics who are not in touch with this sensibility have made ​​the mistake again and again of attacking Italian directors whenthey start to indulge in dreamy aestheticization. It's not just foreign critics, either: Italian Marxist luminaries like Luigi Chiarini and Guido Aristarco wrote polemic after polemic against Rossellini and Fellini when they thought those directors had let their art split from their politics—they had abandoned analysis, they had abandoned the plight of the common people. In reality Rossellini and Fellini always been open about the fact that, for them, politics was a subcategory of aesthetics. Cesare Zavattini, the neorealist mouthpiece who wrote Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., said, "In America, lack of subjects for films causes a crisis, but with us such a crisis is impossible. One can not be short of themes while there is still plenty or reality. " For the neorealists, reality contained themes, which is to say that themes were real things, as real and almost as tangible as physical objects. You could point a camera at them and there they were. The world was a conscious, judging, thinking organism, the ongoing work of some author or body of authors, speaking a language that was abstruse but finally intelligible. This tendency persists through thirty years of Italian cinema, even in the iconoclasts—Pier Paolo Pasolini's essay "A Cinema of Poetry" concerns itself with exactly how, from a semiotic point of view, we read meaning into the world. You'd be forgiven for thinking this sounded deeply Catholic, or on the other hand deeply paranoid. Or both. If so, you're starting to see the track of thinking that Reality is following in and, I think, concluding.

Because the biggest difference in sensibility between Reality and its neorealist forebears is that Reality does not pretend to be naïve. Old neorealism always needed to seem innocent and trusting for its points to go over, but Reality is free to be as erudite and as polemical as it likes. (The big joke of the movie is Lacanian—what rhymes with "Big Brother?") Its obvious soft target is reality TV, which it sets up as the godhead of conservative idealism: an art form eager to impose themes on its content, to collapse its shows, who are, after all, real people, into types, into winner and loser, in and out, and to invite the viewer to judge them all. Its forays into socio-religious critique (there's a scene in Reality in which some nuns think Luciano is asking about Christ when in fact he's asking about two TV people who are in their church) let it use this as a metaphor for Catholicism's stranglehold on Italian culture, putting it into the honorable tradition of anti-religious cinema. But its metafictional machinery allow it to make the much broader critique that each entry in the canon of Italian cinema is poisoned by solipsism.

This all comes together in the incredible final sequence of the movie, in which Luciano, finally out of his mind, sneaks into the Big Brother house in Rome, slinks along the one-way mirrors and recording equipment in something like a trance, and finally slumps on a backstage couch, giggling blissfully, as the camera pulls back steadily, higher and higher, revealing nothing but blackness outside the annex. It pulls up impossibly high, until you can see all of Rome, and there is not a single light, anywhere, except the light from the Big Brother house. The whole world is black except the sliver animated by Luciano's unhinged consciousness. There are no points of reference, nothing to hold onto, except a giggling idiot watching live reality TV through a one-way mirror. The credits roll.

Reality, then, with its blunter-than-blunt title and its all-devouring satire, is a reductio ad absurdum of the neorealist project, burning everybody from Rossellini to Scola down into pig iron. Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty considers the crushing weight of the canon, but Reality actively wants to destroy it. Neorealism is, ultimately, fantasy just by a different name, and given that, Garrone's new career move is quite easy to understand. Why multiply entities beyond necessity? Kill the canon and simplify. A motor car is more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Coiling Up That Hill: Nicki Minaj, Kate Bush and Traditions of Performance

Two of the highest-profile pop performances of the summer could not seem more different: Kate Bush's first live concerts in 35 years, which have been live-blogged, live-tweeted and dissected and Nicki Minaj's video for her song "Anaconda," which has broken the Vevo single-day record and similarly live-blogged, live-tweeted and dissected.

Others have done the job for me in terms of reviewing the various responses to "Anaconda," which range from what-about-our-children-ing to no-one-is-a-better-feminist-ing. Bush's performances, like I noted above, have been more than hotly anticipated since they were announced and may well be the gig of the century for music bloggers and reporters worldwide. They were also likely the impetus for the recent release of Running Up That Hill, a fascinating, if not simplistic, overview of her career. It's high time to examine each artist's current achievements in context of their individual performance practices--centering on "Anaconda" for Minaj and some of Bush's earliest, most successful videos--and check out where, if ever, they intersect.

The Gaze

Minaj and Bush both creatively draw upon their distinctive eyeballs to engage viewers. In "Anaconda," Minaj alternates between "come-hither" glances, maniacal stares and near-winks. Each eye movement serves the narrative: the "come-hither" glance starts to look ridiculous when she uses it while mouthing the chipmunk-style "Oh my God, look-at-her-BUTT." When Minaj violently slices a banana just after bedroom-eyedly covering herself in whipped cream, the effect is both jarring and humorous.

Bush's gaze can be similarly maniacal, but usually signifies a shift in the character she's portraying rather than Minaj's change in tone. The best example here is the famous "Babooshka" video:

Bush, well known for her preference to tell someone else's story rather than her own, particularly in her early work, has charmingly explained this tendency by saying that those other characters are simply more interesting than she is. In "Babooshka," her performance meanders between playing the role of "storyteller" and referencing the disguises the song's subject takes to test her husband. In the first minute or so, each meticulously planned sway is accompanied by either a squint or a deer-in-the-headlights stare, prefacing the shifts that are about to take place and the importance of her eyes in the role-shifting process. Around 2:47 of the video, Bush, still frozen in a stare, looks behind her for a moment and, when her gaze returns to ours, squints once more. If she blinks throughout the entire video, I missed it.

Both women subvert the male gaze, yes, by exercising agency over both their videos and actually making eye contact with whoever might be watching - acknowledging that while they're being watched, they can at least play at looking right back at those who are supposed to have control over their image - but in this subversion they develop their own traditions of performance that go beyond referencing the male gaze and toward creating a new form of vision entirely.

The Choreography

Minaj performs a choreography of repetition, even tedium, in "Anaconda." In the work-out scene specifically, she holds absurdly small pink weights while shifting her weight from leg to leg, occasionally taking a break to play puppeteer/yoga instructor on her backup dancers. The music under her sing-song rhymes, at this point in the tune, feels like a ticking time bomb due to the chorus's surprising explosiveness. While Minaj's raps have been frantically fast in the past, here her slowness accompanies the dance's redundant taunt, testing the patience of viewers awaiting the DRAKE LAP DANCE at the video's climax.

The video's climax, of course, is not really one at all-- Minaj denies Drake's touch and flounces offscreen, and his response is to place his heavy head in hand. Minaj's denial here, after making viewers wait for the celebrity cameo to rule them all, is deliciously dismissive and reminicent of the earlier point in the video where she slices and dices the phallus--I mean banana--after decorating herself in pseudo-ejaculatory substances.

Bush's choreography, much derived from her training with mime Lindsay Kemp, also employs repetition. For Bush, however, the repetition feels less like a taunt and more like a hex. This is particularly evident in "Wuthering Heights":

It's worth noting that Bush uses her gaze strategically once more, this time fluttering her lashes and actually blinking, referencing the romance of Wuthering Heights itself and the sleepiness of singing from the perspective of a ghost. Combined with the sleepwalking motion she enters on "Bad dreams in the night" around: 33, Bush retains the same gesture for a good three seconds longer than we expect her to, finally ensnaring viewers with a swirl leading to the iconic dance phrase of the chorus. The following phrase features her hands, grasping and pulling at the air in towards her core in exaggerations of the "come here finger" to again aid with the enchantment.

If Minaj's aim in "Anaconda" is to use movement to entrap only to deny, Bush's seems to be to enchant, entrap and then refuse to release her victim from her clutches.


Finally, these performances rely on embodiment rather than explication. This embodiment occurs both through Minaj and Bush's aforementioned dances and their use of voice as a physical tool as well as a narrative device. Minaj's characteristic for switching accents, illustrated in "Anaconda" as she drawls out the word "cocaine" and in other hits such as "Superbass" where she whips out a London accent to proclaim having "always [having] a thing for American boys," intensifies the dexterity of her raps. This penchant also contributes to the listener's desire to imitate Minaj's rhymes, but there's a catch: that dexterity and her talent for dialects make her tunes very hard to imitate indeed. Her "dun-dun-dun-dundundundunduns" in "Anaconda," simple enough to intone aloud over the song but difficult to fully mimic, solidifies Minaj's unique use of her voice as another limb to dance with.

Where Minaj's code-switching skills and speed make her vocals a distinctive part of her performance practice, Bush's range spanning several octaves and acrobatic flutters are the hallmarks of her own vocals. Her mouth itself is often a focus in her choreography:

"WOW," which escapes Bush's mouth as a syllable, an exclamation and an animalistic yelp all at once, is framed by her arm movements, which conveniently make a "W" shape centering her mouth. The movement reminds us that Bush's "Wow" is a physical creation beginning with her vocal chords, traveling across her palate and ending outside her well-painted lips--it goes well beyond simply being a narrative device connoting amazement.

This is not to say that narrative isn't important: Bush is an admitted devotee of narrative, having written "Wuthering Heights" after reading the book in its entirety so she could get the "feel" right. Minaj fills the "Anaconda" verses with colorful anecdotes about her male conquests. But each artist complements narrative with a highly physicalized voice, unmistakable in the sea of pop performance available to listeners today.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Acting Rationally: Under the Skin and Femininity

"All things that live long are gradually so saturated with reason that their origin in unreason thereby becomes improbable" - Nietzsche, Daybreak

Under the Skin begins with a simple trope: human beings have something horrible inside of us.

The opening scene is a series of images of a light being obscured by a dark, phallic object. Shapes change, things enter one another, and we hear a voiceover of a woman learning phonetic basics. A sort of birth is taking place. The "protagonist" of Under the Skin is played by Scarlett Johansson. After she masters the basics of (English) human speech in this initial scene of slow, ominous reproduction, we are treated to the image of a brown eye, looking for all the world like a sphincter, contracting and dilating. This is prep work for the beginning of the film, where Johannson's character takes the clothes off of a woman in an utterly bare white room and puts them on herself. She's taking a step towards humanity in an otherwise empty vacuum by beginning to look like a functional human. A simple game of dress-up. When the woman is stripped bare, Johansson's character finds an ant on her naked body. In a Lynchian close-up, we see the ant's feelers and pincers in manic action. Without her clothes, the woman who Johansson is emulating through her clothes is unveiled, to the point where we find entropy working on her nude body. The ant, with its simple processes and machinic character, is a stand-in for the awkward unseen work of human development that underlies the clothes and the social character of the sort of functional human that Johansson is attempting to emulate, just as the close-up of the sphincteric eye highlighted the reflex behind the "window into the soul."

In Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, there is a poignant scene where a stand-in for cybernetic feminist Donna Haraway talks about the human urge to create life. She compares human children to dolls, implying that something unhuman has to take place in order for a certain sort of human normality to emerge.

Under the Skin uses a similar tactic. In order for Johansson's character to develop the human empathy that she develops later in the film, she first has to go through a set of animal/non-human transformations. The eeriness of the film comes from the fact that Johansson skips many of the steps to becoming human that we associate with the traditional process of growing up. She moves from being something other, being something utterly opaque to human values, to something that can operate in human society even though it does not possess the sort of inner life that we associate with fully autonomous persons. Even more disconcertingly, Johansson's character has near-complete control over a certain set of sexual human actions, the behaviors that are most often characterized as base or animal, that we don't associate with someone in the beginning stages of development. Playing on the trope of demonic children, Johansson's character is a sexual thing that behaves like an adult when it has to. Like a Barbie, the monstrosity of Johansson's character is that it is at once sexualized and infantile.

The psychosexual drama is readily available to anyone who has ever thought anything like Camille Paglia. Johansson, as cypher for chaotic nature, seduces men into a dark nowhere where they are sucked of their substance (quite literally). Since at least the myth of the Succubus, the idea of woman as gnostic temptress has been borne through the various transformations of the Western tradition. Women, as basically irrational and animal entities, seduce men to their darker instincts and then eradicate them.The feeling that we get from the shots while Johansson's character is driving through the streets trawling for men is that she is objectifying them in a manner that we typically associate with male predation, and this reversal itself is supposed to mark her as dangerous. Under the Skin attempts to undermine this trope through two strategies. First, Johansson's character is subordinated to another thing whose human body is identified as male. In this way, we're supposed to understand that not only are the men of the film objectifying Johansson's character, but that the process of objectification is also overseen by a male-identified entity. The chthonic seduction that Johansson apparently represents is caught up in a process run by a male identity, a process that is supposed to produce a product. This is hammered home when we see the ultimate fate of the men that Johansson seduces; their entrails are pushed out onto a conveyor belt that carries them into an infernal light. In this sense, Johansson's character is meant to be seen as simply another objectified part of a process of production, rather than an evil temptress who acts simply to abet the chaotic forces of nature.

The second strategy that Under the Skin takes to undermine its early premise is to show Johansson's character attempting to develop into a fully functional human. After reaching a very human sort of self-consciousness, not so subtly represented by her staring into a mirror at her human form, Johansson attempts to save one of the men that she has taken in. This man is horribly disfigured, and the idea of exploiting someone so piteous is supposed to trigger the latent empathy that Johansson's character has been developing throughout her time among us. She quickly goes on the lam into totally alien territory; she attempts to eat food only to choke it all up. She attempts a stuttering traditional relationship with a man only to throw him aside and run when she begins to understand what it is she's been seducing her targets with. The female body, it seems, has a hard time getting along in the world.

This difficulty with belonging reaches its apex at the ending of the film. It culminates in an attempted rape, and when the would-be-rapist discovers what's beneath her pretty exterior, he destroys her. The feminist undercurrent is nigh undeniable; women are only allowed to be human, and when they show signs of being something deeper and scarier than they first appear, men react violently.

This said, Under the Skin goes beyond a sort of humanist feminism to make a stronger claim.  Rather than taking on the trope of men as imposers of rational order on irrational women, Under the Skin undermines another male strategy of making women into pure subjects. Men need women to be entirely surface, it suggests, because the idea that they are like men, that is, driven by something utterly alien to the status quo of rational sociality, is terrifying. The idea that despite their "soft" interior, the female libido is just as nasty and horrible as men's takes away the image of the feminine that men use in order to assume a position of authority over female naivete. Women are supposed to be fully human, penetrable, vulnerable, and transparent, so that men can be something more than human, deeper, more violent, and more animal. In this way, Under the Skin is a sort of critical rewriting of Darian Leader's take on Terminator; whereas the T-800 represents the emotionless and violent epitome of masculinity and renders the most masculine men feminine and vulnerable (i.e. the biker at the beginning of T2), Under the Skin suggests that there isn't an escape into the reductive innocence of feminine subjectivity. We can't simply acknowledge the fact that we are all vulnerable and socially interdependent persons. Johansson's character's attacker destroys her because she reveals herself to be more than an innocent subject for his defilement. Under the Skin turns our disgust with the otherness of female sexuality into a recognition of the perversion of a male sexuality that makes women into human subjects so that it can revel in the animal. Johansson's character is ultimately unacceptable not because she is an unfathomable force of nature or a fully autonomous person, but because she is both simultaneously. Under the Skin suggests that being a person is simply a part that we learn to play, and women are expected to inhabit the role perfectly or not at all.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Social Policy Derelicts: Michel Foucault and "The New Jim Crow"

"The man described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself the product of a subjection more profound than himself."- Michel Foucault

"The city of brotherly love/ hates blacks"- Mike Ladd on Social Policy Derelicts 

I recently watched a lecture delivered by Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander where she distilled the message of her 2010 book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. The book’s title evokes imprisonment and the language of humanism, which made me think of the most sweeping study of the historical connection between the prison and humanism, Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish”. The covert history of racism and incarceration that Alexander details jibes with Foucault’s analysis of the formation of the modern prison.  The conclusion Michelle Alexander arrives at in her lecture is basically that, in order for real racial equality to be achieved, the criminal justice system must live up to its purpose and actually serve the greater good. However, when her work is viewed through a Foucauldian lens, it is illustrative of the fact that the ideals of humanistic progress are “rigorously indivisible” from the failures of the prison system.   
The Jim Crow laws were obvious tools of exclusion. They were taken off the books in 1965, and shortly thereafter there was a mass exodus of manufacturing jobs from major urban centers, resulting in high levels of unemployment for African-Americans. If the apparent social progress brought about by the civil rights movement had had a thorough impact, there would have been economic stimulus measures to insure that the devastated communities could be integrated into society. Instead, the war on drugs was declared. Alexander points out that the war on drugs was declared prior to the crack epidemic- it was purely a political strategy. Alexander quotes Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman: “The whole problem is really about blacks. The key is to devise a system which recognizes this without appearing to.” In order to appeal to conservative white members of the electorate, the “war on drugs” was declared and destitute blacks were the primary targets. The large manufacturers which once employed African-Americans were replaced with prisons and the tactics of exclusion employed under Jim Crow were replaced with more efficient (i.e. cryptic) ones. Foucault wrote that a condition for the birth of modern institutions (hospitals, prisons etc.) was a benevolent condemnation of idleness. People who loitered and were unemployed- who were ‘unaccounted for’- were incorporated into various institutional contexts. This type of ‘benevolent condemnation’ is exemplified by the war on drugs, which allowed people who were formerly blatantly racist to express their racism in a benevolent form- the condemnation of drug use. As racism became less an obvious part of everyday life, the techniques of disenfranchisement and exclusion became more severe. In the (ongoing) war on drugs, blacks are arrested at a much higher rate than whites and the consequence of an arrest is being silenced- by being in prison and being a felon. Essentially, the story of black enfranchisement and integration- culminating in the election of a black president- is possible to tell because those who would contradict it do not have a voice. The virtue of ‘colorblindness’ is an objective failure to apprehend techniques of exclusion. They were in plain sight during the Jim Crow era, and the story of progress since the civil rights movement has actually been the Left’s rapid loss of vision.

Michel Foucault

Foucault observed that during the rise of capitalism, prisons ceased to be centers of forced labor and instead were seen as institutions that could reform individuals so that they could be fit to enter the job market. What the prisons (both the prototypical ones Foucault studied and current ones) really produced was recidivism. People who are mistreated and terrorized in prison grow resentful and return to society more ‘maladjusted’ than before. Foucault thinks that the failure of the prison to reform inmates is an intrinsic aspect of incarceration. The prison, as the paradigmatic institution of reform, is simultaneously the most efficient mechanism of exclusion.

In the lecture I linked to at the beginning, Michelle Alexander recounts an instance when she refused to use the opinions of a young African-American man in an ACLU campaign she was working on because he was a felon. Later it came to her knowledge that he had had drugs planted on him and was arrested by the Oakland police in a quota-reaching campaign. Of the event she says, “My great crime wasn’t refusing to represent an innocent man; my great crime was imagining that there was some path to racial justice that did not include those we view as ‘guilty’.” She ends her speech by advocating that the war on drugs be called off and saying that mass incarceration is perpetuated by the same core belief as Jim Crow, “that some of us are not worthy of genuine care, compassion and concern.” She still sees racial equality as an ideal to strive towards. What she fails to see is that, in a twisted way, we already have achieved it. Ask any nice person if all races are equal and the answer will be an unequivocal ‘yes’. After the demise of segregation and simultaneous, ironic rise of mass incarceration (segregation by another name) and integration, doesn’t it make sense that the most pernicious forms of imprisonment- spiritual and institutional- are accompanied by a broad affirmation of equality? In “The Agony of Power” Jean Baudrillard writes about “objective irony”, and the coincidence of the sentiments of integration with mass incarceration is an example of that. Foucault writes, “delinquency is the vengeance of the prison on justice”; as the sentiments of humanism become more and more universal, the world becomes a gigantic prison; individuals mere recidivists on a treadmill. The disillusionment and lack of agency experienced by the recidivist becomes the defining political experience. The seamless functioning of segregation and integration causes the endless turmoil of black consciousness; blacks are the product of a system that seeks to exclude them. In that sense, it will eventually become clear that we all really are equal.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Generation X Gets Sincere

People have very good taste in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Cakes are consumed lovingly. Wine is drunk and discussed in a devilishly clever way, as our friend Kailyn has explained. At the center of it all is a very discerning white man, Gustave H., the concierge of the titular hotel and the most tasteful person of all, who struggles, along with his interlocutor Zero, to clear his name in the face of an enormous conspiracy by vulgar arrivistes and a rising Nazi-style party.

It goes without saying that Wes Anderson's always been a retro director. The general jewel-box mise-en-scène and the vaguely Euro intelligentsia that drifts through it have always had an implicit connection to some imaginary aristocratic past. The Grand Budapest Hotel clears away all of the vagueness. First, obviously, it plunges right into the interwar period, a much more past past than that of Moonrise Kingdom's Kennedy era. Second, and more to the point, it's full-throatedly reactionary.

Obviously it's more complicated than that—the pseudo-Nazis of the movie are, strictly speaking, just as reactionary as the main characters—but the movie's elegy for a lost world of manners and sophistication has a lot more bite than Anderson's previous movies. Gustave H. expends an awful lot of air being hypercompetent, knowing every wine and every cake that darkens his doorstep, hating kitsch, hating the uncivilized, the unenlightened, and despite the movie's obligatory attempts to make him a bit of a buffoon—well, just witness the way he apologies for colonialism before the climax. That's nothing if not a ringing endorsement of manners. You get the sense that the doomed mission of this concierge, to maintain his hotel, and the broader mission of the hotel itself, to preserve taste and civilization, to carve out a safe space for superficiality, is a kind of heroism. And, following from this, you get the sense that Anderson is mourning a world without taste. Gently, maybe, but about half as gently as normal. Anderson has always seemed like he was essentially a craftsman, but with Grand Budapest we finally learn at least one thing about his real beliefs: he genuinely believes that vulgarity, as it was understood in the 30s, is a plague. He really does hate the world. All the retro stuff is more than just talk.

There is, however, a key to the movie that opens up another perspective. In an obituary, flashed on the screen, that announces the death of Tilda Swinton's character, there is a brief biographical note. In this note a viewer with access to a pause button can note that Tilda's character, Madame Celine Villeneuve Desgroffe und Taxis, was orphaned when she was a child. The newspaper coyly gives the respective causes of her parents' deaths in a parenthetical: "(herring, botulism)." This echoes another famously laconic parenthetical: "(picnic, lightning)", the circumstances of the death of Humbert Humbert's mother in Lolita.

This on its own isn't enough to sustain an interpretation, of course, but when considered in conjunction with the other features of Grand Budapest it starts to smell an awful lot like Nabokov. The nobility of an imaginary Eastern European empire? The vulgarity and inevitability of fascism? Mistaken identities, grisly coincidences, clues hidden in the depths of the errata? Aesthetic work as puzzle box? To say nothing of the fact that the whole story of the film is reported to the audience by a reader, reading a book by an author, who had the story told to him by the aged Zero, who, as you might expect by now, reports on an awful lot of things he could never actually have seen.

With all of this in mind, the movie seems like the first one in Wes Anderson's whole corpus to provide motivation for the dollhouse sets and poised compositions: they are pointedly artificial because this movie is about artifice. Which is to say that the movie is a gentle jab at Anderson's whole aesthetic, and therefore, more broadly, at taste itself. It's all an illusion, it's just l'air de panache. There's a massive weight of irony in this movie to counterbalance its apparently reactionary moral.

Of course, that's only an interpretation, and the "und Taxis" in the name of Tilda's character, lifted from The Crying of Lot 49, reminds us that the resemblance to Nabokov could just be a vast coincidence after all. Either a transcendent meaning or only the earth.

That, essentially, is the problem with Grand Budapest: its ironic undercurrent feels more like a defense mechanism than a genuine component of the work. In one register this is a clever, reflective movie about Wes Anderson's work, but in a much more obvious one it's a screed against the vulgarity of the modern world, which is personified artlessly as the SS. You have to do a lot of interpretive work to turn up its debt to Nabokov, but there's an actual dedication at the end of the movie to Stefan Zweig, one of prewar Vienna's main mythologizers. (Prewar Vienna seems like a popular place for Generation X to go when it wants to critique the vulgarity of the modern world. Remember The Kraus Project?)

We've seen this kind of dual register from other Gen-X luminaries—a few months ago we published an article about the ironic subtext of Her, another movie that comes on like an anti-modern rant. There as here, the irony that inverts the movie is buried in references—to transhumanism, to cybernetics, to Spike Jonze's other movies. It's the province of a small, connoisseurial audience. Gustave H.'s people, in other words. Irony is getting smaller and smaller. Which might seem out of character for as committed an ironist as Wes Anderson, but put in context it actually puts his movie in a very familiar lineage.

In the 1993 essay E Unibus Pluram, David Foster Wallace explains a few things to us. One is that the cultural bugbear called "irony" was originally an insurgent strategy, a fresh way to critique the disillusionment wrought by Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation and so on. Another is that by the publication date of the essay, irony had become hip and hegemonic; it was no longer the subversive tactic of Altman and Pynchon but rather the default register of literary elites across America. It was a pose, a reflex, an automatic deadpan sneer. (This is leaving out the roughly 35 pages of this 42-page essay that are just TV criticism.) Since then the injunction has been to distance ourselves from irony, to be always more earnest and sincere. I'm not saying that Anderson has taken his cues from DFW, exactly, only that exalting sincerity and earnestness is a pretty pervasive trend today.

The assumption is that the unironic future will contain a lot of people like John Darnielle, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, John Green, scribbly fonts and ukuleles and handheld DSLR footage of the sun flickering through trees and so on. But I think it's worth reminding ourselves that sincerity is not necessarily nice. It might not even be smarmy, which Tom Scocca has pointed out is a way to be vindictive while pretending to be nice. It might be vindictive, simply and blandly.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a case in point—it's suppressed the irony reflex to the best of its ability. Irony is still there, but in all its erudition it's only detectable by the very people who will be sympathetic to the movie's most overt and vindictive message. The movie clearly wants to have its (Mendl's) cake and eat it too.

The point of all this is to say that if Anderson is at all symptomatic of the change Generation X is undergoing right now—and I think he is, if you consider the recent Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Spike Jonze and Jim Jarmusch (although that last one is an oldster)—then maybe the end product of DFW's suppression of irony isn't a series of books and movies that will induce us to hug strangers at the supermarket. Maybe it's just anger. Maybe, if we finally purge irony, Generation X will reveal itself as a bunch of coots. There's nothing more sincere than a coot.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Is This Water?: David Foster Wallace and the Value of a Liberal Education

David Foster Wallace
Graduation season is coming to a close, which gives us an opportunity to reflect not only on our college experiences, but also on graduating itself. I graduated from Wisconsin’s Lawrence University this past weekend, and the celebration of accomplishment seemed a little odd to me, since I mostly feel strange about suddenly leaving the tiny college, rather than feeling like I really accomplished anything there. Our commencement speaker was former Good Morning America host Charlie Gibson, and it was weird to hear him deliver harmless political commentary in person instead of hearing it emanating from my parent’s television set a room over. Probably the most revered recent commencement speech was delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 by the author probably most revered by undergraduates (emphasis on the ‘under’…), David Foster Wallace. In the speech, titled This is Water, DFW reflects on the genre tropes of commencement speeches and attempts to transcend them. He observes that liberal arts commencement speakers focus on the intrinsic value of a liberal education- that it teaches you how to think. Although he partially denounces the ‘banal platitudes’ typically offered by orators, he does offer some advice about surviving adult life, namely that everyone has to believe in something—and if you choose to believe in your intelligence, looks or wealth you will end up in bad shape. You’re better off humbly trying to live by an inviolable ethical code (he rattles off belief systems associated with various religions and philosophies) than pursuing the ever-popular cult of the self. A liberal education ought to make one insightful enough to realize that ‘banal platitudes’ gain power and depth when they are lived out in everyday life. The message to graduates, despite DFW’s initial slipperiness, is clear: you had better use your critical skills to discern what the empathetic, moral thing to do or think in every situation is, because your only other option is spiraling into shallow self absorption. But what if this is a false choice? What if ‘banal platitudes’ derive their power not from their inherent humaneness, but from their banality? If that were the case, then rejecting them certainly wouldn’t be shallow.

DFW includes in his speech a typical ‘adulthood’ situation- a commuter stopping at the supermarket on their way home from work. He describes the claustrophobic scenes on the highway and in the store and discusses the two ways he sees of coping with them—either by being annoyed by the people in front of you in line yelling at their kids and the cell-phone jabbering SUV drivers cutting you off on the road, or by empathizing with them and imagining the quotidian struggles that they themselves endure. For DFW, empathy and sincerity are strategies that allow us to redeem a bad situation. What he failed to articulate in this speech, but what his books (namely the posthumously published The Pale King) impress upon me is that a steadfast belief in the power of empathy is just as destructive and superficial as self-worship. The type of empathy he espouses in his speech is basically this: if a person’s behavior seems to embody some contradiction of late capitalism (i.e. a person driving an SUV covered with progressive bumper stickers), imagine the redeeming circumstances that led to their current condition (i.e. anxieties about rush hour traffic lead them to buy a larger car). Regarding these hypothetical scenarios, DFW concedes that “none of this is likely”.  In The Pale King, the dryness of his prose is owed to the fact that, increasingly, our ability to empathize with one another is engulfed by the incomprehensibility of our situation.
Deleuze and Guattari

In Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe the Oedipal formulation as the fountain where psychoanalysts gather to wash their hands of the world’s iniquities. Deleuze and Guattari saw psychoanalysis as a tool in the service of repression. Sincerity, the attempt to see each other clearly, is likewise often effectively an attempt not to see the Other as an equal, but to use the Other as a way to suppress one’s own awareness of systemic inequalities and oppression. If a liberal education really promotes freethinking, then we should be free enough to see one another’s contradictory behaviors as affirmations of life rather than forces of death, and to see discrepancy and inconsistency as our life-blood.  In his introduction to Anti-Oedipus, Mark Seem quotes Henry Miller, “everybody becomes a healer the moment he forgets about himself… Nobody can do it for another—it is a private affair which is best done collectively.” In order to ‘empathize’ within the situation of arbitrary dominations that our identities arise in, we should forget about our sense of entitlement and recognize ourselves in the errors, ignorance and cruelty of others.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Tune-Yards, Kelis, and Cheesy Snacks: A Puff Piece

When Merrill Garbus (tUnE-YaRdS) dropped “Water Fountain,” the first single from her new album “Nikki Nack,” I eagerly clicked its official Youtube video that had popped up on my news feed, courtesy of some friend who checks out music blogs more than I do or perhaps follows Garbus more closely anyway.

On a first listen, the song was certainly enjoyable—more danceable than I’d come to associate her sound with, though there’s no reason not to booty dance to “Whokill” or “Bird Brains.” But something else struck me: the song sounded like another song and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was. Was it just me being struck with familiarity after my only experience with her in the past year or so has been her commission for Roomful of Teeth? I couldn’t put my finger on any other Garbus-penned tunes either. It was something more surprising, more out-of-the-past.Then it hit me: “Water Fountain” is unmistakably similar to Kelis’s iconic hit “Milkshake” from 2003 (the best year for billboard hits in the 2000s, but that’s a story for another Spook piece). I’ll wait while you compare the two, and note that Kelis has also recently released a new album—“Food.”

So what similarities are worth talking about here? Structurally, each song follows a general chorus—verse—chorus—verse—bridge—chorus form, though “Water Fountain” expands harmonically during the final chorus while “Milkshake” sticks with repeating itself verbatim. Rhythm is another one. A quick sojourn to Wikipedia informs me  “Milkshake” uses a single darbuka drum. Eschewing a drum machine for a darbuka wasn't entirely unprecedented in pop music in 2003; however, comparable hits were few and far between. Despite the track’s eventual success, critics such as Tony Naylor of NME noted that the song was “probably the oddest track” off of Kelis’s Tasty album. 

Garbus, on the other hand, has made unexpected instrumentation a mainstay of her work since Bird Brains and, in the decade since “Milkshake,” more pop artists have had time to experiment with similarly minimal beats. The drums in “Water Fountain,” hypnotic and dry, might not raise as many eyebrows—particularly since the song likely won’t be gracing middle school dance floors and Garbus already has a reputation for unconventional percussion choices. This is about as far as my average ear can get in discerning the instrumental qualities the songs share, and even these similarities are limited in exactitude and seem to peel away upon each repeated listen.

It’s notable that the songs are both lyrically cryptic. I remember lunch table conversations with other preteens debating just what Kelis meant by “milkshake.” Our guesses ranged from sex acts to her butt, but no one's answer was ever quite satisfactory. Kelis later reported that “milkshake” meant “the thing that makes women special. It’s what gives us our confidence and what makes us exciting.” So: a milkshake wasn’t an act or concrete object, per se. (By the way: the question of authorship comes in here as well. The Neptunes wrote and produced “Milkshake” and I’ve chosen to interpret the song as sung and performed by Kelis, rather than through the lyrics that The Neptunes assigned that likely didn’t refer to this mysterious essential feminine quality Kelis references in the above interview.)

The lyrical meaning of “Water Fountain” is also ambiguous as the lyrics shift abruptly from campfire-style chant to the sultrier verses that—somewhat ominously—always come back to the phrase “I can’t seem to feel it.” The fact that someone made a Rap Genius page for “Water Fountain” shows audiences are already trying to decode it the way my middle school friends and I tried to decipher “Milkshake,” despite “Water Fountain” existing (for marketing purposes, anyway) far outside the boundaries of “Milkshake” in terms of genre.

More likeness rests in the vocals as they exist in the verses. In the verses—sadly, no one really remembers the verses in “Milkshake,” though they’re the key that elevate the song from potential jump-roping jingle to mysterious seduction piece—Kelis’s low voice scratches against the surface of the track, recorded to sound just the slightest bit muffly, a little distant. Garbus does the same with her own voice in the verses to “Water Fountain.” But there’s an essential quality the two singers share beyond simply singing at a similar range; a boredom, a bemusement. Their phrases end flatly, with a "so what" without the question mark. What do they know? Why the ennui with an upturned-corner mouth? What’s the secret? I think it’s here, in the attitude of both songs, that the true resemblance lies. Something is entertaining either Garbus or Kelis, but something is also missing.

Thematically, both songs deal with sustenance as metaphor: the “Milkshake” is the essential desirability of women, while the “water in the water fountain” is a source (of creativity? Excitement? Eroticism?) run dry. Kelis’s continuing sensory fascination with taste carries over onto her new album, where the title (“Food”) informs the song names despite no real references to concrete nourishment (or, uh, “food”) within their lyrics (“Jerk Ribs,” “Friday Fish Fry.”) Hyper-sexualized milkshakes (“Bringing All the Boys to the Yard: The Hyper-sexualitization of Milkshakes in a Lactose-Intolerant 21st Century Pop Culture”) show up all throughout the “Milkshake” video, while lusciously disgusting piles of spaghetti are thrown and tossed in “Water Fountain.” In each song, the woman singing finds herself in control of precariously depleting resource. Kelis's "Milkshake" is readily available to other women only if they pay to learn and depend upon its "betterness" than other women's milkshakes, and Garbus's "Water Fountain" is empty, leaving her to "get the water from your house."

The control present in both songs—the lack of control “the boys” have over whether or not they’re going to visit Kelis’s yard and the helplessness of their women in the process (in the video, one covers her boyfriend’s eyes when she catches him staring at Kelis) and the monopoly Kelis has on her milkshake making skills as well as the lack of a necessary component for life in “Water Fountain”—is, I think, the most salient shared quality between them and probably the source of each woman’s bemusement.

I’ve been eating a lot of snacks covered in cheese powder lately: Smart Puffs, Pirate’s Booty, Mike’s “Cheesealicious” Popcorn among them. I nearly abandoned this piece to make another "puff piece" ranking cheese snacks and relating them back to what studies have been done on the cultural capital of cheese. And from what I know about the anthropology of cheese—which isn’t a lot—the more labor-intensive and hands-on the cheese-making process, the more prized the cheese in the artisanal market. This seems an appropriate way to finally tie Garbus and Kelis together in these two songs where they both sing about sustenance bemusedly and wind up sounding pretty similar. I won’t attempt a cheap comparison trying to place “water fountains” and “milkshakes” in the hard-work-pays-off-artisanal-cheese-box, though: if anything, for Kelis and Garbus the work that goes into nourishment is null and their resulting bemusement is at its inadequacy. 

So what does it mean to be entirely in control of a resource, like Kelis, or responsible for its replenishment, like Garbus? I suppose the only meaning we can gather here is in the two women's shrugged-shoulder tones.