Playing Along with St. Vincent and EMA

St Vincent

In her first appearance on Saturday Night Live’s season finale last May, St. Vincent performed “Digital Witness.” Apart from being struck by how great she sounded (more of an exception than a rule for SNL), I found it compelling how singer Annie Clark harnessed the televisual potential of her stage show by referencing her nervous tics in director Chino Moya’s “Digital Witness” video. In the clip, Clark punctuates the ends of phrases by stiffly nodding her head to the side as green-, yellow-, and blue- replicants march, tap, and roll pencils in a Futurist office space and business park.

On SNL, Clark and bassist/keyboardist Toko Yasuda elaborated upon the video’s dance routine—created by choreographer Annie-B Parson—so that it scaled for both television and the stage. Their movements were more exaggerated. They used dance as an opportunity to interact with each other and their instruments. Clark also took her pulse and performed other gestures that weren’t in the clip. The performance simultaneously recalled collaborator David Byrne’s “big suit” dance to “Girlfriend Is Better” in Stop Making Sense and the Supremes’ Ed Sullivan Show appearances. In truth, you can’t have one without the other. That’s probably why Byrne also commissioned dances from Parson. After all, punk bands learned how to dress alike and write short songs by playing along to the Shangri-Las and the Crystals.

St. Vincent’s choreography visualizes the song’s commentary on technology’s role in turning existence into a series of naturalized, performative gestures and interactions. Clark’s jerky execution suggests that these routines can cause us to short-circuit, particularly when we buckle under the restraint of isolated tasks or when people don’t notice that we’re doing them. Yet there’s also a ritual to mundane activities like checking email, browsing through a reader feed, and refreshing Facebook—things I do while sipping my morning coffee.

Though these gestures are not explicitly religious (though they could be, given Clark’s thematic convictions), they appear weightier and more deliberate when represented through choreography. In this way, St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” dance recalls EMA’s routine for her apocalyptic 2010 single, “California,” a place vulnerable to a Biblical reckoning precipitated by menstruation, youth, loss, paranoia, and other human follies rescued by the divine. Through dance, Erika M. Anderson articulates the slippage between the sacred and the profane. In her hands, a weapon becomes the cross.

EMA California

In Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance, Kiri Miller advocates the pedagogical utility of video games like Guitar Hero, as well as online instructional videos. By mobilizing “genres of participation,” a concept first advanced by cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito in her co-authored book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, Miller convincingly argues that gameplay can help users develop their creative and technical skills as musicians. It also problematizes neat distinctions between amateur and professional instrumentalists.

I’m not sure how to apply “genres of participation” to choreography. I can. Learning to perform Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance requires more than rote memorization. You have to be able to count. You have to be able to contort your body in time to the music, anticipating every turn and kick. Dancing as part of a crowd also requires sensitivity not just to the recording, but to ensemble’s internal rhythm. Too much spin or stretch in one dancer’s steps can ruin the illusion of uniformity. But there’s also virtuosity at work in dance that blurs easy distinctions between who originated the routine and who imitated it. I remember seeing two female cheerleaders face off to Britney Spears’ “Oops!…I Did It Again” at a high school Sadie Hawkins dance. By the first chorus, I was so mesmerized by their precision and skill that I had trouble identifying where the Britney on television ended and the Brittany in the cafeteria began.

Jackson and Spears’ dance routines clearly exist as genres of participation. Fans demonstrate their commitment to pop idols by replicating their moves. For some, such performances also serve as an indication of their own talents. Spears became a performer by playing along with Michael Jackson. Historically, dance is how fans are perceived to participate in pop music. As scholars like Norma Coates have persuasively claimed, rock was legitimated through discourses that removed the genre from feminized leisure activities like dancing and situated it within hegemonically masculine cultural practices like criticism, collecting, and instrument instruction. In order for rock to function as a genre of participation, you could pick up a typewriter, a record, or a guitar. You couldn’t get down.

At the risk of making yet another facile comparison between contemporary concept-oriented female recording artists and Kate Bush, the gestural choreography on “Digital Witness” and “California” recalls how Bush used her face, hands, and body to represent Heathcliff and Cathy’s desire on “Wuthering Heights.” Of course, such comparisons require us to consider how Bush’s decision to train under renowned choreographer Lindsay Kemp might serve as indication that she first became “Kate Bush” by playing along to David Bowie.

Ultimately, what I find compelling about St. Vincent and EMA’s choreography is how it opens up rock as a genre of participation by reclaiming dance as one of its essential features. Most of St. Vincent and EMA’s fans might still show their appreciation by picking up guitars and raising their voices, which is great. I’ve never seen people dance along to “Digital Witness” or “California” in concert. I haven’t bothered to learn the routines myself, which I should reconsider. But as a fan, I cannot deny the importance of those gestures, what they mean to their corresponding songs, and how it allows fans different ways to play along with their heroines.

Review: Facing the Other Way

Facing the Other Way Cover

Within the first paragraph of Facing the Other Way, Martin Aston comments upon the challenge of telling a story for a record label whose sound and image was defined by art-damaged introverts. He opens with an anecdote from a fan who asked him, “[i]s there much drama in the 4AD story?” (xiii) He then sets up a rivalry between the outfit and Factory Records, claiming that 4AD’s history “may be less sensational and populist” than the Manchester indie and its charismatic founder, Tony Wilson, before hinting that “[s]ometimes it’s the quiet ones you have to look out for…” (xv).

As a veteran music journalist whose career dovetailed with the label’s trajectory, Aston produces a dense history out of enviable resources. Among the hundreds of people he interviewed for the book, he was able to talk extensively with reclusive co-founder Ivo Watts-Russell, who relocated to California in the mid-1990s and sold the label by the end of the decade to its distributors, Beggars Banquet, after a protracted bout with depression. Aston also puts his on-the-ground reporting skills to good use by capably situating a multitude of characters and initiatives within a panorama of rock history.

After offering a brief sketch of Watts-Russell’s youth in Northamptonshire and his stint working for Beggars Banquet when it was a record store before launching 4AD with Peter Kent in 1980 (first as Axis—a nod to Jimi Hendrix—before discovering that a German imprint had already claimed it), Aston’s book documents the first nineteen years in the pioneer label’s life in exhaustive detail. He structures the chapters by year, a somewhat perfunctory organizational strategy that nonetheless allows him to toggle between the various artists, initiatives, and projects that defined each period. Admirably, he tries to give equal consideration for every act of the roster, thus allowing the Birthday Party to co-exist with Rema Rema and the Cocteau Twins to brush against Clan of Xymox.

Aston never loses the thread. For example, Facing reaches its half-way point in 1990. It’s a pivotal, messy year for the label. Cocteau Twins release Heaven or Las Vegas, their gorgeous 4AD swan song, two months before Watts-Russell drops them due to a long-term feud with guitarist/producer Robin Guthrie, himself in the throes of cocaine addiction. That same year, Nigel Grierson severs professional ties with the label’s in-house graphic designer Vaughan Oliver. The label recovers from their fluke success with M/A/R/R/S’ lone hit “Pump Up the Volume” by readying the market for work from veterans Dead Can Dance and new recruits Lush, Pale Saints, His Name Is Alive, Ultra Vivid Scene, and the Breeders, a group which originated as a side project for Pixies’ bassist Kim Deal and Throwing Muses’ guitarist Tanya Donnelly and ultimately resulted in the label’s biggest commercial success of the decade.

Apart from effectively weaving a series of chronological instances into a coherent document, Aston offers a few key interventions to 4AD’s history. Foremost, he persuasively argues that Oliver’s dreamy surrealism is as foundational to the label’s identity as, say, This Mortal Coil’s back catalog. Paratexts matter. 4AD was a haven for art-damaged post-punk. This has as much to do with the Pixies’ reference to Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou in “Debaser” as it does with Oliver’s decision to create a two-foot structure for the band’s 2009 Minotaur box set and stuff it with gold-plated compact discs and a 54-page booklet.

In making such claims, Aston recognizes this period of British indie rock as a movement for innovative design in its own right and not simply a reaction against arena rock’s indulgence and punk’s constraints. He puts Oliver in dialogue with peers like Peter Saville and Central Station Design. The latter referenced their work with the Happy Mondays by contributing the psychedelic credit sequences and title cards to Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 Factory biopic 24 Hour Party People. Similarly, Oliver produced the cover for Facing the Other Way, which recalls the abstract, post-modern aesthetic he brought to Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance’s sleeves (dig that Scotch tape). Aston also prioritizes collaborators like Grierson, Simon Larbalestier, and Chris Bigg by integrating their quotes and recollections into the book. Finally, he observes that Oliver’s sensibility could both inspire and limit 4AD’s bands.

Facing offers rich detail about the music industry’s complex inner workings. Aston avoids easy reductions of 4AD’s relationship to peer labels by noting that Mute allowed 4AD to add the Birthday Party’s Mutiny EP to the CD reissue of The Bad Seed so that they could claim to have released all of the output from Nick Cave’s former band. He also does a remarkable job navigating the label’s various international distribution deals. In particular, he crystallizes invaluable industrial and legal analysis of 4AD’s five-year licensing deal with Warner Bros. Records between 1992 and 1997. Such contributions are essential, particularly for music nerds and media scholars who do not have immediate access to such information for our own research.

Aston also treats protagonist Watts-Russell’s harrowing struggle with depression and decision to sell the label back to Beggars in 1999 so that he could live a quiet life without judgment. This development in the label’s story is particularly compelling toward the end of 4AD’s licensing arrangement with Warner Bros., when Watts-Russell’s interest in folk acts like Tarnation clashed with A&R representative Lewis Jamieson’s commitment to shepherding dance acts like GusGus and Thievery Corporation.

Aston misses a few opportunities for critique. He notes that working-class artists like Guthrie perceived management’s packaging and signing decisions to be undergirded by middle-class snobbery. He observes that label personnel’s white privilege clashed with East London’s A.R. Kane, who briefly signed with the label. He makes several passing references the label’s many female musicians. However, beyond noting Lush’s sexist treatment in the press and the embedded critique of band names like Lush, The Breeders, and Belly, he merely gives the nod to feminism. Aston acknowledges. He should interrogate.

Fraser’s inability to participate is also an unfortunate absence. Aston attempted to reach out to the reclusive singer, but must rely upon past interviews and memory. But given her formidable presence in this label’s story—Aretha Franklin was to Atlantic in 1968 what Elizabeth Fraser was to 4AD in 1985—I wish Aston didn’t implicitly privilege Guthrie, Watts-Russell, and Cocteau Twins’ member Simon Raymonde’s recollections of the label’s most influential band.

Finally, given the book’s exhaustive focus on 4AD’s first two decades, it’s disappointing that Aston only offers a comparatively scant 46 pages to the label’s history following Watts-Russell’s departure. Sure, the book is over 600 pages long. But Aston yada-yadas about fourteen years of 4AD’s history. He also relies heavily on interviews with Beggars’ managerial personnel. Perhaps he did not have the same access to tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, Ariel Pink, or Purity Ring that he had with Guthrie, Kristin Hersh, and Miki Berenyi. He also disconnects some artists from the label’s past or minimizes their distinct contributions. But Gang Gang Dance owes a debt to Dead Can Dance while Grimes’ inventive repurposing of Mariah Carey and K-pop make her more than another Fraser disciple. And Beggars’ distribution deals with other talent—particularly Matador’s EMA and Perfume Genius—suggest that 4AD’s goth-kid influence persists elsewhere. 4AD is still releasing some of the most exciting contemporary music on its own terms; it doesn’t need to live in its own shadow.

Facing the Other Way is a valuable history of an important British independent label. Its sensitive packaging and staggering reportage honors generations of creative and managerial talent who made 4AD possible. But its absences also remind readers that the tome on the shelf was made by people. That’s okay. The Sistine Chapel had cracks in the ceiling. Visions are imperfect. 4AD pursue beauty. Its best records find it not in an ideal but out of the silence, violence, and detritus of being alive. Aston’s book promises a comprehensive overview. It also suggests new stories yet untold.

Disidentifying with Boyhood

Sally DraperIn her last scene at the midpoint of Mad Men’s final season, a teenaged Sally Draper looks expectantly at the night sky. It’s July 1969. Neil Armstrong is a national hero and she initiated her first kiss. As she takes a drag off her cigarette, her upturned gaze asks “what’s next?”

It’s thrilling to see Sally negotiate between what she wants and what’s expected of her. Earlier in the series’ run, her father’s ex-girlfriend defined this as people’s main conflict. Advertising promises to resolve it with the careful positioning of consumer goods. Adolescence is a process of fashioning your own identity out of what you inherit and what you create. In this sequence, we see what Sally learned from her mother (the blowout, the way she crosses her left arm when she exhales), her father (the squint, the ease with which she sneaks into the backyard), and her generation (the cynicism about the moon landing). We also see how she disidentifies with her status-oriented upbringing by kissing the nerdy son of a family friend instead of manipulating his jock older brother into pursuing her.

Boyhood poster

I thought about Sally Draper several times as I watched Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s lovely time-lapse family drama. That last image of Sally complements the film’s poster. Also, Sally Draper, Mason Jr., and the actors who play them mature in front of the camera. I’ve seen Kiernan Shipka age seven years, both within Mad Men’s version of 1960s New York and in the present. In three hours, I saw Ellar Coltrane evolve parallel to a new century from a taciturn six-year-old into an inquisitive college freshman.

I also reflected on how gender shapes one’s coming of age. Boyhood is about a kid negotiating between the kind of man he wants to be and the masculinity that’s expected of him. This is not the first time Richard Linklater has explored this subject. In an interview with Alex Pappademas, Linklater said that he wondered what kind of kid his star would become during production. No brainer; he’s a cool guy. He’s the kid who’d spend class time in a dark room. His name is Ellar Coltrane and he grew up in a Richard Linklater movie. Mason Jr.’s prototype is Dazed and Confused’s Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), a Central Texas kid who morphs from Little League pitcher to chill incoming freshman on May 28, 1976 with help from his big sister’s cool friends.

Mason Jr

Mitch Kramer

In “Making Dazed,” the behind-the-scenes featurette included in its Criterion release, there’s production footage of Parker Posey and Joey Lauren Adams discussing a scene they added to the film because their dialogue in the script just focused on boys and make-up. Linklater told the actresses to write a bull session for their characters, Darla and Simone. It’s a great little scene where Simone (Adams) talks about hanging out with the young daughter of her divorced mother’s new boyfriend. It was ultimately cut for time, along with another scene where a group of girls wonder about life after high school. Now when I watch the film, I wonder what the girls are doing while the boys are out cruising. They’re probably rotating joints and listening to Aerosmith too. Darla would ruin a mailbox.

Simone and Darla

Save for romance, sex segregation already governs Mitch’s social life. He barely interacts with Jodi (Michelle Burke), who occasionally checks in on her brother and observes that he’ll be able to get away with more rebellious behavior than she did. We see the nuances of this process occur in Boyhood as Mason’s older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) slides out of view, separated by bedrooms, gossip magazines, Lady Gaga, video games, social media, and finally college.

But Dazed and Confused treats masculinity as the default. While Boyhood is universal in many ways—or at least poignant for many adults, some of whom acquired sentimental fondness for queso and Central Texas’ craggy majesty and saw Austin change in real time—it explores what it means to grow up distinctly (Texan, white, modestly class-mobile, and) male. The “boy” of the film’s title is deliberate, and not just because Personhood would weird out studio executives. For Mason Jr., much of that masculine self-fashioning is a process of disidentification, which queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz (RIP) described as “strategies of resistance within the flux of discourse and power” (19). Though Muñoz defined disidentification as survival strategies for minority (and frequently intersectional) subjects, Mason’s struggles with hegemonic masculinity still resemble “a performative mode of tactical recognition” that disallow him to entirely conform to the representations of manhood presented to him (97).

Boyhood begins in 2002, when Mason Jr. is age six. He’s riding home from school with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who scolds him gently for not turning in all of his homework. At first, Mason’s lack of follow-through juxtaposes Samantha’s academic excellence. But eventually we meet his father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a sorta musician and non-committal parent who picks up several years where Troy Dyer left off in 1994’s Reality Bites. This provides some early indication of paternal influence or of the toll the separation took on Mason in the first six years off-screen. Eventually, Mason’s dad stops chasing music and babes. He cuts his hair and sells insurance, even if he still writes songs and makes mixes for his son. But he never quite ages out of the shiftless romanticism and easy misogyny of his youth. It’s why Olivia cannot trust him. With time, his son sees him as a flawed, unreliable person and not a template. He’s not a Father; he’s just a dad.

Troy Dyer

Mason Sr

Mason encounters a number of men whose example he observes but does not follow—authoritarians who want to bend his mother’s family to their will, short-haired teachers and bosses who want to “reach him,” homophobic peers, Bible-toting grandfathers. But the model of masculinity that Mason ultimately tries to distance himself from is the slacker philosopher his father presents to him. Obviously, this is a big challenge for Mason. He shares his father’s DNA and artistic tendencies. Muñoz argued that disidentification is “not always an adequate strategy of resistance” (5) because it “works on and against dominant ideology” (11). Usually, Mason’s strategy is silence, which may not be a legible form of resistance. But in two instances late in the film, he rebels against his father’s misogyny with silence. He uses it when his father and uncle throw Olivia under the bus in order to stress the importance of proper contraception while in college (because dudes gotta sow wild oats). He deploys it again as a defense when his father tries to be a bro by thoughtlessly maligning his son’s ex-girlfriend (aside: I remembered the actress as a guitarist in Schmillion when I was a volunteer at Girls Rock Camp Austin; leave Zoe Graham alone, DAD). These scenes are tough to watch, because Mason’s struggles to disidentify with his father’s model of masculinity are not entirely successful. He stutters. His defenses trail off. But in both scenes, Mason casts a downturned gaze. His smile tightens into a grimace. Nervous laughter sticks in his throat. He looks embarrassed.

These scenes follow an earlier moment in the film where Mason slips out of the house during junior high to drink and horse around with some classmates and two high school boys. The older guys use homophobia and misogyny to bully their young charges into chugging beer, committing dangerous stunts, and bragging about conquests they made up. Mason’s classmate Tony (Jordan Howard) is the only person who defends himself and doesn’t abuse a girl’s reputation to do so. In response to each utterance of “fag” and “pussy,” Tony calls the bullies pathetic for picking on younger kids and telling lies about girls to seem manlier. Mason is silent in this scene too, but his face suggests he wished he were brave enough to speak up.

Boyhood Graduation

Ultimately, Mason cannot entirely identify with the forms of masculinity presented to him because they exist at the expense of women’s dignity. Mason may have had a cool weekend dad, but he also grew up under the care of a tough, determined mom. As Wesley Morris observed in his review, Boyhood “is actually the story of a single mother who wants the best for her children but also for herself.” Olivia makes a lot of self-destructive decisions over the course of Boyhood, but she is also a self-sufficient woman who tries to learn from the past instead of make excuses for it. Twelve years later, I’d happily watch Arquette reprise her excellent work here and see what Olivia’s up to after the kids have left the nest. Mason’s father may have taught him how to shrug, but his mother taught him how to move forward. What’s next?

Feminist Music Geek Presents… Extradiegetic

Episode 4 - Extradiegetic (Still of Chavela Vargas from Flower Of My Secret)

Here’s the “film music” episode of Feminist Music Geek Presents…, for your streaming pleasure. The photo is a screen grab from a scene in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Flower of My Secret, which includes a TV broadcast of a Chavela Vargas stage performance. The singer is one of the director’s muses, and I think that image nicely captures what this episode is going for in its exploration of original soundtrack material, soundtrack covers, and songs about women’s relationship to filmmaking and spectatorship. Also, while I didn’t officially associate the playlist with the UW-Cinematheque’s summer series (no calls to action), they do have a very cool program this season. I’ll see you later, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Some things.

1. Currently, I can only afford SoundCloud’s base membership of two free hours (summertime is a lean period for grad students). So, for now, I will only make two playlists available at a time. As a result, I had to temporarily delete the SPECTRUM playlist. However, I am keeping all of the original files and will make them available in the fall, when I can afford to pay for membership. I’ll keep y’all posted.

2. I tried to upload my third episode earlier this morning, but I was unable to post it to SoundCloud because it included ESG’s “UFO,” which violates the terms of the band’s copyright. While I actually based the ORIGINS playlist around this much-sampled single and the group’s frustration with unauthorized or appropriated usage of their material (i.e., Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills), I respect ESG on this issue and will post an edited playlist next week with the track omitted. While I don’t want copyright law to determine how and when people listen to my show, this might be a good reminder for folks to tune in to WSUM on Fridays at 9 p.m.

3. In an effort to make the show more social media-friendly, Feminist Music Geek Presents… now has a hashtag. #fmgpresents 

4. Feminist Music Geek Presents… is now taking submissions. If you are a female-identified musician and would like to submit music to FMG Presents… for review, DM me and I’ll provide you with contact information.

Happy listening!

Feminist Music Geek Presents … Reinterpretations

Episode 2 - Reinterpretations (Jane Lane, Starry Night)

Episode two of my WSUM radio program is available on SoundCloud for your streaming pleasure. This is a covers set. I’d love to do another one, so send me some requests.

In other “Alyx on the Internet” news, earlier this week I wrote a tribute post to Casey Kasem for Antenna. Check it out!

Feminist Music Geek Presents … Spectrum

Leo Villareal - Big Bang

I returned to college radio late last month with my own show. Feminist Music Geek Presents… is currently in its third week. It honors women’s historical and contemporary musical contributions across genre. However, while I hope people are tuning in to WSUM on Friday nights at 9 p.m. to listen to the program, I wanted to give listeners the ability to stream my playlists afterwards. Here’s “Spectrum,” the first episode of FMG Presents… I’ll post a new episode each week.

Three things to note.

1. Each show focuses on a particular theme, which I explain at the beginning of the episode. Themes provide a useful organizational framework and allow me to put recording artists in dialogue with each other in a new context.

2. I’ll be excising WSUM-specific content (i.e., PSAs and underwriting) from the episodes, because community radio and digital streaming sites serve different entities.

3. As a result, I’ll limit my voice breaks to the introductions that frame the episodes so the music can be the focus. Hopefully, the set list serves as a sufficient guide.

I’m having a blast putting these sets together and I have lots of ideas for future episodes. If you want to make requests, recommendations, or suggestions, follow the blog on Facebook and Twitter. I’ll be on the air this summer on Friday nights from 9-10 p.m. (CST). Tune in, and make sure to check out the rest of WSUM’s fine music and community programming. Happy listening!