Feminist Music Geek Presents … SPECTRUM

Image: Leo Villareal, Big Bang (2008)

Image: Leo Villareal, Big Bang (2008)

In May 2014, I began hosting a weekly radio program on 91.7 WSUM called “Feminist Music Geek Presents…” The show is, in many respects, an extension of this blog. It prioritizes women and girls’ historical and contemporary contributions in popular music across a range of genres. Each episode is organized by theme. As a result, it became clear as I started programming FMGP that playlists allow music fans the opportunity to recontextualize recordings as expressions of critique or dissent. So I think of my sets as arguments and conversations between artists who may not have intended to be in dialogue with each other, but whose individual recordings can be reassembled thematically or intertextually.

FMGP is on hiatus until next fall. Over the course of the summer, I will be archiving episodes for streaming here. I’ll try to post at least once a week, though I hope I can upload all 41 of FMGP’s playlists so that listeners can enjoy them before the show returns to the airwaves in September.

I’m starting with the show’s inaugural episode. I chose “spectrum” as its theme for a few reasons. First, my idea of happiness is a box of crayons. On the first day of Kindergarten I told my classmates that my favorite colors were magenta and chartreuse–my parents ran a print shop–and that is still very much the case. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was a big Rainbow Brite fan as a kid. I particularly identified with Shy Violet and wanted to be BFFs with Lala Orange and Indigo. Second, Madison had come out of a long, monochromatic winter of whites, greys, and browns and the city was in bloom. Third, I wanted to acknowledge what a spectrum of color means conceptually to my fellow queer brothers and sisters. Finally, the term was a useful metaphor for the show’s interest in placing women’s voices in a continuum rather than confine them to reductive binary distinctions of similarity and difference. ROYGBIV, y’all.

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Smells Like Proximity

Media’s relationship to fragrance is vast and prime for exploration. This is what I’ve discovered in the process of researching it since last winter. I originally intended to write about it during my first semester as a PhD student, but lucked into an opportunity to contribute to an anthology and shelved the idea. With some encouragement, I returned to the project. As I revised my dissertation proposal for defense, I imagined what I wanted to say about the subject.

I had modest ambitions for this project. Originally, I thought of it as a respite from various check points on the path to pushing a much larger boulder up a hill. Dissertating is a long game. If you’re fortunate, this unwieldy thing you’ve spent several years crafting as a graduate student will someday become a book, and thus require more crafting. As a result, dissertators are vulnerable to doubt, fatigue, and endless deferral. This was to be a pretty curio, something I could look at and turn over if I struggled to form an argument from the other thing I was writing.

What’s exhilarating and terrifying about research is its undertow. If you’re doing it right, you’ll end up in a different place from where you started. Last summer, I started to form my findings into an argument. I looked up and it was October. At this point in my studies, such lapses in time feel like indulgences I can’t afford. This project was designed to be small and contained. My dissertation analyzes the relations between television and recording industry labor in the post-network era in order to understand music’s functions in the cultural and industrial work of identity formation through a series of interlocking fields, televisual, and musical genres. There are loose thematic connections between the two projects—both consider how recording artists use licensing to extend the commercial life of their music—but there’s no overlap in case studies.

My interest in media’s relationship to fragrance actually originates from my sense memory of Madonna’s Like a Prayer. I encountered it as an object, which Nigel Thrift argues “must be understood as involved in multiple overlapping negotiations with human beings and not just as sets of passive and inanimate properties” (292). In an earlier post on record collecting, I cited Sara Ahmed’s claim that objects’ intentions are shaped by the expectations we place in them. Though Ahmed is specifically talking about family as a symbol for the uneven distribution of subjects’ sense of personal fulfillment, I was particularly struck by her assertion that happiness “can generate objects through proximity,” resulting from objects’ closeness to each other and to bodies (32-33).

I was five when Madonna’s fourth album came out in March 1989. So I probably didn’t encounter it at that age. In my mind, Madonna lives in my collapsed recollection of 1992, where A League of Their Own, Truth or Dare, the Sex book, Dick Tracy, and Erotica blurred together as context. I turned nine that summer and recognized that, apart from marrying my father, Like a Prayer was one of the few things my mom and stepmother had in common. My mom had it on cassette. My dad’s second wife had it on CD, along with Erotica and a VHS copy of Truth or Dare. So, my proximity to Like a Prayer was shaped by its presence in my mother and stepmother’s music collections, their shared fandom of it, my different connections to them (I love my mother and I never loved my stepmother), and my dawning awareness that the album in my hands was a thing.

I didn’t revere Madonna. I like many of her hits and the creative authority and strength she demonstrated in her innovative and collaborative video work. I thought her conceptual treatment of female sexuality was interesting. But her reckless attitude toward mentorship and racial appropriation—character flaws that bell hooks documented in real time—gave me pause. As a kid I felt like I had to pick a side, because culture teaches girls to form allegiances for and against other women. I chose Janet Jackson—and later TLC, Aaliyah, and Destiny’s Child—who used pop music and dance to express attitudes about gender, race, and sexuality that felt more nuanced and inclusive to me. Now, Erotica and janet. co-exist for me. But I remember gently pulling Like a Prayer’s liner notes from its jewel case. This was a struggle, because it was printed on thick cardstock and I was very nervous that I would get caught.

What I remember most about Like a Prayer—a memory I apparently share with film critic Wesley Morris—is its scent. Not only was Like a Prayer a thing, but unlike other albums I encountered, it smelled. Madonna wanted to perfume Like a Prayer’s packaging with patchouli, the fragrance she associated with her Catholic upbringing. Within her oeuvre, Like a Prayer is the singer’s most overtly confessional record. “Promise to Try” mourns the loss of her mother. “Dear Jessie” asks “what if” of maternity. “Oh Father” confronts the abuse she survived from her father. “Til Death Do Us Part” documents the disillusion of her physically and psychologically destructive marriage to Sean Penn, a relationship that Karina Longworth, host of “You Must Remember This,” documents in the first installment of a two-part Madonna episode that came out of research she did for a 33 1/3 book proposal on Like a Prayer I’d very much like to read. Such introspection even influenced the album’s packaging. Like a Prayer came with an insert educating consumers about safe sex, an overtly political gesture at the height of the AIDS epidemic and a tribute to some of the friends and fans Madonna lost to the crisis. As a result, the album’s thematic content and scented packaging form into something proximate to a sacrament. You know, like a prayer.

Yet there’s also the juxtaposition of Like a Prayer’s fragrance and its cover image, hinting at Madonna’s more profane qualities as a pop star. The cover art is a picture of the singer’s jean-clad pelvis, an image that recalls the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. The group commissioned Andy Warhol to do the cover art for their ninth album. He worked with photographer Billy Name and designer Craig Braun to create its iconic image of a male figure in tight denim. The abundance of the subject’s bulge—and the presence of a working zipper and buckle to advance his denuding—gestures toward the synesthetic potential of music’s packaging. Like a Prayer’s album art presents the listener with similar possibilities, yet its tacit invitation to “smell” Madonna promises more a complex engagement with female sensuality. My memory of the proximity between patchouli, Madonna’s crotch, and my nose resulted in a life of asking questions about music culture, gender, and women’s work. These questions led me to consider what gender and media can teach us about fragrance. I can’t see exactly where it’ll lead me yet, but I can smell it in the air.

Upsetting the Order

Upon its release in early 2010, Joanna Newsom’s third full-length album, Have One on Me, received comparisons to frayed West Coast valentines like Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. Despite her travels as a performer and her association with Chicago-based indie label, Drag City, Newsom’s Californian-ness is foundational to her work, particularly on songs like “In California.” Such material may have doubled as an audition for her role as the narrator in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Inherent Vice. Though Newsom hails from Nevada City and Anderson reps the Valley, they met in fictional Gordita Beach to retell Thomas Pynchon’s post-60s shaggy detective novel.

Paul Thomas Anderson expanded the role of hippie minor character Sortilège for his adaptation of Pynchon’s 2009 novel after discussing the writer’s work with Newsom at a dinner party. Perhaps he used the singer’s vocal fry, loose phrasing, and linguistic dexterity as guideposts for developing images and worlds that corresponded with Pynchon’s prose. As a musician, Newsom cuts a divisive figure. Like Pynchon and Anderson, the density of her work is at times mistaken for weirdness. Inherent Vice isn’t incoherent—it’s just that it’s about the illusion and the reality of the collapse of social order. Newsom plays the harp, which seems novel until one considers the expense and muscularity nested within its feminine gentility. It doesn’t transport itself to the parlor. She has that voice, an ember-like mezzosoprano, that has been bestowed with descriptors ranging from “lacy, shimmering” to “Lisa Simpson.” And she has an especially literary ear for language. She’s prone to construct rhyme schemes around words like “palanquin” and turn a phrase like “amazing tantric cougars” when profiled by journalists. In other words, Newsom can effectively play a character who says things like “these were perilous times, astrologically speaking, for dopers.”

At some point during production, I wonder if Anderson turned to Have One’s second disc, upon which “In California” appears. Many of Inherent Vice’s cinematic influences—Cheech and Chong, The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye, the Zucker Brothers—add up to slapstick. On songs like “Good Intentions Paving Company,” Newsom channels Randy Newman’s ability to commit jokes to a time signature. But disc two of Have One sustains a deceptive sadness that neatly mirrors Inherent Vice’s faded Polaroid palette of washed-out blues, browns, pinks, and whites. Underneath its silliness there’s a sun-shot melancholy to Inherent Vice. It knows that the ruling class—in this case, Silent Majority Southern Californian real estate developers—can co-opt and exploit countercultural practices, seizing upon the circuit between addiction and rehab as an opportunity for vertical integration. It’s aware that sunburns share a dangerous proximity with heroin, the Manson family, and murder. Its gumshoe protagonist entangles himself in a conspiracy by using his broken heart as a compass. At points it’s unclear whether Have One recounts a break-up or investigates a crime, a fitting ambiguity for a record that makes oblique references to thwarted motherhood and lost children and is speculated to detail the disillusion of Newsom’s relationship with Bill Callahan.

But who is Sortilège, exactly? In Anderson’s film, Newsom splits the difference between a close friend, a scenester, an inner monologue, and a mirage. She’s an omniscient yet transient presence. She offers counsel to private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix), slipping in and out of a beach-side eatery, his car, the corners of his memory, and offering guidance in voiceover like a viewer warning the screen during a horror movie.

Inherent Vice isn’t interested in arias, so it doesn’t have the naked emotional resonance of Have One’s loftier moments. It’s biggest payoff is a couple’s tender reunion, and it’s seen from a distance. It’s not bittersweet like “Baby Birch.” There’s no anger in its loneliness to match “Go Long.” And no character is committed enough to deliver a devastating kiss-off like album closer “Does Not Suffice,” which borrows its melody from “In California.” Perhaps this would be different if Inherent Vice was told from the point of view of Sportello’s mysterious ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). But the protagonist cannot really know her, or at least chooses to see only certain parts of her (mainly the angel and the devil).

At face value, Sportello is not a chauvinist. But in his film, Sortilège is but one woman among many—informants, lovers, suspects—who appears periodically, reshaping his investigation with each encounter. If this film and its source material is about the death of the dream of the 60s, its promise of free love and radicalism was a hollow one for women. In one scene, Sportello tracks down a missing person he’s been hired to find at a happening for Vigilant California, an organization that obscures its support of Richard Nixon behind love beads. They’re staging a re-enactment of the Last Supper where Jesus and his disciples are eating pizzas their old ladies made. In “Go Long,” disc two’s operatic peak, Newsom bristles at “the loneliness of you mighty men, with your jaws, and fists, and guitars, and pens, and your sugarlip” rejecting the gender segregation that keeps her from “the firepits with you mighty men.” Can you call it a revolution if the men still sit at the table while the women mind the kitchen?

Sortilège’s presence in Inherent Vice hints at possible alternate histories and narratives beyond Sportello’s case. What potential connections could these women have with each other irrespective of Sportello, co-ops, and the LAPD? What if Sortilège did bong rips with Valley Girl massage therapist Jade (Hong Chau) and spacey waitress Chlorinda (Jillian Bell)? What if ex-junkie drug counselor Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) worked with lawyer Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) on a patient’s rehabilitation? What if the story followed Sportello’s taciturn receptionist, Petunia Leeway (Maya Rudolph), and found Clancy Charlock (Michelle Sinclair) waiting in her apartment? The film crowds the frame and soundtrack with the distinct voices of interesting women. The Summer of Love could not dislodge the misogyny and sexism embedded in the American male psyche, but feminism would continue to trouble it in the decades ahead. Newsom’s narration dares us to imagine a present where women no longer lend their voices to recount men’s stories, but instead raise them to tell their own.

Playing Along with St. Vincent and EMA

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.

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

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

In 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?