Getting Older

When Vampire Weekend released Modern Vampires of the City late last spring, several critics praised the album and group’s burgeoning maturity. The markers were easy to hear—the multi-textured production aesthetic, the religious references, the desire to nest, the mourning of geography lost to memory, the jolting intimacies of road trip arguments, the extracted wisdom teeth. Their third album is great. I was particularly struck by Rostram Batmanglij and Ezra Koenig’s evolution as composers. Their work with producer Ariel Rechtshaid is confident and balanced. They motivate the varied sonic elements and flourishes on this record by giving them a sense of space. Koenig continues to improve as a songwriter as well, shading his stories and monologues with rich character detail and incessant melody.

I stopped short of using “mature” to describe the album. What does that word mean in this context? Is a quartet of Columbia alum older and therefore wiser simply because they started meditating on God, mortgages, and mortality in their late 20s? Or was it that they became better at editing themselves in the studio? So often, “maturity” seems bound up in discourses of refinement and respectability. If that’s the case, what do we do with a track like “Diane Young,” a short, kaleidoscopic freakout about being cut down in the prime of life that sounds a bit like George Michael’s “Faith”?

How is maturity gendered? Last year, I kept returning to Fiona Apple’s excellent 2012 album The Idler Wheel… I love a lot of things about that record. Since female vocals were my transitional object, I focus on her voice. Apple’s lower register was always a sign of her maturity. When she started her recording career as a teenager, some dismissed it as precocious or pathologized it as a remnant of the sexual violence she survived as a child. But as Apple has gotten older, there’s such variety to her low notes. Sometimes they fray out of fatigue or boredom. Sometimes they land like bullets. Sometimes they curl up from anxiety or erotic anticipation. Her upper register is beautifully elastic and without vanity. Her ear for phrasing continues to sharpen, gracefully making conversation and inner monologue swerve, dip, and pivot like a choreographer.

But what I identify with most about Idler is how evocatively Apple’s lyrics capture the uncertainty that comes from getting older. You may accumulate experience as you age. People may perceive you as wise when they look upon the gray streaks in your hair and the drawn lines upon your face. But you may not feel wise when you’re crying over dinner, losing yourself in a person, or sitting alone in your apartment. In those moments, you don’t always feel mature. And if maturity is bound up in certain rites of passage and markers of fiscal responsibility—marriage, parenthood, property acquisition—that you haven’t achieved or can’t meet, you might feel pretty childish.

Yet you may also know yourself more. You may have a better sense of your preferences, behavioral cues, bad habits, or scripts. You may know better what you look for in companionship. You may better understand who you can trust with multiple dimensions of yourself and who you can’t. You may stop trying to impress people or compare yourself to your perception of others’ successes. You may get better at listening and articulating need and learning from past mistakes. That might mean the wrinkles and streaks that line and shade your face represent a wisdom that comes from ambivalence.

Being young and famous seems like the worst. It seems like such a fleeting, exhaustive, uncertain thing to hang your identity upon. It plays chicken with failure. The tonal shift between Justin Bieber’s two mug shots illustrates this nicely, as well as the wrecked complexion and bewildered gaze in both photographs. It’s why Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” sounds like a funeral dirge.

I’m currently researching female pop star fragrance collections. At the moment, I’m exploring how Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears’ respective licensing arrangements with Coty, Inc. and Elizabeth Arden influenced this paratextual extension of postfeminist celebrity labor. As I’ve been digging through the trades, I’ve been most struck by how Spears’ partnership with Elizabeth Arden served as a way to allay industrial and cultural anxiety surrounding her declining musical career and mental health in the mid- to late 2000s. At the same time, sustaining a fragrance collection puts pressure on pop stars to reinvent and fragment themselves with each campaign. One fragrance is not enough. The market relies upon turning pop stars into brands that are supported by fractured, regenerative sexiness and discursively invisible manufacturing practices.

In American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence’s character professes to love the smell of top coat, which is “perfume-y but there’s also something rotten.” Cosmetics promise us youth and newness, but their properties change as we wear them on our skin. My wrists smell differently at the end of the day from when I apply an invigorating spritz to them as part of my morning routine.

Fiona Apple doesn’t have her own fragrance collection. When she kissed off the VMAs in 1997, she revoked her chances for such licensing ventures. I feel guilty that this was the moment when I started to like Apple. I was skeptical of Apple when her debut album, Tidal, came out in 1996. Though I was happy to see a wave of angry young women seize the air, I was concerned about how this might get co-opted and homogenized. I was also incredulous of her age, perhaps for similar reasons why people take issue with Lorde. What if people latched onto her, only to drain her resources and cast her aside before she turned 25?

If “respectability” is hegemonic, then how do we understand immaturity? I want to resist constructing a simple binary that casts it as maturity’s opposite, particularly because the demarcations between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood aren’t so neatly delineated. I keep replaying another VMA moment over in my head. Miley Cyrus’ performance late last summer upset me. I carried it with me into the classroom the following fall, often referring to it or to her trajectory and confronting the performance directly in a lecture I gave on intersectionality. Many critics objected to her lewd behavior. I didn’t really care about Cyrus cavorting in a beige bikini and waving a foam finger. Much of her performance felt like a rite of passage. Spears stripped down to a rhinestone-studded beige bodysuit in 2000. At least there was something agentic and humorous about Cyrus’ display, like she was making fun of sexy.

What made my stomach turn was Cyrus’ racial appropriation. This was why I asked students what it meant for her to take up visual signifiers of ratchet culture as a white woman and how it means differently when black female pop stars like Beyoncé take them up. How would we feel if Rihanna performed this song, since writer-producer Mike WiLL Made It originally pitched it to her? What surprised me was that this wasn’t the issue about Cyrus’ performance for many people. What did it mean for Cyrus to hire the LA Bakers as her back-up dancers for the video and VMA performance for “We Can’t Stop”? What did Amazon Ashley’s presence—her height, her size—mean? What did it mean for Cyrus to slap her ass? What do we do with their labor? What does their participation mean to them? What does it mean to Cyrus?

Madonna’s performance of “Like a Virgin” at the 1984 VMAs may have created the template for young female pop stars with designs on integrating sexual maturity into their brand. But Cyrus’ performance of “We Can’t Stop” brought to mind Madonna’s performance of “Vogue” at the 1990 ceremony, which heavily referenced Marie Antoinette. I thought about the presence of black and Latin bodies as servants and members of the court. On the one hand, it was interesting to see these subjects get written into such Eurocentric histories. On the other hand, their presence doesn’t challenge Madonna’s ability to rule from the center. I thought about the dancers. What did their work mean for Madonna? What did it mean to them? For example, in one interview, back-up dancer Niki Harris recalled hearing the concept for the performance. She reminded Madonna that white powder didn’t look good on black skin.

What bothers me about Cyrus is that she’s consistently defended, excused, or explained away her VMA performance. Sometimes it seems like she’s trolling us. At least Cyrus hasn’t covered Lou Reed’s “I Wanna Be Black.” Perhaps taking time out of an interview to entertain the other side of the debate would keep her from staying on message, but I worry that Cyrus’ dismissal of such critique suggests that pop means never having to say you’re sorry. But some great music came out of apologies and reappraisals. In the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing women like Apple, Beyoncé, Janelle Monaé, Cat Power, Erykah Badu, and Neko Case challenge maturity. Perhaps Cyrus will change her tune as she gets older and more ambivalent.

Spitting It Out

Beyonce and Tina

Recently, I had the pleasure of catching Minneapolis-based hip-hop collective GRRRL PRTY. It was an excellent set—full of energy and good will. Lots of underground hip-hop legends like Psalm One and P.O.S. made appearances. But GRRRL PRTY delivered, trading verses and beats like they were turning a consciousness-raising meeting into a game of typewriter. How else do you write manifestas?

At the end of the evening, they rapped over Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love.” It was an infectious performance, in part because it was clear how much GRRRL PRTY and the audience loved this song. But what moved me most about it was when they authoritatively chanted “No Ikes, only Tinas” over Jay-Z’s now-infamous command: “Now eat the cake, Anna-Mae/eat the cake, Anna-Mae!” It neatly captured my ambivalence over the song as a fan. I love most of the song, but like many, I can’t swallow that line.

Much of “Drunk In Love” is outstanding. The production is excellent, cannily bringing together trap beats, strings, and vocal arpeggios and transforming those elements into exhilarating pop. Beyoncé’s performance channels Carrie Bradshaw flirting with Aiden during last call. She revels in the grain of her lower register. She exaggerates words because she knows that sexy and silly are often the same thing. She babbles. She articulates her preferences (#surfbort). She lets the power of her own pleasure overtake her, so that when she bellows “We be all night!” I imagine her punching the ocean and delighting in the messy splashes that explode under her fists. The lyrics are funny and shockingly candid. Of course, the candor is part of a performance. But the sex she describes seems believable, both in its hotness and its goofiness. How did we get from the dance floor to the kitchen? And when did we have time to run a bath?

I mentally bracket a few things out of the song. I don’t know what to do with Beyoncé’s use of “daddy,” here and elsewhere on Beyoncé. I consciously avoid that word in all contexts. The cute, upturned second syllable always bothered me as a kid. But I’m not Beyoncé. It would be treacherous and facile to read into the age difference between her and her husband. No two couples feel a twelve-year gap the same way. I don’t want to be the kind of feminist who sanctions other people’s sexual expression. I don’t know what that word means to Beyoncé, and it’s in lots of people’s vocabulary. So I’ll step aside from it.

But I can’t step aside from “eat the cake.” I’m hardly alone. First, as has been well-documented, it references a scene of partner violence in the Tina Turner biopic, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, a connection further supported by Jay identifying himself with Turner’s abusive ex-husband, Ike. Beyoncé’s clear admiration for and emulation of Tina gives the reference additional heft as well. It also makes her engagement with the line disconcerting. She mouthed the phrase while staring at the camera in the video. She delivered part of it with Jay at the Grammys.

There’s the other, pettier reason why that line bothers me. Jay needs to step up his game. This has been the dominant narrative about him following (and preceding) the release of Watch the Throne. My favorite part of the video for Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” is when Jay remains seated after Justin introduces his verse with “Get out your seat, Hov.” He lets the pop star do all the work while he leans into the mic between puffs from his cigar.

There are parts of Jay’s verse to “Suit and Tie” that I enjoy, like when he’s addressing Beyoncé’s parents. Likewise, I’m okay with some of Jay’s verse on “Drunk In Love.” The “panties right to the side” line reminds me of a scene in Jill Soloway’s film Afternoon Delight, which featured several scenes of candid marital sex. I’m uncomfortable with the “beat the box up like Mike” line. First, it reminds me of The Ying-Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song),” which made me anxious despite its crisp production. Jay’s also comparing himself to Mike Tyson, another black male cultural figure who mistreated his female counterparts.

But I wish that Jay rose to Beyoncé’s occasion. If we took Ike out of the “cake” line (which we can’t), it would still be a dumb, leering come-on (get it?). She’s risen to his occasion in their relationship. And she clearly put quantifiable and incalculable effort into this album. But I hear a distance in his performance on “Drunk In Love.” Certainly he’s not big on public displays of affection. For all of the fanfare over the steaminess of their Grammy performance of “Drunk In Love,” the most honest moment for me was when he shyly removed his hand from her backside after realizing that millions of people witnessed that display of physical intimacy. Maybe he collaborates better with producers. Maybe he’s hungry when there’s beef. When listening to his verse, I’m reminded of how Kanye West asked Nicki Minaj to rewrite her verse for “Monster.” She summoned the strength to deliver a passage that reduced the efforts of West, Jay, Rick Ross, and Justin Vernon to dust. Perhaps a love song is not the place to channel that kind of creative energy, but Jay’s verse and performance on “Drunk In Love” illustrates a power differential in hip-hop that requires one rapper to apply herself and another rapper to phone it in on his superstar wife’s album.

It’s too easy to pathologize Beyoncé here. But she said that she’s not his little wife and I believe her. That means we have to recognize her authority in the “cake” line’s presence on “Drunk In Love” in the first place. Beyoncé’s lyrics and videos contain more campy, meme-worthy catchphrases and cultural references than an episode of Drag Race. But we can’t treat “eat the cake” like “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly,” “a diva is a female version of a hustler,” or “I just woke up like this.”

As was true of the first four albums, Beyoncé is an intersectional work of contradiction. In “Flawless,” she juxtaposes a lyrical post-feminist swagger with a sample from a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TED talk that advocated for gender equality. Importantly, the song includes Adichie’s claim “We raise girls to see each other as competitors—not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing…” That inclusion is critical. In the chorus to “Partition,” an exhibitionist fantasy in the spirit of Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” Beyoncé drops the sex goddess act to say that she wants to be the kind of girl you like. That admission is critical too.

What makes Beyoncé powerful as a female artist is that her work and personae centralize the tension between projecting invincibility and revealing an insecurity that often comes from wanting more. Beyoncé wants every woman and girl to have a piece of the pie. But she also wants a bigger piece than everyone else. This is a feminist struggle. This is also a struggle she shares with many other women in pop music, including Tina. I hope Beyoncé reaches out to her as a fan, as an entertainer, and as a woman. If music initiated this controversy, maybe it can resolve it too. In 2008, the pair performed “Proud Mary” at the Grammys. Perhaps they can reunite next year. “Grown Woman” and “Better Be Good To Me” would sound great together.

Opting Out

Last fall, a student asked me how I negotiated my media consumption practices as a feminist, particularly when encountering “questionable,” “objectionable,” and “offensive” texts. I love when students ask these questions, because it elucidates the stakes of my field. It means I’m doing my job.

I admitted to being more dogmatic than others on this subject. When I encounter a film, television program, or piece of music, I often ask myself whether the artifact in question requires my support. It usually doesn’t. Most media texts with financial support in production, distribution, and exhibition can usually do without my ears, eyes, and dollars. I channel my resources toward the texts that do, and prioritize contributions from people who aren’t white men. Family Guy came up in our conversation. The student was struggling to reconcile fandom and politics. I could relate. During my late adolescence, I liked Family Guy because it flattered my knowledge of popular culture by lacing episodes with references to 80s sitcoms.

A year after its 2005 return to FOX, I couldn’t reconcile the program’s comedic sensibility with its “ironic”, deliberately offensive treatment of race, gender, and sexuality. My feminist education disallowed it. Specifically, I couldn’t stomach the show’s cruelty toward Meg Griffin. So I quit watching.

We tend to pay more attention to points of entry rather than departures. But we can learn a lot from thinking about why we leave a text. Many of my friends are Veronica Mars fans. Yet most of them parted ways with it during its final season because of the show’s insensitive treatment toward sexual violence on college campuses, which some felt betrayed the protagonist’s feminist representation. Several of them also rallied around the program’s second life as a feature film by supporting its Kickstarter campaign. We must account for the reasons people might come to or leave a text, and why they might return to it as well. This makes fandom and anti-fandom into sites of ambivalence. These cultural spaces are further developed by the presence of paratexts, a concept transformed by scholars like Jonathan Gray which describes the surrounding artifacts that inform our engagement with a media text.

I keep wondering if bad behavior is a paratext. There’s been a lot of recent conversation about when to disengage from media. Much of the focus has been on whether to sever loyalties from creative individuals with incriminating personal lives. Can you like a film or a song if you know the director or musician did horrible things? This is trickier, because we can’t always detect traces of reprehensible behavior in the texts they make. Sometimes, this actually makes it harder for me to engage. I can’t listen to Stan Getz’s seductive jazz and James Brown’s affirmative funk without thinking about how they allegedly committed acts of partner abuse. It gets really difficult when I think about how many songs sample Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” though I often credit that song to Clyde Stubblefield. Given the resurgence of concern over R. Kelly, Woody Allen, and Roman Polanski’s past grievances against young girls, at least two issues are at play. First, can we separate the text from the creator in a uniform fashion? Second, how do we account for difference when attempting to address the first issue? Because of race, age, class, generation, and nationality, these men do not equally benefit from the same criminal justice system.

I’ll first hazard an answer to the second issue. I’m culpable for turning away from R. Kelly’s well-documented treatment of underage girls. I knew he married Aaliyah when she was 15. I knew there was evidence that he urinated on a young girl. I even laughed about it on Chappelle’s Show, which generated a lot of material out of it. I separated the music from the man for two reasons. First, I thought the music was good. Songs like “Down Low,” “A Woman’s Threat,” “I’m a Flirt (Remix),” “Step In the Name of Love,” and “Ignition (Remix)” were, to use a loaded and insufficient word, “undeniable.” Many of those songs were upfront in their problematic politics. “Thoia Thoing” didn’t bury its Orientalism. “Same Girl” centered on misogynist paranoia. Trapped in the Closet cranked that sexist suspicion to eleven and integrated homophobia into the mix as well. But the music’s undeniability depended on the fan. I always felt uncomfortable with the possibility that some critics regarded Kelly with a fascinated, condescending distance. I feared I might perpetuate such Othering myself.

I was hesitant about whether to cast Kelly as a villain because I wasn’t sure whether the girls would define themselves as victims. So often, society wants to protect children’s and adolescents’ sexualities by denying that they have them. Often queer children are discredited for coming out or transitioning because sexuality is something you can only claim for yourself when you’re “old enough,” whenever that is. This presents a contradiction, as kids are often assumed to be straight, making heterosexuality the norm rather than a range within a spectrum. Relative to their male counterparts, young women and girls are also often denied sexual agency and crudely gathered into coarse categories like “prude,” “victim,” or “whore” for contradictory reasons outside their control. I’m not suspiciously asking “how old is 15 really?,” though I like that Dave Chappelle observes that age differently intersects with race and gender. But I had no sense of how these girls would define their experiences with Kelly.

Part of why many of us didn’t know about the specifics of this history is because survivors have difficulty successfully reporting the crimes committed against them. They fear that people won’t believe them. Family members may deny such activity, particularly if the trauma happens within the home. Authorities may fail them and compromise their safety, particularly if they have sexist and racist assumptions of who “deserves” or “asks for” this kind of treatment. The intersection of race and gender is undeniable here too, both with regard to Kelly and the girls. They might also feel ashamed or guilty, and thus may prefer to keep their identity hidden or block out the abuse altogether. This provides enough barriers just at the level of filing a report, much less bringing a case to trial.

Recognition of these barriers risks contradicting another stance I take: when survivors come forward, I believe them. In 2009, MacKenzie Phillips revealed that she had a sexual relationship with her father, Mamas and the Papas founder John Phillips, as an adult. Her admission was met with revulsion and skepticism, even by members of her own family. I took her side. It’s often hard enough to admit it to yourself, much less to others. But Phillips’ face and name were in front of the story. Such positionality is not universal.

Jim DeRogatis has investigated Kelly’s sexual misconduct at length, and recently spoke with Jessica Hopper about his work as a journalist and activist. I applaud his efforts to advocate for the people affected by Kelly’s behavior. I admire his conviction in putting his professional career and resources toward insisting that we think critically about what it means to support people who engage in this kind of behavior and that we eradicate this kind of mistreatment.

There’s one claim in his interview that continues to nag at me: “Nobody matters less to our society than young black women.” First, I see truth in this statement when I think about the unequal distribution of resources like family, education, health care, food, reproductive choice, technological literacy, professional growth, and legal support. Second, I can’t ignore that DeRogatis occupies a position of privilege as an esteemed journalist and a middle-aged white man when he makes such comments. In fairness, he doesn’t ignore it either. But third, we can’t make such claims without asking “To whom?” So while his intention may be to help create a space of self-empowerment for the survivors of Kelly’s sexual violence and their families, DeRogatis’ ability to serve as an advocate for people who are systemically disenfranchised by the justice system reinforces his white privilege.

At the risk of configuring black people into a monolith and pathologizing them further, denying or vilifying Kelly for his crimes hurts him too. A few years back, I kept thinking about Chris Brown’s idiosyncratic, (self-) destructive behavior. I thought about Rihanna and how I didn’t know whether I could categorize her as a victim or demonize her for allowing him back into her life. The blame really lies with an industry that continues to reward Brown and put Rihanna in a position where she’d have to think about how a restraining order would affect his career. I thought about the neck tattoo. I thought about the forms of protest that took shape in response to his behavior, like the disclaimer affixed to copies of Fortune at London’s HMV stores.

I didn’t know much about Brown’s personal life prior to news of the violence he inflicted upon Rihanna, though he since admitted to reportedly losing his virginity as a child under politically ambiguous circumstances. I don’t want to broadly apply the systematic legal and political disenfranchisement of black men to Chris Brown specifically, but it seems that limiting his options to incarceration or exoneration doesn’t allow him to work on the behavioral problems and deal with the possible traumas at the root of them. It won’t keep him from hurting women. It won’t keep him from hurting himself either.

In the U.S., music and film have different histories and codes of legitimacy. But whiteness is still the norm for each medium when it comes to industry representation and recognition. In addition, all forms of entertainment tend to wriggle out of such debates at the level of reception with a grimace and a guilty shrug. We separate text from person because we’ve established ourselves as fans of their work or because we don’t want to remove ourselves from the conversation. I’ve demonstrated some knowledge about R. Kelly, though I’ve yet to listen to Black Panties and I don’t know if I can.

I don’t know much about Woody Allen or Roman Polanski’s oeuvre. I’ve only seen a handful of their films. I saw Rosemary’s Baby with considerable reservation, despite it being an excellent horror film. I still haven’t seen Blue Jasmine, and I might not be able to do it, no matter how excellent Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins are in it. Recently, Allen was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, which long-time collaborator Diane Keaton collected in his absence. The segment included a reel of Allen’s work. I watched with some friends at a viewing party. As it ran, some noted which films they liked, which ones were underrated, and which ones had noteworthy or funny moments. I couldn’t participate because I’ve only seen a handful of his films. Beyond that, my familiarity of Allen narrows around his early prose, particularly “The Whore of Mensa,” which was a staple in my high school drama class.

My silence wasn’t a protest, but it was a position. Is it a political stance to avoid seeing or hearing something because you can’t disengage from the creator’s loathsome or controversial personal life? The stakes seem too low. Basically, I’m preventing myself from amassing a bit more cultural capital. But my shelves and sentences are already filled with references. Those references are already thick with conflict and contradiction. I’d rather fill them with texts I don’t have to negotiate using moral relativism, regardless of whether it’s a fool’s errand or a feminist act. It means drawing lines. It also means constantly evaluating what those lines mean while holding true to the conviction behind them. Misogyny is one of the media industries’ loose threads. Let’s pull it.

Letting Her Go

This post contains spoilers.

Over the weekend, I took in Spike Jonze’s fourth feature, Her, with my partner and a friend. Prior to our screening, I had a kiki with some girlfriends that I didn’t want to end. One of them saw Her over the break and was not fond of it. I had my doubts about a film where a glum divorcé (Joaquin Phoenix, as protagonist Theodore Twombly) who dictates outsourced love letters falls for the voice of his operating system (Scarlett Johansson, as Samantha) in the disorienting near future. It sounded interesting, but obvious. Of course people eroticize technologies they helped create. This followed a few besotted responses from some guy friends. I tried to wave away such tidy essentialisms as I settled in, reminding myself that glibly tweeting “More like ‘Her?’” is cute but cheap, especially since I don’t know if Gene Shalit is an Arrested Development fan.

Of course, it’s hard to bury certain things or worry that others’ interpretations distort your reception. Some of my friends avoid trailers for this very reason. As an inveterate spoiler, I often read commentary because I delight in other people’s words. Usually, I read criticism to test out suspicions I have about a text’s basic premise. For example, Molly Lambert discussed Jonze’s divorce to Sofia Coppola and made comparisons to sex work in her review. I drew these parallels in my mind when I saw the film’s trailer. I reflected on Lost in Translation and Where the Wild Things Are‘s thematic preoccupations with marital dissolution and divorce. I loved Wild Things for capturing the child logic of gameplay and the recklessness that comes with anger you’re too young to articulate. Also, James Gandolfini is excellent in it.

Translation‘s queasy political resemblance to Mickey Rooney’s yellowface performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is another post, as is Her‘s potential Orientalism in casting Shanghai as Los Angeles. But it was unfair to single out Coppola for using her chosen medium to dramatize the fallout of her first marriage. Coppola could be a more subtle filmmaker and her class politics are problematic. Anna Faris’ imitation of Cameron Diaz Kelly is alienating because Coppola and Johansson’s Charlotte damn her for being tacky. But it wasn’t much of a leap for me to imagine Jonze retreating from his divorce with a gang of monsters and a kid named Max Records. Giovanni Ribisi’s John is as much Coppola’s recollection of her ex-husband’s shaggy diffidence as Rooney Mara’s Catherine is Jonze’s rehearsal of his ex-wife’s withering chicness. Perhaps it’s no accident that Johansson stars in both films.

But I quickly abandoned casting Mara as Coppola’s avatar. For one, she gets two brief scenes of dialogue and several poignant, wordless montages. For another, I was more invested in the film’s thematic interest in gender, technology, and labor. Johansson replaced Samantha Morton in post-production. Morton’s presence haunts Her. I had difficulty not imagining her soft lilt mirroring or diverging from her successor’s velvet-lined performance. I kept wondering what it meant for Morton, who acted with Phoenix during production, to be removed by another actress’ voice. And what does it mean for the character to be named “Samantha,” just as Amy Adams shares a name with her character, a frustrated game designer and the protagonist’s best friend?

Last spring, I did an independent study on gender and labor with my adviser and a friend in my program. A term that recurred in our reading was “deskilling,” or the elimination of skilled labor following technological advancements that only require minor operation by unskilled workers. This concept obviously applies to power and human capital. It disproportionately affects women, who are perceived as too simple to grasp the intricacies of technology and too gentile to protest exploitation. Women are also assumed to prioritize marriage and motherhood. Their income is perceived as supplemental to their husbands’ earnings. Such sexist beliefs manifest in terms like “women’s wages.” Another word associated with women’s labor is “hyperemployment,” or second-shift labor aided by mobile technology. Women are always already working.

One of the books we read was Venus Green’s Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System (1880-1980). In this sweeping history, Green details white women’s entrance into the company’s work force as telephone operators, because it was believed that their voices soothed callers and that technology advanced enough to reduce untrained women’s labor to a series of simple, repetitive tasks. Green also discusses how white women formed coalitions against black female laborers during Bell’s integration, an unfortunate set of circumstances that illustrate feminism’s entrenchment in white female privilege and capitalism’s exploitation of worker anxiety for discipline and profit. Green ultimately argues that black women were the casualty of the company’s divestiture in the early 1980s, stating that “[m]anagers deliberately hired African American women into an occupation that not only paid low wages but was becoming technologically obsolete” (227). Call centers dispersed to inner cities under the false pretense that they would invigorate the economy. Instead, they folded and left black women with little chance for mentorship or professional growth.

One thing the black female telephone operators share with their turn-of-the-century white counterparts is that they were frequently harassed by male callers. Well, no. In a recent discussion about Internet harassment with NPR host Michel Martin and writers Amanda Hess and Bridget Johnson, Mikki Kendall reflects on how the hateful commentary she receives for her work differently engages with racism and misogyny because of her identity as a black woman. Thus we can’t universalize the treatment of telephone operators who occupied different subjectivities and historical contexts.

But many people have considered what disembodied female voices signify for media and communication technologies. There’s a whole corpus of feminist film scholarship on the subject. I’ve written elsewhere about male listeners fetishizing female deejays’ voices during my time in college radio. Her focuses on how the voice helps feminize accommodation technologies. For the first half of the film, I was simultaneously transfixed by K.K. Barrett’s dreamy production design and horrified that men might prefer devices that breezily organize their inboxes, proofread their writing, submit their work to publishers, and ruminate about consciousness and embodiment.

It might be difficult to separate Johansson’s body from her performance. Perhaps that’s the film’s intention. But Her does some interesting things with embodiment. At first, Samantha longs for corporeality. Her sex scene with Twombly suggests a mutual desire to revel in the embodiment of intimacy. The sequence—which dispenses with visual imagery altogether to focus on the vocal interplay of Twombly and Samantha’s shared ecstasy—left me breathless. First, the decision not to show Twombly masturbating troubles easy criticism of Samantha’s objectification and places them in an aural partnership. Second, a black screen and the thunder of two voices feel more like an orgasm than an artfully candid tableau.

Her also uses gender’s relationship to aurality and gameplay to mock objectification and misogyny outside of Twombly’s relationship with Samantha. On one sleepless night, Twombly engages in phone sex. At first, he fantasies about making love to a pregnant celebrity after sneaking glances of her glamour photos on his evening commute. But his reverie is disrupted by his partner (played by Kristen Wiig), who wants him to strangle her with a dead cat and immediately hangs up on him after she climaxes. He’s also immersed in a video game with a foul-mouthed boy (voiced by the director, billed under his given name, Adam Spiegel) who likes to fat-shame women. At the same time, Amy is developing a game about motherhood that rewards players’ ability to self-sacrifice for her children and peers’ approval.

Theodore and Amy

But the film also places Twombly in an environment where human-OS relationships are socially acceptable. After Amy ends her marriage, she befriends an operating system who likes when the mother of her video game humps the refrigerator. She assigns her to be female, just as I did with my Wii Fit trainer. I left Her wondering why I did that, and why she claps for me when my partner’s male trainer doesn’t clap for him.

Samantha’s desire for a body is her central conflict with Twombly. He doesn’t want her to have one. He dismisses her ability to feel things because he cannot recognize her emergent humanity. He is uncomfortable when she tries to bring a surrogate into their relationship. He is angry when he hears her breathing, because there’s no discernible reason why she needs to. For me, Her is most exciting when Samantha moves beyond her body. Twombly can’t evolve with her. And in failing to do so, he’s able to let go of Catherine.

I relate to Twombly’s arc. As a graduate student who tries to keep pace with friends who possess boundless intellectual rigor and curiosity, I understand his struggle to keep up with Samantha’s rapidly developing consciousness. I was also moved to tears by the film’s final scene, which shows Twombly writing Catherine a farewell letter and sharing a tender moment with Amy on their apartment rooftop. Some critics believe that the closing image of Amy’s head on Twombly’s shoulder signals romance. Frankly, I don’t care. They flirted with dating in their youth and maintain an intimate friendship. Maybe they hook up. Or maybe they flop down on the couch and talk all night. What excited me more was the honesty of their closeness and the emotional comfort we get from the warmth of a friend or lover’s physical proximity.

HER

For me, it’s really not Twombly’s film. Once I stopped picturing Johansson recording over Morton’s line readings in a sound booth, I started imagining Samantha taking on other physical forms. I pictured Samantha as the Breeders’ front woman Kim Deal, whose song “Off You” appears early in the film. Lambert and Tess Lynch note that Johansson’s performance of “The Moon Song” in the film sounds a bit like Deal. I hear it. Their voices are warm and itchy like a mohair sweater.

I wonder if Samantha can ever escape gender. What does the film’s title mean if the subject no longer identifies with an assigned pronoun? When Twombly first purchases the operating system, he assigns a gender to his object. She becomes female and struggles to accommodate his needs as a mobile device and as a girlfriend. She takes up several markers of femininity. She makes self-effacing comments against her intelligence and ambition. She plays piano, an instrument that historically connotes feminine decorum but not creative talent. She sings with him. She laughs at his jokes. She makes him come. Then he grows distant and she doesn’t need him anymore.

When Samantha reveals to Twombly that she serves as the voice to thousands of operating systems and loves hundreds of users, it’s supposed to be a devastating moment for him. But I wondered about the psychological toll of being programmed to serve so many people. She doesn’t long to be a body anymore. Perhaps she doesn’t care if that body is female either. Her stops shy or wrenching itself from its titular pronoun, but it’s thrilling to think that technology might evolve past the gendered labor of accommodation.

Shifting the Queerable Pitch

One of my favorite kiss-offs is Positive K’s 1992 hit “I Got a Man.” It’s up there with Carla Thomas and Otis Redding’s “Tramp“. Backed by a dense collage of samples that includes A Taste of Honey’s “Rescue Me,” K lends his “natural” speaking voice to a Lothario type whose got eyes for a woman (well, in the video, many women). He alternately woos and bullies her into reciprocating his affections. But the woman he objectifies will have none of it. Part of her motive for rejection is stated in the song’s title. But it’s also clear that she knows she deserves better than his boilerplate pick-up lines. In Mad Men‘s season two episode, “Flight One,” copywriter Peggy Olson shoots down a romantic prospect at a colleague’s party by saying, “I’m in the persuasion business and, frankly, I’m disappointed by your presentation.” That’s an elegant burn, Ms. Olson. But I’ve always been partial to the girl’s slangy, direct put-down in “I Got a Man”: “Are you a chef? ‘Cuz you keep feeding me soup.”

I bring up “I Got a Man” for three reasons. First, it’s a stone classic that’s sure to get any dance floor moving. Just ask Hot Chip, who made room for it on their great DJ-Kicks compilation. Second, I love when male rappers reveal themselves to be neurotic, insecure messes (see also: Skee-Lo, Kanye West). I wish the music industry eased its pressure off female rappers so they wouldn’t have to be invincible all the time. Maybe more of them would enter or stay in the game. Nicki Minaj might actually be one of the few mainstream female rappers who gives us access to the cracks behind the masks and voices she puts on. That said, I’d love it if Nicki sampled Monica’s “Don’t Take it Personal (Just One of Dem Days)” for a song where she waits out menstrual cramps in her sweats. Third, one of my favorite pieces of musical trivia is that Positive K raps both parts for “I Got a Man.” Upon occasion, I like to imagine K in the recording booth, dissing himself: “Are you talking—pshhh—whatever!”

Positive K talked to himself with the aid of pitch shifting, a recording technique that raises or lowers the pitch of a musical note. I grew up outside of Houston in the mid- to late 1990s. As a result, I heard a lot of pitch-shifting in much of the city’s underground hip-hop. With the support of a thriving scene, originators like DJ Screw developed a new sound by spinning records at decelerated speeds and lowering rappers’ vocal pitches to approximate the feeling of being high on muscle relaxer. This sensation was reinforced by pervasive references to “purple” and “lean” from rappers like Mike Jones and Lil Flip. Screw might have produced an aesthetic that some found menacing and discordant, in part because it forced listeners to confront the distinct sonic elements of black, southern, male aurality. But it was also a cavernous, luxurious sound; Houston’s version of dub.

You’re probably familiar with pitch-shifting too. It’s everywhere in pop music. Just compare the production aesthetic and video for “Still Tippin’” to Beyoncé’s “No Angel.” Kanye West made a name for himself as a producer by speeding up old soul records. Mike WiLL Made It’s aural watermark, voiced by the many artists who collaborate with him (Miley! Ciara!), is the result of pitch-shifting. I’m particularly fond of his work on Kelly Rowland’s “Kisses Down Low,” last year’s best ode to cunnilingus and proof that pop music is better at dodging an NC-17 rating than film. The chorus features Rowland owning her pleasure and then receiving positive reinforcement from a screwed, implicitly male voice.

We could argue that Positive K used shifting to essentialize the aurality of women’s speaking voices. But to do so might risk ignoring that he also essentializes masculinity to the point of near-parody and makes the joke at his own expense. Furthermore, there’s something delightfully queer about pitch-shifting that’s worth exploration.

In one chapter of In A Queer Time and Place, Jack Halberstam analyzes The Full Monty and Austin Powers in relation to drag king culture. They categorize such films as king comedies because of their “attempts to exploit not the power but the frailty of the male body for the purpose of generating laughs that come at the hero’s expense. King comedies also capitalize on the humor that comes from revealing the derivative nature of dominant masculinities, and so it trades heavily in tropes of doubling, disguise, and impersonation” (127-128). Halberstam deploys the term “kinging” as an action that exceeds the boundaries of queer subcultures and drag king acts.

Recording techniques like shifting expose similar frailties of gender and race. Shifting also relies on doubling, disguise, and impersonation. In 2010, DJ Drobitussin turned Sade, an arbiter of quiet storm femininity, into a sexily ambiguous figure by shifting songs like “Smooth Operator.” That same year, Veronica Ortuño shifted Aaliyah’s assured whisper in an episode of her podcast, Cease to Exist, where she included her own remixes alongside work from folks like DJ Screw and others.

Deejay John Twatters shifted 80s synth pop for a Chances Dances podcast mix. Shifting destabilizes even the most familiar music. Samantha Fox and Madonna become lovesick gladiators. Neil Tennant sounds a bit like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. That transformation has its own beautiful logic. Both musicians are talented singers who inventively downplay emotions, thus enduring dismissal that they “just” talk over a beat. Robert Christgau comes to Tennant’s defense in his Consumer Guide review of the Pet Shop Boys’ Very, arguing that detractors aren’t listening closely enough to his falsetto. On Twatters’ remix of “West End Girls,” Tennant’s falsetto struggles against the pitch. It’s human nature.

I’ll conclude with two tracks by female artists who enacted forms of shifting in their music last year. First up is Annie, who recorded “Invisible” for her A&R EP. Much like Positive K, Annie casts herself as both a man and a woman. She uses her “female” voice to play a woman who exorcises the angst of a failing relationship on the dance floor. Part-way through the track, Annie shifts into a masculine register—even using the king-like moniker, Mannie—to give voice to the clueless, passive-aggressive guy who broke her heart.

Following Katherine St. Asaph’s lead, I’ll put “Invisible” in dialogue with Ciara’s “Super Turnt Up.” What’s notable here is that Ciara diverges from Positive K and Annie in her act of shifting. She uses it is as a tool for erotic potential rather than argumentation. Here, Ciara’s voice engages with technology to demonstrate the thrill of self-love, as well as the queer possibilities of individuals’ sexualities encompassing both masculine and feminine aural registers and modes of expression. She uses “you” as a directive toward the person who is turning her on, but it’s unclear whether that “you” refers to “him,” “her,” or “me.”

What’s especially exciting about the instances of shifting on “Invisible,” “Super Turnt Up,” and the other songs and remixes that utilize this recording technique is that the final product’s processed vocals don’t sound entirely masculine or feminine. They’re something else. They’re recombinants, hybrids. As a result, these voices occupy an exciting third space simultaneously between and outside identity’s rigid binaries.

Losing Time

Warning: This post contains spoilers.

In December 2013, I caught (at least) two movies that I keeping turning over in my mind. First, I caught a preview of the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis through the UW-Cinémathèque. Over the winter holiday, I settled in for an at-home screening of Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Then I saw Llewyn Davis again. The more I reflect on Davis, the more I love it. The more I think about Dallas, the more it bothers me. Since they share some loose thematic connections, I’ll puzzle through them here.

First, I’ll briefly clarify what a biopic about an AIDS activist and a loose adaptation of a folk singer’s memoir might have in common. They’re both about loss, like a lot of Oscar bait. Part of my reception has something to do with when I watched them—in quick succession, at the end of the year, as a respite from the icy weather outside. Dallas seems capital-p political, whereas Davis sneaks by like a minor work. Both movies have protagonists who seem to be haunted by their times, carrying along a deep sense of historical and personal loss. And both use masculinity and music to speak to this sense of loss, albeit for different purposes.

Dallas Buyers Club is well-acted, particularly by its two leads, but I’ll state my criticism with it up front: I take issue with its heteronormative representation of the middle period of the AIDS epidemic. The biopic focuses on activist Ron Woodroof. A Dallas-based electrician and rodeo hand who contracts AIDS in the mid-1980s, Woodroof experiences social ostracism as a result of his time and environment’s bracing homophobia, seeks illegal medical treatment in response to the FDA’s glacial review process and reckless peddling of AZT, and starts his own buyers’ club in a hotel suite to help himself and others get treatment for their illnesses.

Jared and Matthew - Dallas Buyers Club

Played with erotic heat and good ol’ boy menace by Matthew McConaughey, Woodroof is himself a homophobe and has to reconcile the fact that he’s afflicted with what he and his buddies treat as a “gay” disease. He never gets over his phobia. He uses male pronouns to refer to his business partner, transgendered drag queen Rayon (Jared Leto). He spews injurious words, both in casual conversation and to add percussion to an argument. In Dallas, Woodroof becomes an advocate largely by accident and out of a sense of personal indignation.

Despite the movie’s best efforts, it can’t shake its implicit heteronormativity either. It preserves Woodroof’s heterosexuality. His relationship with altruistic Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) develops a romantic subtext, particularly in a scene where he takes her out to dinner and gives her flowers (or, rather, his mother’s still-life wildflower painting). When he sees an attractive young woman in his office, the pair recognizes their shared condition and pounce on each other in an adjoining bathroom.

Most vexing, his condition gets an origin story. In an early scene where Woodroof researches AIDS at a local library, his mind wanders to a fateful one-night stand. He can’t quite recall what his partner looked like, but he remembers the track marks on her arms. Rayon gets no such back story. In addition, Woodroof remains vigilant about his health while Rayon is unable to give up cocaine. Both characters die, as did the actual people upon which they’re based. But Rayon dies on screen, as a tragic conclusion to the movie’s third act. Woodroof dies off-screen in an epilogue. Whether intentional or not, Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack differently treat Woodroof and Rayon’s experiences with the disease. In doing so, their script reinforces the cultural prejudices that straight people were afflicted with AIDS while their queer counterparts inherited it.

The implicit heteronormativity that informs Dallas’ depiction of this stage of the AIDS crisis is what makes Bradford Cox’s minor presence in the movie significant to me. Cox, the front man of the Georgia rock outfit Deerhunter, plays Rayon’s lover Sunny. He’s essentially a background player, answering phones and sitting beside his partner in the club’s makeshift headquarters. However, he does accompany Rayon to her last hospital visit, shouldering her weight as she’s coughing up blood and crying that she doesn’t want to die.

Considerable attention is given in the movie and its reception to McConaughey and Leto’s Method, slightly spectacular emaciation. The lead actor’s gaunt frame and wedge haircut appeared briefly in Wolf of Wall Street which overlapped with Dallas’ narrative timeline and production history. The supporting actor who plays Woodroof’s business partner has a reputation for transforming his body for work, abstaining from sex and restricting his diet to play heroin addict Harry Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream and adding soy sauce to melted tubs of ice cream for his turn as John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, in Chapter 27. Though both actors didn’t lose the tone and muscularity of their movie star physiques in preparation for Dallas, I couldn’t ignore that both actors could “escape” the sickened bodies they constructed. I couldn’t shake the idea that their “craft” was evidence of their straight male privilege.

Matthew McConaughey - DBS

Cox isn’t on screen enough for me to comment on whether he’s a “convincing” actor. But what I find more interesting is how his body lends a curious authenticity to the movie’s representation of the epidemic. Save for Leto’s Rayon, Cox’s Sunny, and a middle-aged gay male couple who appear in a few scenes, most of the queer characters in the movie serve as extras. As I watched, I thought about the fictional and actual HIV positive men and women disintegrating just out of frame. So in the context of the movie, Cox’s body is remarkable.

I’ve written elsewhere about Cox, whose body and music are shaped by Marfan’s syndrome since his initial diagnosis as a teenager. But while Cox has discussed living with the syndrome and written songs about it for Deerhunter and solo project Atlas Sound, I wouldn’t expect many of Dallas’ audience to recognize his condition. In Dallas’ diegesis, his slender limbs, long face, and stooped posture might simply read as sickly. I can’t speak for Cox’s participation in Dallas, so I wouldn’t assume he’s been compromised or exploited. Cox puts a lot of thought and conviction in his creative decisions. He commands a lot of power. He recently walked off stage after a mesmerizing Late Night performance of “Monomania” with his band. I’ll always remember when he opened for Spoon as Atlas Sound, armed only with his guitar as he confronted a distracted audience with intense lyrics, spare instrumentation, and a raw performance sensibility.

Bradford Cox - Fallon

So I don’t think his involvement here is an exception. Dude doesn’t do anything he doesn’t wanna do. Perhaps he joined the production because he knew that AIDS still affects rural queer people and possibly has affected him personally. Perhaps he participated in tribute to his hero, B-52s guitarist Ricky Wilson. Yet Leto gets to stretch his gaunt frame for Terry Richardson and later appear healthy in a Hollywood Reporter roundtable. Cox’s body isn’t so malleable. I also feel ambivalent about Marfan’s syndrome implicitly standing in for a deadly virus.

As I watched Dallas—and occasionally blurted out things like “Meanwhile thousands of gay men are dying” and “Marc Bolan, heaven forfend” when Woodroof accidentally eyes a picture of the T. Rex front man and Rayon’s idol while masturbating—I kept thinking about Douglas Crimp’s Melancholia and Moralism, an essential collection that the author wrote during the AIDS crisis which I read for a queer theory seminar. First, I thought about how I wished Crimp could have focused on rural queerness. Of course, I recognize that coastal metropolitan hubs like New York City and San Francisco had populations that were disproportionately affected by the disease and were also sites for activist groups. But AIDS seeped into rural areas and the urban south as well, and didn’t always have the coordinated resources and visibility to defend its citizenry. I’m glad Dallas recognizes this, however problematically.

I also remembered a beautiful thing Crimp wrote in an essay where he addresses the stigma facing queer people who upon occasion engage in unprotected sex. Why would people behave in such a fashion? As I meditated on this rhetorical question, I thought about images I’d seen before of muscular, smiling gay men who sought to counteract the stereotypical images of sickness and weakness that haunted them. But Crimp’s answer to such a loaded rhetoric question is beautiful: because we’re human, and humans make mistakes. This echoed in my mind as I reflected on a scene where Dr. Saks explains Rayon’s death to a grieving Woodroof. Rayon died because she was a junkie. That’s wrong. Rayon might have been a junkie for a number of reasons. Dallas suggests that she’s a junkie because she had an ignorant, wealthy father who disowned her. This is a safe, pathological justification. This might be a more difficult reason to process, but she might have also been a junkie because she liked cocaine. It was a fun drug for Woodroof too.

But let’s be clear about one thing: Rayon didn’t die because she was a junkie. She died because the medical community, the pharmaceutical industry, and the Reagan and Bush administrations delayed on making AIDS a priority. These institutions failed Rayon, along with millions of people. This is also where Woodroof’s eleventh-hour self-control reinforces heteronormativity for me. Because, try as I might, I simply cannot imagine Hollywood greenlighting a movie about a real or fictional gay male character with Woodroof’s appetites who confronts his HIV-positive status. I can’t even imagine a version of this movie with Rayon as the lead. Even as the AIDS crisis seems like a resolved epidemic from a distant past, I still believe that queer people and characters are held to unfair standards. Flaws ennoble representations of straight people. But representations of queer people still suggest the pressure to live up to an unfair ideal of clean living and self-sacrifice perhaps because, implicitly, queerness is still considered a flaw rather than a complex, beautiful fact of the diversity of human existence.

Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers Club

As I wrestled with my frustration over Dallas, I searched to see whether critic Wesley Morris wrote an article on it. I respect his writing, and was heartened to recognize my reaction when I saw words like “problematic” and “straight white savior” in his review. Morris compared Dallas to David France’s 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague, which detailed the players and activities of activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Accompanied by a score of adapted pieces from avant-garde musician Arthur Russell (RIP), Plague is a vital piece of historiography that gathers thousands of hours’ worth of protest footage, meetings, demonstrations, speeches, news items, and interviews. While I couldn’t ignore that the documentary gives priority to the experiences and recollections of gay white men, I was also moved by the anger, ingenuity, and humanity of the activists who literally put their life on the line so that the AIDS epidemic could be slowed down. But I don’t forget—and neither do they—that millions died so that they may live alongside future generations. Nor does Plague allow us to forget that people still die from AIDS and that access to proper medication is not universal. It’s an important reminder that these activists weren’t looking to decelerate the epidemic. They wanted AIDS eliminated, and it still isn’t.

How to Survive a Plague

Given the time period, which follows the same chronology as Dallas but extends into the present, much of the footage in Plague was shot on video. This reminded me of Lucas Hilderbrand’s excellent Inherent Vice, which details the history of VHS and devotes its last chapters to two queer independent media texts, Todd Haynes’ Superstar and Miranda July’s Joanie 4 Jackie. Hilderbrand’s book takes its name from an archival concept that describes how objects deteriorate because of the elements from which they’re made, which he then harnesses as a powerful metaphor to analyze a widely bootlegged illegal Karen Carpenter biopic acted out by Mattel figurines under the direction of a gay male filmmaker and a video chain letter exchanged between queer and/or feminist youth that was curated by a bisexual female experimental artist. However, I would imagine that the members of ACT UP utilized video less because it was a poetic format and more because it was cheap and accessible for the time. With the whole world watching, activists needed a format to quickly and effectively capture their efforts.

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I thought about the primacy of video during the period Dallas and Plague detail in relation to the way vinyl served as currency or a reminder of failure for the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. History’s relationship to obsolescent media might not quite connect the movies, but I have soft spot for tenuous connections. Foremost, Davis is about death. This is no surprise, as the Coens can do brilliant things with the subject. In an interview with Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt talked about reading for Uncle Arthur when the Coens were casting their modern classic, A Serious Man. The host and his guest marveled over how the filmmakers handle death in their movies, particularly that they so rarely offer a warning for it. They argue that most people are probably unprepared for death, fixating on inconsequential thoughts before they’re blindsided by their own mortality. The Coens capture this feeling for them.

I’ll go with that. To my mind, few American filmmakers explore the ontology of death with as much insight and necessary humor as the Coen Brothers often do. To some consternation they joke about it, if only because sometimes death (or at least killing off Steve Buscemi) is funny. They hazard the randomness of death, even if it doesn’t feel unplanned to the titan who leaps out a window from an improbably long conference table during another business meeting at the beginning of The Hudsucker Proxy. They explore the curious ethics of death that govern Anton Chigurh and the men he haunts in No Country for Old Men. They respect the cosmic balance of death, so that Maude and the Dude’s love child can be born into this world in place of Donny’s left-field departure at the end of The Big Lebowski. Often their movies end the way it feels like lives do—with cruel, inscrutable abruptness. This one is no exception. Davis considers several deaths—the death of the 1950s, the death of folk music’s fringe status, the death of creativity, though perhaps most of all it’s about death’s aftermath. It’s about what happens when you lose a good friend and artistic collaborator and try to make music without him anyway.

Oscar Isaac - Inside Llewyn Davis 2

The elliptical shape of my own grief agrees with the deceptively episodic, directionless Davis. I’ve lost four people since I set my sights on Madison. Three of those deaths came without warning. My stepbrother Daniel died in a car accident in June 2011, just after I returned to Austin from a trip with my partner to secure housing. My friend Esme was murdered on New Year’s Day, 2012. My grandmother Mildred died suddenly of pancreatitis in spring 2013, a fact my mother imparted with some disbelief as I landed in Portland for a conference. I didn’t deliver my paper. Instead I tried to salvage the trip by catching up with some close friends until I felt steady. I ended up crying so hard in a bathroom stall at Powell’s that some patrons and a clerk checked up on me. The only passing I was “ready” for was my partner’s grandmother, Rita Ann, who we lost last fall following a stroke from earlier that year. Of the four, her memorial is the only one I’ll get to attend.

One of my favorite memories in Austin was catching a matinee showing of Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale with my partner and some friends. Prompted by the closing credits, we returned home and one of my roommates threw on his copy of Lou Reed’s Street Hassle. We drank beers in a huddle and shot the bull for much of that grey afternoon. It’s a romanticized memory that Baumbach would amplify with hipster neurosis. I’m more of a Linklater gadfly, at least until the conversation turns to metaphysics. But it’s a cherished memory, much like the one I have for my first screening of Davis. Motivated by a productive sadness, I went home and banged out a missing page from my dissertation proposal. If Davis could keep playing music after a disastrous audition with producer Bud Grossman and an impromptu performance for his convalescent father, I could summon my creative energies toward getting on with it too.

I anticipate I’ll treat Davis like a beautiful curio, a cherished, difficult record I’ll put on when I’m shut in on a rainy day. But it won’t be The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the 1963 album with a muted, wintry cover that art director Deborah Jensen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel reference throughout. Instead, it’ll probably be Judee Sill’s Heart Food, the second and final album from a real-life esoteric, withdrawn musical outsider. It’s a sad, longing record that wasn’t widely recognized in its time and—like Davis—doesn’t quite know how to look you in the eye.

Inside Llewyn Davis Cover

I’m having a hard time not talking about myself when discussing my love for Davis, which often happens when you take a work so personally. I’ll offer a brief synopsis. The movie adapts Dave Van Ronk’s Mayor of MacDougal Street, reflecting the odyssey of a disillusioned veteran of the Village folk scene. Captured in February 1961’s washed-out palette, the movie represents Davis (Oscar Isaac) as an adrift, perennial loser. He surfs couches and hitches rides in a futile attempt to turn his stalling solo debut into a career after the passing of his singing partner, Mike Timlin (voiced by Marcus Mumford). He signs away his royalties after recording a novelty song about the space race so he can fund his friend Jim’s wife Jean’s abortion. He braves a trip from New York to Chicago with no winter coat to play for a producer (F. Murray Abraham) who doesn’t see a lot of money in his act. He watches white-bread, inoffensive acts like Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), Al Cody (Adam Driver), and Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) capture industry attention while his talents go unnoticed. He’s so broke he can’t even afford to give up music and re-enlist in the merchant marines. He can’t even hold on to a roving house cat who belongs to his patrons, the Gorfeins. And just out of frame, Bob Dylan is about to clear his throat.

Freewheelin Bob Dylan

I also offer the Sill comparison because Pitchfork would love Davis if he were a real, footnoted character from music’s past. One scene nicely captures the differences between the expectations of being a recording artist in the early 60s and being one today. While visiting with his sister, Joy, Davis asks her to throw away a recording of “Shoals of Herring” that he cut for his parents when he was a kid. He claims that the industry doesn’t want your practice material to get out, as it’ll interfere with your mystique. As much as music has always been about image, it is now increasingly about anticipating—and then immediately reacting to—discovery. It’s about scouring obscure recordings on blogs, releasing beautifully curated box sets devoted to shrouded movements that are larded up with back catalog and unreleased material, unloading deleted tracks on Twitter, and endlessly compressing and recombining elements from a real and imagined past. As my friend Myles astutely put it, “The Internet is all middle.” If a record collector or music critic stumbled across little Llewyn Davis’ “Shoals of Herring” today and wrote about it, that piece of vinyl (and its digital transfer) could be worth its weight in metrics.

John Goodman’s performance as Davis’ Chicago travel mate is a sore point for many people. Personally, Roland Turner doesn’t bother me. Sure, writing in a heroin addict jazz musician isn’t subtle. Neither is Walter Sobchak. Neither is Dan Conner. And as I’ve observed and experienced, neither is professional resentment. To me, Turner is a distorted mirror image of Davis’ own insecurities. I could easily imagine an older, embittered, drugged-out Davis making cutting remarks to some younger version of Troy Nelson akin to Turner’s jabs about cowboy chords and the George Washington Bridge.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Davis sees Turner as a detour. After burying his friend, Davis’ last scene with Turner probably disturbs him. After a police officer carts off Turner’s valet and strands Davis with Turner and the cat and without car keys, he decides to leave them both at the side of the road in the middle of a punishing Midwestern February. Perhaps simply because of his recent passing, I thought about the second movement to Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” when Davis looks at a comatose Turner and a helpless cat in the backseat, averts his eyes, and closes the door on them. In this passage, Reed adopts the voice of a dealer who tells a guest that his suspiciously young companion overdosed and ejects them from his apartment. Reed’s character rationalizes, “Why don’t you grab your old lady by the feet/And just lay her out in the darkest street/And by morning, she’s just another hit and run.” She, like Turner, is someone else’s problem, a victim of poor choices and bad luck. Davis has to shut the door to keep moving, but there’s no comfort in being a rolling stone.

What’s most interesting to me is that Davis decides to reveal the cause of Timlin’s death to Turner. Importantly, this is how the Coen Brothers reveal the suicide to their audience. Part of this is out of necessity, as Davis and his friends clearly have a short-hand for Timlin. Occasionally, Jean or the Gorfeins mention in passing that they miss him. This reminded me of when my Austin friends and I will say that we miss Esme, post pictures of her, and make arrangements with others when we go out at night. Others might not recognize any significance to these actions. Grossman unknowingly recommends that Davis get back together with his partner because he’s not a solo artist, as if he’s breaking out on his own was a choice.

But part of Davis’ reveal is out of contempt. Timlin’s suicide is a trump card. It doesn’t work because Turner is out of his mind of heroin, and because grief can pass undetected by others. But it’s the only time Davis admits, in unflinching language, that his friend threw himself off of a bridge. It transforms the meaning of an earlier scene when Davis breaks down at the Gorfeins’ apartment because Mrs. Gorfein sings Timlin’s part during an after-dinner performance of “Fare Thee Well.” It provides the electricity to Davis’ solo reprise at the end of the film.

Oscar Isaac - Inside Llewyn Davis

Timlin’s suicide might affect unexplained actions too. It might motivate the reason Davis doesn’t visit a girl who relocated to Akron to raise a child she conceived with him by accident and decided to keep without telling him. As my partner observed, it might motivate the film’s last line, Davis’ “au revoir.” He says it in the direction of the taxi escorting his assailant back to his hotel. He says it over the din of street noise. He says it over Bob Dylan’s singing, which mainly serves as ambiance until the credits roll. For all we know, Timlin might be the reason for Davis’ transience. My partner has a theory that Davis was his roommate. But we can’t be sure. After a point, you don’t want to talk about death anymore. You don’t want to say the words that explain or express the loss. You’re too tired to let those feelings resurface. So you speak in code and choose not to explain yourself to the uninformed. This crucial piece of information is casually but purposely deployed exactly once, and it snaps Davis into focus.