Earlier this summer, I had Grimes’ Visions and THEESatisfaction’s awE naturalE on a loop. Though critics were generally favorable to both records, some even claiming them to be among the year’s best, I was struck by Jody Rosen’s conclusion that there was “an emptiness at the center” of Visions.
That emptiness is actually what I found most compelling about Visions. It’s something Lindsay Zoladz addresses more favorably in her review, unpacking the term “post-Internet” and attributing the artist’s self-professed short attention span as evidence of a pop architect’s young, fertile mind. I hear it in awE naturalE too. True, it’s hard to find the chorus—or at times a coherent train of thought—on either record. The former uses songs to gather crowded thoughts by a very loose thread. The latter doesn’t press on its own ideas, content to keep songs short and hovering somewhere between a fragment and an afterthought.
Both are invested in repurposing detritus. One is obsessed with clashing synth pop with early 90s R&B and new age; the other is invested in free jazz, funk, and hip hop. Both are, in some sense dealing with identity by using abstraction to think past it. Claire Boucher harnesses the studio and recording software to “be a body” of her own making through bursts of melody and sound that defy coherence for a deeply felt immediacy. For Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White, words often curve past the margins of awE naturalE in a dense, textured prose delivered with an ease that belies its complexity. Both albums are unmistakably “female”, even if both acts are trying to blow up such categories.
Put simply, what I like about both records is that they lack a center entirely. Visions and awE naturalE are open texts. But how do we listen to open texts? Usually listeners require some kind of center—the hook, the bridge that links chorus to verse. This is not to suggest that a listener is unsophisticated for requiring a center or that a songwriter is pandering when s/he provides one. I don’t think Rosen is saying “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” in his appraisal of Visions. Nor am I suggesting that it’s so easy to provide a center. I recently sat in on a songwriting workshop for my local chapter of Girls Rock Camp. The instructor played The Beatles’ “Come Together,” Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” and Taylor Swift’s “Mean” and asked the girls to identify compositional units like the intro, pre-verse, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, hook, bridge, and the outro. Among other things, this exercise proved that Swift is a more sophisticated songwriter than I realized.
Though I have argued the limitations of formalism in the past, there’s value in abiding by grammar and structure. Those restrictions aren’t inherently oppressive or indicative of creative stagnation. Nor does their limitations suggest that you can’t absorb the rules only to break them effectively. Listen to Azealia Banks. Joanna Newsom and Agnès Varda care very deeply about form. They couldn’t be able to undertake, much less complete, challenging work like Ys or Lions Love if they didn’t.
My medium is language. I work with words all the time but I think I’m only now starting to appreciate the rigor necessary to harness their power. When I started this blog, I was a bored archival aide trying to channel my restlessness into something productive. I didn’t care how my words fit together if the ideas were there. Actually, I fetishized the tangent. But after spending a year in course work and teaching college students the impact of effective communication and a summer spent editing Antenna and revising a book chapter, I really care about my words.
I don’t care about my words so much in terms of how they are received, discredited, or remixed as I do in how I present them in their final form. A friend noted that as he developed as a scholar, he placed less value in abstraction and began studying Richard Dyer’s compositional style in order to be a clearer writer. I get that. I want my work to be clear. I want to be able to spot the thesis rather than bury it with verbiage and equivocation. I want my sentences to be shorter. I want my argument to cohere. I want to be understood, even if I’m not.
Though I claim to listen for what I don’t recognize in music, it’s somewhat disingenuous to claim dance music as demonstrative of this. All music can be broken down into compositional units. New Order and the Pet Shop Boys care a great deal about form. Dance music requires an adherence it, as much of its effectiveness is tied to listener response. Music is a time-based medium, no more evident than when the Chemical Brothers deploy the eight count (pick a song) to pay it off with an epic climax or cathartic reintroduction of the theme (5, 6, 7, 8….).
One way that dance music engineers listener response is through repetition. This helps listeners locate the beat. It’s not uncommon for musicians or deejays to build or elaborate upon a theme or passage in order to keep listeners engaged. This is harder than it sounds, which makes deejaying—developing a playlist in real time to keep people’s bodies moving—a Herculean task you only notice when executed poorly or compromised by faulty technology. This is why I haven’t bothered to deejay for dance parties yet. Recognizing that Planningtorock’s “Patriarchy (Over and Out),” Little Ann’s “Deep Shadows,” and Purity Ring’s “Lofticries,” and Jimmy Ross’ “Fall Into a Trance” are great songs is one thing. Getting people to dance to them is another matter.
I still fetishize the tangent. And fragments that articulate or challenge the truth can land like bullets regardless of whether they’re missing a subject or a verb. Echoing Zoladz’s piece on failure and Nicki Minaj, I believe incoherence and misrecognition have value. They represent struggle. They recognize the value in not finding the center. As much as I see the value in declarative theses, I will always treasure records like Visions and awE naturalE which seek to bury or blow up the idea that one can ever come to such conclusions. Because in rejecting a center, they provide at least one listener with unlimited possibilities.
It’s really been over two months since my last post? Wow, time flies on the other side of the semester. After SXSW, I went to a conference and then it was Spring Break and now, well I’ve posted my students’ grades and gotten my own and Memorial Day weekend (along with WisCon and Christeene’s album release party) is just around the corner.
A lot has happened in those two months, hasn’t it? We keep losing great musicians (First Etta, then Whitney! Levon! MCA! Duck! Donna! Chuck!). Dan Harmon lost his job. We’re edging toward a recall election here in Harmon’s home state, which means I’m seeing a lot of Scott Walker’s hairy forearms in ads where he lies about job creation (vote against him June 5th). Kanye made a movie. So did my friend Brea. A few friends had kids–two of them made a set of twins together. Some friends came to visit. Annie Petersen wrote a piece for the latest issue of Bitch. I completed the first year of my PhD program.
I’d like to once again thank the people who came out to Get Off the Internet during SXSW and supported us financially or emotionally (often, it was both). As I was but one player and often not the engine driving the train, I’d also like to thank Tisha Sparks, Jax Keating, and Lynn Casper, who I would work with again in a heartbeat. I’d next like to acknowledge why I got off the Internet. This was a busy semester for me. We hired a new faculty member to our program. We brought in five new students for the fall. And we are sending off four graduates.
I also took a cultural theory seminar, a seminar on feminist research methods, and a seminar on director Agnès Varda. The first two were really tough classes and I wanted to make sure I was present enough in my studies to do justice to the reading material and the seminar papers I produced. The third course, as my friend Mary put it, was dessert. Varda’s a damn treasure. After each screening I was so full and giddy from feasting my eyes and brain on this filmmaker’s dizzyingly brilliant work that I often needed to savor the moment, which usually meant talking for hours with Mary. I also pitched a book proposal, which may or may not get picked up.
It also promises to be a busy summer for me. I’m working on a book chapter for an anthology and revising a term paper for publication. I’m also serving as acting co-editor for Antenna–my program’s media studies blog–for the next three months. I’m going to be an instructor for the first session of Girls Rock Camp Madison. I’m doing preliminary research on two projects I’m planning to turn into term papers (and then articles, because that’s how the game works). I’m going to Console-ing Passions to talk about Zooey Deschanel anti-fandom. I’m grading for some cash during the summer, and (like my partner) vying for some temp work as well. Hopefully I can score a little freelance money too. I’m prepping the class I TA next fall (goodbye, Intro to Public Speaking! hello, Intro to Television!). I’m going to spend some quality time at the Center for Film and Theater Research, because it’s ridiculous that I haven’t gone over there at any point this school year. I’m plant-sitting for my girl Sarah and I hope nothing dies. There’s other stuff I want to keep on the low for the moment. And I’ll be watching Girls because y’all, we need to talk about Girls.
I might also get some coffee with a former student because I’m that kind of instructor. You know, the kind you can call by her first name. And today I’m making a cat cake with Mary for the Varda seminar’s end-of-the-semester party. Well, and for Zgougou obviously.
But I miss writing. I miss being in the conversation. I miss sweating over a sentence in my pajamas. I miss the immediacy of having my fingers fly over an opinion. I miss you. I miss this part of me. So my plan is to adopt a MWF posting schedule. I have a back log of stuff to write about–those pieces on Before Sunrise and Chavela Vargas I promised, as well as Norah Jones and Faye Wong’s film work with Wong Kar-Wai, Girl 6, seeing YACHT and EMA in concert, and stuff I don’t know I want to write about right now.
I’ll say one more thing about this blog’s future. I’m taking a digital production course this fall. I’m not sure what all of this will entail, exactly. Since I try to go into at least once class a semester without a paper topic in mind, I find the uncertainty rather thrilling. But part of the point of this class is to get graduate students comfortable with TAing a new course on the subject that we’re offering in Comm Arts for undergrads. I’m absolutely taking this class so that I can TA the intro class later. For one, I think media scholars should have a handle on production.
For another, as a feminist media scholar I’m invested in closing the gender gap in university production programs and I think this is the next logical step. I fully take to heart Mary Celeste Kearney’s charge to melt the celluloid ceiling (y’all–she presented a paper on this at SCMS and went on a rant about this later at the conference #stillmymentor #whoiwanttobewhenigrowup). But one of the objectives of this course, as I understand it, is to have us work on media projects. All of my work in that class will go toward this blog, most likely toward developing a podcast series that I’ll launch in earnest after I finish course work the following spring. So keep that on your radar.
Finally, I thought I’d close with some stuff I’m listening to–at least when I’m not listening to Rihanna‘s Talk That Talk or the new Beach House record (sidebar: this thoughtful Pitchfork review once again proves that 2012 is critic Lindsay Zoladz’s year). Though I abstained from blogging, I never took off my headphones. Also, Sarah said she was looking for some summer music. So let’s kick out the jams.
That Grimes record is good y’all. It’s, to use music critics’ parlance, a grower. Her other records are good too and this song is not my favorite on Visions (it’s “Be A Body”). But I like that this video was shot at McGill (Canada reprezent), that the album art recalls a Routledge book that’s been masterfully defaced by a bored college student (Claire Boucher knows her audience), that this song–stripped away of its electronic affectations–basically sounds like something Roy Orbison would write, and that we get some naked, riled-up, male, sports spectator booty in the video. I hope you kill it at Pitchfork, Claire.
Santigold’s Master of My Make-Believe is an early contender for Album Art of the Year. So good. Like Annie Lennox before her, Santi White masters the art of passing as both male and female, and occupying the slippery space within the binary. I wonder how different the video for “Disparate Youth” is from Duran Duran’s “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” and if it’s because–to extend the comparison–Santigold is Simon LeBon-ny enough to wear floral prints with stripes while not using the shoot as an excuse for sex tourism. Then I watch it again.
Is THEESatisfaction’s “QueenS” video of the year? I think so. Party of the year? Without rival. Music journalist and personal heroine dream hampton directed the clip and I just love it. I smell the incense, I love the outfits, I’m humbled by the level of self-possession and skill with home decor. I also love their bell hooksian way with capitalization. awE naturalE is one of my favorite records of the year. So mellow, so subtly sexy, even more subtly complex, and so self-assured. This is music for brainy, grown-ass people. If you’re ever wondering what I listen for in a record, I listen for music by women and girls who know who they are and are open to share it with you; guitars optional.
As a culture of pop music engineers, the Swedes know their way around a groove so well that this song once again convinces me that we should buck the career Republicans and demand socialized health care. Charli XCX wrote this song and it would fit in Robyn’s canon, but it has its own snarl that I can’t get enough of. Bottom line: I’ve jogged to Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and I’ve toasted Lindsay Zoladz’s freelanciversary to it as well. It gets results. It’s that good.
Staying on the Reynolds piece for just a bit more, I wanted to give the nod to Maria Minerva because she’s got an album called Cabaret Cixous, she’s completing a masters in art and theory at Goldsmiths, and because if you really want to refine a search for music you think I’d like, focus on women who play electronic instruments. Just as I believe that the rural United States has a special relationship to punk, so too do I think that working with synthesizers and sequencers can be an inherently punk gesture. If you only need to know how to play three chords on your guitar to have a band, you often need even fewer faculties to play electronic instruments. When David Bowie began working with Brian Eno, they’d amass a bunch of keyboards for the studio and throw out the manuals because they didn’t want to know how to “properly” operate them.
Following my friend Ricky’s example, I’m a champion of the Shondes. Power pop should, above all else, hold sorrow and triumph closely in each hand yet not so tightly that both emotions slip through your fingers. Based on their music alone, this Brooklyn-based quartet has a profound sense of empathy. I recently caught them at a show in Madison, wherein bassist-lead singer Louisa Solomon made the following observations: 1. as you wrap up your 20s, more people you love die (preach, girl) and 2. as “Give Me What You’ve Got” intimates, women can be mean to each other. She offered both of these observations as inquiry, which is why I love her and this special band.
K.Flay gets my-my dark moments better than everyone and nobody can hellllp. Also, off-trademark Muppets.
If you follow Rookie, then you know those grrrls are spearheading this Scottish goth-pop outfit’s comeback. And just in time for tube top weather (help me embroider an upside-down cross on mine, Rookie staff).
And if you want to know what I’m cooking in my kitchen, that’s none of your business unless I invite you over for dinner. But Little Dragon is usually the soundtrack to time spent stirring the pasta, sauteing the onion, and sprinkling the white pepper.
Summer is ready when you are, y’all.
Last week, I barely had time to sit down to watch these films, much less write on them. And yet, magically and through considerable care and research, the Bechdel Test Canon keeps forming into being. Last week, I wrote on Julie Dash’s Illusions, Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art, and Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi. I wrote my third-to-last post of the series on Agnès Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. I posted them to my Twitter feed and Facebook fan page (incentive to follow!), but completely forgot to post them here. Check them out, leave comments, and watch these films.
Two areas I don’t recall covering in the blog so far are 1) bands whose songs focus on cinephilia and 2) female musicians who use their visual arts training in the service of their bands. Today, we can focus on both by considering The Long Blondes’ debut full-length Someone To Drive You Home and lead singer Kate Jackson’s artwork for said album.
So I’m new to this band, who I guess are no longer a band. That’s a bummer, but at least I’ve had fun pumping this album at full volume in my car this past week as the skies became increasingly overcast. And singing at full volume. As my friend Brea mentioned in her entry about records that made her a feminist, it’s important for women and girls to find singers whose vocal ranges match their own. It’s really true. Perhaps we could think of it as double-identification — being able to relate to a female singer’s persona as conveyed through her lyrics, performance style, fashion sense or whatever on one level and being able to replicate, mirror, or blend her tone, pitch, and timbre with your own. However we want to theorize it, I’m glad that my notes can work with Jackson’s strong, supple alto.
Matching a singer’s range also makes shouting easier. I love Animal Collective, but screaming along to Avey Tare doesn’t make any sense for me. We can try and make it queer or whatever, but it really just feels silly and strained to my throat and ears. Screaming “Edie Sedgwick! Anna Karina! Arlene Dahl!” along with Jackson, on the other hand, makes perfect sense.
The opening track, appropriately titled “Lust In the Movies,” is a good transition into the defunct band’s cinephilic leanings. Indeed, the movies are everywhere. Specifically movies from the post-war era, a considerable amount of them of the film noir tradition or have some kind of sinister edge, while others are campy b-movies that have since cashed in on retro chic.
Imagined film snob boys corrupt willing schoolgirls with Russ Meyer films in “Fulwood Babylon.” Girls want to be cool enough for the movies that play in film snob boys’ heads in “Lust in the Movies.” A boy and a girl compare themselves to C.C. Baxter, The Apartment‘s love-lorn protagonist in “You Could Have Both.” Obscure references to British celebrities of the 1940s and 1950s like Hattie Jacques and Peter Rogers thread through break-up narratives like “Five Ways to End It.” Greta Garbo is looked upon with envy (and irony?) as the woman who snagged all the handsome men in “Never to Be Repeated.” “Only Lovers Left Alive” is inspired by Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, a romantic sentiment perhaps echoed in Jackson’s sleeve art, which references Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern’s frenzied lovers in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.
As many of these movies are classic Hollywood, iconographic art house, and/or have the Criterion stamp of approval, we might call them films instead of movies, if the writer of this blog held fast to making such a distinction.
Now, we could get into a discussion of what this means in terms of preference and why more clearly feminist classics don’t get shout-outs like, say, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Maybe they haven’t seen these movies. Maybe they thought the last movie I mentioned was boring (the 200-minute running time has kept me from seeing it, though it is in my Netflix queue). However, I’d hazard to guess that the Russ Meyer reference in “Fulwood Babylon” might be done with a bit of feminist cheek, and while I have trouble reading the nuances of intentional camp in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, I’m sure my friend Curran would smile and nod in recognition of the reference.
And yet. I find how film references are used in these songs to be particularly interesting. For one, I think especially in “Lust in the Movies” and “Fulwood Babylon,” a critique is being made by Kate (and her chorus of singing fans) against the sorts of boys who live in movies (perhaps including Dorian Cox, a former Long Blonde who co-wrote the majority of the album with Jackson). These boys are too busy looking for Edie Sedgwick, Anna Karina, and Arlene Dahl to notice the real woman in front of them. Fools.
For another, I find the blurring between fantasy and reality, the projected and the lived, the fantastical and the mundane heartening and relateable. Many of these songs are not actually about being in the movies, but wishing you could be or pretending you are to get over a failed relationship, get through your boring day job, get ready for a night out, get in the car to leave town, or simply get through your 20s.
There’s some humanity in these songs, particularly between women and girls. Two lonely girls flee their humdrum lives together in “Separated By Motorways.” A spurned lover hopes her ex’s new love fares better than she did after the break-up in “Heaven Help the New Girl.” A twentysomething tells a 19-year-old girl that she doesn’t need to resort to mutilation to get through that stupid, cursed age in “Once and Never Again,” a solidarity anthem so catchy that I just requested it be added to the Karaoke Underground song list.
And while the movies being referenced aren’t explicitly feminist (or argued and/or championed as such by theoretically florid film scholars), I’d argue that there’s much going on with the female movie icons that Jackson’s and her songs’ protagonists (which may be iterations of herself) identify. Having brought up Sedgwick, Karina, Dahl, Garbo, this is where I’ll fold in Jackson’s spare, mysterious cover. The woman in the cover is recognizable to many as Bonnie Parker, as played by Faye Dunaway in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, a divisive and galvanizing movie that marked a sea change in American cinema, upped the ante for screen violence, reflected the shift in generational values, presupposed the turbulent year that would be 1968, and made thousands of women cut and straighten their hair into sleek bobs by Dunaway’s influence. It might have made them want to tote guns, fire bullets, and rob banks too. In short, this was seen as a dangerous film that still holds some influence as a countercultural text that appeals to men and women.
Some of those women may still be shuffling through their 20s, figuring it out. They might not be compelled to rob a bank, but they might be tempted to quit their job, or at least bitch about work at the local bar. Hopefully they won’t bitch about each other as much, as this cattiness is evident on the album and something I’d like us to rise above. But there’s something nice about being reassured that someone, whether a movie character or a friend, will be there to drive you home. Even if your car is riddled with bullet holes.