I had some things to say about Amy, Tina, Lena, Jodie, and
the year of women the 2013 Golden Globes.
Close out the new year with my Antenna post on RuPaul’s Drag Race and sponsorship.
This is my last week editing Antenna for the summer. So I thought I’d write a little post about Bob’s Burgers‘ breakout character Tina Belcher and sexuality. Check it out.
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.