Destroyer’s Kaputt came out last Tuesday. As a longtime fan of Dan Bejar’s main project, I’ve been pretty taken with it since tracks started filtering out late last year. My line about Destroyer is that it’s what English majors should be listening to instead of the Decemberists. That’s as much a glib comparison as it is a cheap shot against a band I actively dislike, especially since they have very little in common besides being led by a nasal-voiced front man with a love for big words. I will allow, however, that I’ve never understood the point of Colin Meloy’s lyrics. To my ears, it exists for its own sake and since I maintain that Meloy rivals Jay Leno as the public figure in possession of the most punchable jaw, I’ll interpret that sake as personal edification. Bejar could be accused of similar things, though his elliptical lyrics and prismatic compositions transfix me. Notice how vast “Rubies” is in its first half, only to drop into disarming intimacy. A symphony folds into a four-track recording. Staggering.
I’m interested in Bejar’s artistic evolution, particularly after Your Blues. Derided in some circles as “the MIDI album”–a reference to the antiquated musical interface used to provide much of the album’s background music–many found this stylistic departure from his guitar-based compositions disconcerting. The rockist panic informing such aversion is pretty funny to me. Your Blues ranks among my favorite Destroyer records and warrants rediscovery. It’s clear with subsequent releases that while he may not have been using successive albums to respond to previous ones, he was building on certain ideas. Your Blues hardly sounds like a departure in context. The most reductive connection between Your Blues and Kaputt is that he’s channeling another outdated era of pop music production–one Mark Richardson places between 1977 and 1984, at the height of soft rock, smooth jazz, and new romantic pop. But Bejar’s always been interested in toying with outre musical ideas. Destroyer’s shimmering guitar lines recall 70s AOR staples like Bread and America, so his attempts at something we might call ambient yacht rock shouldn’t come as any surprise. Also, as an Electronic fan, I’m tickled that the New Order/Pet Shop Boys/Smiths’ side project is one of the album’s main musical reference points.
But what does come as something of a (pleasant) surprise to me is artist Kara Walker‘s presence on Kaputt. I had the privilege of seeing her My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love exhibit in 2008 at the Modern in Fort Worth. It remains my most disquieting spectatorial experience. Walker is best known for recasting Antebellum-era silhouette cutouts in cinematic tableaux to reinterpret America’s ongoing racist history (she also gets a shout-out in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic”). Nightmarish visions of sexual violence and abjection twine with surrealist and sensual imagery that sneak up on you once you look past cultural associations with silhouette portraiture’s feminized gentility. That I saw this after looking at an Impressionist exhibit–and walking through the gift shop–at the nearby Kimbell Museum only put the vitality of the exhibit in sharper relief. There’s no way one of her murals could make it onto an umbrella.
Perhaps related to serving as a curator for Merge Records’ retrospective, Walker contributed lyrics to “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” so named as a reference to the proto-punk duo. She wrote several charged phrases onto cue cards and Bejar sang them, rearranging and embellishing some passages. It’s easily my favorite song on the record, though I’m disquieted as to why. Ann Powers recently offered some insights into their collaborative effort, noting their shared interest in appropriation. Bejar has been compared to Leonard Cohen, particularly his detached narration of hedonistic tales. Soft rock’s seductive qualities–the backlit production, the reliance on 7th chords–disquiet in their efforts to soothe and drip sophistication, especially when Bejar whispers lines like “New York City just wants to see you naked and they will,” “wise, old, black, and dead in the snow,” “All that slender-wristed, white, translucent business passes for love these days,” and “Don’t talk about the South, she said.” Kaputt also prominently features vocalist Sibel Thrasher. In the context of this song, her presence calls into question the role many black female vocalists held as background singers for artists like Simply Red.
Cohen also comes to mind when we talk about reinterpretation. Many folks who’ve heard “Hallelujah” might attribute Jeff Buckley, but the song originated with Cohen (actually, Buckley’s version is a cover of a cover, as he cribbed John Cale’s reading of it). So what happens when lyrics are drafted by an African American woman whose words are then reinterpreted by a white Canadian man frolicking in the studio? Who does it belong to? Frankly, I’m not sure. I’m inclined to rule that it belongs to both of them and to the listener. What I know for certain is that this song is stuck on repeat.
Earlier this week, I went to Music Monday at the Drafthouse. This week’s offering was David Bowie’s 1973 concert feature, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which shows the legendary conclusion of the artist’s breakout tour which went out with a bang at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was directed by D.A. Pennebaker who Dylanologists (snicker) might revere for shooting Don’t Look Back and synth-pop enthusiasts the world over can credit for capturing Depeche Mode’s 1988 Rose Bowl performance in 101. Stardust is a valueable historical document of the artist, his band (particularly guitarist Mick Ronson), and the last days of glam rock, a subgenre that would capture the imaginations of a generation of boys and girls on both sides of the pond.
While I think Pennebaker and his film crew constructed a few minor but unfortunate heterosexist images here (i.e.: showing teenage female fans in a clear state of religious/sexual ecstacy but not pointing the camera at any of the boys that assuredly were in attendance; downplaying the sexual dynamic between Bowie and Ronson’s on-stage interplay by framing Ronson’s extensive solos as a chance for Bowie to change costumes with the help of several female personnel), it cannot be denied that Bowie is a helluva entertainer and an assured diva candidate.
His interest in cultural provocation and reinvention impacted Madonna, who inducted the purposely absent icon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. His androgynous look and campy performance style paved the way for like-minded male artists like Prince and Adam Lambert, the latter of whom is apparently too hot for prime time because his orientation has turned queer subtext into text. And finally, his theatrically nasal voice and lyrical wordplay have influenced indie rock singer-songwriters like Dan Bejar of Destroyer to turn odes to girls and books into labrynthine pop.
Oh, and let’s not forget Bowie’s fantastic turn on Extras. I know Andy Millman won’t.
But all of this means nothing, as I’m going to be focusing on Lydia Lunch, a woman who probably has no use for Bowie or any of his accolades. Fitting in a way, as she’d probably have even less use for being called a diva. While I have no problem declaring her one anyway, I’m also pretty sure she’d tell me to fuck off.
For those unfamiliar, Lunch made her mark fronting no wave group Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Like many of that scene (who’d probably even hate to be referred to as such), this band constantly deconstructed what bands were, what songs were, what music was. Nonetheless, they made an upsetting, exciting scrawl.
And Lunch became imfamous for her confrontational vocal and performance style, something she also brings into her art and written work. Lunch doesn’t sing songs, create installations, make paintings, and write essays and poems so much as disembowel salf-fashioned, sometimes hilarious psychodramas about sex, abuse, death, drugs, and the grotesque implications of image construction. And filth. Always filth.
Acerbic and frequently bored, she’s a delightful addition to any music documentary. In fact, she practically saves 2004’s Kill Your Idols, Scott Crary’s otherwise messy attempt to outline the New York downtown scene from the proto-punk offerings of The Velvet Underground and Suicide to the ascendance of then-up-and-coming acts like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars. Here, she tells her version of the unhistoricizable subgenre that is no wave and strongly endorses against band formation and traditional instrumentation, suggesting kids pick up tubas instead of guitars.
Unfortunately, Crary feels the need to frame his subject in such a way that her heaving bosom is in nearly every shot, which contrasts sharply with the interview footage of Swans’ Michael Gira, which is almost entirely comprised of low-angle head shots. To further pronounce the Citizen Kane indebtedness, Gira’s shot in black and white. Lunch’s breasts apparently required color.
That said, I struggle with Lunch in ways akin to how I struggle with Patti Smith.
On the surface, they’re very similar. They’re both northeastern female underground music-art world figures who made their names blurring filth with art with persona. They also got their start working and aligning with men, sometimes causing me to wonder if they find a particular kinship with men over women, if music historians have overemphasized their work with men, or if they want to absence gender from any discussion of their work, except when they’re making the argument themselves.
Of course, Lunch has worked with a number of women, including Exene Cervenka, Kim Gordon, and Annie Sprinkle. And both women occupy interesting cultural positions that challenge gender roles that line up perfectly with divas. While both women actually employ collaborative processes in their work, the heavy lifting of their male instrumental counterparts is often relegated to the background to emphasize their singularity.
Of course, that I’m doing much of the emphasizing along with generations of like-minded commentators should not be ignored. Instead it should be challenged in terms of how we’re perpetuating the idea that women are better suited to the iconographic role of the solo artist and not toward a further understanding of art- and media-making’s inherently collaborative process and what roles women have, or choose not to have, in it.
Of course, both women seem to like being perceived as cults of personality, which tends to be the realm of the solo artist. Many women have followed, and continue to follow, in this path. We need to keep asking why. I’d like to start by offering up this question: could there ever be a collective of divas working together on a musical project?
Perhaps Lunch and Smith’s configuration as solo artists has something to do with their iffy relationships to feminism (the former instead aligning herself with humanism when she feels its necessary to align with any isms; the latter out-right dismissing feminism).
But one thing I respect about Lunch is her stubborn resolve not to be considered a historical figure. Or an artist. Or a musician. Or a poet. Or a writer. Or a woman sometimes and a human almost never. Because to her, the categorization that inevitably comes from creating or complying with the instation of identity markers create limits on people. Thus, she also resists the entire process of canonization. So I know she’d reject the impetus behind this blog’s assessment of the cultural import behind her personae and body of work.
But canonize I will because, as a feminist, I feel like we have to create a space where we value these sorts of contributions from women and girls. We should also contend the complexities of our art and its political implications. Feminism is tricky and slippery, and most exciting to me when it kind of hurts my head. So is the work of valueable, smart women who will wrestle free from any categorization. Even if I think they’re divas. Even if they think the entire construct (or any construct) is bullshit.
Today’s post is in memory of Mika Miko, who announced yesterday that they would be splitting up to pursue school, relationships, and other projects. Here’s hoping that what could have been their side projects will be warmly received as former members’ main vehicles. My only hope is for something as awesome as I.U.D. or New Age Steppers. If you’re in Austin, try to catch ‘em at Fun Fun Fun Fest.
Thought I’d shine a light on side projects today, those illusive creatures of popular music. The post is inspired by Butter 08, a side project between Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda, Russell Simins of The John Spencer Blues Explosion, Rick Lee of Skeleton Key, and director/graphic artist Mike Mills. They made one album, and it was awesome. So awesome that Grand Royal owner Mike D signed them without hearing a note.
“Butter of ’69”
Directed by Evan Bernard
The New Pornographers are another great side project, though they”ve had more staying power than Butter 08. Boasting such powerhouses as Carl Newman and Dan Bejar (justly praised for his work in Destroyer), it also counts Kathryn Calder and Neko Case amongst its ranks, making their work all the richer for it.
The New Pornographers
Directed by Darren Pasemko
These two groups are a bit dude-heavy and rely on fairly traditional instrumentation and line-up configurations. If you’ve got some side projects you wanna celebrate, let’s talk about ‘em in the comments section.