Tagged: High Fidelity

Towering Infernos: EMA’s Erika M. Anderson and YACHT’s Claire L. Evans

In the film adaptation of High Fidelity, one of the protagonist’s ex-girlfriends talks about how tall KISS bassist Gene Simmons always looks onstage. Charlie Nicholson’s point is that height—or at least the illusion of it—is central to a rock star’s iconicity. The Demon is a magnetic figure who demands our attention. The raised platforms and his stacked-heel boots force our gaze forward and upward. Height equals power over who possesses and manipulates our gaze. You’ll never see him less than 300 feet tall.

Within the context of the film, this is a throwaway line. We’re not really meant to pay attention to Charlie’s opinion. The point is made in voice-over and montage that she was always the center of attention, even if Rob Gordon was then more interested in watching her mouth than listening to her opinions. But Charlie has a point. Even if Simmons is already a tall man, he’ll always tower over his audience. That’s why he’s a rock star. But the visual parallel is not lost on Gordon. In Rob’s memory, the person articulating this opinion towers over him. He knows she’s way out of his league and dreads the day when someone sunnier and sparkier catches her eye. His name is Marco.

The Demon; image courtesy of loudwire.com

A tall musician is much appreciated when you’re at a show and barely clear five feet. It is often taken for granted that a venue is a site of constant negotiation, if not outright hostility, for many people. Getting there provides its own obstacles. If you don’t have a car, you have to take a bus or catch a cab or coordinate with friends who we can only assume want to see the same band you do. If you do have a car, you might have to drive alone. This could involve circling around several times to find a closer place to park, arming yourself with mace, and being on your guard to and from the gig. This routine disproportionately burdens women and girls.

Then there’s the show itself. Once you get to a concert, you usually have to stand for hours at a time. This alone can exclude potential concert-goers who live with physical disabilities. Furthermore, it is often assumed that everyone attends a concert for the same reason: the music. Let’s challenge the myth that a concert is this utopian gesture of communal good will. Even if you know all five people at some friend’s basement gig, you can’t assume that everyone’s there to see the band. Usually, you’re watching a band with strangers. The larger the venue, the likelier this is to be the case. Thus you might have to endure people spilling beer or stepping on your feet too. In some instances, folks get predatory and grabby. In my experience, it’s more common for some six-foot tower of a person—usually a guy, though not always—to take root directly in front of you. If these people have no sense of others’ personal space, they might clobber you while swaying to the music. This can be even more of a hassle if they’ve been drinking. When you tally this up, obstructed vision can be the least of your problems at a concert.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go to shows. If anything, this should motivate people to say “Oh fuck this—Wild Flag is coming to my town and I WILL BE THERE.” We shouldn’t have to hope that our friends or partners will join us for protection. While it’s fun to go to shows with people, everyone should feel safe enough to attend a concert alone. We should claim our space, insist that venues accommodate everyone and be sensitive to their individual needs, and demand safe transport for each attendee.

But height is a feminist issue, and not just because we need monitors flanking an amphitheater stage to catch a glimpse of Rihanna. It’s why the riot grrrl movement was on to something when individual bands insisted that girls stand in front of the crowd at shows. This gesture called out rock’s unspoken misogyny and influenced acts like the Beastie Boys to stop performances if they saw female concert-goers getting mistreated or swallowed up by the pit. Of course, there are plenty of short dudes who go to concerts. But more often, girls and short women are made invisible.

This extends well past the venue space. Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, a three-and-a-half-hour film about the invisible drudgery of feminine domestic labor, is brilliant for a whole host of reasons. But there are at least two meanings behind the shots where the main character’s head is cropped in the frame. One is that Dielman’s subjectivity—which we might register through facial cues—doesn’t matter to those around her. The other is that the shot illustrates the director’s point of view. This is what a short person sees. It’s why at some point I want to write a book about concert spectatorship just so the cover can be an image of what I often see at a rock show: lots of people’s heads and shoulders and maybe the band. Rejecting this perspective is how rock concerts taught me to use my elbows as a feminist.

Dielman, from Akerman’s perspective; image courtesy of criterion.com

Off stage, you’ll never see EMA’s Erika M. Anderson or YACHT’s Claire L. Evans less than six feet tall. But what they do with their height on stage is interesting. At a recent show at the Sett, Evans channeled Robyn or mid-80s Nick Rhodes with her white suit, leotard, wedge heels, and matching platinum coif. At around the same time, I also caught EMA at the Frequency. Anderson was quietly holding court in grungy clothes and reddish-brown hair—a departure from the dark-rooted blonde dye job I saw her sporting at previous concerts and in promotional photos.

The shows were very different from one another, both in terms of the music itself and in how the audiences responded to each band. In many ways, YACHT is a successor to conceptual new wave bands like DEVO and the B-52s. They’re art nerds with a chick lead singer who use cult imagery and capitalist symbols to keep the dance party going. Some of the audience got this while others wrapped their arms around amplifiers to steady themselves through a drug trip. A fair number of audience members hooted at Evans, and it was interesting to see her at once play with her sexuality and openly disdain others’ objectification.

Evans with YACHT; image courtesy of bitchmagazine.org

EMA is no less interested in symbolic imagery. Like Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch, Michael Gira, and Kim Gordon before her, there’s something very Catholic about Anderson’s free-associative lyrics, particularly her emphasis on ritual, sacrifice, and erotic pain. God (or Leadbelly, or Leadbelly interpreted by Kurt Cobain) may have also taught her to negotiate, because she had the audience’s rapt attention while rarely propelling her voice above a whisper.

Anderson of EMA; image courtesy of consequenceofsound.net

Granted, an intimate venue disguised as a dive bar is not the same as a state college’s multipurpose venue space. WUD booked YACHT’s show and has a partnership deal with Best Buy. I doubt 100 people were at the EMA show, but all of them seemed to focus their energies on the band and only unfolded their arms to quietly clap after each song. If the two bands swapped venues—and both bands have experience with many kinds of performance spaces—we’d have seen two different shows. Yet I was able to see Evans and Anderson very clearly. With Evans, I pushed myself to the front and craned my neck. With Anderson, I got a clear view of the stage between two sets of shoulders. Both women took ownership of their space, using their bodies to demonstrate choreographed dance moves and filling the air with their distinct voices. I couldn’t take my eyes off either of them.

April, music journalist

Lizzy Caplan, Hot Tub Time Machine's manic pixie dream girl; image courtesy of tv.yahoo.com

Last week, Caitlin at Dark Room sent me an e-mail about how Lizzy Caplan plays a music journalist in Hot Tub Time Machine. As the subject header referred to her as a manic pixie dream girl, I didn’t hold out much hope for any development of her character. Caitlin had earlier mentioned on her blog that she was planning on seeing Hot Tub Time Machine despite being pretty positive that it was just another dudes night out picture because Crispin Glover is in it.

I was planning on seeing it because it’s called Hot Tub Time Machine. It’s the best genius-stoopid movie title I’ve heard since Snakes on a Plane, which I also saw during it’s theatrical run. Matter of fact, I was in Raccoons on Space Shuttle, one of Mascot Wedding‘s very funny shorts. See if you can spot me. I’ll help you out: I’m wearing a wig and I’m “acting.”

As for the movie itself, it brings time travel into another jerky bro movie, with all of its anxieties about homosexuality, women, and race where a bunch of sad sacks somehow (undeservedly) come out ahead in the end. I won’t defend my viewing of it apart from it was a dumb comedy with some silly moments that was fun to watch while drinking a beer and eating a burger with my friends.

Except there is the music geek aspect of it, which I actually wasn’t aware of until Caitlin told me. And Lizzy Caplan played one of my favorite characters in Mean Girls and I wish I saw her in more things.

Lizzy Caplan as Janice Ian in Mean Girls; image courtesy of fanpop.com

Caplan plays April, a journalist for Spin Magazine, once the cooler alternative to the more established Rolling Stone, as well as an up-start by the movie’s timeline, which flashes back from the present to 1986, a year after the publication’s founding. She’s on assignment covering Poison, who are headlining a music festival at the ski lodge where the group of friends are staying. You know she’s cool because she clearly hates Poison, sneaks into unoccupied cabins, and is wearing a floppy hat with a flower cut-out.

But mainly, she’s just the wacky love interest for John Cusack’s Adam. She’s on board with this stranger’s story about being transported to the past, despite appearing at once too old for her to the audience and too young for her in the story’s timeline. She also refuses to give Adam her number in hopes that their paths will cross someday, which is basically the plot to Serendipity, a romantic comedy Cusack starred in with Kate Beckinsale.

Which brings us to Cusack’s function in the movie. While Rob Corddry steals the show as insufferable cad Lou and Craig Robinson winningly underplays Nick, it’s really Cusack’s movie. In addition to serving as one of the movie’s producers, long-time friend and co-writer Steve Pink directs what is ultimately an homage to Cusack’s Better Off Dead.

Plus, having Cusack play a character who falls in love with a music geek really only serves to bolster his own on-screen persona as a music-savvy underdog. This is an image that’s been perpetuated at least as far back as when Lloyd Dobler lifted a boombox blaring Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” to win back Diane Court in Say Anything . . .

John Cusack in Say Anything. . .; image courtesy of accesshollywood.com

While this image has carried on into movies like Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity, at least his love interests in those movies were peer music geeks and interesting women. We get a female music geek in Hot Tub Time Machine. Pity we don’t actually find out anything about her.

Why I pulled out my college radio mixtapes

Earlier this week, Caitlin at Dark Room posted a couple of mixes from her college radio days on Facebook and asked for her friends to contribute some of their playlists. This seemed like an interesting project with findings worthy of disclosure here, especially since I often make casual reference to my tenure as a deejay at KVRX

I started in the fall of 2002 at the beginning of my sophomore year. A fan of Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume, the urge to have my own radio show was planted during my freshman year of college. My friend Brooke had a show at KANM called “Weakdays” and knowing she could program a show inspired me to give it a go. We both liked The Dismemberment Plan, we both could read PSAs aloud, and I felt confident that I could master the switchboard too.

A few days before the semester began, I filled out an application and secured a timeslot for Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. As KVRX shares its frequency with KOOP and switched over from FM to RealAudio, I felt better knowing I had the entire first semester to iron out any kinks my show may have without being able to get picked up in someone else’s car. The Internet still felt very private at the time, even though RealAudio could get picked up in another part of the world instead of inside the condensed hub of Central Austin.   

I named my show “Hang the DJ,” a reference to The Smiths’ “Panic.” As the song was a modern rock radio staple, the program title should be an indication that I was half-hearted in my attempt at becoming a fan. A year later, I’d acknowledge that I just couldn’t get into them as I was developing my show. Come spring 2003, I changed the name of my show to “Cheesecake or Fugu,” a title that came to me in the shower when I was remembering a review I’d read in high school of Cibo Matto’s Viva! La Woman! that compared their sound to the Japanese delicacy.  

Listening to tapes from that time, apart from their lo-fi charm and developing fluency with related technology, two things strike me: 1) I wasn’t yet comfortable talking into a microphone and 2) I don’t listen to a lot of that stuff anymore. Listening to a November 2002 broadcast, it’s surprising to me how many dude singer-songwriters and indie bands I played. Clem Snide, Death Cab for Cutie, and Richard Buckner? Pass. Belle and Sebastian and Okkervil River? Not against it, but wouldn’t fight someone to defend their merits. Some of these acts were indicative of the buzz they generated, as well as the mercurial nature of being of-the-moment. Remember when we were supposed to care about Ben Kweller and The Warlocks? You don’t? Me either.

Of course, that these broadcasts seem foreign to me now is largely the point. During the first six months at KVRX, I hadn’t locked into what I liked yet. I was trying to fit in, catching up to just how much music I now had at my disposal. In all candor, the first six months at KVRX were terrifying to me. The office itself was scary, as it was usually peopled with oft-bespectacled dudes huddled together and volleying well-considered, often incendiary opinions about obscure music. It was full-on High Fidelity. Several of these guys would later become my friends. But at the time I was 19 and not ready to share that I had just heard of the Mountain Goats. So I kept quiet.

Incidentally, KVRX was something of a meet market that seemed particularly inclined toward heterosexual activity. Lots of hook-ups, some of which resulted in marriages or at least amicable splits. It makes sense, as obsessive, esoteric types tend to gravitate toward one another. Young girls can be especially vulnerable and I was no exception. I dated two deejays during my first year at KVRX. Looking back on that time with a more nuanced understanding of feminist politics, I feel weird and more than a little embarrassed about the gendered power dynamics of romantic pursuit. But I also found my partner there, who I formed a relationship with on more egalitarian terms.   

I’d like to think that dating fellow deejays had less to do with setting me apart than the talent I developed during my time at KVRX: writing reviews. As deejays needed to log four hours of volunteer time each month in order to keep their shows, drafting reviews for new releases was a great opportunity, especially since the station would receive hundreds of new albums each month. A review for one full-length album translated into a volunteer hour. I averaged about three reviews a week, thus gaining awareness of several artists as well as the output of the labels they were signed to. Through this, I fell in love with artists like Broadcast and Electrelane. As a journalism major, this acclimated me to a constant writing schedule. Through reviews, I developed my musical preferences and found my voice as a writer. And people started noticing my reviews, even occasionally printing them in The Call Letter, KVRX’s ‘zine.

But nothing got me better acquainted with music than putting together a weekly show. And while many deejays had specialty shows where they focused on particular genres like death metal, hardcore, or the blues, my show was decidedly free-form. At KVRX, free-form shows abided by the following requirements: each hour of free-form programming had to feature artists from five genres, two Texas artists, and five selections from the new bin, where the most recent reviewed offerings were kept. In addition, KVRX maintains a strict “none of the hits” policy. During my time, that meant that any artist who received even moderate success on any mainstream music network or radio station within the past ten years could not be played. Some deejays found these sanctions to be restrictive, but having these limitations motivated me to dig deeper and listen more broadly.     

I also learned how I wanted my show to be perceived conceptually. I made sure the music was continuous, even going so far as to select instrumentals to talk over while I ran through my playlist, which I’d update after a three-song set. I also tried to vary songs from genre to genre, pairing Tom Zé’s “To” with Deerhoof’s “Milkman.”

I was also fond of layering songs into one another, overlapping the final moments of Sack and Blumm’s “Baby Bass Buss” with the intro to Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic.” I made sure that song selection went with the time of day, which once I got on FM was always in the evenings, particularly during safe harbor so I could play hip hop and Gravy Train!!!!. I also tried to bridge the content of my show with promos, tags, and the programs that bookended mine. Before I got to Raymond Williams in graduate school, I was familiar with the concept of flow.

I also became aware of my voice as an on-air talent. Though some deejays mumble or try to take focus away from themselves, hearing my voice bandy words about (often to myself) made me cognizant of articulation, elocution, and tone. There was also a performative quality to presenting an on-air persona as I intoned an idealized version of my natural speaking voice. It also skeeved me out when some dudes would call in to inform me of the supposed sexiness of my voice. I got really good at telling strangers to fuck off and hanging up on people mid-conversation. Unfortunately, these instances were fairly common amongst my female peers and some endured more serious harassment.  

BTW, kudos to the dude callers who were supportive and respectful. Thanks to the nice lady callers as well.

Oddly enough, this awareness did not lead me toward doing a female-only show. I dabbled in it occasionally. I did a women’s issue news program one summer with a girl named Kelly I met when we were cast in The Vagina Monologues. I briefly took over a friend’s female-only show when she quit during her first semester in the UT American Studies master’s program. At the time, I found doing a female-only show limiting. Now I think I’d have to do a free-form female-only show. Why not pair Umm Kulthum with Dessa?

I started graduate school in fall 2006. I thought about returning to KVRX after about a year off from undergrad. But I felt like it was another group of kids’ turn. Also, I simply didn’t have the time to devote to a weekly show and its related responsibilities. When I applied to PhD programs, the schools’ radio stations were a determining factor and will continue to be when I reapply.

In the meantime, a podcast series is appealing to me, especially after I started listening to Veronica Ortuño‘s “Cease to Exist“. Rest assured that when I do start another radio program, all broadcasts will be well archived so I can dig ‘em up and tune in again.

“(500) (excruciating) Days of Summer”

Poster for (500) Days of Summer

Poster for (500) Days of Summer

Note: The following post about (500) Days of Summer and why I was not charmed by it contains spoilers. I will also adhere to a list-like format for the sake of brevity. However, if you wanna read it as some dig against the sleeper rom-com’s indexical use of number-play, texts are bendy.

It was hard to go into the screening for this movie objectively. I had some misgivings about this movie that I catalogued prior to attending a Saturday matinee screening. They are as follows:

1. The preview is really fucking twee.
2. The oft-mentioned post-coital musical number, complete with marching band, animated bird, and ironic use of Hall and Oates’s great but over-used “Dreams Come True.”

Still from the dance sequence; image courtesy of paisleypetunia.com

Still from the dance sequence; image courtesy of paisleypetunia.com

3. A friend mentioned that Gordon-Levitt’s character moves on from Summer with a girl named Autumn. Seriously.
4. Same friend made quite the indictment on race and whiteness.
5. The “vintage” clothes — while Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are in adorable outfits, they seem less vintage than Anthropologie‘s upper-middle-class version of vintage. Everything is so tidy and worn once and unlived in. It just made me miss my friend Kit, who almost exclusively wears amazing thrift-store dresses (many of which I know she’s worn multiple times). Her look is much more comfort-based and much less polished. I think I would’ve responded to the outfits if there were at least one loose thread or frayed cuff, especially since Summer is probably not cashing fat checks as a personal assistant to the head of a greeting card company. Sigh. I know; it’s a movie.

But my big problem going in was the self-conscious music geekery. Examples:

1. Gordon-Levitt wears the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” Joy Division t-shirt in one scene. GET IT? Ugh. Such an obvious visual joke. I think if there’s gonna be a music geek dramatic irony t-shirt joke, maybe having him wear a My Bloody Valentine t-shirt would have been better. But is there really a need?

Still of Gordon-Levitt wearing an in-joke

Still of Gordon-Levitt wearing an in-joke

2. A friend said that Summer quotes a Belle and Sebastian song in her high school yearbook. Blech.
3. When they break up, Summer casts her and Tom as Sid and Nancy, respectively. Ain’t nothin’ skid row about these two.

In addition, I tend to have misgivings about movies and TV shows that make music geekery — and its quirky application — so central to informing characterization and narrative (see also Juno, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Flight of the Conchords). It might be contrarian, but I feel instantly resistant to these kinds of texts because I feel like I’m supposed to like them because of the music geekery. But I need more than that. While I enjoy movies like Adventureland and High Fidelity (among others like Velvet Goldmine, Times Square, Dazed and Confused, and recently Hedwig and the Angry Inch), the music geekery is actually most interesting in the peripheral.

As an aside: it seems the people of my acquaintance who have the most vitriol toward this movie are also the most personally invested in music culture. They’re also pretty cool, but wouldn’t describe themselves as such. This perhaps gestures toward how pejorative and subjective the word “hipster” has become within my generation.

To stay positive, three things about the movie made me hopeful anyway:

1. The leads are appealing.
2. Summer doesn’t want to be in a relationship.
3. Apparently director Marc Webb made iPod playlists for the leads for each scene to help get them into character. This is interesting to me, especially read alongside playlist auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Wes Anderson, who use music to create scenes and develop characters.

With that said, I hated this movie. So much so that I was relieved that I saw it for free. 

I was pretty turned off from the start. Principally because the trailer and the opening sequence stress that this is not a love story. But that’s a lie. It’s completely a love story. It’s just not between Gordon-Levitt’s Tom and Deschanel’s Summer. It’s between first-time feature director Webb and first-time screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and how goddamn clever they can be. Just how goddamn clever?

1. There is a marching band and a girl named Autumn.
2. There is a black and white French film that plays in the middle of the movie that turns into Tom’s life story as he sees it. I think they’re going for Godard here, but in my limited knowledge of Godard, this seems too cheap for him. He seems like the type who’d have celebrity culture gatecrash into real life, not have real life imitate a French film.
3. Summer and Tom like to have dates in Ikea, playing house in the showrooms. I will overread this as a Pavement reference.

And then there’s icky touches of whimsy that feel forced and disingenuous. Being cute and fanciful is tricky business, mainly because being charming on camera has to seem effortless. The exemplar for me is Jack Lemmon straining pasta with a tennis racket in The Apartment. Here are a few examples that miss the mark:

1. This movie has a narrator (who, as my friend Karin astutely pointed out, is far from omniscient or objective — he’s basically there to align the audience to Tom). In general, I hate movie narration. It reminds me of what I learned from “Charlie Kaufman” in Adaptation. With some exceptions, narration is profoundly lazy storytelling and filmmaking.
2. Tom has a blackboard covering an entire wall of his bedroom. So he can be close to his true passion. Drawing buildings.
3. Summer is so much a fan of artist René Magritte that she’s actually arranged a bowler hat and an apple on her coffee table.

Magrittes The Son of Man

Magritte's "The Son of Man"

4. Tom wants to be an architect, but is somehow saddled with a job at a greeting card company. To convince Tom of his true passion, Summer has him draw a landscape on her arm.
5. After Summer breaks up with Tom, he quits his job at the greeting card company after a rousing boardroom speech about how the industry feeds lies about romance to mankind. When he storms out, his wiseacre friend does the slow clap. (Aside: I actually predicted this by starting my own clap about five seconds before actor Geoffrey Arend did it on screen – gold star for me!)

And then there are things that make no sense:

1. Summer and Tom first get to know each other at a karaoke bar. Summer does “Sugartime,” a delightful little tune from the late 1950s. Apparently she wanted to do “Born to Run,” but they didn’t have it. Then Tom does a rendition of “Here Comes Your Man” by The Pixies. What karaoke bar has The Pixies but doesn’t have any Bruce on hand? The Boss is who drunk people turn to when they don’t wanna sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” again.
2. It takes Tom twenty days or so to work toward his dream of becoming an architect. Primarily because he starts drawing and making lists on his blackboard and reading books at coffee shops.
3. Tom rags on Summer for liking Ringo best. Who doesn’t like Ringo?
4. This movie takes place in Los Angeles? Really? Locals and natives, help me out. I’ve been to your fine, sunny city several times. I’ve even been in the vicinity of where some scenes were shot. It never looked like New York to me.

And finally, there were four things that I found interesting, but did not think were well-executed. As they were related to issues of gender and age, these missed opportunities made me the saddest.

1. Summer really doesn’t want a relationship with Tom and stresses that from the very beginning. There’s mention of her parents divorcing when she was young, but I think she just wants to be alone and be independent and figure out what she wants in life (both maybe explain why she cries at the end of The Graduate before breaking up with Tom). I thought this was awesome. . . . At least I thought this until she gets married to some guy at the end for some reason.
2. The movie seems invested in making a commentary on how men objectify women, how movies abet that process, and how it results in men not really knowing the women they claim to love (I think Michel Gondry’s Science of Sleep was trying to make a similar statement, and failed in my estimation for similar reasons). Tom’s “expectations vs. reality” split-screen sequence is made all the more poignant after the scenes where Tom (along with the camera and the editor) have cut Summer into fragments (her smile, her hair, her laugh, her eyes, her knees, etc.). Because, for all his obsession, Tom never really knows Summer. He may think he sees her everywhere, but he never really sees her. Instead, he sees creepy images like this one.

Summer through Toms eyes; image courtesy of 500days.com

Summer through Tom's eyes; image courtesy of 500days.com

3. Tom has a wise-beyond-her-years kid sister. Too bad she’s not really a person. A good precocious girl is my kryptonite (I love you, Linda Manz).
4. Summer isn’t really a person either. That’s too bad because I think Deschanel could have easily made her one and does fine with what she’s given (as does Gordon-Levitt). I also think this movie would have been more interesting if this sort of character was the protagonist.

Again, I think Summer’s lack of embodiment is part of the point — Tom wants Summer to be a manic pixie dream girl that can save him from his mediocre, humdrum existence, but she never performs as he thinks she should. Thus, Tom becomes obsessed with a woman he never actually knows.

But we, the audience, never really get to know her either, in part because the production personnel seem similarly vexed by her (as I think Tom is really just a stand-in for one of the screenwriters), but mainly because they are so bewitched by their words and camera tricks to give their characters any genuine motive or meaning.

Covered: Kate Bush’s “The Dreaming”

This post is really two posts. The first section preoccupies itself with why album covers matter culturally, so as to set up a discussion of a particularly interesting album cover, in this case Kate Bush’s 1982 release, The Dreaming, which I focus on in the second section. I intend to discuss more album covers throughout the duration of this blog’s livelihood. If you would like to throw out suggestions or contribute a piece, feel free. Contact me at feministmusicgeek@gmail.com.

One thing that I fear is leaving our popular consciousness in the digital age is the album cover. I don’t consider myself a technophobe and hardly think music videos (once on TV, now on the Web) contributed to the downfall of album packaging (I actually think that’s the fault of record labels who keep raising their retail prices). Yet I do worry what we’ll lose if we stop caring about album covers. Growing up, Madonna had some of the most interesting album covers ever. So imagine how bummed I was when I saw her slapped-together, clumsily Photoshopped cover for Hard Candy. Sigh.

Cover for Hard Candy; released in 2008 on Warner Bros.

Cover for Hard Candy; released in 2008 on Warners Bros.

Now I know that avering my love for album covers may cast me as a bit of a commodity fetishist (which I kinda am, despite how problematic it is). And I get why album covers don’t take priority. For one, market imperative — covers cost money and the more elaborate they are, the more expensive they can become (just ask the folks at Factory Records; for every sold copy of New Order’s “Blue Monday” — lavishly designed by Peter Saville to look like a floppy disc — the label lost money, though was more concerned in releasing a well-made, lovingly-crafted piece of popular art than in turning a profit). Also, the reliance of plastic for packaging can be less than environmentally friendly (though kudos to many musical acts, artists, and record labels for realizing this and phasing it out with more paper printing).

Cover of An Invitation by Inara George; released in 2008 on Everloving with paper cover

Cover for An Invitation by Inara George; released in 2008 on Everloving with paper cover

But album covers reveal so much — who the artist is, what the music is going to sound like, what the theme or concept behind the album might be, who made the cover art, the evolution of print technology, the history of album packaging, indeed how valuable packaging may have been to the people and companies responsible for release. And obviously, in terms of representational politics, album covers can tell stories, share folklore, provide commentary, project alternate realities, or rebel. Bottom line: they’re texts and we shouldn’t overlook them or what they may reveal about the artists, the markets, and the fan bases. If interested, I highly recommend Steve Jones and Martin Sorger’s essay “Covering Music: A Brief History and Analysis of Album Cover Design.”

Treatise endeth. New treatise begineth.

One such album cover I’d like to look at is Kate Bush’s The Dreaming. Now, I’m a bit new to her, but not exactly. I have kind of a greatest hits awareness of her. As a girl, I made up dance routines in my room to “Rubberband Girl” and “Running Up That Hill” when they (rarely) got played on the radio. I know she was discovered by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour at an early age and recorded her first album, The Kick Inside, as a teenager. I know that she produces her own material. I know that she’s a trained interpretive dancer and worked with Lindsay Kemp, David Bowie’s choreographer. I know that she directed and starred in a short film called The Line, the Cross, & the Curve co-starring Miranda Richardson based on songs from her 1993 album The Red Shoes. I know she’s done some bugged-out music videos. For example:

And then I know what other people think of her. I know a lot of negative things. Characters in books like Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity hate on her music. Likewise, people like to throw around rumors that, due to her perfectionism in the studio and her penchance for writing songs about female suffering and neuroses, mythological women, and the paranormal, she is crazy. It’s all crazy sexist. On that tip, I was friends with a girl who said of Bush, “Ugh, Lilith Fair.”

And then the positives. I know that a lot of people mention her when they talk about Tori Amos (and now, St. Vincent and Bat for Lashes). I’ve read some academic work (specifically Debi Withers’s piece on queer subjectivity in her second album, 1978’s Lionheart, and Holly Kruse’s “In Praise of Kate Bush,” which considers Bush’s authorial status, from the anthology On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word). I know that Ann Powers, a rock journalist I idolized growing up, is writing a 33 1/3 book on The Dreaming (expect a future post upon its release next year — I’m way stoked).

And then I know male artists who have sited her as an influence. There’s L.A. outsider art rocker Ariel Pink, who borrows her treble-heavy, lo-fi, avant pop production sensibilities and clearly positions himself as a fan.

But lest we think that Bush’s weird music is only stuff white people like, OutKast’s Big Boi grew up on her music and R&B singer Maxwell covered “This Woman’s Work.”

Hmmm. Guess I knew more than I thought. Yet, I’d never actually listened to an entire Kate Bush album. So, I thought I’d start with The Dreaming, which is really great. It’s kinda crazy how influential and varied and timeless this music is — I haven’t had a listening experience with so many “aha” and “so this is where ______ came from” moments since I first heard The Velvet Underground’s debut album the summer before college. But that was all happy accident. I picked it because a) it’s widely regarded by music critics as a masterpiece, b) indeed, Powers is writing about it, c) it marks a transition for Bush as producer as well as singer and instrumentalist, and d) the cover.

Cover for The Dreaming; released on EMI in 1982

Cover for The Dreaming; released on EMI in 1982

This cover (made by Kindlight) knocks me out. I’ve stared at so much in the past few weeks — after several years of looking at it in various record stores — and only recently figured out that it’s supposed to be Houdini and his wife (indeed, there is a song called “Houdini” on the album, told from his wife’s perspective). The shackles around him are to be broken using the key, which Bush (as Bess Houdini) has in her mouth. But I always thought she had a wedding ring in her mouth and was internally debating whether or not to put it on (and perhaps be shackled) or swallow it and flee.

I suppose it could work either way. It’s also possible that Bush and Bess Houdini have suddenly become self-conscious about the inherent performativeness of their careers (musicians, like magicians, trade in trickery). There’s also the possibility that the key takes on some sort of sexual, Freudian design as a symbol and that the juxtaposition of the key, the shackles, her tongue, and her lusty proximity to Houdini may be at odds with her Victorian dress, coinciding at once with Houdini’s era, Bush’s origins as a Brit, and Bush’s lyrical preoccupations. All readings are valid, as they peak curiosity and dialogue with the music. Indeed, they are part of the music. Part of this woman’s work.