I finished Ariel Schrag’s Likewise earlier last week and finally stole some time to write about it. Though denser and more structurally complicated than the three previous titles of her high school comic series, this one may be my favorite. Oh, who are we kidding? It’s in part because of those things that I liked it best.
Taking her cues from James Joyce’s Ulysses, Schrag attempts her most ambitious work with Likewise, incorporating a stream-of-conscious approach to storytelling and a panoply of writing and visual styles to document her senior year. I was especially interested in this, as I was always jealous of my high school friends a year ahead of me who got to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in senior AP English and write their autobiographies in a Joycean style. By the time I started senior year, the book had been taken out of the curriculum. Since then, I haven’t made time to read any Joyce. Having read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and heard Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, which “likewise” (har har) share Ulysses as an influence, I best get on this.
In Likewise, Schrag incorporates Joyce’s challenging writing style into the graphic novel, using images as a means to anchor the content. Sometimes, events are presented in a straightforward fashion. Some events — particularly mundane occurrences — are retold in painstaking detail, as is the case with the 30 pages used to recount a circular conversation with friends about the elusive “It” factor. Other times, remembered dialogue inspires the narrator to free associate or drifts her off on tangents. Panels may include carefully typed, detailed exposition or notecards scrawled in haste or pictures without captions.
Many of these images are startling, both in the graphic nature of their content and in their matter-of-fact depictions. Recalling Schrag’s rendering of menstruation colliding with virginity loss in Potential, several panels focus on the protagonist’s reflections and engagements with penetration, cunnilingus, masturbation, and bathroom time. Schrag also doesn’t shy from revealing deep feelings, no matter how contradictory or unflattering. For a piece some detractors dismissed as an indulgent vanity project, Schrag isn’t too preoccupied with looking good.
Despite its stylistic departure, Likewise is in many ways a continuation of Potential. The tome to her junior year is released during Schrag’s senior year. As the pressure of its success looms over her, attention is paid toward it in Likewise. She is also dealing with the aftermath of her parents’ divorce, her parents’ struggle to fund her college education upon early admittance to Barnard, her mother’s noncommital hippie boyfriend, and her unresolved feelings for erstwhile paramour Sally Jults, who is ostensibly straight and attending Reed College.
As with Definition and Potential, Schrag lets us in on experiences meant to bolster her writing process, which involves recording friends’ conversations, get stoned with her mother and kid sister, taking head shots of characters, heart-to-heart conversations with mentor teacher Ms. Salt, remembering and forgetting and misremembering Jults, fooling around, entertaining publication interviews, working part-time at a movie theater, going to friends’ concerts, accompanying friend Zally to a strip club for “research,” and jilling off.
She also includes negative opinions toward her work, recounting her father and some peers’ less-favorable attitudes toward the seemingly uneventful (and unabashedly queer) Potential. She herself bristles at the mistakes she finds when revisiting Awkward and Definition, but marvels at her rapid artistic and personal maturation in the two-year interval. While I treasured all of these moments, my favorite might be her stumbling upon the name of her final installment. As a fellow writer, I can relate to the pleasure of accomplishment that comes with settling on the perfect title.
I find it particularly interesting that Schrag continues to question her sexuality in Likewise, noting some of the latent homophobia she may share with Jults. She also grapples with feeling conventionally masculine within a cisgender female body, at times seemingly imagining herself having sex with women as a man. She fools around with a few boys in Likewise, most notably Zally and co-worker Darrek. This doesn’t detract from her attraction in women, however, nor does it build up her tolerance for listening to boys prattle. Toward the end of Likewise, Schrag attempts to document Darrek and another male co-worker discuss why they like Helium’s Mary Timony but makes them stop out of boredom.
My only quibble with Likewise is the omniscience of Schrag’s guitar. Recalling the function of Chekhov’s gun, I waited for the protagonist to pick it up but she never does. I have no problem with how Schrag chose to spend her teenage years — in fact, I marvel at how she used her artistic inclinations toward published manifestations of personal expression. But if she’s not playing it, I know a certain blogger who’d be happy to document putting it to use.
Today’s post is a review of Debi Withers’s Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory. I’ve actually been holding onto it for a while, as Withers was good enough to have her publisher HammerOn Press send me a copy (my hunch is that a previous entry on Bush’s The Dreaming, wherein I cited her essay on Lionheart, got me the free wares). I read it a little over a week ago but amid all the SXSW revelry, didn’t get a chance to review it. I wanted to have a clear head when drafting an appraisal, so here goes.
For those unfamiliar with her work, Withers is an English queer feminist cultural studies scholar who focuses on music culture. She also puts theory into practice as a contributor to musical projects like Drunk Granny and Voice Tribe. Much of her scholarship has focused on Kate Bush, out of which this book was formed.
Adventures is a fun read that embraces feminist and queer theory while making it accessible to folks who haven’t gotten down and dirty with Luce Irigaray. As someone who doesn’t consider herself much of a theoryhead and always looks for a practical application when reading such works, I appreciated that Withers provided such an interesting subject to attach theoretical abstractions to. Importantly, Withers makes clear that she will not be talking about Kate Bush the musician, but rather Kate Bush the personae, which she refers to throughout as the Bush Feminine Subject (BFS). While I think the term potentially turns the subject into something of a monolith, the distinction must be made and the use of the musician’s given name cannot suffice. As Withers is astute to point out, there’s a big difference between Kate Bush and “Kate Bush.” Never a strictly autobiographical writer, Kate Bush penned songs about girls in incestuous relationships with male siblings, Houdini’s wife, unborn babies, Wilhelm Reich, Karen from The Red Shoes, Peter Pan, Catherine Earnshaw, burglars, aborigines, gay bon vivants, and mothers of dead soldiers. “Kate Bush” embodied them, often modifying her own singing voice to do so. She often recorded and performed these characters with a flair for the dramatic and drama’s inclination toward camp.
Withers cherry-picks from Bush’s catalog, forming a life cycle out of thematic elements in The Kick Inside, Lionheart, Never For Ever, The Dreaming, and The Red Shoes, as well as the final movements of Hounds of Love and Aerial. According to Withers, Kick represents the birth of the BFS, along with coming-of-age preoccupations like menstruation (“Strange Phenomena”) and young love, whether doomed (“Wuthering Heights”) or forbidden (the title track). Lionheart is a showcase for the artist’s preoccupations with performance, disguise, camp, maturation, and sexuality, which all often take on queer associations. Never For Ever marks a transitional period, demonstrating at once her interest in costume and mistaken identity (“Babooshka”) while at the same time insinuating a politicized awareness toward modern life, best exemplified with “Breathing,” a song delivered by a fetus who is aware of the nuclear fallout its mother is trying to live through.
From here The Dreaming comes to represent the artist’s ongoing personal evolution. Withers argues this is attained through politicized awareness of other cultures (the title track), the reinvigorated investment with one’s own (“Night of the Swallow,” which acknowledges Bush’s Irish heritage), the commitment to being receptive to knowledge (“Leave It Open”), as well as struggle (“Sat In Your Lap”) and resistance (“Get Out Of My House,” an anti-rape song that draws The Shining, turning the house into a metaphor for the female body). In addition, The Dreaming is also concerned with the process of metamorphosis, most often involving people turning into machines. As this was Bush’s first sole production credit, this theme takes on personal connotations about the artist’s relationship to her work. Finally, Withers argues that The Red Shoes (and Bush’s accompanying short, The Line, The Cross, and The Curve) symbolizes the suicide of the artist, drawing from the lore of the Hans Christian Andersen tale as well as the 1948 movie by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (for an in-depth reading on the movie, Matthew Dessem’s essay for Criterion Contraption is as good a place as any to start). As Withers argues that artistry transcends mortality, the subject is reborn with Hounds of Love‘s “The Ninth Wave” and disappears with Aerial‘s “A Sky of Honey,” the final movement off Bush’s most recent album, which was released twelve years after her previous studio offering, The Red Shoes.
I’m not sold on structuring the artist’s work this way, as I think that at times Withers pushes the interpretation of the life cycle onto Bush’s work, though I do understand from working on a master’s thesis that the process of organizing a larger body of work to fit a document is a problematic one. And while I understand why Withers wants to focus attention away from Hounds of Love, Bush’s best-known album, I feel she does a disservice by glossing over certain albums. The omission of The Sensual World is particularly troubling, as Bush believed it to be her most feminine work. Furthermore, it contains songs like “Deeper Understanding,” which is concerned with the potentially humanizing and dehumanizing connotations of digital interactions and fits nicely into Bush’s work on The Dreaming.
As subjectivity is a key theme in Withers book, I’m pleased at how she unpacked the identity politics evident in Bush’s ouvre. Withers is quick to point out Bush’s interest in camp, performance, and ambiguity, as well as the matter of vocality, all of which suggests elements of queerness in her work. Vocality is a particularly interesting matter, as Bush often sang as multiple subjects and tended to sing across age ranges, gender and sex catagories, and orientations depending on her subject in any given song.
In addition, it’s important to note that Bush has a big queer following. Men like Rufus Wainwright and Alan Cumming have professed their fandom, as have publications like Out. More importantly, Withers brings in her own sexuality into the discussion and argues that lesbians also have quite an affinity for Bush, a fan base and culture that Bush acknowledges and celebrates in certain songs and music videos.
I also appreciate Withers interrogation of race and nationality and how Bush’s position as a middle-class, white British woman is a problematic one. At times, Bush is something of a fetishist and voyeur of the other (particularly of East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and African/African American culture). Given her country’s problematic history with colonialism, this obsession takes on even more troubling dimensions. The matter of the nice white lady is a problem I run into all the time as a feminist (and nice white lady). It’s a matter I brought up when discussing Joanna Newsom’s latest album and it’s an issue that informs my ambivalent feelings toward other white feminist icons like Liz Lemon (for more recent offerings on her, I’d recommend reading Sady Doyle and Amanda Hess’s recent conversation following Doyle’s Tiger Beatdown piece on the subject).
While I enjoyed Adventures, I wish Withers would’ve contextualized the subjective nature of Bush’s fame. In the UK, Australia, and parts of Europe, Bush is a pop star of considerable renown, achieving commercial and critical success I’d estimate somewhere between Björk’s slightly-left-of-mainstream status and Madonna’s superstardom in the states. But in America, Bush is strictly a cult phenomenon. She did receive some recognition for minor hits like “Running Up That Hill,” “Cloudbusting,” and “Rubberband Girl.” Early videos like “The Man With The Child In His Eyes,” were a part of MTV’s original rotation schedule. “Don’t Give Up,” a duet she recorded with Peter Gabriel, has been featured in television and film and has been covered extensively. Similar things can be said of “This Woman’s Work.” Maxwell’s cover of the song was used in a routine for So You Think You Can Dance? that was meant to raise awareness about breast cancer.
Yet, Bush never really crossed over in the United States. She may have been on Top of the Pops but she was a hardly a fixture on the American late night talk show circuit. She never landed the cover of Rolling Stone, much less been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many people may not have heard of her, though her influence has carried over to contemporary acts like Tori Amos, Bat for Lashes, and Joanna Newsom. In short, she’s a cult figure here.
Thus, when reading the book, it was hard for me to take Bush’s celebrity as a given. By putting such a focus on the albums and what they suggest about the BFS’s trajectory, I kept wondering about the actual Kate Bush behind it and how such an eccentric, challenging musical figure was so widely accepted in her home country. While Withers acknowledges the anomalous conditions that allowed for Bush’s success, I was left wanting to greater sociohistoric context. What other artists were popular at the time? How was Bush able to produce her own material? What was her recording contract like? Who did she work with? Did early supporters like Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour sway the buying public? How were her videos received, and how did they intervene as the musician became more reticent to grant interviews and tour following the release of Lionheart? Did her unfounded reputation as a reclusive madwoman sensationalize her and thus make her a (shudder) hot commodity?
Also did much of Bush’s fame rest not only on her ability to meld feminized forms like piano-based folk singing with the masculinized practices of punk’s commitment to DIY ethics and confrontational sexual politics, but also with her clear indebtedness to glam? It’s no coincidence that she studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, who worked extensively with David Bowie, most notably during the Ziggy Stardust era. Yet like Bush, glam was far less ubiquitous in American popular consciousness in its time than it was in Great Britain. While Withers does provide some context, I think she presumes her reader to be British. Thus, I wonder how accessible this book would be to other audiences outside of Western Europe.
That said, for those who are die-hard Bush fans, nascent appreciators, or life-long feminist theorists, this book is one to add to the shelves. Open the book, throw on a record, and let the debate continue.
So, I’m still a little brain-drained from working on Cinemakids this weekend. I helped a group of nine-year-olds make a short movie about skatin’ dudes and pie fights (or, more accurately, walked them through the basics of making their own movie, tried to keep them positive and focused, sometimes mediated arguments, and sometimes provided them with Oreos). It was fun and if you want to see the movie “Team I Want Some Pie” made, along with the other participants, the screening is on November 7th.
And sometimes being a little brain-drained is good. It’s inspiring. And because today is Monday and we might all be a little slow getting back into our weekly routine, I thought I’d make a quick list of rad stuff I’m stoked about or inspired by. Feel free to share your rad lists as well.
Sadie Benning. Thanks to grad school and Kill Rock Stars, I know who this is. Benning is my go-to “girl filmmaker,” however essentializing that term may be. But I kept thinking about her work all weekend and how, if you have a vision and a Fisher-Price camera, you can start making movies at any age (an experimental filmmaker parent may also help, but not necessarily guarantee inspiration). If you don’t know her work, I highly recommend looking at some of her shorts. You can also watch her work in Julie Ruin’s “Aerobicide” music video.
On that tip, Molly Schiot has made some great videos too. Might I point you in the direction of Mika Miko’s “Business Cats” and Sleater-Kinney’s “Entertain”? Also watch the interview footage Schiot put together of Pat Place and Cynthia Sley of Bush Tetras talking about being tuff feminists on the lower East Side in the early 80s. This interview plus a recent screening of Downtown ’81 convinces me that I’m not tough enough to have lived in New York and the early 80s, and neither are most people of my generation. These women lived “Too Many Creeps.”
Oh hai Jane Campion. I’m looking forward to seeing Bright Star. Additional points of interest for apparently configuring Fanny Brawne as a proto-punk fashion icon.
Karen O, music supervisor of Where The Wild Things Are. How is Spike Jonze’s new movie not going to be awesome? Regardless, I know the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman’s musical contributions to the movie will necessitate its own post. Can’t wait for it to come out!
The Gossip are coming to ATX next month, two days after Parton’s box set is released. Yet another reason why October is for winners. We can only hope that Beth will pull out the wig and cover some Dolly.
I missed Mad Men last night because I was cheering on the KOOP Kilowatts. I suspect others may have missed last night’s episode too due to the Emmys (or at least had to back-and-forth it). Regardless, apparently Betty and Don’s angsty eldest daughter Sally discards a Barbie doll her mom gives her in last night’s episode. Ugh, you totally don’t get my ten-year-old girl needs, mom. Season three has been Sally’s season, in my mind.
Oh, on that tack, I need to rewatch season two and see the documentary on women’s liberation that was included in the DVD set. For more on the subject, Mary Kearney just wrote a great Flow column on it. I wonder how Sally will be impacted by these changes.
I recently bought Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love at Cheapo. Yes, that does mean that I listened to “The Big Sky” on my drive to work.
I have been pairing this with Julie Ruin’s “Valley Girl Intelligensia,” bringing us back full circle to grrrl germs.