Late last month, media scholar Jason Mittell posted a piece on why he dislikes Mad Men. I was intrigued by his argument, especially his claim that objects of analysis in academic scholarship are primarily determined by taste. In other words, we tend to research and write about what we like and eschew applying similar critical rigor toward what we don’t. He references Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which attempts to explore the music critic’s disdain for Céline Dion by examining the album that boasts Titantic‘s “My Heart Will Go On.” However, Mittell notes a difference in attitude between him and Wilson. Wilson comes to Dion’s oeuvre as a hip outsider. Mittell, lauded for his ground-breaking work in television studies, approaches one of the two jewels in AMC’s original programming schedule from within his own habitus of quality televisual aca-fandom.
Though I found Mittell’s commentary trenchant, I had a few problems with “On Disliking Mad Men“. He paid peripheral attention to the show’s deliberate peripheral attention to race and gender, the former of which continues to bother me and folks like Michael E. Ross believe needs immediate intervention. As Ian Bogost argued, Mittell also failed to capture a singular argument against Mad Men that couldn’t be applied to other like-minded quality programs.
But my primary quibble is with methodology. As Mittell reports in the essay, he only watched the first season of Mad Men and a few of season two’s episodes for the purposes of constructing his argument. Several commenters addressed this as an issue, though many were fans who seemed at least partially propelled by motives of conversion. Though a fan of the series, I’m not interested in whether Mittell would come to like or appreciate Mad Men. Most of my interest in his criticism actually stemmed from his anti-fandom, a position that tends to get overlooked. My complaint has a completionist bent: how can you write about something you haven’t submerged yourself in?
Mittell makes the valid argument that a season should provide a viewer with enough of an arc to motivate continued investment for a show’s duration. However, for the purposes of criticism this still feels too arbitrary. This may be a tenuous position for a person who values deliberate misreadings and appropriation, as it suggests that texts can only be consumed and interpreted in a limited set of ways. But a television series is a medium of progression and process. A movie ends conclusively, unless it’s spun off into a multiple-installment franchise. Serial television does not. Cliffhangers bridge seasons together. Characters develop, sometimes in profound and unexpected ways. To acknowledge this evolution it seems one has to watch the entire series, even if the person’s opinions don’t change.
Music fandom informs my criticism. Completionism is a fan practice that exists across mediums. Often this is exploited through the commodity fetish, which again straddles mediums. The same person who has the Six Feet Under funeral plot DVD collection probably owns Rhino’s One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found, which is packaged in a hat box (I know him — he’s my friend Erik). But I came to understand completionism through music. I’ve followed several artists across albums, in an effort to plot out their artistic trajectories. Sometimes, I continued to keep up long after I lost interest in their musical developments. Other times, I defended them long after they lost cultural relevance. occasionally, I’m surprised when they’re as vital as ever.
But again, we’re talking about taste. To the ire of Animal Collective’s Bordieuvian contrarianism, taste is nigh impossible to escape, much less transcend.
Mittell’s essay presented me with an interesting opportunity. During our workshops for Girls Rock Camp this summer, Kristen at Act Your Age and I noticed two pop stars who consistently showed up when we asked our girls to name the female artists they liked: Katy Perry and Ke$ha. I dislike both artists’ music, which some astute mash-up artists note shares producer credits to the point of becoming compositionally interchangeable.
Initially, I had a hard time understanding either pop star’s musical value. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll enumerate my biases going into the project. Below is my criteria for the music I like. Three of these items were stolen from conversations Björk and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy had on musical preference. Unsurprisingly, I like both artists. If an act hits on at least two of these, there’s an excellent chance that I’ll like the music.
1. Emphasis on strange and/or unexpected vocal harmonies. Throw in a 7th or a 5th when you think the triad will satisfy. Better yet, lean into a 2nd. Harmonies should facilitate discord.
2. Preference toward superficial or actual repetition. Song length is usually not a concern, nor is an overt attempt at progression. What is important is hypnosis, transportation, and the space to parse out subtle variation and compositional synthesis (swiped from Murphy).
3. Eschew conventional rock outfit line-ups. Don’t clamor for a bassist or two guitarists if the music doesn’t call for it or if you can’t find instrumentalists willing to commit or with whom you gel. If your instrument is the accordion or you and a friend both want to play drums, let it happen.
4. Women picking up guitars and playing together will always excite me, especially if they’re interested in odd tunings and/or angular melodies.
5. Tenuous reconciliation between electronic and acoustic instruments (thanks, Björk). Emphasis on “tenuous.” I have no use for a twee indie rock outfit that shoehorns in cute synth burbling over conventional rock riffs.
6. Funneling intensely private emotions through the very public act of singing (Björk has few peers in this category).
This rubric may strike some as oppressively pretentious, but these are my comforts and points of interest. I think at its best, mainstream pop music is capable of touching upon at least the first three items on the list, so it’s not necessarily a matter of art versus commerce when mapping out preferences. But Ke$ha and Katy Perry don’t meet any of this criteria for me.
The protectionist feminist in me is also pretty horrified that girls like them. While I don’t think censorship is the answer, I do think figuring out what they like about them is necessary.
I admit to being amused by Ke$ha when Kristen at Dear Black Woman, posted an early performance of “Dinosaur.” Actually, some music geeks I know like her, deeming her funny, smart, ironic, and a forward-thinking pop star. Jamie Freedman at Always More to Hear talked about posting an entry called “In Defense of Ke$ha” during a lunch date, and I’m interested to seeing this piece materialize. But as much I wanted to like her talk-singing and deliberately shambolic performance on Saturday Night Live, I could not. Also, Ke$ha’s odes to partying and borderline alcoholism register differently in a gay club than they do when a pre-teen sings about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack. Plus, she has got to stop her sartorial appropriations of pan-Native American garb.
When Perry’s second single “I Kissed a Girl” became a smash in 2008, I was throbbing with righteous indignation. Some of it was full-on music snobbery. How dare some pop tart swipe Peaches and Goldfrapp’s glossy electropop? I bristled at Perry’s image as a preacher’s daughter turned servile kewpie doll seemed to spring from the id of Leisure Suit Larry. But the message behind “I Kissed a Girl” made me angrier. It positioned Sapphic flirting as harmless, temporary, superficially transgressive, and ultimately in need of heterosexual male validation. I want the exact opposite in a pop song. You can imagine how I felt when Out put her on their cover.
By the time Perry’s inane “California Gurls” came out earlier this summer, her image as a superficially edgy pop star with a predictable sense of heterosexually palatable feminine camp did little to challenge what I already thought of her. Neither did employing venerate sell-out Snoop Dogg for guest services. Neither did playing dress-up with various markers of teenage identity as host of the Teen Choice Awards. Neither will marrying Russell Brand. Neither will providing the voice of Smurfette in the doomed film adaptation of The Smurfs. Casting my friend Chu in the “Teenage Dream” music video tested my subjectivity, but ultimately confirmed that Perry needs to associate herself with hip, fashion-foward, androgynous young people to bolster her image. Thankfully, my friend is not the one in the headdress.
So I had to put theory into practice. I listened to every track of their’s I could find for the past few weeks, anticipating Perry’s forthcoming Teenage Dream album. For fun, I tempered this experiment with Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs to test whether my reaction toward artists I don’t like changed in relation to Important Music. I also read Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love in preparation of my experiment. I recognize its contribution, though I can’t champion the effort I derisively referred to as Let’s Talk About Anything But the Album. Too often, Wilson sabotages insightful contextualization of Dion’s aspirational class positioning and ethnic identity in relation to her voice’s function as a luxury item or a continuation of hair metal’s power ballad against gross projections of his unbridled disdain or unnecessary explanations to oft-cited theories of taste circulating in Western philosophy and cultural studies. Furthermore, the chapter he devotes to Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love is a reprinted submission that reads like a conventional album review.
This potentially illustrates the limits of such critical inquiries. Though I found Wilson’s book frustrating, I couldn’t improve upon it here. I warmed a little toward Ke$ha’s Animal, which foregrounds her singular personality and features the pop metal barnburner “Party at a Rich Dude’s House.” Perry’s first two albums are joyless affairs, saddled with the burdens of putting up with bad boys and defining yourself as someone else’s vacuous sexual object instead of your own realized sexual subject. Both artists (and their songwriting teams) share the habit of putting down men through emasculation and viewing every girl as competition.
In short, neither pop star move me toward any notable form of appreciation regardless of how much I consumed. I’m curious to try this exercise on other artists, though am frustrated that taste will continue to warp the outcome. Am I really all the things that are outside of me? Probably. Can I transcend them? Maybe not, but I’ll keep listening.
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 we meet again, Steffie. How are you?
So, I thought I’d briefly mention Lady Gaga’s recent cover story for Out Magazine, which further establishes her recent fascination with monsters and horror (though not, sadly, Muppets). More importantly, it aligns her with a queer audience and as one of the tribe (an extension of an argument my friend Alex Cho made in a column for Flow earlier this month).
Ellen Von Unwerth’s pictorial is interesting — I’ve been a fan since I first saw her cover of Hole’s Live Through This. I especially find the photographs of her wrapped in medical gauze interesting, as it revisits the fixations she has with death and frailty that she brought to light in her music video for “Paparazzi.”
Lady Gaga on the cover of Out seems like a pretty big deal, but one I’m sure is not met without some controversy. While I’m not livid at her being on the cover (the way I was when lipstick chic interloper Katy Perry made the publication’s year-end cover last winter), I hedge. I hedge for a few reasons, the least of which has to do with hailing a queer audience while doing so with a normatively sexy female body, as Lady Gaga did when she conjured up the bath house in Rolling Stone‘s recent Hot Issue.
Principally, I still wonder how queer — not how queerable — Lady Gaga really is. Her bisexuality, which has been well-reported, is not disclosed here, but referred to, perhaps as a given. I do find disconcerting the lack of qualification for an earlier comment that her attraction to women is purely physical (presumably in opposition to men, who she doesn’t make this distinction for). For me, this seems antithetical to how I’ve always defined the philosophy behind bisexuality — i.e., that sex categories and binaries eclipse a person’s romantic, sexual, physical, emotional, and/or cerebral attractions to another person.
And while I imagine the feature was written before Lady Gaga discussed in a recent interview about the double-standard between men and women and rock and pop before immediately dismissing any claim to being a feminist, I would like some acknowledgement of how problematic this moment was.
Also, I find the constant speculation about Lady Gaga being a man or a hermaphrodite interesting, if not a bit limiting. While she’s enjoyed and encouraged much of this rumor-mongering, I’d be more impressed if she incorporated a more subcultural mode of queer address — say, tagging — or went the route of Marilyn Manson and employed prosthetics as part of her costuming. Sure, the appendage would be blurred in UsWeekly, but how awesome would it be to see a female pop star step out of a limousine with a penis peaking out of her avant-garde party dress?
What I wonder about this cover — indeed, Lady Gaga’s success as a queer icon — is how she might be more specifically aligned with a gay male fan culture and how this may speak to the fundamental differences between identity politics within the LGBT community, as well as within factions inside the current iteration of feminism (or, ugh, post-feminism). Because while this feminist thinks that Lady Gaga’s performance and cultural positioning is interesting (and problematic), it also still has very clear limits.