Lacking presence

What is identity anyway? Affixing “post-” to a noun puts forth the impression that the word following the prefix has been resolved. But we know that nothing involving identity is ever resolved, so long as generations of people continue to breathe themselves into a constant state of becoming. That seems to be a dividing line between critics over the current season of Mad Men. Don Draper keeps making the same mistakes while everyone around him nudges and leaps toward change and personal growth. Of course, Don isn’t the only one who keeps circling back to his past in the show’s penultimate season. It just seems strange that a man who made his fortune by reinventing himself under another man’s name would allow that persona to calcify.

Even though this is the Internet, this isn’t a post about Don Draper. Nor is it a post about reinvention, though since I blog about gender and music culture, that will come into play. It’s possibly a post about a major part of Don’s job, which is creating commercial opportunities for desire onto which consumers can project themselves. I suppose I might be interested in the construction of non-identities. Built into this are identities, of course. We never escape identity. We never “solve” it. We just encounter and engage with more layers of identities as we learn about ourselves and (hopefully) others. No two people are going to look at an advertisement the same way. That’s how Don was able to miss the suicidal tone to his Royal Hawaiian ad, and also why Stan thought the (unintentional) allusion to drowning made it funny. Who knows what Peggy or Joan would have seen had they been in the conference room? Perhaps that discarded men’s shoes assume a male address. Did anyone think to show the drawings to Dawn?

With questions of identity, what do we do with lack? The quest for creative anonymity is as old as pseudonyms, which are as old as media. One question persists: who gets to be anonymous? This is a question the Internet likes the toss around. It was a question that was spun into several productive directions during last week’s Girls in Hoodies podcast (a program that is for my afternoon jog what Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was for Liz Phair’s in that one issue of Seventeen I read in grade school). Recently, a number of artists have emerged onto our screens with little back story and thus ample room for speculation.

But anonymity is also appealing to mainstream artists who try to test the limits of visibility. Sometimes this is done for them by repurposing their sound and image. What I found most interesting about Justin Timberlake’s comeback single “Suit and Tie” was when people took it out of the wedding reception and generated a seemingly limitless series of remixes out of it. While (sanctioned and illegal) remixing is not itself novel, what I found compelling was that various artists turned one of the most marketable voices into a sound or texture that could be manipulated at times almost beyond recognition. This extended to the song’s lyrics. Though a bit embarrassing on paper, extracting and looping lines like “let me show you a few things” gave them an infinite malleability not limited by double entendre.

In an interview where he proclaimed himself the nucleus and hid his face behind a balaclava, Kanye West admitted that people wanted him to record 808s and Heartbreak, by now the turning point of his outsize career, under a different name. The man began his career by speeding up soul samples to make strange our perceptions of black vocal embodiment and now writes himself into histories of predominantly white rock subgenres for the purposes of self-deconstruction. He may not have invented black new wave because Prince, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Fab Five Freddy got there first. But he’ll probably write a song about how that makes him feel happy and small at the same time and we’ll never know what that process looks like. And that balaclava wasn’t just for show. With Kanye, everything is a commentary.

Anonymity creates the possibility for other people to project. This simultaneously speaks to why people were excited by the promotion surrounding the new Daft Punk record and also why many of those people were disappointed by Random Access Memories. Daft Punk is good at events, and those events are only possible when they are dressed as robots. They are good at cultivating interest based on exciting images and collaborations, whether it’s Interstella 5555, the pyramid light show, the Tron soundtrack, cover stories with Pitchfork and GQ, a well-placed spot on SNL, the Collaborators series, or a rumor that they’d perform at Coachella while they unmasked above the hoi polloi to take in Phoenix’s set. It’s still an open question for some as to whether they’re good at albums. Perhaps not if they’re good at making albums—the live instrumentation and sensitive mixing alone make the case for why I’ll eventually buy RAM on vinyl. But it’s an open question as to whether Daft Punk are good at making an entire album millions of people want to play front to back (if such a practice still exists).

Daft Punk

I get why disco, rock opera, and acid jazz flourishes might alienate some listeners, regardless of whether they’re built around a nine-minute song where Giorgio Moroder talks about his music career. I’m not one of those people, but I get it. But I think such questions miss the point. Daft Punk has made a career out of creating deafening hype around the promise of mass inclusion in order to alienate listeners with their music-nerd references. Collective memory may single out the angry Human After All as uneven because they ground it out in two weeks (I side with Ted Leo on this one; it’s an underrated punk record that brings to mind the apocalyptic Bush Administration and, like their other albums, plays well with cardio). But historical revision allows for the perception that Discovery was greeted as a stone classic when it actually took some time (and distance from their Gap ad with Juliette Lewis) for a critical mass to adjust to the sound of disco synth fusing with prog guitar.

What I find interesting is how Daft Punk is at the center of this ambivalence while insisting on keeping their human likenesses hidden. On the one hand, it’s a deeply collaborative impulse. Obscuring their faces speaks to the pair’s devotion to disco’s utopian promise of friends, lovers, and strangers keeping time with each other as the real stars of the dance floor. It also speaks to why they insisted on showcasing the participation of Pharrell, Panda Bear, Julian Casablancas, Todd Edwards, Romanthony (RIP), and Nile Rodgers, along with Paul “Rainbow Connection” Williams and veteran session musicians like bassist James Genus and drummer John “J.R.” Robinson. But it also speaks to the enviable control they have over their image to opt out of having personalities like plebeians. They get to stand 50 feet tall, clutching one of the most expensive sounding records in a year when Justin Timberlake cut a Timbaland record and Kanye West cut a Ministry record with Daft Punk. It’s a responsibility they take seriously, but it’s not one bestowed on everyone.

Rhye

In a lot of ways, Daft Punk’s authoritative anonymity and love for pop detritus makes me think of Rhye, another mysterious two-piece who insist on hiding their faces in print and on stage. When “The Fall” and “Open” materialized last year, many people assumed that the singer in front of this quiet storm was a woman. The assumption was made in part because the vocalist sounded more than a little bit like Sade and Tracey Thorn. But as was made clear when Rhye’s front man revealed himself as Mike Milosh, our ears are not used to hearing men sigh in their upper register about the ache of desire and the thrill of having sex with someone willing to know you. If Jordan Baker claimed to love big parties for their intimacy, Rhye is the corner conversation to Daft Punk’s warehouse rave.

Yet it would be imprecise to categorize the group’s sound as minimal. As they identify in an interview for NPR, the intro for “Open” alone has a complex multi-instrument arrangement. This fact was nicely illustrated in a recent concert posted on the site that at once showcased their large touring band and shadowed their faces. Yet what seems to be fundamental about Rhye is the constructedness of intimacy tied to uncluttered arrangements, candid lyrics, knowing appropriations of adult R&B and jazz, and hidden faces. In the liner notes to their debut album Woman, Milosh credits his wife, Alexa, as his muse. He also explains that the title track repeats the word as a mantra because he felt using her name would have been too obvious. Yet he has also posted his at-home performance of “Open” for Alexa on YouTube.

If the woman Milosh is serenading looks familiar, Alexa Nikolas is a former child actress who recently appeared on Mad Men as grieving hippie Wendy Gleason. A quick Internet search led me to the couple’s Twitter accounts, home movies they’ve made together, and a site of American Apparel-lite photographs Milosh took of her. Does this diminish my reception of Woman, a bewitching withdrawn breath of an album? Not exactly. Part of Rhye’s appeal is that by limiting their image and crafting opaque, primarily first-person/second-person pop narratives, you can put yourself into the album. And since identity is fluid here, it opens up some possibilities. Queer listeners often have to negotiate or ignore explicit pronoun referents to heterosexual coupling. We don’t have to do as much recalibrating here.

Yet I return to this clip because it seems so rare to watch a woman watch a man perform for her. What is Alexa thinking? Is that an energy drink she’s holding? Does this video offer any insights into these people’s life together? Does this offer a space to reconsider the male gaze or is male privilege so pervasive that it can take up disembodiment? And what do we do with Milosh and collaborator Robin Hannibal consciously drawing upon the seductive, confessional music we tend to associate with women? Does the answer to this question change when we take into account Hannibal’s professional relationship with Coco O. as one-half of the R&B pop group Quadron? Is this scene too small for such questions (no)? Does it matter if I recognize myself in that wordless lovers’ exchange at the end of the clip (yes)?

Anonymity serves many purposes in pop music. For electronic artists like Daft Punk and Rhye, it can allow them to evade the tired presumptions of electronic music’s inauthentic performativity by following New Order’s example and having other people star in their music videos. For up-and-comers and mainstream talent, it can gin up interest that they hope will lead to faithful gatherings of various size. There’s something productive about the performance of Daft Punk and Rhye’s anonymity that allows for these men to create an aural, danceable collaborative space that makes room for many performers’ and listeners’ subjectivities. But as a fan, I’m unconvinced that this gets us past identity because Daft Punk and Rhye are given the privilege to be anonymous. We cannot forget that there is a privilege to masking one’s identity that is not equally distributed or uniformly motivated. Some require anonymity to make art and take a political stance in the face of suppression.

Kanye West

With Kanye and Spring Breakers taking up the balaclava, I think about the members of Pussy Riot and their need for anonymity to enact and commit to radical feminist politics. Yet in this case, wearing the balaclava simultaneously provides privacy and recognition. As Lindsay Zoladz observed in her recent interaction with a few members during their visit in New York for the premiere of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, these otherwise anonymous young women transformed when they put them on for photographs.

Pussy Riot

Performativity is operative regardless of whether they hide their faces. But they have become visible to us by wearing the balaclava, an appropriative symbol of radical chic that they wore for their own collective protection. Yet I also find it exciting and powerful that, in the article, I don’t know what these women look like, nor can I confirm their given names. Some people take up anonymity to make visible through radical action the systemic injustices that oppress and silence individuals on the basis of gender, age, race, sexuality, class, and ability through a host of (sometimes individual, often intersectional) phobias. They have to. And that they’re willing to do it in plain sight regardless of whether people can identify them is all the more powerful.

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