Tagged: Beck

For Kristen, a few weeks ago

A day before leaving my last job, I received a text message from Kristen at Dear Black Woman, that damn near made me do a spit take. It said “blog request: can you pls tell/explain the love for bon iver? particularly white ppls love for the background story of bon iver?”  My reply was “That fucking guy.”

Bon Iver getting in touch with nature and, therefore, himself; image courtesy of stereogum.com

Some of this vitriol isn’t even Justin Vernon’s fault. Frankly, his brand of white boy croonery is too inoffensive to prompt any reaction from me. The same can be said of Fleet Foxes. And while I do like Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles, my fandom isn’t such that I’d staunchly defend them the way I would, say, TV on the Radio or Vampire Weekend or the Dirty Projectors. Nor is my anti-fandom on par with how I feel about Jens Lekman, who does the nervous Woody Allen routine to curry sympathy from women and hides that he looks like a model and is probably a jerk, like Woody Allen. I only opted out of one part of Whip It!, and it’s the pool scene where the couple makes out over a Jens Lekman song. I quite like how Ellen Page’s character cut herself off the line her indie rocker love interest strung her on, but can do without that entire subplot. I kept wondering what the derby girls were up to or if Alia Shawkat was cutting AP Bio to smoke in the bathroom.

This isn’t Lekman’s fault, though. It’s easy to conflate your opinion of a musician with your assumptions about their fanbase. I’m sure lots of chauvinist dudes dismiss Sleater-Kinney as shrill because they’re feminists, which means that all their fans are humorless feminist white women. Thus, we have to take care to separate the work from its popular reception. When I say I don’t like Fleet Foxes, what I actually mean is “if Pitchfork didn’t give their debut Album of the Year status, most people would dismiss them as dad rock for CSNY fans.” When my partner’s dad says he hates Bread, he’s probably reacting against his square older brother and all the schlock he heard in the early 70s when his band was trying to make it. He can’t be reacting against “It Don’t Matter to Me” because that’s a smooth summer groove.

I’d imagine Vernon’s exile resonates with many fans as a sign of authenticity–he was able to write such personal lyrics and deliver them with so much emotion because he led a cloistered life untethered by the modern material world and central heating. That and white people like caring about things. Frankly I’m unmoved by Bon Iver’s origin story, and more than a little suspicious of a white person with the means to retreat. Survivalism came into vogue at the turn of the twentieth century with organizations like the Boy Scouts of America. It may have been intended as a way for boys and men to get in touch with nature, acquire self-sufficiency, and forge intergenerational bonds. I don’t doubt that those lessons continue to be imparted. But it also seems like a neat way for white men to run around in the woods, fetishize a particular kind of masculine ideal, and reconnect with a pioneer spirit while conveniently erasing the racial injustices placed against Native Americans and enslaved people of color. It’s easy to go camping when you don’t have to live in a tent.

I remember back in 2007, when it circulated that Vernon recorded For Emma, Forever Ago in a cabin following his band’s dissolution, an epic break-up, and a bout with mononucleosis, but didn’t seek it out. Look, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote most of Magnolia in Bill Macy’s cabin, too terrified to leave his desk. It doesn’t change that the second hour is a slog, the frog rain is gimmicky but not insufferable, and the Aimee Mann sing along is quite moving. Tom Cruise also gives one of his best screen performances.

People are obsessed with legends and origin stories. If we weren’t, Hollywood wouldn’t continue to exploit this fascination with shitty comic book movie franchises. Likewise, classic albums get integrated into the canon because of surrounding lore and myth-making. Stevie and Lindsey and John and Christine were falling apart during Rumours. Captain Beefheart handed in Trout Mask Replica in six hours. PJ Harvey lived on potatoes during Rid of Me. Kanye recorded “Through the Wire” with his jaw wired shut, which is why he has to Watch the Throne now.

I’m also reacting against the assumption that I would like Bon Iver. I certainly fit his demo–politically liberal, college radio listener, Pitchfork reader, cisgender white lady, alive when Bonnie Raitt swept the Grammys, inclined toward male romantic partners. But I reject the heteronormative assumption that my hypothetical fandom as a white woman would be tied to finding him or his music sexy. When I finally listened to “Skinny Love,” long after Bon Iver signed with Jagjaguwar and he recorded a song with St. Vincent for the Twilight soundtrack, I felt cold, tired, and manipulated. I’m partly reacting against hipster dudes outfitting themselves in rumpled men’s attire that telegraphs fucking in the woods, or at least not copping to Robbie Robertson doing it first with greater success. But the cabin in Northern Wisconsin scenario doesn’t send chills down my spine. Duran Duran recorded a song about getting it on in either an actual or metaphorical Antarctica. It’s not sexy so much as it is deeply embarrassing, though not the most embarrassing song on Liberty.

Part of this contrarianism also informs why I yelled at my TV when Netflix recommends “Independent Features with a Strong Female Lead.” I contain multitudes, Netflix! I don’t want to fit too neatly in a type. But I’m more than a little disconcerted about what that type might say about my race and gender. Just like I don’t want people to think that I believe feminism is predicated on white women’s subjugation of women of color and thus that a movie like The Help would speak to my politics, I bristle at the idea that a nerdy white lady like myself would, by definition, listen to Bon Iver. Or the Smiths. Or Belle and Sebastian. Or the Cranberries. Or that I’d instinctively champion a Miranda July movie, because, as Kristen noted in a post that addressed white lady quirk, where is the black mother of John Hawkes’ children in Me and You and Everyone We Know?

Miranda July, you are not the mother!; image courtesy of jonathanrosenbaum.com

A post on Bon Iver is really a post on whiteness, because over his songs’ crisp acoustic/ambient arrangements, Justin Vernon is articulating a very messy white masculinity. Whiteness has always been at the center of rock music, and frankly it’s hard for me to tell if Vernon’s doing something radically new with collapsing folk and blue-eyed soul. In this supposedly post-racial cultural moment, it’s common for hipster-friendly musical acts to bring the two together. Justin Vernon’s British counterpart is James Blake, a white boy who gets accolades from Pitchfork for bringing his intimate singing style to an of-the-moment electronic subgenre like post-dubstep. It seems robots do cry, most likely to Joni Mitchell records.

Many of Vernon and Blake’s white peers are at home with R&B. Mayer Hawthorne can’t sing worth a damn, but that doesn’t keep him from channeling Curtis Mayfield in his bedroom studio and connecting with a large audience. Jamie Lidell brings soul music’s immediacy into the present, proving himself to be one of the most talented composers and vocalists of his generation in the process. Blake and Lidell also come from a country with a deep, problematic love for black pop music. Jamiroquai wouldn’t exist without Stevie Wonder. Simply Red’s biggest hit was a cover of a song Gamble and Huff originally wrote for Labelle. The Rolling Stones worship Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Solomon Burke. Adele is channeling Dusty Springfield, who in turn was channeling Aretha Franklin.

Lidell was also at home touring with Beck, a full-grown (white) man who’s not afraid to cry or build a bridge between James Brown, Kraftwerk, and countrypolitan. Beck came into cultural relevance in a decade when Jeff Buckley covered Mahalia Jackson, Nirvana covered Leadbelly, the Blues Explosion recorded with R.L. Burnside while being called out as modern-day minstrels, and Radiohead could count Maxwell as a fan. In her essay “The Soft Boys: The New Man in Rock,” Terri Sutton argues that alternative rock was defined by a sensitive, self-reflexive white masculinity, but it also absorbed and appropriated soul, R&B, funk, and other generic expressions associated with black artists.

As Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style suggests, Vernon might set himself apart by having black artists accept him. Kayne West brought him in for “Monster” alongside Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and built “Lost in the World” around “Lost in the Woods.” However, white artists working with artists of color is as old as popular music itself. James Taylor worked with Gilberto Gil. Hall and Oates are embraced by black and white audiences. I believe West’s articulation of a black hipster masculinity, white hipsters’ quasi-ironic, quasi-sincere, deeply nostalgic, and highly performative fan appreciation for quiet storm R&B and new jack swing, and the Internet fostering an uneasy but fascinating integration are the key distinctions.

It speaks to why Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake channeling Color Me Badd for “Dick In a Box” captured so much public attention. It speaks to why a cheesy genre like yacht rock resonates, resulting in Warren G sampling Michael McDonald, Michael McDonald covering Grizzly Bear, and the cult phenomenon of a Web series that imagined the lives of James Ingraham and Loggins and Messina and brought Wyatt Cenac into millions of homes as a Daily Show correspondent. It gets at why I’m thrilled thrilled that any oldies radio format for my generation must include Adina Howard and SWV. It also explains why Bon Iver invokes Howard Jones and Back in the High Life-era Steve Winwood for “Beth, Rest” and it’s not totally left field. And it especially speaks to why Vernon would be involved with Gayngs, a loose assemblage of musicians that includes Andrew Bird and various members of Minnesota-based hip hop collective Doomtree that claims soft rock as its primary influence.

I don’t pretend that Bon Iver will unite a people, any more I can claim that Justin Vernon’s music as my own or that his performance of white masculinity is new or interesting. But parsing out the racial politics of genre hybridization, puzzling through the elision between ironic and sincere fandom and performance, and placing Vernon in that context is better than getting lost in the woods.

My thoughts on Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

Poster for Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World; image courtesy of wikimedia.org

When I saw Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World a few nights ago, my first thought was “man, someday I gotta get back in graduate school. If I were working on a dissertation, it could write itself. Throw in Michael Hirschorn’s ‘Quirked Around‘ essay and James McDowell’s ‘Notes on Quirky‘ piece on top of all the other stuff I’ve read about film, feminist media studies, and music culture and be done with it.”

My friend Erik put it differently, but in a more succinct fashion: “it’s nice when they make a movie for me.” A stylish adaptation of a cult comic book series about a young guy who plays bass in a band called Sex-Bob-Omb and has to fight seven exes arcade-style to win the affections of a girl he likes speaks to a lot of people I know. 

This comment interested me. After the screening, my friends and I were talking about our thoughts, which slid into a some musings on how the movie isn’t raking it in at the box office. However, we left a packed audience at the Alamo Drafthouse. Recently, there have been a rash of quirky indie-friendly movies about hip white young people falling in love and/or finding themselves that I was surprised weren’t making piles of cash given how popular they were in Austin (see also Whip It!, Adventureland, and (500) Days of Summer, but note that Scott Pilgrim was released through Universal instead of Fox Searchlight). 

Like desultory twentysomethings, this is hardly a new phenomena. “Cool” cities feed on desultory twentysomethings’ disposable income. Austin has a thriving film community, a varied music scene, and a substantial population of amateur and professional pop culture enthusiasts. Nonetheless, I do think looking at the box office activity of certain cities in relation to gross revenue is an area worth pursuing.

I especially wonder what a bunch of Southern post-grads share with like-minded peers in Toronto. Are we just watching ourselves on screen? And if so, are our daily routines and heterosexual courtship rituals boring whether or not the people in them listen to indie rock or play in bands or fight like arcade avatars with something to prove? God, we’re probably as annoying as mugging hipster celebrities.

This may be a depressing thought, and one I’ll continue to wrestle with until more like-minded productions challenge heterosexuality and music fandom. By my estimate, none of the movies I listed do, including Scott Pilgrim. I wouldn’t even wager that they recontextualize the soundtrack as an ansillary product. 

As John Caldwell discusses in “Critical Industrial Practice: Branding, Repurposing, and the Migratory Patterns of Industrial Texts,” these byproducts indicate how what he refers to as “critical textual practices” help cultural industry professionals consolidate political and economic power by intervening in cultural formation of media’s significance in that process. Extrapolating this concept for his argument about the use of heavy metal in contemporary horror movies, Joseph Tompkins argues “that film music functions not only as a cross-promotional medium for marketing movies and licensed recordings, but also as a key site for effectively managing and containing processes of consumption (Tompkins 2009, p. 68).” Hence the employment of Beck and lauded producer Nigel Godrich in the architecture of Scott Pilgrim‘s soundtrack, which is just as critical to the movie’s production and reception as the casting and directing.  

Indeed, it’s nice when they make a movie for me, even if I’ve been engineered toward this response.  

Here are my thoughts. First the good stuff:

1. By my estimate, director Edgar Wright pulled off the comic’s style without making it insufferable. As the series modeled itself after manga and 8-bit arcade game graphics and juxtaposed the quotidian daily lives of its characters with a manic tone, this is no small feat. This could’ve been a precious movie on a level surpassing Juno and (500) Days‘ quirk, but I feel it remained grounded by solid performances and Wright’s control. Yes, sometimes this meant that entire passages of the series were lifted for the movie. But it remained faithful to the source material while using a different medium to enhance the storytelling. 

1A. The fight scenes were pretty good. Since I know Hot Fuzz is awesome, I wasn’t so worried about Wright this pulling this off. That said, Wright did a good job incorporating his directing style into the action sequences. After listening to Jody Rosen, Dana Stevens, and June Thomas discuss Sylvester Stallone’s lethargic direction on The Expendables on Culture Gabfest, I remembered the importance of the director — along with the cinematographer and editor — to establish the pacing and framing of action sequences for maximum effect.  

2. Michael Cera did a good job. I was concerned about this casting decision, as Pilgrim is cowardly, impulsive, juvenile, giddy, thoughtlessly cruel, but somehow also charming. If he were younger, I believe Vince Kartheiser — who demonstrates many of these traits in a different fashion as Mad Men‘s Pete Campbell — would have been great in the role.  

Vince Kartheiser's Pete Campbell, a bratty child posing as a businessman; image courtesy of blogs.amctv.com

Cera’s screen persona tends to be defined by reticence, discomfort, displays of grave maturity that belie his age, and being put upon. Scott Pilgrim is supposed to be relentlessly youthful. Cera looks like he’s lived through 45 years of other people’s bullshit. But Cera struck a competent balance between how he’s defined himself and what’s expected of the role. 

3. The comic is largely defined by its supporting cast. Likewise, Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, and Kieran Culkin are great in their roles. Credit casting director Allison Jones, who’s been responsible for creating several great ensembles. One interesting credit is Parks and Recreation, a show that substantially increased Plaza’s profile.

And now my issues.

1. The movie ends differently than the series, which makes more sense and is considerably more satisfying. In the movie, Pilgrim and ex-girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) band together to defeat Pilgrim’s girlfriend Ramona V. Flowers’s seventh evil ex, Gideon Gordon Graves, a weasely venue owner and tastemaker. This was potentially a remnant from the movie’s original ending, which had Pilgrim reconcile with the underaged Chau. In the series’ sixth volume, Pilgrim and Flowers battle Graves. This makes their ultimate reconcilation feel earned, and also serves as an indication that Flowers is kind of a bad-ass. In the movie, however, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays her as a saturnine pixie dream girl, her arms permanently folded and her mouth always formed into a pout. This brings us to my second issue . . .

2. The female characters are much more interesting in the books. As I mentioned in a previous post, Sex Bob-Omb drummer Kim Pine is my favorite character in the entire series. She’s smart, loyal, talented, resourceful, and unimpressed. She’s also the person who both Pilgrim and Flowers confide in. Here, Alison Pill and the script render her as a lobotomized Ellen Page, only able to play the drums and deliver a pointed quip in deadpan. 

Kim Pine: insert quip here; image courtesy of iwatchstuff.com

Brie Larson plays Envy Adams, one of Pilgrim’s exes who becomes a successful pop star. In volume 3, we learn that Natalie V. Adams is devastated by super-cool Pilgrim’s kiss-off, and reinvents herself largely out of revenge. In doing so, parallels are drawn between Adams and Chau, as well as between Pilgrim and Flowers’ treatment of former lovers. This is barely acknowledged in the movie, yet one of the more interesting aspects of the series.  

"Hi, I'm Envy Adams and I'm barely in this movie"; image courtesy of collider.com

In short, the female characters in the movie are subordinant and passive. This may have trickled into its marketing, best illustrated by the limits of the Scott Pilgrim Avatar Creator. Mine is below, but the folks at Paste created some interesting celebrity avatars.

My Scott Pilgrim avatar, who unfortunately cannot play her white Gibson SG left-handed because her arms are folded. Girl avatars get the passive aloof pose and boys get the active "rock out" pose.

3. Oh, how troublesome difference is here. Race relations are strained. This was actually a problem I noticed in the series. For one, appropriating manga to tell the story of two straight white people falling in love is awkward enough on its own. For another, having Chau be a Chinese Canadian high school student seems to infantilize women and girls of East Asian descent.

In addition, three of Flowers’s exes are men of color. The first is Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), who actually performs a Bollywood-inspired musical number during his battle with Pilgrim. The other two are musical twins Kyle and Ken Katayanagi (Shota and Keita Saito), who only appear in a battle of the bands sequence and have no dialogue. So much for inclusion.

Homosexuality is sidelined as well. Pilgrim’s roommate Wallace Wells (Culkin) is somewhat developed and well-played, but a minor character. Flowers’s ex Roxie Richter (Mae Whitman) is represented as crazy and bitter and identifies as a lesbian. Flowers — like Summer Finn before her — dismisses their time together as merely a phase before helping Pilgrim finish her off.

But I still liked it. As summer popcorn movies go, I certainly enjoyed it more than Inception or Salt. It wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped and it won’t beat The Expendables, which is making a killing at the box office. But perhaps Pilgrim‘s disappointing returns best prove that it’s a movie made for me. But arguing about it potentially suggests my resistence toward having my consumption managed and contained.

Janelle Monáe: Pop’s prism

The ArchAndroid (Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy, 2010); image courtesy of wikimedia.org

A lot of people have been talking about Janelle Monáe, myself included. I wrote about her look and sound here and here, as well as her music video for “Tightrope” during my recent stint at Bitch. Her album, TheArchAndroid Suites II and III, was released last month and many wonder if she represents the future of pop music. Showcasing an eclectic blend of genres and references to tell the story of a futuristic messianic figure named Cindy Mayweather, Monáe channels her love of science fiction to create music that’s entrenched in the past, yet remains fresh and singular. Not since perhaps David Bowie’s incarnation as Ziggy Stardust has high-concept pop music sounded so fun.

Do Ziggy Stardust and Cindy Mayweather live in the same galaxy?; image courtesy of guardian.co.uk

Some critics note Monáe’s indebtedness to a myriad of popular influences. In a recent Culture Gabfest podcast, Jody Rosen rattled off seemingly disparate folks who inform her sound like Fela Kuti (evident on songs like “Dance Or Die”), jump blues pioneer Louis Jordan (“Faster,” “Come Alive,” “Tightrope”), 60s British psych folk (the verses to “Oh, Maker”), and 80s punk and new wave (“Come Alive”). Obviously James Brown factors prominently here as well.

I point him toward the artists I mapped out in my Bitch entry and raise him Astrud Gilberto (“Sir Greendown”), Simon and Garfunkel (“57821”), Wendy and Lisa (“Wondaland”), and Prince’s psychedelic inclinations (“Mushrooms & Roses”). There are notable pairings with Saul Williams in “Dance or Die” and Of Montreal on “Make the Bus.” There are even direct references to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Rodgers and Hart’s “With a Song In My Heart” , and Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

The emphasis on musical reference and hybridity also links The ArchAndroid to artists like Beck, Cornershop, and mentors’ OutKast who anticipated the iPod on shuffle approach ubiquitous to pop music during the 90s. I detect kinship between Monáe and Gnarls Barkley in “Cold War.” In its embrace of concept and musical extravagance, I note a tenuous connection with Gorillaz and Bat for Lashes as well. And strangely enough, I also sense an unexpected affinity between The ArchAndroid and Helium’s The Magic City, the sophomore release of an indie rock band whose leader Mary Timony wanted to channel her love of prog rock into an album full of varied sonic atmospheres and rich storytelling. In short, there’s a city’s worth of ideas in Monáe’s head, as the album cover suggests.

I wonder if Janelle Monáe digs on Mary Timony: Helium's The Magic City (Matador, 1997); image courtesy of matadorrecords.com

If this list suggests that the music contained within The ArchAndroid is derivative, belabored, unformed, or tedious, it’s to the album’s credit that it certainly doesn’t sound that way. In fact, save for the extraneous (“BabopbyeYa”), I marvel at how the 18-track album simultaneously works as a collection of singles and as a cohesive album with considerable buoyancy. I’d wager that one could go in without knowing about the story or any of the reference points and gladly navigate its varied pop terrain at home with headphones and on the dance floor.

Some believe Monáe’s artistic ambitions exceed her grasp. But I’ll gladly champion a young artist bored with the limitations of a genre that she’s assumed to align with because of her race. Like Gnarls Barkley, she demands to be insinuated in pop music’s cultural history in order to reclaim black people’s obscured role in the creation of the form and I applaud that.

It’ll be interesting to see how Monáe and her audience will evolve, as she captures much of the same white hipster fanbase as OutKast, Kanye West, tour mate Erykah Badu, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. But I have no doubt she’ll negotiate it with aplomb. With her focus as forward as her trademark pompadour, she’s hardly “just another weirdo.”

SXSW Day 2 and 3 recap

So, after recovering from the pleasurebomb that was SXSW 2k10, I’m finally able to recap the rest of the week. Tonight, I’ll post my thoughts on Thursday and Friday. Tomorrow, I will summarize Saturday’s festivities and highlight a few of the events I attended on Sunday.

With that, Thursday.

Left work around 4. I had a staff meeting earlier that morning and very much did not want to galivant around in biz-caj attire. I went home to change and of course, by 4:30, traffic was at a stand-still. Parking was harder to come by, so I ended up leaving my car on east 12th in front of my friends’ house. Got to Club Deville around 5.

Liars – If you’ve seen them before, you’d imagine how this went down. Loud, intense, sweaty, and their new album, Sisterworld, sounds good. Not as awesome as when I saw them at the Pitchfork Festival back in 2006 when they were supporting Drum’s Not Dead, but that was one of the best, most exhausting performances I’ve ever seen. Plus, there was some cigarette and pot smoke billowing around the tent outside the venue, but not enough to compare with what was floating around on that muggy Chicago summer day nearly four years ago.

After that, my partner and I ate some Hoboken Pie on the curb out front and plotted out our itinerary. We went to the Ghost Room to catch General Elektrik at 8 p.m., running into our friend Jacqueline along the way. When we got there some pseudo-house band called Scorpio Rising came on. Ugh. The obvious wah-wah bass was surpassed by the outfit’s hippie feel-goodisms. We promptly went to the porch and I read Tracy Morgan’s interview with BUST, his first magazine cover. The upcoming issue also has a feature on sissy bounce, which is a queer hip hop movement based out of New Orleans. Check it out when it hits newsstands.

General Elektriks – White boy French funk outfit. Good energy. Reminded me a little bit of Mellow and Beck circa Midnite Vultures, an era I wouldn’t mind if he returned to at some point.

Mountain Man – Heard about this almost exclusively a capella Vermont-based trio thanks to my friend Will. These women sang in three part harmony only occassionally accompanied by an acoustic guitar, which members Molly Erin Sarle and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig shared at various points during their set at Buffalo Billiards. They’re still new and a bit green, as evidenced when member Amelia Meath intimated that they had never sung with microphones before. Sometimes they weren’t completely together as a group. But when they were, which they were for much of the time, they emphasized the power unaccompanied vocal ensembles have in creating symphonies of sound. I also liked the Sapphic subtext to many of their songs, one of which was about living on a female commune, and the support they gave one another. A lot of hand-holding and hugging on that stage. They’re on my radar.

Explode Into Colors – Their show at Wave was on my must-see list, especially since I missed them at the festival last year. This Portland trio were really great. As I already wrote about them, I’ll say two more things: 1) More bands should have multiple drummers and 2) if you can’t get down with a bassless ESG scoring a post-apocalyptic Western, I can’t help you like things.

After this, we kind of hit a low point. We went to Aces Lounge to check out Jean Grae and Talib Kweli, who were amazing. Unfortunately, 88-Keys and Strong Arm Steady opened for them and they were derivative and making the bill run behind schedule. 88-Keys has worked with Kanye and I could see becoming a bit of a draw, particularly on the college tour circuits like 40 Acres Fest. Unfortunately, he’s also the type of rapper to dedicate songs about his sexual prowess to the laydees and say “no homo” when introducing songs about men (specifically one-minute men, which he assured us he wasn’t). Strong Arm Steady were a West Coast crew who worked with Madlib but were not themselves particularly remarkable and actually pretty messy in terms of delivery. The only highlight of their set was when Fashawn spat a couple verses on some song whose title I didn’t catch. I was getting super-annoyed, but then . . .

Jean Grae – Ya’ll, she’s the king as far as I’m concerned. Smart, challenging, confrontational, ingenuous, and the possessor of a killer flow, she’s one of the best in the game. And I don’t mean “good for a girl.” I mean on equal footing with or better than Mr. Lif, El-P, Brother Ali, Busdriver, Mos Def, Dead Prez, Jay-Z in his prime. She’s my favorite, and a grown-ass woman to boot. And I hadn’t actually seen her in concert since she did the Okay Player tour with The Roots back in 2004. So when she sashayed down a spiral staircase to Nancy Sinatra’s version of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” in a flared cocktail dress and cardigan (somewhat atypical for her to me, as I’ve usually seen her in jeans and t-shirts), I got amped. And when she demanded that the audience “act right” and participate by dancing and singing along, I obviously complied. She’s Jean fucking Grae.

Talib Kweli – Obviously amazing and great, as well as the reason for the showcase, as he is the owner of Blacksmith Records. He and Jean also had a lot of rapport, cracking each other up as they performed together.

After that, I snuck a peak at Phantogram at Red 7 and saw The Very Best begin to play Beauty Bar‘s backyard, where our friend Barrett was working security and had met JD Samson of MEN a few hours earlier. Then home, because Friday was going to be hella busy.

I took Friday off from work so I could help out at the GRCA day show at the relocating Cafe Mundi. Totally worth it. OMG, are there ever so many women and girls ruling it out there. After set-up, Kristen at Act Your Age and I got to watch Charlie Bell and Darling New Neighbors perform. After that, we interviewed several acts who were on the bill, including some long-time heroines of mine. I’m happy to report that Exene Cervenka, Jessica Hopper, and Viv Albertine are very nice in person. Hopefully all of the footage (much of which was shot by Kristen as well as Zoe from Schmillion and I’m the Fox) will be up on the Web in the immediate future. We got a lot of interesting opinions from these ladies.

Jessica Hopper – Did a reading from her book, The Girl’s Guide to Rocking, which she also signed for people.

Exene Cervenka – Still great, still political, still rockin’ a spare set-up with acoustic guitar and back-up singer. I also appreciated that she mentioned during her set how important it is to have spaces like GRC for girls’ self-empowerment.

Akina Adderly & the Vintage Playboys – Straight-ahead funk with great vocals, fronted by GRCA vocal coach Adderly.

Chatmonchy – All-female Japanese rock band that aren’t as well-known in the states but are royalty overseas.

BO-PEEP – In my opinion, the best show of the day. Loud, theatrical, high-energy all-female punk band from Japan. They were also very nice when I interviewed them, particularly since I couldn’t speak any Japanese and they weren’t proficient with English. However, I did discover that they love The Smashing Pumpkins and that they design and make all of their costumes. If they’re playing near you, go see them.

White Mystery – A close second to BO-PEEP for best set. A brother-sister guitar-drum duo from Chicago, currently on up-and-comer indie label HoZac. Please don’t dismiss them as the next iteration of The White Stripes and please don’t reduce them to their big red manes. These kids ruled it classic rock style. Also, the Whites are super-nice people. In our interview, we discovered that their mother makes a lot of their wearable goods (including underwear), singer-guitarist Alex runs merchandise workshops for Chicago’s chapter of GRC, drummer Francis was born on Keith Moon’s birthday, and so much about gear and the importance of bands running their merch booths.

Girl in a Coma – Really excited to see this San Antonio-based power trio, who I’ve somehow missed for the past year despite the fact that members are themselves involved with GRCA. Their songs were great and they really got the crowd rockin’ with their timely cover of The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.”

Viv Albertine – A cheeky, stylish lady with a dry sense of humor and a romanceless attitude toward love. Really enjoyed her new material and got to chat with her a little bit about acts she’s into, like Talk Normal and Grass Widow. Also has the coolest business card I’ve ever seen, though hopefully I convinced her to make them scratch and sniff.

Rosie Flores – Legendary punkabilly. Didn’t get to interview her, but enjoyed her set.

And with that, Kristen made her way home and my partner and I met up with our friend George at TerrorBird and some really nice deejays from Berkeley’s KALX. Frank was closed for a private party, so we decided to head over to El Chilito to catch our second wind.

Zs – Something tells me these guys are familiar with Big Black, Glenn Branca, and The Flying Luttenbachers. Profoundly loud, crushing, guitar-based free jazz. I can dig it. They were playing at Beauty Bar’s backyard at one of Panache’s many showcases. I hung out there for a few other bands.

The Carrots – Hadn’t seen this local indie pop outfit since SXSW 2006 and they’ve only gotten tighter. Cute, fun, and coordinated — this is the band you want playing your prom. Also, a nice sonic contrast to frontwoman Veronica Ortuño’s other band, Finally Punk.

Julianna Barwick – Man, I really like her music. Some people might find a girl singing into a loop station boring, but fuck them. Barwick’s approach to song formation is to improvise parts and feed them through her loop station until she’s built an entire choir out of her own voice. I was riveted.

Met back up with my partner, who tried to catch She & Him and John Doe to no avail. Caught the last few songs of Uffie’s set at Mohawk, which were whatever. Some people are excited about her, and I’m not sure why. Sure, she’s young and French and there’s the connection with Justice. But she endorses this “I’m young and bratty and materialistic” ethos that I wish certain feminists weren’t so quick to champion (see also the Married to the Mob clothing line, though I do want MTTM’s Lady Kier t-shirt). I think we’re better than that. And I think this shit is boring, and I bet it gets hella played at American Apparel.

Fashawn – I think this Fresno kid has star quality. Put him on your mix tapes, boys and girls.

The Entrance Band – I’m not so into psychedelic hard rock, but they’re fucking great. Caught them at Red 7, the third time I’ve seen them in as many SXSWs. Nothing really to say other than bassist Paz Lenchantin rules the planet. Melissa Auf Der Maur, who was two people to my left during their set, seems to think so too.

After that, there were a few shut-outs. I couldn’t get back in to the Mohawk to see Grass Widow, perhaps because all the people with badges were watching Mayer Hawthorne and the County. We couldn’t find the Independent to see Anti-Pop Consortium. The xx show at Central Presbyterian Church was badges only. So we ended things with Dengue Fever at Encore. Fun retro pop outfit from Los Angeles and Cambodia.

Phew! That’s enough for now. I’ll wrap up my thoughts tomorrow. Thanks for reading.

120 Minutes, archived

120 Minutes logo; image courtesy of theredradio.typepad.com

Recently, my friend Peter (who runs Manvertised) posted a link to the 120 Minutes Archive on Facebook. Some folks, like my friend Susan and maybe you, were way ahead of me on this one. But that didn’t keep me from squealing with glee over an evolving database of the music videos featured on MTV’s indie/underground music program. And it certainly fills a void that Pre-Durst never satisfied.

My family had cable intermittently throughout my childhood. The period in my life when having cable mattered to me was between sixth and eighth grade, which was a strange but glorious end of alternative rock and the music video era. Between 1993 to 1996, Sunday night was the couch potato highlight of my week.

I learned about 120 Minutes from my stepbrothers, who were also into Yo! MTV RapsHeadbangers Ball, and Alternative Nation. Though I knew that the show’s history stretched back into the mid-1980s, I only followed MTV’s left-of-the-dial video program in the mid-1990s. I had a television in my bedroom and no siblings to fight over the remote. As I’ve outlined previously, 120 Minutes was a big part of my Sunday night music geek routine. I’d burrow deep into bed and try to stay awake so I could absorb as much as possible. Without 120 Minutes, I might never have encountered Sonic Youth’s “Little Trouble Girl” or Cibo Matto’s “Know Your Chicken.”

And while I’d be short-sighted if I failed to notice the hip musical acts the network was pushing, I also wouldn’t know about bands like Helium, L7, Luscious Jackson, that dog., Lush, and many other hallmark bands of the period, much less pledge my allegiance to college radio.

The show informed the feminist development of this music geek. For me, the program is seventh grade. Seventh grade me, like many seventh grade girls, was a disaster. I was painfully shy but wanted to be involved with theater and, briefly, cheerleading. I painted my nails black but chewed until my cuticles bled. I was chubby, but primarily ate as a defense mechanism (in high school, I ate very little so I could be “pretty”). I had a hopeless crush on a popular boy who lived in my neighborhood, and would ride my bike by his front yard when he wasn’t home. I wanted to run with the eighth grade burn-out girls, but they wouldn’t hang. I could count my friends on one hand, and was often made fun of for being a fat kid. I cried most days when I came home from school, and usually before. When 8th grade came around, I made myself into a smart overachiever with a schedule packed with extracurricular activities. I also shopped at “preppy” retailers like the County Seat and starting eating a lot less. In short, 13-year-old me vehemently denied the existence of 12-year-old me.

Of course, 12-year-old me always existed and I still carry her with me. As I grew older, I learned to accept her and, thinking about my adolescence during modern rock’s last days, I really love her now. For one, I had style. I wore tiaras, pajama bottoms, and alligator slippers to school. I dressed up as Cleopatra for the Halloween dance when everyone else wore Yaga and shuffled to Hootie. My socks never matched. I toted around a Batman lunchbox I got from a thrift shop while visiting my father in Florida the summer before I started junior high. I wore six barrettes at a time like a rainbow. I asked my friend Kyle’s dad for all of his corduroys and cut them to fit me. I paired mechanic shirts with silver platform Skechers. I got made fun of for it, but I rocked that look.

Courtney Love and Amanda de Cadenet's 1995 Oscar attire was definitely a fashion inspiration for me, though I liked the tiaras more than the dresses; image courtesy of slackerchic.blogspot.com

And 12-year-old me may have run with a small group, but they were good, reliable people. Like the protagonist’s friends in Dyan Shelton’s Tall, Thin, and Blonde, they always saved a seat for me at our lunch table. And even when some of us grew apart during high school, we could still catch up whenever we saw each other. Plus, I had a cool slightly older stepbrother who’d play songs on his bass to cheer me up and make collages with me out when he’d visit. And I had a mom who gave me hugs, talked all the shit out with me, and took me to the park to scrawl out my angst on pieces of scrap paper so that I could burn them.

12-year-old me was also starting to develop good taste in music and already knew about some rad ladies. Sure it was shaped by corporate entities pushing of-the-moment artists signed to major labels and subsidiaries that took my allowance money. Rolling Stone and MTV were chief offenders. Spin was also starting to get my attention with their alternative record guide, though at this point I was unaware of college radio or downloading music and thus had to imagine what The Raincoats or Beat Happening sounded like. But I had an open mind and was learning how to record songs off the radio. Later, I’d reject nu metal on principle, have my own radio show, go to a bunch of concerts, read a lot of books, write a thesis on the Directors Label series, and put this thing together. Thanks, 120 Minutes. More importantly, thanks Alyx at 12.

As someone who works at an archive, I also appreciate the efforts independent, motivated people have made to preserve this important part of a network’s programming history and make it available to people, especially as it is now unrecognizable from its origins. The history major in me also appreciates being able to explore the rest of the series that I missed and gain a better sense of the show’s context.

There’s some stuff I miss that the archive doesn’t have. I wish the episodes were available in full, particularly the ones that featured musical guests as hosts. Things got really unpredictable and exciting when an act, or a few available band members, or two tangentally related musical artists shared space together (fans may remember Thurston Moore smashing a phone with Beck). I also liked when a band showed off their hometown, as Soul Asylum did when giving viewers a tour of Minneapolis during a 1995 taping. I liked guessing which music videos the artists’ picked out themselves and watching them grate against the latest Tripping Daisy or Frente! clip. These moments really gave viewers a larger sense of who the people were behind the records.

Most of all, I liked the show’s liveness — staged, pre-taped, or otherwise.

Because when the Johns from They Might Be Giants announced the 10th anniversary show, I felt like they were singing just to me.

And there’s plenty of other MTV programming that folks could archive. In addition to the music programming I outlined above, I’d love to see footage of Courtney Love’s 24-hour MTV2 takeover.

So while I’m happy about this archive, I’d treasure viewing fans’ VHS recordings of the show even more. As Charles R. Acland observed in his wonderful Flow column about video’s obsolescence and how media scholars must address the resultant loss of history, these tapes give us indications of a program’s text, its supertext, and the recorder’s preferences and practices. Something tells me there’s a Clearasil ad in one of those tapes and, with it, the ephemera and long-buried memories of its viewers.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, singer?

Charlotte Gainsbourg; image courtesy of loudersoft.com

A little while ago, my friend Alex forwarded me a press release from a rep at Atlantic Records for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s forthcoming album IRM. As a fan, he had wondered if I had considered writing about her, an interest apparently motivated by reading an earlier post I did on Scarlett Johansson. When we saw each other at a mutual friend’s dissertation proposal party, we talked a bit more about it, wherein he basically outlined an entry’s worth of critical inquiry.

1. Like Johansson, Gainsbourg works almost exclusively with men, whether they be film directors like Michel Gondry and Todd Haynes or music producers like Nigel Godrich. Thus, she often occupies something of a muse position for male creative types, perhaps further enforcing masculinist notions of auteurism. Gainsbourg’s previous work with Air and Jarvis Cocker from Pulp and her recent collaborations with Beck on her new album further illustrate the point.

Beck and Gainsbourg at work; image courtesy of pitchforkmedia.com

1A. Gainsbourg has occupied this role for some time, as her father is beloved French yé-yé chanteur Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she sang the controversial “Lemon Incest” in 1984 when she was about 13.

1B. Before casting Charlotte as an artistic man’s (or father’s) plaything, I’d point out that her mother British actress-model-artist Jane Birkin, who was pretty liberated in her views on gender, sexuality, and monogamy. However, she may also be cast in something of a muse position. Like her daughter, she’s also worked with Serge and Beck. And like her daughter, who will be representing bestie Nicolas Ghesquière as the spokeswoman for Balenciaga’s new fragrance next February, Birkin inspired numerous fashion trends and clothiers (why yes, she is the namesake for the famous and expensive over-sized Hermès tote.)

Gainsbourg with husband Yvan Ittal, wearing Balenciaga to the Metropolitan Costume Ball; image courtesy of style.com

Unlike her daughter, Birkin also had a predilection for posing nude on camera, sometimes while in the act of coitus, perhaps with multiple partners. I’ll leave you to Google. I’ll also leave you to speculate if her daughter is relatively modest about her sexuality as a result of having such . . . “open” parents.

2. Thinking about our friend Annie’s post on Rachel McAdams, Gainsbourg is something of a thinking man’s pin-up, a cultural figure already saddled with normative ideals around race, class, gender, and sexuality. Given that she was recently featured with her half-sister Lou Doillon as the archetype for “thin” in Vogue‘s size issue, I’d add body type to the list of norms she represents. 

3. Gainsbourg doesn’t sing so much as talk in her songs. She intimates her way through songs in a breathy, sensual monotone, perhaps made more exotic by her British lilt or her occasional dalliances with French.

So, I’ll bring myself into the discussion. I like Gainsbourg but am probably too casual about her work be considered a fan. I’ve listened to 5:55 and IRM a bit, and have seen some of her more recent movies, in which she is often my favorite aspect. While I haven’t seen Antichrist (or any other Lars Von Trier movies) and am nervous about just how wanting it seems to be of a psychoanalytic or auteurist read, her turn as a mother rendered destructive by the death of her son has peaked my curiosity.

That poster is so NSFW; image courtesy of iwatchstuff.com

In addition, I thought her emotionally mature performance as Clair, Robbie Clark’s long-suffering ex-wife in I’m Not There deserved an Oscar nomination. I also liked her cover of “Just Like a Woman.”

I also liked her quiet, discreet turn as Stéphanie, the protagonist’s disinterested object of affection in Science of Sleep, a movie I otherwise hated. This is perhaps in part because the majority of film-goers at the screening I attended found Gael García Bernal’s Stéphane to be charming, whereas I found him infuriatingly petulant and wanted to smack him with his own disasterology calendar. But I quite liked her. The only parts of her performance that felt disingenuous were when she wears an uncharacteristically skimpy sweater dress to Stéphane’s calendar launch party (which I’m pretty sure was a figment of the protagonist’s puerile imagination) and at the end, when she’s cries about how Stéphane won’t leave her alone. He’s not worth your tears, girl.

Oh, and I enjoy her vocal cameo in Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For a Girl.” Her confrontational monologue about male gender-bending comes from The Cement Garden, a 1993 film adaptation of Ian McEwen’s 1978 novel that was directed by her uncle Andrew Birkin.  

But let’s go back to her voice and problematize the idea of whether or not it’s okay for Gainsbourg to talk through her songs. Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan was really critical of 5:55 particularly for this reason, arguing that her vocal style suggests that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’d counter with two things.

For one, is making such a display of singing really necessary? Phrasing and expressiveness are just as important as vocal range for singers, if not more so to those with more limitations. And isn’t talking through songs how Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Patti Smith developed mythic rock poet status? 

Bob Dylan and Patti Smith; image courtesy of brooklynvegan.com

For another, um, you could easily make the same argument for any of Gainsbourg’s male collaborators’ work. Something tells me that Jarvis Cocker, Beck, and Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel of Air were probably all influenced by her father’s barely-sung approach to documenting his own erotic misadventures. I only hope they were just as interested working with Charlotte Gainsbourg as they were working with Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter.

That said, it might be easy to overemphasize or project notions of what French sensuality might be onto Gainsbourg and her songs (something her character in I’m Not There bristles at during her first date with her future ex-husband, as well as something Air have gotten a lot of critical mileage on from certain online publications with hipster cache until recently). While her second album was adorned with breathy vocals, acoustic instrumentation, and sumptuous production that may have lent itself well to such an essentialist reading, the lyrics to songs like “The Operation” and “Little Monsters” document both the wonder and terror of bodies and childhood, suggesting what might have drawn Von Trier to cast her in Antichrist. Her new album, which was inspired by working on her latest movie, gives way to more lyrical abstraction, while at the same time emphasizing a harder sound.

In short, Gainsbourg may make male-appointed bedroom music. But that isn’t all that’s going on, if you give a closer listen.

Records That Made Me a Feminist: Björk’s Homogenic and Vespertine, by Alyx


Cover of Björk's Homogenic (One Little Indian, 1997); image courtesy of slantmagazine.com


Cover for Björk's Vespertine (One Little Indian, 2001); image courtesy of harmony-korine.com

When I began conceptualizing this blog in the ol’ brainspace, one of the first sections I came up with was “Records That Made Me a Feminist.” I knew Björk was going to get at least one entry. Homogenic and Vespertine each played a vital part of shaping my politics. So, I figured out I’d probably have to write about them together.

Pairing albums for this section of the blog is something I originally wanted to do this when covering Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, which I started listening to around the same time as PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. I liked the idea of dialoguing seemingly dissimilar work by female artists with one another, but I feared covering those two albums together would short-shrift the artists who made them. However, talking about two distinct pieces of work by one woman seemed easier. And essential. So here we go.

I must admit that covering Björk’s 1997 and 2000 full-length releases present its own political challenges that makes me think critically about how I understand and practice feminism. Both of these albums made me a feminist largely because of the boys I was preoccupied with at the time.

But while my initial reception and resulting connections to them were tied up with potentially normative feelings around romantic angst and heterosexual coupling, I feel the albums speak to my development at the time as well as transcend it. In other words, Homogenic and Vespertine may remind me of boys I used to date, but they speak to larger, more overtly feminist issues as well.

Of course, being a feminist doesn’t mean you can’t like boys or be hung up on them from time to time, so long as you don’t let them run your life. Which I don’t think Björk endorses in either of these records, even though she herself has an ambivalent relationship with feminism (though not with calling out the music industry’s sexist practices of attributing male engineers and instrumental songwriters).

Importantly, as both albums were prescient to my development, they also went over my head when I first listened to them. Debut and Post were more accessible and, as a result, I liked them almost immediately. It was hard for 10-year-old me not to fall for the girl dancing through New York City on a flatbed in the music video for “Big Time Sensuality.”

But Björk’s next two albums took more time to process. Both albums mark advances in the artist’s production sensibilities, approaches to music-making, and interest in electronic instrumentation. Thus, just as Björk had to evolve as a musician before creating these albums, I had to mature a bit as a person before liking them as a fan.

So, Homogenic came out just as I was starting high school. I don’t exactly remember when I bought it, but I think it was sometime toward the end of junior year. I completely ignored it at the time. Or rather, I listened to it once, went “ooh, so angry!” and put Post back on.

The particulars I’ll keep to myself for the sake of decorum. Suffice it to say that I dated someone for a little while, fell in love, we broke up, and I spent a little over a year trying to get us back together. It didn’t work out. Eventually I got over him and whatever I thought we were, but not without some pain and denial and then serious personal re-evaluation. The healing process involved some righteous anger, loud parties, several bottles of wine and other goodies, and burgeoning feminist development. After a rough start, 19 turned out to be a pretty okay year. Homogenic was its soundtrack.

Now, I have no problem acknowledging that this guy was a total jerk to me. But feminism isn’t only about recognizing and calling out chauvinistic bullshit. It’s also about self-empowerment, personal accountability, and un-learning heteronormativity and patriarchal co-dependence. It isn’t always just the guy’s fault, even when it is.

Thus, I also have to own up to being really needy and delusional at the time. I pinned my worth on whoever I was dating without questioning whether being with them was actually good for me. So I projected my own big feelings and insecurities on someone who clearly didn’t want to be with me. I was ignoring the reality of the situation and, as a result, my own well-being. I finally recognized what I was doing when confronted with the lyric “How could I be so immature to think he could replace the missing elements in me — how extremely lazy of me.” 

Kinda appropriate that a break-up record got me over mine, no? Apparently, Björk made the album after breaking up with drum’n’bass musician Goldie while they were working on their own project. Hence lines like “So you left me on my own to complete the mission, but now I’m leaving it all behind.” But it pretty much hit all the right notes of melancholy, indignation, rage, and feisty recovery for me. I’m a quarter Norwegian on my mother’s side, so even the line “I thought I could organize freedom — how Scandinavian of me” in “Hunter” applied.

Attention must be paid to the album’s sound and how it marked a musical departure for Björk. Post was an eclectic mix that boasted songs like “Army of Me,” “Enjoy,” and “Headphones,” that opened up her sound to include state-of-the-art aggressive digital distortion and serene electronic minimalism.

While this was evident in the production work Tricky and 808 State’s Graham Massey did on Post, it wasn’t the focus. It would come to define the artistic work she began doing with producers like Mark Bell on Homogenic and would continue to do with Matmos on Vespertine. But I’d hedge that most casual listeners just remember Post‘s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” which was produced by Björk’s then-mainstay, Nellee Hooper, the man responsible for all the production on her breakthrough Debut. He was also responsible for “Hyperballad,” which I’d argue suggests the artist’s shift, which is fully evident on her next album.

Man, I wish I could post the music video, but WMG has apparently disabled the audio. All the more reason to check out Michel Gondry’s Directors Label DVD, or any of the other myriad DVD titles that have documented her videography.

So Homogenic marks a transition from being a pop star to an artist who challenges her listeners’ ears and expectations with each release. By 1997, we also heard alternative pop stars like Beck and Radiohead establish themselves similarly with Odelay and OK Computer. We would hear Radiohead do it again in 2000 with the mind-blowing Kid A, where they really demonstrated their love for electronic instrumentation and experimental production techniques.

Björk was already on this path in 1997, but while Radiohead looked outward toward the fallabilities of modern life, Björk looked inward at the seductive pleasures and wobbly peculiarities of domestic life and partnership on her next record, rapturing at her voice’s clicks and finding percussive possibilities out of shuffled decks of cards. I don’t think these innovations went unnoticed when Radiohead went to work on In Rainbows. To me, Vespertine‘s influence is all over a song like “Nude,” which was originally an outtake from OK Computer. This is further confirmed by the band’s rendition of Homogenic‘s “Unravel” as a tip of the hat. As if lead singer Thom Yorke’s backing vocals on “Náttúra” aren’t enough.

Hmmm. Maybe at some point, I’ll consider Yorke’s duets with Björk and PJ Harvey. Yorke is one of my favorite vocalists, a fact confirmed by a recent revisit of Hail to the Thief. If one of my friends ran a blog on male masculinity and music culture, I’d pen a guest entry in a second.

But I was afflicted with a troubled mind when Vespertine first came out. In addition to boy heartache, I was going through some considerable familial strife. I was also starting my first semester of college, so a tackier person might blame 9/11.

After seeing the music video for “Hidden Place,” I dutifully bought the album, along with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, another at-the-time inscrutable release, at the Tower Records by campus. I listened to the album a few times, but my head was not in the right place for it. It was too contented and quiet. I couldn’t hear it. And then for a little while all I could hear was Homogenic at full volume.

Stills from the video that convinced me to buy "Vespertine"; image courtesy of unit.bjork.com

To be blunt, Vespertine didn’t really make sense to me until I started having sex. Critics like Ryan Dombal would seem to concur. I remember seeing her performance of “Cocoon” on Jay Leno and thinking that it was really quiet, but totally not getting how micro-embodied intimacy is the song’s entire purpose. While I had a good understanding of mechanics and had engaged in related activities before going into my first listen, I don’t think a song like “Cocoon” makes sense to a person unless they’ve experienced it, to speak euphemistically, in a corporeal sense.

BTW, yes that is Bill O’Reilly adjusting his tie. If he was actually listening to the song, I’m sure he’d be appalled by how delightfully, defiantly sexual this song is and that it was performed uncensored on network television. Watching it now, I can’t believe I wasn’t really listening. Maybe I should have been leaning into the television.  

Again, the particulars here aren’t really important. I was a week or so into being 20 and, frankly,  didn’t want to be a virgin anymore. The guy was someone willing, it was fun, and didn’t last very long.

In short, the romanticism and emotional connectedness that is often built into such an experience was not there, nor do I regret that it wasn’t. I would find that later, which would make my understanding of those aspects of Vespertine more profound and further develop my feminist principles.

I bring sex into the discussion because I, to borrow briefly from Arrested Development‘s George Michael Bluth, find Vespertine‘s complex eroticism one of its most key contributions to what made me a feminist. Though perhaps a stretch and certainly not without its own distinctions, I tend to think of this album in accord with Audre Lorde’s wonderful essay “Uses of the erotic: the erotic as power.”

And while I don’t know if this entry’s subject has read the essay, something tells me that the same woman who identifies as bisexual and recognizes the erotic potential in mundane activities would concur with much of the theorist’s thesis.

Of course, feminists must also have the wherewithal to recognize that eroticism, even ephemeral evidence like orgasms, are luxuries to some women and girls. Not everyone is given a space, a country, or a political system that allows them the safety and freedom to enjoy and explore these possibilities.

But eroticism isn’t about cataloging who did what to whom for Björk. As David Fricke gestured toward in his review of the album for Rolling Stone, it might be everywhere, at once tangible and theoretical.

This is where I think it’s important to consider the album’s production sensibilities and Björk’s particular uses of her voice. In addition to non-conventional practices like sampling and turning seemingly non-musical domestic items into instruments, the singer’s voice is the album’s real focus. Because of how closely she’s miked, you can hear every tic, breath, whispered turn of phrase, and any other sound coming out of her mouth. As a result, her voice becomes a varied and vital instrument, an idea she has continued to develop and that has continued to stay with me.