In the first chapter to her book, The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed makes the following argument about the meanings that we put into the things we own:
If we arrive at objects with an expectation of how we will be affected by them, this affects how they affect us, even in the moment they fail to live up to our expectations. Happiness is an expectation of what follows, where the expectation differentiates between things, whether or not they exist as objects in the present (29).
This makes a lot of sense to me. Records are my happy object.
Objects accumulate meanings because of the associations and feelings we bring to them. On last week’s Mad Men, an engineer helps install an IBM 360 in the middle of SC&P and explains computers’ dark thrall to Don Draper: “It’s been my experience these machines can be a metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds.” Conveniently, recent Mad Men episodes have been framed by promos for AMC’s new period drama, Halt and Catch Fire, which details the development of a fictional Texas-based computer company in the early 1980s. In the clip, a character states: “Computers aren’t the thing; they’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
Ahmed would love that sentence’s circularity. Also, you could replace “computers” with just about any other word and the sentiment would still hold. In Ahmed’s mind, the thing we’re trying to get to is happiness, which we never completely arrive at and often only recognize in retrospect. I was reading Ahmed’s book during Record Store Day, which my partner and I observe every year. As I thumbed through the crates, posted images of my findings, pored over the covers, filed away my vinyl, and threw on my newly purchased copy of the Life Without Buildings reissue, I thought about what expectations collectors put into records. Technologies are often thick with possibility. We may think that a new gadget or toy will be “it.” Instead, we frequently integrate some of their features into our daily lives (load it, check it, quick – rewrite it). We only notice their object-ness when they don’t work (buy it, use it, break it, fix it).
I’m literalizing Ahmed’s use of the word “object.” She uses the term to express how individuals orient themselves within culture. According to Ahmed, people can be objects as well. When they congregate, they often objectify one another. Ahmed argues that this results in children becoming distinctly burdened as symbols for hope. That could explain why the dinner table is a volatile place for some families. But we often symbolize people and risk turning them into our happy objects. It also explains why making a mix for someone always means more than putting a sequence of songs together. The mix is the thing that gets us to the thing.
There’s a curatorial function to record collecting, but it doesn’t mean anything without people. Building a collection implies a sense of discernment, which is learned from living in the world and absorbing social norms. This ascribes unequal value to objects, which we should always question. You may ask yourself if a piece of music “deserves” to be on vinyl and folded into your collection. You may also get rid of things because of unfortunate associations. How often do break-ups forever alter your relationship to music? How often is that association shame? “Happiness is an expectation of what follows,” indeed. Because of a boy, I started college with three Blink-182 albums in my CD collection (including the yellow version of Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, the one with “Fuck a Dog” on it). Other records—Björk’s Homogenic; PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea; The Dismemberment Plan’s Change—remind me of that time, but they made it to the other side and accumulated new meanings for me. But when I was ready to let it go, Dude Ranch didn’t even make it to a used record store. I flung it into a parking lot. Part of it was me being spiteful; it was a gift. Part of it was me applying feminism to music snobbery; I was done with pop-punk dick jokes. Part of it was me being a music snob; at 19, pop-punk was my bad object. A big part of it was shame; I didn’t like who I was when I was with him.
Sharing and combining record collections is an act of faith. What if you hate your partner’s records? What if you lose things? What if you end up having to divide everything back up into boxes and go your separate ways? I’ve merged my record collection with another’s exactly once. The ease with which we did it eight years ago was a good sign. We’ve schlepped our records to three homes and two states, but the process never bothered me. When I look at our records, I like being able to see what was him before me (The Aquabats), what was me before him (Depeche Mode), what we don’t share as a couple, what we brought to each other, and what became us.
You’ll never have enough records. There’s a beautiful sadness to that fact when you’re a collector. I’ll never hear all of the necessary sounds in the world and I’ll never have enough shelves to house them in one place and that is very comforting. Of course, technological progress has radically changed our perception of ownership and storage. Digitization has made just about anything available through both legal and illegal means and we can place that stuff in increasingly smaller, light-weight, and ephemeral spaces. Toward the end of a long, uncertain semester, I started to scan all of the paper I accumulated during course work and teaching. I did this to achieve a sense of control. I may not know what shape my dissertation will take or what its impact will be. But I imagine being happier and more at ease once the stacks on my desk and floor disappear. However, new stacks will probably spill over in their place. Happy objects are messy.
What I’m talking about is gathering. In Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed waxes poetic about tables and returns to them briefly in The Promise of Happiness. According to Ahmed, the table is a writing surface, a technology that bears the traces of its use, a gathering space, and an item that recedes into the background until certain interactions cause its presence to intensify (2006). Her meditation on tables reminds me of how scholars like David Morley, Lynn Spigel, and Ann Gray have theorized the television and the political significance of individuals and families’ interactions with it in the home. It also made me think about when Mary Kearney described television as something you need to dust during a class activity in her feminist television criticism graduate seminar. I never looked at another television set without thinking about dust, and I think about what else accumulates in my home full of objects. Records gather meaning in dust and in scuff marks. We put them there.
The other day, I was having a conversation with myself on the drive home from work. As an only child, this isn’t exceptional behavior for me. But the talk was productive for the purposes of this blog, so I thought I’d outline what conclusions I came to. Suffice it to say, I have a lot of opinions about Sleigh Bells and the sophomore jinx.
It’s kind of surprising, as I like Treats quite a bit but don’t rank it as highly as music critics I respect, like Ben Sisario and Jody Rosen. All Songs Considered’s Robin Hilton recently named it his favorite album of last year to considerable derision. Though I don’t think it can hold that title in a year of heavy hitters where I couldn’t suss out a clear contender, I do relate to his sentiment that Treats made him want to punch people in the best possible way. I’ll go him one better. The record’s gleeful ballast made me imagine those punches turning into leaping kittens.
Carrie Brownstein made the point that her incredulity toward Treats stemmed from its novelty and timeliness. She wasn’t sure if the record would date itself or prompt the duo to develop their sound. I empathize with her criticisms but made peace with them some time ago because, to a degree, all buzzworthy debut albums generate these concerns. Frankly, we won’t know for a year or so what its larger impact will be. The Strokes’ inaugural release still holds up really well. The Go! Team’s Thunder, Lightning, Strike–once described in laudatory tones as Northern soul reinterpreted on Fisher Price toys–kinda sounds like Fatboy Slim. This isn’t inherently bad, but suggests that one record was influential and precipitous of what followed it and the other didn’t impact the zeitgeist in quite the same way.
I don’t bring up Fatboy Slim to burn Norman Cook. I lobbied firmly on the side of the Chemical Brothers during the late 90s “who will be the king of electronica” debate that only music critics engaged in, but have some room in my heart for “Praise You”, “Right Here, Right Now”, and “The Rockafeller Skank”. Credit can be given in part to Spike Jonze’s video for one of those songs, but Slim’s sophomore release You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby broke so big in the states because selections were licensed to multiple advertisers and featured in the soundtrack to virtually every movie starring a young actor angling to break out of the WB. I actually heard “The Rockafeller Skank” for the first time in She’s All That, when Usher orders a bevy of professional dancers posing as high school students to shimmy through an intricate routine during prom.
Sleigh Bells’ new wave sound tap into that cross-promotional potential as well. “Riot Rhythm” is used to sell sports cars. “Kids” is featured in a promo for MTV’s remake of British teen soap Skins. And if The O.C. were still on, dammit if music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas wouldn’t have “Rill Rill” close the season, assuming that it ended with Summer reconnecting with Marissa’s ghost at a beach party instead of Seth sailing off into the sunset. The sampled acoustic guitar (lifted from Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That”) even recalls the loping piano hook in Phantom Planet’s “California,” the show’s theme song.
But what of the sophomore jinx? How does a buzz band follow up a lauded debut when they’re doomed to disappoint a fickle public? There are a few courses of action. You can strike while the iron is hot, as The Vivian Girls and Franz Ferdinand did when they followed up their first albums in quick succession without abandoning their sound. The Strokes waited two years and brought on producer Nigel Godrich to ultimately make the same record again, with a handful of synth flourishes and metal riffs. Life Without Buildings and the Unicorns disbanded. Members of the latter group formed Islands, a breezy outfit that anticipated Vampire Weekend’s indebtedness to Paul Simon’s Graceland by almost two years with their great debut Return to the Sea. The former can claim Any Other City as an promising work, largely because of Sue Tompkins’ infectious talk-singing.
Vampire Weekend are actually a good professional reference point for Sleigh Bells. My partner also cited Ratatat, with whom the twosome share sonic similarities. Both groups resumed and prospered following their initial success, largely by incorporating their novel ideas and thievery into larger concepts. Vampire Weekend did so this past year with Contra, which received backlash and critical accolades in equal measure. It’s also a pretty good pop record that builds upon their jittery, treble-heavy sound with deft employment of Auto-Tune and airy electronic instrumentation. While this move surprised some, it came as little surprise to those who recognized keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij as the band’s MVP. In 2009, long-time collaborators Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot front man Wes Miles teamed up as Discovery to release LP. While spotty and half-formed at times, this endearing album marries an unironic love of modern R&B giants like R. Kelly with the glacial production qualities of pre-millennial Timbaland and Max Martin. It didn’t take much guessing to imagine how this could be filtered into Vampire Weekend’s sound.
I don’t know what Sleigh Bells’ plans are or if they’re at all interested in heeding some blogger’s career advice. But if there’s anything I’d like them to elaborate on, it’s their beats. This seems to be a pair that, if they don’t outright love commercial hip hop, at least absorbed a fair amount of it in their youth. People tend to bring up bubblegum and metal when they discuss Treats, but “Run the Heart” is obviously a club track. The driving beat on “Crown on the Ground” recalls the Bomb Squad or, perhaps less charitably (since my partner grimaced at that comparison), DMX’s “Who We Be.” It’s all four-on-the-floor without relent right now. But if they played around with sequence patterns or hooked up with an inventive producer, the band might surprise themselves and their detractors.
Echoing Maura Johnston, I’d like vocalist Alexis Krauss to be foregrounded in this development. Given the cultural assumption that girl groups and female pop singers are controlled by men and bolstered by instrumentalist Derek Miller’s role as producer, there’s probably an assumption that Miller runs the show. Once the member of a would-be commercial girl group, Krauss’ gauzy vocals display surprising character under layers of processed metal riffs and pulverizing beats. It isn’t a strong voice but she imbues its limitations with a distinct smoothness and keen phrasing. Aaliyah achieved similar things with her feathery whisper of a voice. Hopefully, we’ll soon hear what treats we’ll be in store for next.