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.
Knowledge gaps are a funny thing. As a media studies graduate student, I’m frequently confronted by what I haven’t seen. Some of these titles baffle my students and colleagues–The Goonies, The Hunger Games, all six installments of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Terminator 2. I caught up with Psy’s “Gangham Style” last summer. I saw Die Hard a few weeks ago. I watched the Beyoncé album two days before Christmas, which is a lifetime ago for Internet traffic. I’ve never seen a complete season of Seinfeld, despite its deathless existence in syndication.
Of course, I could make closing these gaps more of a priority. To some extent, I do. I’ll often take cues from my friends and carve out a little time for certain films, television shows, and music. For example, I’m currently watching cult Lisa Kudrow vehicle The Comeback in honor of my friend Erik because I miss him. Last winter, my partner and I started a holiday tradition of watching guild screener copies of “For Your Consideration” fare with his Chicago-based aunt and uncle who work in the entertainment industry. And I’m always keeping a list. But the above admission may suggest a couple of things about me. First, it might seem curious for someone who cannot keep up with such widely accepted touchstones of popular culture to keep a music blog and pursue graduate education in media studies. Second, more skeptical readers may intuit a curatorial function to my limited exposure.
But who doesn’t curate what they consume? When I was younger, I made a conscious effort to avoid a lot of blockbuster fare because I assumed things like Sid and Nancy were more important. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought a lot about the larger political implications behind my consumer decisions. I tend to be rather dogmatic in my choices. Seth MacFarlane doesn’t need me to support his various entertainment ventures, so I have no reason to watch Family Guy and witness the program’s awful treatment of Meg Griffin. As a result, I usually prioritize media and art created by women. Even if I take issue with what I’ve seen or heard, I recognize the relative difficulty of finding an audience for such work. And taking issue means thinking, either in writing or through conversation. I was lucky enough to catch a screening of UW-Madison alumna Jill Soloway’s excellent feature debut, Afternoon Delight and even luckier to ask her about the productively messy collision of the film’s feminist and class politics during the Q&A. Exposing myself to these things and engaging with the women who made them is always going to matter to me.
Yes, I tend toward “cool,” feminist/women-affirming, indie/left-of-mainstream things. This is why I tend to avoid doing a year-end write-up. My favorites probably wouldn’t surprise you. And while I love reading other people and publications’ lists–if for no other reason than to play catch-up–ranking systems often evade me. What does it mean to be the seventh-best album of the year? What does it mean to be “Album of the Year” in the first place? But during my first year at Madison, I befriended a feminist media scholar who, to my mind, came to her subject of study (comics) for the same reason I cared about the production of music culture: it enriched our feminism.
Last year, my favorite album cover was Santigold’s Master of My Make-Believe. In general, I think Santi White makes fun, innovative pop music. This album was no exception. But I was especially taken with White’s multiple, fragmented presence in the composition–in a bespoke suit as a man, in duplicate as glamorous attendants, in a Napoleon-ic pose as a work of art. I struggled to find words to interpret the cover’s larger meanings. Defeated and distracted by other obligations, I abandoned the draft. Similar feelings and responsibilities kept me quiet this year. After a point, you wonder if it’s too late to contribute one more post about Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance. You’re not sure where to fit a thousand words over your ambivalence about the presence of Deerhunter front man Bradford Cox’s queer, Marfans-formed body in Dallas Buyers Club. You let things go.
I’m sad about that, as I’m happiest when I give myself the opportunity to write independent of mine or others’ expectations. Recently, my thesis adviser shared a blog one of her students started. What struck me the most about it was its seeming immediacy. When I started this blog, many of my posts boiled down to 200 words of “hey, look at this thing!” I miss that. I believe in making soft resolutions at the dark, cold start of a new year. That’s how I started this blog. While I’m going to try not to put enormous pressure on myself to be a prolific, visible writer, I will attempt to share more.
One thing I’m always willing to share is album art. Much of what first drew me to music were evocative covers around which you could build your world. I imagine that this same sense of wonder, of seductive immersion, brought people to Star Wars too. Here now are a selection of some of my favorite album covers and a brief explanation of why I loved them.
Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady
Cover Art: Sam Spratt
If I were to give out an award for album of the year, it might go to this electric lady. As with her previous outing, I would still like her to refine her focus a bit more. But I’m not going anywhere. If Beyoncé is our Queen of Pop, then Monáe is our two-tone funky Prince(ss). I love this cover for the same reason I love Master of My Make-Believe (the leader has a pompadour, but the Monáettes each have a distinct personality under their matching mod bobs) and also because I was so happy that Erykah Badu recast herself as the female, pink version of the Love Below in OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” video.
Cover Art: Jane Chardiet
Margaret Chardiet is mythologizing herself when she says that this tableau is a recreation of a moment when she found maggots eating a dead flower nestled inside an old love letter. But all mediation is mythology anyway. And this image nicely reflects Abandon‘s brutal beauty. I can’t wait to see her live.
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Cover Art: Kathleen Judge
It’s easy to reduce this to Case’s “depression” album, and I certainly don’t want to do that (Case contains multitudes). Yet this image elegantly represents the perilous creatures you invent in your mind and the woozy clarity that comes with wrestling your own sadness and anger. Also, I marvel that her voice and writing get sharper and more formidable with each album. If I were a lit major, I’d more confidently assay a Flannery O’Connor comparison. But really, Case is on her own journey.
The Knife, Shaking the Habitual
Cover Art: Martin Falck
Beets are my favorite vegetable because they taste like the earth, look like vital organs, and stain cutting boards with a lurid, eye-searing pink. If it’s not hot pink, fuchsia, or magenta, go home. Pink needs to call attention to itself, make itself strange. Pink cannot be a complicit color. It must be rude and loud and slightly disorienting. Our queer brothers and sisters know this, and so do the Knife. Also, stick around for Liv Strömquist’s sleeve art. Actually, I’d be comfortable with claiming this as my favorite album, as I always had it on hand when I wrote.
Valerie June, Pushin’ Against a Stone
Cover Art: Dean Chalkley and Rob Crane
When you have the bearing of a queen and the voice of a superstar, you don’t need to face forward. We can meet your gaze. We can marvel at your profile and anticipate you drawing in your breath before you start in on another song.
Cover Art: Isaac Gale
Upon second glance, this picture appears to be a woman waiting for her hair dye to take hold. But the vivid, austere combination of pale skin, blue wall, and smeared red substance suggest, much like the album, a presence more menacing in its intimacy. Something tells me that the feminist theorist after whom the album is named would appreciate the image and its myriad interpretations.
Cover Art: Tom Manaton and Daniel Sannwald
One of my favorite late-night performances of the year was M.I.A.’s one-two punch of “YALA” and “Come Walk With Me” on The Colbert Report under blinking red and green lights to match her album art. My entire relationship to this album is through YouTube and, with the pixelation, that sounds about right. A nice companion piece to Shaking the Habitual.
The Julie Ruin, Run Fast
Cover Art: Allyson Mitchell
If I designed the cover art for Run Fast, I would try to capture my feelings from listening to this record, which disrupted any household chore with a one-woman dance-off. Then I found out that the image is part of a series called “Ladies Sasquatch” by artist Allyson Mitchell about “imagining utopias or queer/politicized worlds where gender is dreamed about outside of social construction.” I still discover new heroes and heroines each time I listen to “Hot Topic,” and now I can add Mitchell to the list. This is just one more example of how Kathleen Hanna transformed my citational politics.
The Blow, The Blow
Cover Art: Melissa Dyne
The triangle is the support structure to so much architecture. It’s the basic unit for stars, pyramids, and yield signs. It’s a shape that delights in difference, able to be scalene, isosceles, equilateral, right, obtuse, acute. Khalela and Melissa know this, and pitch their warped pop music somewhere between the mundane and the divine in tribute.
Dynasty, A Star in Life’s Clothing
Cover Art: Simone Cihlar and Darryl Richardson
If only this image were in motion, as there’s not a dull moment on this lively album. Like the best pop stars, Dynasty is a beauty who moves. She’s another artist I can’t wait to see live.
Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time
Cover Art: Gaspar Noé
Gender is definitely operative in taste curation, and often subordinates femininity. Such concerns apply to Ferreira, a young pop star who captures the imagination of male creative types like filmmaker Noé, producer Ariel Rechtshaid, DIIV front man Zachary Cole Smith, and fashion designers Marc Jacobs and Hedi Slimane. But there’s a depth, candor, and rage to her voice (qualities sharpened by survival) that informs this cover and makes the Shirley Manson comparisons more than a question of eyeliner.
Savages, Silence Yourself
Cover Art: Antoine Carlier and Richard Dumas
Because finally a group of women can update Joy Division and beat countless art school boys at their own game. And because “Husbands” and this cover seems to have something to do with Patti Smith’s Horses too.
Julia Holter, Loud City Song
Cover Art: Rob Carmichael
Apparently Gigi served as inspiration for Holter’s third album. I have trouble making out the references–perhaps Chevalier is eclipsing my recollections of Caron, perhaps I should read some Colette. But this photograph–of some building on a Los Angeles city street–reminds me of that feeling of waking up from a long car trip, rubbing your neck and losing grip on your last dream, to a place not quite recognizable as a destination.
Cover Art: Jonathan Turnaer
In many ways, this cover reminds me of the kaleidescopic Ring, save for a few key differences. First, the muted color palette. Second, a clearer sense of place. Finally, Cameron Mesirow’s decentered but guiding presence.
Cover Art: Garrett Born
First, BEST DENIM JACKET EVER. Second, I saw Lizzo open for Poliça earlier this year and she shut it down. Third, one of the songs on this album is called “Lizzie Borden.” Fourth, she’s part of a crew called GRRRL PRTY and I don’t need to explain to you why that’s awesome. Fifth, I appreciate her commitment to that hat even if it doesn’t offer proper shade. I don’t know where she’s at or where she’s planning to go in this picture, but I will follow her and the party that forms around her. Pump this album at full blast in your car. Dance like it’s your friend’s going-away bash and she’s not getting the deposit back. See Lizzo if she comes to your town. Get your life.