Experience Music Project: Pop Conference (1)

This weekend I attended the yearly Pop Conference, at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. This is one of may favorite conferences — it’s been going on for eight years, and this is the fifth time I went. It is good because everyone is passionate about the music they are discussing, and because there is a great mix of academics and music journalists. There’s a certain synergy to the conference, which makes it more interesting than nearly any other one I have attended. There are discussions of an amazingly wide range of popular music, from the early 20th century to the present. This year, I went to 11 panels, and heard something like 26 presentations (not including my own). I will try to say at least a little about all of them — noting that, since there were usually up to four panels running at any single time, people who made other choices might well have had an entirely different sense of the conference than I did. This posting will be part one — it will be followed shortly by a second post.

The conference opened Thursday night with a Q&A with the great Nona Hendryx. What can I say? She was inspirational. She spoke at great length about her career, both with Labelle (as a singer and frequent songwriter) and as a solo artist. She gave a shout-out to her high school English teacher, for initiating her into the pleasures of language and rhythm; recalled her collaborations with artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Talking Heads to Bill Laswell; spoke about how the changes in Labelle’s music in the early 1970s related to the spirit of Black Power and other social and political stirrings of the Sixties and Seventies; traced the genealogy of funk from gospel to r ‘n’ b and talked about how funk is about motion plus singing plus libido. But of course it wasn’t just what she said, it was her presence, her gracious intensity, and the way she communicated the sense that music matters, that it can be life-changing and affirmative, that it isn’t just about the Benjamins. Excuse me for gushing — but this is one case where I really can’t help it. Someone asked Hendryx about her image as being ferocious or “fierce”; she responded that she was just attracted to what was dangerous, edgy, and apart from the norm. [The issue of describing unconventional black women as “fierce” — and the question of how this adjective is applied racially — is of course something that is equally relevant in relation to Grace Jones, the subject of my own presentation at this conference].

I went to three panels on Friday. The first, “Dance Floor Democracy,” featured my old friend Michelle Habell-Pallan, talking about Chicana punk singer Alice Bag, from the early-80s Los Angeles scene, and about the influence of “ranchera” music (the Mexican mariachi sound she listened to as a child) on her performances — a whole hidden history of women’s emotional expression and how this complicates the history of punk. The other two panelists also talked about the racial history of music in Los Angeles. Anthony Macias traced the interplay between Mexican Americans and African Americans in the popular music of East LA in the 1940s and 1950s (he played amazing samples from recordings of the period — I only wish I could have heard more). And Sherrie Tucker gave a summary of her oral history research into the Hollywood Canteen of the early 1940s: a dance hall, sponsored by the film industry, where American servicemen, off to fight the War, could meet and dance with local women. Unusally for the time, the Hollywood Canteen was racially integrated: but only to a certain extent. 65 years later, white and black people who went to the Canteen remember things quite differently — the whites tend to remember how it catered to all servicemen regardless of race, while the blacks still remember the separate and unequal treatment they received once inside the doors. Hmm. In particular, white women were strongly discouraged from dancing with black men. Tucker’s talk illuminated, not only a history that would otherwise be lost, but also the differences that persist in forms of memory in the present, as well as in the actualities of a past distant enough that there are not all that many people left who still remember it.

The next panel I went to, “Embodying Electronic Dance Music Cultures,” featured a joint performance by three DJs (Bernardo Alexander Attias from Los Angeles, Fred Church from New Jersey, and Anna Gavanas from Sweden), together with a lecture/performance/demonstration by Mark Gunderson (aka Evolution Control Committee, one of the masters of the musical mashup). Talking over a mix they had made collaboratively over the web, the three DJs (who had never met in person before the conference) talked about the nature of their work, responding to claims that Djs aren’t “authentic” musicians because they are just playing other peoples’ recordings. They emphasized the musicianship involved in what they do; and they also (rightly) critiqued the whole discourse of “authenticity.” But also, they spoke a lot about the question of embodiment in musical performance. All musical expression is physical and embodied in some way; aside from singing and slapping one’s thigh, nearly all musical expression also requires some sort of mediation, via some sort of instrument. Obviously this worrks out differently when  a DJ manipulates turntables from when a guitarist strums a guitar; and activating a digital interface on a laptop is quite different from playing an analog instrument. But binaries of authenticity versus secondary mediation, or of physical versus virtual interaction, are not really good ways of talking about this. Though Arttias, Church, and Gavanas just hinted at this, it seemed to me that they were really talking about becoming-cyborg, as they interfaced with their digitized musical prosthetics or enhancements.

For his part, Mark Gunderson displayed and demonstrated his homemade system for combining and playing samples, and thereby creating mashups live, in a manner that involved physical movement and therefore a kind of performativity in relation to the audience (unlike electronic “concerts” where the performers simply remain behind their laptops). He said that he had first tried a system in which ten rings on his fingers (sort of like The Mandarin in Iron Man comics) controlled software on his laptop, allowing him to move freely about the stage while creating mashups and mixes on the fly. His current system involves an enormous backlit board, the icons on which he could manipulate like a touchscreen, through devices worn on his index fingers. He simultaneously mixed tracks live and explained how he was doing it: his demonstration was quite impressive, as well as entertaining. I was particularly thrilled to see and hear Gunderson, because his early-1990s mashup of Chuck D with Herb Alpert was the very first musical mashup I ever heard, and really blew my mind when I first encountered it. Today mashups have become so ubiquitous as to be banal (despite their still-often-illegal status), but Gunderson reminded me anew of the potentialities of recombination as a musical form.

The third panel I attended Friday was called Rap Memes. Tamara Palmer led off with a brief discussion, followed by a 10-minute audio montage, dealing with the line “it ain’t trickin’ if you got it”, which has shown up with alarming frequency in the past year or two in raps by T-Pain, T.I., Lil Wayne, and others. Not only has this line been repeated in many songs, it has also led to a lot of controversy, with people arguing vehemently about the phrase on youtube. Are the rappers expressing a sense of sexual entitlement (since they got it, the money they spend on atttracting and dating women doesn’t count as “tricking”), or is it merely a big in-joke? Are the phrase and the sentiment demeaning to black women? Etc. No resolutions, but an interesting presentation of a “meme” that has had a significant presence in Southern rap; a microstudy of how cultural meanings are made, and unmade.

Jon Caramanica and Sean Fennessey followed this with an in-depth discussion of the career to date (i.e from late 2006 to the present) of Soulja Boy.Their presentation was both incisive and hilarious. They went through Soulja Boy’s various — and mostly successful — manipulations of the Net in order to gain attention and make money: his youtube videos, his songs, his instructional dance tapes, his crass displays of wealth and of teenboy swagger and stupidity, his inane polemics (answering Ice-T’s charge that he had ruined hip-hop, by observing, basically, that Ice-T was old enough to be his grandfather), his loopy narcissism, etc. And also some of the multitude of response videos that these displays inspired. What can you say in the face of such a minimal, low-concept, low-production-values, and yet insanely successful (in terms of hits received and even  of money received) new-media assault? I can laugh at the sheer idiocy of it all, but I cannot avoid also feeling a certain sort of admiration for the sheer gall, immensity, and (yes) success of such a DIY media assault. Soulja Boy’s egomaniacal self-expression is pretty dumb, empty, and disposable; but any high-minded denunciation of the Soulja Boy phenomenon as representing the decline of western civilization or some such would be even emptier and dumber. As Caramanica said, it may be totally ephemeral, with no lasting value — it may already be gone and forgotten six months from now, “but I’m OK with that.”

The last presentation at the Rap Memes session was an amazing performance by Holly Bass, called “Pay Purview.” This performance was about “the endless allure of booty — from Venus Hottentots to video vixens.” An announcer solicited all of us in the audience for our dollars; when enough money was collected, a curtain opened and Bass appeared, in a gold lame costume, with two enormous “booty balls” attached to her derriere, transforming her into the Hottentot Venus. She danced for a bit, mostly with her back to the audience, making sure to wiggle that immense booty; and then retreated back behind the curtain. A recorded soundtrack accompanied the dancing, informing us of the history of the Hottentot Venus, and playing musical snippets from then until now that all dealt with the big-booty theme. The ritual was repeated five or six times; whenever the announcer had collected additional  money, Bass would emerge from behind the curtain and dance a little more. Her last dance was to the accompaniment of Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer”; this time she made some eye contact with the audience, which she had declined to do earlier. Bass’ performance was brilliant because of the way it instilled a sense of shame, complicity, and excitement in all of us in the audience: regardless of whether we paid or not, and regardless of how sophisticated our understandings of race, gender, and the economics of exhibitionism might have been, we could not help but being placed in this position, where the ascription of power became a source of embarrassment.

I will continue my account, describing the panels I went to on Saturday and Sunday, in another post.

Grace Jones, Corporate Cannibal

“Corporate Cannibal”, the new Grace Jones video (directed by Nick Hooker) is utterly astonishing. Jones is 60 years old (!); and this is the first new work she has released in close to twenty years. But “Corporate Cannibal” is anything but safe and nostalgic.

Corporate Cannibal

The video is in black and white, and the only images that appear on the screen are those of Grace Jones’ face and upper body, black against a white background. But Jones’ figure is subject to all sorts of electronic distortions. The most common effect is one of elongation: her face is stretched upwards, as if she had an impossibly long forehead, as if her notorious late-80s flattop haircut had somehow expanded beyond all dimensions. Or else, her entire body in silhouette is thinned out, gracile (if that isn’t too much of a pun), and almost insectoid. The image also bends and fractures: her mouth stretches alarmingly, her eyes bulge out and expand across the screen like some sort of toxic stain. And sometimes Jones’ figure multiplies into two or three distorted, and imperfectly separated, clones. Nothing remains steady for more than a few seconds; the screen is continually morphing, and everything is so stylized and disrupted that we don’t get a very good sense of what Jones actually looks like today. Her facial features remain somewhat recognizable — Grace Jones has never looked like anyone else — and at a few moments, we get a brief almost undistorted close-up of her eyes, nose, and mouth — but there is something monstrous as well about this individuated “faciality”; and in any case it is gone almost before we have had the time to take it in.

Corporate Cannibal

The electronic manipulation of Jones’ image throughout the video is reminiscent of the ways that Nick Hooker manipulated images in his earlier videos — except that those earlier videos are in full color, and they generally appear trippy and pyschedelic. There is nothing of that feel in “Corporate Cannibal,” which is altogether violent, ferocious, and sinister. This is due partly to the starkness of the black and white; and partly to the harsh minimalism of the video, which returns insistently to the same few distorted poses, even though it is unstable and continually in flux. Hooker’s color videos are about free-flowing metamorphosis; but “Corporate Cannibal” is about modulation, which is something completely different. I mean that modulation is schematic and implosive, rather than free-floating and expansive. The modulations of “Corporate Cannibal” don’t give us the sense that anything can happen, but rather one that no matter what happens, it will be drawn into the same fatality, the same narrowing funnel, the same black hole (again, I am not sure whether this is the right pun), the same code of electronic processing and morphing. There is no proliferation of meanings, but rather a capture of all meanings, as they are drawn down into the same obsessive grid of distortions and transformations.

Although the video’s background is white, and Grace’s figure is black (again, can we separate how this works and what it means pictorially, from how it works and what it means racially?), nonetheless the video as a whole does not suggest any sort of figure-background relationship. It is rather the case that Jones’ distorted body is a signal traversing an (otherwise blank and empty) field — there is nothing there besides this figure, no background at all. This also means that the video is not a “picture” or a “representation” of Jones’ face or body; the video image does not refer to a source or model beyond itself. Rather, Jones’ figure is itself the electronic image or signal — rather than an external referent to which this image/signal would refer. Indeed, at the very start of the video, and at certain moments within it, it is impossible to decide whether what we are seeing is a manipulation and distortion of Jones’ figure, or whether it is just “noise” or feedback, an artifact of the electronic manipulation field itself. For Grace Jones’ body and voice are themselves, already, electricity, light (or darkness) and sound, digital matrix and intense vibration. The video is modulating Jones-as-signal, rather than distorting some pre-existing image-of-Jones-as-real-body. The electronic image is itself a visceral embodiment of Jones, rather than being an immaterial picture of an embodiment that would exist elsewhere. And Hooker is not manipulating her image, so much as he is modulating the electronic signal that she already is (and, presumably, doing this at her command).

Corporate Cannibal

In this sense, “Corporate Cannibal” is the latest in a long history of Grace Jones’ reinvention of herself, via the rearrangement of her body. Jones’ performances in the 1980s can be contrasted with those of Madonna. Both singers emerged from the world of disco, and from a culture of campy performance that was largely associated with gay men. Both became gay icons, as women “performing” femininity rather than naturalizing it. Both flaunted an aggressive sexuality that was at odds with the old-style patriarchal norms of what women should be like. And both grasped the ways that this post-second-wave-feminism sexual “freedom” was deeply complicit with consumerist commodification, i.e. with the way that it was not just particular objects that worked as commodities, but that lifestyles, personalities, etc., were themselves increasingly being commodified.

And yet, despite this common ground, there was (and is) a vast difference between these two performers. Madonna put on and took of personas as if they were clothes; indeed, the clothes were often what made the persona. The brilliance of this strategy was the way it suggested that everything was postmodern surfaces, or styles. There was nothing beneath the surface, no depths and no essences. Every “identity” was factitious; and this allowed Madonna to play with them, freely and pleasurably. Because these personas were all stereotypes and fictions, none of them had any real consequences, none of them were irreversible, and none of them had any cost other than the up-front financial one.

Grace Jones’ transformations were altogether more troubling, more aggressive, and more transgressive. In a sense, these transformations were incised more deeply in the flesh, for all that they were (no less than Madonna’s) a matter of clothes and styles and the powers of the fashion world. In part, Jones’ transformations were “deeper” than Madonna’s because they had to be: without Madonna’s white skin privilege, Jones couldn’t treat her self-mutations as casually as Madonna did. She couldn’t retreat to the anonymity that was the implicit background of Madonna’s performances, the neutrality and lack-of-depth that existed (or rather, didn’t exist) behind all the costumes. Grace Jones (nee Grace Mendoza), as a black woman, is always already “marked” as a body — in a way that Madonna Ciccone is not; which means that she cannot simply dismiss depth, and present a play of pure surfaces, the way that Madonna can. She had much more at stake in her metamorphoses than Madonna ever could have had.

And so, if Madonna’s transformations were always playful and fantasy-like, Grace Jones’ transformations were considerably harder and harsher — which doesn’t mean that they were devoid of pleasure, but that Jones’ own pleasure in them was not necessarily something that she shared with her audience — her figures, unlike Madonna’s, are not necessarily ones you can identify with. (Think of the difference between the coyness of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and the Ballardian savagery of Jones’ “Warm Leatherette”). Another way to say this is to say that Jones is definitely a dominatrix, while Madonna isn’t (even if she sometimes plays around with the edges of s&m). Yet another way is to say that, while Madonna plays with the image of “femininity,” pointing out its artifice, its artificiality, and its inessentiality, Grace Jones instead blasts this “femininity” apart, blows it up altogether. Her metamorphoses always have a transgressive edge. She assaults the divisions between male and female not with a cozy androgyny, but with a cold and forbidding, ungenderable more-than-masculine hardbody. She similarly assaults the divisions between white and black by simultaneously embracing the worst stereotypes and snarling Fuck You at them. In messing so seriously with both gender and race, Jones pushes beyond the human, transforming herself (before it became fashionable) into a posthuman or transhuman, a robot; or even more, as k-punk suggests, into a chilly and affectless object-machine, whose “screams and the laughter seem to come from some Other place, a dread zone from which Jones has returned, but only partially. Is it the laughter of one who has passed through death or the scream of a machine that is coming to life?”

The difference between Madonna and Grace Jones is therefore both affective and ontological. Where Madonna is playful, Jones is playing for keeps. And where Madonna critiques subjectivity by suggesting that it is just a surface-effect with nothing behind it, Jones critiques it by actually delving beneath the surfaces, or into the depths of the body, to discover a dense materiality that is not subjective any longer. Jones no longer accepts the subordination that Western culture has so long written into the designations of both “woman” and “black”; but she does this neither by recuperating femininity and blackness as positive states, nor by claiming for herself the privileges of the masculine and the white; but rather by subjecting the whole field of these oppositions to radical distortion, to implosion, or to some sort of hyperspatial torsion and distortion.

“Corporate Cannibal” is entirely consistent with Jones’ past experiments, and in fact pushes them to a new extreme. Our technologies have ramified and changed since the 1980s, and Jones has followed them by emerging as the new video flesh (in a manner that was prophesized by Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a film that came out at the same time as Jones’ greatest hits — the early/mid 1980s — but that today, in “Corporate Cannibal,” is no longer a matter of prophecy and science-fictional extrapolation, but simply one of sheer present actuality). In the video, Jones is frightening, ferocious, predatory, vampiric. She has become pure electronic pulse, materiality of the electronic medium (which we were always wrong to consider intangible, dematerialized, or disembodied) — and she will utterly devour and destroy (convert into more image, more electronic pulse, more of herself) whatever thinks it might be able to stand apart from the process.

All this is made explicit in the lyrics to “Corporate Cannibal”: but conversely, these lyrics only have their extrarordinary effect because they have found the proper regime of images to make them operative. Jones’ voice is at first wheedling (“Pleased to meet you/ Pleased to have you on my plate”), before it turns stentorian, imperative, and threatening; and at the end of the song it modulates again, beyond words, into a predatory growl or snarl. She is telling us flatly that she will destory and devour us (“I’m a man-eating machine… Eat you like an animal… Every man, woman, and child is a target”). She is a vampire, but not a romantic one: rather, the song expresses Jones’ absolute identification with Capital as a vampiric force (remember that Marx long ago described capitalism as vampiric: “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks”). Jones sings: “I deal in the market… A closet full of faceless, nameless, pay-more-for-less emptiness… You’ll pay less tax but I will gain more back… I’ll consume my consumers.” Her lyrics absurdly juxtapose the cliches of corporate-speak (“Employer of the year”) with those of pulp horro (“Grandmaster of fear”). All this is set against a grinding, dissonant musical accompaniment, with harsh backbeats and shrieking guitars that are, however, more downbeat than metal (a number of blogs have compared the music to that of Massive Attack a decade ago, at the time of their album Mezzanine).

The overall effect is terrifying, although the terror is overlaid with an awarness of the cliches or stereotypes of that which induces terror. This is extreme expression for a world in which there are no longer any extremes, because everything can find the niche in which it is marketable. Grace Jones is forcing us to confront the way in which, today, even the transgression that might have thrilled us twenty-five years ago is little more than another marketing strategy. Or the way in which, beyond all those discourses about race and gender and “the body,” the only thing that is “transgressive” today is Capital itself, which devours everything without any regard for boundaries, distinctions, or degrees of legitimacy; which “transgresses” the very possibility of “transgression,” because it is always only transgressing itself in order to create still more of itself, devouring not only its own tail but its entire body, in order to achieve even greater levels of monstrosity. Or, as Dejan puts it, in the video “you can see directly the intimate bond between animation and the mutability of Capital,” as Jones’ electronic mutations or modulations track and embrace and coincide with the metamorphoses of Capital itself, in our world of delirious financial flows and hedge funds and currency manipulations and bad debts passed on from one speculator to the next — all of which depend upon, and indeed energize, the same digital technology that also makes Nick Hooker’s video manipulations possible. I think that “Corporate Cannibal” — with its continual modulations and deformations that are no longer just on the surface of the world but inhabit and shape its depths, and with its violent Weird energy (in the sense of post-Lovecraftian “weird fiction” with its simultaneous slight hokiness and intense anxiety and dislocation) — gives the most profound expression or articulation that I have yet come across to the affect of the vertiginous “globalized network society” we live in today.

Pop Conference

Since I had a great time at the EMP Pop Conference, I should probably say something about some of the talks and panels I enjoyed, in addition to my own.

The best panel I went to was called “Breaks in Time: Rethinking Hip Hop Roots.” It was really about the multiple genealogies of hip hop: the ways that various cultural elements (beats, musical motifs, dance moves, forms of presentation, attitudes, etc.), coming from disparate sources, mutated and coalesced in the South Bronx in the early 1970s to produce what we know now as hip hop. In other words, the panel was focused on how cultural innovation happens: how instances of sampling, recycling, and appropriation lead to the production of something new. This also meant showing the ways that cultural production and innovation come from “below” (rather than, as institutional art histories like to claim, from “above”), and how miscegenated, mixed, and hybrid such innovations nearly always are.

Oliver Wang started things off with a discussion of Boogaloo (aka Bugalu) a New York City Latino (and specifically Puerto Rican) dance craze or musical subgenre of the mid-1960s that is largely forgotten today (or written off as merely commercial exploitation), but that mixed Latin/Caribbean and African American funk rhythms in interesting ways, and that in turn influenced both salsa (which emerged a few years later, in the late 1960s) and early hip hop.

Second, Jeff Chang, author of the well-nigh definitive hip hop history Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, looked at the evolution of the break beat, that rhythmic moment that hip hop DJs would isolate and play over and over again — which is the musical characteristic that first marked hip hop as a distinct musical genre (and not only musical, of course; since the break beat was really for dancers, even more than for listeners). Chang found Latino as well as African American/soul/r&b/funk antecedents to the break beat.

Next was Garnette Cadogan, who extended these genealogies to Jamaica. He traced the ways in which reggae and its predecessors (like ska and rock steady) appropriated and reworked various strands in North American r&b, how reggae lyrics interacted with other Jamaican sources like the poetry of Louise Bennett-Coverley, how the reggae mix then returned to the United States starting in 1969, and how Jamaican music entered into hip hop both musically and via DJ Kool Herc’s famous adaptation of Jamaican sound systems to the South Bronx.

Finally, Joe Schloss looked at how the breakdancing of early hip hop was influenced by a dance form called uprock. Breakdancing was done mostly by African American youth in the Bronx in the early 1970s; uprock was mostly done by Puerto Rican youth in Brooklyn in the late 1960s. Once again hip hop culture was shown to have miscegenated roots, and to have coalesced from a multiplicity of sources.

All four speakers played copious samples in the course of their talks — which was great, as you could actually hear what they were talking about. Joe Schloss also demonstrated the dance moves he was talking about, which was great (not to mention impressive on the part of a guy who looked like he was in his 40s, rather than being 17 or so like the original dancers). All in all, this was an exciting panel, and also one from which I learned a lot. It reached a point where academic and non-academic (journalistic) modes of writing/research/scholarship become indistinguishable from one another, and where genealogical investigations fuse with the appreciation of, and active involvment within, living culture. The panel was exemplary — as was the conference as a whole — in the way it moved transversally between deep involvement in, and critical reflection upon, popular music — something that we could well emulate in the ways we approach film, video and new media, and other forms of living culture today.

PS: there were many other interesting talks I heard at the Pop Conference; but I will only mention one more: RJ Smith‘s discussion of Destroy All Monsters, the band formed in the 1970s by Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, and Cary Loren, all of whom went on to become famous as Los Angeles conceptual artists. Smith moved between the times of the band and the murals that the group made for the Whitney Biennial of 2002, which presented a dazzling pop art monumentalization and mythologization of Detroit popular culture and the attitudes derived therefrom. It was weird, magnificent, and hilarious, and, as a Detroiter, I really appreciated it.

Wu-Tang Forever

This morning, at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference,, we had our panel on the Wu-Tang Clan, and I think it went rather well. First, Leonard Pierce spoke about the Wu-Tang’s, and particularly the RZa’s, embrace of Marvel comics, and how they turned the ultimate nerdy/fanboy obsession into something cool. Next, Nate Patrin gave a detailed account of the RZA’s use of southern soul samples, and how this helped change the sound of hip-hop. Then, my old friend Charles Tonderai Mudede pondered the politics of nostalgia, with particular reference to Killah Priest’s song “From Then Till Now.” Finally, I talked about Ghostface’s voice, and his use of soul samples, with particular reference to “Can Can,” a banned track that was originally supposed to appear on Fishscale. (You can find a rough, not entirely finished, draft of my paper here). The real reason the panel went so well was that we were really all addressing common questions: sampling as transformation, the relevance of the past, how soul relates to hip-hop, etc. The song that kept on coming up was “I Can’t Sleep,” from the Wu-Tang Clan album The W, featuring Ghostface and Isaac Hayes.

Top Ten — Well, Seven — Albums of 2006

My music listening this past year was so scattered that I don’t even know if I can do a top ten… I have trouble remembering what I heard, and a lot of albums I never sat down and actually listened to all the way through; it would be, like, three songs one day, four more the next, three more a couple of days later… But I will try. Though I seem to have come up with only seven albums, rather than a complete ten. (I could well have forgotten something; often I cannot remember if I first heard a certain piece of music four days ago, four months ago, or four years ago).

My music listening this past year was so scattered that I don’t even know if I can do a top ten… I have trouble remembering what I heard, and a lot of albums I never sat down and actually listened to all the way through; it would be, like, three songs one day, four more the next, three more a couple of days later… But I will try. Though I seem to have come up with only seven albums, rather than a complete ten. (I could well have forgotten something; often I cannot remember if I first heard a certain piece of music four days ago, four months ago, or four years ago).

1)Burial — Burial. This haunted, dense, downbeat album is the most beautiful, and the most moving, or affecting, music I heard in all of 2006. It is hard to put my finger on just what it is about these fragmented and discreet electronic rumblings and beats that is so powerful… except that this music is insinuating something that forever remains just beyond my grasp. In any case, I couldn’t say anything about Burial that k-punk and Mudede haven’t already said better than I ever could. Suffice it to say that this music has insinuated itself into my dreams, even though I cannot consciously recall or reproduce a single melodic line or rhythm-and-bass pulse from it.

2)Ghostface — Fishscale. Even though I am in that small minority that doesn’t find this album quite as compelling as 2004’s Pretty Toney Album (which I wrote about here), this is still a powerful album, and by far the most compelling hip hop that I have heard in the past year. The wider emotional range of The Pretty Toney Album didn’t sell very well, apparently, so Ghostface went back to doing what the rap audience knows the best, and expects most readily: selling songs and stories about selling crack. Lots of critics have written about — again, better than I ever could — what a great storyteller Ghostface is, his amazing way with words and with brilliantly observed details, so that he’s like a great noir novelist one moment, a whacked-out surrealist the next, an oulipean metafictionalist the paragraph after that. I’ll just add that there’s something amazing about his rapping voice, the way it continually modulates between wacky humor and tough-guy fatalism and romantic whining. And I’ll note, once again, that his use of samples, particularly 70s-soul-music samples (regardless of who is producing any given track) is like nobody else in the business — since he calls upon soul-R&B sounds neither out of nostalgia, nor in order to give his tracks an authority they would otherwise lack, but in order to register difference and distance, to create and express disjunctions, to tear a hole in the heart of the world (the ghetto he grew up in) that he is evoking with such economy and precision. Just listen to how he samples Luther Ingram’s “To the Other Man” in “Whip You With A Strap”; or, even more astonishingly — in a cut that was all over the Net last spring, but got removed from the final album (I presume because of clearance issues) — how a really nasty, knockdown battle-of-the-sexes back-and-forth argument gets built around a lengthy sample of the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes I Can Can.”

3)Kode9 and the Spaceape, Memories of the Future. Kode9 not only produced and distributed Burial’s album, he also released this collaboration with The Spaceape (Kode9’s electronic sounds and the Spaceape’s vocals), which also reaches a rare plateau of intensity — albeit these explicitly, ironically doom-laden visions are quite different in feel from Burial’s intimate intimations. Imagine a collaboration in which Linton Kwesi Johnson is produced by Augustus Pablo, with both the former’s poetry and the latter’s production re-engineered by Deleuze and Guattari. Kode9’s heavy dub is remarkably eclectic, melding together sounds and tones from pretty much everywhere; it’s bass-heavy, of course, but there are lots of things going on that aren’t just the bass. This gives the music, how shall I put it, a kind of resonating space that nonetheless is poles apart from the ganja-induced “spaciness” that we usually think of when we think of dub. The Spaceape’s highly stylized vocal intonations, somewhere in between Jamaica in 1980 and the UK in 2006, don’t quite sound like either, but instill in the listener (or, at least, in me) a hypnotically addictive sort of chronic dread.

4)Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds. Yes, I do listen to American pop music for the masses, and not just to Brit esoterica and hiphop cult figures. Justin is kind of bland and blah as a singer, as well as as a pop icon; but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it emphatically doesn’t mean that he is talentless or awful. Rather, he displays an eerie sort of neutrality: he is really the postmodern “man without qualities,” and for this very reason he is unique and irreplaceable: anybody else who sang these songs, whether they were a brilliant vocalist or a godawful one, would bring one sort or another of an identifiable quality (a nuance, an inflection, a particularity of tone) to the music — and that would ruin everything. You might say that Justin is an entirely generic singer, just as he is an entirely generic celebrity; but he turns the very notion of the “generic” inside out, by turning it into an absolute singularity. This is why he’s the most brilliant “blue-eyed soul” or “white-boy-does-R&B” singer ever. (Even if, as I recall reading, his betrayal of Janet caused him to lose his “ghetto pass,” he has still managed to rebound where she hasn’t). — But of course, what really makes the album is Timbaland’s production; Mr. Mosely’s space rhythms and off beats and odd textures have never sounded better, precisely because Justin’s positive blankness (if I may be permitted the oxymoron) is precisely the perfect foil to set them off. (Jane Dark is absolutely right to see the album — I mean, hear it — as a sort of slash fiction or homosocial exchange “between men”). (I should add that my 4-year-old daughter absolutely adores “My Love”).

5)Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones. Apparently most fans of the band were disappointed by this 2nd album, finding it much weaker than their first (which I wrote about, way back when, here). But to my mind, it was equally strong, even if less overtly punkish, and more (er, um) “mature.” Indeed, this was just about the only New-York-area-alternative-rock album I at all enjoyed listening to this year; the new albums by Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo were well done, but they both basically put me to sleep (this may well be more my fault than theirs — I’ve loved both of these bands madly in the past, and I fear that what has happened is not that they have changed, but that I have — my sensibilities have mutated to the point where I no longer find them satisfying the way I used to. They used to be axioms for me, and now they are just… lifestyle options). (I should also mention TV on the Radio’s album, which I sort of liked OK but which never quite came into focus for me — maybe it will, belatedly, next year).

6)Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury. Lamentably, I am in agreement with the music-critic cognescenti. For what it’s worth, or for what it is, this is really good. TIght rapping, and brilliant Neptunes production, with some gorgeous and unusual timbres (I am especially partial to the harp arpeggios and snare drums, or whatever it is — I’ve never been good at these sorts of identifications — in “Ride Around Shining”). But the continual boasts/dramatizations/expressions-of-regret dealing with crack dealing (at least, for anybody besides Ghostface) and bling are way beyond tired at this late date… hiphop today is in real danger of vanishing up the crack of its own ass because all it can do is obsessively recycle with microscopic variations the narrowest imaginable set of themes… is this really the only thing that sells? the only thing that the fans — white or black? — want? Who can be satisfied in such straightened circumstances?).

7)Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar. I was just talking about incessant micro-variations upon narrow themes. I suppose that is what Ornette has been doing for the last fifty (!) years as well; but this is the first new release in a decade from the world’s greatest sax player, who is also the world’s greatest composer; and his music is as beautiful, knotty, and exhilarating as ever.

New York Dolls

So, I listened to the new New York Dolls album, so-called: One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This. David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain are the only living members of the “original” New York Dolls, so the identification is a bit notional in any case. It might be more accurate to say that this is a New York Dolls cover band, which happens to have the original singer.

So, I listened to the new New York Dolls album, so-called: One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This. David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain are the only living members of the “original” New York Dolls, so the identification is a bit notional in any case. It might be more accurate to say that this is a New York Dolls cover band, which happens to have the original singer.

In any case, on its own terms, the album is pretty good. Albeit a bit retro, as might be expected of a revival of a band that originally played in 1973-1975. The album is skillfully played, cleanly produced, R&B-inflected hard rock, with catchy riffs (that wouldn’t be out of place in 60s pop productions) alongside churning guitars and Johansen’s mannered, ironically self-dramatizing vocals. Nice, if you like that sort of thing.

Which is just the problem. I am part of this album’s target audience. That is, I’m a “boomer” who loved the original band. (Actually, I never saw them live, or heard them when they were still playing as a band — but I became addicted shortly thereafter, in 1976-78, the early punk days, when the Dolls looked like the immediate ancestor of nearly everything exciting that was going on. I caught Johansen’s solo act several times in that period; every six months, he would further de-fang his sound and his band, making it sound less like the Dolls and more like a suburban New Jersey metal band. But I digress…).

The (original) New York Dolls were tense, intense, and sloppy. The hardcore, driving rock sound (evidently cloned off of the Rolling Stones) was both fueled and warped by the high-camp theatricality (arguably also something whose initial source was the Stones, though also post-Factory-Warhol New York). This duality was embodied by the contrast or tension between Johnny Thunders and David Johansen. Thunders clearly wanted to be Keith Richards; his devotion to pure rock ‘n’ roll was equaled or surpassed only by his love for heroin, which eventually killed him — he couldn’t sustain either Richards’ virtuosity, or his lifestyle — though arguably the former, the basicness of his guitar chops, was largely responsible for what was so great about the Dolls’ sound, a sound far more down ‘n’ dirty than the Stones ever had, with an intensity born of desperation, an energy that kept on building but never broke through into ecstasy, and was all the more impassioned for that. As for Johansen, I can’t add to what I have already written about him here. Suffice it to say that his campy excess, his over-the-top theatricality, though it channeled Jagger as much as Thunders’ performance channeled Richards, did so in an entirely different way. For (out-Jaggering Jagger’s own sense of derisive, ironic cool) it bespoke a cool irony that, while it was not above having fun, really marked the death of any sort of passionate committment. It was ultimately just a shtick — or even just a job, a way of making a living.

The synergy between Johansen and Thunders — the confluence, not of opposites, exactly, but of incompossibles, that nonetheless occupied the same stage at the same moment — is really what drove the Dolls. It’s what made them so powerful, and at the same time — how do I say this? — so devoid, even refusing, of transcendence (so unhippie-ish?); in Robert Christgau’s lovely phrase, “the Dolls’ raucous antiswing promised all the deliverance of the BMT at rush hour.” The Dolls really were (as the cliche goes) fast, cheap, and out of control. What’s more, they seemed to inhabit a place in which questions of authenticity or not, sincerity or not, committment or satire, passion or performance raucous excess or calculated effects… simply made no difference. In this respect, they were perhaps the first “postmodern” rock band. (Though far more conventional in terms of sound than the early, Warhol-associated Velvet Underground, they went places affectively and conceptually that the VU never reached). (And the impossible amalgam of Johansen and Thunders is not the complete explanation of this accomplishment, only its symbol and condensation. These two didn’t bring their already-existing differences into the band; rather, it is only retrospectively, after the band broke up, that their polarity can be said to have come into being).

Now, the initial point of this post was to say that the new, pseudo-Dolls album, for all its technical polish, and partly because of this very polish, is utterly hollow and unsatisfying compared to the “original” Dolls, as we hear them on their two albums actually recorded and released in the 1970s. The new album is an unsatisfying simulacrum. Because Thunders is dead, and instead of the tension between him and Johansen, all we have is the one-dimensionality of Johansen plus a competent backup band. Or because the attempt of someone in his fifties to recreate what he did in his twenties, in a very different world and a very different social and cultural context, is bound to come off lame. Or because, like all the other musical reunions we have witnessed lately (the Sex Pistols, the Gang of Four, etc. etc.) the new work is nothing more than a cynical attempt to cash in. And so on.

Except — and here’s where things get both difficult and interesting — that my (overly obvious) criticism of the latter-day Dolls would seem to depend precisely on the categories of originality, authenticity, etc., which I praised the original Dolls for rendering thrillingly irrelevant. (Johansen himself has made his lifelong career out of a virtuoso series of chameleonic impersonations, of which this is merely the latest). What’s more “postmodern,” after all, than cashing in on a reputation for rebellion by branding it, corporatizing it, stereotyping it, and multiplying its simulacra, in order to get money out of the pockets of 52-year-olds such as myself, who are led by this very branding to think back to when we were 22 instead of 52? I am frequently disgusted by the market-driven nostalgia our culture is filled with at the moment, most strongly of course when I find myself the very target of such nostalgia marketing. But isn’t my resistance itself a form of such nostalgia, a clinging to a mythical past in order precisely to evade the challenges of the present?

The point of this self-questioning is not to negate my initial aesthetic distinction, and to say that in fact there is no significant difference between the New York Dolls of 1974 and of 2006. I insist upon this distinction unreservedly. What’s at fault, or at least insufficient, is the way I have articulated grounds, or reasons, for making the distinction. Now, in itself, this is not surprising. Kant points out that aesthetic judgments are always singular and non-cognitive. But grounds, criteria, and arguments are always cognitive. Grounds and criteria are used (and probably need to be used) to justify aesthetic claims, but they are never the sources of such claims — they are only applied post facto — and they are never adequate to the claims in whose support they are cited. Yet we can’t avoid invoking grounds and criteria, because (as Kant also says) part of the very process of making aesthetic judgments includes wanting to share them, wanting to communicate them, wanting to convince others of them, or rather to gain the assent of others concerning them. Kant phrases it strongly: in expressing an aesthetic liking, “we require everyone to like the object,” and “we permit no one to hold a different opinion,” even though we have no cognitive or conceptual grounds for our liking. And this is why, Kant says, “one can quarrel about taste (though one cannot dispute about it).” We can’t dispute, for that would mean referring to objective grounds, which are altogether lacking here; but we can, and do, quarrel endlessly about our aesthetic likings and “preferences.”

Kantian aesthetics thus insists, on the one hand, on absolute singularity and incomparability; and on the other, on universal communicability, exchangeability, and equivalence. The paradox here is formally identical to the paradox Marx postulates as the presupposition of capitalism: singular objects must be rendered commensurable, through the equivalences established by exchange value (and hence commodity fetishism); singular acts of human effort and creativity must be rendered commensurable through the equivalences established by their translation into determinate quantities of “labor power,” which is sold and purchased as a commodity. Only under these presuppositions is capitalist exploitation possible. The pivot point, for both Kant and Marx, is the process of translation whereby things that are singular and incommensurable are nonetheless rendered universally communicable and thereby exchangeable in a common currency (whether of concepts, for Kant, or of money, for Marx). This formal identity between Kant and Marx is one of the key issues that I am trying to explore in my book in progress The Age of Aesthetics.

I seem to have drifted entirely away from The New York Dolls. The point I was trying to make was this. By any of the criteria we use to define “postmodernity” — including the rejection of myths of authenticity, the strategic recycling of already-existing cultural cliches, the cynical acknowledgement of the work’s commodified status, the placing of all emotional expression “in quotation marks,” and so on — there is no way to distinguish between the original New York Dolls and the current retread. For all these characteristics are features of both. The aesthetic difference between the 1970s Dolls and the 2006 model is non-cognitive and singular, and thus very difficult to express. Kant would have said it is a matter of genius, but this is a word that, for many reasons, some of them dubious but others of them quite good, we are reluctant to use today. If postmodernity has taught us anything, it has taught us to resist equating this sort of difference with the notions of genius, originality, authenticity, and so on. Indeed, to use these ideas or words is precisely to recuperate and efface the barely-existing, almost-nothing singularity, the nearly-inexpressible difference, that they are meant to designate. In cognitive terms, there’s nothing that differentiates the Dolls of 1973 from the Dolls of 2006; but this nothing is precisely the most important thing. It is precisely such a nothing that the early Dolls, with their rejection of transcendence and deliverance, expressed so powerfully, expressing the inexpressible, affirming the absolutely singular — and that the new album fails to express at all. It’s the very postmodern experience of non-originality and non-authenticity that the early Dolls make into a positive experience, while the new version simply takes it for granted as a negation.

I should add that it is from the point of view of this aestheticism, which is ultimately an aestheticism of nothing, that I resist and refuse the current calls, from the likes of Badiou and Zizek, for us to reject postmodern multiplicity, perspectivism, relativism, artifice, and value-negation, and instead make some sort of return to the universal. There is more than a whiff of nihilistic desperation in Badiou’s and Zizek’s universalism. Such universalism is much more Nietzsche than Hegel, with its willful invocation of the Event as the point of a life-changing affirmation. This is precisely to turn the singularity of the Event, which is aesthetic and incomparable, into an ethical imperative, thereby destroying the singularity, making it into an exchangeable standard, in the very act of supposedly affirming it. This means asserting one side of Kant’s antinomy of aesthetic judgment — the universal communicability and compulsion to extort agreement — while entirely forgetting the other side — the continuing incommensurability of the singular aesthetic experience.

Pop Conference

The Pop Music Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle is one of the best conferences I have ever been to — I’ve gone for three of the four yearly conferences so far. It’s great because you get a whole group of people who are really passionate about talking and thinking about popular music, and because the mixture of academics and music journalists leads to talks and discussions that are far more interesting than you would get from either group alone.

The theme for next year’s conference is: “”Ain’t That a Shame”: Loving Music in the Shadow of Doubt.” (You can read the details of the Call For Papers on the site). Anyway, here’s my 250-word proposal for the conference (I don’t think I will hear whether or not I’ve been accepted until February or so):

What Will the Neighbors Say?: Girls Aloud, the Blogosphere, and Me

My most embarrassing musical enthusiasm is undoubtedly my passion for Girls Aloud. This is not just because the Girls embody “sexy” female stereotypes so tiredly stereotypical that it’s hard to imagine anyone over the age of 12 lusting after or identifying with them; nor even because the group was created on a reality TV show so crass as to make American Idol seem positively authentic in comparison. But also because Girls Aloud, although a bit hit in the UK, have not been marketed or released in the US, which means that my American fan appreciation of them is entirely mediated through the Web. I have little real sense of the cultural and media context in which Girls Aloud operate. While I think their music is great on purely pop-formalist grounds, I remain unable to place them as cultural icons. Girls Aloud are sufficiently bizarre and extreme, at least in the displaced way I apprehend them, that they seem not to take one obvious side in the old pop vs. authenticity debate, but to displace the terms of dispute altogether. I remain suspended between the various bloggers’ estimations of them I have read, ranging from Tim of The Wrong Side of Capitalism, who asserts that “Girls Aloud create a genuine crack in bourgeois ideology,” to Simon Reynolds in his blissblog, who sneers that “even their most passionate and unstintingly analytical fans cannot distinguish between the girls’ voices on record (although some seem to be able to tell them apart okay as fantasy fuckmates).” My talk is an attempt to work through these confusions.

The Pop Music Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle is one of the best conferences I have ever been to — I’ve gone for three of the four yearly conferences so far. It’s great because you get a whole group of people who are really passionate about talking and thinking about popular music, and because the mixture of academics and music journalists leads to talks and discussions that are far more interesting than you would get from either group alone.

The theme for next year’s conference is: “”Ain’t That a Shame”: Loving Music in the Shadow of Doubt.” (You can read the details of the Call For Papers on the site). Anyway, here’s my 250-word proposal for the conference (I don’t think I will hear whether or not I’ve been accepted until February or so):

What Will the Neighbors Say?: Girls Aloud, the Blogosphere, and Me

My most embarrassing musical enthusiasm is undoubtedly my passion for Girls Aloud. This is not just because the Girls embody “sexy” female stereotypes so tiredly stereotypical that it’s hard to imagine anyone over the age of 12 lusting after or identifying with them; nor even because the group was created on a reality TV show so crass as to make American Idol seem positively authentic in comparison. But also because Girls Aloud, although a bit hit in the UK, have not been marketed or released in the US, which means that my American fan appreciation of them is entirely mediated through the Web. I have little real sense of the cultural and media context in which Girls Aloud operate. While I think their music is great on purely pop-formalist grounds, I remain unable to place them as cultural icons. Girls Aloud are sufficiently bizarre and extreme, at least in the displaced way I apprehend them, that they seem not to take one obvious side in the old pop vs. authenticity debate, but to displace the terms of dispute altogether. I remain suspended between the various bloggers’ estimations of them I have read, ranging from Tim of The Wrong Side of Capitalism, who asserts that “Girls Aloud create a genuine crack in bourgeois ideology,” to Simon Reynolds in his blissblog, who sneers that “even their most passionate and unstintingly analytical fans cannot distinguish between the girls’ voices on record (although some seem to be able to tell them apart okay as fantasy fuckmates).” My talk is an attempt to work through these confusions.

Music Top Ten

So here’s my top ten albums list for 2005. Usual caveats apply (there are lots of things I haven’t heard that I well might like if I did; I can’t always remember if something came out this past year or earlier; I might well feel differently tomorrow than I do today; etc.).

  1. M.I.A., Arular. After all the controversy, still the best beats of the year.
  2. Kevin Blechdom, Eat My Heart Out, which I just wrote about yesterday.
  3. Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out. Unearthly.
  4. Missy Elliott, The Cookbook. Missy in her commercially-calculated, humdrum, unambitious middling range (as I said here) is still superior to most rappers at their best.
  5. R. Kelly, Trapped in the Closet 1-12. I know the songs weren’t released together as an album — though they were as a DVD — but this musically minimal melodrama is so ridiculously over-the-top and go-for-broke crazy, how can I not love it?
  6. Lady Sovereign, Vertically Challenged. I adore the S-O-V and her demented, tough, and smart-alecky ways. So I have to list this EP, even though the versions of the songs, in this her first American release, are inferior to the UK versions I originally downloaded as mp3s (not to mention that some of her best stuff, like “Sad-Ass Strippah,” probably the most brilliant and vicious diss ever recorded, is not included here).
  7. Fannypack, See You Next Thursday. I can’t understand why this group isn’t more popular. I find their Miami-bass-goes-Brooklyn (with a touch of ESG down from the Bronx) synthesized music, and their sassy, cartoonish, jail-bait girl vocalists, irresistible.
  8. Vex’d, Degenerate. It’s strange channeling these new London sounds — grime and dubstep, though I know there are also other names — entirely through the blogosphere, without access to the scene in any more direct way. In any case, I find these doom-laden instrumentals quite haunting. (Doom-laden isn’t quite the right word, since “doom” implies finality, but the sense that there could be an end is precisely what this dark music denies us).
  9. Four Tet, Everything Ecstatic. Quite different in feel from his previous album — this one is more propulsive, less (seemingly) “organic” — but none of the other electronic-music-without-vocals that I’ve heard this year is anywhere near as metamorphic and light- and open-sounding (not to use the obvious cue of the title and say, ecstatic).
  10. Miranda Lambert, Kerosene. I don’t listen much to country, and basically I don’t get country at all, but nonetheless I find a lot of this oddly compelling.

So here’s my top ten albums list for 2005. Usual caveats apply (there are lots of things I haven’t heard that I well might like if I did; I can’t always remember if something came out this past year or earlier; I might well feel differently tomorrow than I do today; etc.).

  1. M.I.A., Arular. After all the controversy, still the best beats of the year.
  2. Kevin Blechdom, Eat My Heart Out, which I just wrote about yesterday.
  3. Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out. Unearthly.
  4. Missy Elliott, The Cookbook. Missy in her commercially-calculated, humdrum, unambitious middling range (as I said here) is still superior to most rappers at their best.
  5. R. Kelly, Trapped in the Closet 1-12. I know the songs weren’t released together as an album — though they were as a DVD — but this musically minimal melodrama is so ridiculously over-the-top and go-for-broke crazy, how can I not love it?
  6. Lady Sovereign, Vertically Challenged. I adore the S-O-V and her demented, tough, and smart-alecky ways. So I have to list this EP, even though the versions of the songs, in this her first American release, are inferior to the UK versions I originally downloaded as mp3s (not to mention that some of her best stuff, like “Sad-Ass Strippah,” probably the most brilliant and vicious diss ever recorded, is not included here).
  7. Fannypack, See You Next Thursday. I can’t understand why this group isn’t more popular. I find their Miami-bass-goes-Brooklyn (with a touch of ESG down from the Bronx) synthesized music, and their sassy, cartoonish, jail-bait girl vocalists, irresistible.
  8. Vex’d, Degenerate. It’s strange channeling these new London sounds — grime and dubstep, though I know there are also other names — entirely through the blogosphere, without access to the scene in any more direct way. In any case, I find these doom-laden instrumentals quite haunting. (Doom-laden isn’t quite the right word, since “doom” implies finality, but the sense that there could be an end is precisely what this dark music denies us).
  9. Four Tet, Everything Ecstatic. Quite different in feel from his previous album — this one is more propulsive, less (seemingly) “organic” — but none of the other electronic-music-without-vocals that I’ve heard this year is anywhere near as metamorphic and light- and open-sounding (not to use the obvious cue of the title and say, ecstatic).
  10. Miranda Lambert, Kerosene. I don’t listen much to country, and basically I don’t get country at all, but nonetheless I find a lot of this oddly compelling.

Eat My Heart Out

I’ve been listening a lot to — OK, I’ve developed a minor obsession with — Kevin Blechdom‘s album Eat My Heart Out (iTunes) (you can also buy un-DRMed mp3s of the album from Bleep).

The songs in Eat My Heart Out seem to tell the story of an unhappy love affair: they are about being in love, trying to get over a disappointed love, being dumped and not being able to stand it, hating the person you love because he dumped you, wanting revenge, pleading to be taken back, resolving to forget him and get on with your life, not being able to forget him and get on with your life, reveling in abjection, rejecting abjection and finding strength in yourself, realizing that he wasn’t worthy of you, and so on, and so on — only in no particular narrative order. There are 19 songs in 39 minutes; individual songs range in length from 0:19 to 3:19. It feels like they just come pouring out, breathlessly, one after another, in manic, hysterical confusion. Most of the songs are fast, though a few are slow; some are harshly dissonant, but most of them sound harmonically and melodically familiar, as if turns of melody everybody knows, cliches of pop music, in great variety, have come pouring out, only somewhat distorted, and also carnivalesque, as if they had been filtered through an alien consciousness that didn’t quite “get” human emotions. Or perhaps a better description would be that it’s like children’s music from Hell, pounding away on a toy piano (though I think the instrumentation is actually all or mostly electronic) — but anyway, the music is perversely upbeat and cheerful even as it is recounting nightmares, there are these simple little bouncy, dancelike refrains cycling over and over, layer over layer, except that often the music changes tack radically in mid-song. There’s also something a bit childlike, or perhaps better naive, about Kevin’s voice, I mean naive in the way she modulates from one passion to another without any sort of transition or attempt at plausibility in the shifts, sort of like she’s singing an opera (or a movie soundtrack) whose arias are all melodramatic, and out of proportion with the feelings they recount, with heartfelt choruses and everything, but not logically connected in any way. One moment she’s sounds like she’s hyperventilating, screaming/crying, “I love you from the heart, so fuck you!!”; the next she sounds like she is gleefully reciting some twisted nursery rhyme. The effect is that of something almost naked in its intensity, and yet something totally theatrical and made up, at the same time; crediting the album with either sincerity or irony — or trying to distinguish between the two — would seem to be utterly beside the point. The rush from one song, one mood, to the next, is so frantic, and so unmediated, that it is almost as if all the attitudes, all the affects, all the possibilities, all the stages of a failed relationship, somehow coexisted simultaneously. I’ve often written about how the theatricality of melodrama makes emotions seem “real” precisely because they are distanced by being placed “in quotation marks.” I don’t quite know how to formulate this, but Eat My Heart Out seems to me like the exact inverse of melodrama, as if all its emotions seem formally patterned and aesthetically distanced, a detached and cynical game of some sort, precisely because they are so raw and immediate at the same time. If that makes any sense at all? This music is doing very strange things to my head, and I can’t stop listening to it.

I’ve been listening a lot to — OK, I’ve developed a minor obsession with — Kevin Blechdom‘s album Eat My Heart Out (iTunes) (you can also buy un-DRMed mp3s of the album from Bleep).

The songs in Eat My Heart Out seem to tell the story of an unhappy love affair: they are about being in love, trying to get over a disappointed love, being dumped and not being able to stand it, hating the person you love because he dumped you, wanting revenge, pleading to be taken back, resolving to forget him and get on with your life, not being able to forget him and get on with your life, reveling in abjection, rejecting abjection and finding strength in yourself, realizing that he wasn’t worthy of you, and so on, and so on — only in no particular narrative order. There are 19 songs in 39 minutes; individual songs range in length from 0:19 to 3:19. It feels like they just come pouring out, breathlessly, one after another, in manic, hysterical confusion. Most of the songs are fast, though a few are slow; some are harshly dissonant, but most of them sound harmonically and melodically familiar, as if turns of melody everybody knows, cliches of pop music, in great variety, have come pouring out, only somewhat distorted, and also carnivalesque, as if they had been filtered through an alien consciousness that didn’t quite “get” human emotions. Or perhaps a better description would be that it’s like children’s music from Hell, pounding away on a toy piano (though I think the instrumentation is actually all or mostly electronic) — but anyway, the music is perversely upbeat and cheerful even as it is recounting nightmares, there are these simple little bouncy, dancelike refrains cycling over and over, layer over layer, except that often the music changes tack radically in mid-song. There’s also something a bit childlike, or perhaps better naive, about Kevin’s voice, I mean naive in the way she modulates from one passion to another without any sort of transition or attempt at plausibility in the shifts, sort of like she’s singing an opera (or a movie soundtrack) whose arias are all melodramatic, and out of proportion with the feelings they recount, with heartfelt choruses and everything, but not logically connected in any way. One moment she’s sounds like she’s hyperventilating, screaming/crying, “I love you from the heart, so fuck you!!”; the next she sounds like she is gleefully reciting some twisted nursery rhyme. The effect is that of something almost naked in its intensity, and yet something totally theatrical and made up, at the same time; crediting the album with either sincerity or irony — or trying to distinguish between the two — would seem to be utterly beside the point. The rush from one song, one mood, to the next, is so frantic, and so unmediated, that it is almost as if all the attitudes, all the affects, all the possibilities, all the stages of a failed relationship, somehow coexisted simultaneously. I’ve often written about how the theatricality of melodrama makes emotions seem “real” precisely because they are distanced by being placed “in quotation marks.” I don’t quite know how to formulate this, but Eat My Heart Out seems to me like the exact inverse of melodrama, as if all its emotions seem formally patterned and aesthetically distanced, a detached and cynical game of some sort, precisely because they are so raw and immediate at the same time. If that makes any sense at all? This music is doing very strange things to my head, and I can’t stop listening to it.