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“Ain’t got a care in the world / but got plenty of beer / ain’t got no money in my pocket / but I’m already here”

March 16, 2010

If you have a car, and that car contains some kind of media-playing device—like a CD player or whatever—then you probably prize that car as one of the few spaces where you can enjoy near-total control over your musical stimuli.  Play whatever you want, listen as loud as you want, it’s all good.

My spouse and I have a car that does NOT contain a media-playing device; it contains a radio.  Consequently it is, for us, a rare space where we receive musical stimuli over which we enjoy very limited control.  This supplies its own ambiguous rewards.

On Saturday, December 5, 2009, at approximately 6 PM Central, K and I were on our way home from a friend’s 30th birthday party, exiting the eastbound Kennedy at Nagle, when a song came through the speakers that we and every other hearing person in the world with routine access to electricity would soon come to know as “TiK ToK,” by an artist called Ke$ha.  (As if it needs to be said, sic and sic).

(NOTE: If you click the link above, you will be hearing the song.  So just consider that for a second.  Is all I’m saying.)

It is difficult to overstate the intensity of our reaction to this event.  The analogy that springs to mind is . . . um, okay, you know that scene in Aliens where Ripley and Newt wake up to discover that an alien larva has escaped and is scurrying around in the room with them?  It was like that.  Whatever this thing is, we thought, it’s dangerous . . . and it’s on the loose!

 We hated it, of course—which both is and is not the point.  Our visceral negative reaction was organized around two thoughts: 1) wow, the culture has just found another way to get stupider, and 2) this song is going to be HUGE.  I daresay we felt—if I may sink a bit further into self-parody—a bit like William Carlos Williams upon encountering the “great catastrophe” of The Waste Land: the crisis here is not how this thing fails but how it succeeds.  Deploring it is not enough; it must be campaigned actively against.

My beef with “TiK ToK” is basically this: it is very very easy to hate, but very very hard to hate productively.  The dispiriting realization that arrived hot on the heels of my initial oh-my-godI-freaking-HATE-this reaction was: oh wait—I’m MEANT to hate this.  “TiK ToK” depends for its success on its capacity to polarize, and to polarize instantaneously: I would pretty much bet money that anybody who derives pleasure from this song is going to derive at least part of that pleasure by imagining somebody like me recoiling from it.  Ergo, if I hate “TiK ToK,” “TiK ToK” wins.

On the other hand, if I DON’T hate “TiK ToK,” “TiK ToK” STILL wins—because, accurately or not, its fans will still imagine me and others like me fleeing the premises with noses upturned whenever it hits the PA system, repairing to our gut-rehabbed condos to salve our fragile sensibilities by dimming the lights and putting cucumber slices over our eyes and listening at moderate volumes to something we impulse-bought at Starbucks: Grizzly Bear, maybe, or Feist.  Clearly, ignoring “TiK ToK” is not going to make it go away.

So let’s try to hate this thing right, shall we?

I think it helps to figure out precisely what we’re up against.  In her comment on my previous post, Beth Rooney directed our attention to a smart NPR tag-team piece about “TiK ToK” (and Avatar) by Neda Ulaby and Zoe Chace, who basically argue that the song fails because it’s a rote pastiche of material recycled from other songs.  Although I don’t completely agree—I don’t think “TiK ToK” is bad, rather, but evil, and although it certainly is a rote pastiche of recycled material, that’s not why I hate it—I DO think that Ulaby and Chace suggest a good spot to begin chipping at the battlements.  Where, pray tell, have we heard this before?

The first notable thing we register about “TiK ToK” is also the first sound we hear, namely Kesha Rose Sebert’s voice, multiplied by a chorus effect and liberally salted with Auto-Tune.  The voice is not exactly familiar, though it has some obvious progenitors.  Sebert has garnered criticism due to the perceived similarity of her hit to Lady Gaga’s breakthrough single, but this gripe strikes me as misplaced for several reasons (some of which we’ll get into later) and symptomatic of nothing so much as the undiagnosed amnesia of most music reviewers.

What “TiK ToK” initially reminded me of was the LAST jawdroppingly stupid pop song I recall being ambushed by while driving, one parodied thusly by George Saunders in the New Yorker:

          Hump my hump,
My stumpy lumpy hump!
Hump my dump, you stumpy lumpy dump!
I’ll dump your hump, and then just hump your dump,
You lumpy frumply clump.

But this isn’t quite right, either.  Over the years I’ve come to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude toward “My Humps;” I give it a wide berth, but regard it as fairly harmless.  Will I eventually come to regard “TiK ToK” the same way?  I don’t think so, no.  It commits some greater perfidy of which “My Humps” is innocent.

What else does “TiK ToK” remind us of?  Well, Avril Lavigne for one—particularly her comparably horrid hit “Girlfriend” and its comparable shoutalong earworm chorus—and this stands to reason, as both it and “TiK ToK” bear the sticky fingerprints of increasingly ubiquitous writer-producer Lucasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald.  (Gottwald’s rapsheet also includes such offenses as Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and a couple of just-marginally-more-restrained Kelly Clarkson hits.  Then again, Gottwald ALSO-also worked on Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.,” which—if you forgive its vampirism of Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird”—is actually kind of a great song.)  Through Lavigne, of course, we can trace the corrupt and diluted genetics of “TiK ToK” back through a whole lineage of ostensible girl-power anthems of wildly variable legitimacy: Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” Tiffany’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Madonna’s “Material Girl,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” and the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back,” to name only an obvious few.

This genus of song is defined less by content—which is often not remotely empowered or empowering—and more by tone and attitude, which tend toward confidence, buoyancy, joy, and sass, aimed in the general vicinity of hedonistic first-person-plural tribalism.  It is never ever edgy—which means its validity is always being called into question, not only by the surplus testosterone of hip-hop and hard rock, but also by the pensive and/or ironic adventures in (generally masculine) subjectivity that more or less define the output of the ever-shifting “alternative” scene.  In eras when such music dominates, girl power recedes, or takes on the techniques of its rivals: think of Alanis Morissette’s post-Cobain rage on “You Oughta Know,” or of Sheryl Crow’s post-Malkmus slacker sneer on “Leaving Las Vegas”—two pop hits that, like “TiK ToK,” introduced new female voices into the collective cultural consciousness.  (“LLV” bears some additional similarities to “TiK ToK”: it’s another breakthrough single by a former backup vocalist who’s older than I initially would have guessed, another song that at the time had me wondering how bad is this SUPPOSED to sound?)  This trick of spiking the girl-group punch with something bitter can produce enduring anthems—Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” is probably the common ancestor—but it can also produce “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks.

Here’s the thing, though: while a bunch of folks have thought to combine varying degrees of girl-power positivity with post-punk sulk and snarl, surprisingly few have really taken the Y chromosome by the horns and cross-pollinated hard rock and/or rap with cheer-camp espirit de corps, and when they have—“Cherry Bomb” by the Runaways, “Push It” by Salt-n-Pepa—their efforts have not generally been rewarded with blockbusting chart success . . . not, that is, until now.  In a New York Times article, Jon Caramanica characterized the sudden omnipresence of “TiK ToK” as indicative of “the complete and painless assimilation of the white female rapper into pop music.”  With the possible exceptions of “the,” “of,” and “into,” I am tempted to respond whoa-wait-a-minute to every WORD of Caramanica’s statement—I mean, painless for whom, dude, exactly?—but instead I’d like to come at this from another direction.

In their piece, Ulaby and Chace take Sebert to task for her light-fingered appropriations from other songs; the plain fact, of course, is that everything is derivative of something.  That’s not just my world-weariness talking; just about any work of art—no matter how crassly commercial or forbiddingly avant-garde—depends for its success on its intelligibility, which depends in turn on our ability to place it in relation to other works of art.  In other words, if it doesn’t resemble something we’ve seen or heard before, we have no idea what to make of it.  Ulaby and Chace basically acknowledge this, and go on to suggest that the big problem with “TiK ToK” is that it’s less than the sum of its thefts: Sebert isn’t adding any “personal commentary or insight.”  But that’s not quite true, either; her most shameless act of larceny DOES seem plausibly personal, and actually strikes me as kind of clever.

Of all we might say about Sebert’s breakthrough hit, let us put this observation foremost: the song is a deliberate and fairly exacting rewrite of the Beastie Boys’ breakthrough hit, “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” from their 1986 debut License to Ill.  Sebert—who, it must be said, comes off in interviews as smart and forthright and adept at hitting what she aims at, which is to say she understands the pop intelligibility game—has name-checked the Beasties in interviews, and when you think about it, “Fight for Your Right” is a near-perfect template and Rosetta Stone for her project, such as it is.

Here’s why: uncharitable listeners can be expected to attack the legitimacy of a white female rapper with pop aspirations on three fronts, namely 1) white rappers are a joke, 2) girl rappers are a joke, 3) pop-rap hybrids are a joke.  If you’re Sebert, you can partly defuse these critiques by referencing precedent, but you have to be careful: if you cite too few, you’ll be written off as purely derivative; if you cite too many, nobody can figure out where you’re coming from.  With respect to precedent, Sebert has plenty of options—the first rap song ever to top the Billboard Hot 100 did, after all, feature a white female vocalist—but her reference to “Fight for Your Right” suggests that she’s read her adversaries’ defenses pretty effectively.  The supposed “jokiness” of white rap can easily be turned to one’s advantage—cf. not only the Beasties but also Eminem and Beck—and for perhaps that very reason, white female rappers seem to have had an easier time scoring chart hits than have African-American female rappers.  Sure, maybe they aren’t “taken seriously”—but neither has that been a priority, exactly.

Kesha Sebert’s only evident priority seems to be massive chart success—which: check.  That’s not as easy to pull off as the indie snobs would have us believe.  Contra Ulaby and Chace, you can’t get there just by being derivative and rote; you need a certain element of surprise, and here’s where Sebert finds hers: as she has explicitly stated, her songwriting strategy involves a calculated assumption of the rapacious swagger we’ve come to expect from rap and rock dudes—which in a nutshell is why “Fight for Your Right” is her perfect model.  “Fight for Your Right” achieved its crossover success by being both rap AND rock (the rock elements helping to make the rap intelligible and acceptable to white kids; Run–D.M.C.’s cover of “Walk This Way,” another Rick Rubin production, pulls the same move).  It’s also a rap performed by white guys during an era when rap hadn’t yet put aside its novelty-act status, a time prior to hip-hop’s commercial ascendancy, after which concerns about race and authenticity could no longer be winked at and glossed over, if only due to the vast amounts of cash changing hands.  (It might in fact have been the LAST moment of that era, the event that brought it to an end: the first single off the first rap album ever to top the pop charts.)

The use Sebert makes of “Fight for Your Right” is canny and not unsubtle: she’s smart enough to substitute Dr. Luke’s Jäger-shot synth stabs—very au-courant-as-of-fifteen-minutes-ago—for Rubin’s ungracefully-aged monsters-of-rock guitar riffs, while stealing only what she needs: the song’s ostensible ethnic ambidexterity (as sugarhigh! points out, in the current climate “post-racial” means “post-racial for white people”) and the insouciant obnoxiousness of Adam Horovitz’s voice.  Although almost everything else about “TiK ToK” is upside-the-head overt, the borrowings from “Fight for Your Right” are so fundamental as to be hidden, deeply coded in tone and attitude . . . yet signaled unmistakably in the song’s opening line.

And here, I will now argue, is the loose thread that begins to unravel “TiK ToK”: the gap between “Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy” and “You wake up late for school, man, you don’t wanna go.”  The Beasties’ original line is, of course, not original: it’s a sly and self-aware evocation of the blues singer’s standard opening “I woke up this morning,” which always introduces a catalogue of woes (and which is itself a reference to the gospel singer’s opening, “The Lord woke me up this morning,” the crucial difference being that the blues singer wakes up alone, in a godless universe).  Sure enough, in “Fight for Your Right,” a catalogue of woes does ensue—but they’re self-evidently insubstantial and juvenile, minor-league frustrations of middle-class punk kids.  With that blink-and-you-missed-it nod to the blues, the Beasties simultaneously acknowledge awareness of and respect for serious African-American musical traditions, and then essentially pledge not to trespass on that territory.  They perform a couple of other slight but significant lyrical alterations, too: shifting the verb tense from the quaint anecdotal past to the vivid televisual present, and switching the point of view from first person to second.

That last modification is important: our first major clue at what the Beasties are up to.  Often when a singer addresses a “you,” the singer really means “one”—e.g. oftentimes one wakes up late for school, and in such instances one does not then typically want to go—and therefore really-really means “I.”  In “Fight for Your Right” this is NOT the case, although we’re allowed to think that it might be, right up till the end of the final verse: “Your mom busted in and said ‘What’s that noise?’ / Aw, Mom, you’re just jealous, it’s the Beastie Boys.”  Yauch, Diamond, and Horovitz each shout a syllable of their group’s name, and the lyric places them unmistakably outside the song; we now understand it as a story they are telling to, and about, their fans.  It’s affectionate, sure, but also sneering, and a little barbed: an older brother’s putdown of a younger sibling’s puerile concerns.  It’s a hint that when the Beastie Boys insist we have to fight for our right to party, they are maybe not 100% serious.

The pop marketplace, of course, missed the joke—and missed it big, to the tune of nine million copies of License to Ill sold.  The Beasties have spoken often about how appalled they were by Rubin’s cheeseball, radio-ready studio treatment of the song, and how uncomfortable they were with the fact that precisely the people they intended it to lampoon ended up as its biggest fans.  This is a pattern that repeats: let’s call it the “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” phenomenon, after the Timbuk3 hit that—despite its scathing depiction of the entire K-thru-Ph.D. educational system as a headlong lemming-march toward nuclear annihilation—ended up getting picked as the 1986 senior class song at seemingly every high school in America.  (1986, evidently, was a great year for missing the point.)  When millions of people take your song to mean something very different than, even entirely opposed to, what YOU think it means, you maybe have to consider that you screwed up somewhere, and that they’re right and you’re wrong.  This seems to be more or less what the Beasties have concluded; “Fight for Your Right” appears on their 1999 Sounds of Science compilation accompanied by what amounts to a written apology for its existence: “We decided to include this song,” Yauch’s liner note explains, “because it sucks.”  This statement is presented as a joke but isn’t, just like the song itself: “Fight for Your Right” became a hit not despite but because of its artists’ miscalculation and failure of execution—and everything the Beastie Boys have done since has been made possible by those errors.  Therefore they can never really be free of it.  In their attempt to tiptoe along Spinal Tap’s canonical line between stupid and clever, they slipped, and landed heavily and spectacularly on the side of stupid.

Although “TiK ToK” contains stupidity—in much the same way that a Twinkie contains high fructose corn syrup—it is anything but a stupid song.  Unlike three decades’ worth of kegstanding fratboys, Sebert misses the point of “Fight for Your Right” deliberately: she interprets the Beasties’ (limited and unsuccessful) attempts at irony and connotive suggestion as amounting to no more than inefficiency, and as such she excises them.  Rather than “personal commentary or insight,” I think what Ulaby and Chace are really missing in “TiK ToK” is playfulness and self-indulgence—which in fact are the very qualities that made “Fight for Your Right” susceptible to misinterpretation.  You are perhaps elevating a skeptical brow at the suggestion that any song which depicts its singer/protagonist dampening her Oral-B with Tennessee whiskey and dancing till dawn could be anything other than self-indulgent, yet that is exactly what I am going to argue: the problem with “TiK ToK” is that once you strip away its hedonistic veneer, it becomes apparent that the song actually operates with all the devil-may-care flippancy of a SWAT team clearing a building.

Laurie Anderson tells a story that when her album Bright Red came out, Brian Eno—who co-produced it—took journalists to his perfume factory (dude has a perfume factory) and explained to them that the secret to an effective perfume and the secret to an effective pop song are basically the same.  At the center of a good perfume, Eno said, is a big stink; you cover it up with pleasing odors, but it’s still there: the thing that catches people’s attention.  (EG, that analogy was for you.)  On Bright Red the stink is Anderson’s voice, way up in the mix where the snare drum usually hangs out; the music accompanying the voice is spooky and spare, and the effect is unsettling and interesting.  On “TiK ToK,” Sebert’s voice—harsh, bratty, calculatedly obnoxious—performs a similar function, but Dr. Luke’s production and the moon / June / spoon artlessness of the lyrics pile on flower and spice by the bushel: rather than slowing down our perceptions and heightening our awareness of what’s going on (a process which Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky identifies as the basic function of art), “TiK ToK” seeks to accomplish nothing beyond demanding our notice and then sticking in our heads forever.  It’s a streamlined pop drone, a perfect predator of our attention.

Yet even THAT isn’t why I hate it.  For a particular sort of listener, of which I am one, it is tempting to deplore “TiK ToK” simply for being such a full-on commercial product, for having no greater aspiration than to earn a ton of money for the folks who made and distributed it.  Although I think this is a valid gripe, I want to be a little cautious with it—if only because at some level “TiK ToK” practically DARES us to hate it simply for succeeding, for actually becoming the hit it was clearly designed to be.  That critique, of course, puts us right back where we started: we’re the snobs who don’t understand how to lighten up and have a good time.  “TiK ToK” wins again.

The truth is, some pretty great art can be and is made within the hyper-restrictive confines of the contemporary pop hit.  If we need proof of this—which we probably shouldn’t—we need look no further than here:

Yo Ke$ha, I’m real happy for you and I’mma let you finish, but I believe a close examination of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”—composed by Beyoncé Knowles, Terius “The-Dream” Nash, Thaddis “Kuk” Harrell, and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart—will, if only by contrast, make your inexcusable offenses abundantly clear.

Before proceeding I should probably confess that I—indie snob that I am—was not immediately taken with “Single Ladies.”  When I first heard it, it struck me as a ringtone trying to pass itself off as a song.  This isn’t an exaggerated or implausible accusation; there’s a bunch of money to be earned in ringtones nowadays, and not much in album sales, and this fact has not been missed by the people who cause pop records to be made.  Major-label audio production has lately tended to emphasize qualities that sound good emitted in bursts from tiny handheld speakers: I’m talking brief, bright melodic phrases squarely in the acoustic midrange.  (No subwoofers on an iPhone, dig?)  “Single Ladies” ought to be, and probably is, the poster child for this ringtone-as-pop-hit trend; I mean, damn: it’s even got the word “ring” in its chorus.

But hold up a sec: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with delivering music in a format compatible with your audience’s preferred mode of listening to it.  (Among the people of my tribe, this would fall under the general category of “dancin’ with them what brung ya.”)  The practice isn’t praiseworthy, maybe, but neither is it shameful—provided you’re still able to supply that ineffable little-something-extra that our NPR friends Ulaby and Chace are looking for.

“Single Ladies,” I will now argue, delivers the je ne sais quoi in high quality and heavy volume.  When you’ve got a melody that’s as much of an inexorable earworm as this one is—built, as I mentioned, out of short, mobile-phone-friendly phrases—you automatically have certain advantages and disadvantages.  On the downside, your capacity to create drama through harmonic movement is pretty limited: I am guessing that no one has ever gotten all misty and throat-lumpy due to an unexpected shift in the warning tone of a distant car alarm, and the melody of “Single Ladies” isn’t much more sophisticated than that.  On the upside, if you were to record this joint with nothing but a couple of a cappella voices and some handclaps, it wouldn’t be much less catchy than the version we’ve come to know—which is to say that Knowles and her studio team have a hell of a lot of latitude to add whatever bells and whistles they care to.

The critical thing to note is that the production of “Single Ladies” is precisely NOT designed to make it catchier; it’s designed instead to address the aforementioned lack-of-drama problem by packing the recording with as much urgency as it can manage.  To accomplish this (revisiting Eno’s metaphor) the arrangement introduces all manner of stink—but rather than one central noxious odor doused in honey and flowers, here we have a more intricate pungency: take, for instance, the weird ascending hyper-speed woodwind sample that chatters arhythmically throughout the song, evoking (as my wife pointed out) nothing so much as the experience of standing amid busy slot machines.  This noise—and noise is exactly what it is—pushes hard against the song’s headlong rhythm and tips its harmonic balance, suggesting a labyrinth of potential melodic detours that Knowles’ lead vocal sails steadily past.  Other aspects of the surrounding auditory filigree—hints of tonal ambiguity in the synth accents and harmony vocals, the quick syncopated acoustic piano chord we first hear at 0:42, the bass guitar that plays a single telegraphically-repeated note in its upper range—all perform the same destabilizing function.  The result is that every moment of this very straightforward song feels laden with potential and charged with uncertainty, which is where the sense of overriding urgency comes from.

A word, too, about the lyrics.  Much like, say, Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street,” “Single Ladies” is a song that hangs on a kissoff line—the difference being that Dylan’s line comes at the end of his last verse, which gives him nearly four minutes to set us up for it.  Knowles’s kissoff arrives with her chorus, which means she’s got thirty seconds—sixty-five syllables—to set the stage: i.e. to explain who is telling whom that he should’ve put a ring on it, and why.  For that reason, the first verse of “Single Ladies” strikes me as a small marvel of narrative economy:

Up in the club,
we just broke up,
I’m doin’ my own li’l thing.
You decided to dip,
but now you wanna trip
cuz another brother noticed me.
I’m up on him,
he up on me—
don’t pay him any attention.
Cuz I cried my tears
for three good years—
you can’t be mad at me.

Sure, if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it doesn’t really require a lot of context to make sense of—neither, for that matter, does you’d know what a drag it is to see you—but the line is richer if we understand the situation in which it’s being delivered.  By the time it arrives in “Single Ladies,” we know we’re in a nightclub where a freshly-single woman, happier to be on her own than she might have expected, has crossed paths with her ex; he’s jealous of the attention she’s getting from another guy, and she’s putting him in his place.  We know that the exes were together for three years, and we know that he’s the one who broke it off: he “dipped”—which means “left abruptly,” and which generally connotes leaving somebody else behind.  “Dip” can also refer to a person with whom one regularly has no-strings-attached sex; that’s not how it’s being used here, but the word’s appearance still introduces the specters of infidelity and lack of commitment: the possibility that the song’s addressee was being unfaithful to the speaker, or, worse, that he never regarded their relationship as anything more than a convenience.  The point is that by the time the chorus drops, we’re able to imagine the dialogue in specific dramatic circumstances.

Then there’s the way the meaning of the refrain—all the single ladies, put your hands up—blurs and broadens as the song proceeds.  The line is of course lifted from standard-issue Friday-night club-DJ patter: an ostensibly playful exhortation for eligible women to identify themselves as such.  This moment in a DJ set always comes off as icky, anything but playful, a moment of peak social coercion; it suggests that single women are to be regarded as public property, or that they have (or are) a problem that needs to be solved, or even that they’re simply present (Ladies’ Night!) as prospective quarry for the hapless prowling menfolk who by this point in the evening can’t be trusted to take aim at appropriate targets without a little help.  “Single Ladies” sets out to divert and defuse the line’s coercive function, not so much by recontextualizing it through wit or double-entendre—a trick which can only work within the fictional world of the song—but instead by repurposing it along with the gesture it prescribes: we’re asked to see the single ladies’ hand-raising not as an act of acquiescence to or participation in a social ritual that objectifies them, but instead as a celebratory assertion of individual and collective agency.

Although Knowles makes it seem easy, this is a tricky move to pull off, if only because the coercion that the song opposes is hidden: something supposedly fun that’s really hurtful and manipulative.  If “Single Ladies” were simply to point this out, it would merely be of diagnostic value: it wouldn’t be particularly empowering.  What it does instead is demand that the DJ’s rhetoric play fair, that it make good on its implicit promise—in other words (specifically in George Michael’s valuable formulation) “Single Ladies” sets out to take those lies and make them true.  To do this, it encodes its message so deeply in its lyrics and structure as to undercut contrary interpretations; note, for instance, the persistent sense of rising-above suggested by the repetition (and shifting connotations) of the word “up”: “up in the club, / we just broke up,” “I’m up on him / he up on me,” “acting up,” and, of course, “put your hands up.”  Note too the handclaps that run steadily through the song, underpinning all other sonic events, dropping out only for the brief cadenza-like conclusion of the bridge; these claps, and the swing-time interplay of Knowles’ voice with them, establish the song’s fundamental rhythmic character.  It is surely no accident that this interlocking rhythm will recall for many if not most listeners the traditional clapping games played by children, particularly by female children; thus “Single Ladies” posits as a comforting and readily-intelligible alternative to the byzantine nightclub world the guileless egalitarian domain of the preadolescent playground; it also suggests that refuge from grown-up anxieties can be sought and found in the sisterly realm of cooperative play.

The degree to which “Single Ladies” has succeeded in accomplishing its implicit aims is, I humbly submit to you, pretty freaking extraordinary.  Let’s set aside for a moment the VMAs and the Grammys, the globe-spanning dance craze, the millions in revenue from album and single and download sales, and consider a single achievement: it is now next to impossible for any DJ anywhere to unselfconsciously command all single ladies within earshot to put their hands up—at least not without the DJ then immediately playing Knowles’s hit, which will proceed to reassure those single ladies that everything is all good, that they have nothing to worry about, and that they should pay no mind to the drunk jerks and enjoy spending time with their girlfriends.  This is one of those rare cultural phenomena that can legitimately claim solid practical value: the differences between it and, say, Lincoln’s second inaugural address are not those of quality but of scale.  “Single Ladies” is a work of art and a feat of rhetoric that has made the world concretely better.

Back to Ke$ha.  To reiterate: I don’t hate “TiK ToK” because it fails to pull off what “Single Ladies” pulls off; not too many pop songs will hold up to that standard.  Nor do I hate it for its refusal to even try to operate the way “Single Ladies” operates—although it IS significant and worthy of note that in this regard it falls short even of the other frankly superficial hits to which it is customarily compared: “My Humps,” for example, dumb as it is, at least provides an opportunity to consider the unreliable faux-naïf narration of its hump-endowed protagonist.  “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga is a good deal trickier yet, featuring a narrator whose stable selfhood is compromised by various competing drives, and whose message is made all the more urgent by the contradictions it contains.  By clear contrast, the most remarkable quality of “TiK ToK” is its one-dimensionality: its staunch refusal to play, to keep anything hidden, to hold anything in reserve.  The closer you listen, the less interesting it gets.  This isn’t a quality acquired by accident or oversight.  In a nutshell, I hate “TiK ToK” because it sets out to accomplish exactly the opposite of what “Single Ladies” does.

After months of having my consciousness periodically invaded by this monstrosity—and yet being frustrated in my efforts to pin down exactly what about “TiK ToK” I find so objectionable—I finally figured out what it reminds me of, and where I have perceived its particular horror before.  My mistake, of course, had been in limiting my comparisons to other pop songs.  If we broaden our focus, it becomes clear in a hurry that the apt parallel resides in a different pop-cultural domain entirely.

In a celebrated 1957 essay, Roland Barthes argues that people who scoff at the peculiar entertainment that we contemporary Americans have come to know as “professional wrestling”—scoffing, e.g., because it’s not a legitimate competition, because its outcomes are fixed, whatever—entirely misconstrue its basic appeal.  “The public,” Barthes writes, “is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.”  Criteria that we might apply to watching conventional sports—to assess athletes’ technical prowess, to understand the strategies that might be utilized, to try to predict the contest’s outcome—must be set aside when we watch pro wrestling if it is to make any sense at all.  Barthes compares wrestling to commedia dell’arte: its performers employ outsize gestures, portray cartoonish characters, and present their dramas with absolute clarity.  Pro wrestlers are skilled athletes, and often talented actors, but their skills and talents are always demonstrated overtly.  Closer examination doesn’t provide additional meanings or resonances; it just exposes the rather uninspired stitching of a scripted plot.

With “TiK ToK,” it’s exactly the same deal.  We have no trouble ascertaining the motives and concerns of the song’s narrator because they’re openly declared; we suffer no anxiety about situating her desires in a biographical context because there is no context.  Unlike “Single Ladies” or “Just Dance”—which depict particular incidents—the action in “TiK ToK” occurs not in the cinematic present tense but the simple present of habit and routine.  (As usual, I awake feeling like P. Diddy.)  Weak coquettish demurrals à la Stacy Ferguson are not forthcoming in “TiK ToK”: the narrator is matter-of-fact about and accepting of her status as a hard target for intoxicated horndogs.  Neither is Lady Gaga’s loose-cannon confusion at all in evidence: it’s been cut off at the bar, ushered into a cab.  And of course the Beastie Boys’ ironic winks between Jell-O shots—which nobody really caught anyway—aren’t even being attempted.  “TiK ToK” pointedly refuses to broadcast different messages to different constituencies within its audience; it is—as we say in the post-Rumsfeld parlance of our time—what it is.  Maybe you love it, maybe you hate it, but you are damn sure not gonna miss anything.

Here’s Barthes again:

A wrestler can irritate or disgust, he never disappoints, for he always accomplishes completely, by a progressive solidification of signs, what the public expects of him.  In wrestling, nothing exists except in the absolute, there is no symbol, no allusion, everything is presented exhaustively.  Leaving nothing in the shade, each action discards all parasitic meanings and ceremonially offers to the public a pure and full signification, rounded like Nature.  This grandiloquence is nothing but the popular and age-old image of the perfect intelligibility of reality.  What is portrayed by wrestling is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and placed before the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction.

Pro wrestling isn’t real; everybody knows that.  It is, however, somehow about reality—a fact reflected in its major defining quality, namely its steadfast refusal (and/or the refusal of its audience) to acknowledge its status as theater.  Pro wrestling is often snidely described as “soap operas for men,” and although that’s not entirely offbase, it misses a crucial distinction: Susan Lucci doesn’t typically make public appearances as Erica Kane, but James George Janos has never in his entire public life—as wrestler, actor, or governor of Minnesota—broken character as Jesse “The Body” Ventura.  I’m not going to get into it in depth here, but I’d argue pretty strenuously that any fiction that won’t admit to being a fiction ceases to operate as fiction at all: a hugely important aspect of basic fictional processes involves an initial signal to the audience that a bunch of criteria by which we typically evaluate communication—i.e. is this statement accurate? do I agree with this proposition? etc.—ought to be suspended, and our attention directed elsewhere.  Any contrived performance done without this acknowledgement becomes something else.  If an effort is made to conceal or misrepresent the contrivance—à la James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces—it’s a trick, a con, or a hoax.  If NO such effort is made, then we find ourselves in considerably weirder territory: somewhere in the vicinity of the assertion of Real Presence in the Eucharist.

Given its origin as a midway sham, pro wrestling originally exhibited the former sort of contrivance; more recently—as its status as a scripted entertainment has become roundly accepted without ever really being acknowledged—its contrivance has seemed more the latter type.  What has shifted is not the nature of wrestling itself but rather the use to which it is put by its audience: the key appeal of professional wrestling, Barthes suggests, lies in its comforting and satisfying presentation of a “reality” that is absolutely clear, devoid of moral uncertainty, untainted by “the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations.”  To be a little more precise, what’s appealing isn’t the particular reality that wrestling conjures—a world of sweaty grimacing men in Spandex—but simply the suggestion that any reality can ever be as uncomplicated and as readily intelligible as the one portrayed in the wrestling ring.  Barthes (writing, let’s remember, in the mid-1950s) is not unsympathetic to the desire for such a portrayal of reality.  To the extent that our expectations for the fulfillment of that desire is confined to the realm of certain peculiar forms of entertainment, I don’t think Barthes’ sympathy is misplaced.

But here’s the bad news.  A quick scan of the last, I dunno, fifty years of American cultural history indicates pretty strongly that wrestling’s conception of “reality” isn’t confined to anything: it has long since spread throughout just about every kind of pop entertainment you can think of—including (and especially) those that pass themselves off as “journalism” and “politics.”  People who like to speculate about such things might well speculate that as our culture’s capacity to generate, store, sort, and distribute information has expanded—and done so at a rate that far outstrips our capacity to come up with plausible-sounding narratives that make sense of it all—such entertainments have perforce become more and more enticing as a refuge from the anxieties the unchecked flood of data brings on.  That may be true; I have no idea.  All I’m saying is, when I take a look around, it seems like everything has turned into pro wrestling.  I will try to resist listing specific examples for fear that I won’t be able to stop.

I will point out—just for the sake of context—that wrestling’s reliance on its audience’s pronounced disinterest in peeking behind the curtain rhymes pretty conspicuously with a mode of discourse that contemporary philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt identified in a 1986 essay as bullshit.  Wrestling neither deceives its audience nor asks it to suspend its disbelief; it and its fans simply proceed as if issues of authenticity and artifice are of no interest and no consequence whatsoever.  What it resembles even more closely is the mode of discourse identified by even more contemporary philosopher Stephen Colbert as truthiness.  Bullshit establishes authority solely through glibness: it’s accepted as true because it sounds true.  Truthiness establishes authority solely through passion: it’s accepted true because it feels true.  (Barthes: “It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.”)  The crucial point to remember is that bullshit and truthiness don’t really convince anybody of anything; like the wrestlers’ audience, we simply accept these invitations to imagine ourselves resident in realms of pure situational clarity, rather than adrift in the miasmal confusion of our quotidian lives, beset by an unending tempest of facts.  We buy it because buying it is comfortable—fun, even—and certainly easier than arguing with each other.

The employers of bullshit and truthiness generally portray themselves as speaking from the heart, shooting from the hip, calling it like they see it from the no-spin zone . . . which is of course a dead giveaway that their utterances are ideological to the core.  Credit Colbert with helping to demonstrate that truthiness was the default rhetorical mode of the second Bush administration (and not a mode adopted innocently or without calculation, as Ron Suskind’s infamous unnamed source made clear)—but note too that these modes of discourse (and the ideologies they reflect and promulgate) are suffused throughout the culture, busily doing their work, probably more effectively in areas that aren’t perceived as sites of political contest.  They’re obvious, for instance, in the talking-point media gamesmanship conducted by commentators both right and ostensibly left, but also evident in low-intensity flame wars touched off in the comments section of blogs of all stripes.  They’re apparent in the concept and format of “reality TV” programs, but also and more insidiously in the unscripted behavior of those shows’ cast members.  (As Nancy Franklin observes in a recent New Yorker, “Like all reality-show participants,” the personalities of Jersey Shore “speak in categorical certainties.  They know things for sure, then those things blow up in their faces, then they hate those things and take about three seconds to find new things to believe in.”)  Now these species of discourse are making speedy headway through the pop charts.

They’ve already been there awhile, to be sure, having established a stable beachhead in Nashville some time ago.  You think I’m talking about Toby Keith, but I’m not.  I’m talking about virtually everything in country music—at least in radio-ready, major-label country: an endlessly iterated cavalcade of smug platitudes, served up in crisp formulaic arrangements, directly and twangily delivered with greater or lesser degrees of sentiment and smirk.  It hurts to lose someone, but you gotta be strong.  When times get tough, I remember what my daddy said.  It’s the simple things in life that count.  You know how men are.  You know how women are.  A good pickup truck will get you through anything.  Regardless of the specifics, the content is always the same: y’all know how it is.  Which means: y’all know how everybody always says it is.  The less politicized a song seems to be—the more heartfelt, the less subject to debate—the more successful it is at promoting its ideology.

(Okay, maybe it is worth mentioning Toby Keith—if only because he demonstrates that even country songs that present themselves as overly political can still find ways to entirely foreclose debate; his recent hit “American Ride,” for instance, rattles off a bunch of hot-button issues that his audience is certain to have opinions about without ever actually stating what the narrator’s opinion of them is, except that you “gotta love” everything he mentions: some listeners will hear that phrase as sarcasm, others as grim and flinty patriotism, and nobody will find anything to contradict either interpretation.  Does “both ends of the ozone burnin’ / funny how the world keeps turnin’” mean the narrator is ruefully shaking his head at environmental alarmists, or at himself and his fellow head-in-the-sand, one-to-a-car commuters?  Who can say?  But, in any event, y’all know how it is.)

Our buddy Kesha Sebert grew up in Nashville, where her mother Pebe worked in the music industry; Dolly Parton had a hit with one of her songs.  Sebert has been widely quoted as saying that she’d like to record country music herself someday.  This strikes me as funny, since for all functional purposes “TiK ToK” is already country music: not the tear-jerkin’, flag-wavin’, God-fearin’ kind, obviously, but rather the hard-rockin’, hard-drinkin’, good-ol’-boy kind.  (“American Ride” is from an adjacent branch of the country-music tree, though it clearly landed closer to the trunk.)  When you scrape your way down to the kernel of “TiK ToK”—minus the club rhythms, minus the hip-hop references—you will find a smug knowingness that any industry player in Music City USA will immediately recognize, as will any World Wrestling Entertainment scriptwriter, as will any political campaign consultant.  The subject of “TiK ToK” is accommodating oneself to reduced circumstances; its advice is to stay positive, take advantage wherever you can find it, and don’t think too much.  You’re broke, but somewhere in this town there’s a party to crash.  Guys are gonna hassle you, but they’ll also buy you drinks.  You’re not sure how you’re going to eat tomorrow, but it’ll work itself out.  All of this is not only tolerable but great.  Y’all know how it is.  You gotta love it.  As Sebert herself explains:

We’re all young and broke and it doesn’t matter.  We can find clothes on the side of the street and go out and look fantastic, and kill it.  If we don’t have a car[,] that doesn’t stop us, because we’ll take the bus.  If we can’t afford drinks, we’ll bring a bottle in our purse.  It’s just about not letting anything bring you down.

This is the soundtrack to American conservatism.  Naturally, conservatives won’t claim “TiK ToK” as an anthem—many will profess to be appropriately scandalized by it—but nevertheless it articulates the conservative worldview as well as anything I can presently point at.  (As if it needs to be stated, the worldview I’m talking about here is much larger than—and not coextensive with—the membership of the Republican Party.)  The key thing about “TiK ToK” is that it’s ostensibly positive and empowering but absolutely NOT idealistic: everything it values is concrete, easily conceived, and readily achievable; anything that isn’t is by implication suspect, silly, pathetic, embarrassing.  It’s worth noting what in “TiK Tok” is conspicuous by its absence: anger about the present, concern about the future, the desire for peace of mind or for emotional connection (Don’t treat me to the things of this world, Beyoncé Knowles sings: I’m not that kind of girl.  Your love is what I prefer, what I deserve . . .), any attempt at imaginative engagement with the experience of being alive.  None of this makes any sense in the utterly disenchanted world of “TiK ToK.”  In fact, “TiK ToK” presents disenchantment as a positive value, a shedding of childish things.  If called on this, I’m guessing most defenders of the song would respond first by saying I’m making a big deal out of nothing—don’t think too much—and then by maybe saying that the worldview that “TiK ToK” espouses is simply realistic.

It is not realistic.  It is a sterling example of what a number of commentators—I’ll refer you to k-punk—have characterized as the fantasy of realism: an expedient and comfortable confusion of what is politically difficult with what is physically impossible.  (Strictly enforced global controls on speculative investments and carbon emissions will never be enforceable, says conventional wisdom.  There’s no way the federal government could ever administer a single-payer healthcare plan effectively.  It’s just not realistic.  All available evidence, of course, indicates that it’s our refusal to give these initiatives serious consideration that isn’t realistic, as our present circumstances are not sustainable and not addressable by half-measures.)  This kind of “realism” offers something even more desirable than a clear-eyed assessment of your current circumstances, namely the feeling that you’ve made such an assessment, and that you’ve come away with the conclusion that this is as good as it gets.  (“I was just hoping to become a pop star before the world ends in 2012,” Sebert tells Rolling Stone.)  This is professional wrestling again: the comforting notion that you know what you need to know, that everything is clear.  “TiK ToK” essentially amounts to a Language 30 audio guide to the new economy: it provides a few useful phrases—enough to get by—and no real understanding of the underlying grammar.

For something designed to be utterly depthless, however, “TiK ToK” does leave us with a couple of nagging questions if we take a close look at its contents.  The first involves the conspicuously intransitive verb in its chorus: what is it, exactly, that Kesha’s-a fight till she sees the sunlight?  It’s not difficult for us to imagine targets worth fighting—for or against—but “TiK ToK,” it seems, can’t name them, or won’t.

The second question is more basic and more troubling.  Since the events described in the song are apparently ongoing, cyclical, without beginning or end . . . what, pray tell, is “TiK ToK” counting down to?

Sexton, Hickey, Mercer, Rockwell

January 10, 2010

For anyone dissatisfied with the cursory 6000-word treatment of Charlie Sexton’s career in my previous post, I thought I should mention a couple of other things:

I cut off Sexton’s album chronology a little early: his most recent solo effort, Cruel and Gentle Things, came out in 2005.  At this point I have spent very little time with it.  It’s a very song-oriented album, weirdly reminding me a little of Dan Wilson’s Free Life of a couple of years back: lots of acoustic strumming, infrequent and economical solos, a sense of steady decorum and minimal urgency.  What it teaches us is that just as Sexton is not Bowie, neither is he Dan Wilson.  At this point Sexton is sufficiently skilled in the studio to do business as a producer of other people’s stuff; however, it sounds to me like he really benefits from having somebody around to complicate his life while he’s recording his own.

I also meant to give props to Sexton’s band circa Under the Wishing Tree, known as the Charlie Sexton Sextet; there were, naturally, only four of them at the time the album was recorded: Sexton himself, bassist George Reiff, keyboardist Michael Ramos, and drummer Rafael Gayol, the latter two late of the BoDeans.  (Gayol also played with my fellow James E. Taylor High School alum David Rice, another Austin-based musician too obviously destined for fame to ever actually become famous; see also Garza, Davíd.)  The Sextet’s ranks would later swell to five with the addition of the great Susan Voelz on violin; they then became the legitimately-six-membered Sexton Sextet after Charlie’s brother Will joined up.  Anyway, I persist in my assertion that Under the Wishing Tree is a pretty solid album, and I think the backing band deserves some credit for that.  So.

One last thing: as I was rereading the Sexton post to respond to Beth’s comment, it occurred to me that Dave Hickey has pretty much already covered all this stuff—in more places than one, but particularly in his essay “Shining Hours / Forgiving Rhyme” (which looks to Norman Rockwell and Johnny Mercer as two somewhat more convincing standard-bearers than Charlie Sexton probably is for the kind of art I’m trying to defend):

I decided that, if high art is always about context and exclusivity, the art of Rockwell and Mercer, which denies both with a vengeance, must be about that denial.  To put it simply: Norman Rockwell’s painting, like Johnny Mercer’s music, has no special venue.  It lives in the quotidian world with us amidst a million other things, so it must define itself as we experience it, embody itself and be remembered to survive.  So it must rhyme, must live in pattern, which is the mother of remembering.  Moreover, since this kind of art lacks any institutional guarantee of our attention, it must be selected by us—and since it aspires to be selected by all of us, it must accept and forgive us too—and speak the language of acceptance and forgiveness.  And since it can only function in an atmosphere of generosity and agreement, it must somehow, in some way, promote that atmosphere.

Thus, there is in Rockwell (as there is in Dickens) this luminous devotion to the possibility of domestic kindness and social accord—along with an effortless proclivity to translate any minor discord into comedy and forgiving tristesse—and this domain of kindness and comedy and tristesse is not the truth, but it is a part of it, and a part that we routinely deny these days, lest we compromise our social agendas.  We discourage expressions of these feelings on the grounds that they privilege complacency and celebrate the norm as we struggle to extend the franchise.  But that is just the point (and the point of our struggle): Kindness, comedy, and forgiving tristesse are not the norm.  They signify our little victories—and working toward democracy consists of nothing more or less than the daily accumulation of little victories whose uncommon loveliness we must, somehow, speak or show.

When I am President of the United States, the two preceding paragraphs will be carved into something big and indestructible and sustainably-quarried and will then be displayed on the National Mall—in front of the Arts and Industries Building maybe, roughly equidistant from the National Museum of American History and the National Gallery of Art.  Until then, you can and should seek it out in Hickey’s collection Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, which is available everywhere books are available.

Okay.  Enough with the Sexton.  I hope to get back to The Birds soon . . . but here’s the news, kids: The Birds came out in 1963, and “TiK ToK” by Ke$ha is at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 right freaking now.  So guess what we’re doing next?  C’mon, don’t pretend you’re not excited . . .

“I dreamed I was flying / I dreamed I was found / beyond the barbed wire / high above the underground”

January 3, 2010

Dork that I am, I first got seriously interested in popular music by way of modern poetry.  I spent a fair portion of my junior year of high school picking through The Waste Land, and due to the fact that I’d experienced one of those formative a-ha moments while reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” earlier that year, I found myself enjoying this process a little more than was probably necessary or appropriate, to the extent that I would actually try to talk about T. S. Eliot with whomever seemed minimally down with listening.

That pretty much consisted of my buddy Daryl.  At the time, Daryl was in the midst of his own fairly rigorous survey of progressive and album-oriented rock music of the 1960s and ’70s, and he tried patiently to recount his explorations even as I yammered on about my own.  Our exchange was fueled by the discovery of a point at which our obsessions seemed to converge:

          Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
          The Titanic sails at dawn
          And everybody’s shouting
          “Which Side Are You On?”
          And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
          Fighting in the captain’s tower
          While calypso singers laugh at them
          And fishermen hold flowers
          Between the windows of the sea
          Where lovely mermaids flow
          And nobody has to think too much
          About Desolation Row

“What do you figure Dylan’s getting at there?” Daryl asked me good-naturedly, though no doubt the broad outlines were clear to us both.  I hemmed and hawed.  Sure enough, Bob Dylan knew his Eliot—the sea-girl imagery of “Prufrock,” check; the Fisher King of The Waste Land, check—but his attitude toward the material seemed to be pitched somewhere between wry amusement and sneering dismissal.  Although the entire high-modernist poetic project at least merited a verse in “Desolation Row”—one out of ten, but still—the Poet of Rock was clearly writing this stuff off as sort of a waste of time: faintly embarrassing, inadequate to the historical moment.  And this was in 1965.  Suffice to say I was not super-pleased to hear this.

I bought the LP anyway.  (Or I bought it because.)  Highway 61 Revisited was one of the first five or six albums I ever paid money to own, and of those five or six—no disrespect to Phil Collins intended—it’s about the only one that I still revisit regularly.  I’m also pretty sure that it’s the first album I bought not for the purpose of listening more closely, nor of listening whenever I wanted to, but for the purpose of able to listen at all: although Dylan was a national treasure, beyond famous—he’s no Bob Dylan, you might say of a middling lyricist, and everybody would know exactly what you meant—I never heard him on the radio, at least not in the western exurbs of Houston where I grew up . . . except of course when some DJ dusted off “We Are the World.”

For me this too was key to Dylan’s appeal, and nicely congruent with the appeal of those high modernists at whom he’d rolled his sunglass-obscured eyes: his music was esoteric, not for the uninitiated, hidden in plain sight.  This felt like another a-ha moment: the best stuff isn’t going to find you on its own, platter-borne by invisible cultural apparatus; you have to go seek it out.  (I suppose the fact that I did my seeking in progressively more arcane magazines—Spin, Magnet, The Wire—also proved gratifying, in that it made music once more comfortably subordinate to text.)  In 1994 I graduated from college, moved up to Austin, and began making weekly expeditions to Waterloo Records and Cheapo Discs on Lamar Blvd. where I’d convert my meager paychecks into compact discs, emphasizing the obscure, the local, the difficult, and the weird.

Given all the above, you will probably not be surprised to learn that I do the bulk of my listening at home; I don’t catch a lot of live music.  As big a Dylan fan as I was during college, I didn’t get around to seeing him play until last year, shortly before Halloween.  An avid concertgoer I know through work—very cool guy—wound up with a couple of tickets he couldn’t use, and when he asked if K and I wanted to buy them off him, we were like: sure, man.

We had, of course, heard the warnings about Dylan.  He will not speak.  He will regard the audience with an indifference that borders on contempt.  His voice is shot.  You will not recognize any of the songs, not even the classics.  Not so, my friends.  Lowered expectations are the key to living well, obviously, but this was a good show even adjusted for deflation.  Dylan seemed to be having a great time: grinning a lot, prancing around, boogieing behind the organ.  He introduced the band; he thanked the audience; he exhibited genuine humor and at least a semblance of warmth.  And he wasn’t coasting, either.  Much of Dylan’s career seems to have consisted of attempts to figure out what his voice can and cannot do; there’s no real question that it’s deteriorated, but I’d argue that he turned some kind of corner circa 2000 with “Things Have Changed,” and that these days his phrasing is better than ever.

All that said, the thing about the concert that has really stayed with me had nothing to do with Dylan, or almost nothing.  This 2009 tour marked the return as Dylan’s lead guitarist of a dapper gentleman named Charlie Sexton; the high points of the show all involved the almost paternal-filial interplay between these two dudes.  The stage setup based Dylan behind the organ at house right, Sexton dead center, and Sexton had no trouble occupying that ground.  There is a whole list of things one can reasonably expect to be thinking while walking out of a concert starring one of the most significant and consequential human beings to pass through the Twentieth Century; I would not have expected Why isn’t Charlie Sexton more famous? to be on that list.

And yet.  This is Charlie Sexton in 1985, at age sixteen:

“Beat’s So Lonely” remains Sexton’s biggest chart hit: his first and only appearance on the Billboard Hot 100.  I have no recollection whatsoever of hearing it when it came out.  A little research suggests that the music-buying public’s enthusiasm was tempered by suspicion, and this seems plausible, though it’s tricky to articulate exactly why.  There’s Sexton’s relative youth and implausible beauty, of course, as well as the fact that the song is derivative . . . but these are not typically factors that work AGAINST the success of a single, or of the artist who performs it.

A contemporaneous Texas Monthly article by radio legend Jody Denberg provides some clues.  In 1985 Charlie Sexton may have been a fresh face on MTV, but in his hometown of Austin he was a known commodity: a junior member of the extended blues family surrounding Clifford Antone’s nightclub which famously included W. C. Clark, Lou Ann Barton, Speedy Sparks, Kim Wilson, Angela Strehli, and Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughn.  Even by early-70s-Austin standards his upbringing was unconventional: dad locked up on pot charge, school and home departed at age thirteen, etc.  In 1982 Charlie snagged a gig as lead guitarist of Joe Ely’s band and opened some shows for the Clash; soon he had a six-figure major-label deal and was doing session work for some of the hugest names in MOR rock.  By the time “Beat’s So Lonely” hit the airwaves, Sexton was understood by Austin’s core music arbiters to be a legit rock and blues artist.

He was not, however, understood to be a legit new wave artist—if Austin’s music arbiters would even admit to the possibility of such a thing—and this may be where the trouble started.  The old gang tuned in Charlie on the MTV expecting a pomaded pompadour and flatted fifths; instead they got a hairsprayed cockatoo crest and a stuttering drum machine.  While the rest of America wondered Who the hell is this kid? Austin was asking Who the hell does this kid think he is?

In short, Little Charlie Sexton had what you might call an intelligibility problem.  It wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on in “Beat’s So Lonely;” the tougher questions were the aforementioned who, and also why.  Most mid-80s pop fans would have had no problem with motorik synths and whammy-barred harmonics, David Sylvian’s louche decadence, Sid Vicious’s bratty menace, the laddish flippancy of Simon Le Bon . . . they just hadn’t seen these ingredients scrambled before in quite this way.  Furthermore, Sexton’s cribs and influences were apt to be judged not as diverse and wide-reaching, but as merely arbitrary—or generated according to commercial formulae—and somehow internally contradictory, hence invalid on some aesthetic or ideological grounds.

They weren’t.  From twenty-five years’ distance the obvious point of reference for “Beat’s So Lonely” is Bowie: the vocal tones and mannerisms (lead and backing) are copped straight from him; the song’s arrangement is of a piece with his roughly contemporary post-Lodger move back toward pop and “plastic soul.”  And this makes sense: recall that Sexton’s friend and mentor Stevie Ray Vaughn is all over Bowie’s Let’s Dance album from 1983.  Also worth mentioning: Sexton’s producer and co-composer on “Beat’s So Lonely” was a dude named Keith Forsey, producer of albums by Billy Idol and the Psychedelic Furs as well as the storied soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop, the same guy who co-wrote “Hot Stuff” for Donna Summer and “Flashdance . . . What a Feeing” for Irene Cara and “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” for Simple Minds and “Shakedown” for Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band and “The Heat Is On” for Glenn Frey, and who thereby exerts a plausible claim on having defined the auditory sensorium of cocaine as surely as the Velvet Underground did that of heroin.  Significantly for the topic at hand, Forsey was the drummer for and protégé of disco producer and electro-pop godfather Giorgio Moroder—who had himself lately collaborated with Bowie on “Cat People (Putting Out Fire).”  (The mid-80s were fat years for parentheses in song titles, evidently.)  In 1985, Bowie’s influence on pop was so omnipresent as to be almost invisible; by that time he had also entered a fiscally fruitful but creatively fallow period that saw him drifting somewhat out of fashion, and I suppose listeners can be forgiven for failing at the time to peg Sexton as a member of the Bowie fan club.  Bowie himself WAS paying attention; in 1987 Charlie Sexton found himself opening shows on Bowie’s much-derided Glass Spider Tour.

Anyway, my point is that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with “Beat’s So Lonely”—no symptom that definitively indicates the condition limiting Sexton’s potential stardom.  We have to broaden our inquest.  Although implications are worth teasing out, the problem is actually kind of obvious, and can be summed up like this: Charlie Sexton is not David Bowie.  This statement might be taken to mean that the mantle of new wave pastiche is best donned by ambisexual British space oddities and eschewed by babyfaced salt-of-the-earth bluesmen from Central Texas, but that doesn’t quite get it, either; the key element is more evanescent than biographical particulars can catch.  The issue is not form or content, but attitude and style.

The smartass diagnosis as to why Charlie Sexton didn’t become famous in the late 1980s would be that “Beat’s So Lonely” was the only good song on his major-label debut.  Although there’s some truth to that, I’m obliged to point out—just, y’know, e.g.—that Mellow Gold and Pablo Honey also contain only one good track apiece, and things have gone pretty okay for Beck Hansen and Radiohead since they came out.  What these two artists managed to do, what Bowie has made several careers of doing, what Charlie Sexton (along with most other worthy and talented artists) did NOT manage to do, is to leave their listeners with an unscratchable itch, a sense that they’ve missed something in the stupid hooky pop tunes they’ve just heard, something that just slips farther away the more they listen.  No matter how entertained we are by Bowie or Beck or Radiohead, we always suspect that they themselves are somewhat MORE entertained; though we may recognize and comprehend the materials they choose (or invent, or steal) to craft songs from, their compositional processes always seem motivated not so much by efficacy or calculation, but rather by urgent necessity, or by a personal idiosyncrasy that verges on perverseness.  These artists always seem to be hiding something, holding something back.  Sexton doesn’t.  What Sexton lacks, in a word, is cool.

I hope it’s evident here that I’m trying to use the word “cool” with extreme specificity: all available evidence suggests that Charlie Sexton is, y’know, a cool guy, good sense of humor, generous with his time and talent, fun to hang out with, etc.  When I say “cool,” I’m talking about a very particular cultural pose—one defined, for instance, by Dick Pountain and David Robins in their book Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude as “a permanent state of private rebellion” (their emphasis, here and below):

Permanent because Cool is not just some “phase that you go through,” something that you “grow out of,” but rather something that if once attained remains for life; private because Cool is not a collective political response but a stance of individual defiance, which does not announce itself in strident slogans but conceals its rebellion behind a mask of ironic impassivity.

It’s that last element, the mask, that I want to emphasize in the present context.  I’m not going to try to prove it here, but I WILL ask you to entertain for a moment the notion that virtually all of the major heroic figures in post-1960 popular music—I’m talking Elvis Presley, James Brown, the Beatles, Lou Reed, Willie Nelson, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Simon, George Clinton, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, John Lydon, Elvis Costello, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, U2, Garth Brooks, Björk, Missy Elliott, Wilco, Outkast, Kanye West, Neko Case, and M.I.A., and you can lump the aforementioned Beck and Radiohead in with that bunch as well—are united by one primary quality, which is their more-or-less deliberate, more-or-less calculated use of such masks.  (Had I but space enough and time, I’d go on to argue that if you’re looking to place bets on what contemporary artists we’re still going to care about five or ten years from now, you should keep an eye out for these masks.  I’m currently inclined to put money on Justin Vernon, the Vampire Weekend kids, and Lady Gaga.  Any takers?)

The mask isn’t always easy to spot, but I think it’s present in all of the examples above, made apparent by odd zigzags and unexpected departures in their careers that aren’t (or aren’t entirely) attributable to the dictates of the market.  These artists are united in their tendency to inflict WTF? moments upon their audiences, curveballs that nevertheless are suggestive of a quirky interiority to which they never grant satisfying access.  In some cases this mask amounts to campy performativity; in others it’s just good old-fashioned mental illness . . . but often it manifests itself as a peculiar trick wherein the artists conceal themselves through the seeming act of EXPRESSING themselves, a move that the Lacanian analyst Darian Leader connects with the “terror molt” that some birds use as a defense: here, chew on these colorful feathers—issued with some discomfort from my own body—whilst I run the hell away from you.

This is not a trick I see the young Charlie Sexton trying to pull.  He seems to want us to get EXACTLY what he’s doing—not because he wants us to buy his album, but simply because he’s sincere in his enthusiasm and in his desire to communicate.  It’s impossible for me to condemn him for that.  Yet I believe it’s the presence of these qualities—and the concomitant absence of the mask—that more than any other factors have kept Sexton’s career human-scaled.  In this, he has plenty of distinguished company: I suspect the same absence-of-mask issue will ultimately result in the Grateful Dead’s output being assessed as less an artifact than an event; Zappa seems to be of increasingly academic interest for similar reasons.  Or to look at a more recent example, one who shares space with Sexton in Bowie’s long shadow: Nine Inch Nails (as jane dark pointed out at about this time last year) has been making good music for nearly two decades—four years longer than the Stones, twelve years longer than the Beatles—and yet I suspect that the nothing-if-not-sincerely-pissed Trent Reznor would have a hard time getting enough petition signatures to win a spot on the Artist-of-the-Century ballot.

On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any question that David Bowie himself belongs in the top echelon of the mask-wearing heroes I listed above, even if his acolytes don’t make the cut: he has succeeded as well as anybody in maintaining exactly the sort of cool and mutable pop persona that I’m talking about—although he cannot, and would not, claim to have invented it.

Bob Dylan invented it.  When we come across attempts—usually in the major media—to succinctly explain Dylan, it’s shocking how wrong they tend to get it: almost invariably citing Woody Guthrie, protest songs, the folk revival, the civil rights and antiwar movements . . . with maybe a vague and passing reference to the necessary fiction of the 1965 Newport electric scandal thrown in.  He helped unite a generation and inspired it to change the world: that’s the sort of thing we’re typically told, and that is exactly the opposite of why Dylan actually matters.  The young Dylan was attracted to folk music simply because it was serious and substantive; it became apparent soon enough that folk’s methods, aims, and values—functional, collective, egalitarian—were incompatible with and opposed to his own.  As early as Another Side of Bob Dylan it became clear that he’d opted to distance himself from his peers and fans in the folk scene; his monumental classics Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde were simply the shape that that rejection took: the shape of a mask.  In 1965, when “Like a Rolling Stone” climbed atop the pop charts and stuck there, the effect, of course, was an elevation of stakes for popular music and popular culture so vast as to defy adequate accounting.

As I walked out of the Dylan show in October, thinking about Charlie Sexton, I couldn’t shake the feeling that most of my fellow concertgoers were figuratively scratching their heads more or less like I was, at a loss for something trenchant or even appropriate to say about what we’d just seen.  The remarkable thing was how ORDINARY the show had been.  I don’t mean average—it was a good show—but ordinary, familiar, the way you might feel if I took you downtown to the Art Institute to see American Gothic in person after a lifetime of seeing it copied and parodied: Yep, you might think, That’s it, all right.  It’s become practically impossible to see or hear Dylan, because we see and hear him everywhere, in everybody’s music.  He set the parameters by which we evaluate pop, and we’ve internalized them so thoroughly that it’s almost impossible to historicize them, to understand how we acquired them and why.

There’s a story (I’ll give you Bono’s version) that when Sam Cooke played “Blowin’ in the Wind” for Bobby Womack and Womack professed not to understand how it had become a hit, Cooke responded that from then on it wouldn’t matter what a singer’s voice sounded like, only whether or not people believed that that voice was telling the truth.  What was not apparent at the time—what would be clear soon enough—is that Dylan’s truths were not universal, or even commonly-regarded, but particular, personal, and expressible only obliquely.   (For an illustration of this distinction, look no farther than Dylan’s infamous response to the erstwhile fan who shouted “Judas!” at him at the Manchester Free Trade Hall: “I don’t believe you,” Dylan seethed back; “You’re a liar!”  To the angry folk fans this must have seemed like a non sequitur—didn’t he mean to just say “you’re wrong” or “that’s bullshit”?—but on Dylan’s terms it made perfect sense.)  Among many other achievements, Dylan helped to clear the sluice through which the above-referenced concept of “cool” permeated popular culture; almost overnight, sincere attempts by artists to make themselves understood became suspect.  By 1967 Cool Hand Luke had furnished a catchphrase that did double duty as a handy situational summary and as an expression of the new values:

To put it another way, Dylan was as responsible as anybody for introducing and propagating a distinct aspect of Sixties culture that would eventually come to be known as “Seventies culture”: a continued opposition to The Establishment that also rejected traditional collective political engagement in favor of libertarian expressions of selfhood.  I hope you’ll forgive my understatement when I say the results of this shift have not, in my assessment, been uniformly awesome.  There’s plenty to suggest that Dylan himself began to perceive downsides in fairly short order, and that many of his out-of-nowhere twists and turns post-Blonde on Blonde were made accordingly.  If his move away from protest music circa Another Side was driven by his resentment at being typecast as a folk prophet, his subsequent moves were the seeming product of desperation and terror.  In abdicating his office among the Greenwich Village crowd, Dylan became an even bigger icon to an huge youthful cross-section of the global population—the Greatest Demographic, let’s call it—and could do nothing to shake these fans off: they remained focused and fascinated through his post-motorcycle-accident silence, through the deliberate retrograde stylings of John Wesley Harding, and even through his radical detour into pop-country on Nashville Skyline.  What Dylan doesn’t seem to have realized, at least not at the time, was that these contradictions and discontinuities were exactly what made him fascinating.  The only thing that finally permitted him a respite from public attention was a bunch of bad albums, beginning with 1970’s notorious Self Portrait—and at least some of these were surely produced with escape precisely in mind.

In a retrospective 1979 essay, über-critic Robert Christgau wrote the following:

Antimainstreamism is the crux of the decade. [. . .] I’ve been thinking about it myself since 1970, when circumstances forced me to coin the phrase “semi-popular music.” (Definition: “music that is appreciated—I use the term advisedly—for having all the earmarks of popular music except one: popularity.”) [. . .] In the ’60s, the best rock and roll had cultural life. The audience wasn’t as massive as some acolytes believed, but the music was broadly popular nonetheless, supported by a consensus that made it resonate in ways so-called high art could not. But in the ’70s the best rock and roll has had what might be called subcultural life; it is the domain of a new kind of elite, a pop elite. [. . .] It is no longer enriched by consensus—it has to justify itself formally, as art. [. . .T]he punks are right—among other things, many of them fairly wonderful, the ’60s were full of shit. It’s true that the era of good feeling bred some great popular music, but it’s also true that the good feelings was rooted in self-deception, especially regarding the malleability of power. And in the ’70s the powerful took over, as rock industrialists capitalized on the national mood to reduce a potent music to an often reactionary species of entertainment. In effect, what the best artists did in response, whether they played guts ball against the new hegemony, or [. . .] merely circumvented it, was to act semi-popular even when they were in fact much bigger.

Which is to say: they put on masks.  Dylan’s quicksilver shifts between 1964 and 1970 established templates and benchmarks for a generation of pop songwriters and created a blueprint for celebrity that still predominates today; they also made the world an increasingly hostile place for serious artists working in popular idioms who were disinclined or ill-suited to pursue similar strategies.  The marketplace adjusted, as marketplaces will do; what had been counterculture became simply subculture, and then became an array of demographic niches.  These days we automatically expect our music to declare clearly at the outset for whom it is and is not intended; Thriller was about the last thing everybody listened to that seemed to want to be listened to by everybody.

We can make dire pronouncements about the vapidity of industry pop in this post-“Macarena” era some other time; what I’m concerned about now—mostly because I don’t hear anybody else voicing concern about it—is the uniformly exclusionary edginess-slash-quirkiness of indie music.  In a worth-checking-out recent piece about Animal Collective, critic Simon Reynolds reaches back to Christgau’s “semi-popular” coinage to gently bemoan the fact that when obscure and genuinely far-out bands begin to incorporate accessible pop elements, they are invariably castigated for “selling out” by hipster fans who liked them back when they were, y’know, interesting, challenging, serious, whatever.  Reynolds points out that such avant/pop hybridization “calls into question both the mainstream and the margins: pop, for its lack of risk and reach, and the unpop peripheries, for their pointless extremism, concealed macho, impotent inconsequentiality.”  Good point, and I’d take his middlebrow apologia a step farther.  While it’s maybe unfortunate that a band like Animal Collective starts an argument in some squat in Greenpoint when it crosses the pop and unpop beams, the real problem here is the assumption that everything ought to originate in a niche, even if it doesn’t remain confined to it.  As long as that assumption prevails unexamined, society can be construed as no more and nothing other than overlapping demographics; the possibility of a common culture is foreclosed.  Art that admits the hopeful possibility of such a common culture and makes an honest attempt to address it needs to do more than make a few concessions to pop: it has to avoid exclusionary gestures; it has to use irony as a device rather than an attitude; it has to try to communicate without simply signifying.  I’m not saying ALL art needs to do this—my god, that would be horrible—but some art should, and it should not be scorned or ridiculed simply for doing so.  Animal Collective is worth keeping around, and I commend Simon Reynolds for sticking up for them.  I, however, am here to throw down for Charlie Sexton.

Although it’s nice to imagine how things might have gone for Sexton in a more perfect world, what has actually transpired might be described (to borrow the title of one of his own songs) as plain bad luck and innocent mistakes.  After the fleeting chart success of “Beat’s So Lonely,” the pop gears stopped meshing; nothing else on his debut album went anywhere.  In 1989 a single from his follow-up—“Don’t Look Back,” Sexton the sole credited composer—charted fleetingly; it’s clean and focused, devoid of any new-wave horsing around, but also businesslike and rather joyless: even as the music proceeds by the MOR numbers, the song’s cities-of-the-plain narrative suggests that the singer is already in flight from a corrupt and corrupting industry.  The trouble, of course, is that Sexton’s aptitudes and interests are not remotely indie; with his pop stock dropping, his best available option was, as it were, to look back.

Outside of, like, a WainwrightMcGarrigle family reunion, returns to musical roots do not get any more complete than Sexton’s next project: the blues-rock supergroup Arc Angels, which came together circa 1991.  The three-quarters of the band who were not Charlie Sexton consisted of the former rhythm section of the recently-deceased Stevie Ray Vaughn and the guitar-slinging son of Vaughn’s chief songwriting partner.  An Arc Angels song, “Too Many Ways to Fall,” was the first Sexton material I can remember ever hearing; I thought it was pretty good.

Unfortunately for Sexton, an album called Nevermind was also on the charts in 1991, and it swiftly became apparent that nobody was asking the question to which Arc Angels was the answer.  In retrospect, Kurt Cobain’s brief earth-scorching passage through pop culture seems like both a recapitulation of Dylan’s mid-60s burst of fame and the inevitable consequence of forces he then set in motion; certainly Cobain experienced his celebrity with the same sort of horror that Dylan did, and sought escape from it even more desperately.  In its vitriolic rejection of slickness and received technique—which echoed not only the Sex Pistols of ’76 but also the Dylan of ’65—Nevermind essentially stripped MOR rock of its remaining claim on artistic legitimacy; Cobain’s reading of “In the Pines” on MTV Unplugged then proceeded to gut folk and blues for good measure.  (He covered Bowie in the same set, of course.)  Beset by indifference (and by Doyle Bramhall II’s substance problems), Arc Angels hung it up in 1993.

My affection for Charlie Sexton, such as it is, was mostly earned by the album he released in 1995 while I was still living in Austin.  I played the hell out of Under the Wishing Tree when it came out, but prior to spotting Sexton onstage with Dylan last October I hadn’t returned to it in years.  Although the post-Lanois pseudo-voodoo heat-haze of Malcolm Burn’s production now shows its age a little, the tracks I liked then—“Wishing Tree,” “Ugly All Day,” “Everyone Will Crawl,” “Sunday Clothes”—I still like.  There is an oft-cited truism which suggests in one of its variations that virtuosity is the songwriter’s worst enemy, and that genius often amounts to grandiose ideas colliding with technical limitations and striking unexpected sparks.  It occurs to me that Sexton’s peculiar cross to bear—one that’s unlikely to garner him much sympathy—is that his inspiration has always tended to be outpaced by his own capacity to realize it; he’s too technically gifted for his own good.  On Under the Wishing Tree this disparity seems finally to close up: it seems that Sexton has figured out what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, how to tell his own story, what portion of the cultural landscape he can safely build on.

Which is not to say he sounds satisfied.  On “Everyone Will Crawl,” for instance, it’s hard not to imagine that he’s dreaming of a parallel pop universe somewhat more fair and just than the one in which he toils, one where he and his middlebrow cohort—Los Lobos, Tori Amos, Counting Crows, Freedy Johnston, David Gray, Neil Finn, Fiona Apple, Joe Henry, Pearl Jam, Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, Beth Orton, Ron Sexsmith, the Goo Goo Dolls, Patty Griffin, Elbow, Norah Jones, Josh Ritter, Rachael Yamagata, hell, even the goddamn Fray—can connect with their audiences unobstructed by fashion and still be accorded a measure of critical respect, and where the desire to communicate openly and the desire to say something substantive are not automatically understood to be contradictory . . . somewhere “high above the underground,” as it were.

I’ve been thinking about this sort of music and its place in the culture a lot lately— particularly since about November 4, 2008, when I saw the video below projected on an enormous screen in Grant Park:

This sort of knocked me for a loop, as the music playing in the background is taken from “Fake Empire,” the opening track on the album Boxer by the glum and hyperliterate Brooklyn band the National; it had been in extremely heavy rotation in our apartment for the past few months, but it was pretty much the last thing I expected to find myself sharing with a quarter-million new friends as we waited for the polls to close on the West Coast.  It is difficult to explain why the experience of hearing this music at that particular moment was so affecting.  Partly it was a matter of what recreational drug users refer to as set and setting—at that moment and in that place, everything was affecting—but there was something else, as well: a poignant sense that we had been recognized and welcomed, that we, we specifically, were part of what was happening, and that we belonged there.

Of course I felt a little sheepish about my reaction; this was, after all, only music by a band that I like and whose album I bought, and not a reflection of my core values.  Or was it?  This in turn made me aware of my own expectations regarding politics and culture—about the fact that it practically never occurs to me that EVERYBODY might like some of the same things I like, and about how I often don’t even WANT anyone to share my appreciation of these things.  I’m comfortable in my niche.  That is not necessarily a good thing.

And THAT in turn reminded me of a TV documentary about the 1960s that I saw once, which featured an interview with a former member of the Byrds; I want to say it was David Crosby.  The Byrd, whoever he was, told a story that for some reason I have never forgotten, about walking down a street in the Haight on the day in 1966 that Revolver was released.  Somebody came out of a record store and literally grabbed him, hauled him inside, sat him by a turntable, and dropped the needle on the album’s final track, “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

It was incontrovertible proof: the Beatles—the biggest band ever, bigger than Jesus—were turned on.  Only minutes before, the Byrd explained, he’d been thinking about how cool the scene going down in the Haight was, and how great it would be if more people could take part in it, and how impossible it was that that would ever happen.  And then suddenly, as the turntable spun and the song played to its end, he was convinced that he and his friends were about to take over the world.

Somewhere in Animal Heaven, the ghosts of pigs and roosters exchange rueful shrugs

December 3, 2009

An undercover video shot by an animal rights group at an Iowa egg hatchery shows workers discarding unwanted chicks by sending them alive into a grinder, and other chicks falling through a sorting machine to die on the factory floor. [. . .]

[The factory owner] noted that “instantaneous euthanasia”—a reference to killing of male chicks by the grinder—is a standard practice supported by the animal veterinary and scientific community. [. . .]

According to [the animal rights group], male chicks are of no use to the industry because they can’t lay eggs and don’t grow large or quickly enough to be raised profitably for meat. That results in the killing of 200 million male chicks a year.

The United Egg Producers, a trade group for U.S. egg farmers, confirmed that figure and the practice behind it.

“There is, unfortunately, no way to breed eggs that only produce female hens,” said the group’s spokesman, Mitch Head. “If someone has a need for 200 million male chicks, we’re happy to provide them to anyone who wants them. But we can find no market, no need.”

the Associated Press, September 1, 2009         

Traditionally, influenza vaccines are produced in fertilized chicken eggs. Eleven days after fertilization, the influenza virus is injected into the eggs and accumulates in the fluid surrounding the embryo. The embryo becomes infected so that the virus can multiply. After several days of incubation, machines open the eggs and harvest the virus. The virus is then carefully purified, chemically inactivated and used to produce the vaccine. Typically, between one and two eggs are needed to produce one dose of vaccine. The entire production process takes at least six months.

Unfortunately, yields in the initial H1N1 production seed strain provided by the World Health Organization were far below normal.

 – Health News Digest, November 1, 2009         

“This ‘tilling of the soil’ can get a little compulsive, you know.”

November 25, 2009

K and I are fairly big on structured fun.  I’m talking about poetry readings, Iron-Chef-themed dinner parties, a book club: stuff like that.  Once a month, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to journey southward down Lake Shore Drive to the enviable Hyde Park apartment of our friends Mitchell and Bob, where we and a group of exceedingly smart and kind fellow Chicagoans partake of what has come to be known as “Movie Group.”  (These are the sort of smart and kind Chicagoans who appreciate good assonance.)  Although these gatherings are carefree and egalitarian, we participants universally hail Mitchell—formidably learned in the history of film, among other subjects—as our curator and captain.  Over the past months he has shepherded us through a Blu-ray-based curriculum of classic movies, all of which have resonated for me well past the end titles, some more so than others.

The Halloween-themed selection for October 2009 was The Birds, the last major film by Alfred Hitchcock.  (If somebody wants to make a case for Marnie or Frenzy, I’ll be happy to listen.)  I’d seen The Birds before, and found it troublesome.  Having now seen it again and discussed it with the Movie Group gang, I still find it troublesome, but in a way that’s maybe more productive.  A few things in particular are still bugging me.

The first is a multi-part observation that Mitchell made.  Mitchell, it must be said, is an eloquent and persuasive proponent of the belief that among the dramatic genres, comedy is superior to tragedy—if only because its canvas is broad enough to encourage sympathy and identification with a bunch of characters, thereby depicting a whole society instead of the struggles of a single flawed hero.  The Birds, Mitchell argues, is a comedy.

In this clip from The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (start at 1:38), Slavoj Žižek suggests that the key to interpreting horror films is to imagine the story “without the horror element;” that’s basically where Mitchell goes, too, although he and Žižek part company rapidly thereafter.  Subtract the killer birds, and The Birds basically tells the story of an impetuous young San Francisco socialite (Melanie) who cutely meets a handsome lawyer (Mitch) and follows him home to the community of Bodega Bay, where she discovers that he’s ensnared in somewhat dreary family circumstances: his father has been dead for over four years, and his mother (Lydia) is all but paralyzed by grief and anxiety.  Melanie learns that she’s not the first girl to follow Mitch from San Francisco to Bodega Bay: the town schoolteacher (Annie) pursued him aggressively once, and has stayed around town to be close to him, although these days he seems to spare her hardly a thought.  The movie concludes with Mitch driving Melanie, Lydia, and his young sister Cathy away from the family home and out of Bodega Bay; Melanie has been weakened and humbled, while Lydia seems to have found new reserves of maternal strength.  Thus does Melanie (motherless from a young age) find a mother, Lydia a daughter, and Mitch (we presume) a bride.  The barren and dysfunctional family has become fertile and loving.  Bingo: a comedy in the classic sense.

I find Mitchell’s reading pretty convincing . . . more convincing than Žižek’s, anyway, which characterizes the film’s tension as the product of a “standard Oedipal imbroglio” between Mitch and Lydia; therefore the attacking birds are “the maternal superego [. . .] raw incestuous energy,” which only quiets down after it succeeds in inverting the power relations between Lydia and Melanie.  That’s pretty good, but not quite right.  The thing about The Birds is that it clearly EXPECTS to be interpreted—much of the dialogue actually CONSISTS of attempts at interpretation as the townspeople try to figure out why the birds are attacking, a question the film famously declines to answer—and it works hard to get out in front of the viewer’s interpretive act.  Speaking of Mitch’s mommy troubles fairly early in the movie, Annie tells Melanie, “So what was the answer?  A jealous woman, right?  A clinging possessive mother.  Wrong.  With all due respect to Oedipus, I don’t think that was the case at all.”  Thus is Žižek’s reading explicitly rejected by the film itself—which doesn’t make it wrong, of course, but does make me think we’re still missing something.

What stayed with me in Mitchell’s reading of The Birds was a fairly offhand comparison he made of the film to a middle-period Shakespearean comedy—particularly As You Like It—and of Bodega Bay to the Forest of Arden, the dreamlike Elsewhere where the characters’ frustrating and static entanglements become confused and dynamic, and are then transformed and resolved.  I think this Shakespeare comparison is really good—especially given how significant gender confusion is in both As You Like It and The Birds, a topic I hope I can get to later—but the Forest of Arden thing threw me a little.  Mitchell’s correct to say there’s a Forest of Arden in The Birds, but I don’t think it’s Bodega Bay.  I think it’s the birds themselves.

One of the things that makes the Žižek trick of separating out the horror element from The Birds so easy and rewarding is the fact that there are two distinct narrative tracks that run through the film, one of which (spelled out above) is linear and comic, and the other of which is cyclical and tragic.  The pathos of schoolmarm Annie basically derives from the fact that she attempted to proceed along the first narrative track and wound up mired in the second: she came to Bodega Bay to win Mitch away from Lydia and take him back to San Fran (just as we can probably assume that Melanie succeeds in doing), and instead wound up abandoning all her aspirations and opting to stay in Bodega Bay forever, unsexed and inert.  (This is the part where we point out that Annie—portrayed by Suzanne Pleshette—is kind of improbably sultry for a small-town schoolteacher; if this can happen to her, it can happen to Tippi Hedren’s Melanie, too.)

Mitchell also pointed out that the bird attacks in the film have a conspicuously cyclical quality which is not dissimilar to the slow wax and abrupt wane of sexual compulsion: gradual build, climax, quietness, repeat.  (I’m reminded here of Kevin Nealon’s old pornographic movie reviews on SNL’s Weekend Update: “I was interested . . . interested . . . VERY interested . . . and then, suddenly, I lost interest.”)  And of course the real engine of the film—its intensifier—is the irrational, unexplainable, compulsive, cyclical force of the attacking birds.  The other, linear, comic narrative gains its shape and actually BECOMES linear (Lydia becomes a proper mother, Melanie a proper wife and daughter) by virtue of its intersection with the attacking birds, just as Shakespeare’s characters emerge from the Forest of Arden “properly” coupled.  (It just occurred to me that the frogs at the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia might play a roughly analogous role.)

It’s significant that the linear narrative in The Birds is also a family narrative—and the WAY in which it’s a family narrative is also interesting.  When Shakespeare’s comedies incorporate family narratives, they typically do so to illuminate how a broader society emerges from overlapping familial bonds; The Birds seems to reverse that emphasis, dramatizing how an entire community can be paralyzed or even imperiled by the troubles of a single family.  In so doing, it seems to point toward a narrative form even more atavistic than that of classical comedy: the ritual narrative, more specifically a “life-death-rebirth” fertility narrative of the sort that used to dramatize the yearly rhythms of planting and harvesting in agrarian societies.  The ritual proceeds like this: when Melanie comes to Bodega Bay, she learns that the King (Mitch’s father) has died; the proper course at this point would be for the Prince to take a bride and assume the throne.  But there’s a problem: the old Queen is unable to surrender her role, to move aside for the new King and Queen.  (In a notable scene, Lydia confides to Melanie her frustration at her inability to properly mother her children; she also interacts with Mitch as if he’s a husband, not a son.)

The Birds drops a few clear hints that we should be thinking of Bodega Bay in agricultural terms.  For a bayside community, folks seems to be doing a lot of farming (or raising chickens, at the very least).  Furthermore, when we first meet Annie, she’s working in her garden—an activity that we’re not permitted to regard comfortably as productive or wholesome.  (“I’ve been wanting a cigarette for the past twenty minutes, but I couldn’t convince myself to stop,” Annie tells Melanie.  “This ‘tilling of the soil’ can get a little compulsive, you know.”)  I know what you’re thinking, and yeah, sure, Bodega Bay seems a trifle quaint for a Waste Land . . . but there are certainly plenty of semi-innocuous signs that something’s not quite right: the inability of the town’s adults to recall the names of children, for instance, or to recognize that inability.  And then of course there’s the cautionary example of Annie herself: the snared and enchanted schoolteacher, Mitch’s abortive Queen.  In this reading, it’s Annie’s snared enchantment, not any mere pecking-to-death, that represents the real peril confronting Melanie.  Likewise, it seems clearer than ever that it’s Melanie (and not Mitch) who must be understood as the protagonist—the hero—of the film, and whose headlong eagerness to pursue Mitch to Bodega Bay must be regarded as more frightening than cute.  (The stated justification for her impulsive/compulsive trip is, of course, her intent to deliver a pair of lovebirds to Mitch’s young sister Cathy as an eleventh birthday present, and this act prefigures and is recapitulated by the vaster transformative arrival of the impulsive/compulsive attacking birds.)

At this point I am reminded of another comment made during our post-Birds discussion, this one by our second resident cineaste, Alfred Max.  (Movie Group boasts an embarrassment of film-scholarly riches.)  Alfred pointed out that Melanie’s rather inexplicable decision near the end of the film to walk upstairs in Lydia’s barricaded house and enter a room that’s open to the outside—where she is, of course, attacked and nearly killed by birds—is her first and only misstep in a film in which she is otherwise disbelief-beggaringly hyper-competent.  This exception-which-proves-the-rule must, I think, lead us to consider that her mistake is no mistake at all: it is an act of self-sacrifice—deeply encoded into the structure of the ritual narrative—which makes possible the ultimate resolution of the linear plot, i.e. the Old Queen (Lydia) shifted into the proper role of Mother, the hero (Melanie) accepted as Queen, the motherless daughters orphans no more, and the Prince kinged at last.  It even seems appropriate that the restored family leaves Bodega Bay with the two lovebirds that initiated the journey still in their possession, and still securely caged; these evoke, perhaps, the erotic engine of Melanie’s and Mitch’s impending marriage.

Pretty neat, huh?  But hang on a minute, you’re thinking.  In a proper ritual narrative, wouldn’t the Waste Land of Bodega Bay be restored, instead of being escaped?  Yeah, that’s bothering me, too.  Two other things are also bothering me: 1) if Lydia is the Old Queen and Melanie is the New Queen and Mitch is the New King, what the hell is Mitch’s little sister Cathy doing in the car?  Why is she in the movie at all?  Do we really need another player on the field?  And 2) why do all the children in Bodega Bay seem to be about eleven years old?

I have a theory about all of that, but it’ll have to wait till after Thanksgiving.  In the meantime, try not to let these burning questions tamper with your digestion.

And, um, what exactly is the question to which this is supposed to be an answer?

November 11, 2009

Hi there!  Welcome!  Make yourselves at home.  Beer’s in the fridge.  Just throw your coats over there on the whatever.

So.  Why this, and why now?  Hell, I dunno.  No, no, it’s a valid question.

Um . . . I like the neighborhood, for one thing.  I know a bunch of people in the area.  Plus a lot of my, y’know, my peers have already taken this important “life step.”  Some of them did it a long time ago.  And what with the economy and the tax credit and stuff, I guess it just seemed like the right time.  I DO get a tax credit for this, right?

Okay.  I don’t imagine that the material I plan to deposit here is going to be well-thought-out enough to justify inclusion in an essay or review or academic paper or whatever (at least not at this point); at the same time, it’s going to be a little too involved to qualify as cocktail-party conversational fodder.  I have decided to put this blog-type-thing together with the idea that it ought to be a suitable container for this stuff.

To be somewhat more specific—and to award credit where it ought to be awarded—I should say that over the past several years I have been gently disabused of snobbish suspicions about the blogosphere by the experience of reading a bunch of really good online writing, much of it on abundantly-but-still-insufficiently-praised sites like k-punk and jane dark’s sugarhigh!  What has actually tipped me over into the implementation phase is probably my friend Elisa Gabbert’s blog The French Exit, upon certain posts of which I have made comments that exceeded Blogger’s length limits—a phenomenon I’m interpreting as evidence that it’s time to either 1) shut up already, or 2) start my own blog.  Elisa should not be held responsible for the course of action I have chosen.

Right off the bat I want to admit, in fact to INSIST, that I can claim no practical training in anything other than fiction writing, and just about no academic background whatsoever in philosophy or “theory”—although I do get a weird kick out of that kind of stuff, and find it useful as a spur for thinking.  I don’t intend to limit myself here to a few particular concerns, and I’m not going to make an aggressive effort to argue a particular thesis—although I DO expect that I’ll be spending much of my blogtime writing about forms of communication that might broadly be called “art,” with a particular eye to how they work . . . not necessarily whether or not they succeed, but what actually happens when they operate, and what their operations consist of.

I also expect to spend some time here testing a few current suspicions of mine, which— stated bluntly—are basically these: 1) there are a handful of intrinsic limitations built into the process of communication, and the stuff that we tend to call “art” depends on these limitations to function; 2) the quality that I have just mentioned defines MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE what is “art” and what is not (to the extent that I might even have this backward, and should be saying that art is a symptom of communicative impedance); and 3) the major limitation that makes art function and characterizes the experience of encountering it is the absence or the concealment of the artist, or at least of the artist’s intent.  That, in a nutshell, is why I’m calling this little enterprise “New Strategies for Invisibility.”  None of this is even a little bit groundbreaking, but it seems to keep being pertinent in ways that are interesting, at least to me.

(If for some reason your curiosity has been piqued by any of the above, you might take a quick glance at the “Strategies” page, which I’ve assembled as sort of a statement of purpose with the actual statement deleted; it’s there mostly to help me navigate when I get lost.  I should also mention that this blog shares its name and its concerns with an essay of mine that’s forthcoming in the litmag MAKE; I encourage you to seek MAKE out and to support it with cash and accolades.)

And that is probably more than enough to get us started.  I hope you’ll drop by anytime you’re in the vicinity.  I recognize that you have many choices when it comes to wasting time on the internet, and I thank you for choosing New Strategies for Invisibility.