Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Green Broccoli




Her green plastic watering can.” That’s how Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” begins. Those five words do so much work. They evoke a specific object in all its concreteness, alluring in its materiality, illustrating perfectly what Barthes calls “the reality effect” of things in art. It is an object that we have all seen or can at least imagine in solid terms, so the song draws us in through the act of recognition: You know this thing; this thing is real; this song is about reality.

The reality of everyday domestic things, the quotidian. We can picture the domestic scenes in which this green plastic watering can comes to life. Little gardens, hanging plants, flowers in the window. The can faithfully doing its duty, carried in the hands of a woman or a man as they tend to their plants. A picturesque scene of domestic ideals to be aspired to, a bourgeois pastoral. This would be a continuation of the beatification of domestic life and its myriad components that Moretti locates already fully formed in the work of Vermeer in the Dutch 17th century. These little household articles that make our lives bright and which are an expression of our own taste and sensibility. By the nineteenth century across the heartlands of modernity household objects are considered manifestations of our own good taste and as such they contain a meaning which is perhaps more important than their use. You can sit anywhere, eat anywhere, and on anything, but the fact that you do it on this specific stuff says something about you.

But it’s the word “plastic” that makes all the difference. It changes the meaning of everything. Instead of the possibility of being made by hand, like a metal can might be made and painted by the hand of an artisan, a plastic watering can is mass-produced. If it has any aesthetic value, then that value is purely kitsch. It is a second-order thing: it has the shape and does the job of a watering can but in reality it is just manufactured plastic. If things reflect who we are, then what does it mean if a home is made up of mass-produced things? What if our lives are populated with plastic and not real objects? This suggests that there is something unreal and inauthentic about our lives. Our lives are perhaps not as unique or as genuine as we might wish; they might perhaps be as mass-produced as the things that we put in our homes.

This is the point that Radiohead wants to make and which the first line of “Fake Green Trees” establishes: Bourgeois life is inauthentic and the things which we have been conditioned to desire in order to define who we are only make us more like everyone else and provide no real outlet for self-expression nor do they contain within them what is necessary for happiness. This is a common criticism of bourgeois domesticity. And it is usually made by those who come from bourgeois backgrounds.

This criticism, however, does not negate the desire for things nor does it discredit the ability to see yourself reflected in the things you want. There is this verse in Big Baby D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli” that always makes me smile and that demonstrates my point. He raps: “I acquired taste for salmon on a bagel/ With the capers, on a square plate.” (Let us thank the Hebrew tribes for bringing salmon on a bagel with the capers to us all!) I love the specificity of the verse and the common thing to which it refers, so unlike the usual objects of rap music. If you come from a non-bourgeois world, this simple, quotidian, bourgeois thing—a round bagel on a square plate—is appealing and worth getting used to. They may not mean anything or say anything about you but the appeal of objects is indeed powerful when you haven't had the things that other people take for granted.

Friday, December 2, 2016

We've Been Here All Day



What must it have been like to hear Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” on the radio for the first time in 1955? His white audience must have thought they were hearing music from another dimension. They likely would not have been familiar with what was then called “the chitlin circuit,” the clubs throughout the south where black performers like Little Richard honed their style. They would not have known the sweaty air of clubs in which the original lyrics of that song—Tutty frutti/ good booty—were right at home. But more importantly, they would not have understood or cared about the realities of being black in America: the threat of racial terror, the indignities of segregation, the poverty and marginalization, the redlining, the disenfranchisement, the lack of opportunity and movement, the formal repression of the state and informal policing of everyday white folks. The stifling limits of being black in a country that defined itself in terms of white supremacy would have been as invisible and incomprehensible for most white people then as they seem to be to a lot of white people today. They would not have understood, then, that the libidinal exultation of the body in a song like “Tutti Frutti” is related to the restrictions placed on black bodies by the dominant society. “Tutti Frutti” in its nonsensical lyrics, its gentle references to sex, and, most importantly, in its driving rhythm demands the free movement of the body. And if black music in America has often been oriented toward rhythms and beats, it is not just because of that music’s African inheritance but also because black music has always celebrated the movement of the black body in the face of the violent restrictions placed on it. Public Enemy expressed this perfectly: “the rhythm, the rebel.”

Yet, white people loved that song. Why did white people love rock and roll from the moment Little Richard invented it? They loved it because through an instant transmutation, white people took the call for the freedom of the black body and understood it as a demand to free the individual body from the controls placed on it by modern bourgeois society. In particular, they read rock and roll as a fundamental challenge to the self-disciplining that modern society requires of all individuals. Modern society as Weber, Marx, Foucault, and many others have shown requires less coercion—except if you belong to groups, like black people, that need to be constantly coerced—because it expects its subjects to be self-disciplining. The feudal lord forces you come work in his fields and you know you don’t have a choice; modern bourgeois society, conversely, requires everyone to work and frames this necessity as a freedom: You want to do wage labor and become a consumer. Modern society runs more smoothly when no one makes you show up to work on time or send your children to school or contribute to the state. It works best when we make ourselves do what we’re supposed to do. And that constant self-disciplining that modern society requires from us is exactly what rock and roll can be seen to challenge. The exultation of the freedom of the black body that gave birth to rock and roll is reinterpreted to mean the freedom of any body. Finally, rock and roll came fully alive for its white audience when performers like Elvis Presley purged it from the associations with racial repression that black performers through their blackness inevitably brought to the stage.

Rock and roll was perhaps not the first time the deracialization of black music served this purpose. The dialectics of American music have been defined by the rearticulation of the black meaning of freedom by white musicians. And listening to Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande mimic the phrases and intonations of black music on the radio today suggests to me that this won’t soon end.
 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Amores Ilegales




Daddy Yankee and Play-N-Skillz “Not a Crime (No es ilegal)” begins with a phrase that is both mundane and radical. Daddy Yankee sings: “Todo el mundo se puede enamorar/ Esto que sentimos no es ilegal.” That everyone can fall in love is not a very controversial or original idea. But by using the term “ilegal,” the song evokes issues that are driving not only the upcoming presidential election but also major social and political dilemmas that can be seen on the horizon. The movement of people throughout the world in search of a better life has made them “illegals” and by framing love as global phenomenon and claiming that love is not illegal, Daddy Yankee seems to suggest, indirectly and displaced onto safer rhetorical ground, that no one is illegal: “Todo el mundo . . . no es ilegal.” (That being said, someone whose thinking I respect wondered whether the song might be advocating for the legitimacy of same sex desire. I don’t really see it that way, but this was also the same person who pointed out that when Demi Lovato sang “I got a taste for the cherry/I just need to take a bite” in “Cool for the Summer” she was making reference to Lesbian sex, an idea that had NEVER occurred to me, so.)

Associating love and the law has been a common theme in contemporary Latin American pop music. Maná’s “Amor clandestino” figures love in terms of a fugitive. This fugitive love hides, travels in unexpected ways, and is inevitable. If in “Not a Crime” love cannot be illegal, in “Amor Clandestino” love does not need to be sanctioned in order to be. Love is furtive and patient and not bound by conventions. Ricardo Arjona’s “Duele verte” makes a very similar point, though the poetry of the feeling is a little undercut in that song because it’s about fucking a married lady on the sly. My favorite song on this theme is Julieta Venegas’ cover of Los Rodríguez’ “Sin documentos.” The first verse of this song always makes my heart jump: “Let me cross the air without any documents/ I will do it for the time we had/ Because there is no way out/ Because you seem asleep/ Because I would spend all of my life looking for your smile.” Here love must transgress borders in order to fulfill itself. Love depends on performing an illegal act because only by breaking laws can it meet its object. The original of this song is incredible, perfect almost, but I prefer Venegas’ cover because she sounds so resigned to doing what she has to do. In the original the breaking of the law for love sounds like an act of defiance, while in her cover it has to be done simply because there is no other choice.

The historical substratum for these songs is pretty clear. Latin Americans have for generations followed their dreams with or without official sanction. They have crossed borders in the light of day and in the night, with permission and without. Fences and walls have not stopped them and probably never will. I love how these songs take this sociological phenomenon and render it in artistic terms, not as a political issue as such, but as a question of love. These songs are fascinating because they illustrate how art works: art emerges from and responds to social and historical forces without being reducible to them. Love is never illegal and people are never illegal, but love and the law, these songs tell us, are not the same thing.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Set Me Free




I walked into the bar and she was playing pool with some guy I didn’t know and who said nothing for the ten minutes we talked. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of months. We stepped to the side while he played around us, a regular clicking of the balls. She was probably already sleeping with him. But it didn’t matter much because I was already sleeping with someone else. No need to talk about those things. Best to let people believe what they want to believe. She said we should get together. I suggested she come to my place. Her friend called her over. They huddled. I pretended to study the felt of the table. She came back and said she was going to go drop him off then swing by my place. I raced home to change the sheets. It lasted for a few months after that and she went back to her friend and I went back to mine.
                                                                                                            
A year later, I was getting ready to move out of the state. My new lover, who hated my coming and going out of bed with her, helped me pack. On a break, we went to the store and on our way back a familiar car drove past. She circled around one more time. I didn’t tell my new lover about it. No need to talk about those things. Best to let people believe what they want to believe. Besides, I was leaving the new lover behind, along with the rest of the things I didn’t want to take with me. A couple of days later I was 500 miles away eating dinner when she called. She told me she had seen me walking with this other woman and that her heart had kicked in her chest. She held out as long as she could but had to talk to me. We talked on the phone for a few days in a row and a few days after that we split the difference in miles and met half way between our two cities. It lasted for a few months. I don’t know whom she went back to, but I went back to living alone.

Another year or so went by. I hadn’t heard from her in ages. Then out of the blue she sent me an incomprehensible text. I read it and set it aside. That weekend the new woman I was seeing broke it off with me. I returned to the text. I answered it out of spite for the new woman. She answered it. We stared up once again. We didn’t talk much about whom we had been with since the last time we were together. No need to talk about those things. Best to let people believe what they want to believe. We had loved each other badly. And that love and desire and craziness had lasted for a long time, even as we moved between different beds and different lovers. But this time, after a couple of months, it was almost all over. We broke up one last time, with little drama and only a little heartache.

I love Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”, but the part I don’t understand is when she sings: “I’m giving you up/ I’ve forgiven it all/ You set me free.” I don’t understand the agency of it, the willfulness. I didn’t give her up and she didn’t set me free. One day it was over and that was that.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Let Us Lament All the Lost Boys




Ruth B’s “Lost Boy” doesn’t seem like it belongs on commercial radio. It sounds like a show tune. Also, it is based on a children’s fantasy, whereas most pop songs today are juvenile sexual fantasies. To some people the minimalist approach—voice and piano—would make it more like “real music,” which is another way of saying it lacks the ornamentation of mainstream pop. But I like flashy distractions, so that argument is dumb to me. Honestly, I don’t know if I like it or not. I do appreciate, however, the way it foregrounds the fantasy that it embraces. For all its resonance, its evoking of isolation, loneliness, and the desire to belong to a world in which those feelings are sublimated into everlasting play, the song nonetheless recognizes that such transcendence is a fantasy. “Run, run, lost boy/ They say to me/ Away from all of/ Reality,” she sings. To long for a world in which we overcome the “no place we call home” of modern alienation, the burden that we romanticize by the name of individualism, is indeed to run away from reality. We may indulge in fantasies in which we don’t have to deal with all of the things that come with being grown-ass adults, but to do so, the song maintains, is to avoid the real. The wistfulness of the songs, its pretty sadness, is effective because its longing can never be fulfilled. There is no Neverland for any of us to find again and our childhoods are forever gone.

And that is a good thing to admit. For too long American popular culture has embraced the idea of an “endless summer,” in which men remain “lost boys” and women are girls that don’t make too many demands. Taking stock in the 1960s of American literature up to that period, Leslie A. Fiedler observed that while many canonical American novels could probe with incredible profundity themes like loneliness and terror, and they could embrace history and transform it into symbols capable of expressing deep yet esoteric truths about the human condition, what many of them could not do was understand the inner workings of love, sex, and desire between two human beings. And those books, some of the most read and most popular American novels, certainly could not understand a woman’s perspective.  All that Natty Bumppo, Ishmael, Huck Finn, or Jack Kerouac, for fuck’s sake, could do was run away from women. Women represented sex, marriage, and responsibility. In other words, they meant leaving Neverland and entering into reality, or as the writers often put it, entering into “civilization.”

That feeling, seemingly engrafted into American culture, is never far away, though. The singer of Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out” sings about missing his childhood and describes entering into adulthood as a fall: “We used to play pretend/ Give each other different names/ We would build a rocket ship/ And the we’d fly it far away/ We used to dream of outer space/ Bu now their laughing at our face/ Saying: ‘Wake up, you need to make money.’” Adulthood is presented here as the violation of the possibilities of childhood. The intangible and immaterial things have to be sacrificed for the crass materialism of a grown up life. Yes, you have to make money when you are an adult. But that’s not all there is. Having a drink in the dark with the television playing quietly as my kids sleep in their room is a pleasure I never could have imagined as a child. Making dinner, picking children up from school, riding a bike to work, drinking a cup of coffee, reading books, driving far away to see someone, these are all pleasures of adulthood.

But the singer is this song rejects adulthood and wants to return to the warm embrace of his mother: “Wish we could turn back time/ To the good old days/ When our momma sang us to sleep.” Fiedler used a startling phrase to describe how women were often depicted in American fiction: they were either “monsters of virtue or bitchery.” Lost boys, always on the run, cannot settle down with the reality of women who make demands. If they can’t do that, then they’ll settle for a mother who will give and ask for nothing in return. Get lost, boys, get lost.