Look me in the eye

I ran into this review of the new La Sera album before I had gotten around to listening to it and it basically irked the hell out of me. The specific claim at issue is that the album is “pretty but defanged,” which first of all is kind of an annoying thing to say in general, and also it’s one of my buttons, and it’s the kind of thing where you know you’re going to be thinking about it instead of being able to just pay attention. Like, I got over it (since I know you were worried), and I also realize that the review itself is not making a particularly substantive claim and is basically just a random #content fragment, but I think this is a fairly common confusion, and it’s also something that the album in question addresses as fangfully as possible. So, personal idiosyncrasies aside, I’m gonna go ahead and hit it.

La Sera’s obvious Thing has always been Katy Goodman’s distinctive singing voice. It’s impossibly high and sweet – “sunny” is a difficult adjective to avoid – but it’s not small or distant in the way that high voices sometimes are. It’s engaging and enveloping, grounded in a subtle but solid forcefulness. She’s a good singer, is what I’m saying. And while this gives the project an immediate obvious appeal, Goodman doesn’t rest on her laurels. She’s been at it for a while now, and she’s been advancing her songwriting and pushing into new areas the entire time. Which is actually where the confusion comes in. The new album is rather bluntly titled Music for Listening to Music to, and the addition of guitarist and occasional vocalist Todd Wisenbaker as a permanent bandmember, combined with slightly heavier production that melts soft vocals into an oceanic guitar sound, makes it feel less quirky and more professional. As a particular point of contrast, the previous album, Hour of the Dawn, had more of a hard-rock edge, opening with the relentlessly driving and mercilessly cruel “Losing to the Dark.” So whereas the new one is basically a country/western album, which classifies it pretty definitively as Not Punk, it’s easy to understand this as the “smoothed out” version of La Sera, in the way that wrong things tend to be easy.

music-for-listening-to-music-to

Let’s start with the end – that is, with the fact that this album ends sad. “Too Little Too Late” isn’t just about failure, it’s specifically about doing your absolute best and facing up to the fact that it’s not enough. Think about what this means in the context of a polished and professional album that’s part of a consistently successful career. No matter how well you’re doing, there are always regrets. It’s always too little, and too late. You might, for example, be an experienced musician doing your best work, only to find that, at the height of your powers, you still can’t accomplish what you wanted to. Or you might be a fan, committed to “always find the voice you love and follow it until it fades,” and you might find yourself at the point where that actually happens, abandoning you before you were able to grasp what you were after, leaving you with nothing. This takes direct aim at not only the album itself, but also at you, at the thing you are doing by listening to this music. The approach this album is taking is not at all naive; that’s not what the title means. The sorrow in the vocals weighs the whole thing down like a curse, retroactively haunting the rest of the album.

Which is to say that, at the same time that this album is bright and enjoyable, it’s also pretty consistently sad. “I Need an Angel” is a cute title for a cute song, but it’s not actually a positive sentiment. It’s desperation. The whole point of that phrasing is that angels don’t exist. Saying “I need a miracle” specifically indicates that the thing that you can’t live without does not exist in the real world; you’ve “tried all your luck” and you’re still screwed. That’s pretty fucking hardcore. And, on balance, most of the album lives in similar territory. “One True Love” is the opposite of what both its title and its tone imply: “The woman I love, she said she’s running away, she’s leaving me today.” So if that was your one true love, y’know, that has certain implications. “Take My Heart” is equal parts devotion and despondency: “it’s the only way I know to live,” and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A sharp guitar line slices through the chorus, creating an emotional gap that deepens the sense of ambiguity. The delivery of “do you believe in me?” makes it clear that this is a real question without an easy answer – it may even be that either possible answer isn’t really going to work out.

But it’s not that simple either; these aren’t just songs that sound happy but are secretly sad. Each song does what it has to to get its point across; the issue isn’t which means of expression the album uses, it’s that its means of expression aren’t restricted. This applies both on the macro level, to the conception of this as a pop-country album in the first place, and on the micro level, where each individual song is open to sounding silly or maudlin if it needs to. This is where you fail when you’re looking for things that sound “intense” or “tough” or whatever. You’re living in the shadows. And even if it’s a shadow cast by love, even if the conditions you’re setting are ones born of justified devotion, they’re still stifling.

“Shadow of Your Love” is an extremely down song, but it’s not depressing so much as it is a genuine lament. It’s a sympathetic acknowledgment of the limitations that people inevitably place on themselves, often for the best of reasons. But that sympathy doesn’t go very far, because it’s just the fact of the matter that “nothing grows in the shadow of your love.” The negativity here points to what’s positive about the rest of the album: it stands in the daylight, and that requires a toughness that no amount of screaming or thrashing can match up to. “Are you with me now? Have you ever been?”

And all of this is happening at the same time that this album is smoothly written and just really nice to listen to. So the most basic version of the point here is that trying to categorize things as “hard” or “soft” or whatever is just a dumb way to go about it. Pop songs and hardcore songs are equally capable of childishness; basic songwriting can reveal hidden emotions as easily as complexity can obscure them; explicit inaccessibility can be a challenge or it can be defensiveness. There are a lot of different ways that things can get inside you. “Eyes can meet a thousand ways.”

See, even if you go back to Hour of the Dawn looking for something “harder,” you’re just going to get hit by the same force moving in the opposite direction. The album cover shows Goodman, face obscured, rocking out against a clear blue background while wearing a Poison Idea shirt.1 There’s nothing contradictory about any of this. It’s expressing a total situation that can’t be understood though a myopic focus on individual aesthetic effects. “Running Wild” sounds exactly like its title, but the content turns it completely around. Like the inverse version of “Shadow of Your Love,” this song is also doing both things at once: it’s sympathizing with the motivations that lead a person into this situation, and simultaneously clarifying why things can’t work that way. It’s just a fact that “running wild” is useless when you’ve “got no place to go,” in exactly the same sense that “nothing grows in the shadow of your love.”

Just as Music for Listening to Music to makes its point even as it’s being as cute as possible, Hour of the Dawn makes its point even as it’s going as hard as possible. As mentioned, the first song, “Losing to the Dark,” is both vicious as hell and totally hardcore, tearing the album open with an extreme immediacy. But conceiving of it as a “fuck you” song is too simplistic. For one thing, it’s actually positive, declaring the singer’s intent to step out of the darkness and into the light. But the context of this affirmation is that the singer has been losing this entire time, and that this has been happening because of love. Meaning it’s a love song. The fact that it’s about how love can be a evil force doesn’t change that fact; in fact, it enhances it. It’s a song about being in love, about one of the things that being in love can be like.

In short, aesthetics are non-trivial, and this is true even when you’re talking about something as dumbed-down and overcooked as the concept of the “love song.” You can think of Music for Listening to Music to as an album full of “love songs” if you want, but that doesn’t work as a criticism, because a love song can be just about anything. In fact, it doesn’t really get you anywhere. Even when something really is just a verse-chorus-and-such song, there are still a lot of different ways that can go.

“A Thousand Ways” makes this point explicit. “Love can be cruel, gone and wrecked this town”; “love can be real, it can stick around.” The serial variations on the chorus, rising in intensity, affirm that love can do all of these things. It’s not one affect; it’s a force. Sometimes it’s comforting, and sometimes it’s devastating. Love does not preclude claws. Quite the opposite. In other words, what La Sera is doing here is exactly what they’ve been doing from note one: aiming for the heart. There is nothing more vicious than that.

As though intuiting that this was all too subtle for people, Katy Goodman recently teamed up with Greta Morgan of Springtime Carnivore to produce what is essentially a master’s thesis on this very topic. Take It, It’s Yours is a covers album that redoes classic punk songs in an old-timey slow-pop style. Its approach is very consistent: low-intensity, wall-like synths create a background of noise, simple guitar parts set the basic song structure, and huge vocals shove all the way to the front. This has interestingly different effects on each song. “Bastards of Young” comes across pretty similarly to the original, but it’s refocused towards a different corner of the same emotional space; “Ever Fallen in Love” makes the opposite initial impression but ultimately draws up the same underlying feeling; “Pay to Cum” is completely unrecognizable.

This is easy to understand as a gimmick, so it’s crucial to emphasize how wrong that is. Like, sometimes this kind of thing is done as a joke; you take an “aggressive” song like “Straight Outta Compton” or whatever and you have someone with a little girl voice sing it over acoustic guitar, and it’s like, ha ha, that’s so funny, like it’s different from the regular thing. Take It, It’s Yours is the exact opposite of that. These songs are not ironic in the dumb “joking” sense of the term. They’re ironic in the correct sense of the term: they use context to convey additional, extra-literal information. The contrast is there, obviously; that’s still part of the point. But it’s part of a real point. In one sense, these songs feel reverent, like hymns to dead gods; in another, they’re explicitly blasphemous, intentionally destroying a lot of what people liked about them in the first place. But the stronger impression conveyed by their simplicity and directness is that they’re just songs. They stand on their own; their reinterpretive aspect isn’t required in order to feel what they’re getting at.

Let’s look at “Bastards of Young” a little more closely. The original has a very explicit “angry young man” affect that is closely tied to its meaning. So you might think that if you don’t have that, you don’t have the song; you might even think that that’s the entire thing that the song is, that attempting to remove it can only be an exercise in point-missing. Under this interpretation, aesthetics only operate on the surface, they don’t point to anything deeper. In which case aesthetics are meaningless; it doesn’t matter one way or the other if you “defang” something, because the fangs never sank into anything in the first place.

As a matter of fact, I saw another band cover this song earlier this year. They were a pretty straightforward rock band, and it was a pretty straightforward cover. This would seem to be uncomplicated: a perfectly “faithful” cover, one as close to the original song as possible, should consequently get as much of the original meaning as possible. But this is precisely the shallow understanding of aesthetics that we need to avoid. There wasn’t anything wrong with the performance, it sounded good and everything, but it was basically just “here’s a song you recognize.” Instead of pointing to the same thing that the original song was pointing to, or turning it around to point to something different, it merely pointed to the original song itself. Insisting on intensity can enforce shallowness; trying to be cute can create complexity. Staying as close as possible to something can drive it further away. And given that this song is about emptiness, this approach misses both coming and going. If you’re trying to express an “unwillingness to claim us” and the fact that you’ve “got no one to name us,” claiming it and naming it is kind of the opposite of what you’re after.

That is, there’s nothing wrong with doing a faithful cover, it’s just that . . . well, I’m going to have to get a little bit technical here, because I’m about to use the word “essence,” which is not something that someone in my philosophical position can just throw out there, so I need to be clear about what it is that I’m talking about.

That is, there’s nothing wrong with doing a faithful cover, it’s just that, either way, what you’re aiming at is the essence of the song.2 Essence is not real, but it’s also not magical; it’s a concept. The essence of an apple is what you infer about it from all the different ways you can physically interact with it. So the essence isn’t the “complete” or “ideal” version of the apple, because there’s no such thing. The essence is simply (or not so simply) the aggregation of all potential apple-experiences. The catch is that this isn’t a fixed thing; it doesn’t all add up to the One True Apple. Different people are going to have different reactions to different apple-aspects. If you lived on an apple farm as a child, apples might, for you, be inseparable from the concept of childhood. For someone else, who is allergic to apples and has had a near-death experience from accidentally eating one, the smell of apples might evoke the nameless terror of the true void. And the way you feel about apples might be the way I feel about oranges.

So a) things have different meanings for different people, but b) these meanings are contained within (or at least represented by) the same physical object, and c) the same meanings can be reached through multiple distinct physical means. Does this mean that there is no connection between subjectivity and objectivity? Uh, I fucking hope not, because that would pretty straightforwardly imply pure chaos on the level of meaning. The subjective aspects of the object are what matter, but they can’t be aggregated into any kind of understanding of it, both because they are potentially infinitely many and because subjectivity is not accessible to investigation in the first place. Rather, what it means to understand things is to use objectivity to get at subjectivity. It’s not really a bridge, because subjectivity is absolutely unreachable, but it’s sort of a signpost.

If you’re traveling and you’re trying to find a certain town, there are different ways you can go about it. You can look for signs to guide you there, or you can consult your map, or you can survey the geographical features of the area looking for indications of civilization, or you can ask someone. And maybe your map is out of date, or maybe the person you’re asking doesn’t remember things quite right, but all of these things will still, in some capacity, point towards the thing you’re looking for. Whereas if the terrain changes, if a rockslide blocks off a path or something, this is no longer the case. Nothing about the sign itself changes, but now it doesn’t actually point to anything. It is no longer capable of directing you to the town. Someone has to make a new sign. And a sign whose only purpose is to point to another, already-visible sign isn’t particularly helpful. The artist is the person who has at least some idea of where we need to go.

A song is also an object, albeit a complicated and loosely-defined object, so the same principles apply. The subjective aspect is far more obvious: of course people’s subjective reaction to music is the part of it that’s actually active. That still doesn’t make it magic; a songwriter produces something that can be written down and understood by others, and a performer takes specific physical actions to produce explicable phenomena. But the purpose of these things remains to get to subjectivity, so if you just copy the actions themselves without trying to get behind them, what you are engaged in is mimicry without understanding. You’re working off an old map that doesn’t account for the current terrain. You can do a faithful cover, but you can’t expect it to be a simple apples-to-apples comparison. As a counterexample, I saw another relatively straightforward rock band do a cover of the Pixies’ “Debaser.” It was also a faithful cover, and it wasn’t like a revelation or anything, but it was messy and deranged in a way that drew out the “slicing up eyeballs” aspect of the song. It pointed at something.

The Morgan/Goodman version of “Bastards of Young” is essentially a mellowed-out version of the original, but this doesn’t flatten the song’s intensity; it draws out the sorrow and earnestness that were masked3 by the original’s aggressiveness. It’s a different means of pointing to the same essence. And of course this means it’s not going to work for everybody, but what must be realized is that this was equally true of the original song. This understanding has always been there, and the Replacements themselves are actually a great example of it. They used their “young, loud, and snotty” style to great effect on songs like “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” but they also used that same style to convey naive confusion on “Sixteen Blue,” self-pitying resignation on “Swingin Party,” and anguished desperation on “Answering Machine.” Eyes can meet a thousand ways. Raw power has a healing hand, and it can also destroy a man.

For any song that is meaningful to you, there is someone out there who heard it and actively hated it, and someone else who heard it and had no idea how anyone could possibly care about it one way or the other. So if you really think that there’s something there in a song you like, you should want it fucked up in as many different ways as possible. Assuming this is being done competently, it will broaden the general understanding of the thing that you care about. And if there’s a band you think has something to say, you should be happy to hear them trying different things, including or even especially things that are foreign to you. Not just for the sake of others, but also because you don’t have it all figured out either, and an honest challenge from someone you trust is invaluable guidance towards doing better.

In a sense, what’s happening on Take It, It’s Yours is that these songs have all been redone as “love songs,” but because the results are so strong while being, at first glance, so divergent from the originals, what this ends up doing is problematizing the typical “love song” concept. Because these covers don’t actually change anything in this sense; they reveal that these songs were all love songs in the first place. This version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the song that Danny Fields called the one true punk song, actually feels like it’s the original; it makes the Stooges version sound like the ironic reversal. Because of course it does, because the song was always a slow, tragic love song. And it’s not like it’s an anomaly or anything; songs like “Touch Me I’m Sick” or “The KKK Took My Baby Away” are also love songs. These aren’t a bunch of different songs being redone as the same thing, they’re a bunch of different songs being redone as themselves. Love can do all of these things.

Again, aesthetics are not shallow. A “love song” isn’t one thing, and neither is a “punk song.” Any affect can achieve lots of different effects. Aesthetics are also not neutral. You can’t just redo anything in any arbitrary style and have it mean the same thing. If the only purpose of aesthetics is to put a wrapper around stuff you could just say directly, then aesthetics don’t actually do anything. This is not a contradiction. Words aren’t neutral, but you can theoretically use words to express anything you want. In fact, the reason you can do this is because words are not neutral. Contextual connections are what give words their power. In the same sense, what makes any particular aesthetic mean something is the situation in which it exists. Punk meant one thing at one time, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that thing anymore. Actually, that isn’t even it; punk never did mean “one” thing; like love, it was always a force. The obvious paradox of punk has always been that, if punk is about rejecting traditions and standards and doing your own thing, then as soon as punk comes into being and sets a standard, you’re obligated to reject it. But this is only a paradox if you’re an absolutist. All it really means is that the true meaning of punk is that there is no true meaning of punk. It’s yours.

So I guess I should stop beating around the bush and get to the fact that there’s an obvious political angle here. Saying that something is “pretty but defanged” is basically equivalent to saying that it’s “too girly.” Y’know, speaking of the fact that aesthetics aren’t neutral, the idea that “hardness” is better than “softness” is some pretty basic patriarchal ideology. Everybody gets this backwards: feminism is not an ideological imposition that ignores the obvious truths of reality. It is merely the insistence that ideology be visible, that ideals be justified and not simply assumed as the “natural order” of things.

(While I’m certain that you’re not so unsophisticated as to claim that I’m “overthinking” this, I’ll go ahead anyway and clarify the fact that I’m not. I’m just telling you what I learned from these albums. The fact that music is so unsusceptible to analysis is part of what makes the attempt so useful. It happens to you without your permission, so then you have to go back and figure out what the hell just happened. I’ll spare you the diary entries, but “Running Wild” and “Shadow of Your Love” are both direct criticisms of me. When I first listened to “Running Wild” I noticed that the lyrics were kind of weirdly perpendicular to the tone, and then I started to sort of understand what they were saying, and then I got the hell scared out of me when I realized the song was about my exact situation and behavior. This is the type of thing that becomes possible once you stop trying to line things up properly in boxes and start listening; it is the sense in which apolitical statements are the most political of all.)

So the fact that the songs on Take It, It’s Yours are essentially “girlified” versions of songs that are known for being “manly” makes a non-trivial statement about both the songs themselves and the context in which they are being understood. As maleness is taken as default and femininity as fetish, the masculine versions of things are always considered “normal.” Per the title, Take It, It’s Yours insists on its own normality, and it also insists that you insist on your own normality. The slow, dreamy version of “Pay to Cum” is exactly as justified as the psychotic rush version, and so are the thousands of other versions that people have not yet imagined, because they’re strapped in to the notion that only certain types of people are allowed access to certain affects. We live in a big, complicated world, where many apparently contradictory things are true at once. Multiple simultaneous approaches are required to deal with any issue of substance. Until we start understanding this, we will never be able to understand anything.

And this is why creating “music for listening to music to” is not a simplistic retreat from significance, but rather the basic precondition for significance to exist in the first place. It seems insightful to say that something that’s just “fun” or “pleasant” to listen to is empty, that it doesn’t do anything, that it’s ear candy. This sounds incisive, but it’s actually nihilistic. It denies lived reality in favor of unattainable ideals; it puts meaning eternally out of reach. The fact that music sounds good to listen to is a real thing, and that’s only a problem if you conceive of real things as fake versions of ideal things. This is backwards. The point of ideals is to help us get to reality. The ideal doesn’t supersede the thing itself, it outlines it from behind. Clinging to ideals means hiding in the shadows of reality. If you have to choose, you choose earth, because the experience of living is the only thing that we actually have. Music is for listening to.

So, I mean, the obvious contradiction here is that I’m explaining why you should be able to listen to a record without explanation. Indeed, the album is fairly impressionistic; it resists analysis, in this sense. You’re not supposed to respond to it by . . . doing the only thing that I know how to do. In fact, it’s worse than that, because I’ve kind of been screwing around this whole time. The first song off of Music for Listening to Music to, “High Notes,” addresses the situation as directly and completely as can be done in two minutes and five seconds. If you’re actually listening, there’s little else that needs to be said. So, in the spirit of things, I’m going to go against my instincts and let this one take care of itself. This is yours:

A little girl pulled me aside and said I wouldn’t make it through the night
Well thank you darling, this I know
I threw a look over my shoulder towards the guys who look dissatisfied
I’m sorry, is this song too slow?

Well I can’t sing it for you just the way you want me to
I might be tall but I’m not half the man you thought you knew
Who knew?

I’ll hit the high notes, wink as you walk by
I’ll sing a sad song, smile as you cry
Taking the high road, look me in the eye
Time waits for no man, old man, I’m saying goodbye


  1. If you’re unfamiliar, Poison Idea is a hardcore band that’s more on the “crazy asshole” end of the spectrum. They have a record called Record Collectors Are Pretentious Assholes, which is basically the same sentiment as Music for Listening to Music to
  2. This still applies if you’re fundamentally reinterpreting the song; you’re just reversing the essence, or coming at it sideways or whatever. If what you’re doing has no relationship to the original essence, then there’s no sense in which it’s a cover. Like, that’s actually why it’s called a “cover,” right? It’s a different surface over the same thing. 
  3. Just FYI, masking something is different from concealing it. 

2 responses to “Look me in the eye

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