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Category Archives: Music
Nature isn’t magic, it’s just a mystery to us
I went to see case/lang/veirs last week, basically just out of loyalty to one particular part of that equation (go on, guess). It was a solid show, especially for being the second time they’d ever performed. The differences in their vocal styles filled out the songs really well without feeling superfluous. Also someone threw a bra onto the stage. They surprised me by doing “Man,” which is a little harder than I thought they were going. The band really nailed it, though, and that song has some extra significance coming from a collaboration of women.
They also covered “People Have the Power,” which definitely has some extra significance re: recent events. It’s not like the best Patti Smith song or anything, but it has its merits. The more I thought about it, though, the more I felt like this whole understanding of progress being a matter of “the people” standing up for themselves is getting to be rather behind the times. What we’ve been seeing recently is actually the opposite: successful populist movements are the ones fucking everything up. The people really do have the power, and that’s the problem. Sure enough, I was awakened the next morning by a text message from my sister, informing me that a populist movement in Britain had voted in favor of racist nationalism.
The standard evasion here is that things like this happen when “uninformed” people are “mislead” by “demagogues,” which isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s pretty facile to pretend like this is a real explanation. It’s actually the bad kind of conspiracy theory: an explanation so totalizing that it doesn’t explain anything. All bad decisions are made by evil shadowy elites; all good decisions are made by virtuous ordinary people. This puts you in the anti-analytical and very convenient position where the things you support are the things the people really want, while people who vote for things you don’t want are “voting against their own interests.” The irony, of course, is that this ends up becoming a populist argument for elitism: the people can’t be trusted to make good decisions on their own, so they need the right kind of people as their leaders.
(Sanders fans have been fucking up pretty badly on this front by refusing to accept the fact that their candidate lost in a fair fight. I really don’t think anyone was “mislead” into thinking that Clinton was more liberal than Sanders was.)
The Brexit decision is a pretty clear demonstration of the problem. It’s an instance of the people throwing off shackles that were placed on them by the elites for the purpose of global economic management, but the actual motivation for it was a confused mix of biases and half-baked theories, and the only reason it was even at issue in the first place was because of politicking, resulting in an unnecessary decision that almost everyone agrees will ultimately be harmful if not catastrophic. I mean, it’s kind of obvious that people don’t generally know what they’re doing, but this isn’t a fucking Dilbert comic, it’s a real political problem. Almost everyone takes it as an article of faith that “the people” are the only valid source of moral justification, and I think we have to confront the fact that this probably isn’t true.
Pro-Brexit voters had a number of different motivations. The most obvious was racism via anti-immigrant sentiment, but there were also leftists who supported it as a blow against neoliberalism, and there were even people who didn’t actually understand that they were voting for a real-world action to take place. So the question is: why does this slight majority composed of conflicting and nonsensical motivations have any moral significance? What is the actual justification for the claim that society should do whatever 50.1% of the population thinks it should? There’s nothing magic about a majority. In America, amending the constitution requires 2/3rds support, because it’s “more serious” or whatever, but there’s nothing magical about that number either; it’s exactly as arbitrary as 50.1%. And everyone actually knows this: the filibuster is an American tradition that is respected because it is blatantly anti-democratic; it prevents an issue from being decided by a straight up-or-down vote. That is, it’s respected when it’s our side doing it. We’re fine with claiming moral authority when 50.1% of the population is on our side, and we’re just as comfortable claiming it when we’re the virtuous underdogs battling an ignorant majority.
Gay marriage was opposed by a majority of people until it wasn’t; the answer to the moral question didn’t change over that period of time. When the great state of California voted to ban gay marriage, it was widely regarded as a perversion of the democratic process. At the same time, polls showing majority support for gay marriage were leveraged as an argument in its favor. So, like, which is it? Do the people rule or not? Scalia’s buffoonish Obergefell dissent raised the objection that nine people who had followed one particular path of elite development were deciding the issue for the entire country. Obviously, this was hypocritical as fuck: Scalia wouldn’t have been whining about the tyrannical power of the court if it were on his side. But that’s just it: the only reason we got gay marriage is that the court happened to have the right composition at the right time. In fact, what happened was considerably worse than that. The actual direct cause of the Obergefell decision was that one fickle mushhead wanted to go down in history as having written a big important civil rights decision, and this is actually what everyone had expected all along. After learning about Brown v. Board in history class, we all assume that the Supreme Court will take care of civil rights issues for us, overruling the annoying prejudices of the unenlightened populace. But Scalia was inadvertently much more correct than he knew: court decisions are ultimately as arbitrary as anything else, and no one really cares. When the elites are on our side, they’re representing the will of the people; when they aren’t, they’re Machiavellian schemers.
(Extra credit pro tip: Brown is a terrible example of justice-via-judiciary, because it didn’t work. Schools are still segregated.)
The “people vs. elites” framework omits at least one important part of the scenario, which is expertise. Lumping rulers and experts together as “elites” is a significant analytical failure; there’s huge difference between people who happen to hold power and people who actually know what they’re doing. Unlike rulers, experts actually matter and are necessary. It’s not possible for anyone to know enough to make an informed decision on every issue. And something like Brexit is complicated enough that its consequences are not really understandable by ordinary people, so even in a “real” democracy, there’s no reason to expect that people would be able to figure it out. Of course, the real killer example here is global warming. The expert consensus is quite clear, and it is largely being ignored by the ruling class because it has inconvenient implications (i.e. capitalism sucks). But pawning this off as a problem of the “elites” is too easy, because the rest of us aren’t actually doing our job either. Even now, with the projections widely known and the effects beginning to be felt, people aren’t going to give up their cars and their lawns and their two-day shipping. We know for a fact that a majority of people just doing what seems right can literally destroy humanity. I shudder to imagine the results of a world referendum on global warming.
But simply putting the experts in charge, a theoretical arrangement which is commonly referred to as “meritocracy” or “technocracy,” is less of a solution than it is an evasion of the problem. Experts can, ideally, be trusted on knowledge, but not on values. In fact, the very process of attaining expertise accrues bias. This is most obvious in the case of economists. Expert economists are experts in the operation of the current economic system, capitalism, and are therefore necessarily only going to be interested in working within that system, making their abilities useless to anyone opposed to it for moral reasons. They can warn you about all the terrible economic consequences, but a vote against Brexit is still a vote in favor of neoliberalism, even if it is better than the alternative.
So the idea is supposed to be that these problems are balanced out by a separation of roles. The people express their values, which are then administered by the rulers, with the experts informing them as to the best way to get it done. But all three of these roles are based on fallacies. The part that everyone knows is that rulers are not disinterested administrators, they’re rulers; their goal is to increase their own power; their relationship to the people is purely rhetorical. The technocrats’ blind spot is that fact that expert knowledge is not neutral; all knowledge is contingent on ideology. Expert recommendations are not simply pearls of wisdom to be taken or left; they are formed with embedded assumptions and motivations. And finally, the real problem: “the people” aren’t any better at morality than any other idealized grouping. Racism is currently undergoing a renaissance as a populist phenomenon that the elites are actually trying to resist. Of course, the elites aren’t actually on the right side here; they’re still trying to maintain white supremacy. But their current goal is to promote inclusiveness as a bulwark against systemic change, and that’s a damn sight better than mass deportations and refugee crises.
Back at the show, they also did “Margaret vs. Pauline,” which k.d. lang introduced as the song that made her fall in love with Neko Case. Which is understandable; it’s a probing and deeply sympathetic piece of work. It’s a song about privilege: about the invisible lines that divide the lives of otherwise similar people. Two girls ride the Blue Line and walk down the same street, but one of them leaves her sweater on the bus while the other loses three fingers at the cannery. But it’s important to avoid the trap of romanticizing oppression; losing those fingers does not impart any particular political wisdom. Those invisible lines are as arbitrary as they are vicious; the horror is not simply that some people are fated to live under the gun, but that their suffering is meaningless. The real conclusion, then, is that nobody has a privileged epistemic position on anything; each person is merely an idiosyncratic mess of random experiences and pointless prejudices; there is no such thing as “the people.” Obviously, the phrase is primarily a rhetorical device, but if this is true in a substantive sense, then popular consensus is a phantom, and the concept of democracy loses its meaning. Putting things to a popular vote does not result in a consensus opinion, it results in an arbitrary decision chaotically determined by a writhing mass of misinformation and prejudices. It’s literally worse than nothing.
I may be a conceited motherfucker, but I’m not quite arrogant enough to pretend like I have a real answer here. But there’s a line from “People Have the Power” that struck me: the idea that remaking society involves “redeeming the work of fools.” This conception of the ruling class as “fools” cuts against the usual narrative, whereby rulers are hypercompetent master-planners whose problem is that they’re “corrupt.” In fact, rulers are mostly just a particular type of nerd, ambitious but otherwise boring, and for the most part they really do think they’re making the world a better place. The catch is that being embedded in systems of power has a severe distorting effect; what looks good from the inside tends to look pretty fucked up from anywhere else. Their foolishness lies in their inability to understand their own perspectives as limited. Meanwhile, the myth of “the people” is that true goodness lies in the decency of reg’lar folk with no particular hopes or dreams. In fact, the opposite is true: ignorance and myopia are not conducive towards morality; the people we respect from history are the ones who went against the common sentiments of their times.
I really hate to say this, but rich fucks are people, too. They aren’t actually a different species; they are vicious lizards, but so are the rest of us. The structures of oppression were not created by anything outside of humanity; we did it all by ourselves. They’re in our blood. Specifically, oppression is naturally occurring, it’s how people organize themselves by default. Most people will vote in favor of a society that doesn’t work for most people. Fixing this is not as easy as getting rid of the bad influences and going back to the good old days when everything was fine. There were never any good old days; justice is an undiscovered country. A just society will be something new, something that we have to invent, and then build, using the tools we have available right now.
Which brings us to the corresponding ideal of “redemption.” Despite its many, many crimes, our society has created a lot of things which are important to people. Things like amphitheaters where people can see music they care about and transportation systems that can take them there. It’s no good to aim for some kind of ideal revolution while ignoring what makes the world worthwhile in the first place. This is addressed in a couple of the new case/lang/veirs songs. “Down” points out that there’s beauty even in something as banal as driving down the highway. Indeed, there has to be: if the basic experience of day-to-day existence isn’t worth it, then nothing is worth anything; ideals can only exist as instantiated in mundane reality. But this does not license us to ignore the larger issues. “I Want To Be Here” addresses the bifurcation between the things we care about and the practical operation of society, asserting that the grind cannot quell the flame: “surely they can’t ruin everything.” This is true in general, but not in specifics: economics really does kill people; every day is the end of the world for someone. “Being here” may be what we’re truly aiming for, but if just being here were enough, we wouldn’t have to fight.
So the things we care about have to be preserved, but more than that, they have to be redeemed. A concert stage can also be used to distract people, to placate with cheap escapism, or to sell shit, and we really shouldn’t be allowing any of that to happen. But it’s not as easy as just doing the right thing, because we’re in a situation where things have already been organized incorrectly. The right motivations acting within the wrong structure can be just as harmful as explicit evil. We have to maintain the content of society while changing the structure to point in the direction of right things rather than wrong things.
Again, you tell me how this is actually going to work. There shouldn’t be anything impossible about synthesizing expertise and populism while eliminating the ruling class, but relying on “the people” isn’t going to get us there.
Get the cuts you need
This ranking of Tegan and Sara albums is a remarkably comprehensive argument against the idea that ranking things has any value whatsoever.
The first and most obvious issue is that The Con isn’t at the top, seeing as it’s clearly magical. When Robert Mapplethorpe was taking pictures of Patti Smith for the cover of Horses, he looked at one of the shots and said to her, “this one has the magic.” There’s nothing really remarkable about the image, it’s just a lady wearing a suit and looking at the camera, but it is, in fact, magic. Anyone who’s seen it has it permanently burned into their mind; it has a transcendent itself-ness that gives it an insistent significance; it communicates in a primal language that creates its own understanding; it’s the kind of thing that you feel in your heart before you even know what it is. The Con is the one that has the magic.
This seems like a slam-dunk argument that it’s “the best,” but it doesn’t actually hold up on reflection. The characteristic of magic is precisely that it does not obey the normal laws, so it’s incoherent to say that something is the objective best because it’s magical. On the contrary, the whole point of rankings, it would seem, is to get around vague notions of “specialness” and down to brass tacks.
So, I mean, fine. If you’re trying to rank things, you need to ignore magic and just focus on the things you can measure. This is already pretty suspicious, since we’re ignoring what seems to be the most important thing, but we can at least see if it works. The specific claim made by the listperson is that So Jealous is cohesive while The Con is all over the place. This is certainly true, and it’s also obviously intentional; you don’t follow “Hop A Plane” with “Soil, Soil” because you’re trying to provide a smooth listening experience. But there’s a critical missing step here, which is the argument that a consistent album is better than one with extreme emotional ups and downs. To me, this is clearly backwards: the album that pulls off greater emotional range and more diverse songwriting is the better one.
But the issue isn’t whether I’m right or the listperson is right; the issue is that neither of us is. That missing step is actually just nonexistent: there is no argument you can make as to why one mode of expression is “better” than another. This is professionally known as the is/ought gap: even an exhaustive description of reality does not imply any standard or metric for evaluating that reality. You can spend all day making correct, incisive observations, but everyone still has to decide on the actual value of the underlying content for themselves. So there’s all sorts of analysis to be done as to what an album does and what it’s about, but even after you’ve done that, tacking a number onto it is still completely arbitrary.
So the first two problems with rankings are that they can’t capture transcendence, and that they don’t add anything to the analysis they’re based on. You can just talk about music without sticking numbers next to it. But surely the problem is that we’re splitting hairs between great and greater albums, right? There are certainly some albums that can be said to be better than others, so ratings do have a proper and properly limited utility. For example, Under Feet Like Ours is clearly the worst Tegan and Sara album. They’re pretty much the exact opposite of the band that comes right out of the gate with a fully-formed sound and then struggles to move forward with it: their first record is jittery and awkward, all ideas and no form, and every album after it takes a huge leap in a new direction. The comparison is made extra simple by the fact that This Business Of Art contains many of the same songs reworked to be more fleshy and coherent, making it easy to see it as a strictly superior album.
But what does it actually mean to call something the “worst” album? Does it mean that you shouldn’t listen to it? I mean, maybe; it depends on how worst it is and whether Tegan and Sara are the sort of band who are good even when they’re bad (or when they want to be bad). So even if we take this ranking to be straightforwardly correct, it still gives us no relevant information. After all, we’re talking about the album that has “This Is Everything” on it, which is definitely something I would recommend experiencing (not to mention that that song is itself about transcendent value overcoming practical failure). This is the paradox of aesthetics: being worse doesn’t actually make something worse, so rankings are wrong even when they’re right.
At this point I should probably clarify that I am aware of what the actual purpose of ranking things on the internet is. Rankings are supposed to be bad and wrong, because they’re outrage bait (arbitrary lists of nonsensical rankings are a running joke on Gawker, the internet’s premier source of self-incriminating mockery). What I’m meant to be doing here is ranting about how putting Sainthood in the bottom half of basically any list about anything is blatantly pathological behavior. But the fact that rankings are guaranteed to generate strident disagreement is just more evidence that there’s no substance behind them. If, for example, I were inclined to make a (much) better version of this list, how would I handle Sainthood? The album is fucked up six ways from Monday, from the awkwardly staggered lyrics on “Paperback Head” to the way “Sentimental Tune” crescendos itself off a cliff. “Arrow” bristles with big, gaudy effects, “On Directing” piles up multiple layers of self-reference, “Red Belt” is placid to the point of pain. Are these good things or bad things? Should I just give in to idiosyncrasy and order the albums however I feel like, or should I try to restrain my own impulses as much as possible and put them in the most defensible order? Which of these approaches is less dishonest? The fact that there’s no answer to any of this reveals the fundamental problem: there is zero connection between the score someone gives an album and the actual experience they had listening to it, i.e. the thing that actually matters. The usual distinction is between subjective feeling and objective facts, but actually, neither of these things has any correspondence with rankings.
The reason this is important, the reason we shouldn’t just let these things be stupid and find something better to do (although we should also do that), is that there’s a reason they work, a real insight that underlies their cynical conception: people like rankings. It’s not just internet lists, the basic concept of giving something a numerical score necessarily implies a ranking order. So if it’s so obvious that no one cares which number some hack sticks next to something on a list, why are lists and scores and rankings all over the place?
If you’re reviewing like dishwashers or whatever, some of them actually are going to work better than others, and numerical ratings are a sensible way to represent that. The key, though, is the word “work,” which implies a defined function: the better appliance is the one that accomplishes its intended task more effectively. Some aspects of this will be subjective or situational, but by doing multiple carefully controlled tests and aggregating the results, we can arrive at an assessment that will be broadly applicable in most circumstances, one that is “objective” in the colloquial sense of the term. This process is what we generally refer to as “science.”
And you can’t apply this to art, because art isn’t functional. It is susceptible to analysis; you can focus like a microscope and make all sorts of substantive observations, but none of that is useful until you cross the is/ought gap and start valuing things. And once you’ve done that, you have left the realm of objectivity, turning any kind of rank or score you want to assign into a category error. Subjective experience isn’t just hard to get at, it’s absolutely inaccessible.
Why, then, would anyone get upset about a rating being “wrong,” given that it has nothing to do with how anyone feels about the work in question? The specific feeling at issue is invalidation. When someone gives a low “objective” score to something you care about, you feel like your experience is invalid. And the opposite feeling is the reason people like ratings in the first place: a high “objective” score means that you’re right to like something, that the way you feel is true. But such a source of validation can only be described as cowardice. Certainly, the person who embraces things only after they have been deemed permissible by the appropriate cultural gatekeepers is a coward. But the same is true of any external source of validation: the safety of objectivity is a refuge from the responsibility to determine one’s own values.
Music is one of the less extreme examples here, since the appeal of music is generally understood as idiosyncratic anyway. The most prominent example is, of course, ethics in games journalism. The extreme stupidity of that, uh, “debate” is somewhat offset by the fact that it’s drawing the battle lines very clearly. Some people think games are basically appliances that you plug yourself into in order to be “entertained,” in which case assigning them an objective numerical score according to how entertaining they are makes perfect superficial sense. Others think that the point of games is to create new experiences, which requires engagement with the real world and active acceptance of subjectivity. So the one nice thing about this is that is provides a convenient sanity check. If you find yourself on the wrong side of an argument this obvious, you’ve gotta back it up.
Subjective experience is inherently desperate. It contains within itself the understanding that it cannot be verified or transmitted, that it is a pure moment, that it seems on reflection to not exist at all, even though it’s the only thing of any actual importance. Art is largely an attempt to get around this, to turn subjectivity into something more substantive than simply raw feeling. At a live show in particular, it’s easy to imagine that everyone else in the room is feeling the same thing you are. But the attempt to reify subjective experience as something externally valid is no kind of solution, because this creates only a hollow shell, bereft of the animating spirit that made it matter in the first place. The only real option is to embrace the horror, to hold transience without shaking.
But we have to be careful not to back into reverse nihilism. If everyone just likes what they like, then nothing means anything. There’s no substantive distinction between hearing a symphony and watching paint dry. So it seems like we need a way to preserve objective orders of rank without muffling subjectivity.
The one rating system with a subjectivity-respecting justification is the two-point thumbs-up/thumbs-down system, because it implies nothing other than an answer to the actual question: should I spend time on this or not? But if you accept that, you’ve accepted the idea that there are objective standards that can be applied to art, and that would seem to open the floodgates. Any other rating system, no matter how convoluted, has the same theoretical justification. A rating of 3 stars out of 5 could mean “check this out only if you’re a fan of the genre”; 28.6 points out of 100 could mean “worth it only on a rainy day when you don’t feel like doing anything else.” So it seems like accepting the validity of analysis requires us to countenance every nonsensical rating system that anyone comes up with, and we’re stuck disagreeing with every Bad Opinion on a case-by-case basis.
This is a false dichotomy based on the idea that analysis requires a number as its output, and anything else is just personal feelings. It is not only possible to combine subjectivity and analysis, it is vitally necessary. If you only have your own subjective experience, then there’s no room for any kind of conversation or collaboration; everything is just, like, your opinion, man. And if all you have is analysis, you’ve just got a big convoluted structure that doesn’t mean anything; it might as well just be a big rock.
In fact, it’s perfectly easy to do everything valuable about analysis while ignoring the dumb numerical part. For example, consider this review of Sleater-Kinney’s discography (eMusic used to have a lot of good music writing, but it apparently got run over by the freight train of progress at some point). It has the same album-by-album format, but even as it makes judgments, it doesn’t pretend to be any kind of ranking, and this clarifies the underlying analysis. Actually, the reason I chose this example is because it’s moronic. The person who wrote it thinks that Janet Weiss joined on Call the Doctor, so he disses Lora MacFarlane’s drumming on the first album and then praises it on the second, without realizing he’s talking about the same person. The real problem, though, it that he thinks The Hot Rock was “Sleater-Kinney on an off day,” which I honestly can’t even begin to address. I lack the ability to inhabit the mental space where this is a comprehensible statement. But because the album isn’t “ranked,” there’s no fake argument about whether the ranking is “right” or whether it’s properly “objective” or what the fuck ever. We can just accept that this guy has terrible taste in music and get on with our lives.
What we need to do is to split the concept of ranking along its fault line. As mentioned, it conflates two distinct things that don’t have a real connection: there’s analysis, and then there’s putting a number on that analysis. And what putting a number on something actually means is establishing a hierarchy. Hence the phenomenon of the internet ranking list: a list of which things are better than which other things.
Hierarchy has its uses, but our society has established a hierarchy of people, and this surely ranks among the greatest possible crimes against existence. Its function is to justify the dominance of the ruling class by positing them as the “best” people, and to justify the direction of our development as progress toward a higher goal. People want to feel like they live in an ordered universe, but there are different types of order, and some of them are dispreferable to chaos. Recognizing that there is no real apotheosis, no greatest hit, reveals our society’s horrors as the chosen project of our rulers – a project that we have the freedom to oppose. This is the cure for our crimes.
There’s an old saying, which I thought was Chinese but am completely failing to source, that perfection arouses the envy of the gods. I mean, everything is an “ancient Chinese proverb,” but I genuinely thought that this was a Chinese or Japanese concept. There is, for example, the Japanese term “wabi-sabi,” which expresses the idea that flaws can make something better. But this isn’t like mystical wisdom or whatever; it’s a very practical concept that doesn’t have anything to do with spirituality or metaphysics. What it means is that perfection is impossible not because it is the asymptotic limit of quality, but because it is a self-defeating concept.
If there actually were a perfect album, something that literally every person agreed was the best, that could only mean that no one had an individual reaction to it. If one person were to feel something about it that no one else did, that opens up the possibility that someone else could have such a reaction to a different album, meaning the perfect album is not perfect. In order to actually be perfect, it would have to provide all possible experiences to all people, which is to say it would have to do nothing. The only way to speak to everyone equally is to remain silent. Actually, even that’s not true; 4’33” is one of the most divisive pieces of music in existence. Anything that actually exists is necessarily rough, flawed, divisive, incomplete, and wrong. Perfection is logically impossible.
In a more practical sense, this means that nothing can ever meaningfully be said to be “the best” of anything, even when the category is as simple as 7 albums by the same band. Even on a strictly personal level, this is why it doesn’t make sense to have favorites. Casual conversation is one thing, but seriously conceiving of your values in terms of “favorites,” as a hierarchy, is ridiculous. More than that, it’s a concession to a social schema which is actively trying to kill you, a subordination of your subjectivity, the thing that makes you actually exist, to a fake, boring god of rules and lines. America has a very particular problem with being unable to comprehend quality in any sense other than being “#1” or the “Mattress King” or whatever. Hence certain of our current political problems.
And Tegan and Sara are actually one of the best examples of why this whole idea is dumb, because they don’t make albums that are trying to be better versions of albums they’ve already made. They make different albums. Following up Sainthood with Heartthrob was a good move, even from my perspective, where Sainthood is the kind of music I like and Heartthrob is, uh, less so. The only thing worse than changing is not changing. In the words of Kathleen Hanna, we don’t want to hear you making the right decisions, we want to hear your voice. You might write something that someone might want to read, someday.
Went to a Dan Deacon show yesterday. Electronica isn’t precisely my thing, but I listened to his recent album on a whim and liked it, so I basically went just for the hell of it. The upshot is that I’m now reevaluating some of my assumptions.
There’s taste and then there’s taste, which is to say there’s more to it then mere preference. There’s sort of a standard story about how underground rock responded to a world drowning in soft banality by reawakening the fire of the human spirit and asserting the values of emotional directness and raw creativity, etc. (It is, of course, deeply ironic that punk, an anti-movement if ever there was one, has congealed over time into a single easily understandable narrative. Read Please Kill Me if you’re at all interested in demystification.) This is mostly wishful thinking, and it’s easy to dismiss it all as ex post facto mythologization, but I can’t, because it actually happened to me.
I’m not really going to go into detail here because it’s none of your fucking business, but rock music had a revelatory effect on me at a time when I didn’t even understand the concept of revelation, let alone the possibility. I can’t dismiss it as shallow aesthetics or counter-cultural posturing, because neither of those things were at all relevant to my situation. The only logical explanation is that I was seized by something undeniably real, penetrated by raw power.
So the point is that rock music feels to me like an open plain of human values and new possibilities and electronica feels like the dead weight of schematics and equations that almost strangled me to death. But this is actually the other kind of taste: it’s just my perception. It’s become clear that the Wheel of Fortune has turned, and the majority of rock music now embodies the same evils it originally opposed. This has, of course, happened precisely because of the previously mentioned Standard Story about rock music (stories are dangerous, you guys). It’s now Understood that you go to a rock show and get drunk and act like a crazy asshole and that this is cool and liberating, which is obviously the opposite of liberating because you’ve obviously just acting out a script you’ve heard about third-hand, i.e. you’re doing what you’re told.
And, like, believe me, despite being an unrepentant snobby intellectual, I am entirely in favor of physical disinhibition. (That was a joke.) I’ve been in actual good mosh pits where people were dancing and having fun, and I’ve seen many more where a few morons just start shoving each other around and everyone else tries to get out of the way. If you’ve never seen this happen, trust me, it’s deeply pathetic. Sometimes you get a big mass of people just wobbling back and forth, and sometimes everyone’s crowded away from a huge empty space because two assholes are just flailing their arms around and nobody wants to be anywhere near them. The saddest incident in my experience was at a Sonic Youth show (post-The Eternal), which, yes, some morons actually tried to start moshing at a Sonic Youth show in the year two thousand and whenever it was, and absolutely no one else was going for it, and the only thing they accomplished was elbowing me in the face.
So I’ve been aware of all this for a while, but I still thought there was a way to thread the needle. I have been in plenty of actual good crowds, so I know it’s possible. Fugazi in particular is famous for having tried to confront this problem directly. As a post-hardcore band that was also seriously leftist and feminist, they had to deal with the fact that a lot of their fans were violent macho assholes (essentially the “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” problem). They insisted that people at their shows have fun and dance without shoving each other around. If people were acting like dicks, they stopped playing and took care of it. (For more information, there’s an audio file floating around the internet called “Having Fun On Stage With Fugazi” that you can check out.)
The culture has moved on somewhat since then, but I think we have to conclude that Fugazi’s project was a failure, because people still don’t know how to have fun at rock shows without being shitheads. I’ve seen bands that try to be cool about it and tell people to play nice, and it never works, because people actually don’t understand the distinction. I realize that “people don’t know how to have fun” is a hopelessly conceited opinion to hold, but it’s honestly a conclusion that has been forced on me by the evidence.
I saw Bleached recently, which, first of all, they’re amazing; they combine full-throttle thrashing intensity with great pop songwriting to create a completely exhilarating experience. Seriously, after the set people were talking in awed tones about how great it was. But they were loud and fast enough to send the “it’s time to act like an asshole” signal to receptive members of the audience, and that’s exactly what happened. I’m not so arrogant that I think I can fully diagnose spontaneous human behavior like this; like I said, the music was actually great and people were actually feeling it, and I’m really only talking about a tiny fraction of the total situation here. But that small group of people in the middle really were acting like this was their big change to be dicks and not like they were actually having fun. What would happen is that the song would start, and they’d shove each other around for about 30 seconds, and then go right back to just standing there like lumps. This is why this isn’t a matter of preference. It’s not about having to choose between going crazy and calmly paying attention, because behavior like this is the worst of both worlds: it’s obnoxious while also being no fun.
I know this is getting kind of involved and by now you’re just dying to hear what I thought about Dan Deacon, but there’s one more thing that it would be irresponsible not to mention, which is the embarrassing and therefore frequently overlooked fact that part of the original motivation for punk was anti-feminism. The fact that typical punk music is largely the embodiment of masculine aggression ain’t a coincidence. The people who talk about how we live in a “feminized” society now are obviously clueless jackasses, but the fact is overt physical aggression is no longer socially acceptable (if it ever was, I don’t actually know), and rock shows provide a permissible outlet for it. So this is the actual political angle here: aggressive behavior is not liberatory because the people who act like this are not at all acting in an uninhibited way. On the contrary, they’re trapped in their masculine inhibitions. They can’t loosen up and have fun, because that’s totally gay, bro. The only permitted means of expression is aggression. (And of course it’s not just men; part of feminism is accepting that women are equally capable of being macho dickheads. I believe this is addressed in the Fugazi recording mentioned above.) This is more evidence of the well-known fact that masculinity is cowardice.
So the point, which I am in fact getting around to now, is that regardless of whether Dan Deacon’s music is my particular cup of tea, his show was a lot closer to what a good live music experience ought to be than most rock shows I’ve been to. Not that there’s one “ideal,” of course, but there are good directions to move in and there are bad directions to move in. Being part of an engaged community is a good thing. Being shoved around by drunk assholes is a bad thing. I mean, this is actually important. If a live show is about something more than entertainment, if it’s about people coming together and having a shared experience, then the question of how people can have fun without ruining everyone else’s good time is the same as the question of how civilization can progress without exploitation.
When it comes to stage banter, white guys sometimes have problems with being huge fucking bores, but Deacon was great. He was on-point politically without being lecturey and self-deprecating without being defensive. This matters because it created a good atmosphere in the room while also helping to normalize anti-oppression discourse, which makes everyone feel like they’re in a safe environment where they can have fun. One thing that The Discourse has struggled to overcome, even with all the silliness of the internet, is the perception that it’s dull and pedantic, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth: the point of being against oppression is so that we can all have fun. So it’s important to be able to enjoy yourself while also being conscious of doing the right thing. Deacon’s best line was when he told half the room to dance like Game of Thrones was made in a world without patriarchy and the other half to dance like all the money from Jurassic World was spent on public schools. So, yeah, maybe a little overwrought, but it was funny, and it was true, and it made people feel like having fun.
There was a lot of goofy audience participation stuff, some of it worked and some of it not so much, but the point is that it did a pretty good job of actually disinhibiting people and getting them out of the frame of how you’re supposed to act at a show. At some metal shows there’s apparently a thing called the “Wall of Death,” where two halves of the crowd rush into the middle and everybody crashes into each other and it’s total violent mayhem. This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been complaining about: it’s macho assholery in the guise of uninhibited fun. Deacon gets this (he also worked in a crack about healthcare in Scandinavian countries vs. America), so his alternative is the “Wall of Life,” where everyone rushes each other in order to deliver high fives en masse. It’s hopelessly dorky, but again, it actually addresses the relevant issues: it’s a way of going crazy and having fun without being a dick about it. As Deacon put it, instead of rushing each other with reckless abandon, we should do so with full human consciousness. We should be able to have fun while still being people.
I don’t actually have to analyze whether any of this was a good idea or not (I just do it for fun), because it worked. By the end of the show, there were lots of people dancing and having fun while being respectful of everyone else, and it was great. So the point of this post is actually that I’m a little sad. It’s sad that “my” music has such a hard time accomplishing this, when that’s what it was supposed to be for in the first place. It’s sad that Fugazi had to exhort people to behave instead of compelling them organically through the force of their music – the way it was supposed to work, in the stories.
What’s not sad is the fact that the situation is more complicated than just choosing the right kind of music. If it seems like you’re on the royal road to the truth, you’re probably being marched into a cage. The twisted path is the one that might actually lead somewhere. This obviously isn’t about which kind of music is better than the other kind of music. Greatness transcends genre. It’s just that these waters might be a little harder to navigate than I thought. Even when you’ve felt a truth that’s impossible to deny, you can’t just cling to that one thing forever. If aesthetics are to be at all meaningful, your taste has to go beyond your preferences.
[Addendum: Just saw Titus Andronicus and they gave this exact speech before they started. I mean, “exact” in the sense that it was the normal person version rather than the pretentious theory version. Anyway, it’s nice to know that people are still trying.]
Not afraid of the light
American Tragic is a breakup album. This is obvious enough that it can’t be ignored, but leaving it at that would be as reductive as it is silly. In general, any worthwhile work of art is about more than its nominal subject; specifically, this album isn’t the type of thing that a breakup album normally is, and the difference is important. As just a convenient point of contrast, the recent Best Coast album opens with a breakup song called “Feeling Ok.” Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, it’s just that American Tragic is not about feeling “okay” or “getting over it” or “moving on.” It’s about being on your knees, tightening your grip, and facing the night. It’s about survival.
The previous Wax Idols album, Discipline + Desire, was where sole permanent bandperson Hether Fortune really came into her own as a songwriter. It’s a broad album that covers a lot of territory, beginning with “Stare Back,” a full-throated statement of intent which takes Nietzsche’s famous warning as a commitment, and ending with “Stay In,” a low-key personal lament that, in retrospect, disturbingly foreshadows the content of American Tragic. In between, it confronts suicide, oppression, mercy killing, and the fundamental emptiness of the universe. It maps out a worldview, and American Tragic is what happens when that worldview has to face up to a specific catastrophe – when ideology hits the ground.
Where Discipline + Desire was more noisy and opaque, the songs on American Tragic are clear and dramatic, though with the same post-punk guitars and gothy atmosphere. The real difference, as noted, is that American Tragic is less of an ideas-focused rock album and more of a personal bloodletting. There’s sort of an open stage in the middle of each song for the vocals to inhabit, and Fortune uses it to basically emote her ass off. Between introspectively murmuring on “Lonely You,” howling in desperation on “I’m Not Going,” vamping it up on “Severely Yours,” and lashing out wildly on “Seraph,” she’s almost acting (or, you know, not acting) as much as she is singing. This is all underscored by the fact that, aside from the drums (by Rachel Travers, who adds a real sense of underlying strength) and couple of supporting bits, everything on the album is performed by Fortune herself. Of course, you can’t actually tell that by listening, but you can tell that everything on here is coming from a single human heart.
There are a number of specific references between the two albums that make the connections explicit. American Tragic begins with “A Violent Transgression,” which contains the following warning: “There are no squares in nature, so don’t create a corner when the pain starts to burn.” This is an extension of a metaphor from “Ad Re: Ian” off of Discipline + Desire, which is certainly among the best songs ever written about suicide:
In these never ending circles
A corner can be paradise
Press your head against the wall
Colors dance inside your eyes
And the promise of eternity
Escape from all the lies
Now with open arms & reaching hands
You give yourself to night
So a “corner” here is an escape – a place where you can go to get away from the constant horror of reality, to get out of the “never ending circles.” The tone of “Ad Re: Ian” is deeply sympathetic; it’s an attempt to understand what things would have to be like for someone to choose to annihilate themselves. Whereas in “A Violent Transgression,” the tables have turned: the singer is now the one on the knife’s edge, and she’s rejecting escape as an option for herself. There are no squares in nature, nothing can be boxed off and avoided, so when you’re tempted to try, you’re creating a corner. The fantasy of escaping from the lies is itself a lie. You have to stay in the circles.
The result of this understanding is that, despite the vibrant songwriting and emotional intensity that make American Tragic the exact opposite of a depressing slog, the album nevertheless lacks of any kind of comfort or resolution. It simmers, seethes, and screams, and there is zero catharsis. Again, this is an album that doesn’t “get over it”; it’s drenched in suffering from start to finish. There’s one particular moment that really drives this home. “Deborah” is given the standard “lead single” positioning: it’s a few songs in and it’s the most “fun” song up to that point, with a strong, smooth rhythm and a catchy chorus, but also with sketchy, twirling guitars that lack the satisfaction of any big riffs. The chorus includes the lines “dream of nothing, cuz it feels that way,” and “flowers wilting, axis tilting,” so, you know, there’s that, but the critical moment comes towards the end. The song is an explicit exorcism, and it seems to be building up to a big cathartic finish. The instruments drop off, leaving nothing but a chattering drum line and sparse, heavy bass notes. Fast, whispery vocals rush in to build the tension, and everything is primed for a big power lift to finish the job. But the lyrics here are a series of unresolved questions, and the drums chop them off before the second repetition finishes, pounding a couple of times to create an arresting tension (Travers really nails it here), which leads in to . . . basically nothing. The chorus comes back again, sounding just as anguished as before, only with the addition of a background full of desperate, repeated cries that drag the song to a limp conclusion. The exorcism fails.
So, even though all this really is as dark as you’d think, this is not a depressing album. Though the album exists in a small space, the songwriting is bright and open, and the key to the whole thing is the fact that it’s actually dance music. As scary and dramatic as it is, it’s also just really fun and exhilarating to listen to. This approach sublimates the album’s deep personal emotion into something new and alive, while maintaining an imposing sense of dread throughout. The obvious reference point for this contrast is Joy Division, but, despite its subject matter, American Tragic lacks that band’s dense haze of oppressiveness. It’s less melancholy and more, like, fire-breathing. (By the way, the title of “Ad Re: Ian” refers to Ian Curtis, so this isn’t just a musical difference: Hether Fortune’s understanding and rejection of the perspective portrayed in that song constitutes both the connection between and the bright line separating Wax Idols and Joy Division.) The inventiveness and energy of the album are central to its message: rather than seeking comfort, it surges forward.
I saw Wax Idols last year around when the album came out, not knowing anything about it at the time. But when they played the new songs, I understood exactly what was going on, even though I didn’t know what I was actually understanding yet. The songs were imposing and unnerving, and at the same time exciting and engaging. You can feel the combination of horror and visceral positivity. The dance aspect is important not because it ameliorates the album’s negativity, but because it synthesizes the negative subject matter with an affirming spirit. This combination is what the album is truly about. It’s both an embrace of the infinite darkness of the universe and a refusal to give in to it – a commitment to life with an understanding of the true terror it includes. This is the apparent paradox that defines the album: “we turn and face the night, that’s where we find the light.”
The lyrics are full of evocative and occasionally mysterious imagery, much of which sits alongside outright cliches. Of course, the “breakup album” itself is a cliche, and this sort of situation tends to inspire people to make big gestures that are as dramatic as they are familiar. But this doesn’t actually imply a lack of insight, because there’s an ironic subtlety to cliches that is lost when you either take them at face value or dismiss them as inherently empty. After all, this is hardly an album that falls back on familiar comforts; even with the cliches, there’s a striking lack of naivete. Cliches may seem like native inhabitants of the realm of fake smiles and Hollywood endings, but they contain truths that can be imported into the real world and applied productively.
Cliches are not at all the same thing as stereotypes, for example. It’s commonly said by stupid people that every stereotype is based on a grain of truth, but this is exactly wrong. Stereotypes are lies specifically chosen to cover up inconvenient truths by overwriting them with the opposite understanding. As a particularly dramatic example, the stereotype of black people being lazy originated during motherfucking slavery, a time when black people were being worked harder than perhaps any other group of people who have ever lived (I guess the people who built the pyramids might have a better case). Acknowledgement of this fact is not compatible with belief in white supremacy. The paradox of slavery is that any group that would implement it does not deserve to be in charge, which is why it requires a supposedly naturalistic justification. Slavery was deliberately reconceived as an inherent defect in black people to conceal the fact that it was actually a chosen defect in white people’s values. In short, stereotypes operate by using power to replace the uncomfortable truth with an apologist lie, and this is why all stereotypes must be destroyed.
A cliche, however, represents an original insight which only seems glib and meaningless after being dulled from overuse and flattened by assimilation into a truthless narrative. The reason cliches are usually intolerable is that they’re being spewed out by people who don’t really have any problems and aren’t actually saying anything, and it’s valid to dismiss them for this reason. But they can also be usefully redeemed by pulling them forward through the spectacle into present reality. Specifically, when everything goes to hell and you need something to hold on to, the hidden insights buried in the static start to shine forth. Shit gets real.
The various cliches scattered throughout the album act as hooks, connecting the album’s perspective to more commonly understood concepts. “I won’t let you hang me out to dry” is elevated into a radical statement of justified selfishness, while “pushing up daisies” is used to highlight the passivity and hollowness of the path being rejected. The moment of deepest connection comes on “At Any Moment.” This is the one purely upbeat song on the album – the one that seems to finally break free of the darkness. It carries itself with a blood-pumping sense of vitality. Rapid-fire drums and slashing guitars hold tough, confident vocals snake effortlessly through the verses and strike hard on the chorus, and synth melodies blare out on top of everything, rising towards an open sky. Yet in the face of all this, the vocals are just as chilling as ever, “wrapped in subtle forms of sorrow, and laced with fear.” The song’s powerful hook is actually terrifying: the singer takes as her saving grace the fact that anything can die “at any moment.” This would seem to be a Pyrrhic victory: there’s no despair, but only because there was no hope in the first place. But the intensity of the delivery makes this reading impossible; it’s brimming with such confidence as to force itself to be felt as genuine triumph.
What connects the song’s apparent cold comfort to its burning blood is its use of cliches. Following up on the chorus, the singer insists that “it’s a damned if I do, damned if I don’t ever-after.” Again, we can’t understand this as a statement of futility. To interpret this properly, we need to know what “ever-after” refers to here, and this information comes from “Dethrone” off of Discipline + Desire. As the title makes obvious, this song is a comprehensive refutation of any justification for rulership.
They take you to the edge of light
“Have a glimpse of ever-after”
They sell you faith, they sell you lies
And you’re the source of all their laughter
The source of the ruling class’s power is their claim on eternity – they extract loyalty by offering the hope of a room in heaven or a footnote in the pages of history. But it’s a mere hope, a glimpse, because there’s no such thing as eternity. As the term itself connotes, “ever-after” is a fairy tale. It’s a lie, masking the true purpose of material gain in this world, the only world there actually is. The “throne” here is the conceptual source of arbitrary authority – the concept of something else that supposedly justifies an obviously unjust state of affairs – and that’s what we have to destroy.
So, with regards to being “damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” what this means is that there’s no hope of salvation, that we’re screwed either way, but also that this realization is the substance of liberation. Letting go of the fantasy of eternity allows us to really be present in present reality, to make free choices. Here, it means that the singer isn’t shackled to an abstract conception of love, and she doesn’t have any arbitrary expectations to live up to. She’s dealing with a direct threat to herself, and she’s facing it directly.
Building on its momentum, the song drives home its final statement: “You fool me once, you won’t fool me twice, I’m not a virgin on the altar of sacrifice.” Again, the cliche here is normally a palliative, a sort of “oh well, maybe next time” at the discovery of having been fucked over. But by making it a promise rather than a hypothetical, both halves become necessary. Being fooled the first time is the unavoidable consequence of real engagement, of caring enough to make yourself vulnerable; when it comes to love, there’s no room for half-measures. And the second half is more than just learning from your mistakes, it’s a commitment to cleave as strongly to pain as to passion, to face up to and actively oppose the things that are trying to kill you rather than merely avoiding them. The statement thus becomes a commitment to deep engagement, anticipating disaster, combined with an obligation to take the pain and use it. Hence, not a virgin, and also not a sacrifice.
Because another thing that’s a stereotype is the “negative” person who “looks for things to be upset about” rather than doing something “constructive.” The truth that this lie conceals is the fact that “negativity” is a positive force. For one thing, it’s very often nothing more than honesty; the insistence on “staying positive” at all costs is a requirement to abandon the truth. Furthermore, “negative” people are the ones doing the real work of reconstructing an evil world into something that actually works for people, and mandating glib positivity is an attempt to cut them off at the knees. While cliches are not inherently political in the way that stereotypes are, they can be politicized. They can be used to construct a world where the pathways to freedom are missing, where the only choice is in choosing how best to get by. A man telling a woman to smile is the entire psychology of oppression distilled into a single gesture.
Our ability to use the components of reality’s present constitution against itself is more than just a means of defense, it’s how we make the world a real place. If this really were “the best of all possible worlds,” there wouldn’t be anything to do except sit around feeling content about it. But in the jagged, ill-made world that we actually inhabit, there are decisions to be made, things to be sought, and things to be driven out. Instead of walking around in a haze of complacency, fated to forever act out the shitty scripts that have been written for us, we can decide what matters, draw lines, and define our own terms. We can be real people.
There are an awful lot of religious references on this thing, particularly for an album written by an atheist (well, I shouldn’t make assumptions about people’s beliefs, but we’re at least talking about the kind of person who capitalizes “Death” but not “god”). What religion and love have in common is that they both speak in the language of transcendence. They’re the aspirations that humans have to be something more than mutated apes shuffling about a crumbing ball of dirt.
Christianity in particular has been very successful at conflating its own particular mythology with the general concept of love. This success is unjustified. What’s notable about Christian metaphysics is that the Christian “God” is literally everything – the world is represented as one big undifferentiated mass of creation. Unlike in, for example, Hinduism, where Shiva the Destroyer is worshipped as one of the universe’s primary forces, the Destroyer in Christianity is the enemy – destruction is always an evil act. In other words, the central claim of Christianity is that nothing ever actually dies.
This is the meaning of the crucifixion: it’s the ultimate affirmation. Jesus affirms the human world even in the midst of suffering its greatest horror, granting it redemption. “Goodbye Baby” uses this imagery in the same sense: “nail me to the cross, I’ll be a martyr for this lost cause.” The singer here affirms love while suffering its worst consequences. This is kind of self-deprecating – when we tell someone to “get off the cross,” especially in the context of a romantic relationship, it’s not because we’re impressed with their commitment – but it’s also kind of serious. The lyric is a testament to the lengths that people are willing to go to for the sake of affirmation.
But of course, as the refrain of the song makes obvious, the point is that this isn’t actually what she’s doing. Like religion, love can oppress as well as liberate, and sometimes the only solution is to cut it off hard, to insist that “I owe me more than I owe you.” And while she accepts the consequences of her decision – “you can call me evil, you won’t be the only one” – she still claims allegiance to the truth (the song actually includes the line “I’m not a liar, I gotta tell the truth,” which seems pointlessly general until you consider it in this context). She insists that she’s doing the right thing – “I won’t let you turn my good heart bad,” which is what can happen when you commit yourself to affirmation over all else, when you decide you owe someone, or an idea, or the world more than you owe yourself.
With Christian ideology having thoroughly percolated throughout secular America, the idea that full, uncritical affirmation is the solution to everything manifests itself in a number of places. We see it in the naive valorization of “free speech,” which asserts that malicious and ignorant opinions are just as valid as deeply considered ones, that expert testimony is just as good as knee-jerk reaction, and that “censorship” is the only true crime. Related to this is the concept of the “marketplace of ideas,” which holds not only that active discernment is unnecessary, but that harmful ideas must be permitted to keep existing. It’s why we can only understand economic activity in terms of constant, accelerating growth. And obviously consumerist ideology is based on the assumption that crowding store shelves with as much trash as possible is an appropriate definition of “abundance.” Hand in hand with all of this is the concept of salvation – the idea that, because the existence of everything is justified, something in there has got to be the thing that saves us.
Obviously, none of this is accurate. If nothing else, the rise of the internet has made it painfully clear that some people really do need to shut the fuck up. More generally, some ideas don’t just represent bad things that should be rejected but are themselves harmful things that must be destroyed. A dramatic example is rape, which is only understandable based on the malformed idea of sexuality as a dominance game. Whereas most crimes are committed for the sake of some other goal, rape is unique in that it is its own motivation. Rapists rape because they enjoy rape specifically and not sex. Therefore, the only solution is dissolution – the concept of sexuality that leads to rape must be eradicated from the collective psyche of humanity. This is why the activist assertion is that rape is not a type of sex but is rather sexualized violence. It’s also why rape “prevention” ““tips”” are so offensive: they presume that the concept has a right to exist.
Back on topic, this ideological malformation also applies to love. Love is supposed to be the thing that transcends physical reality, so we only understand love in terms of affirmation. The adjective that goes with the word “love” is “eternal” (one more example of affirmation-only ideology is the assumption that divorce is always a bad thing). But as anyone with any actual experience knows (which is everyone, as long as they’re honest with themselves), love doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped package. It doesn’t just have rough spots, it has sharp edges. And sometimes it fucks things up bad enough that it has to be destroyed.
Obviously, affirmation itself isn’t a bad thing; on the contrary, as the ability to transform the world into more than it is, it’s one of the great powers of humanity. But it has a necessary counterpart: negation, the power to annihilate things that have lost their right to exist. Together, affirmation and negation are the powers that we as humans use to create the kind of world we want to live in. We decide what deserves to be preserved and what has to die. The problem is that we live in a society that denies the validity of negation. This is done out of fear, which is understandable, because negation really is scary. It requires accepting that some mistakes cannot be undone, that it is possible to lose important things forever, and that everything that currently exists is going to die. But these things have to be accepted, because without the power of negation we’re facing the universe unarmed, carrying a shield but not a sword. As one more example, addressing global warming requires destroying the current means of production. We like to talk about the “positive” ways of addressing the problem: new inventions, green jobs, and “alternative” sources of energy. But because we’re facing a tipping point, there will eventually be no acceptable level of carbon emissions, and because fossil fuels inherently contain way more energy than any possible alternative, we actually are going to have to lower our levels of production, which is the one concept that capitalism absolutely cannot abide. This might end up being humanity’s final paradox: without the power of negation, we’re all going to die.
This whole dynamic is summed up very concisely when the album sets up its situation on “Lonely You”: “What once was always, on its knees, screaming ‘never, never’.” The inherent contradiction in something that “once was always” demonstrates the limits of affirmation. We can pretend, for a time, that the things we love will last forever, but even the luckiest of us will eventually face the final curtain. Once ideation hits the ground – when it’s “on its knees” – reality has to be dealt with. And sometimes the result is horrific enough the only appropriate action is negation – to scream “never.”
Maybe this all sounds depressing, which is another reason why people don’t like to think about it, but it’s affirmation that’s tragic, because it can never really work. Negation can. Eternity is an illusion, but oblivion is real. What this means is that negation can actually offer a kind of inverted salvation. On “I’m Not Going,” this turns out to be the real answer.
Tonally, this is by far the most depressing song on the album. The slow, insistent rhythm and desperate vocals shroud it with the sorrow of a funeral march, and the lyrics back this up with a determined advance into the darkness. The cosmology of the song is established right at the beginning: “This is a wicked world, full of crooks and fools and kings.” This is notably comprehensive: the evil in the world consists not only of malicious people, but also people who don’t know what they’re doing, and people who think they know what’s best for everyone else. And by identifying herself with this complete strain of wickedness, the singer leaves herself without any escape. She can’t position herself as an innocent victim or a principled rebel – whatever evil is in the world is also a part of her. The result is that, when she finds herself in the midst of catastrophe, she has no defense. She can’t claim she doesn’t deserve it, and she has no possible action other than hopeless acceptance. “I roll with the thunder, take me under, wait for god to call.” This line is another Discipline + Desire callback, this time to the defiant “When It Happens”: “I was listening in on phone calls to ‘god’ / I was laughing to myself because I know there’s no one home.” The singer’s desperation here is such that she’s down to relying on the one thing that she knows can’t save her.
And in the face of all this, the the very un-chorus-like chorus is as simple as it can possibly be: “no, I’m not going down.” It’s precisely the overwhelming negativity of the song that makes it a radical statement of hope. As the black sky is met with defiance, screams harden themselves into cries of strength, and the singer finds the power to shine alone in hell. This is the power of negation, the ability to eradicate the possibility of defeat, and its raw force does not require reliance on anything. This is also the note on which the album ends: “I’m not nothing.” This seems like a pathetic understatement, but it’s enough. You can accept that you were wrong about everything, admit your faults, face the destruction of what’s most important to you, and still refuse to go down. You usually can’t win, but you can always not lose.
This is also essentially what we saw on “At Any Moment”: negation can be a source of hope. The fact that everything is temporary means you’re never completely trapped. And this is why we can’t allow ourselves to surrender to “positive thinking” and relinquish the power of negation. The insistence on affirmation also has a political motive: certain people would prefer it if we were only capable of devoting ourselves uncritically to things that already exist, as this would limit our options to either compliance or despair. Imagination, and hence desire, is essentially an act of negation: it denies the present state of reality in favor of something that doesn’t exist, which is why negation is our only defense against benevolent totalitarianism. We can’t live without devoting ourselves to something, but we have to accept that nothing is really going to last, and learn to live with the expectation of catastrophe. And when devotion inevitably turns poisonous, we have to be willing to excise it. We have to hold back this last card, because there’s going to come a day when it’s the only one we have to play.
“Severely Yours” is the thematic inverse of everything else on the album – instead of a song about heartbreak with desire burning in the background, it’s a song about very explicit desire haunted by implicit tragedy. This is backed up by the vocals, which are less aggressive and more conventionally sexy, but with a wistful undercurrent that maintains the thread of sorrow. That doesn’t make this a mushy love song, though; in fact, it interrogates power dynamics through an emphasis on dominance and submission, illuminating the the inherent political dimension of relationships that is otherwise obscured by the album’s raw emotion.
The key to this song lies at the intersection of its submissiveness and its swaggering confidence. It gets down on its knees immediately, and from there the whole thing takes place on the floor. The singer states her intent directly, with a single line that says both “I want you to hurt me” and “I want you to fuck me.” This whole situation presents a very conventional picture of female desire as wanting to be the object of someone else’s actions, which is what makes it so obvious that it’s a trap.
The chorus provides the first clue to the song’s true nature: “he could be mine, he could be my god” (it’s only here and on “Deborah” where the subject of the song is specifically male, which both emphasizes the gendered aspect and makes the target more specific than the usual universal “you”). Repeating a line and extending it like this is pretty standard songwriting; it’s at least as elemental as “be my, be my baby.” So because it sounds so natural, it’s easy to miss that these two lines are exact opposites. The whole “I’m yours” angle is about as cliched as it gets, but, as the title indicates, “Severely Yours” takes it seriously. If someone is “yours,” that means you own them, but if someone is “your god,” that means they own you. A later repetition of the chorus doubles this dynamic up again by inverting the line to “I could be your god,” and the end of the song conflates everything together by layering all of these lines on top of each other. (The lack of capitalization on “god” has added significance here, as it indicates that the concept is being used in the general sense and not the specifically Christian and therefore patriarchal sense. Also, the hypothetical phrasing shows that the role of “god” here is both optional and temporary.)
Of course, in terms of dominance, this is all blatantly contradictory. Mutual dominance is not an intelligible concept, and that’s the point: relationships are inherently mutual, and they shouldn’t be understood in terms of dominance. The BDSM imagery brings this point into sharp relief, because consensual BDSM makes it obvious that what something looks like isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual dynamics at play. It’s sort of a BDSM truism that the sub is the one with the real power, since it’s the sub’s limits that define the scope of the action, and, despite appearances, what the dom is actually doing is fulfilling the sub’s desires. This isn’t because it’s a “game,” though, it’s because this is a more accurate picture of reality than the one that we usually use to understand dominance. Dominance is typically presented as an act of will, by which one affects others while remaining untouched. But this is a fantasy; there’s no such thing as being “untouched” in a purely physical existence. Any act, in addition to its affect on the target, imposes constraints on the actor. Accordingly, submission is not necessarily failure or even weakness. It can be a means of self-defense, and it can be a weapon.
Taking the song as a whole, the complete situation – two people acting as each other’s “gods,” while also annihilating each other – is more complicated than simple boy/girl dominance, and it’s also more realistic. In fact, the transition from apparent stereotype to complex reality demonstrates that situations which are presented to us as confirmation of easy archetypes are in fact no such thing, that we’re being lied to. Nobody ever has absolute power, and the inherent mutuality of the physical universe means there are always tools at hand to work with. This also drains the venom from the paradox of intimacy: the way to exercise real devotion while maintaining the force of your own will is to belong to someone else, but to do it severely.
This is not a narrow conclusion – it applies to power dynamics generally. Power dynamics pervade everything, from our most abstract institutions to our most intimate relationships, but this does not mean that we’re doomed to live in a world at war with itself. On the contrary, while it does mean that we’re never safe and things are never easy, it also means we’re never truly under anyone’s thumb. Things like having money or holding an official position of authority or being a man are not absolute strengths; everything has a second edge (this is what the term “toxic masculinity” refers to). I’m certainly not eliding the fact that there are real power differentials that really do kill people, but on the level of technique, we’re all on equal footing. Anyone can be outmatched, in any situation, at any moment.
In 1984, O’Brien claims that the only way to know you have power over someone is to inflict pain on them. This is based on the assumption that pain is something absolutely unwanted by everyone in all situations. But this is not true; the basis of non-violent protest, for example, is to deliberately subject yourself to suffering in order to claim the moral high ground. And not only is it not true of pain, it’s not true of anything. Humans are not utility droids; we have complicated relationships with physical reality, and our desires are not straightforward. What this means is that there is no such thing as absolute dominance. Dominance is not the infliction of one’s will on the world, it is a specific, contingent type of interaction with the world, just as writing is not the direct transmission of pure ideas but rather the interaction of ideas with the social medium of language. And, just as the act of writing something down can reveal things that you didn’t realize you were aware of, the act of dominance can restrict the actor as much as the acted upon. When you interact with the world, the world interacts back.
This even applies to the basic predator/prey relationship: predators that become too effective will end up destroying themselves by driving their food source to extinction. In our modern jungle, the same is true of capitalism. If capitalism actually worked the way it claimed to – if everyone really had to pay equal value for everything they acquired – it would be completely untenable. Capitalists would be unable to extract profits, and workers would become so boxed in that they’d have no choice but to rebel. (It’s worth remembering that this is what Marx predicted would happen. It’s actually because he took capitalism at face value that he ended up being wrong; his mistake was putting too much trust in the system.) In truth, capitalism is completely dependent on public goods, and the more it enforces its ability to marketize everything, the weaker it becomes. Thus, the key to capitalism’s ubiquity is its incompleteness; the reason it’s able to cast such a wide net is because it’s full of holes. The same is true even of god itself. Though portrayed as an absolute force, the strength of the god-concept actually lies in how ill-defined it is; the fecundity of a religion such as Christianity follows from its flexibility. It finds adherents in people as far apart as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fred Phelps, all because the relationship between humans and god is not one-way. The saying “if god did not exist, we would have to invent him” does not go far enough: even if god really did exist, we would still have invented him.
In other words, power is a liability as much as it is an advantage. This is why asymmetric warfare is possible. As perhaps a more relatable example, owning a smartphone doesn’t simply allow you to do more things, it changes your relationship to the world. You might, for example, fail to research your destination on a trip on the assumption that your navigation app will take care of it, and thereby end up getting lost because you had an extremely powerful navigation tool at your disposal. It’s not just that, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, it’s that having a hammer at all necessarily creates an orientation towards nails.
And yet, everything in society is based on the illusion of power; every formal institution is organized based on who’s the boss of who. Indeed, our entire conception of civilization rests on the notion that it represents our “dominion” over the world, that it’s our escape from the “state of nature.” Yet it’s obvious that civilization introduces as much danger as it averts. The only reason earthquakes are capable of killing people is because we have lots of giant buildings around to crush us. And of course there are the more explicit maladies we’ve gifted ourselves with, including stress-induced neuroses, nuclear fallout, “collateral damage” in warfare, and suicide. Oh, and global warming, which is poised to make a rather persuasive argument that humanity remains within reach of the red claw of nature.
In case anyone’s thinking something stupid at this point, I’m no kind of primitivist. This argument refutes romantic savagery as thoroughly as it does technological utopianism. Earthquakes can destroy buildings, but only because there is something there to destroy. It’s better to be alive now than is was at any time in the past, and that will continue to be the case until the sea finally rises up to reclaim us all, and that’s why it’s actually going to be a bad thing when that happens. Rejecting progress for fear of backlash is like cutting off your head to spite your face.
We all have our moments when we feel like humanity doesn’t deserve to exist, but to seriously entertain this impulse is to uncritically embrace nihilism. To keep harping on global warming (since it’s really the one topic that can never be harped on enough), you’ll occasionally encounter soothsayers pontificating that, after humanity is gone, nature will be able to “heal itself” and another species will get the chance to “not fuck things up like we did.” This is actually worse than nihilism; it’s a denial of everything good that’s ever happened. Without humanity, it doesn’t matter what happens to “nature”; the state of reality can only be said to be good or bad in relation to beings with the ability to care about it. If we all really do end up struck by stray bullets and drowned in stagnant water, then guess what: it was worth it.
Though it’s somewhat understandable that people would feel this way, since the concept for dealing with this whole situation doesn’t really exist anymore. That concept is tragedy. You can tell the concept is gone because the word has devolved, like an old shell abandoned by its hermit crab, to meaning little more than “sad thing.” In truth, a tragedy is a situation in which a hero is destroyed by her own virtues, and the point of it is that sometimes(/often/always), bad endings are morally necessary, because the only way to avoid them is to destroy the good that caused them in the first place – to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The other way you can tell that the concept is dead is that almost all mainstream stories, whether action or romance, are ones where the protagonist “overcomes” their flaws in order to earn a “happy” ending. It should be obvious that violence never results in a definitive resolution, but it’s equally true that love is never “happily ever after.” The only purity is in death.
By refusing to accept this, we also refuse to accept our moral responsibilities. With the assumption that we’re “good people” who “mean well,” we consider ourselves virtuous not as the result of our actions but in spite of them. America had the opportunity to respond to the destruction of the World Trade Center with the understanding that all the act really proved was that America had something worth destroying, to look at the people who thought that petty slaughter would be enough to shake our faith in ourselves and say nice fucking try. Instead, we immediately proved them right by going bug-eyed and frothy and basically committing ourselves to fucking everything up for the foreseeable future (I mean, worse than we already were). The thing that should never be forgotten is that history’s greatest superpower basically threw a fucking tantrum.
It’s easy to run the numbers and conclude that America is the greatest force for evil in the world in just a sheer mathematical sense, but, just as assuming that America is the “good guy” doesn’t get you anywhere, it’s also not enough to regard America’s actions as “villainous,” as though “defeating” it would fix anything. Just as it is with everything else in the world, America’s crimes are the result of real strengths, and its successes are imbued with failure. It’s because America is nominally founded on ideals of equality and liberty that we have to constantly invent new methodologies of oppression. It’s because we’re committed to open discourse that we end up smothering ourselves in stifling noise. It’s because we conceive of ourselves as a “city on a hill” that we constantly try to bomb everyone else into recognizing that. It’s by impoverishing the rest of the world that we’ve given ordinary Americans the opportunity to achieve the kind of greatness that genuinely enriches humanity. There’s no contradiction in taking our merits and turning them around to attack the very faults that caused them in the first place; in fact, that’s the only thing that actually makes any sense. America must be understood as a tragedy.
The culmination of all this is that there’s no culmination. American Tragic finalizes its commitment to existing in the never ending circles of reality by rejecting the convenience of a comfortable conclusion. The album is structured to make it seem like it ends prematurely – the B-side only has four tracks on it, with “Seraph” as the inconclusive closer. It’s the loudest track on the whole thing, so it almost violently forecloses on any expectation of a peaceful denouement. And like everything else on the album, it’s all drama and no resolution. It’s not even really a climax, it’s all buildup until the abrupt ending, where the last line cuts off mid-roar, leaving only a fading echo. The text that would normally constitute the climax is compressed into a spoken-word rant and submerged into the background – the only time on the album when the vocals are deliberately buried.
And yet, the album does finally arrive in a different place from where it started. “Seraph” is entirely in the first person, lacking the I/you dynamic that characterizes every other song on the album (except for “I’m Not Going,” which is the same idea taken from the opposite perspective), suggesting that the exorcism may finally have worked. But the place arrived at isn’t an ending or a stopping point, it’s a nexus connecting the trauma of the past to the uncertainty of the future. Because, despite its forcefulness, this song is still uncertain – the singer “can’t tell” whether she’s still whole or not. But she does know where she stands: she refuses to let go of her passion, and she’s going to endure. The only sensible response to tragedy is redoubled engagement. This is why her final resolution is to “replenish” herself with “youthful lusting.” After everything’s been poisoned, she goes right back to the well.
It’s also why this album begins and ends with fire. We live in a society that’s constantly trying to freeze people. In fact, we’ve got a good number of rich fucks who literally think they can freeze their severed heads and wake up in magical robot paradise. Even if cryonics worked, though, it would still constitute abandonment of the world that actually exists – it would still be suicide. The tendency to respond to suffering and danger with retreat and denial is what this album stands in opposition to: “they wanna lock me in, iced and wrapped in moonlight satin, kept but never seen.”
This tendency is the result of a deep mistake. It’s based on the idea that the world is something that we have to be protected from, that the point of civilization is to build a big wall around ourselves so that the bad things can’t get in. Cosmologically speaking, it’s the idea that evil has the force of truth and that the light is a mere temporary defense. But the darkness of the universe is actually nothing; everything that exists is contained within the flame of life, and that includes suffering and hatred as much as creativity and love. To fear being burnt, then, is to fear the light itself – to fear life. “Positive” people who think the goal of life is to minimize conflict are liars; seekers of truth are necessarily “negative”: they are engaged with the horrors of reality. This is the final reclamation of the ultimate cliche: the light of the human spirit really does endure, not as a cold glow that remains still amidst the turbulence of existence, but as a white-hot flame that consumes as it empowers. We can only tend to it by embracing peril alongside pleasure, keeping our hearts open and our claws sharp, and refusing the easy escape of eternity. Reality doesn’t have corners, and it doesn’t have simple answers or convenient resolutions. It does have violent transgressions.
Shut up and carry on
I saw Metric last night, by which I mean just now, and I want to get some thoughts down while I’m still, you know, on fire.
I was mainly looking forward to “The Shade,” and it turned out to be way beyond anything I could have imagined. I mean, they played it straight, but for whatever reason the impact of it was totally unreal. I was seriously tensing up like my life was on the line. Emily Haines had a bit about how the “I want it all” part means the thing it clearly means and not the stupid thing that you’d have to be an idiot to think it means, which was obviously unnecessary, but that straightforwardness is part of why Metric is important. The fact that they’re all electronic-y now isn’t any kind of angle or maneuver, it’s just how they’re writing songs at this particular point in time. They did “Cascades,” for example, which is currently their most robotronic song, and they kind of played it up visually, but it wasn’t a “departure” in any way. This whole theme was established right away when they opened with “I.O.U.,” the first track off of their first (released) album. This wasn’t a throwback; they had the usual amount of weighting towards new stuff, though Haines threw in some a capella bits from “Hustle Rose” and “Combat Baby,” seemingly just for the hell of it. The point is that Metric has been fighting the same war all along. They’re one of the few bands around that feels definitively not lost, like there actually is a good future out there and they know what direction it’s in.
They did a group sing-along version of “Dreams So Real,” which actually worked. I mean, this is L.A., so at best half the people anywhere are going to be a bunch of blasé tourist assholes, but people were singing and I felt the ley lines of connection that really do exist beneath the filth-strewn surface of this garbage planet. And that’s the point: it’s a given right now that probably like 75% of the world is just dead gray nihilistic nonsense, so given that, what are you going to do about it? “Who wants to celebrate and who’s just fine to sit and wait?” Maybe this sounds easy, but it’s actually a problem for me. I’m a negative person, and while I consider my stance to be both valid and justified, that isn’t enough. If I actually hate banality more than I love the truth, then I’m a literal nihilist. I can’t allow that to be the case.
The big surprise was that they didn’t do “Stadium Love,” which is one of their big mission statement songs (they also gave up “Dead Disco,” so let it not be said that they aren’t moving forward). This is normally an extremely effective song; it’s powerful enough to completely destroy even a moderately large venue. But it was clear that the reason they didn’t do it was because they didn’t need to: that message was implicit in everything else they did. They’ve got an unbelievable range; they can build up the drama on “Artificial Nocturne,” tear it apart with “Too Bad, So Sad,” hold the tension in “Twilight Galaxy,” and bring it home with the now-traditional “campfire” version of “Gimme Sympathy.” They closed with “Breathing Underwater,” which was, as Haines pointed out, bittersweet, and as a result ultimately didn’t allow for cheap catharsis. Last time I saw them, on the tour for Synthetica, Haines said at the end of the show that she felt like the cowboy from The Big Lebowski. It’s certainly true right now that Metric abides, but given the current situation, it’s not really okay for us to merely take comfort in that fact. That’s why they’re giving it everything, and why they want us to feel the same.
If you’re anything
I had previously been aware that Nirvana covered the Devo song “Turnaround,” but I finally got around to actually listening to it. Turns out it’s amazing.
(This also applies to Nirvana in general. On account of when I grew up they were just kind of this indistinct looming presence; I had no motivation to actually listen to them until I saw a live video of them doing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song that had been floating vaguely in the background for most of my life, and actually heard it for the first time. I had the sudden realization that the reason all that shit happened was because there really was something there. It’s good to remember that there are secret circuits everywhere, even hidden in plain sight. Nirvana going down in history as nothing more than another Big Famous Band would be the only thing more tragic than what actually happened.)
Devo is what you might call a “philosophical” band, in a very broad sense of the term. They’re about ideas, and they convey those ideas from a particular sort of detached perspective. The human element is still there (especially when it comes to sex), but it’s presented as a sort of comic curiosity. Which is part of the point.
The Nirvana version of “Turnaround” is actually a standard-issue cover: it’s faithful to the songwriting of the original while implementing it in a new style. But in this case, this approach brings out the alternate dimension hidden in the song. The original takes petty human anxiety and transmutes it into cosmic horror through mocking understatement. The cover version, rougher and more visceral, brings it back to the personal, revealing that this view of the universe is ultimately based on projection: it’s our own hatred and emptiness that make the world the way it is. Kurt Cobain’s characteristic aggressive/self-loathing delivery makes the lyrics feel genuinely insulting; it turns banality into viciousness. Without, of course, obscuring the fact that those insults apply just as well to the person leveling them as they do to the target. It’s pretty scary.
I stole this idea from, uh, somewhere on the internet. You know how it is. Google’s giving me a bunch of horseshit, so I guess it’s a mystery.
Anyway. It’s 25 songs you heard for the first time this year. Play along at home!
Good albums of 2015
Lady Lamb the Beekeeper – After
Lady Lamb the Beekeeper a.k.a. Lady Lamb a.k.a. Aly Spaltro is pretty obviously an extreme talent. I saw her open for Kaki King a ways back and she clearly commanded attention. Her first album, Ripely Pine, was at least a cut and a half above the heartrending singer-songwriter mold. It was great overall, but one track, “Bird Balloons,” was a wild outlier, a tour de force that somehow did everything at once. After is a much more diverse album on which every track is at that level.
This album is an embarrassment of riches: there’s the tight frenzy of “Violet Clementine,” the ironically hymn-like “Heretic,” the wistfully upbeat “Milk Duds,” the roaring sorrow of “Dear Arkansas Daughter,” and the intensely stoic “Batter,” which takes place entirely in the last second before death. Spaltro has a knack for extracting big emotions out of tiny, even trivial details; “Billions of Eyes” spins an entire narrative thread out of a split-second of eye contract on a train. She’s also got a penchant for tempo shifts that add new dimensions to already great songs.
The fact that someone this talented isn’t hugely famous makes it obvious that we don’t live in a functioning society. On the other hand, fame actually sucks for everyone involved, so it’s better to leave it for the deranged types who care about fame itself, and let people who are actually trying to do something get on with it. But this implies that things are okay the way they are now, and that can’t be right.
Humans are supposed to learn
Colleen Green’s latest album is called I Want to Grow Up, and she’s not kidding. In addition to the fact that it’s a big step forward in terms of both songwriting and content, this is an inspiring, harrowing, exhilarating record that takes the promise of its title and runs with it. But what makes it a real achievement is that, while it may be a surprise, it’s not a departure; it’s an informed extension of her previous work.
For a while, Green’s M.O. was pretty straightforward: drum machine, Ramones guitars, breathy stoner vocals. It’s the kind of music that very much conveys the impression of one person working alone in a bedroom. But her songwriting skill is more then enough to overcome the novelty effect; the apparent simplicity of her approach is just disarming enough to draw you in for a serious engagement. Her previous album, Sock it to Me, brought this approach to its zenith.
The album starts off with a bunch of songs that are relationship-obsessed to a literally unbelievable degree. The opener, “Only One,” hits you right away with its ridiculous chorus: “oh yeah, uh huh, oh god, I really love my boyfriend.” The simplicity almost temps you into taking it at face value, but nobody’s that naive. It’s so over the top that it sort of commands you to figure out what’s really going on. And in fact, a little attention to the lyrics makes things perfectly clear:
My boyfriend is the best
He always knows just what to say to make me less depressed
Oh, uh, that’s nice . . .
And when he tells me that he wants only me
I get so dizzy I stop breathing his love totally kills me
Yeah. What’s happening here isn’t cute; it’s an expose of the viciousness embedded in society’s saccharine conception of relationships. The pop angle is entirely deliberate: this is what you should be hearing in every clueless radio love song.
That’s also why the masking of these songs’ true intent is deliberate. One of the reasons the post-Ramones “wall of sound” effect became ubiquitous is that it’s actually really versatile. It can be used to emphasize the vocals by placing them against a solid backdrop, or it can conceal them by smothering them in the haze. The softness of Green’s singing voice makes this effect even more pronounced. Here, both things happen: the happy choruses come across loud and clear, and you then have to dig for the buried verses to get the full picture. The effect is to portray a situation where the obvious surface meaning contradicts what’s really going on.
This continues through “Darkest Eyes,” which similarly starts off cute:
My boyfriend’s got the darkest eyes you’ve ever seen
Darker than midnight on Halloween
Then gets unnerving:
I tell him every day he’s the only one I wanna see
And his eyes look right through me
And finally settles on scary:
There’s no better way to keep appearances preserved
A razor to an optical nerve
This all makes the double meaning of the album’s title painfully clear:
When you say you love me
You know it’s music to me
And then you sock it to me
But this isn’t generic criticism. It’s coming from a particular perspective, which is what the second half of the album illuminates.
The appropriately dramatic transition starts with “Heavy Shit,” which isn’t just about, you know, what it says in the title, but specifically deals with the process of becoming informed of the fact that there are more serious things going on than your own relationship drama. Of course, as previously, the naivete here is feigned. It’s making the point that this is something that everyone has to deal with on a daily basis, that we are dealing with it, even though what seems like escapism.
“Every Boy Wants a Normal Girl” takes a turn towards theory. Despite the title, the song is not actually about relationships; it’s about the simultaneous loathing and longing we all feel toward the concept of normalcy (“doesn’t everyone, sometimes?”). “Normal” girls are “like the ones on TV,” i.e. they don’t exist. But that doesn’t stop people from acting as though normalcy was a real thing, from doing what they think everyone else thinks they’re supposed to do.
The catch is that you can’t just reject the script; if everyone else is operating under a certain set of assumptions, rejecting those assumptions means giving up on relating to anyone else. In relationship terms, it means giving up on love. Humanity’s highest value, the thing that’s supposed to transcend everything, is actually completely dependent on the mundane conditions of everyday life.
And this is where we start to get a handle on the album’s perspective. It’s looking at things as an engaged outsider, someone who’s nobody’s fool but has to play the fool in order to get along. She’s not willing to give up on love for the sake of consistency; she genuinely desires things she knows are ridiculous. This perspective is what creates the album’s odd duality of naivete and incisiveness.
Despite being the second to last song, “Taxi Driver” is the album’s core. It’s the song that finally provides a solid standpoint from which everything else can be understood.
I wanna be a taxi driver
That’s assuredly the career for me
The kind of job I could have forever
I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody
Of course, this doesn’t make sense; a taxi driver obviously does have to talk to people all the time. That’s why it’s a fantasy. And the fact that someone fantasizes about not having to talk to people means they’re an introvert, and that, finally, is what motivates the album’s approach: the tension between selfhood and social pressure. But this comes with the understanding that social pressure isn’t just a bad influence that you can push away, it’s a real thing that actually allows you to engage with other people. So the fact that it’s one or the other is actually an impossible choice.
The complicating factor here is that we don’t really have a social script that allows women to be introverts. It isn’t just relationships, either, it’s everything. Women are consistently expected to be emotional managers and to put their own needs second in all areas of life, and this makes it impossible for someone who doesn’t define themselves by their relationships with others to both engage with society and maintain their own identity. And this isn’t something you can just reject, either, unless you’re willing to give up on actually being able to relate to other people, at all. The lyrics finally break the metaphor in order to make the situation explicit: “sometimes I think I’m better off alone.”
And it’s on this dispiriting note that the album ends. Not only does “Taxi Driver” seem to conclude that selfhood necessitates loneliness, but the closer, “Number One,” makes an even more disturbing concession. (I was surprised to find out that this song is a cover, since it bookends the album so perfectly. I also wouldn’t have thought it to have been written by a man.) Here, the singer seems to weigh the scales and come to the conclusion that her only option is to give up her own self-definition. She resigns herself to accepting second place in her own life.
Luckily, this is a blatant contradiction. You can’t really write music about how you’re not expressing yourself. And the fact that this music is clearly written and performed primarily by one person heightens the contradiction. Even if the situation really is intractable, her response to it is still her own.
But this sort of approach ultimately amounts to wallowing; there’s never really nothing you can do. It’s important not be be naive, but cynicism is not an excuse for inaction. Accepting that you still have to do your best even though you know you’ll never be able to get what you want is part of what it means to grow up.
And that’s why I Want to Grow Up starts off with a bang. Not only has the sound been fleshed out with a full band, but the singsong pop vocals have been replaced with a wordier style and more varied delivery. This has contradictory effects: the fuller sound makes the songs feel more open and less claustrophobic, but the ambling, drawn-out lyrics have a very personal, stream-of-consciousness feel.
The album begins very officially, with the title track belting out an unmistakable statement of intent. There’s not much room to misunderstand what’s going on this time. This, along with the new style, makes it seem like the album is starting out by clearing the slate.
But straightforward doesn’t mean simplistic. The signer is not “resigning” herself to responsibility, she’s realizing that she needs to be responsible in order to get the things she actually wants. Despite the more open tone, there’s still a level of irony here. Just as Sock it to Me pretends to be a bunch of simplistic pop sings, a lot of the stuff on this album cues an “obvious” reading of the subject matter that is actually being subverted. For example, the singer here says “I’ve had my fun” and “I think I need a schedule,” but the reason for this is that she’s “sick of always being bored.” This contradiction deliberately problematizes the standard framing of “immaturity” as reckless hedonism and “adulthood” as boring responsibility. The truth is that neither of these constructions holds up: being responsible for something that matters is not boring, and hedonism actually sucks.
The rest of the album follows through on this complication. The direct follow-up to the title track is the two-part “Things That Are Bad for Me.” The first part takes the commitment and moves forward with a strong, steady rhythm that gives it a sense of surefootedness. The bold, wordy lyrics contain everything necessary to pull off a plan of self-improvement: “rid myself of toxicity,” “start listening to my own advice,” “change when things are going wrong.” The catch is that everything here is presented as obvious; the singer already knows what she has to do, so there shouldn’t be a problem. “It shouldn’t be that hard.” And yet.
The second part brutally transitions into the exact opposite: pure, useless self-pity. The transition between the two songs is instantaneous but unmistakable, like suddenly seeing the world through a negative filter. Downshifting from upbeat to slow and plodding, the second part falls from the heights of optimism and crashes straight into the gutter: “I wanna get fucked up, I don’t care how.”
The two-part song structure brilliantly illustrates the fundamental connection between these two perspectives. It isn’t just that we sometimes (always) fail to live up to our ideals, it’s that the very act of attempting to do so is what causes us to fail. It’s precisely the anxiety of knowing what we have to do that freaks us out so bad that we plunge back into our worst habits – things that we know are bad for us. “Kick another habit, find another replacement.”
But the negativity here actually goes deeper than that. Specifically, it goes deeper than love.
In addition to being really, really amazing, this song is the black hole at the center of this album. It’s a revelation of the album’s motivating anxieties, the things that you specifically attempt to avoid by talking about other, easier stuff instead. The simple rhythm and solid, engaging bass line create a undercurrent of tension that colors the soft vocals, turning their normally detached quality into an engaged fearfulness. This gives the lyrics the powerful sense of an internal monologue, making it seem like they really are coming from the part of yourself that you try to ignore.
The lyrics really run the gamut, imparting a sort of panic attack aspect, but they center around the fear of intimacy. This is more than just psychological, it’s grounded in material conditions: the social constructions that forcibly organize our lives and the hard limits of biology. The knowledge of all this impossibility adds up to a paralyzing fear. The lyrics specifically contrast actual death with the inherent self-negation of intimacy to make the point that the latter is worse, that some of us would rather die than let go of ourselves.
Unfortunately, there’s a solution: “remove the brain and leave the body in charge.” If the problem is that intimacy can’t be reconciled with selfhood, then the self doesn’t need to be involved at all. We can take a purely functional approach to relationships – and to everything else. We can interact with others on a purely “scientific” basis: accept their inputs and provide the correct outputs. We can act out our roles, and keep track of what works and what doesn’t work, and do all the things that normal people are supposed to do, and none of it has to affect our actual selves in any way. From a certain perspective, this is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
And despite the psychological aspect, there’s ultimately nothing idiosyncratic about this. It’s precisely where we’re going as a society. We’re rapidly gaining the ability to manage our lives and interactions to a degree that makes spontaneity untenable. It’s become so easy to just “follow the data” that we don’t even bother trying to figure things out anymore. As an obvious and appropriately banal example, we can talk with a straight face about how a piece of “content” is going to “perform” totally irrespective of what (if anything) it’s actually about. We’ve given up on meaning and settled for efficacy. We’re all functionalists now.
The horrifying line that opens this song makes it seem like a shocking departure, but it’s actually saying the same thing we saw earlier in “Only One,” it’s just no longer cute. Thus, it’s crucial to understand that this song is an outlier only in terms of intensity; it’s coming from the same place as everything else. In the same way, many of the songs on I Want to Grow Up reprise the themes of Sock it to Me from a different angle.
Most obviously, “Wild One” is a callback to the first album’s focus on relationships (the form of the title is the same as the bookends from Sock it to Me). In keeping with the “new beginning” theme of the opener, this song seems to be saying goodbye to that old approach in order to start moving forward. But the tone is largely regretful; it doesn’t imply a clean break. The singer hasn’t actually moved on, she just doesn’t have any choice other than to give up.
What this means is that the relationship angle hasn’t actually been let go. It’s been sublimated; it’s part of what this album is talking about. It notably comes up in both parts of “Things That Are Bad for Me.” In Part I, as part of the song’s positive affirmations, “the first thing I’ll do is get away and stay from you,” and in Part II, as part of the bad habits the singer regresses to, “I really wish you were here right now.” There aren’t two separate issues here, there’s one situation.
The focus on introversion from “Taxi Driver” returns on “TV” and “Pay Attention,” which are ironically the most accessible and fun songs on the album. The contrast on “Pay Attention” is particularly hilarious: it’s extremely upbeat, practically a party song, but it’s about not being able to hold up your end of a conversation. And the irony here is significant: both songs act cute when they’re actually deeply negative. Not only that, but the negativity is explicitly banal. The big promises articulated in the opener end up being ground down by the pettiest possible forces.
“TV” is a reverse feint. Everything about it cues an ironic reading; it deliberately buys in to every cliche about TV’s vapidity. The singer uses TV as a substitute for social interaction, comforts herself with it because it’s “easier than being with somebody else,” and can only relate to other people by mediating those relationships through TV. But none of this is the point, because the song isn’t actually about TV. The lyrics use the word “TV,” but they never actually say anything about it; it’s all “I” statements about the singer’s emotional state. This is why the ironic reading is wrong: like the rest of the album, this song is completely straightforward. By refusing any sort of defensive posture, the song takes the “debate” over TV out of the realm of moral hyperventilating and overwrought theory and brings it back to the personal level, where it should have been in the first place.
And this is why the banality of the subject matter is intentional, because it provides an important grounding to the emotional content. “Pay Attention” in particular is about small talk, which is literally the most banal thing. But the problem wth banality is precisely that you can’t just ignore it, it’s stuff that you actually have to deal with. Part of getting serious means working on the basics – the very basics. Sometimes you really do have to make a conscious effort just to pay attention, even when it seems like it’s “just as well” if you don’t bother.
The longing for normalcy from “Every Boy Wants a Normal Girl” is picked up by “Some People,” which again takes a more theoretical stance. It has a focus on superficiality that recalls the terrible conclusion of “Deeper Than Love”: everything would be fine if we could just get over ourselves and do what we’re supposed to. This is why all the details mentioned in the song are, again, totally banal: it’s a way to “fit in” without compromising anything about your real self, to do things “empirically.” If the introvert’s paradox is that holding on too strongly to your sense of self allows the outside world to define you as it pleases, then the resolution is to strategically give in to the world’s demands while keeping your self-definition to yourself.
But what motivates the wistful quality of the song (as well as the sarcastic dig implied by the title) is that acting this way is obviously impossible. This provides a sort of failsafe: it’s actually really hard to do what seems like really basic stuff to fit in when that stuff goes against your self-conception. If we accept that this sort of “empiricism” is one of the great dangers of our time, then the intransigence of the self, the very thing that makes our desires seem impossible to fulfill, becomes a sort of saving grace.
Finally, “Grind My Teeth” takes “Heavy Shit” and makes it even heavier. Actually, this results in an odd inversion: the title of “Heavy Shit” is partially a joke; it’s denotatively serious while referring to the fact that the song itself is kind of goofy, while “Grind My Teeth” takes a seemingly cutesy title and turns it into serious fucking business. The thrashy sections at the beginning and end of the song are connected by a slow-burning middle that creates a deeply unnerving tension through the apocalyptic imagery of a destroyed human face.
More to the point, this song actually connects the dots. It starts off by providing what seems like an easy interpretive out:
Can’t help but picture you with
Someone other than me
Such a sickening image
It makes me grind my teeth
Then the dramatic tempo shift presages a refocusing of the subject matter:
Fragile teeth bear the pressure
Of a generation failing
Which confirms, if you hadn’t already noticed, that nothing here is escapist or self-pitying, it’s all borne out of a deep concern for the present situation. Finally, the hard-rocking beginning is reprised at the end, but with the content shift intact:
They wanna wire my brain
And try to control me
The sad fate of my planet
It makes me grind my teeth
This construction explicitly links the relationship angle to serious concerns about the world, spinning the breadth of subjects on both albums into a single tight braid. The buried anxieties from “Deeper Than Love” are what motivate the behaviors described in all the other songs, and the reason all of this matters is because it actually determines the fate of humanity. I mean, let’s not beat around the bush, the cause of global warming is patriarchy. A man beating his wife is the same thing as a robber baron dumping pollutants into a river. It’s not just that our relationships are central to our experience as human beings, it’s that the way we conceptualize relationships is the same as the way we conceptualize all of our other issues, from everything as big as the physical planet to as small as our subjective selves. This, for example, is why the banal subject matter of “Pay Attention” actually matters: how do you expect to do anything about the state of the world when you can’t even handle one person?
And this is when Colleen Green plays the ace up her sleeve. The real surprise is that the album ends on a note of unambiguous, inspiring optimism in “Whatever I Want.” The seemingly bratty title is important for the contrast it draws. The first and last tracks on this album are both based on childish statements – caring about what counts as “adult” is a characteristic of children; wanting to grow up demonstrates that you’re not there yet – but again, the standard framing for this is wrong: “growing up” doesn’t mean giving up on what you want, it means doing what you want for real. Just as the album begins with a conventional sentiment employed in an unconventional way, so does the ending take a seemingly petty perspective and turn it into something deeply mature. It brushes off the anxiety and insecurity of the rest of the album for a cool, clear statement of purpose. Amazingly, after an exhaustive description of why there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done, the conclusion is that what we can actually do is anything.
But this shouldn’t be a surprise, because we’ve already seen that the strength of the self really is all it’s cracked up to be. There really is “no reason to conform” and no obligation to “take advice from fools.” There’s ultimately no such thing as compromise; with our everyday actions, we continually create the situation that we have to live with. This is the fundamental insight that opens up the possibility of transcendence: “the world I live in’s a design of my own.” Being an adult means accepting this responsibility. And “now, more than ever before,” this is the necessary response to an irresponsible society, one that pretends to be sober and serious, but is in fact run by children.