In Defense of Aesthetic Contingency

Le Spleen de Paris causes me much pain; mayhaps I should get it removed

Compiling and reading end-of-year, and, good lord, END-OF-DECADE lists, can be an exhausting and unrewarding process. I thought about making a list of my favorite movies from the past year, but then I realized that my list would contain 5 or 10 of the same movies as everybody else’s list. I got bored just thinking about how much I liked The Hurt Locker, and it is sad when the best art is robbed of its exhilarating properties by the expected, codified way critics note their “favorites.”

Furthermore, we all know that there are objectively good and bad things that came out this year–we hardly need a list to sum it up if we’ve been paying attention. Daftpop was supposed to avoid shit like that, because it was originally conceived in appreciation for the subjectivities and contingencies of artistic taste, which is to say that daftpop wants to celebrate what a person feels drawn to and ends up loving the most. And let not this celebration of individual artistic taste be confused with the stupid egoism of some critics (more on this in a minute). The daftpop quest is to discover how we make our aesthetics, and that is a rather grand quest.

Baudelaire wrote in “Wagner and Tannhauser in Paris,” one of his more enjoyable long-winded essays on aesthetics, that writing from the “I” point of view binds the writer within the strictest confines of sincerity and truth. Now, I personally don’t prioritize sincerity or truth as important virtues when writing, but I do think these qualities are more integral to criticism than, say, disingenuous posing, mindless trend-following and stubborn contrariness, which together make the triumvirate of bad critical thinking. Baudelaire builds on his concept about “I,” by close reading the Tannhauser reviews by other respected critics. He then draws parallels between the critics’ subjective perceptions of the Wagner opera and calls the reader’s attention to the uncanny similarities between his, Berlioz, Musset and god-kn0ws-who-else’s-thoughts on the opera. From there, Baudelaire builds his totally psychedelic theory of “synesthesia,” the idea that great art can elicit the same experience in all those who encounter it. I am not talking about synesthesia here, in fact it’s pretty much contrary to my plan, but I did want to talk about the “I,” and the strength of subjective responses to art.

So in the spirit of not codifying a damn thing, and by humbling myself to the majesty of Art (a la Baudelaire), this week I will just write about my favorite encounters with “art” this year. These will include arts high and low… so watch out.

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Pitchfork Continually Surprised by Talented Women Musicians

Pretty, pretty princess who you maybe could possibly take seriously, i mean, if you're into the earth mother goddess sort thing, dude.
Pretty, pretty princess whom you maybe could possibly take seriously, i mean, if you're into the earth mother goddess sorta thing, dude.

Like many music enthusiasts in the world, I have a love/hate relationship with Pitchfork. My most exhilarating encounters with music criticism occurred while reading Brent DiCrescenzo’s outrageous (yet emotionally stirring!!!) reviews while I was still in high school. Pitchfork has informed the way I conceptualize music; it created the first paradigm for richly informed, detailed, obsessive music criticism, thereby driving the blurb-driven snark machines of Rolling Stone and Spin into the bitter, bitter dirt of irrelevance.  Also, Pitchfork has contributed to my vision for a blog like this one, in which I deconstruct a Beyonce single in like 1000 words.

Back in 2005, DiCrescenzo wrote a column chronicling various indie prototypes created in Pfork’s reviews, among them an intellectual female artist known as “The Stef,” and the freak-man-boy known as “The Sloth.” In it, he describes Pitchfork writer’s analyses (both underlying and upfront) of women musicians:

Specifically, writers paint Fiona Apple and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall as hormonally capricious victim-savants and read all their lyrics like Psy.D parents unlocking a daughter’s pink diary, while Devendra Banhart’s jabberwocky skews as fecund genius.

and later…

When convenient, male songwriters slip into omniscient skin to amuse and illuminate, while female songwriters meddle in their first-person emotions, unable to escape the black hole of their romantic astrology. Naturally, emotional analysis always overshadows technical musicianship in Stef reviews.

In other words, reviewers focus on the emotional qualities of women artists’ work, while they are more generous with men, granting them agency over their identity.

Too bad no one ever heeded his words over at the magazine. Despite Pfork’s “Best New Music” section featuring a larger proportion of women-led acts than perhaps ever before, the language of the reviews stirs in me a reaction similar to that of feminist bloggersresponses to The New Republic’s recent profile of Sonya Sotomayor. (That’s a whole ‘nother controversy, but one that revolves around the reading of a female subject through a lens of motherhood and unhinged emotionality.) Do a close, or fuck, a distant reading of some of these reviews, and all the acceptable feminine identities are neatly rolled out in a matter of four goddamn sentences, then the woman artist in question will be shoved into each and every niche, until she is a sex symbol, a princess (!!), a mother, and an earth-goddess.

So, czech out the latest example, from the review of St. Vincent’s Actor.

Annie Clark, the musician otherwise known as St. Vincent, projects an aura of eerie perfection– beautiful, poised, good-humored, and well-adjusted to a degree uncommon for rock performers, let alone ordinary people. She’s clearly not oblivious to her disarming qualities. On the covers of both her albums, her wide eyes and porcelain features give her the appearance of a cartoon princess come to life, and in the songs contained therein, she sings with the measured, patient tones of a benevolent, maternal authority figure. The thing that separates Clark from any number of earth mother Lilith Fair types, however, is her eagerness to subvert that effect. Her album covers may showcase her pretty face, but her blank expression and the tight framing leave the images feeling uncomfortably ambiguous. Her voice and arrangements are often mellow and soothing, but those sounds mainly serve as context as she exposes undercurrents of anxiety and discomfort hidden just beneath a gorgeous façade.

Clearly, St. Vincent has an authoritative presence; but the critic here qualifies her assertive vocal tendencies as “maternal,” for no reason I can tell other than Ms. Clark has a woman’s voice. And, Lilith Fair? I don’t hear much 90’s lesbian music going on here; St. Vincent is more akin to those indie musicians pushing the classical envelope. Again, the only thing I imagine would conjure such a comparison would be her womanly voice.

Also, she’s a pretty pretty princess.

If Dicrescenzo is arguing that critics assume an insulting lack of agency on the behalf of women artists’ identities, this review pats St. Vincent on the back for being shifty; she has stealthily avoided all the traps pfork has set up for her.

Behold:

With that in mind, the album is perfectly titled, as Actor proves St. Vincent as an artist capable of crafting believable, complicated characters with compassion, insight, and exacting skill.

“Thanks, guys! I am capable!” I’m certain that’s what Ms. Clark was thinking when she read that.

You know who else is capable? Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan. Check out the last sentence of the recent review of Two Suns:

Not only does Khan hold her own, there are moments when she holds his, too [on the song The Big Sleep]. That she’s capable of doing so is evidence enough that we should be paying attention.

Apparently Pfork needs a lot of proof from the women artists they review. I find it uncanny, not to mention lazy, that these two reviews end almost identically. Furthermore, the fact that Khan “holds her own” with a man is supposed to prove to us we can pay attention now? Thanks for the permission.

Then again, I am relieved that the critic even came to that conclusion, given his best efforts to totally undermine the seriousness or aesthetic worth of Bat For Lashes in his opening sentence:

Natasha Khan likes pretty things: fur, gold, melody, the moon, feathers, things that sparkle, chords that resolve.

The thing I am most shocked about is the weird lack of awareness running through these articles. Aren’t these music critic dudes at all sensitive to the potentially cringe-inducing usage of words like, “capable” or “pretty” or “maternal?” Didn’t these hip young men ever take a gender studies class? Don’t their girlfriends get annoyed with them? Have they ever talked to a woman?

I am not proposing censorship, I am proposing a little sensitivity. I am delighted that women artists are being reviewed favorably by Pfork, but I won’t be satisfied until they apply the language they use in reviews of dude bands/acts to the womenfolk.

Star Trek: The Feminist Generation

I'm understanding, but I'm capable too. Don't fuck with this.
Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.

The XX Factor, Slate’s feminist blog and one of the Internet’s foremost feminist blogs, recently ran an interesting analysis of the show Battlestar Gallactica, and asked if the show is indeed as feminist as it is purported to be.

The post veers off from Battlestar and does a spot-on critique of women’s role in the genre of science fiction. However, I’ve got a bone to pick with their mention of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which seems to me an all-too-quick dismissal of the show based on the attire of Deanna Troi.

To fans, this show is simply known as TNG, and I will refer to it as such here on out. I think now and will think forever that TNG is the most politically progressive thing ever shown on television. For those who have not had the pleasure of watching it, please understand that TNG is not about shooting lasers at aliens or fantastic battles in space (well, most of the time). The show is a sincere study of the questions of the universe, including but not limited to: What is being? How do we define humanity? What is the ultimate goal of human existence? It grapples with the delicate balances of interpersonal relationships. It examines the role of humanitarian intervention and asks how best to proceed with interplanetary diplomacy with concern for cultural difference. In short, this show is deep.

As for its take on gender, an old friend once pointed out to me that all the main women characters have jobs that could fall into a stereotyped category, such as care-giver (doctor) or feelings-examiner (counseler).

And as XX points out, Deanna is quite scantily clad, at least in the first season (she is wearing a rather 60’s looking mini-dress), but this omits the fact that Tasha Yar is the CHIEF OF SECURITY in the first season. That’s right–a woman is the pre-Warf head of security! And she’s not just a man in a woman’s body–she can be sexy if she wants to and her toughness is derived from escaping the rape gangs on her civil war-torn home planet. One of the most feminist episodes has to be “Code of Honor” (although, unfortunately, this episode is rather racist, employing stereotypes of macho tribal cultures to heighten our sense of the Enterprises’ progressive attitudes toward gender). When the macho leader of the planet arrives on the Enterprise to discuss giving the Federation a much-needed vaccine, he becomes enchanted by Tasha Yar’s strength. He explains that on his planet, women aren’t in positions of military power.

So he kidnaps Tasha and plans to make her his lover. On the macho tribe planet, Tasha goes to battle with leaders lover (and financier) and she TRIUMPHS with weapons she’s never even practiced with before! Jean Luc Picard politely explains to the leader that where he is from, people believe women are just as strong and smart as men. Other characters snicker about the barbarism of a people who could possess such an antiquated attitude.

Too bad Tasha is portrayed by terrible, humorless actor Denise Crosby (who, after being kicked out during the first season, mysteriously returns a few years later to play a Romulan [who turns out to be Tasha Yar’s daughter in a parallel universe, or something like that]). ANYWAY! If you’ve seen nearly every one of the 178 episodes, explaining the plot begins to be a problem.

TNG also tactfully avoids sex and romantic entanglement beyond the PG-13 rating. All characters prioritize their careers above romance, including the women. Women are also to be observed in the highest ranks of Star Fleet, thank you very much.

Finally, the beloved Deanna Troi, though something of a sensitive, new age 90’s stereotype of a person, is a lovely character who derives strength, wisdom and even power from her emotional prowess. We are supposed to value her for her mind, not her bod. In later seasons, Deanna even decides to train in order to captain the ship, if need be. She learns all the technical stuff women aren’t supposed to learn and even trains in combat, all while maintaining her rather feminine mystique.

In other words, TNG is not sexist, but a nuanced portrayal of a team of characters. Most of the time.

Cathartathon

Feel it in your heart now.
Feel it in your heart now.

So, I used to love the Smashing Pumpkins.

What I am about to say embarrasses me, but so few people look at this blog that the security factor is approximately the same as writing this to myself in one of my journals.

When I was in high school, one of my most transcendent and religious experiences occurred not while I prayed with thousands of “pilgrims” at the feet of JPII, not while I pondered the meanings of the universe via Mr. McCurry’s philosophy class, not when my mind got blown after reading Tuesday Lobsang Rampa’s weirdass Buddhist/science fiction book, “The Third Eye.” Religion be darned, the only altar I ever knew was rocknroll’s. Billy Corgan once said that rocknroll was like god to a 15-year-old, and I concur wholeheartedly. Thus, my most transcendent experience occurred while listening to the song Thru The Eyes of Ruby, aka track 7 off “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” that 2-album long bombast of Billy Corgan and friends.

The wind was blowing through my open window. It was March. Ruby is on the blue disc of Mellon Collie. Blue (Twilight to Starlight, as it was called) stood for night. And sadness. Infinite sadness. The pink disc (Dawn to Dusk) was for the day-time. Get it? All the rockin’ singles were from the pink disc (Bullet with Butterfly Wings, Zero). All the contemplative songs were from the blue one (Thirty Three, 1979).

So, Thru the Eyes of Ruby isn’t about much of anything, unless you’re into hardcore Billy Corgan mythology. Who is Ruby? Doubtless someone in the self-indulgent world of Billy: a codename for a lover or a mother, probably. What does the song sound like? Like a prototypical rock epic from the 90’s. It’s a little psychedelic, a little metal, a little emo. I can be callous about it now, but this song pulled at my heart-strings good and long. There are lots of sweeping crescendos and decrescendos, serpentine guitar lines and then slow building to the CLIMAX OF ROCKPOCALYPSE!!!

In other words, I was a sucker for Wagner operas condensed into rocknroll formats. And I still am.

So, for you listening pleasure (and pain!), and hopefully also mine, I am compiling a list of the most cathartic songs (for me). Once the songs are compiled, the subsequent playlist would clearly be called “Catharathon,” as is, a marathon of catharsis.

Thus far I have thought of these tracks.

1. Hounds of Love (Kate Bush)

2. Solitary Man (Neil Diamond)

3. Daniel (Bat For Lashes [I know this is a new one so it is not tested by time. But clearly, it’s a great song for all time.])

4. The Rat (Walkmen)

5. Sunday Bloody Sunday (u2)

6. Jesus Walks (Kanye West)

7. Hey Joni (Sonic Youth)

8. How Soon Is Now (The Smiths)

9. Black Swan (Thom Yorke) [or, Radiohead’s I Will, Pyramid Song, Street Spirit {remember that one?!}, etc]

You get the idea, right? These are the most classic songs from pretty much the most classic people. There are hundreds of other songs that have made me weep a tear of empathetic sadness, shake a fist in empathetic rage, rejoice in emphatetic delight, but these are perhaps the ones who helped me have the most meaningful cathartathons.

The-Dream Offers Song of 2085

Kanye rides an expensive Italian bike to the moon to meet the-Dream
Kanye rides an expensive Italian bike to the moon to meet the-Dream

Today The-Dream comes out with Love vs Money, his newest full length album.  I must say, the battle between love and money is truly eternal (and a much more fruitful and thought-provoking dichotomy than say, Love/Hate, the title of the-Dream’s last album, right?). I find my milli interfering with love all the time. “Is this really love in the club?” I think just about every other night, as a scantily clad cocktail server opens the third bottle of $300 Champagne and pours the bubbly for me and my man muffin du jour.

OMG! The-Dream is 19 but he’s already written some of the defining hits of recent years, including Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”

His track with Kanye, entitled “Walkin’ On the Moon,” recalls Michael Jackson in ways beyond the “moonwalking” connotation.

Mark my words, this will be the hit of 2009.

The song begins with the-Dream calling, “Hello? Hello?” into the silent abyss of space. Then, like a spaceship captained by George Clinton, a sparkling, laser-like screech of strings cuts through the lunar loneliness and lands on the surface. The-Dream soon finds his comfort zone and sweetly falsettos us to the next galaxy. He also declares the year is 2085, which everyone knows will be the year man finally reaches the moon.

When Kanye comes in, he destroys the-Dream’s sentimental reverie about out-of-this-world girls and begins another pouting session about fame. It is unclear whether he is mocking or worshipping the person he’s singing about, and furthermore, whether or not he is singing about a self-centered woman or himself. If it’s about him, we can read his rhyme as a sort of meta-analysis of himself, from the perspective of an out-of-body Kanye looking at himself walk by on the red carpet, hop into the ‘rari’ and roar away into starry-eyed oblivion.

The Past and Future of JT & Clipse

all we're missing is some wall coverings
no, really, we're extremely comfortable with our new found wealth. all we need is some wall coverings.
even corn rows couldn't give me cred in 2002
even corn rows couldn't give me cred in 2002

JT!!!!!!!!!! I love Justin Timberlake. But where he at? When is he going to come out with the follow-up of FutureSexLoveSounds? As Jepp once remarked to me, JT is “the go-to bitch of hip hop,” that is, he lends his heavenly pipes to guest artist on a lot of hip hop tracks. But JT hasn’t been the main show since 2006!

In new news, he’s lately released a single with the thoroughly uninspiring Ciara, entitled “Love Sex Magic.” (Didn’t someone tell them that those words remind everyone of the cringe-inducing RHCP album title from the 90’s?) The song isn’t bad, but for how expensive it probably was to make, I’m sure I could pound something like it out on that Sony keyboard I had growing up. It’s got a mechanical wannabe-Stevie Wonder-funk edge to it–but unlike anything by Stevie, this funk lacks anything organic or sexy about it. Ciara can’t make me believe in love or sex or magic since her voice is so vocoder slick that it slides right by without being noticed.

Some of JT’s guest appearances have kept me amused since 2006, notably his extensive collaborations with stand-up guy T.I. and the extremely low-baller Duran Duran song “Night Runner,” (seriously, was this recorded in a shoe box?! I have scowered the internetz for a decent recording, and they all sound like this one!)

But mostly I just have to endlessly re-listen to his two flawless albums Justified and FutureSexLoveSounds.

Something I noticed upon a recent re-listen: the song “Like I Love You” features Pusha T and Malice from Clipse!!! What are the coke-dealing Virginia gangstas doing with JT on his first album, when he had absolutely no street cred? Answer: Pharell produces. The combination isn’t as baffling as I had originally imagined.

Back in 2002, when this song came out, Clipse had barely released Lord Willin‘. It seems Pharell was helping the Clipse boys fish the lucrative pop-crossover market. Sadly, it didn’t work, and Clipse still doesn’t have the fame they deserve. For Christ’s sake, Clipse’s forthcoming album is morbidly entitled Till the Casket Drops, as though they’re expecting the grim reaper to appear at any moment and take them away from rapping. If the album is anything as bitter as its accompanying mixtape, Road to Till the Casket Drops, then we can expect some more revelations on their Greek obsessions with fate and death.

Don’t let me down, Clipse and JT! Maybe you could collaborate in 2010?

Beyonce Slowly Turning into Robot

Darth Vader may be my father too
Darth Vader may be my father too

By now most of you are certainly familiar with the concept of Beyonce’s album I Am…Sasha Fierce. The ‘I Am’ portion, by Beyonce’s own admittance, is the musical revelation of her true self–it’s full of sappy balads and home to the new cathartathon single “Halo.” The other half portrays the aggressive personality ‘Sasha Fierce,’ and is the album portion responsible for the first single “Single Ladies.” Said song is the urban soundtrack du jour, as many a young lady has changed her ringtone to the liberated-woman anthem, providing much needed respite from A Milli’s 2008 ringtone monopoly.

“Single Ladies,” despite its energetic Motown robot-minimalist stomp, is nothing new for the Beyonce oeuvre, as it is basically rewording sentiments previously expressed in “Independent Woman.”

But “Diva,” the new Sasha single, asserts Beyonce’s stardom in new and stark terms. This song and the VIDEO, good lord, are remarkable for a number of reasons. (I apologize for not embedding it directly onto the website; Beyonce and Sony Music won’t let me.) In order to prevent myself from writing a term paper about the video/song onslaught of signifieds, I will break it down into categories:

Musical Inspiration:

This is the most ferocious song Beyonce has had anything to do with to date. Sure, “Upgrade U” was a good old fashioned Jay Z money power jam, and the track was so hot that Wayne sampled it immediately. But “Diva” has the menacing strings of a Southern Siren crunk song–not siren like Odyssean siren, but siren like DMX siren, sirens announcing that a riot is about to burn down your block.

Vocal Motifs:

Beyonce is clearly a little out of her element with all the post-Dizzee vocal swoops going on here. She’s not a rapper, but she’s tapping the market in the absence of a mainstream lady hiphop sensation a la Lil Kim. Diva vocal performances normally entail masterful manipulation of one’s pipes; Beyonce’s vocal track subverts the former concept of “Diva” (for the duration of the song, at least) by having nothing to do with the definition provided for us at the beginning of the video.

Visual Cues:

ROBOT! Constructivist-inspired dresses form an armor on B’s body; her clothes are not garments but architecture–the shape of inhuman things. Where in “Single Ladies” she was wearing essentially a bathing suit and a robot glove, here she’s got a whole arsenal of Blade Runner vests, arches?, jackets, and dresses (and the glove appears briefly for one moment).

Textual Themes:

This song is soooo post-Paper Planes: “This is a stick-up stick-up/Where’re them bags of that money?” But it’s also just Jay Z. What I want to know is how much B had anything to do with the writing of this song. If I were to look at this from a relationship perspective, I would say this song is a reflection of an unfortunate power struggle going on between B and her spouse. The song asserts an equivalency between divas and hustlas, and clearly, Jigga is one of the most notable “hustlas” in the game. It makes me, a feminist, uncomfortable that I have to point out this uncomfortable comparison being drawn between the two. But on the other hand, it’s B who’s saying “A diva is the female version of a hustla/of a hustla/of a hustla.” She is not casting her identity in new terms, she is co-opting one that is already familiar to us. But is this to her detriment or to her advantage? As a feminist, I would have to say it’s to her detriment. B, you can be the best supermegahuge star in the world and not have to be the female version of a hustla! I swear!

But then you could accuse me of narrow-mindedness and a belief in prescribed gender roles for musicians–that is, women can be Divas and men can be Hustlers, but fray not the lines between them. But I ain’t saying B isn’t allowed to be whatever she wants to be, I’m just saying she already is ENUF as it is, without having to add on a hiphop persona.

However, the video would only signify that Beyonce is only in competition with other women, not male superstars like her husband. In the beginning of the video we get a shot of a creepy hairless white mannequin. At the end of the video she slams the door on a trunk-load of white mannequin legs. The video is telling us that Beyonce is no Britney or Lindsey; she smashes the competition, then she lights them on fire. They are all the same! They are dispensable! Exterminate! Delete! Exterminate! Delete! FUTURE BEYONCE: 1 OTHER POP STARS: 0

ROBOT BEYONCE WINS.

Do you like my Kanye glasses? I one-upped his ass.
Do you like my Kanye glasses? I one-upped his ass.