Tagged: Kate Bush

Playing Along with St. Vincent and EMA

In her first appearance on Saturday Night Live’s season finale last May, St. Vincent performed “Digital Witness.” Apart from being struck by how great she sounded (more of an exception than a rule for SNL), I found it compelling how singer Annie Clark harnessed the televisual potential of her stage show by referencing her nervous tics in director Chino Moya’s “Digital Witness” video. In the clip, Clark punctuates the ends of phrases by stiffly nodding her head to the side as green-, yellow-, and blue- replicants march, tap, and roll pencils in a Futurist office space and business park.

On SNL, Clark and bassist/keyboardist Toko Yasuda elaborated upon the video’s dance routine—created by choreographer Annie-B Parson—so that it scaled for both television and the stage. Their movements were more exaggerated. They used dance as an opportunity to interact with each other and their instruments. Clark also took her pulse and performed other gestures that weren’t in the clip. The performance simultaneously recalled collaborator David Byrne’s “big suit” dance to “Girlfriend Is Better” in Stop Making Sense and the Supremes’ Ed Sullivan Show appearances. In truth, you can’t have one without the other. That’s probably why Byrne also commissioned dances from Parson. After all, punk bands learned how to dress alike and write short songs by playing along to the Shangri-Las and the Crystals.

St. Vincent’s choreography visualizes the song’s commentary on technology’s role in turning existence into a series of naturalized, performative gestures and interactions. Clark’s jerky execution suggests that these routines can cause us to short-circuit, particularly when we buckle under the restraint of isolated tasks or when people don’t notice that we’re doing them. Yet there’s also a ritual to mundane activities like checking email, browsing through a reader feed, and refreshing Facebook—things I do while sipping my morning coffee.

Though these gestures are not explicitly religious (though they could be, given Clark’s thematic convictions), they appear weightier and more deliberate when represented through choreography. In this way, St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” dance recalls EMA’s routine for her apocalyptic 2010 single, “California,” a place vulnerable to a Biblical reckoning precipitated by menstruation, youth, loss, paranoia, and other human follies rescued by the divine. Through dance, Erika M. Anderson articulates the slippage between the sacred and the profane. In her hands, a weapon becomes the cross.

In Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance, Kiri Miller advocates the pedagogical utility of video games like Guitar Hero, as well as online instructional videos. By mobilizing “genres of participation,” a concept first advanced by cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito in her co-authored book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, Miller convincingly argues that gameplay can help users develop their creative and technical skills as musicians. It also problematizes neat distinctions between amateur and professional instrumentalists.

I’m not sure how to apply “genres of participation” to choreography. I can. Learning to perform Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance requires more than rote memorization. You have to be able to count. You have to be able to contort your body in time to the music, anticipating every turn and kick. Dancing as part of a crowd also requires sensitivity not just to the recording, but to ensemble’s internal rhythm. Too much spin or stretch in one dancer’s steps can ruin the illusion of uniformity. But there’s also virtuosity at work in dance that blurs easy distinctions between who originated the routine and who imitated it. I remember seeing two female cheerleaders face off to Britney Spears’ “Oops!…I Did It Again” at a high school Sadie Hawkins dance. By the first chorus, I was so mesmerized by their precision and skill that I had trouble identifying where the Britney on television ended and the Brittany in the cafeteria began.

Jackson and Spears’ dance routines clearly exist as genres of participation. Fans demonstrate their commitment to pop idols by replicating their moves. For some, such performances also serve as an indication of their own talents. Spears became a performer by playing along with Michael Jackson. Historically, dance is how fans are perceived to participate in pop music. As scholars like Norma Coates have persuasively claimed, rock was legitimated through discourses that removed the genre from feminized leisure activities like dancing and situated it within hegemonically masculine cultural practices like criticism, collecting, and instrument instruction. In order for rock to function as a genre of participation, you could pick up a typewriter, a record, or a guitar. You couldn’t get down.

At the risk of making yet another facile comparison between contemporary concept-oriented female recording artists and Kate Bush, the gestural choreography on “Digital Witness” and “California” recalls how Bush used her face, hands, and body to represent Heathcliff and Cathy’s desire on “Wuthering Heights.” Of course, such comparisons require us to consider how Bush’s decision to train under renowned choreographer Lindsay Kemp might serve as indication that she first became “Kate Bush” by playing along to David Bowie.

Ultimately, what I find compelling about St. Vincent and EMA’s choreography is how it opens up rock as a genre of participation by reclaiming dance as one of its essential features. Most of St. Vincent and EMA’s fans might still show their appreciation by picking up guitars and raising their voices, which is great. I’ve never seen people dance along to “Digital Witness” or “California” in concert. I haven’t bothered to learn the routines myself, which I should reconsider. But as a fan, I cannot deny the importance of those gestures, what they mean to their corresponding songs, and how it allows fans different ways to play along with their heroines.

Making Hrrrstory

So I just got off the phone with a colleague’s student who’s doing a ‘zine project on feminism and music. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to start your day talking about riot grrrl with a teenage girl.

I teach music history workshops with Girls Rock Camp out of an investment with creating a space for girls to recognize that they are entering into an ongoing history of women and girls coming together to make music. In addition, there’s some important historical moments happening right now. So I thought I’d acknowledge this in song form with a quick post.

First, a few videos from Wild Flag, EMA, and Cher Horowitz, a few acts that I think represent riot grrrl’s legacy.

Next, a tip of the tiara to my Queerbomb brothers and sisters, who took to the streets this past weekend. I recently made a mix CD for our discussion of Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place for my cultural theory seminar, and a number of the selections were the influence of Queerbomb participants, along with Homoground and Expatriarch‘s stellar efforts. Let’s shine a light on Katastrophe, Girl in a Coma, and Miz Korona.

Looking toward the future, I’ll honor some girls in my life. Some of my friends are moms, which is tremendously important work. A lot of them are moms to boys, which is very important, since men who love, respect, and honor women usually have women who taught them that (along with the men who love, respect, honor women–some of my best friends are dads too). All of my love goes out to Sylvan, Will, Declan, Max, and Noah and the parents who are raising them to be good people. But a few girls in my life were recently brought into the world or had a birthday. So let’s honor that with some songs by Kate Bush, Norah Jones, Rosie Flores, and Little Eva–women who share their names.

And finally, tomorrow is Wisconsin’s recall election. This is serious business. I’ll be casting my vote and holding hope for a better future. YACHT, Lady Kier, and Invincible will keep me cautiously optimistic.

Long live the pop star flesh

I recently talked with a friend about how we’re burnt out on scholarship that links horror film to abjection, a state of being cast off or degraded, as there are piles of writings on the subject from my field and its related disciplines. Then said friend and I talked about what horror movies we would be willing to screen for our courses and which ones we could not. We both agreed on The Shining. I would use the movie as an excuse to play Kate Bush’s “Get Out of My House,” an anti-rape anthem sung from Wendy Torrance’s perspective.

I might pick David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a novel yet chillingly prophetic film about how television and various technologies literally mutate and consume viewers and users. Any class discussion I lead would allow time to evaluate the film’s racial politics in creating a fake snuff program like Samurai Dreams, the political implications of a character like feminist soft-core pornographer Masha (Lynne Gorman), and Debbie Harry’s involvement in the project.  

I’m sure Caitlin at Dark Room would vehemently disagree with my stance against scholarly assertions around abjection and I’m willing to hear her defense. Frankly, such conversations seem inevitable when talking about pop stars’ cultural meanings and functions, regardless of whether they’re cast in a Cronenberg film. As Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style astutely pointed out in her piece on Jessica Simpson, certain pop stars lend themselves well to discourses around the abject, particularly when they’re calculating “dumb blondes” who talk about farting and are photographed wearing unflattering pants.

Actually, I might even argue that all female pop stars can be discussed in terms of abjection, since women, particularly famous women, make themselves vulnerable to degradation and exist in between concepts of the object and subject. As much as I don’t want to impose or project such terms onto female pop stars, casting Harry as Nicki Brand, a psychoanalyst and radio personality who learns about a snuff television program from CIVIC-TV president Max Renn (James Woods) after they hook up and decides to audition for the show despite obvious consequences, was deliberate.

Image of Harry as Brand for an NME article of the period; image courtesy of nme.com

Videodrome came out in 1983. By then, Harry firmly established herself as a pop star and cannily utilized the relatively new medium of music video to articulate a fragmentary, ironic, self-reflexive feminine persona, a blonde bombshell in quotes. Marilyn Monroe is often mentioned when discussing Madonna’s star formation, but Harry’s detached cool and esoteric approach to fashioning herself into a sex symbol clearly was a point of reference. Harry was no doubt aware of the erotic menace a close-up shot of her glossy pink lips could cause, even if they weren’t devouring James Woods’ face through a television screen.

Given Harry’s recent reflections on aging, professional longevitythe pressure to stay relevant in an ever-shifting pop landscape, and the myriad of ways she’s open to sexist pathology, it is important to think about what point in Harry’s career Videodrome was released and how we could make meaning out of it. In 1981, Harry released her first solo album, Koo Koo. Blondie put out The Hunter soon after to relative commercial indifference and went on hiatus for nearly twenty years. Eight years into Blondie’s career, Parallel Lines and “Heart of the Glass” were part of the lexicon and Harry was looking to move on and diversify. Videodrome may have reflected those interests.

I’m somewhat troubled by the results. I recognize Brand’s agency in electing to be part of a violent political experiment she probably knew would kill her and her decision to live on as a televisual image. Yet I’m concerned that she’s ultimately just a savior for Renn’s character, thus making her subordinate to his subjectivity and reducing her to a symbol. Maybe Videodrome suggests that all of humanity is vulnerable to this process, regardless of identity. This could explain the vaginal VCR that grows from Renn’s abdomen. Yet I’m unconvinced that the film’s disturbing assertions about how bodies relate to technologies don’t have misogynistic implications. But I am still interested as to why Cronenberg called upon a female pop star to help realize his vision. Clearly selecting someone who once sang “In dusty frames that still arrive, die in 1955” for this project was no accident and thus opens up new opportunities for interpretation.

White women’s problems

This year, three new albums found their way into my constant rotation. One is EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, which is the strongest debut album I’ve heard so far (feelings I share with Lindsay Zoladz and Stacey Pavlick). Erika M. Anderson’s spare acoustic-drone psychodrama is all peroxide and rusty razor blades. It’s an interesting stylistic counterpoint to one of last year’s great debuts, Glasser’s Ring, where Cameron Mesirow encrusted her electro-feminist musings with barnacles and jewels. 

PJ Harvey with her autoharp; image courtesy of goldminemag.com

Merrill Garbus and her crew at SXSW 2011; image courtesy of imposemagazine.com

The other two albums are huge artistic leaps forward. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake reminds people who only casually listened to her after Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea that she remains one of rock’s most vital artists. These tend to be the same people who wish she revisited Rid of Me, not knowing that she did in 2004 with Uh Huh Her, which is seething and vital on its own terms. tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l is the other one, and a beast live. Here, Merrill Garbus proves the Blackberry ad wasn’t a fluke and that her debut album’s lo-fi set-up was less an aesthetic choice than a pragmatic necessity. Like Kala, w h o k i l l foregrounds propulsive drumming and struts and shines like a pop record. Both have been met with near-unanimous critical acclaim. They’re also two of my favorite records of the year so far. No contest.

Thematically, they have much in common. Put simply, they’re albums about forging and contending national identit(ies) in countries that have or continue to define themselves by war, a point Harvey articulated about England in her recent Fresh Air interview. They also quote from other artists to locate and conjure their country’s musical heritage. w h o k i l l‘s dazzling opener, “My Country,” references “America” and “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone, the country’s first prominent interracial, mixed gender rock band. It also champions the United States’ problematic multicultural spirit throughout, with liberal quotations from cultural imports like ska and reggae and Garbus’ omnipresent ukulele. England‘s “The Glorious Land” samples the Police’s “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.” The saxophone and trombone in “The Last Living Rose” sound like a Kinks flourish. “The Colour of the Earth,” an elegy to a dead soldier, barrels along like a pub anthem. Two of the album’s showcased instruments, the autoharp and the zither, echo the lush stringed instrumentation that made 4AD the nation’s home for dream pop in the album’s three-song centerpiece, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” “All and Everyone,” and “On Battleship Hill.” It’s as much a British album in sound as it is for its interest in the First World War and England’s involvement with the ongoing crises in the Middle East.

And while I don’t want to compare Harvey to Kate Bush, another dark-haired musician/lady genius with a complicated obsession with her homeland, I do marvel at how Harvey uses her voice as genderfuck. For an album largely about war and living with its atrocities, I agree that using a breathy tone destabilizes the directness of her words. In its way, it reminds me more of Armando Iannucci’s staggering In the Loop, a piercing satire about Anglo-American politics and the Iraq invasion. Harvey uses her voice to offset and deepen the tragedy. Iannucci and his writing team use comedy to illustrate the stupid, careless banter of ambitious civil servants, career politicians, and military personnel who use words and protocol to kill people and destroy nations. Has anyone synced up “The Words That Maketh Murder” to any scene in that movie on YouTube? It’s intuitive.

But let’s face facts. They’re albums by white women. Of course, we’re a homogenuous group amongst ourselves and these two albums are their own entities. w h o k i l l is an album about being a white woman with a complex interiority. Garbus opines about gentrification on “Gangsta,” fantasizes about making love to the cop who is arresting her brother in “Riotriot,” mourns the loss of a loved one by police brutality on “Doorstep”, and tries to unlearn ingrained body hatred in “Es-so”. While she may be embellishing or fictionalizing at times, she is certainly singing from her peer group’s perspective, specifically the vantage point of relocated urban white hipsters (Garbus recently moved to Oakland). Harvey plays with gender, assuming the role of a traumatized male soldier or embodying a degendered narrator, and her ability to morph into these characters connotes white privilege. Garbus’ play with ebonics (using words like “gangsta,” “powa,” “killa,” and, on her first record, “fiya” for “gangster,” “power,” “killer,” and “fire”) suggests the same thing.

This gets at issues of appropriation. “England” samples Said El Kurdi’s “Kassem Miro” and “Written on the Forehead” lifts Winston “Niney” Holness’ “Blood and Fire” while employing an omniscent narrator to reflect on the cultural richness and war-wrecked blight of some unattributed Middle Eastern country that Harvey has revealed to be about present-day Iraq, even though several countries still use dinar as currency. These songs gesture toward England’s history as a brutal colonizer, as well as its migratory musical and cultural heritage. They are my favorite songs on the record–elliptical, searching, imaginative. But as is often the case with sampling, that doesn’t mean they’re racial politics aren’t troubled.

In the middle of “Killa,” seemingly an ode to female self-empowerment, Garbus asks “would you call me naive and an idealist if I told you I am disheartened that in this day and age I do not have more male, black friends?” It’s a question imbued in white female privilege. But it’s also an interesting and productive question white people don’t like to ask or think on very often. Best of all, it’s also a question with an answer. It’s why Merrill Garbus was able to study African folkloric traditions while attending a liberal arts college, smear paint across her face, and cite Fela Kuti as an influence. It’s why Glasser’s backup singers put on conical hats for Jimmy Fallon without explanation and no one cries foul. It’s why Kate Bush is allowed to use black people to “color” a music video. It’s why the very concept of eclecticism in popular music is racially loaded and lousy with class signifiers that would make Bourdieu put down his tea cup and furrow his brow.

Feathers and face paint? Over it; image courtesy of stereogum.com

Conical hats? Never was into it; image courtesy of latenightwithjimmyfallon.com

It’s also a question I could ask to get at why my friend Kristen was one of the few black women in our grad program at UT. It’s a question that gets at the heart at why I didn’t think to introduce her to Cassandra, another black woman in my friend group constellation–because I didn’t want to seem racist for assuming that my black girlfriends would like each other. It also gets at my embedded racism when I sent panicked text messages to them about some pushback I got from my Alicia Keys post. I wanted confirmation that I was racially sensitive and, once I realized what I was doing, immediately apologized for trying to force them into the role of wise black female cultural arbiter when they probably just wanted to sleep or watch television or eat ice cream. It’s why Maya Rudolph’s bridal party is comprised of white ladies. It’s why seeking out a black Zooey Deschanel may be a fool’s errand and thus why it may be more productive to champion Web series’ like the nuanced, hilarious The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl instead. Because class, race, and white cisfemale privilege color all of this, and like Harvey and Garbus, I directly benefit from it.

When I started this blog, it was out of a personal need to highlight female musical contributions. Now sometimes it just seems like I’m just championing white ladies–hence the delay on a post I’ve been writing in my head for a few months. Nowhere is this more evident than in looking at my record collection, which also proves that fetishizing an eclectic mix of genres across identity categories means having the disposable income to do so (or at least deciding not to buy a car or make a baby with it). And as much as I recommend Georgia Anne Muldrow, pump Betty Davis, put Chavela Vargas on mix CDs, laud Cibo Matto and OOIOO, seek out acts like the Lost Bois, celebrate Jean Grae’s new effort, breathlessly await Psalm One’s next album, and agree that white women shouldn’t only listen to artists that reflect their own identities, it probably reads as either defensive or self-congratulatory for being down. Scratch that, it is being defensive and self-congratulatory. That doesn’t mean I’m only going to make mixes with white ladies on it. I just refuse to take credit or feel good about myself for including Ebony Bones or the Bags on a mix CD.

Not that Betty Davis was a perfect text either, but she was superbad and defiantly horny; image courtesy of amoeba.com

I’m a feminist because I believe there’s value in aligning with an ethos that’s committed to dismantling the patriarchy and celebrating a transinclusive notion of female identit(ies), even when I have to fight for it to be equitable, acknowledge when it isn’t, and help work toward creating a system of -isms that includes all my sisters (even the ones who don’t want me as their sisters). So I’ll keep trying to be an ally, always call race into question when I’m talking about gender, and assume I have much more to learn than I do to teach. I love music because it transports me both within and outside myself and provides me with sites of identification and something to do on a Saturday night, and then forces me to consider the implications of such mental travel and hive formation. I love writing about it because it clarifies my opinions, opens up a dialogue, and holds me accountable. I love Let England Shake and w h o k i l l, because they are angry, varied, and gracious. And it’s because I love them that I have to question why I do.

A brief consideration for the video as album

PJ Harvey; image courtesy of pitchforkmedia.com

Yesterday, Katie Presley at Bitch posted a delightful news item: each track from PJ Harvey’s forthcoming album, Let England Shake, will be accompanied by a short film. Maybe this cinematic endeavor will tide her over until she scores a movie.

I have a lot of investment with such a project, particularly the manner in which it will be distributed. As someone who wrote her thesis on the Directors Label series (and owns all seven volumes), I’m fascinated by the uselessness of packaging music videos on VHS and DVD. Though it created a new problem with embedding, YouTube’s ubiquity assured video packaging’s demise. Yet music videos have a long history with at-home playback technology. We forget in a place and time when we have immediate access to our favorite acts, but it wasn’t so long ago that fans only really saw their favorite artists in concert. Among other things, music videos simulated a communal space between artist and fan, as well as embellished on the artist’s persona and the fan’s fantasy life. MTV of course was a precursor to YouTube and catapulted videos into the mainstream in the 1980s, effectively changing the course of cable programming and film editing in the process. But sometimes you really wanted to watch the clip for A Tribe Called Quest’s “Award Tourright now but the network took it out of rotation and you forgot to tape it off the television. YouTube now takes care of that need on a second-by-second basis, though not without embedding problems, obnoxious advertising, or clips getting pulled. Before then, fans could fetish video compilations.

Most artists packaged their music videos as companions to their greatest hits collections. This was primarily the market imperative of pop artists like Madonna and Duran Duran, though left-of-mainstream artists like Massive Attack and Pavement played along. Video albums and short films based on song cycles existed alongside them, but were not as prevalent for a variety of reasons. It could possibly be because music videos don’t demand narrative continuity or because pop stars tend to be terrible actors, but the pragmatic reasons are cost and risk. Music videos are expensive to produce. Spreading music video concepts across an album or collection of songs is exponentially costly, especially since music networks are reticent to be casualties to their audience’s short attention span. Not everyone has a “Thriller” in them. Hell, Michael really only had one in him. Carving out 20-40 minutes of programming time to Depeche Mode’s Strange or Strange Two probably seems like a losing bet. Thus many segments were shown out of context on television. Video albums then maximized their medium potential as little-seen items that could slip out of circulation once an act’s rabid fan base got their fix. Yet the Pet Shop Boys’ It Couldn’t Happen Here and Kate Bush’s The Line, the Cross, and the Curve remain curios, as well as clues into their music and image. Possessing copies also says something about taste and fan engagement. The storage format they’re in (or have yet to be converted into) also says a great deal about visual media’s archival instability.

I’m also curious if a uniform artistic or narrative vision will be explored in Let England Shake, or if such things aren’t a concern. Last weekend, I was reading Carol Vernallis’ great essay on Madonna’s “Cherish,” video. In this piece, she attempted to bridge sonic and visual formal analysis with a critical understanding on artist-director relationships, production issues, song content, and representational politics come to bear on what is often dismissed as a solely commercial (and therefore inherently vapid) medium. Videos actually can tell us quite a bit about the artist, as well as illustrate how important sound and music are in our understanding and interpreting of film’s visual elements. As “Cherish” was directed by the late photographer Herb Ritts, with whom she frequently collaborated, I wonder if Harvey worked with Maria Mochnacz.

But videos are also abstract and open to interpretation in ways that differ from narrative films tendency toward plot and resolution. I was reminded of this when watching the video collection that accompanies Beach House’s Teen Dream. The original track list order is not maintained, thus destabilizing its organizational role as an album. There isn’t a sense of narrative or formal continuity between songs, heightened by different directors (including front woman Victoria Legrand) providing a distinct vision for each song. Some treatments work, most notably Kevin Drew’s direction on “Take Care.” Others did not. Showbeast’s puppet antics in “Norway” undermined the track’s stately elegance for me. This recalls criticism against music videos for compromising listeners’ imagination by imposing visuals onto something intangible, as well as misinterpreting a song’s intended or proposed message. Yet each video provides a window into interpreting the song and the band. With that spirit in mind, I can’t wait to see and hear what we think of PJ Harvey’s new record.

2010: The year Alyx fell in love with the Cocteau Twins

The Cocteau Twins (left to right): Robin Guthie, Elizabeth Fraser, and Simon Raymonde (drum machine not pictured); image courtesy of wikimedia.org

Last week, I did a quick round-up of some new releases I’ve enjoyed. In that post, I mentioned that upon occasion friends and acquaintances familiar with my blog will ask what I’m listening to. When they ask this question, the tacit assumption I make is that they want to discuss current recording artists. There’s always a few up-and-comers I champion, but any time someone asks “who are you listening to” it’s usually an older act I’m investigating. This year, if you asked “what are you listening to” my answer is “the Cocteau Twins.”

At this point, it’s hardly incendiary to proclaim oneself a fan of the long-defunct Scottish dream pop act. For one, there’s not much to hate. It seems detractors profess indifference rather than contempt, deeming their music pleasant but inconsequential. The worst insult I’ve heard was that there’s little difference between their sound and the pan-global efforts of 4AD labelmates Dead Can Dance and new age artists like Enya and Enigma. These artists sound good as background noise at a bougie dinner party. Pass the quinoa.

Though their releases always clutter discount bins — no doubt jewels from the reject piles of former high school goth kids’ CD collections — contemporary acts like M83, Warpaint, Phantogram, School of Seven Bells, Sleep Over, and even Linkin Park cite their influence. While folks like Madonna and David Lynch noted their interest in the band early on, it’s only recently become “fashionable” to like them. In 2005, there was unsubstantiated talk of a reunion at Coachella. In 2008, the band received a Q Award for their contributions to popular music, a rare accolade Fraser noted for an otherwise undecorated band.

In the past few years, I’ve entered into more conversations with people who like them, along with the work band members vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, guitarist-producer Robin Guthrie, and bassist Simon Raymonde did with This Mortal Coil, especially Fraser and Guthrie’s contributions on It’ll End in Tears. Like M83’s Anthony Gonzalez, a lot of us are in are 20s and too young to directly experience the group’s 80s heyday. So I’m going to guess many of us came to our fandom through other portals, perhaps exploring the reference Patton Oswalt makes in his bit about KFC bowls in Werewolves in Lollipops or listening to the haunting score Guthrie and composer Harold Budd created for Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin.

I first remember hearing Cocteau Twins on the radio in 1994. The song I heard was “Bluebeard,” the lead single to their penultimate album Four Calendar Café. I liked it fine and noticed they already enjoyed a long career. I suspected Sarah McLachlan might be a fan based on songs like “Fear” and “Vox,” the latter of which was originally released on her 1988 debut Touch but received some airplay following the success of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I seem to recall that she opened for the band at some point during this time, but can’t confirm this.

In 1998, I remember hearing Fraser on Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” which may be where many fans in my peer group first heard her. The song is still mesmerizing to me and continues to appeal to others. House incorporated the song as its theme, though regrettably without Fraser’s vocals. Friday Night Lights used José González’s cover this season to underscore a heartbreaking scene where Matt Saracen learns of an unexpected death in his family. I later found out that Fraser was recording the song when she heard that her one-time confidant Jeff Buckley drowned. Fraser considered the song as something of a tribute.  

During graduate school, I read Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’s nebulous The Sex Revolts, wherein Fraser’s opaque vocals were linked the womb and the abject. As with much of that book, I wished the authors limited their focus to something less amoebic than gender fuckery in popular music and didn’t crutch so heavily on Gilles Deleuze to support their claims.

I highlight these points to emphasize that the Cocteau Twins were in my periphery for some time, but only recently a band I claimed for my own. I knew of them, but felt their catalog and devoted fan base to be rather intimidating. I started actively listening to them in winter 2008, primarily because Bat for Lashes, Gang Gang Dance, and M83’s “80s album” garnered comparisons. I liked what I heard (I went with 1984’s Treasure as a starting point), but then went about my business. But earlier this year, I reinvigorated a long-dormant obsession with Jeff Buckley. Out of feminist disdain for having a male musician occupy my mind, I turned toward the female musicians in his life. I listened a bit to Rebecca Moore and Joan Wasser’s work, but the Cocteau Twins left a more immediate impression. I dove back into Treasure and went deeper into Blue Bell Knoll, Head Over Heels, Aikea-Guinea, Love’s Easy Tears, Victorialand, and Heaven or Las Vegas. I’m still “in it” and see no reason why you shouldn’t be plunging the leagues with me.

Like many, I was taken by Fraser’s voice. A lover of Björk, Kate Bush, and Siouxsie Sioux, who Fraser recalls in her lower register, I champion beautifully strange female voices. Fraser’s dramatic style is often dialogued with her lyrics, which are usually inscrutable and laced with references to obscure words, gibberish, and slang endemic to the band’s origins (i.e.: “aikea-guinea” is a Scottish term for “seashell”). Though seemingly nonsensical, many fans embue meaning in their attempts to decode what Fraser is singing. But I concur with Jason Ankeny that what makes Fraser’s mouth music resonate with listeners is her emphasis on “the subjective sounds and textures of verbalized emotions.”

This speaks to Fraser’s ability to subvert language, project strength, and demonstrate control, qualities for which I don’t think she gets enough credit. Critics pay particular attention toward her voice’s beauty. Indeed, Fraser possesses an opera singer’s virtuosity, chewing on words’ dexterity, skipping through complex rhythms, and leaping octaves and strange intervals. But her work tends to be described as “ephemeral,” “ethereal”, or “gossamer” to ultimately argue its frillery as being conventionally feminine. But I think there’s something to be said for a woman who writes indeciferable lyrics to songs with names like “Cico Buff,” “Sugar Hiccup,” and “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” and taps wells of emotion using these words. It could be profoundly embarrassing for both the singer and the listener, but Fraser finds the pith surrounding emotions’ ultimate intangibility.

But as this year for me is also defined by picking up a guitar, Guthrie’s contributions cannot be overstated. Fraser created a vocal style a host of UK female artists would come to emulate. Similarly, Guthrie rivals few beyond The Smiths’ Johnny Marr in the cultivation of a distinct guitar sound for its time that many would later attempt to replicate. This is evident in how younger artists on 4AD like Lush called upon Guthrie to produce their albums, no doubt aware of and indebted to the Twins’ involvement in forging a distinct pop sensibility for the label. I think it’s also noticable in Kevin Shields’ work. While some like to suggest My Bloody Valentine’s blissful, feedback-laden guitar drone and androgynous vocals were created in a vacuum, I suspect the band took notes on the Twins composing and recording processes.

Guthrie’s guitar sound also speaks to me directly. As a guitar player, I have little interest in the monster riff foolwangery many nurture when they pick up a Fender Stratocaster in the hopes of becoming Stevie Ray Vaughn. Instead, I like how the guitar can be used to conjure atmosphere and mood, however fleeting or mutable. Like Guthrie, I’m also a fan of seventh chords, which destabilize the triad and create a sense of irresolution. Thus this music tends to shift expectations of how it’s supposed to sound, requiring listeners to pay attention in order to process superficially beautiful but compositionally complex music. I suppose this sense of mastery ultimately puts Guthrie in the position of guitar god, though his indifference toward conventional melody and reliance on Fraser’s voice, Raymonde’s sleepy bass, and an omnipresent Roland 808 potentially shift expectations of the band’s sound and his role in helping create it.

We could dwell on Fraser and Guthrie’s former relationship, the daughter they share, his former dependence on heroin and alcohol,  the couple’s estrangement, and the band’s disintegration. I’m not especially interested in it, however. But like many UK post-punk acts, I am fascinated in how the band developed such a dreamy sound out of their surroundings. In the documentary Made in Sheffield, Human League frontman Phil Oakey talked about his band’s desire to break away from the tedium of work with the hope of maybe making it onto the Top of the Pops.

I’ve never been to Grangemouth, but I’d anticipate its distinction of housing a large petrochemical plant speaks to post-war industrialism and the assumption that its citizenry would work at the factories and refineries. A trio of spotty kids opting to spin gorgeous, incoherent post-punk inside a basement with their eyes toward heaven? I think it’s worth remembering.

Ariel Schrag’s Likewise

A portrait of the artist as a young dyke; image courtesy of austinchronicle.com

I finished Ariel Schrag’s Likewise earlier last week and finally stole some time to write about it. Though denser and more structurally complicated than the three previous titles of her high school comic series, this one may be my favorite. Oh, who are we kidding? It’s in part because of those things that I liked it best.

Taking her cues from James Joyce’s Ulysses, Schrag attempts her most ambitious work with Likewise, incorporating a stream-of-conscious approach to storytelling and a panoply of writing and visual styles to document her senior year. I was especially interested in this, as I was always jealous of my high school friends a year ahead of me who got to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in senior AP English and write their autobiographies in a Joycean style. By the time I started senior year, the book had been taken out of the curriculum. Since then, I haven’t made time to read any Joyce. Having read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and heard Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, which “likewise” (har har) share Ulysses as an influence, I best get on this.  

Fun Home (Mariner Books, 2006); image courtesy of wordbrooklyn.com

Hounds of Love (EMI, 1985); image courtesy of wikimedia.org

In Likewise, Schrag incorporates Joyce’s challenging writing style into the graphic novel, using images as a means to anchor the content. Sometimes, events are presented in a straightforward fashion. Some events — particularly mundane occurrences — are retold in painstaking detail, as is the case with the 30 pages used to recount a circular conversation with friends about the elusive “It” factor. Other times, remembered dialogue inspires the narrator to free associate or drifts her off on tangents. Panels may include carefully typed, detailed exposition or notecards scrawled in haste or pictures without captions.

Many of these images are startling, both in the graphic nature of their content and in their matter-of-fact depictions. Recalling Schrag’s rendering of menstruation colliding with virginity loss in Potential, several panels focus on the protagonist’s reflections and engagements with penetration, cunnilingus, masturbation, and bathroom time. Schrag also doesn’t shy from revealing deep feelings, no matter how contradictory or unflattering. For a piece some detractors dismissed as an indulgent vanity project, Schrag isn’t too preoccupied with looking good.

Despite its stylistic departure, Likewise is in many ways a continuation of Potential. The tome to her junior year is released during Schrag’s senior year. As the pressure of its success looms over her, attention is paid toward it in Likewise. She is also dealing with the aftermath of her parents’ divorce, her parents’ struggle to fund her college education upon early admittance to Barnard, her mother’s noncommital hippie boyfriend, and her unresolved feelings for erstwhile paramour Sally Jults, who is ostensibly straight and attending Reed College. 

As with Definition and Potential, Schrag lets us in on experiences meant to bolster her writing process, which involves recording friends’ conversations, get stoned with her mother and kid sister, taking head shots of characters, heart-to-heart conversations with mentor teacher Ms. Salt, remembering and forgetting and misremembering Jults, fooling around, entertaining publication interviews, working part-time at a movie theater, going to friends’ concerts, accompanying friend Zally to a strip club for “research,” and jilling off.

She also includes negative opinions toward her work, recounting her father and some peers’ less-favorable attitudes toward the seemingly uneventful (and unabashedly queer) Potential. She herself bristles at the mistakes she finds when revisiting Awkward and Definition, but marvels at her rapid artistic and personal maturation in the two-year interval. While I treasured all of these moments, my favorite might be her stumbling upon the name of her final installment. As a fellow writer, I can relate to the pleasure of accomplishment that comes with settling on the perfect title.  

I find it particularly interesting that Schrag continues to question her sexuality in Likewise, noting some of the latent homophobia she may share with Jults. She also grapples with feeling conventionally masculine within a cisgender female body, at times seemingly imagining herself having sex with women as a man. She fools around with a few boys in Likewise, most notably Zally and co-worker Darrek. This doesn’t detract from her attraction in women, however, nor does it build up her tolerance for listening to boys prattle. Toward the end of Likewise, Schrag attempts to document Darrek and another male co-worker discuss why they like Helium’s Mary Timony but makes them stop out of boredom. 

My only quibble with Likewise is the omniscience of Schrag’s guitar. Recalling the function of Chekhov’s gun, I waited for the protagonist to pick it up but she never does. I have no problem with how Schrag chose to spend her teenage years — in fact, I marvel at how she used her artistic inclinations toward published manifestations of personal expression. But if she’s not playing it, I know a certain blogger who’d be happy to document putting it to use.