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.
Today’s post is a review of Debi Withers’s Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory. I’ve actually been holding onto it for a while, as Withers was good enough to have her publisher HammerOn Press send me a copy (my hunch is that a previous entry on Bush’s The Dreaming, wherein I cited her essay on Lionheart, got me the free wares). I read it a little over a week ago but amid all the SXSW revelry, didn’t get a chance to review it. I wanted to have a clear head when drafting an appraisal, so here goes.
For those unfamiliar with her work, Withers is an English queer feminist cultural studies scholar who focuses on music culture. She also puts theory into practice as a contributor to musical projects like Drunk Granny and Voice Tribe. Much of her scholarship has focused on Kate Bush, out of which this book was formed.
Adventures is a fun read that embraces feminist and queer theory while making it accessible to folks who haven’t gotten down and dirty with Luce Irigaray. As someone who doesn’t consider herself much of a theoryhead and always looks for a practical application when reading such works, I appreciated that Withers provided such an interesting subject to attach theoretical abstractions to. Importantly, Withers makes clear that she will not be talking about Kate Bush the musician, but rather Kate Bush the personae, which she refers to throughout as the Bush Feminine Subject (BFS). While I think the term potentially turns the subject into something of a monolith, the distinction must be made and the use of the musician’s given name cannot suffice. As Withers is astute to point out, there’s a big difference between Kate Bush and “Kate Bush.” Never a strictly autobiographical writer, Kate Bush penned songs about girls in incestuous relationships with male siblings, Houdini’s wife, unborn babies, Wilhelm Reich, Karen from The Red Shoes, Peter Pan, Catherine Earnshaw, burglars, aborigines, gay bon vivants, and mothers of dead soldiers. “Kate Bush” embodied them, often modifying her own singing voice to do so. She often recorded and performed these characters with a flair for the dramatic and drama’s inclination toward camp.
Withers cherry-picks from Bush’s catalog, forming a life cycle out of thematic elements in The Kick Inside, Lionheart, Never For Ever, The Dreaming, and The Red Shoes, as well as the final movements of Hounds of Love and Aerial. According to Withers, Kick represents the birth of the BFS, along with coming-of-age preoccupations like menstruation (“Strange Phenomena”) and young love, whether doomed (“Wuthering Heights”) or forbidden (the title track). Lionheart is a showcase for the artist’s preoccupations with performance, disguise, camp, maturation, and sexuality, which all often take on queer associations. Never For Ever marks a transitional period, demonstrating at once her interest in costume and mistaken identity (“Babooshka”) while at the same time insinuating a politicized awareness toward modern life, best exemplified with “Breathing,” a song delivered by a fetus who is aware of the nuclear fallout its mother is trying to live through.
From here The Dreaming comes to represent the artist’s ongoing personal evolution. Withers argues this is attained through politicized awareness of other cultures (the title track), the reinvigorated investment with one’s own (“Night of the Swallow,” which acknowledges Bush’s Irish heritage), the commitment to being receptive to knowledge (“Leave It Open”), as well as struggle (“Sat In Your Lap”) and resistance (“Get Out Of My House,” an anti-rape song that draws The Shining, turning the house into a metaphor for the female body). In addition, The Dreaming is also concerned with the process of metamorphosis, most often involving people turning into machines. As this was Bush’s first sole production credit, this theme takes on personal connotations about the artist’s relationship to her work. Finally, Withers argues that The Red Shoes (and Bush’s accompanying short, The Line, The Cross, and The Curve) symbolizes the suicide of the artist, drawing from the lore of the Hans Christian Andersen tale as well as the 1948 movie by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (for an in-depth reading on the movie, Matthew Dessem’s essay for Criterion Contraption is as good a place as any to start). As Withers argues that artistry transcends mortality, the subject is reborn with Hounds of Love‘s “The Ninth Wave” and disappears with Aerial‘s “A Sky of Honey,” the final movement off Bush’s most recent album, which was released twelve years after her previous studio offering, The Red Shoes.
I’m not sold on structuring the artist’s work this way, as I think that at times Withers pushes the interpretation of the life cycle onto Bush’s work, though I do understand from working on a master’s thesis that the process of organizing a larger body of work to fit a document is a problematic one. And while I understand why Withers wants to focus attention away from Hounds of Love, Bush’s best-known album, I feel she does a disservice by glossing over certain albums. The omission of The Sensual World is particularly troubling, as Bush believed it to be her most feminine work. Furthermore, it contains songs like “Deeper Understanding,” which is concerned with the potentially humanizing and dehumanizing connotations of digital interactions and fits nicely into Bush’s work on The Dreaming.
As subjectivity is a key theme in Withers book, I’m pleased at how she unpacked the identity politics evident in Bush’s ouvre. Withers is quick to point out Bush’s interest in camp, performance, and ambiguity, as well as the matter of vocality, all of which suggests elements of queerness in her work. Vocality is a particularly interesting matter, as Bush often sang as multiple subjects and tended to sing across age ranges, gender and sex catagories, and orientations depending on her subject in any given song.
In addition, it’s important to note that Bush has a big queer following. Men like Rufus Wainwright and Alan Cumming have professed their fandom, as have publications like Out. More importantly, Withers brings in her own sexuality into the discussion and argues that lesbians also have quite an affinity for Bush, a fan base and culture that Bush acknowledges and celebrates in certain songs and music videos.
I also appreciate Withers interrogation of race and nationality and how Bush’s position as a middle-class, white British woman is a problematic one. At times, Bush is something of a fetishist and voyeur of the other (particularly of East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and African/African American culture). Given her country’s problematic history with colonialism, this obsession takes on even more troubling dimensions. The matter of the nice white lady is a problem I run into all the time as a feminist (and nice white lady). It’s a matter I brought up when discussing Joanna Newsom’s latest album and it’s an issue that informs my ambivalent feelings toward other white feminist icons like Liz Lemon (for more recent offerings on her, I’d recommend reading Sady Doyle and Amanda Hess’s recent conversation following Doyle’s Tiger Beatdown piece on the subject).
While I enjoyed Adventures, I wish Withers would’ve contextualized the subjective nature of Bush’s fame. In the UK, Australia, and parts of Europe, Bush is a pop star of considerable renown, achieving commercial and critical success I’d estimate somewhere between Björk’s slightly-left-of-mainstream status and Madonna’s superstardom in the states. But in America, Bush is strictly a cult phenomenon. She did receive some recognition for minor hits like “Running Up That Hill,” “Cloudbusting,” and “Rubberband Girl.” Early videos like “The Man With The Child In His Eyes,” were a part of MTV’s original rotation schedule. “Don’t Give Up,” a duet she recorded with Peter Gabriel, has been featured in television and film and has been covered extensively. Similar things can be said of “This Woman’s Work.” Maxwell’s cover of the song was used in a routine for So You Think You Can Dance? that was meant to raise awareness about breast cancer.
Yet, Bush never really crossed over in the United States. She may have been on Top of the Pops but she was a hardly a fixture on the American late night talk show circuit. She never landed the cover of Rolling Stone, much less been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many people may not have heard of her, though her influence has carried over to contemporary acts like Tori Amos, Bat for Lashes, and Joanna Newsom. In short, she’s a cult figure here.
Thus, when reading the book, it was hard for me to take Bush’s celebrity as a given. By putting such a focus on the albums and what they suggest about the BFS’s trajectory, I kept wondering about the actual Kate Bush behind it and how such an eccentric, challenging musical figure was so widely accepted in her home country. While Withers acknowledges the anomalous conditions that allowed for Bush’s success, I was left wanting to greater sociohistoric context. What other artists were popular at the time? How was Bush able to produce her own material? What was her recording contract like? Who did she work with? Did early supporters like Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour sway the buying public? How were her videos received, and how did they intervene as the musician became more reticent to grant interviews and tour following the release of Lionheart? Did her unfounded reputation as a reclusive madwoman sensationalize her and thus make her a (shudder) hot commodity?
Also did much of Bush’s fame rest not only on her ability to meld feminized forms like piano-based folk singing with the masculinized practices of punk’s commitment to DIY ethics and confrontational sexual politics, but also with her clear indebtedness to glam? It’s no coincidence that she studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, who worked extensively with David Bowie, most notably during the Ziggy Stardust era. Yet like Bush, glam was far less ubiquitous in American popular consciousness in its time than it was in Great Britain. While Withers does provide some context, I think she presumes her reader to be British. Thus, I wonder how accessible this book would be to other audiences outside of Western Europe.
That said, for those who are die-hard Bush fans, nascent appreciators, or life-long feminist theorists, this book is one to add to the shelves. Open the book, throw on a record, and let the debate continue.