There was a brief period of my life where I was obsessed with Chicago. I thought all the best music came out of Chicago (maybe I could name three bands). It had a specific molten quality in my mind, like everyone there was never quite present but always dissolving at some point into the walls or sidewalks. There were basement clubs and people drank lager lager lager, a nod to cool Britannia, or else they swilled actual Liquor. I actually had no idea what went on in Chicago. It was possible everyone smoked in dingy bars and went about listening to jazz, feeling miserable. Did it rain much? All I had to go by was a Fall Out Boy lyric: ‘I’ve got a sunset in my veins / And I need to take a pill to make this town feel okay’. I was thirteen and still didn’t know what Seven Minutes in Heaven meant, let alone Sophomore; the spidery long titles made me feel Poetic. I was convinced Pete Wentz was the Bard of his generation. I still hadn’t seen any live footage of him goofing around onstage. I mostly thought of him in dark corners, sweeping his fringe aside, scribbling lyrics. Too much got spilled on the internet. I couldn’t believe when I found out he only played bass.
Wasn’t there a gimmick with one of their albums, where you got special tarot cards if you pre-ordered?
We used to stand on tables, chairs and cabinets back then, to get our selfies. Back then, they were prosaically named Profile Pics. You had to aim for a good mirror. The visible flash, you thought, was just a sunbeam addition to the general ~aesthetic~. You’d comment on each other’s photos, pc4pc. Like, Hello! It was good to get your legs in. Stripy knee socks or gauzy ripped tights. I wanted to wear a watch round my ankle like the lady with the white pumps at the party in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I put rubber bands round my hair, dying it semi-permanent blue or pink, trying to get ‘coon tails. I backcombed with a religious zeal, scrunching as I walked to maintain the buoyancy. Hairspray wafted around us; a flammable aura of considerable permanence. There was an imperative to asymmetry, to looking a little like a lamppost. We all wanted to be skinny, we wanted the biggest hair.
I grew addicted to the bright, popcorn guitar licks. The sugary vocals. They spoke to someone that wasn’t me; there was this constant apostrophe of the lost girl, the lost boy, the key to a locked diary. I felt like a year would pass and I’d slip into these narratives, grow tall, smelling the gas of those cigarette lighters my friend used to rig to make the flames a foot high.
I don’t blame you for being you / But you can’t blame me for any name.
There was this corny idea of the rock show, everyone bobbing their heads in time. It was basically prom without the couples and expensive dresses. We all dropped weight for it, we all found a sweat in the rhythm and heat. When I got sick, I watched Kerrang! TV for hours, probably still playing my Game Boy or something. They’d show FOB videos more or less on repeat. I waited up for my crush on MSN, gossiped with friends; maybe there was something in that cyan-coloured comic sans font he used. We drank Jolt Cola cut half and half with Glen’s Vodka. An electric shandy, six times your daily recommended caffeine. Running down the beach. Emoticon wars. Back then in the middle of nowhere, a text was like a radar signal sent from the deep.
2018, I try gifting my cousin’s baby daughter with a Hello Kitty hair clip. She doesn’t get it.
I wrote all sorts of pop punk lyrics all over my Sports Direct trainers. I like to think I turned up to gym class with these crappy white trainers, each one adorned with My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me. My teacher looked me up and down with disdain. I imagined she listened to Meatloaf on the car to work each day, wolfing tuna sandwiches. She said my trainers were too ‘flat’. She dragged me out the library, where I was often skiving; she made me play badminton for hours. I liked to reach and aim, slam something delicate and thin to the ground. That was kinda how it felt being in the world, trying to fly out all light and free, then some dude with a bat just whacking you back down, crushed and moth-like. Playing badminton felt vengeful. There were spiders in the showers of the changing rooms afterwards. There were kids in first year who would throw golf balls over a fence to hit us. If they smashed a window, we’d get the blame. Some of us stole fags round the back of the gym block, looking out at the Carrick Hills.
Walking the crossroads was my favourite escape. I liked the bit that unfurled into greenery, sheep, rolling hills. Sometimes I’d be climbing Kildoon, sitting by the falls. That was learning to breathe again. When a lorry came, I felt the rush pass through me like a terrible swarm of ghosts. I was rattling.
There were diet pills you crushed with pro plus, sipped with diet coke or JD.
In The Virgin Suicides, Lux writes the name of her crush on her underwear. This is a false start, by any means. In writing we only possess a shard of some other self. It’s only ever temporary. The shape of ribs, a smile, the cut of your bangs or hipbones.
Imagine writing a name now. Keats Keats Keats. Each iteration a tiny seed.
Sometimes I liked to just lie on the concrete.
In town, loitering is our ontological condition. We exist for no other reason. We browse but never buy things. Some of us sneak lip glosses, necklaces, bars of chocolate beneath our sleeves. I had a friend that could even steal booze and pills. I’ve saved up my daily lunch money just to get here on Saturdays. In Burger King, we kill time and snort vitamins for kicks. A year before the haze of legal highs set in. We are so young.
All our talk is just procrastination. I watch you try on neon sports jackets in TKMaxx and it’s the best best thing.
In Chicago, they had a scene. Sufjan sang about it on some movie they showed, eventually, on Sunday TV. Little Miss Sunshine. I’m not saying I identified with the nihilist son, but…I wished sometimes it was acceptable not to talk. The less I ate, the less I spoke. That was liberating, I suppose. I was in love with the place, in my mind / In my mind.
There was the Easter holidays we played football down the Low Green every day, the last time in that year I remember being truly happy. All sorts of drama happened, breakups and makeups, and we watched it roll out from a distance. Smoked occasional menthols, hid under climbing frames, spun each other round in the night till we were dizzy. I never once grew tired of waiting at train stations. I had my iPod, my violet-lined eyes, my dreams.
We walked along the river sometimes, deep in the foliage, and joked about places you could get away with having sex in. We counted the bottles of Buckfast, watched out for insects. Nothing seemed alive in the undergrowth.
At school, there were never any practice rooms free so we sat on the floors of corridors, playing our shitty guitars. ‘Californication’, over and over, following some half-arsed tablature. The solo to Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ (how joyous I’d be if I knew ten years on a friend would make a vapourwave remix). I had no time for it–I was never coordinated enough for those licks and chords–but having the guitar in front of you was a kind of protection. You could talk all nonsense and pretend to passing teachers that you were doing work. As if they understood the mysteries of music. Regularly, the tech teacher would ask me, whenever I came to school with my trombone, if I was carrying a machete, an AK47. I nourished a kind of inward, low-level fury. Sometimes, they’d drop pennies at our feet for a laugh, as though we were busking. I wondered about all that copper and metal: where it went, eventually.
We wrote a song that ripped off the chords to ‘Brain Stew’ and my amp blew up someone’s boyfriend’s laptop. On weekends, there were sleepovers and we’d stay up till the wee hours, breaking apart massive bars of Cadbury’s Caramel while chatting to folk on MSN, Chatroulette, the laugh track of Friends or Father Ted in the background. There were only two buses home a day, and the rhythm of my Saturdays and Sundays was governed by that. I liked arriving home, sleepily, forgetting I once had a routine. It was wholesome to lie on your bed, listening to Mogwai, slowly sinking.
Occasionally, we went swimming.
There’s a MySpace still out there with all these photos, histories stripped of context. Many of them are in sepia, owing to some new effect I’d discovered on my phone. It was a slide-up phone, designed for playing music out loud. It was like I wanted every memory to be always-already history, taking those sepia pictures. You can’t tell our age, except from the expressions, the thinness of our wrists. It wasn’t that we were innocent as such, it was just that we didn’t care at all. It was written on our faces, this not caring. Soon to be fun, let’s see.
Every lyric iteration of html inevitably fades. What minimalist temple I had designed, stamped with diamond symbols and Crystal Castles mp3s, has since crumbled. It was probably a rip-off anyway. Wanting to look like Uffie, wanting to be cryptic, aphoristic. Coveting emotions as metaphoric fruit. All those bulletins, midnight reveries stolen from time on the family PC, are deleted. The endless, self-questioning quizzes. We learned more about ourselves, about each other that way than we ever did in a PSE lesson at school. We trod a dangerous line, exposing our confessionals. Last time you cried, last time you kissed someone, who do you trust no matter what? Sometimes it bounced back in unfortunate ways.
This has been said / So many times that I’m not sure if it matters.
Kanye calls his kid Chicago. He has that song ‘Homecoming’, with the cute piano riff, a monochrome world. I get a kick out of every library book that was published in Chicago. I have no idea what it means. The pages are dull and yellow, the text swims in a sepia sea. I can’t listen to those albums again without feeling some predictive force, a face from the tarot. It’s like every fast food ad has a burger that looks identical to the last, as though every diner uses the same stock photo database. All our desires grow uniform, in the envy of hair and boys and all consumables. Circling back. Do you think about me now and then?
In Ayr, there are twin roundabouts bordering the station. I always got lost, trying to drive through both of them smoothly. I always came back round, caught in the westward trajectories of the next, the lights from Morrisons carpark smouldering into a school night sunset. Mostly I miss the booze and the dunes, the clandestine sense of just being there, cutting about in front of the ocean. Cutting out time as a fact of the water, the light; sirens cloying the air behind us.
A crumpled local newspaper, ink bleeding in the rain, a tattoo of useless words on the Styrofoam takeaway. A case of stacked metaphors, every sentence weighted with the freight of muscle, plunge, pressing ahead. Snowflakes of unbreakable material make their way across bladderwrack pavements. Words like eateries and retail melt through the cracks and what’s left is the skeletal possibility of what could be, mulched in quicksand, the mall revamped with luscious funds and pumped to the brim with glass, tiles of parquet impression, leisure. The Kyle Centre mall, as understood in American English (O to cue Idlewild forever in the longing for that sensitive, Irvine drawl), once boasted a fountain where you tossed in your lucky pennies. There was a genuine, operating foodcourt. In the summer, tents would be erected upstairs for sale; a bouncy castle provided cheap joy for children and teenagers bored by another washout July. Many of us stole first kisses in the warm, polyester glow of those tents. We’d take caffeinated beverages and go browsing, the way you do now with the ease of a thumb and the screen, the virtual checkout. The semiology of colour in familiar high street stores, from Next to Topshop, functioned as landmarks in the crisscross abyss of ersatz environs, scaled to micro.
What comes next, next, next—a panoply of signage directs the flow of bodies. There were four entrances and exits, but only locals mastered the correct orientations. Kids drifted aimlessly up and down the escalators, shouting to friends who clustered on the floor below, sharing meal deals purloined from Superdrug, dropping fake grated cheese on the sallow floor. Medievals feeding their daily, carpeted fodder; a spin-cycle draining the pockets of millennials. All was amalgamation, consumerism in miniature. There was the looping belt of process that brought each person’s return on a Saturday afternoon. You might say bustling, even, if you were a journalist running out of words. You felt the bloat, the awkward accrual of bags, the jostle towards actual sunlight fizzled in the imminent night. Evening came quicker by the sea, shaded by islands and cloudy bars. Making impulse decisions, drawing back to the thing that comes without thinking.
To return ten years on is to witness the boom and bust cycle’s distilled effect. Scrunched out remnants of culture, expendable income bleached to regret. Towns throughout Britain, of course, lay waste to the whims of the market; but few as strong as this one. A smattering of bookies, charity shops, pawnbrokers and dingy discount stores spring up where cafés and clothes shops used to be. The supermarkets teem with the deranged ennui of the drifters. Old folks carry their bags to and fro, not gathering—not even picking the fruit of occasional Watt Brothers lipsticks. Their gums sink with cheap mints, the quality of the buskers slackens to fraught renditions of ‘All of Me’. As if the comprehensive self were still a myth to be chased. Pill poppers make the rounds quite openly, TKMaxx installs vein-resistant violet lighting in its bathrooms to stave off addicts. The establishment dwindles. Woolworths closed an age ago; they are slowly getting used to it.
As operational concept, the town brings out its humming despair. Gulls swoop in circles, waiting to descend on their carrion, the fag butts flicked into new oblivions. When dropped from a four-storey carpark, nutmeg stoned, you practise the art of temporal refusal—stepping literally into the upswept dust of the times. Trying out the bone-shattering acrobatics. Something glimpsed on telly. Creating a whirl of delusion which staves off the fear, if only for three hours with side effect headaches. You sit in the sticky dark of the Odeon, chewing peanuts, waiting for the arrival of those who won’t come. A shower runs on in the back of your mind; numeric paranoias flourish like dog daisies in June-green meadows. All of a sweetness, lingering aspartame. River Island being that literalised metaphor for outdoor fashion, something exotic in the lurid schemes. New tribes stranded on the traffic islands of their adolescent years, calling for help but only serving to prompt more crashes. The roadsides fill up with scrap metal, coke cans, broken dreams. Only the criminals pick litter and weeds. Somebody stops you on the street to ask about your pension, your PPI. In trackies you concoct some lie of an income. It feels better to exist beyond form, chewing a pack of mucilaginous candy, taming the jaw towards process. I run, I run, I run.
Practitioners of parkour and skaters clatter up the common walkways, alleys–backflipping normality. In that violent clack or fall of trainers, they emit fresh wavelengths on the general orbit. They are trying to avoid, like all of us, the inevitable, hullabaloo pull of the Kyle Centre, its middling void drawing us back to terrible origins. Returning after years, I found the mall to be almost utterly empty. The floor tiles coated with a fine layer of dust. I could almost hear the tinny echoes of Macintosh Plus resonate in the brain as I glided around, glancing into the charnel grounds of abandoned shop windows. Was this the mall of yesterday, snagged in its vividly bland, retro-futurity? Tacky goods, novelty toys and festive decorations were stacked up without sale, all in a jumble, asynchronic. There was an elegiac quality to the silence, the desolation, the click of my heels on the tiles. Usually, a curated selection of galling chart bangers would blast from some unseen stereo, but this has been replaced by a low-level, Lynchian electrical hum. There’s almost a sense that the whole setup could explode; something of J. G. Ballard’s comment that ‘reality itself’ feels like some kind of elaborate ‘stage set’, one that ‘could be dismantled at any moment’. Who would do the dismantling–and how violently? An irritated, private developer, snuffling the truffles of riches buried beneath crumbling plaster? When I touch shop signs, the tarnish comes apart in my fingers, along with all youthful glitz of faith. Consumerism comes here to evade its afterlife. I consider the rent rates of a gamble.
April 2017, a fresh visit. The only shop that appeared to be open—beyond a curious popup tent with a sunglass stand of neon hairbands—sold vapes in all sorts of flavours. Oddly appropriate that the vaporisation business flourished under recession. Ye olde Marx strikes again: ‘All that is solid melts into air’. The material basis of capital, of physical living–structures defined and hardened over years of labour relations–is eventually dissipated under the strain of its own regime. Our cloying desires rent free and exhaled as vapour, the flavours of youth recreated with chemical enhancements. Cookies and cream, strawberry sundae, cherry cola; all the treats once devoured in these hallowed walls provide now the scented mists of our caustic lungs. We choke on the smallness of the shrinking world, distracted by flickering images.
Quite satisfying, really, to find oneself wandering around in the new vacuity. Less sincerity than simple dwelling in abstraction, a reminder that such clear plexiglass canvases once held the false cheer of advertisements. Stalking the old trajectories, attempting to align memories of space, place, movement. By posing at the broken fruit machine, sticking post-its upon the locked bathroom doors, peering into grime-smeared windows, are we enacting a form of détournement, constructing a new milieu, hijacking a bland, capitalist reality? EAT ME/DISCOUNTS/SALES/NEW DEALS (Tony Blair’s Cheshire cat grin suspended in symptomatic darkness). The devouring logic of the overdraft reigns, gasps, struggles for land. We snap for Instagram, slathering everything with inevitable millennial humour, a soft irony tinged with longing. These washed-out, fluorine filters; do they augment the dreaminess or merely expose the inherently bland, detached, trifling logic of the fetish? For all love for material is only immaterial. What you trade on a wage, the price of petrol; a burnout dependence, the chalky velocity.
I once saw my friend play guitar here, his voice resonating with surprising boom in the faux-brick cavern. It was a Sunday, no-one around but other hoodies, pensioners, lovers on their way between worlds. More than ever, the c e n t r e becomes transit zone, the overlap of other non-places. Time exists perpetually at four o’clock, the imminent closing of the shops, the light spilling in so grey and serene from tiny windows. It could be any time, in dreichest summer or dimmest winter. With sloganeered t-shirts, devoid of irony (“I Love to Shop Til I Drop”), we depart from resistance and give ourselves freely to the tide of tabloid iconography. It sweeps us inside its beige dripping media, sickly vanilla, till we are left like baby in the corner, picking dirt from beneath our milky nails. Waiting. People stop buying us ice-creams, frappuccinos, smoothies. All sugar departs by the lore of the body’s exhaustion. The inner world of the subject meets its flux in the antique plasticity of a once blazing commercialism. The streets shriek with bird-shit, pollutant buses, football hooligans and irate teenagers. Always there is the sharp, iodine smell of the sea. Someone stuck their disposable fork in an apple, set rotten upon a statue, as if waiting to be struck by lightning, lottery, something. A bottle of vodka is thrown from the luminous heights of White City, the same old hood in its twilight sleep.
The new silver screen dream was deemed a ‘multiplex’, a grand unveiling with the rich promise of quick progress, an ambitious proposal; a snip off the cash boost economy, a successful investment. Two years on and the ghosts still roam the walls, the bleak clichés of everything must go. Go where? Capitalism, in the age of waste, strips us of former ideals for nowhere, elsewhere. We know all the junk floats back somehow; we’ve seen the debris, the bottles, the latex remains washed up on the shore. You can just about hear the dull roar of an old hairdryer, blasting away the years in what once was a trendy hair salon. Temporary beauty, a pencil full of noxious lead. Nobody leaves Yelp reviews for the dead. The eighties decor, the depression of spirit. We circle back round, take the westerly entrance out towards honey-drip sunsets. Nobody weeps for the high street store, nor sheds a penny for the sake of nostalgia. Soon all will be gone, sodium dissolved; as sure as your new emporium, the vapours coming in through the walls, coating each residue thing with virulent mists. For reminiscence, for seconds caught static in the gleam of the fountain, an imaginary power sweeps us northward, drawn to other versions of lost dreams, lost treats, the endless catacomb concrete.
Hipster Poseur or Situationist Provocateur? – The Metamodernism of Father John Misty
The recent crowning of Bob Dylan as winner of the Nobel prize for literature exemplifies our cultural obsession with authenticity. Sure, there are many other reasons for awarding Dylan the prize: the sheer volume of material he’s produced over several decades; his stature as an icon for the sensitive singer-songwriter; the influence he’s had on a whole variety of other musicians, writers, poets (hell, Joyce Carol Oates even dedicated a short story to him, and that was back in 1966). What’s striking about Dylan though is that he captures a certain lonesome troubadour aesthetic, taking the oral folk tradition of storytelling and the Beat generation aesthetics of immediacy, emotional expression and sensory impressions, and applying them to the sphere of popular music. In an age of auto-tuning, the ironic Cyborgism of Lady Gaga, the sheen of Kardashian perfectionism and the rise of the electronic sample, Dylan is held up as a figure of raw humanism, a celebration of flaws, a messiah for authenticity: its historical legacy, the possibility of its imminent return – the road myth stretching out into a kind of flame-red 1960s sunset, drenched in the nostalgia of a generation sick of techno and Twitter. I’m not so interested in whether Dylan should or shouldn’t have won the award; I’m more interested in what it says about our culture – namely, the nostalgia for the Real, the Authentic.
In an age of reality tv, true crime novels, of voguish memoirs and the confessional impulse of social media, it’s no wonder we keep craving the apparent honesty and pastoral romance conjured by a wild-haired young man standing lonesome in the canyons and warbling some wistful ballad documenting a troubled exploration of the soul, the wasted conditions of modern life. Yet while Dylan triumphs in the popular imagination, what are contemporary artists doing to subvert the system? In an age of hyperreality, hyper-pornography, liquid modernity, the Internet of Things, postpostmodernity – whatever you wanna call it – what can the pop singer do to achieve genuine controversy? Do you have to pull a Miley Cyrus and gyrate against a giant foam finger whilst performing a duet with a man dressed like an oversized humbug? Is irony and ludic poststructuralist riddling the only solution to capitalist existence, or have we gone beyond into something more? Where does the future lie for subversive performance art and indeed music?
Metamodernism, a term crystallised in Luke Turner’s 2011 manifesto, is a term which attempts to solve the problem of what comes next, what follows the snazzy, wisecrack playfulness of postmodernism. Instead of suggesting a temporal leap from postmodernism into something else, metamodernism argues for the notion of an oscillation between modernism and postmodernism, embodying at once the ‘sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect’ of modernism’ with the lessons of postmodernism, its ontological questionings, its artistic techniques of ‘deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives’ (Turner 2015). This wavering between irony and sincerity, I argue, aptly characterises the music and performance of Father John Misty, aka Josh Tillman (former Fleet Foxes drummer). Misty is significant because of his trajectory from earnest, melancholic folk singer in the mould of Nick Drake/drummer in a band that made earnest, pastoral chamber pop, to a kind of bombastic, Hollywood shaman persona who mixes Neil Young with magic mushrooms and an ever-present iPhone. Much has been said on the likes of James Franco and Shia LaBeouf as metamodern performance artists. Franco’s film The Interview (2014) refuses to provide viewers with a fiction filter and leaves us despairingly perplexed as to its real-life veracity. As Seth Abramson puts it, ‘[d]oes The Interview “sincerely” intend to romanticise the murder of a real-world political leader, or is it “ironically” depicting an imaginary scenario in which that murder occurs? The viewer, of whatever nationality or political affiliation, is left to fend for themselves’. LaBeouf’s whole existence seems to consist predominantly in deliberately stirring controversy through performance art, including turning up to the premier of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac wearing a paper bag over his head, proclaiming the words ‘I am not famous anymore’. Is it a cheap ironic trick, or a genuine stab at the fickleness of celebrity culture? The reticence and lack of context provided for such art leaves the answers – and often the questions – up to the viewer. It’s not quite Brechtian estrangement, but it certainly has enough of that surrealist, absurdist quality to leave us reflecting critically on our established aesthetic definitions of what constitutes good taste, meaning, or indeed art altogether. While Franco and LaBeouf have been suitably lavished over in metamodern critique, I think it’s time Father John Misty had a spin under the hot lights.
For starters, naming. As soon as an artist adopts a moniker, they fall victim to an endless cycle of questioning which regurgitates the tired litany of phrases: ‘true self’, ‘authentic’, ‘real’. Band names which suggest authentic expression: the Manic Street Preachers (literally, they are people of the street, preaching a raw, unadulterated, ‘manic’ message). Richey Edwards famously took a razor blade and carved ‘4 REAL’ on his arm after NME interviewer Steve Lamacq playfully questioned the authenticity of the Manic Street Preachers’ aggressively critical punk aesthetic. The notion of the REAL, then, is so pressing that it must be etched into one’s skin to prove one’s credentials. While David Bowie was widely celebrated for his queering of identity and invention of a whole host of alter-egos, Lana Del Rey is constantly lambasted in the media for being fake, inauthentic, a sham. Videos of songs from her Lizzy Grant days are dug up and splayed out online like some kind of police file. Look: this is the REAL Lana Del Rey! Even her lips are fake now! Perhaps the difference in response is because with Bowie, the fantasy quality was obvious – Ziggy Stardust was a character leapt out of some wonderful, coke-fuelled 1970s disco super-dream – whereas with Lana and Father John Misty, the line between ‘character’ and ‘true person’ is blurred. Tillman has denied (quite vehemently) that Father John Misty is simply a fictional creation, or merely an extension of personality; he sees it as a conveniently funny name which does the trick of ornamenting the desired psychedelic vibes of his music, it’s simply ‘a sequence of phonetic sounds that looks good on a t-shirt’.
For Misty, ‘most people’s idea of real authenticity is pork pies and vests and banjoes and whatever else, but real authenticity is just empathy, because everyone uses their own experiences as being the gold standard for authenticity’. This points to the cultural relativism of authenticity. In our current era, it is manifested in the torn-shirt, heart-felt indie band epitomised perhaps most vividly by the Libertines, with the Pete’n’Carl rock’n’roll shambles of a double act coupled with poetic lyricism and the ‘authentic’ (but indelibly nostalgic) imagery of Cool Britannia. Once, it was curly-haired Dylan, or sickly, sensitive, visionary Romantic poet, John Keats. That Misty plays with so many cultural signifiers indicates his awareness of this relativism and indeed deliberately disrupts our understanding of authenticity itself. It’s embodied in his very music, which combines lyrics about redemptive love, self-loathing and cynical society with honey-sweet chamber pop. What does it mean to have this slightly ridiculous, towering, internet-trolling hipster figure sing genuinely sensitive ballads about romance and the tragically fucked-up consequences of a drop-out lifestyle, woven alongside songs about digging up graves and having sex in the Hollywood cemetery, ‘with Adderall and weed in my veins’? One thing’s for certain: authenticity is not something that’s fixed, and we might think about the cultural politics of who gets to decide what’s considered authentic…
With Lana Del Rey, the Ghetto Lolita persona isn’t just a persona, but in a similar vein to Tillman’s FJM, constitutes a whole arrangement of cultural codes mixed specifically with the enticement of death and sex appeal. Del Rey’s fashion alters in her videos, from 1960s baby doll to biker bad girl, trailer trash harlot, president’s wife and the melancholic hip hop angel on ‘High by the Beach’. Questioning her authenticity seems to miss the point, drawing us into a recursive and probably reductive debate about identity politics. What matters is how she adopts these different styles and weaves them through her performance; how using elements of trap, hip hop and soul within her lush landscapes of electric guitars and slowly melodic, ethereal vocals, prompts the listener’s awareness of a bewildering but certainly exhilarating mesh of symbolic values which cut across race, class, sexuality and gender, drawing us back to that central ideological problematic: the American Dream. As Karen van den Berg (2013) puts it, in a discussion of Del Rey’s video for ‘Ride’, ‘on the one hand Del Rey’s visual aesthetics celebrate the artificiality of the concept of identity, but on the other it permanently recalls and reverts to a layer of basic needs, a kind of existential sediment. And this sediment is the white trash milieu and the dark side of the glamorous vamp – the “Lolita lost in the hood”.
Well, if LDR is busy swathing us in the hypnotically dangerous luxuries of our consumerist superficiality, Father John Misty playfully deconstructs the Dylanesque vision of the Authentic American Troubadour. Boasting a slick of unkempt hair and overgrown beard, clad in oversized blazers and psychedelic shirts unbuttoned to the chest, Misty embodies a certain skewed archetype: the balladeering minstrel meets the ironic fashion codes of the hipster. Part shaman, mystic and lumberjack, with a name that belongs on the church fronts of some dazzling circus marquee of hell, Misty preaches lyrics which veer between the madly sarcastic, derisive and painfully sincere. Significantly, he had a cameo appearance in Del Rey’s video for ‘Freak’, playing a psychedelic, acid-gobbling 1960s mystic. He sings about love, married life, American culture, Hollywood glamour, sexual encounters and dodgy drug trips. His lyrics are a heteroglot mix of discourses, from religion to sentimental love songs to internet/text chat: ‘I Went to the Store One Day’ describes how a chance encounter in a ‘parking lot’ ends up in a ragged and passionate love affair and the dream of sharing a ‘plantation house’ because it’s ‘cheaper in the South’. Here, the classic Beat dream of heading south or west is repackaged as the ironically doomed trajectory of a metamodern love affair, where the singer’s genuine passion and emotion – ‘don’t let me die in a hospital’ – concludes with a terse ‘Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years’ which seems to belong more in some experimental flash fiction piece than it does in a pop song. While Jeff Buckley reworked the troubadour ethic embodied by his folk-singing father, Tim Buckley, by combining its heartfelt honesty with the raw, Iron Maiden-style grating expression of the electric guitar and the howling vocal, Misty often dabbles in the meta, endlessly reminding us that we are listening to a FJM record, with all the symbolic contextual discourse that entails. On ‘Bored in the USA’, he weaves in a laugh track, which twists what could be a Dylanesque ballad on the dystopian state of our present society into a cynical self-reflection on the potential meaningless of art that strives to counter or represent this meaninglessness in the rest of culture.
Which brings us to the question: how successful can pop cultural art be when it is so far engrained in the corporate machine? Frankfurt school philosopher Theodore Adorno was fairly sceptical of its potential. He argued that
attempts to bring political protest together with “popular music”—that is, with entertainment music—are for the following reason doomed from the start. The entire sphere of popular music, even there where it dresses itself up in modernist guise, is to such a degree inseparable from past temperament, from consumption, from the cross-eyed transfixion with amusement, that attempts to outfit it with a new function remain entirely superficial […].
Thus as soon as an artist starts singing critically about the Iraq war, the current political system and so on, they risk turning these elements into commodities, and in the process cheapening not only the impact of their critique but also risk making light of the events themselves. Mathijs Peters uses the example of Green Day’s American Idiot (2004) album to illustrate how pop-cultural protest gets transformed into simply another commodity. Green Day’s album, where the very title was a stab at pop culture (American Idiot/American Idol), presented a damning attack on the Bush administration and the wasted life of the junk-filled suburbs in the wake of late capitalism. Released on a Warner Bros. music label, it shot to great success, collecting a bunch of Grammy awards along the way. In the process, Peters (2015: 1348) argues, the band ‘became part of the same sensationalist establishment they tried to critique […] of the consumption culture and the corporal establishment that they explicitly distanced themselves from in the lyrics of American Idiot’. Indeed, I remember, as an avid young fan at the time, being able to buy Green Day merchandise in Claire’s Accessories (and on Ayr High Street, nonetheless). Obviously this is a perennial problem for punk in general and Green Day themselves addressed the alienating experience of being considered ‘sell-outs’ much earlier in their career; specifically, on ’86’ – a song from Insomniac (1995) which attacks the band from the perspective of the grassroots punk community from which they sprung.
One way to tackle the problem of being a sellout is to whole-heartedly embrace chart success and the exposure and coverage it brings. While some bands act cool and sly in the shadows of underground punk scenes, others deliberately whore themselves out to the mainstream. The question here is whether or not this can be considered an act of Situationist critique; Situationism being Guy Debord’s (non)term relating to the theory or practical activity of constructing situations (it’s not a movement exactly but perhaps best considered a set of critical practices). The specific mode of Situationist statement which musicians can employ is that of détournement: a method of propaganda which integrates existing artistic productions into a new, revised assemblage of a social milieu or event. An example of this would be to take the iconography of some element of mainstream politics or discourse and embody it to an extreme in new contexts so as to parody and reconfigure its meaning in a critical sense. We might think of the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield on Top of the Pops, performing Faster in between funeral pyres, clad in a terrorist balaclava. By bringing this aggressive masculine iconography into the commercial camp of Top of the Pops, and coupling the sinister symbol of the balaclava with the childish chalk scrawl ‘JAMES’, the band succeeded in challenging our existing conception of military imagery, estranging it through a combination of extremity and playful absurdism. Peters argues:
In line of Situationist thinking, the message [the Manics] tried to get across was not expressed in subtle arguments: the band sought to hijack the sloganeering techniques of consumerism, more specifically of tabloid journalism, presenting their message in the form of a radically distorted consumerism, turning its own techniques against itself.
(Peters 2015: 1357)
Yet in turning consumerism against itself, this aesthetic-political impulse is not simple postmodern irony; there is genuine sincerity, fury and passion in the performance. As with metamodernism, there is an oscillation between the postmodern collage of images and a kind of modernist sincerity, a slightly Eliotic misanthropy. Indeed, most Manics albums are plastered with quotes with all the great modernists, from Nietzsche to Camus and e.e. cummings (later albums, such as Futurology (2014) were also overtly influenced by German expressionism). The modernist imprint is coupled with the performative playfulness of postmodern Bowie or Talking Heads, and the effect is one that is jarring and alienating while also heated and emotional, a far cry from the ironic cool of postmodernism.
The Manics have often explicitly stated their desire for chart success, describing their 2010 album, Postcards from a Young Man, as a ‘last shot at mass communication’. This explicitly Adornian imagery of mass communication suggests an explicit engagement with the ‘culture machine’ for the purposes of widespread societal critique, using the platform of pop culture to put forward a political message. While Nicky Wire is pretty forthright about his politics, giving an earnest, engaged (and let’s face it, depressingly rare these days) left-wing energy to many of his interviews, Father John Misty is far more elliptical. The lines between performance and authenticity are continually blurred. Misty blithely admits to his penchant for merchandise, stating with deadpan seriousness in a somewhat disastrous BBC 6Music interview that he and his management ‘have come up with an algorithm [for crowd-surfing] that more or less correlates to march sales’. The interview becomes a kind of performance art, with Misty critiquing Radcliffe and Maconie for ‘leading me with blunt questions’ at the same time as deliberately berating them with obtuse or self-aggrandisingly bombastic answers. Once again, we have that bewildering oscillation between irony and sincerity: how seriously does Misty take his art? It’s quite possible that Misty, an American (and thus supposedly without irony), has trumped the British interviewers with his enigmatic sarcasm, a kind of David Foster Wallace-esque intellectual posturing. At once, he’s arguing for the genuine ‘empathy’ he hopes to achieve in his songs, and talking about how he loves the idea of having merchandised jeggings. He bitterly denigrates music that has a didactic message critiquing society or popular music, saying, ‘any kind of didactic hair splitting post punk competing ideologies make me want to puke’ – we’re looking at you, Half Man Half Biscuit.
Still, you’d be forgiven for thinking Misty is a bit of a hypocrite on this. After all, didn’t he famously disrupt one of his festival performances this summer to embark on a tirade against the role of the entertainment industry in propagating the impulse of the Trump presidential campaign? It’s worth listening to the whole speech to get a flavour for whether it’s a genuine spontaneous rant or a scripted act of performance art. While (if YouTube comments are anything to go by) Misty was widely lambasted and ridiculed for his speech – there’s the whole commercial thing of we’ve paid for a gig, we expect some music – there’s something eerily authentic and indeed rousing about it. The crowd starts cheering (somewhat limply, but still) and at one point a guy shouts out, as if in a gospel church, ‘preach Father, preach!’. We can’t tell if he’s being ironic, merely citing and regurgitating religious discourse out of context for fun, but the effect is still palpable. It becomes a kind of surrealist visual event, where even the audience start to channel the symbolic implications of Misty’s name. We usually associate rockstars interrupting their performance for garbled declarative speeches with some kind of ensuing personal breakdown (The Libertines, Green Day and the Manics have all been caught up in this), but here Misty’s speech is both controlled and has the rhythm of natural pondering. He gets into the rhythm of complaint and disgust; it’s broad daylight, bright sunshine, and he’s shouting,
[…] do you people realise we have an entertaining tyrant [TRUMP] right now…like, HILARIOUS. I don’t know how I can rationally respond right now…do we think that our hilarious tyrant is going to be met with a hilarious revolution? […] how entertaining should this be right now? […] how fucking fun should this be? How fucking fun can it be? Can it be real in any sense?
And in fact there’s a definite poignancy to this speech now that Trump has in fact become President of the United States. The hilarious tyrant has won. He’s no longer a cartoon character. Misty is deliberately pushing us to at once take the hilarious approach (why stage this absurdist political intervention at a gig, and not a political convention?) and to critically assess our complicity in letting this happen, in at once not taking Trump seriously but also normalising him as part of discourse, allowing him to settle comfortably among the daily media news cycle. He confronts full-on the problem of singing more explicit protest songs like ‘Bored in the USA’ in a context where nothing seems real anymore, admitting the struggle to make this song entertainment (and thus as much worth as Trump’s speeches) by singing it live to an audience. Misty’s lyrics to ‘Bored in the USA’ capture post-recession America with a wry cynicism which deconstructs and modernises all-American superstar Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ for the prozac-numbed Millennial generation. By bringing up his unease at playing the song, Misty hints at Adorno’s suspicion of pop music’s limited powers of protest. In doing so, he adds a layer of further meta-critique, which benefits the overall thrust of his performance. There’s a romanticism, a kind of soap-box politics which is refreshing and comes across as both sincere and slightly poke-the-online-lion’s-nest kind of IRL trolling.
This is a man who can perform a heartbreaking cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ with absolute, devastating emotional conviction, who speaks in the lingo of the college boy, littering his interviews with ‘dude’ and ‘man’. Who can doll out such colourful and risqué phrases as ‘hickory smoked abortion’ to describe the state of current US culture. Who can express dreamlike fantasies of masochism alongside the cutesy cuddly scene of bringing two (probably organic, thrice roasted) coffees back to the domestic bliss of his girlfriend’s bed (as in the video for ‘Nancy From Now On’). Who can evoke New Age mysticism and the blisses of married life at the same time as derisively mocking a lover from the perspective of a condemning, world-weary academic: ‘She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes / And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream / I wonder if she even knows what that word means / Well, it’s literally not that’. While songs like ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt.’ could be considered postmodern, in the sense that a) it’s meta, referring to Tillman as if he were an outside character and b) it’s lyrically ripping apart the female love object in, perhaps, a riff of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ c) it’s also musically self-consciously deconstructing a love song, twinkling xylophone and yearning strings ’n’ all. However, you could also consider it a sincere rendering of the shallowness of identities in a relationship that’s no longer working/never worked; as Misty bluntly admits, ‘I feel so unconvincing / when I fumble with your buttons’. I particularly love when he plucks a piece of internet lingo like ‘convo’ and rhymes it sublimely with ‘cosmos’. There’s a sense that these are love songs repackaged for the cynical age of Reddit, but flavoured with a conviction that suggests genuine empathy with the character(s) in the songs (Misty himself?) and the act of songwriting as an authentic act of self-expression or cultural engagement (so here more Tumblr than Reddit). After all, the polished production and tight arrangements suggest less jagged punk aggression/destruction and instead a sophisticated reworking of various musical discourses.
Like Lana Del Rey, Misty likes to skirt on the line between Hollywood glamour and its dark underbelly of heartbreak, superficiality and personal travesty; between a deliberate reworking of commercial codes and cultural images and the sincerity of genuinely heartfelt songs in the tradition of the tragic romantic songwriter (Neil Young for Misty, Billie Holliday for Del Rey). The old American road song is reworked (‘Nothing Good Ever Happens at The Goddamn Thirsty Crow’ for Misty, ‘Ride’ for LDR). The whole purpose of a pop star is reworked. What is unique and provocative about these artists is their insistence on refusing to concede the binary between fantasy/reality, performance/authenticity, their constant negotiation and deliberate reworking of cultural codes. In an age where a HILARIOUS TYRANT can become President of the United States, where radical politics is shrouded in apathy, where most discourse on celebrity culture is profoundly pessimistic and negative, maybe it’s time to recognise the celebrities who are subtly challenging the system from within, and start taking seriously (with a bittersweet pinch of playful cynicism) a new Situationism?
Bibliography (all other sources referenced in hyperlinks):
Peters, Mathijs, 2015. ‘Adorno Meets Welsh Alternative Rock Band Manic Street Preachers: Three Proposed Critical Models’, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 48, No. 6, pp. 1346-1373.
Belle & Sebastian are one of those bands that give you a warm, fuzzy and nostalgic feeling. As much as they’re often lazily attributed to the cultural realm of the ‘indie kid’ or the ‘Glasgow hipster’, this neglects the fact of their wider popularity. They are, after all, a band who’ve been around for over 20 years now. I’ve played their tunes in the restaurant where I work and witnessed middle-aged folks who look like they’re off to a Springsteen concert humming along to ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’. Their songs have popped up on plenty of popular tv shows and films (‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ on Girls, ‘I’m a Cuckoo’ on The Inbetweeners, ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ in Juno – to name just a handful).Like a sweet, familiar honey, their music just sticks to you, whether you wanna spread it on your toast or not. Sure, they get a lot of hate: their songs are cloying, the singing a bit too saccharine at times, the lyrics silly, the sound the same on each album. I’ve heard them being called ‘beige’ music.
For me, Belle & Sebastian make pastel coloured music. I don’t know, maybe it’s a touch of the old synaesthesia but I’ve always imagined their songs awash in delicate shades of blue and pink, green and yellow and orange – a bit like the colours of sorbet. They’re just the perfect summer band. Some bands it’s easy to have a colour for, or even a texture: Mogwai are deep deep green and black, LCD Soundsystem are bright, shiny white, Mac DeMarco all denim blue and dirty mustard yellow, Kate Bush is a luscious kind of cherry red, Bjork is all the hues of a pearl, Tame Impala are psychedelic greens and blues and oranges, Aphex Twin is ink black, but sometimes yellow, blue or bubblegum pink. In the same vein, Belle & Sebastian to me are all about pastels, sometimes a wee bit brighter but never beige, except when it’s that classy kind of chino beige that you might see paired with a yellow blouse and pink ribbon. I want to be dressed up with a funny hat, a mini skirt and retro sunglasses when I listen to them. Something lilac, a stick of ice lolly. Hell, maybe even rollerblades. I find myself immersed in the stories of the songs; I sort of want to be a character in one of them – a lost twenty-something with her school days long behind her, figuring out how to deal with the world and enjoying living in the city.
Listening to them involves a kind of camaraderie: you’re sharing the world with them, with all the voices of each song’s narrator; sharing Stuart Murdoch’s hazy, romanticised version of Glasgow, the lives of the quirky characters he writes into his lyrics. The musical arrangements in their songs vary between stripped back and fragile, sometimes very much Smiths-influenced (inherently, B&S are an ‘urban’ band, right?), with pretty melodies adorned with piano, acoustic guitar, maybe a bit of bass (‘We Rule the School’, ‘It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career’, ‘Dress Up in You’ – these are some of my favourites), to zany and fun and maybe even lovably chaotic, with some of the earlier songs sporting surf rock guitars (‘La Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’) or (in the early days, Cubase-arranged) electronic numbers (‘Electronic Renaissance’, or, later on, the near seven minute ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ which frames its tribute to the late great poet inside a Europop epic), as well as the Beatles-influenced ‘chamber pop’ (of which they share the influence mantle with Camera Obscura) – see, for example, The Life Pursuit. Their songs are often self-conscious, writing about the importance of losing yourself in books and songs (the final song of Tigermilk, ‘Mary Jo’, references the fictional book that titles the album’s first song: ‘You’re reading a book, “The State I Am In”’), referencing themselves, other ‘indie’ bands (Arab Strap being the most obvious), creating this whole dreamworld of literary and musical references which itself becomes the fantasy world of the songs. When you listen to them, it’s impossible not to lose yourself slightly to this pastel-saturated universe. It’s not just twee; it’s bittersweet happiness, nostalgia, personal and cultural reflection – they began making music in the 90s, after all. That’s why I smile when I see someone sporting a wee Belle & Sebastian tote bag or t-shirt: you know there’s someone else out there who shares that sweet and silly, slightly sad but hopeful little world.
In a way, they’re a band for the underdogs. They cut their teeth on the Glasgow open mic circuit, with its crowds veering between adoration or ruthless indifference. Every Saturday, under the guise of various band or solo arrangements, Stuart and his pals would appear in the Halt bar on Woodlands Road (sadly it no longer exists) – you can read all about it in bass/guitar player Stuart David’s memoir, In the All-Night Café, which geekily delves into early musical experiments, the songwriting process and all the crazy moments that brought the band together in their formative year. So yeah, it’s worth a read if you’re a B&S fan or even just a musician. It’s important to remember that the band produced and recorded all their early songs (came together, essentially) at Stow College’s now slightly legendary Beatbox course, which at the time was more or less a course that unemployed musicians in the area took to ensure they kept receiving the dole: ‘From what I could tell,’ Stuart writes of his first impression of the course, ‘[Beatbox] was a total shambles. Just scores of unemployed musicians sitting around in a dark, airless labyrinth, doing nothing. […] I wandered around on my own trying to work out what was what, while people scowled at me, or just stared blankly into space. A thick cloud of cigarette smoke pervaded the place, and something about the absence of daylight and the lack of fresh air made me wonder if the place was actually a detention centre set up by the government to incarcerate all the people they’d caught using Social Security benefit as an arts bursary’ (In the All-Night Cafe, pp. 10-11). This is probably an impression of college hallways and classrooms that most young adults of Generation X or millennials growing up in Britain can relate to: the flickering strip lighting, the apathy amongst both staff and pupils, the sense of suffocating bureaucracy, of life in suspension. And yet out of that dark and maybe even Kafkaesque environment, sometimes the magic happens. People come together and make the best of things – it’s inspiring.
For me, it’s also inspiring that Stuart Murdoch is actually from Ayr. The only other celebrated artist I can think of off the top of my head that hails from Ayr is none other than Robert Burns, so yeah, it’s been awhile since the place has been put on the map, artistically speaking. Belle & Sebastian are usually associated with Glasgow (especially the West End), but for me it’s important to remember their humble beginnings. Ayr still has a pretty cool music scene in terms of acoustic nights in local pubs, but there’s definitely a dearth of actual decent gig venues, especially when it’s producing so many talented musicians through, for example, the well-respected Commercial Music course at the UWS Ayr Campus (see for example Bella and the Bear and the wonderful Shanine Gallagher).
ANYWAY, back to Belle & Sebastian. I wanted to talk about Tigermilk as an example of their oeuvre in general – as the raw, often forgotten diamond. It’s their debut album, though I actually came to B&S first through If You’re Feeling Sinister, having picked it up from Fopp when I moved to the West End for university and decided a B&S CD was a good way of immersing myself in local culture. Tigermilk reminds me of that lost and lonely summer feeling, walking around the city killing time before going to work, worrying about all the books I had to read before September, the people and things and memories I was in love with, that paranoid and desperate desire to write myself and indeed keep writing. It’s a lo-fi sort of album; it feels sweet and magical in that simple way, and you can tell that it marks the moment when the band discovered they had something special going on.
Sometimes the lyrics are a wee bit strange and surreal; the cast of characters Murdoch evokes in his lyrics can be pretty bewildering. The band’s slightly surreal vibe is indicated by the cover art for Tigermilk: a black-and-white picture of Murdoch’s then girlfriend, Joanne Kenney, apparently breastfeeding a toy tiger. Then take a look at the lyrics to ‘My Wandering Days are Over’ for example: ‘Six months on, the winter’s gone / The disenchanted pony / Left the town with the circus boy / The circus boy got lonely / It’s summer, and it’s sister song’s / Been written for the lonely / The circus boy is feeling melancholy’. You’re never sure if the characters are metaphors for existentially pained middle-class indie kids (lost in the job market/lost in the adult world circus of mad capitalism??), or actual protagonists in B&S’s musical universe. That’s the poetry of it – you get to decide. It all sort of makes sense, this girl with spiky black hair nourishing a toy tiger; sure, you can take it as symbolic, but it’s also just intriguing and slightly controversial enough to draw attention to a debut album.
One of B&S’s unique selling points is the whimsical fictions they weave through their ‘brand’ as a band. Take, for example, the sleeve notes to Tigermilk: they detail a cute little tale about Sebastian and Isabelle, the namesakes for the band.
Sebastian met Isabelle outside the Hillhead Underground Station, in Glasgow. Belle harassed Sebastian, but it was lucky for him that she did. She was very nice and funny, and sang very sweetly. Sebastian was not to know this, however. Sebastian was melancholy.
He had placed an advert in the local supermarket. He was looking for musicians. Belle saw him do it. That’s why she wanted to meet him. She marched straight up to him unannounced and said, ‘Hey you!’ She asked him to teach her to play the guitar. Sebastian doubted he could teach her anything, but he admired her energy, so he said ‘Yes’.
It was strange. Sebastian had just decided to become a one-man band. It is always when you least expect it that something happens. Sebastian had befriended a fox because he didn’t expect to have any new friends for a while. He still loved the fox, although he had a new distraction. Suddenly he was writing many new songs. Sebastian wrote all of his best songs in 1995. In fact, most of his best songs have the words ‘Nineteen Ninety-five’ in them. It bothered him a little. What will happen in 1996?
They worked on the songs in Belle’s house. Belle lived with her parents, and they were rich enough to have a piano. It was in a room by itself at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara. If Belle’s mum had known this, she would not have been happy. She was paying for the guitar lessons. The lessons gave Sebastian’s life some structure. He went to the barber’s to get a haircut.
Belle and Sebastian are not snogging. Sometimes they hold hands, but that is only a display of public solidarity. Sebastian thinks Belle ‘kicks with the other foot’. Sebastian is wrong, but then Sebastian can never see further than the next tragic ballad. It is lucky that Belle has a popular taste in music. She is the cheese to his dill pickle.
Belle and Sebastian do not care much for material goods. But then neither Belle nor Sebastian has ever had to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Belle’s most recent song is called Rag Day. Sebastian’s is called The Fox In The Snow. They once stayed in their favourite caf’ for three solid days to recruit a band. Have you ever seen The Magnificent Seven? It was like that, only more tedious. They gained a lot of weight, and made a few enemies of waitresses.
Belle is sitting highers in college. She didn’t listen the first time round. Sebastian is older than he looks. He is odder than he looks too. But he has a good heart. And he looks out for Belle, although she doesn’t need it. If he didn’t play music, he would be a bus driver or be unemployed. Probably unemployed. Belle could do anything. Good looks will always open doors for a girl.
You’ve got it all here: the playful and ultra twee imagery ‘(she is the cheese to his dill pickle’), the hint of queer culture and crossdressing that sometimes runs through B&S songs (‘This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara’), the DIY elements, the spatial immersion in Glasgow’s West End as a kind of leafy wonderland where people own pianos in airy rooms overlooking gardens. It’s honest and cute and totally unashamed, totally uninterested in being cool. Compared with the stylised, rock’n’roll swagger of Britpop, this album (originally released in 1996 then rereleased in 1999) is so refreshing. The tale of Belle and Sebastian is a short story, more than an explanation of the album’s lyrics or ‘concept’; it’s a bit ambiguous, a touchstone for all the other B&S characters who populate later LP – it’s perhaps, most importantly, an indication of the band’s consistent literary bent.
‘Sebastian was melancholy’. Well, melancholy is probably the overriding emotion on Tigermilk. Melancholy being that feeling of sadness, yearning and inexplicable loss. An indulgent feeling, a languid and probably narcissistic feeling that is almost pleasurable despite lolling around in the negative. Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia (1915) famously distinguishes mourning and melancholia thus: ‘In mourning the world has become impoverished and empty, during melancholia, it is the ego itself’. Mourning is about the loss of a specific object, whereas melancholia is a vaguer feeling, a depression with no apparent or obvious source, a swallowing up of selfhood into narcissistic darkness. One of the reason’s I really like ‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ is its in-your-face rejection of the Coca Cola style let’s-all-hold-hands-and-be-happy version of love, the assertion of personal endurance and the often denigrated value of independence in a world where we’re all supposed to follow the crowd: ‘But if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still a child / It’s to take a hiding / Yeah if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still at school / It’s to be alone’. I was that kid who sometimes liked to walk around the playground alone, making up stories in my head – adults just assume it’s because you’re being bullied but there’s a golden value to imagination and it’s easier to forget that as an adult, easy to forget that sometimes you need time out from your friends to be in your own mind.
A lot of Tigermilk is about trying to negotiate personal identity in an often problematic adult world with few opportunities for anyone vaguely creative. It’s worth quoting a hearty chunk of ‘Expectations’ to demonstrate this:
Monday morning wake up knowing that you’ve got to go to school
Tell your mum what to expect, she says it’s right out of the blue
Do you want to work in Debenham’s, because that’s what they expect
Start in Lingerie, and Doris is your supervisor
And the head said that you always were a queer one from the start
For careers you say you went to be remembered for your art
Your obsession gets you known throughout the school for being strange
Making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay
In the queue for lunch they take the piss, you’ve got no appetite
And the rumour is you never go with boys and you are tight
So they jab you with a fork, you drop the tray and go berserk
While your cleaning up the mess the teacher’s looking up your skirt
We’ve all known (or been ourselves!) the weird kid obsessed with music, inviting abuse with every strange word spoken. Wear something black, a bit of eyeliner and you’re inviting folk to ask you if you “shag dead folk”. There’s always the one of many that has a whole collection of cool things to say, to contribute to the world, but ends up in retail, in a call-centre, maybe waitressing. Again, Belle & Sebastian are the band of the underdog, the folk (and there are a lot of them) who slog away at day jobs but don’t give up on their dreams – whether those dreams involve becoming a star of track and field, a model, artist, musician, writer.
Tigermilk, then,isn’t just a melancholy album; there are some feel good moments, such as ‘You’re Just a Baby’, which features handclaps and a nice rock’n’roll beat with a simple, serenading refrain: ‘You’re just a baby, baby girl’. Fundamentally, Belle & Sebastian are a pop band, and a damn good one at that. Stuart Murdoch recently wrote and directed his own film, God Help the Girl, which more or less demonstrates his near-religious philosophy of pop music, as the character James (fittingly played by the singer from pop/electronic band Years & Years) proclaims:
A man needs only write one genius song, one song that lives forever in the hearts of the populous to make him forever divine. […] Many women and men have lived empty, wasted lives in attics trying to write classic pop songs. What they don’t realise is it’s not for them to decide. It’s God. Or, the god of music. Or, the part of God that concerns Himself with music.
This is some fairly interesting religious imagery coming from a singer (Murdoch) who has always been openly Christian. And of course, the hyperbolic emphasis on music’s divine significance here is perhaps a cheeky dig at the ego of the pop star, but it also touches on the importance of universalism for pop. It’s easy to consume, it should transcend generations, it should be technically perfect – the satisfying work of a ‘genius’. But good pop, as Belle & Sebastian demonstrate, isn’t all bubblegum songs about loving your sweetheart – it also has that spark of something else. For me, B&S capture a very specific experience of existential bewilderment in the modern world, combined with the right amount of romance, comedy, storytelling and a healthy streak of cynicism. God Help the Girl is twee as hell, but it’s also a loving portrait of Glasgow, of the early days of being in a band, the freedom of summer days drifting down the canal with the world shining bright around you. It’s maybe also a portrait of unrequited love. And, crucially, it transforms that cliche, the power of music, into something sparkly and fun as well as serious and uplifting – it is a musical after all. Its ambiguous ending, with the heroine (significantly called Eve – more religious imagery!) finally leaving the city and on a train ride to London where she intends to try and make it ‘alone’ after her existential rebirth and artistic awakening in Glasgow, is perhaps its strongest point – it’s a feminist assertion of personal creative desire as opposed to remaining tied down to the things your friends want.
Once again, Murdoch puts complete faith in his slightly damaged protagonists; he encourages us to just trust our creativity. Maybe that’s why I love Belle & Sebastian so much, because sure, their songs are mostly golden, pastel-hazed pop, but it’s not that simple; they embrace that wavering, magical and sad place between warm dreams and cold reality, and represent all the poor souls who live there in that limbo, such as the eponymous heroine from ‘Mary Jo’: ‘Your life is never dull in your dreams / A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it’. And even though such songs are full of melancholy, you’re still treated, as in an Arctic Monkeys song, to some brilliant lyrical candy: ‘Cause what you want is a cigarette / And a thespian with a caravanette in Hull’. So maybe that’s the special element, the thing that makes the everyday divine, that elevates the ordinary into a valid subject for pop music. And maybe, pleb that I am at heart, that’s why I love it.
I haven’t been ‘abroad’ since Dublin in June 2014, so the prospect of Berlin was pretty exciting. I thought it was about time I spent my birthday somewhere different and I’ve never heard a bad word said about Berlin. We stayed in the Heart of Gold hostel, which is in Berlin Mitte, about ten minutes from Friedrichstrasse train station and a short walk away from Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag and Museum Island. This was my first time in a hostel and it felt a bit like going on a residential school trip combined with student halls; only unlike a school trip you had total freedom over your time, and unlike student halls people actually respected the place. The decor was kinda cool and space-themed, plus there was a pool table and unlimited free hot drinks and super cheap beer. The slightly rickety bunk beds were worth it in terms of price and location. Also, not many budget hotels will bless you with music ranging from Radiohead to German techno to obscure Cure albums to enjoy over your breakfast. I loved it.
I always forget how funny a place airports are. Their sense of spatial and temporal dislocation. Everyone just waiting; not exactly lounging around, but waiting all the same. Checking their phones, browsing the duty free, trying not to lose each other. If you’re like me and don’t go away much, you forget that whole other culture – that of the British holidaymaker. Screaming families and the endless churning crowds making their way to Spain, their unprotected, pasty skin volcanically craving the crack-over burn of continental sunshine. Groups of lads with Nike snapbacks making their way out to Zante or Magaluf for their sixth year holidays, my brother beside me tearing their outfits to shreds with his devastating fashion analysis.
Berlin kinda has it all. There are vegan and vegetarian restaurants and cafes everywhere. We came across a place with hammocks that allowed you to concoct your own tea and watch the traffic go by as you swayed from side to side. Cool riverside cafes with bars embedded inside cabana-style sheds. Supermarkets which sell hummus and play Lana Del Rey on their speakers (what more do you need?!). A frankly mesmerising selection of Ritter and Lindt chocolates (the best). Parks where all sorts of people hang out, drinking beer and wine and throwing frisbee for dogs. It’s legal to drink in the street in Berlin and the vibe is always pretty chilled. The streets weren’t covered with litter, and generally the abundance of graffiti gave off the impression that to remove it would be to strip something pure from the city. It’s a colourful place, a dusty place (lots of construction going on), a green place. There’re parks everywhere, not to mention the massive Tiergarten, where you can lay around for hours, make friends at an outdoor bar, go rowing along the pond, check out a statue dedicated to good old Rousseau. There were little stands outside train stations which sold nothing but punnet after punnet of fresh strawberries. Beautiful Brutalism. Boutique coffee shops, vintage clothing stores, fruit and veg stalls everywhere. It’s super hipster, yes, but not in the kind of wanky obsessed-with-‘taste’ Shoreditch way, just in this laid-back, established way of cool. Plus, all the spirits seemed to be served as doubles, which was fun.
We walked around for hours and hours in the heat, sometimes catching a train, sometimes just walking some more. We walked more than 60km in three days, according to my phone! We saw the main shopping precinct, the parks, the lovely laid-back bar areas, the touristy stuff, the artwork at the East Side Gallery. I already want to go back, preferably with a group of pals who are brave enough to explore all the crazy warehouse raves, speakeasies, weird bars (especially The Black Lodge – think this might’ve freaked my brother out too much!)and clubs in the depths of Kreuzberg…
Some of my favourite Berlin things:
The place which used a gym bench as a bar top and sold my favourite whisky (Talisker)
The riverside cafe with a hairdresser inside a treehouse
Double gin & sofa after walking for hours in the sun
The laid-back cafe vibe around Mitte
The crazy hotchpotch of people at Mauerpark
Ritte ‘Nougat’ chocolate, which is like those Guylian seashells only in a block of chocolate, yummmm
The African festival at Alexanderplatz (everyone looked cheerful)
All the lovely Americans we met at the hostel
Vodka bottles for like €1 at the supermarket
Seeing posters for loads of cool festivals, even though I won’t be going to them
The fact that cigarette machines still exist here!
All the bright yellow buildings
The solitary man with long black greasy hair playing lovely sad dissonant songs on his cello, sitting under a bridge
Not having WiFi for a few days then coming home to lovely birthday messages!
‘Power floats like money, like language, like theory.’
(Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation)
Something happened to me recently and I found myself drifting into the glossy paradise of the Upper East Side; more specifically, that alluring tab on Netflix entitled ‘Gossip Girl’. It’s been a while. I used to watch the show when I was about fifteen, in its heyday. I guess it just slipped away from me and I kind of passed by the whole finale hype back in 2012, but something brought me back to it a few weeks ago. Maybe it was the absence of real-life summer and the promise of a sun-drenched pavement in Manhattan, or maybe it was just Dan Humphrey with his dark mop of curls and deceptively earnest eyes. Maybe it was the cracking soundtrack. Either way, I was struck again by how entrancing the show is, even while it’s kind of terrible.
Gossip Girl is a show about power. It follows the privileged, glitzy lives of a group of Upper East Siders, from high school into the land of careers and more sophisticated scheming. There is a point round about the end of Season 2 which most critics concede to be the end of ‘good’ Gossip Girl; all subsequent seasons were just a bit daft. We’ve gone from credible high school bitching and scheming to absurdities on a Skins series 5 & 6 scale. How did we get from petty teen drama and pregnancy tests to Bart Bass falling from a roof and Chuck and Blair rushing themselves through a (gorgeously shot) emergency wedding? From Dan Humphrey as amateur school poet to successful penman of a Roman a clef exposing the ‘scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite’, as Kristen Bell so enticingly describes it at the start of each episode. The link in all this chaos is power. Power and simulacra.
‘You’re nobody until you’re talked about’. That’s the mantra that seems to crop up again and again, haunting the minds of Gossip Girl’s characters like they’re stuck in some bizarre virtual reality where rumour precedes being, scandal precedes survival (see Sartre, ‘existence precedes essence’) – Mean Girls meets Black Mirror, if you will. What distinguishes Gossip Girl from other teen dramas (The O.C, 90210 and so on) is its centring around the concept of ‘Gossip Girl’. Like Foucault’s ‘panopticon’, Gossip Girl is a technology of power. The panopticon was a kind of prison design, created by Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century. It was intended to institute the force of surveillance not just on the individual but on society as a whole, so that in a prison each inmate is invisible to others, but visible to the guard station placed in the centre of the prison building. The point is that at any moment, the individual knows he or she is being watched, and will thus adjust their behaviour accordingly. A panoptic way of disciplining is one in which people are controlled through constant surveillance.
It seems pretty obvious that the outcome of Gossip Girl is constant surveillance. Every remotely meaningful action taken by the big-shot Upper East Siders (Serena, Blair, Chuck, Nate, their friends and family) is sent to the Gossip Girl server via anonymous reporters (anyone within or outside of the elite circle) and is then posted as a ‘blast’ which is then communicated straight to everyone’s phones. You know, if it wasn’t so familiar it would sound like something straight out a sci-fi novel. Throughout the show, Gossip Girl doesn’t just record and publish the intimate details of the characters’ lives (think dark secrets, slander and sex tapes) but indeed anticipates things that might happen. Sometimes, characters act a certain way because they are aware of the presence of Gossip Girl, of the probability that their actions will end up exposed through her blasts.
It doesn’t take much to link Gossip Girl to the Twitter generation. The Age of Snapchat, or WhatsApp, or whatever you want to call it. Created in 2007, the show suddenly tapped into a massive cultural shift among young people, whereby our entire lives become archived online, with or without our permission. Yet back in the mid-noughties, we were using Bebo and MySpace to spread gossip and create profiles of ourselves and others. These platforms were still relatively slow, especially as many of us still accessed them via a dialup connection, or by slyly hacking through content blockers at school while the teacher wasn’t looking. Gossip Girl anticipated the sort of instantaneous, life-shattering exchange of information that creates a panopticon effect on our lives. It’s a great plot device (the unravelling of a secret to everyone instigates some serious character crises) but now, in real life, it’s an uncomfortable truth that a nude selfie or a sneaky picture of say your neighbour doing cocaine can indeed be spread around with the ‘blast’ of a single Snapchat message, unravelling reputations in its wake. If, as Baudrillard argues, ‘power floats like money’ it does so because, like money, it is transferable, easily shifted, lost and dissolved. Instant, mass communication arguably makes power more diffused: in one minute it’s in Blair’s hands, then Serena’s and then HEY – Georgina Sparks steps in outta nowhere and suddenly it’s all gone wrong again. These days, you might say similar things about power and global politics.
But is it really diffused? Couldn’t you argue that although different people post in to Gossip Girl, ultimately it’s the Wizard of Oz, the soul behind the screen, that controls the gates – isn’t it that one person that has all the power? Just as Mark Zuckerberg ultimately frames all our communications via Facebook? In the end, we discover that (surprise surprise) Dan Humphrey, the main ‘author’ figure, is Gossip Girl. Dan Humphrey, the ‘impoverished’ outsider, exiled in his trendy Brooklyn loft, banished from full membership and relegated to the limbo world where messenger bags meet the glamour of Blair’s Marc Jacobs and Serena’s Prada. Dan started the Gossip Girl site as a way of literally writing himself into the closed world of the Upper East Siders, fashioning the role of ‘Lonely Boy’ within a fairy-tale, Fitzgerald-esque world of vicious scheming, stinking money and glittering mythology. In the end, Dan gets the girl: as the ‘5 Years Later’ epilogue of the final episode so indulgently shows, Dan marries Serena in a beautiful wedding (interestingly enough, his Brooklynite ex-rockstar father gets with – the actual – Lisa Loeb).
You could argue that there is something ‘queer’ about Gossip Girl. An almost Beckettian obsession with repetition and the endless possible combinations of relationships you can achieve within a group (OK, so maybe that’s more Made in Chelsea – or perhaps Sade?). In a way, Gossip Girl is obsessed with binaries: good girl vs. bad girl; Golden Boy vs. Bad Boy; virgin vs. whore and, perhaps most importantly, truth vs. falsity/appearance vs. reality. Yet these binaries are never sustained, and in fact the show repeatedly reveals the inherent insecurity of these binaries. The innocent Little J is really just the protective adolescent cocoon from which raccoon-eyed rebel Jenny emerges (more dramatically in real life, with Taylor Momsen becoming a risqué rock princess). There is a whole convoluted storyline about Ivy Dickens, who impersonates Charlie Rhodes (Lily Bass’s niece?) who herself is acting as someone else – ‘Lola’. Ivy, now her ‘authentic’ self, enters a relationship with Lily’s husband Rufus, but little does he know that Ivy is actually sleeping with William Bass (Lily’s ex and Serena’s father) who, it turns out, is only in a relationship with Ivy to get (in a roundabout way) back to his ‘true love’ Lily and the kids. The storylines get so elaborate and implausible (Blair meeting and marrying the Prince of Monoco; Bart returning from the dead) that you lose track of what’s real and what’s really happening; you become dissociated from the notion that any of this is really part of ‘our’ world. Even Penn Badgley, the actor who plays Dan Humphrey, admitted that the revelation that Dan was Gossip Girl ‘doesn’t make sense at all’, but that’s kind of okay because (in his words) ‘Gossip Girl doesn’t make sense!’ Sure, New York is always there, in those beautiful, sweeping shots of the city: embracing the characters in its warm glow, looking fantastic in summer, spring, autumn and winter; but the lives of the characters are as twisted, repetitive and as confusing as Samuel Beckett’s television play Quad.
[Imagine this as a symbolic representation of Gossip Girl’s plot. It’s the mesmerising that’s key, not the accurate rendering of reality.]
The queerness, then, (I’m using the term ‘queer’ tenuously, in a more generalised sense – the show can hardly be a banner for LGBT) is in Gossip Girl’s shameless disregard for certain old-school, heteronormative notions of ‘morality’, its distortion of conventional character arcs and its indulgence in various strange sexual affairs which often border on the incestuous (and then there’s that old problem of Serena and Dan and their parents being married for most of the show…). It’s in the fact that characters’ lives seem to follow more of a cyclical than linear path, as they repeat the mistakes of their parents, fall strangely in and out of love while maintaining they were in love the whole time they were also in hate. The whole Blair/Dan/Serena triangle.
Unlike some other shows which run for the length of Gossip Girl, Gossip Girl keeps more or less the same core cast throughout the six seasons, and in doing so transforms its characters into weirdly intangible signifiers rather than ‘real people’. So much of them is based on the need to manipulate the reportage of their lives that we can’t be sure how much we know of their ‘real’ selves. I would like to think that Baudrillard would approve of Gossip Girl much more than The Matrix, because in my opinion, the way Serena, Blair et al plan their lives around the panopticon of Gossip Girl fits pretty well with Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacra as the ‘map that precedes the territory’, the ‘reality’ dependent upon representation. Most of the characters’ actions are driven by and shaped around Gossip Girl: the virtual voice who ‘maps’ the lives of Manhattan’s elite.
There is a point in most TV shows where you are able to gage the protagonists’ motivations, but with several key players, Gossip Girl leaves us endlessly guessing, as some very weird choices leave you baffled about who or what is this person who you thought you knew from Season 1. Chuck, for example, is sometimes romantic softie, sometimes nonchalant alcoholic, sometimes downright psychopath. But that’s the fun of it, the not-knowing, the rollercoaster effect of plot after spiralling plot. A show about scheming; that could be another tagline.
A love letter to New York; that could be another tagline. The city is so lovingly rendered throughout the show that even the actual New Yorkmayor got involved with the set of its 100th episode, and declared January 26th ‘Gossip Girl Day’. I wonder how I can start incorporating that into my life…perhaps I’ll start with one of those glorious pastry and fruit-filled brunches and then spend all day sipping scotch a la Chuck, kissing boys in classy bars a la Serena and ending up at some expensive party where everything around me is basically the flashbulb remnant of a photograph…or maybe I’ll just live tweet my actual everyday Glasgow observations – Spotted: Man with a Farmfoods Bag Disappears into the Bookies. It’s hardly Manhattan amidst golden, burnished fall, but it might just have to do.
In the final episode, Serena tries to defend Dan’s (pretty immoral) behaviour in acting as Gossip Girl by claiming that his salacious discourse amounts ultimately to a ‘love letter to all of us’. It’s true: all that reporting of all that scandal, all those razor-sharp character assassinations were a form of mythologising which we can recognise not just in celebrity culture, but now in our everyday online lives. Being mean doesn’t just keep ‘em keen, it creates drama, which is what makes any good slice of fiction. And what is life without fiction?
For all its raciness, Gossip Girl falls into a pretty comfortable conclusion. Two weddings, a (very cute) baby, a potential political career for Nate; it’s all very white, upper-class and generally heterosexually perfect. But that’s what Gossip Girl’s always been shamelessly about: sure, there’s Blair’s ever-present maid, Derota, but she functions more as a Shakespearean comedy sidekick than as a serious addition to the plot. Gossip Girl has never claimed, unlike say Lena Dunham’s Girls, to be ‘the voice of a generation’; it has always zoomed in on the narrow world of a handful of privileged characters. This is its flaw as well as its strength: there is, sadly, little racial/sexual/religious diversity, but when it does touch on such matters, it does so with its own quirky ease, meaning that it doesn’t trip over itself trying to take everything too seriously. There are nuggets of genuine, ‘emotionally truthful’ storylines in there, and real teen issues like losing your virginity, finding yourself stuck in family feuds and trying to make friends are handled sometimes with poignancy, sometimes with juicily gratuitous melodrama. Blair Waldorf’s bulimia is, in a way, a symbolic symptom of the culture she finds herself in: endlessly consuming, lusting for more information, gossip, power, but simultaneously being unable to contain it, needing to purify, purge, rewind the cycle. Dan longs to be part of the world, but at the same time it repels him; he is part of that societal wastage, the baggage once used then left behind – but he uses his limbo position to his advantage. In a way, the American Dream in all its distorted glory is right there, at the heart of Gossip Girl her(him)self.
What’s great about Gossip Girl, then, is its ability to take us on a whirlwind of artifice, of phony drama for phony characters, but through the falsity it reveals some hideous truths about contemporary society. The network of New York, as a series of public spaces, of upper and lower ‘sides’, is an inverse parallel to the non-hierarchical communications enabled by the Web, where power ‘floats’ more easily as hackers and smart kids from Brooklyn find themselves running the system. There is, in real life, an economy of gossip, whereby what’s been said about you determines your whole place in the world, perhaps even more so than money (sometimes). It runs in the workplace, the playground, the spidery webs of social networks. There’s a line in the final song which plays at the end of the last episode (‘Kill Me’ by The Pretty Reckless, the band headed by Taylor Momsen, aka Jenny Humphrey): ‘someone get me outta the sun’. I read this not just as a statement of Momsen’s goth/vampire credentials, but as an appropriate nudge to The Sun newspaper and by extension the world of gossip, the sunlit limelight which holds the (un?)lucky few up to fame and fortune and ruin.
There will always be an outsider wanting to get inside, Bell narrates provocatively as the last scene drifts over a street of smartly-dressed school kids, the next generation of Gossip Girl victims. It’s classic Gossip Girl: reminding us that even within the cherry sweet containment of its happy ending, there’s a bitter worm still at work. We’re now in an age where you can never live free of the media, of surveillance and all it entails. An unequal age where even the rich in their isles of bliss are never quite free of the rest of us, the outsiders, the mass exiles of our bulimic society – drawn to the alluring world of the beautiful and damned and then expelled because we can’t afford to be there, we don’t belong. And if that’s the end of Gossip Girl’s rollercoaster, then it’s not just a fairground of pure escapism, but also a biting satire on our actual IRL society.
—A satire which, I might add, trickles right down to the shameless flaunting of product placement:
(So I thought this article was kind of Christmas appropriate, given that in the familiar nativity story, the Three Wise Men bring Jesus the precious scents of myrrh and frankincense.)
‘Perfume is like a parenthesis, a moment of freedom, peace, love and sensuality in between the disturbances of modern living.’
‘To create a perfume you have to be the servant of the unconscious. Each idea evolves and transforms, but there should be a surprise with each note.’
Perfume is a strange part of our everyday lives that acts as a channel of sorts. The word perfume comes from the Latin per (through) and fumum (smoke). This conjures the image of an ethereal essence which, like smoke, carries through some kind of message.We might think of it as an unspoken means of communication, a way of emitting some essence of ourselves to those who happen to pass close enough to catch a glimpse of our secret aroma. One that releases itself only from certain spots on the body, places we have chosen to let the scent develop. I love the way that glossy magazines and figures of high fashion talk so indulgently about perfume. It’s like poetry: a complete decadence of revelry in words. It’s like reading a wine list and falling for a string of adjectives rather than the taste of the drink itself. Rich, smoky, full-bodied, bursting with dark fruits. The poetry of advertisement aims to seduce. So too does perfume: it is a seduction not only in a sexual sense but also a seduction of self. A seduction of memory.
I was probably about nine or ten years old when I made my first forays into the world of fragrance. Certainly, I was still at primary school. I used to sneak into my Mum’s bedroom while she was eating her breakfast downstairs and try on what she had. Her dressing table was never cluttered with pretty glass bottles (more like heaps of unusual jewellery and hair mousse), but she did have a couple of classic Body Shop numbers. There was of course the famous White Musk, which I started wearing often. I liked the soft but heady smell it had, not too overpowering as a floral but sweet enough to stir your senses with its blend of ylang ylang, jasmine, rose, musk and lily. Then a while later, she gave me a bottle of spray she didn’t want, this time the Body Shop’s Oceanus. Or was it Ocean Rain? – no, I am getting confused with an Echo & the Bunnymen song! It was actually quite a strong one, though it wore off fairly quickly. I suppose it was meant to smell sharp and fresh like the ocean, and actually it was quite a nice one to wear at school where P.E. and stuffy classrooms were never conducive to pleasant aromas.
We were of course, forbidden deodorant in P.E. This was at secondary school, where everyone was aware that they had, y’know, adult bodies now, bodies which tended to sweat after exercise (even the half-hearted exercise we attempted in class). The teacher would storm into the dressing rooms at even a hint of spray being used, demanding that the most suspicious looking pupils empty their bag in front of her to reveal the contraband goods. She must have hoarded a whole treasure trove of Charlie and So…? and all those other brands we clung to as adolescents. On such days I would hide my little bottle of Oceanus in a glasses case at the bottom of my bag and spray it liberally once the coast was clear. A sea tide of refreshment filled the room. The contents of that bottle seemed to last forever; in fact, I think I still have some left in my bedroom.
The first perfume that was gifted to me was a miniature bottle of Burberry Touch. It’s a pretty intimate scent, threading together notes which include jasmine, raspberry, pink peppercorn, vanilla and oak moss. It sounds sweeter than it actually is: this is a strong scent but also has an air of sophistication. It feels grown-up and even a bit masculine (perhaps that’s the base notes of Cedarwood and oak moss?). I was fourteen when I got it so it ran out fairly quickly, but I now have a big bottle of it on my dressing table.
I also, at quite a young age, acquired my mother’s bottle of Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Paris’. Launched in 1983, this distinctive scent was meant to capture the spirit of Paris with its heady blend of Damascan rose and violet, which after hours of being on your skin transforms into English rose and whispers of mimosa, sandalwood and musk. There are other beautiful notes in there: orange blossom, amber, jasmine, hawthorne, heliotrope. It’s so complex that I’m still working out whether I actually like it or not. I wore it all the time until I was about sixteen. It’s far too grown up a scent for someone to be wearing at that age, but somehow it matched my wearied spirit. It felt almost exotic, a smell from far away. Something about it matched the impressionistic notion of Paris I had; a Paris which shimmered with the seductions of beautiful art and mysterious, moody people. It was certainly a smell which took you out of the dreary realities of Maybole, if only for that first spritz in the morning. The pale gold bottle with its crystalline, faceted surface and satisfyingly chunky feel still has pride of place on my shelf back home. I’ll spray it every now and again – what’s left of it – when I feel the need for a bit of escapism or nostalgia.
I like to think that when I’m using perfume I had years ago, I’m speaking to some secret old self, one that got lost in the ethereal tangles of time and change and forgetting. For Christmas two years ago, I asked for a bottle of Chloé perfume. Chloé was the first ‘proper’ fashion fragrance I bought for myself, when I was fifteen, in the Christmas sales of that freezing winter of 2009. To this day it’s definitely still one of my favourite scents. Along with Miss Dior Chérie (the orange one), which I also had as a teenager, it’s a romantic scent, sparkling with pretty florals and a dab of French sophistication. Both bottles are adorned with a ribbon to signify the femininity and lighthearted spirit they intend to convey. Chloé is quite a strange and unusual floral, with rose at its heart, honey at its base and the tartness of lychee as its top note. The blend is very smooth and does not induce headaches like some other more couture brands; it is at once instantly recognisable and also quietly luxurious on the wearer’s skin. When wearing it, you want to be riding a vintage bike through some sunshine street in Paris, where all the lamps light up for you, and your destination is a quiet picnic in the park, or a date with a good paperback under the canopies of a Montparnasse café. The bottle is quite short, almost stumpy in comparison to the tall thickness of Burberry Touch, but this makes it easy to cup in your hand to apply. It sits prettily on my dressing table, even with only a few dregs of scent left in the bottom, amid bottles of glitter nail polish and fragments of hair ribbon. If I had to pick a ‘signature’ perfume, it would be Chloé; a friend once texted me saying she was spraying it in a shop and instantly thought of me, which was sweet.
When I got my second bottle of Chloé, the scent instantly evoked that feeling of being fifteen again. It wasn’t an entirely bad experience, it was a taste of having that smallness, that protected enclave of a childhood world again. Or at least, the experience of being on the brink between the world of childhood and the uncertain future of adulthood. Perfume, I suppose, makes an industry of Proust’s ‘involuntary memory’: the idea that under certain conditions, one is transported back to a clear, distinct memory. Not wilfully, but through some item containing the ‘essence of the past’, whose sensory associations stir up the scene of some personal history. For Proust, eating a tea-soaked ‘madeleine’ cake recalled a childhood scene where he ate such a snack with his aunt. For me, spraying Chloé makes me think of warm radiators and school mornings in the cold pits of winter, or getting ready to perform in jazz band concerts, sweating under the hot lights. Leaning against the window of the 361 bus, reading Margaret Atwood. Floating through Ayr on the way to college, stopping always at Debenhams to spritz on their testers. I’d spray the little pieces of cardboard they provide you with and slip them in my bag, so that all my notebooks smelled of my favourite perfume. Sometimes my friends and I would spend an hour or so trying on all the perfumes, until we left smelling like we’d fallen through some vat in a Dior factory, causing everyone in our near vicinity to sneeze violently. I still enjoy doing that, although these days I set my sights on the counters at House of Fraser.
Strangely enough though, the older I get, the more I’ve switched to simpler scents. Part of this is a side effect of student stinginess, but I also like the freedom of buying several scents and being able to choose between them, to suit the weather or the seasons. I guess perfume is just something I tend to waste my wages on, the way that others waste them on Asos, cigarettes or vodka oranges. I have too many Body Shop Eau de Toilettes to count. There’s Chocomania, a very rich and some might say saccharine rendering of lush dark chocolate – perfect for those gloomy winter mornings when already you’re craving your bed and some hot cocoa. The distinctively tropical Coconut, which is, admittedly, more Bounty Bar than fresh jar of cold-pressed coconut oil. Then there’s the clean bright tartness of Satsuma or Strawberry, refreshing for summer. The milk chocolate and almondy sweetness of Brazil Nut. Honeymania, which does what it says on the tin and makes for a perfect late summer scent. I suppose, at less than £10 each, these perfumes make great little gifts or stocking fillers, which last a surprisingly long time. You could mix and match your scents (I like the sound of chocolate orange, brazil & coconut or honey & strawberry), and the small light bottles make them portable for your handbag. And with Body Shop (I swear I’m not a brand ambassador!) there’s always the positive that everything is ethically produced, usually from Fairtrade ingredients.
In a pricier range of perfume, I recently revisited one of my favourite childhood smells, Penhaligon’s ‘Bluebell’, which I got as a present for my 21st. When I was a very little kid, my dad brought back from a trip to London a velvety purple bag full of Penhaligon’s samples. They had enchanting names, like Elixir, Gardenia, Elisabethan Rose, Levantium (oh to have a perfume with the top notes of saffron and absinthe!). The one that stuck with me was ‘Bluebell’, which felt the most quaint and old fashioned of all the scents. The bottle, for one, is gorgeous, a little bit Art Nouveau, a little bit of simple prettiness. I could easily imagine myself, smelling it now, as a little girl running about in a field of bluebells. It’s not over-sweet or stuffy; it reminds me of the kinds of luxurious scents that would be spritzed around in early twentieth century department stores. I think of Cassandra and Rose in one of my favourite books, Dodie Smith’s beautiful coming-of-age novel, I Capture the Castle (1948), as they wander through the fairyland of such a store in London and marvel over the bluebell perfume. You see, there’s more than just chemicals and packaging to perfume; it always has some kind of rich cultural and personal history living in its notes.
Do you remember your first science classes? Most of those memories are probably enriched by the strange smells concocted from an uncertain mixture of suspicious substances. The rotten eggs of sulphur, the acridity of various nitrates. What stands out most for me was a lesson where for some reason we were experimenting with burning different types of foodstuff over our Bunsen burners, to measure reactions to starch or something. Somebody’s Pickled Onion Monster Munch made the entire classroom smell like a Chinese restaurant. The process of perfumery, while aiming for more delicate blends of scent, follows, of course, a similar (but infinitely more sophisticated) chemical process. A perfume will blend natural sources – flowers, fruits, wood, roots, gums and resins – with synthetic productions of those ingredients which don’t produce their own oils naturally, for example lily of the valley. An intriguing guide to the complex scientific process through which these raw ingredients turn into perfume can be found here. I especially like the sound of the enfleurage step, where ‘flowers are spread on glass sheets coated with grease’. Over time, the grease absorbs the scent of the flowers, like a leaf absorbing rain water, just as expression collects the precious oils of various fruits. Alcohol and water are used to distill and preserve the fragrance. That’s why you should be careful not to spray perfume on your eye, or an open wound – or an open fire, for that matter.
Interestingly, like champagne or wine, a ‘fine’ perfume is left to ‘age’ to let the blends develop. Maybe this is why Chanel No. 5, for instance, is such an iconic symbol of ultimate luxury. Its yellow-gold colour always dazzles in department store Christmas displays, but it also reminds one of a pale whisky or dark champagne. Like alcohol, it is intense, maybe even difficult to stomach. Infinitely seductive… complex to create…
Perhaps, like aromatherapy, there is a system to the choice of various scents and flavours. A science to how different people are attracted to different things. While some like a fresh burst of citrus, others revel in the dark sweetness of the likes of Thierry Mugler’s Alien perfume (not a fan). We can all guess that lavender makes you sleepy, lemon is awakening…but maybe there’s more to it all than that. A curious interaction of emotion, memory, desire, sensation… Maybe, after all, it’s the cold December air that led me towards my latest perfume purchase, returning full circle to my first White Musk perfume, only this time with the Body Shop’s newest fragrance, ‘Red Musk’. With its fiery bottle which blends amber, red and black, this Eau de Parfum combines the smouldering notes of tobacco, pepper and cinnamon with a layer of spiced musk. With cinnamon, it’s a dark, shadowy twist on a festive fragrance. Moreover, it’s about time perfume embraced androgyny, as this scent does with its hints of tobacco. Gone are the feminine florals of summer. So while I might be accused of being a hoarder, stashing my perfumes like a witch hoards her bottles of potion, maybe I can justify buying this particular perfume because anything that makes you feel warm (in a flat with single glazing) has got to be good, right?