Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric

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Source: BBC

Analysis/Review: Roddy Hart’s 17th Annual Gordon Lecture and the Contemporary American Lyric 

What a treat to listen to a lecture sprinkled with songs and stories, especially among the beautiful acoustics of Glasgow University’s chapel. After a rather spectacular introduction from Professor Simon Newman, singer-songwriter Roddy Hart gave the 17th Annual Gordon Lecture, organised by university’s Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies. Having collaborated with Kris Kristofferson, released an EP of Dylan covers and found success in the States with a stint on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show—not to mention running his own radio show for BBC Scotland and hosting Celtic Connections, the BBC Quay Sessions and the Roaming Roots Revue—Hart was well qualified to talk on this subject from a musician’s point of view.

Hart’s talk was a tribute to the great American lyric; to what makes it, in Hart’s words, particularly alluring, otherworldly and cool, especially to those who grew up outside of the United States. Admitting that he lacks an academic education in the history of American culture and music (actually, Hart has a law degree gleaned from within these very walls), Hart made up for this by sheer enthusiasm, celebrating the musical merits of songs from Woody Guthrie to Father John Misty and covering such topics as the journey motif, humour, darkness, nostalgia, politics and death. The talk took the form of a powerpoint, with Roddy speaking, singing snippets of songs and then commenting on their significance in a lucid, passionate way that kept everyone hooked for an hour and a half.

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Bob Dylan / / Source: Rolling Stone

Hart began with the assertion that lyrics are not poetry, or indeed literature of any kind. Lyrics, he claimed, involve respect for structure, rhyme, metre and field (all definitions you could apply to poetry…), a certain knack for a hook, a streak of ingenuity and originality. Like poetry, a great lyric can reshape how we view the world we live in, send ripples through the fabric of reality and inspire us to take action, critically reflect or wallow in grief. The distinction Hart draws between poetry and the lyric prompted a desire to find out what exactly his thoughts are on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. My own thoughts on this issue have never rested on a single position, and I don’t really know enough about the prize’s history to comment on Dylan’s suitability.  However, there have always been strong connections between lyricists and poets, from the likes of Langston Hughes writing jazz poems during the Harlem Renaissance to Kate Tempest releasing rap albums as well as a novel and poetry collections published by the likes of Picador and Bloomsbury, no less. Hell, what about Leonard Cohen? At the end of the day, all writing is a performance of sorts, regardless of how it’s delivered. I could talk about Roland Barthes here, mention ‘The Death of the Author’, how the reader ‘performs’ the text like a score of music etc etc, but I won’t digress. Basically: sometimes a poem seems built for performance; other times it rests more easily on the page, where the eye follows an intriguing visual form or dance of letters arranged on white space. While poetry can be a two-way street, I’m not sure how well Dylan’s verse works on the page. Admittedly, most of his songs tell interesting stories, but that deceptive simplicity often needs the nuance and expression of Dylan’s voice to draw out the subtler levels of irony, humour, derision or sorrow from straightforward-seeming lyrics. Just my two cents on the matter, though I still like to wallow in ambiguity when it comes to these distinctions.

Hart gives the proviso that his talk is meant to be a working definition of the American lyric, not a comprehensive history. He does, however, mention a few characteristic features. The prominent one, of course, is name-checking: all the best American lyrics will draw on the wealth of states, street names, famous bars and hotels. In doing so, they draw on a tradition, they write themselves into a history of locations, urban legends and folk tales. Hart illustrated this by starting with Paul Simon’s ‘America’, pointing out how the song documents a search for America itself; this idea that America will always be this endless signifier, sliding along the great highway of desire that stretches across desert, country and city, drawing across generations. On the way, the lovers in Simon’s song make the best of their adventure, cooking up stories from the characters on the Greyhound, honing in on material details. It’s this sense of taking the listener on a journey that’s one of the American lyric’s greatest seductions. As Simon sings, “it took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw” the chords soar and there’s that sense of being lifted to somewhere radically elsewhere, an open field, road, desert. The sweet spot between freedom and sorrow, of missing something deep and mysterious, the impossible pursuit.

Hart traces such material details in songs by Kris Kristofferson and Dylan, this sense of a ‘quintessential American aesthetic’ which he quite eloquently describes as a ‘Moby Dick-esque hunt across America’. The whale, ironically, is America itself. The road narrative is central to the American lyric. It’s a romanticised, extravagant sprawl into the dust of the past and glitter of the future, marked by place names which glow with familiar warmth and legendary spirit. Hart argues that this is something specific to the American lyric; that a Scottish equivalent wouldn’t quite have that same epic effect. He even sings a made-up local spin on ‘America’ to prove it; a journey between Edinburgh and Dunoon falls pretty flat in comparison. Of course there’s something special about the land of the free, in all its bright mythology and promise, but it’s not as if Scottish bands haven’t tried it. There’s that famous line from The Proclaimers’ ‘500 Miles’ which immortalises an array of parochial towns ravished by Thatcher, deindustrialisation and eighties recession: “Bathgate no more. Linwood no more. Methil no more. Irvine no more”. Of course there isn’t the same expansive magic, but there is something epic about lyrically connecting the local to broader political discontent. Still, you can’t really compare the Proclaimers to Simon & Garfunkel…or can you?

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Source: lettere-persiane.blogspot.com

Back to America. Hart describes Dylan as the nation’s great scene-setter, effortlessly drawing a sense of the times from the wisping drift of personal narrative, of stories about people and their lives. Details shuffled together like cards and strung along a line of verse. While some singers make their politics clear in the didactic manner of protest, Dylan sets these more intimate tales against the backdrop of cities and an impressionistically vivid sense of history. Hart plays possibly my favourite Dylan song, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ from the 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, spending time going over the lyrics to point out the singer’s knack for detail, the narrative journey which documents a succession of relationships, places and jobs. That famous philosophy: you’ve got to keep on keeping on. There’s something more raw here than the cosy, apple-pie fuelled comforts of Kerouac’s road narratives, which always depend on money from back home. You can hear it in the howl of Dylan’s voice, which becomes more a sultry croon in Hart’s version. What does he mean by blue? There’s the blues, there’s the blue of the sky and the ocean—symbols of infinitude. It’s a signifier that shifts as easily as Dylan’s character, from fisherman to cook, as he crosses over the West, learning to see things “from a different point / of view”. Surely this is one the basis for democracy, the meritocratic ideal of fairness upon which the USA was founded: empathy? The ability to openly shift your perspective, to never stay too long in your own shoes. That existential restlessness, set against the backdrop of a shaky political atmosphere, the dustbowl sense of losing one’s bearings in a maelstrom of uncertainty, characterises many of Dylan’s songs and indeed many road narratives throughout literature and American lyric.

You can’t talk about the American lyric without mentioning politics and Hart documents the history of the protest song, from Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talking About a Revolution’: songs that pose an equality of belonging, that document the quiet desperation and struggle that takes place beneath the surface of everyday life. Rather than tangling himself in the barbed reality of contemporary politics, Hart opts to situate his chosen songs in the context of more general themes: the failings of the American dream, social inequality and the oppression of working people, all set against the turning tides of the economic landscape. It’s notable that most of these singers are men, singing about working men, often with reference to some vulnerable lost girl who needs saved. But then you have the likes of Anaïs Mitchell, writing visceral songs of longing and misplaced identity. ‘Young Man in America’ opens with this mythological, sort of monstrous story of birth: “My mother gave a mighty shout / Opened her legs and let me out / Hungry as a prairie dog”. Images of industrial decline, capitalist opulence and landscapes both mythical and pastoral are woven by a voice whose identity is a mercurial slide between human, animal and disembodied call. Skin is shed, belonging is only a shifting possibility. It’s a complex song, with native percussion, brass; moments of towering climax and soft withdrawal. The music mirrors the strange undulations of the American journey from cradle to grave, its dark pitfalls and glittering peaks, the cyclical narratives of the lost and forgotten; the “bright money” and the “shadow on the mountaintop”, the fame of the “young man in America”, a universal identity disseminated across a range of experiences. For this is the myth of the American Everyman, and Mitchell deconstructs it beautifully.

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Gillian Welch / / Source: Born to Listen

On the subject of female songwriters, I was very pleased that Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams got a mention in Hart’s talk. The self-destructive sentiment of Welch’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ reminds us that the experience of being ground down by the relentless demands of a marketised society isn’t confined to men alone. Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’, not mentioned in the talk though highly relevant, makes this clear. It’s a song about artists will go on making their art even if they won’t get paid, and the tale of how capitalism discovered this and cashed in on its fact: “Someone hit the big score, they figured it out / That we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”. Like Dylan, Welch finds herself winding up on the road, working in bars, working hard and regretting being enslaved to, well, The Man. ‘Everything is Free’ is a message of both despondency and hope, crafting this sense of the beauty of song itself as protest and freedom even as the structure closes in: “Every day I wake up, hummin’ a song / But I don’t need to run around, I just stay at home”.

Hart mentions how the American lyric provides an escape to those who find themselves trapped in the smallness of their lives. You might live in a nondescript town slap-bang in the middle of Scotland, where the musical climate favours chart music blasted from bus-stop ringtones, but then aged fourteen you discover Dylan or Springsteen and suddenly America opens up its vast, sparkly vista, from East Coast to West. This seems to be Hart’s trajectory, as his career—from the first tour with Kristofferson to his continued promotion of transatlantic connections—closely follows an American strain of songwriting. My mum used to listen to Welch’s Time (The Revelator) album over and over again on long car journeys, so the lyrics to all those road songs are burned in my brain like tracks in vinyl, superimposed with endless visions of the M8 stretching out before me… It was only a couple of years ago that I found out Time (The Revelator) was released in 2001; I’d always assumed this stuff was ancient, the seventies at least. Maybe because Welch just has this knack for writing timeless songs; songs about heartbreak, loneliness and restless desire that reach back into the comforts of the past even as the journey itself is long and hollow, the destination vague as the blurred sign on the front of a train.

I guess this raises a broader question which Hart’s talk touched upon: the politics and poetics of nostalgia. There weren’t opportunities for questions afterwards, but if there were I might have asked Hart whether nostalgia is a necessary condition for American self-reinvention. It’s a pretty relevant  question right now, with much of Trump’s whole appeal based on the nostalgic vision of a vaguely industrial golden age of capitalism—a vision which is obviously the smokescreen for whatever chaotic ideologies are at work beneath the surface. The American lyric can set up this romanticised vision, only to break it apart; reveal its seedy underbelly, its failings, the disastrous gap between identified goals and actual means of attainment. Yet throughout the cynicism, there’s always that restless desire to continue, to keep on keeping on. Hart compares it to the green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), a novel significantly indebted to music (jazz, of course). The final line of that novel captures that past/present lyrical impulse so well: ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’.

Which leads to the question: what about genre? Is the American lyric necessarily the domain of indie folk rockers? What about commercial music and pop? Can a pop artist deconstruct the American dream and earn a play in the lyrical family tree if they make money off their record and earn fame from MTV? Hart engages with Father John Misty as an example of how the American lyric can use humour to deconstruct the nation’s ideologies of progress and meritocracy, at the same time as retaining a post-postmodern self-awareness of identity politics, a meta-awareness of his own dabbling in ironic coolness. His very name evokes a sort of New Age gospel figure, a preacher for the times, whose stage is the television set or Twitter feed instead of the old-fashioned soapbox. Hart describes songs such as ‘I’m Writing a Novel’ and ‘Bored in the USA’ (obviously a riff on Springsteen’s classic) as depicting the ‘American dream for the millennials’. I’ve written about Misty extensively already on this blog (specifically, on his metamodernist tendencies), so I won’t go into detail here, but suffice to say I agree that FJM represents something special about contemporary cultural critique. It’s that blend of irony and sincerity, an exaggerated interrogation of the romanticism and the Gen X postmodernism of yore; the oscillation between raw subjective experience, political critique and the cool facade of self-deprecating wit. A constant juggling of ‘candour and self-mockery’, as Dorian Lynskey puts it. FJM notoriously got into a tiff during an interview with Radio 6 Music veterans, Radcliffe and Maconie. Aside from all the awkward sarcasm, what strikes me about this interview is the mentioning of kitsch merchandise objects: oven-gloves, jeggings. Hart explores a bit of kitsch lyric in the likes of Randy Newman, but I think FJM blends especially well that jaded sense of millennial despondence alongside tracks that can feel like rollicking simple narratives or epics of history on a 13-minute scale that gives Springsteen’s marathon tunes a run for their money. He pushes his stuff to the edge of the cheesy and cringe-worthy, exposing how all conviction has that shadow side of kitsch, even the most authentic lyrics—kitsch is somehow the cheap taste of someone else’s experience, the trick is to make it meaningful, and not just another imitation, a plastic model of the Empire State Building.

But Misty isn’t the only singer-songwriter deconstructing the American dream, exploring how both its poetic promise and jingoistic glory play out on a personal level. What about Ryan Adams, whose songs have that alt-country appeal of the restless bard? ‘New York, New York’, from his 2001 album Gold, opens with a Dylanesque lyric about shuffling “through the city on the 4th of July”, brandishing a “firecracker” that’ll break “like a rocket who was makin’ its way / To the cities of Mexico. The clean rhymes and ballad-like lilt of guitar are also very Dylanesque. But at some point I’ve got to stop making comparisons to Dylan, because ultimately this is reductive; it’s cheap and lazy music journalism. I do think, however, the ease with which we make these comparisons reveals something interesting about our generic assumptions. Guy has a guitar, sings melancholy songs about America and his place within it, a smart knack for a lyrical twist, occasionally picks up a harmonica? Instant Dylan; their careers overshadowed by a giant. (Note: I guess a similar thing happens with very talented female folk singers—the likes of Laura Marling—being compared to Joni Mitchell). But even Dylan doesn’t monopolise the American lyric. He might have a Nobel Prize, but this doesn’t crown him King of the Lyric Alone (or maybe it does?); we’ve got to tease out what exactly we mean by this term and how relevant it is in the fragmentary scene of contemporary music. Think with Dylan, but beyond Dylan.

Conor Oberst, formerly of the band Bright Eyes, is an artist who’s been branded with Dylan comparisons throughout his career (an extensive career at that; the precocious Nebraskan recorded his first album, Water, aged just 13). Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker condenses many of my own feelings on the Oberst/Dylan comparisons: ‘Dylan is armour-plated, even when singing about love; Oberst is permanently open to pain, wonder, and confusion.’ Oberst is in many ways a liminal figure: cutting it out on the folk and country circuit  (Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch appear on previous records) while hanging and collaborating with indie rock bands (The Felice Brothers, First Aid Kit, Dawes), flirting with punk (The Desaparecidos) and fitting with some comfort within the elastic nineties/noughties stratosphere of emo. Frere-Jones describes Oberst as a ‘poet-prince’, again opening debate on that binary between poetry and lyric that Hart sets up but that nonetheless remains slippery and problematic. Where Dylan espouse the solid wisdom of a sage or wandering bard, Oberst has a reticent, warbling quality that rises to epiphany but admits failure and the graceless fall into existential aporia. He wails like Dylan wails, but many of his songs have a fragility and surrealism that doesn’t quite match up with Dylan’s more assured narrative balladry. So in that sense, he’s a lyric poet in the more subdued, Keatsian manner, exploring the self in all its fragmentary, perplexing existence.

But he’s also very much an American lyricist. In his ‘mature’ career, Oberst hasn’t shied away from more directly tackling political themes alongside more personal songs. 2005’s ‘When the President Talks to God’ rips to shreds George W. Bush’s policies. Comprising a series of questions addressed to an audience, it more closely follows the form of a traditional protest song, laced with bitter satire: “When the president talks to God / Do they drink near beer and go play golf / While they pick which countries to invade / Which Muslim souls still can be saved?”. This is definitely a song to be performed, on a wide open stage or indeed to the even wider audience accessing broadcasts of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he performed the song in 2005. Then there’s the angry, crunchy southern kick of ‘Roosevelt Room’, off Oberst’s solo record, Outer South (2009). Oberst’s later work isn’t as playfully weird and surreal as his early bedroom stuff, sure, but increasingly he masters the power of allusion that characterises American lyric, in Hart’s sense of the term: “Go ask Hunter Thompson / Go ask Hemingway’s ghost”. He’s addressing someone to be critiqued, wrenching them off their political pedestal: “Hope you haven’t got too lazy / I know you like your apple pie / Cause the working poor you’ve been pissing on / Are doing double shifts tonight”. There’s that apple pie again, symbol of steadfast Americana, fuel of the nation, the well-lighted place of a diner—a place of domesticity, stability and, let’s face it, commercial comfort. Oberst cynically dismisses the well-nourished white middle class politician, recalling a generalised story of poverty from material details: “And I’d like to write my congressman / But I can’t afford a stamp”.

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Source: pinterest

Then there’s the frontier motif, the sense of America as a place of deep mystery as well as self-created landscape. Experiments with Eastern and Navajo cultures. Bright Eyes’ 2007 album, Cassadaga, with its album art requiring a spectral decoder to be fully appreciated, its envisioning of the singer as mystic or medium, channelling psychic forces through song. Cassadaga is very much a journey. The opening track, ‘Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)’ involves an extended spoken word sample of some kind of very American mystic who begins by setting us in the ‘centre of energy’, Cassadaga’s ‘wonderful grounds that have vortexes’, moving us through astral projections of a ‘new era and life’ that is changing, a message of hope, doubling back on the uncanny sense that ‘Cassadaga might be just a premonition of a place you’re going to visit’. Cassadaga is a real place, a spiritualist camp set somewhere between Daytona and Orlando, known as the ‘Psychic Capital of the World’. By naming his album Cassadaga, Oberst isn’t just name-dropping in typical hipster fashion, honouring local identity nor casting back nostalgically to a familiar place; he’s attempting to channel the energy of this location, interrogate its spirit, draw out its various psychic possibilities for the present. He sings of attempts to detoxify his life, of former affairs, of lost soul singers and the pursuit of a sense of belonging.

‘Lime Tree’ is one of the most beautiful songs Oberst has written. It’s a composite tracing of impressions drawn from various experiences, both personal or secondhand. While much of Cassadaga follows an upbeat, distinctly country sound in the manner of 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, ‘Lime Tree’ closes the record with a dreamy, wistful serenity that recalls the likes of ‘Lua’, ‘Something Vague’ and ‘Easy/Lucky/Free’. Accompanied by angelic female vocals, ‘Lime Tree’ is ethereal, the guitar strumming minimal though following a certain continuous loop. Pale and lush strings contribute to the sense of being pulled downstream, giving yourself up to the languorous current. Ostensibly, it’s a song about abortion, about a struggling relationship: “Since the operation I heard you’re breathing just for one / Now everything’s imaginary, especially what you love”. But as in all good poetry, the beauty of the lyrics on ‘Lime Tree’ is their movement from specific experience to a vaguely spiritual voyage that gestures towards ending but instead finds the open plains of abyss, always suspended in paradox and ambiguity, the fault-lines between life/death, hope/despair, dream/reality: “So pleased with a daydream that now living is no good / I took off my shoes and walked into the woods / I felt lost and found with every step I took”. Home is a tidal wave, a churning wind, a shifting sand, a fragment.

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Source: crystalinks

America’s great confessional poet, Sylvia Plath, also explored mysticism, and her writing is rich with strange imagery, not to mention all those Tarot allusions in Ariel. In The Bell Jar (1963), the fig tree is the novel’s dark and mysterious heart, this vivid image that sprawls its symbolism through the text, a figure for existential paralysis: ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose’. We might think of the connection between the term ‘roots’ and ‘roots rock’, its rhizomatic sprawl of influence never quite settling on a home even as a sense of home and locality is supposedly the music’s grounding purpose. Roots, of course, are always growing. The lime tree is an image plucked from a dream, but its significance is less clear in Oberst’s song than the fig tree in Plath’s narrative. Perhaps more than most contemporary songwriters working within a lyric tradition, Oberst is content to write from a position of uncertainty, in gaps and pieces of affect and narrative. The sound of his voice suspended over those gentle strings and strums is enough to make tremors in your chest, as if the slow vortex of another world were opening its mouth like the parting of the sea in someone else’s biblical or drug-enhanced dream: “I can’t sleep next to a stranger when I’m coming down.” The way of the lyric; so often the way of the lonely. Even as ‘Lime Tree’ might be a love song, it opens itself towards ending, loss, death: “don’t be so amazing or I’ll miss you too much”; there can never be plenitude in the journey: “everything gets smaller now the further that I go”. Bittersweet doesn’t quite cut it. It’s too subtle for that, a softly shimmering lullaby goodbye to the world, a retreat and a return, just like Nick Carraway’s vision of beating on but back into the past. The passage of an everyday spiritual pilgrim, the way we all are in life, our faces fading in the ink-blot of photographs. We turn back to look at ourselves through others, through words, just as Dylan notes how the girl in the “topless bar” “studied the lines on my face”.

A voyage through nostalgia, a quest for identity, belonging, an escape from something and a return, a desiring pursuit without end, a lust for life and ease into death; a twist of humour, a narrative of hope, aspiration and the failures that draw us back into the dustbowl. The American lyric is all of these things and more; its boundaries perhaps are pliable as the nylon strings on somebody’s battered acoustic guitar. Maybe it all culminates in madness and absurdity. For every One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you’ve got The Felice Brothers’ ‘Jack at the Asylum’, a rollicking satire on the madness of contemporary American life which trades in richly surreal and absurd imagery to render the accelerated pace of this madness, crossing history in the blink of a screen flicker: “And I’ve seen your pastures of green / The crack whores, the wars on the silver screen”. Pastoral America is always already contaminated by an originary violence. Maybe the best American lyric depicts such realisations through personal stories, the relationships and encounters set against and embedded within wider structural phenomena, the recessions and closures and urbanisations. The Felice Brothers remind us, however, that all of this is secondhand, aspirational narratives passed down to us through screen culture, advertising: “You give me dreams to dream / Popcorn memories and love”. Once again, there’s that fluctuation between an earnest love of country to an embittered sense of its very elusiveness, the distant static shimmer of success whose failed pursuit we watch ourselves experience through the mediating comforts of daily life—the popcorn pharmakon poisons and cures for (post)modern existence, as calorific as they are nutritionally empty.

But once again, genre. String off a handful of names from Hart’s Americana playlist and you’ll be pressed to find anything that falls outside the folk-rock camp, even as its boundaries remain pretty permeable. Yet what of hiphop? Isn’t hiphop, in a sense, the great alternative American folk lyric? Rap is it’s own kind of poetry, after all. You might think of someone like Kendrick Lamar as an American lyric writer, working from a different generic background from Hart’s examples, but nonetheless telling the story of contemporary USA from the streets to the level of the visionary, just like Dylan did. Lamar even has a track called ‘Good Morning America’: “we dusted off pulled the bullet out our heads / Left a permanent scar, for the whole world to recognise / California, economics, pay your taxes bitch”. Once again, that originary violence, the scar of identity. Lamar works back from the wounding.

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Source: pinterest

My knowledge of hiphop is far too limited to discuss it in any detail, but thinking it through  the idea of American lyric prompted me onto the figure of Lana Del Rey, who often uses hiphop production techniques, from trap beats to muted, stadium echoes. I hate to bang on about oor Lana again (see articles here & here), but irresistibly she’s a shining example of a mercurial musician, drawn to the sweet dark chocolate centre of American melancholy. LDR performs a kaleidoscopic array of identities, just as Dylan often wore a mask that veiled itself in the confessional sincerity of the beaten-down worker, drinker, lover, escaping to the Mid-West alone. Yet while America’s great bard more or less got away with it, Lana has been constantly lambasted for her artifice and supposed inauthenticity. Which begs the question: what do we even mean by authenticity? Is only the white male—your Princes, Bowies and Eminems—allowed to strut in the performative identity parade? Both LDR and Lady Gaga have been lambasted for their supposed fakeness. There are obviously complex questions of racial, class and gender identity which I don’t have time to cover here. Sometimes, a musician is lauded for their alter ego (and doesn’t alter ego itself imply a certain surrender to the patriarchal ideology of masculinity?)—take Beyoncé’s hugely successful Sasha Fierce—and other times, it takes the invisible tide of the internet to swell in support for those critiqued by other forms of media.

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Source: YouTube

My friend Louise is always comparing LDR’s work to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novelistic visions of 1920s America, and while this might seem a bit extravagant, there’s something to be said for the way Lana seamlessly evokes the spirit of the jazz age, the consumer paradise of the 1950s and the hipsterdom of millennial Brooklyn in the through the poetry of song. Is this just retroculture, in the sense of recycled kitsch and the twenty-first century urge towards nostalgia explored in Simon Reynolds’ excellent Retromania (2011)? Is there something pathological in Lana’s obsession with the past, a symptom of a broken psyche or worse, a broken generation? Perhaps. But there is something transformative and subversive about LDR’s retrovision, even as it may be critiqued for indulging in vintage gender roles as much as vintage styles (framing yourself as a sort of white-trash ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ is always gonna invite a certain feminist controversy, let’s face it).

One of Hart’s recent examples of the American lyric came from The National (even the band name evokes questions of what it means to be American), with their song ‘Sorrow’ from 2010’s dark and trembling High Violet. I’m interested in how this song apostrophises sorrow in the manner of a great Romantic lyric. We might think of Keats’ ‘Ode to Melancholy’ or Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility remade for jaded and alienated millennials. Sorrow once again invokes that Platonic idea of the pharmakon as both poison and cure. We can wallow passively in sorrow, as The National sing: “I live in a city sorrow built / It’s in my honey, it’s in my milk”: it’s a trapped landscape, a petrified terrain in which the self can only slip deeper into isolation; but it’s also milk and honey, a kind of temporary nourishment to a darker psychic scar. As Smith so eloquently puts it in the final lines of 1785’s ‘Sonnet Xxxii: To Melancholy’: O Melancholy!–such thy magic power, / That to the soul these dreams are often sweet, / And soothe the pensive visionary mind!’. Sorrow provides a toxic tonic for the soul, a lubricant for paralysis that eventually leads us back towards the existential road. Life goes on.

Lana Del Rey is fixated on sorrow. Blue, she admits, is her favourite colour, her favourite “tone of song”. Her songs are always hyper aware of the transient beauty of life, even as they lust after death. On the soundtrack song she did for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, she worries “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” ‘Video Games’ is a melancholy ballad for the contemporary relationship, a lush, brooding expression of love in the time of Call of Duty. Roddy Hart even did a cover of it. Her songs have titles like ‘The Blackest Day’, ‘Cruel World’, Sad Girl’, ‘West Coast’, ‘Old Money’, ‘American’, ‘Gods & Monsters’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’. All these titles evoke the Daisy Buchanan sad girl trope at the same time as gesturing towards the broader existential melancholy of America itself in the manner of Springsteen; with sometimes the detached urban cool of Lou Reed, other times the genuine, trembling passion of Billie Holiday. The video for ‘National Anthem’ restyles Lana as a Jackie O type married to a young, good-looking black president, with 1950s iconography spliced among pastel-hazed footage of the pair lolling around in love, sniffing roses, smiling, looking good as a Vanity Fair shoot. The video begins with her character singing Marilyn Monroe’s famous ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ routine. She re-envisions JFK’s assassination, with a spoken word piece on top. She’s imagining alternative political futures even as she casts back to the past. There’s that lyric sense of wonder and ambiguity, of being lost in time.

It’s this layering of styles, scenes and cultural iconography that makes Lana’s work way more complex than most of what else fills the charts. Sure, it’s great that a positive message of bodily empowerment (Beyoncé feminism) is doing the rounds just now, but that shouldn’t mean that those who fall outside this category are anti-feminist or ignorant to gender identity politics. When all the R&B pop stars are prancing around proclaiming their sexual freedom, dominating men in various flavours of BDSM allusion, getting all the looks in the club or whatever, LDR is crying diamond dust tears into her Pepsi cola, draped naked in an American flag. Her videos, songs and artwork engage with cinematic discourse, high fashion photography and cultural history in a manner that’s intellectual interesting as much as it is affective and aesthetically satisfying. In a sense, she’s meaningfully evoking the past in order to say something timeless about the American dream and the objectified position of the ‘white trash’ woman under its mast of starry glory. In another sense, she’s indulging in a postmodern recycling of historical styles: constantly name-dropping, from James Dean to Springsteen, Lolita—perhaps the great American road novel not written by an American—and David Lynch’s lush, dark suburban epic, Blue Velvet. Despite the performance and ventriloquy of figures and archetypes from twentieth-century cultural history, she retains a sincere expression of melancholy, heartbreak and longing that’s personal but also strives towards rendering the more universal experiences of womanhood in certain communities. All the controversy surrounding Lana in relation to racial politics, class politics and sexual politics exists because her work is provocative, problematic and complex, like any good American lyric.

One reason that Roddy Hart was such a good choice to deliver this lecture is that he’s had experience writing new melodies for Robert Burns poems for Homecoming Scotland. Why is this relevant to the American lyric? So much of the lyric tradition, in all its forms, is based on that sense of romanticism, visionary wonder, self-exploration; the rendering of universal experience through personal narratives, the subjective telling of a story, the trade in imagery and sound and careful arrangement. Burns was a sort of rock star poet of his times, and not just because he was a bit of a cheeky philanderer. He toured around, worked as a labourer and farmer; he talked to many people, opened himself to influence. It’s this diversity that continues to mark the American lyric in the twenty-first century; the way that Father John Misty can sing a very ironic and playful song on late-show tv, about a man checking social media on his death bed, with the conviction of a crooning Leonard Cohen; accompanied by a gospel choir whose voice raises Misty’s ballad to a level of epic, overly extravagant grandeur that still somehow works, remains genuinely compelling beyond the initial sarcasm. The way Detroit’s angelic avant-indie hero, Sufjan Stevens, can ambitiously and patriotically plan to write an album for every state in America, then turn on the project, calling it “such a joke“. The way that Suzanne Vega, in ‘Tom’s Diner’, sings about a familiar American institution, the fabled diner—or Well-Lighted Place, as Hemingway put it—with the simple verse structure of an Imagist poem made narrative, sketching brief impressions of the myriad people she encounters in a public space. It feels cinematic, with deep eighties bass, bursts of brass and string-like synths, but also has that emergent sense of a postmodern folk, looking at the world from the bottom-up, catching everyday lives and stories in song. Even when irony remains the chief aesthetic order of the day, the lyric doesn’t have to be sucked into self-referential abyss. The best singer-songwriters continue to channel the American lineage through a romantic strain as much as a humorous one, inflecting songs with sorrow, joy and vitally that lust for something more—sometimes beyond life itself, sometimes just the restless possibilities of the road. Singing alone in the Glasgow Uni chapel on a Thursday evening, Roddy Hart rekindled some love for all that.

*

American Lyric playlist:

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Haunting the Capitalist Plaza: Making Sense of Vapourwave

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Lindsheaven Virtual Plaza – Daily Night Euphoria. Source.

The resonance is a tinny vintage, anachronistic; tinselled with eighties synths and a vocal sample that never quite begins. That baggy voice, normally soft as milk, becomes jagged, inhuman. Creepily crystallised. Your aunty’s favourite easy-listening is stripped of all coherence and synthesis; the tacky detritus of Steve Wright’s Sunday Lovesongs repackaged for an ersatz world of sulphurous sunsets and crumbling metropolises imploding like the plastic dust of an Arizonan dead mall. Back to the dark desert highway, purple-skied and dripped in molten neon. This isn’t what you’d enjoy on a leisurely car trip to the drive through…Or is it?

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death’s dynamic shroud.wmv // I’m at the point in the level where the road narrows, curves, swirls upside down. Death is imminent. You can see the gloved fingers slipping a compact disc into the slot of a monster, borrowed straight from the architectures of Digimon. I’m thinking: Elizabeth Fraser’s sweetly haunting soprano (imagine being ghosted by the purest aural distillation of beauty); the chilled techno-ambience resurrected from the nineties. There’s heartbreak ahead. If you jump too far—and you will, won’t you—the space around you will glitch. There you’ll be, suspended in the space twinkles. An empty swimming pool. Climb into the cracks. Why is everything so gleaming, so white? I’m obsessed with getting back to matter. The music restores the filth, the glitch. There’s a vast acceleration of beautiful colour. The soprano grows warped, the orb-like contortions are glowing off kilter, off rhythm. The seven lumps of Galaxy chocolate I’ve just eaten melt sticky bits of sugar in my mouth, refuse to dissolve. They’ll coat my teeth like that.

Vapourwave coats your teeth. God knows how or why you should define it. It’s like cheap candy, utterly sugary but filled with mysterious ingredients, mystic chemicals from another dimension. One minute I’m being instructed about the start of a sequence (it’s the eerie echoes of a sci-fi style video game)- – – loading loading loading  – –  – and then trap style beats come bouncing slowly in, delayed as if strained through some outpouring of weird gravity. There’s a purity to some of it, which feels more like an original composition; the ambient atmosphere of something along the lines of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works…There’s a sense of distortion, disorientation. Hyperreal landscapes lit in luminous pinks and purples. What’s that gleam, is it rain? Tokyo on a postcard, dipped in cross-processing chemicals, in violet acid. Then you’ve got a vague array of p a r a d i s e lighting up the screen. Palms and sand and cerulean sea.

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As soon as you get attached to a sample, you’re away. Rarely does the beat resolve. You’re like, totally always stuck on the pre-beat. To the point that human expression becomes a technological fault, a beep, a burp. Sometimes it sounds like waves are being pulsed through your brain, blurred in a malfunction of some tacky machinery cooked up for a pulp movie of the nineties. Do scanners really look like that? Coated in rhinestones, bathed in pink. Some of it’s dreamier. Arpeggios of bell-scented keyboards (what do bells smell like? Not musty old church bells, but the sonorous chimes of noughties computers). Arpeggios climbing and climbing, dissolving, rising. A pop melody shining through. I’m in a rainforest of futurist skyscrapers, cloud-surrounded, everything drenched in pastel-hued pixels. It’s so serene. 

Vapourwave. What a joke, an internet meme. Didn’t it die a couple of years ago?

I’m so confused. What is this monstrosity that’s eked itself into my life like a viral code luxuriating in my brain? At once disdainfully ironic, crass, tacky as hell; but also painfully sincere, nostalgic, full of a misplaced longing. The metamodern paradox of postmodern irony and modernist authenticity cooking up an endless loop of misplaced longing. I find myself thirsty for shopping malls from the seventies, for grotesque cups of Diet Pepsi, for the glossy pop of the eighties and the apocalyptic reveries of the nineties. I’m drifting through a city stripped of its glitz and left with patches of bright matte colour, refusing to reflect the glass through which dreams have appeared and got lost. I remember polishing a CD with the back of my sleeve, watching the lines of rainbows beam. Slotting it into a computer that hummed and whirred at my touch. I remember when technology felt somehow homely. 

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Macintosh Plus – Floral Shoppe. Source.

That comforting little Windows XP flourish, how friendly it was compared to the blasé boom of Apple’s triumphant C chord. Glitch, glitch, glitch. I pick the pixels out with my fingertips. The eerie keyed chords of MACINTOSH PLUS’ 地理 fill me with a sinister sense of urgency. It’s an entropic catastrophe of dissonance.

At the heart of vapourwave is a tension between the sweet and disturbing, between satisfyingly vacuous muzak and dissonant, deliberate glitching. This is related to its deterritorialising impulse, by which I mean (borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari lingo), the way it extracts and recontextualises some element of a thing, then placing it elsewhere in a different environment. Vapourwave is a sort of bulimic, abject, rhizomatic discourse. It gorges on the symbols of late capitalism (the glossy muzak and soft rock of the eighties, international brands like Nike or Microsoft, the aesthetics of corporate advertising and so on) and then expels them in a gross reinterpretation that seems to purge them of their original, seamless facade. It might be useful here to mention that sociologist/criminologist Jock Young (2007) once described late modernity as a ‘bulimic society’, where we are all (internationally) included in the dreamlike semiotics of the rich through the opulence and availability of global branding, advertising and popular culture, but increasingly we are structurally excluded from the means which would allow us to achieve such dizzying heights ourselves. This social anomie is jarringly rendered in vapourwave’s shameless embrace of corporate culture; at once poking fun at it but also monumentalising it in an ambiguous way. It’s by no means a didactic movement, but as Grafton Tanner tends to argue in his excellent book Babbling Corpse: Vapourwave and the Commodification of Ghosts (2016), it’s symptomatic of its times. The very poetics of vapourwave reflect the uneasy experience of being unable to escape the system, the uncanny effects of our perpetual cultural nostalgia—the celebration and denigration of late capitalist modernity and all its forms of post (post (post) post).

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Outside of their usual contexts, corporate and commercial visuals (the vapourwave a e s t h e t i c) seem absurd, funny, strange, alienating. It hollows out the imagined ‘core’ of the brand and replaces it with a sort of free-floating lack of functionality, a disembodied eeriness. Chuck a logo in with a pastel-hued painting of palms and corny dolphins lifted from a SNES game and there you have it. Old Apple logos might be hovering over a pixellated ocean, waiting to plunge inexorably. Not only the aesthetics, but also the music itself, creates this sense of fragmented capitalism. Tanner talks briefly about the relevance of Derrida’s idea of hauntology to understanding the politics of vapourwave and this seems to me very astute. It’s the idea that the future is irrevocably haunted by the past; that culture and politics are also spooked with spectres from the past—from communism (Derrida’s book is called Spectres of Marx) to old technologies. It’s the idea that things are always-already obsolete, that there’s a sense of being itself as displaced and never quite fully present. It’s an ontology of difference, deferral, doubling, of objects which become ‘a little mad, weird, unsettled, “out of joint”’ (Derrida 1994). Derrida’s gloss on Marx’s analysis of the commodity-table gives us a sense on the ghostliness of consumer objects:

For example — and here is where the table comes on stage — the wood remains wooden when it is made into a table: it is then “an ordinary, sensuous thing [ein ordindäres, sinnliches Ding]”. It is quite different when it becomes a commodity, when the curtain goes up on the market and the table plays actor and character at the same time, when the commodity-table, says Marx, comes on stage (auftritt), begins to walk around and to put itself forward as a market value. Coup de theatre: the ordinary, sensuous thing is transfigured (verwandelt sich), it becomes someone, it assumes a figure. This woody and headstrong denseness is metamorphosed into a supernatural thing, a sensuous non-sensuous thing, sensuous but non-sensuous, sensuously supersensible (verwandelt er sich in ein sinnlich übersinnliches Ding). The ghostly schema now appears indispensable. The commodity is a “thing” without phenomenon, a thing in flight that surpasses the senses (it is invisible, intangible, inaudible, and odourless); but this transcendence is not altogether spiritual, it retains that bodiless body which we have recognised as making the difference between spectre and spirit. What surpasses the senses still passes before us in the silhouette of the sensuous body that it nevertheless lacks or that remains inaccessible to us.

(Derrida 1994)

Vapourwave, of course, exploits this ‘ghostly schema’ of consumer objects. ‘Woody and headstrong denseness’, the sheer materiality of the thing is ordinarily supplanted by its mystical, transcendent value as a commodified good or brand. When we think of Nike trainers, rarely do we care for their actual material structure; usually it is the symbolic resonance of the brand that captures us. In Vapourwave, materiality comes back, vicious and strange. Fredric Jameson laments the way that postmodernism presents us with a meaningless concatenation of cultural nostalgia, often without context—BuzzFeed’s noughties nostalgia lists perhaps being a case in point. Vapourwave takes this ‘out of context’ randomness and runs with it. Art objects, textures, corporate iconography and screen-saturated colours combine in a collage of irony and contrasts. The mishmash quality of the vapourwave aesthetic lends it to easy manipulation and re-creation. This is the DIY ethic of the movement, its impulse towards constant theft, the cut and paste fun of sampling, the wilful shredding of distortion which creates a contemporary rendering of William Burroughs’ literary cut-up method or the random-making ‘recipes’ of Dada poetry, as described by Tristan Tzara.

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Vapourwave Collage (note the hashtags on the link). Source.

Now, the effects of this mixed-bag of internet treats aren’t just weird and humorous, but weird also in an unsettling way. The samples become points of focus in a manner that strips away the normal cultural values of the original song; the easy soft-rock of the eighties becomes haunted with lo-fi feedback and interruption, compression and echoes. It sounds like it’s being heard through a cave or the underwater atrium of an abandoned mall, after the apocalypse. One of vapourwave’s most prominent releases to this day remains Macintosh Plus’ Floral Shoppe (2011) and on this record the production warps its soul music with a surrealist synth-driven dreamscape, in which R&B beats become slow and trippy and human voices are dehumanised into drawls and robotic calls. Often a sample starts but never resolves its line, constantly stumbling over itself. Tempos are spliced and no song follows conventional structure, but instead runs on repetitions, overlaps, interruptions; completely jarring changes in rhythm and key with no transition. Funk and soul from the eighties are no longer smooth and satisfying radio filler, but are turned inside out, their inherent weirdness exposed. Some of the highlights include ‘It’s Your Move’ by Diana Ross and ‘You Need a Hero’ by Pages. The effect of listening to this album is sort of like pushing a shopping cart round a supermarket and gazing around in wonder at the saturated pastels, the pointless products, the detritus of cluttered consumer madness. Glitches, twinkles, the beats of unsteady feet. Random tannoy announcements like a call from some parallel universe, the underground, the flickers of the internet ether.

Tanner’s Babbling Corpse usefully makes a connection between the dehumanisation of human voices in vapourwave music and contemporary philosophical movements such as speculative realism and object-orientated ontology. Both movements share the fundamental rejection of correlationism (the dominant, anthropocentric idea in Western philosophy that views reality only in relation to and projection from the human perspective). Instead, they turn to the world experience of the nonhuman, the sentient and foreign perspective of matter and objects. They expose the contrived nature of our distinction between self and world, showing how we are world, entangled in a way that is inextricable and disturbing (Timothy Morton, for instance, points to the crustaceans that live in our eyelashes or the bacteria in our gut as examples of how we are the environment, rather than self-complete and separate beings). Vapourwave in some way manages to evoke this weird world of objects, at a level only barely accessible to humans. Its use of glitches and looped samples disrupts the ordering of people and things. As Tanner puts it,

Glitches interrupt our expectations while deceiving and annoying us. They undermine our notion of what the machine is supposed to do for us, not without us. In this way, our electronic machines take on lives of their own and appear capable of functioning perfectly well without humans – a complete transcendence into other-worldly sentience.

 (2016: 11)

We might consider this in relation to Martin Heidegger’s (2008) idea that we only notice a tool as a thing when it stops working. A broken hammer suddenly becomes a strange entity in its own right, rather than just one chain link in the process of a means to an end. Chuck Persons Eccojams Vol. 1, for starters. The very name: Eccojams. It implies the jams are a product of this Other: the ecco, ecology, echo…The title derives from an old Sega Megadrive game called Ecco the Dolphin, an action adventure game which featured dreamy music and a very minimalist gameplay narrative. You made Ecco sing to attract and interact with other objects and cetaceans; you could evoke echolocation in order to unfold a map of your oceanic surroundings; you could call to special crystals (glyphs) which in various ways controlled Ecco’s access to different levels. There is a beautiful otherworldliness to this game, and not just because Ecco ends up at the City of Atlantis. It’s created its own mythology, and the emphasis on song (like The Legend of Zelda’s ocarina melodies, which initiate effects in the game) opens up the possibilities for a nonhuman conscious or logic. Music, perhaps more than language, has effects on nonhuman consciousness. At a certain pitch, it can shatter a glass, or cause buildings to rumble with bass. It opens up its own logic of cause and effect.

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Hauntology, in a sense, is about being stuck on the loop of the end of history.  Technology constantly dislocates our awareness of time and space, so that linearity is replaced with instancy, repetition and reiteration, the constant recycling of former styles and events. Repetition is uncanny partly because, as Freud argues in ‘The Uncanny’, it’s the structure of the unconscious. When we notice repetition, we notice how our whole psyches are built on the compulsion to repeat even that which is most traumatic to us. It also violates our sense of identity and experience as singular and unique (an idea that liberal democracy and consumer capitalism likes to perpetuate). Identical twins are uncanny for this reason, as is deja vu. We feel that the normal order of time and space has been distorted (this is of course made explicit in films like Donnie Darko, which deal with parallel universe theorems). Repetition is also uncanny because it suggests that things we thought were unique to a moment, imbued with their apparent transience, are actually lingering and potentially eternal. It’s unsettling to have the buried constantly disinterred and broken out into the open present. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) is a novel which explores the logic of repetition in relation to a trauma narrative in which the protagonist becomes obsessed with re-enacting events to the point of absurdity and violent conclusion. It’s that overlap of the real, where dreamlike remembrance meets actual performed repetition, that is the orgasmic satisfaction of the psyche.

Listening to vapourwave enacts this perfectly. We might start to recognise the songs from which these samples were drawn, but our recognition is distorted along with the samples themselves. The past floats uncannily into the future. Eccojams Vol. 1 drops its tinkling beats on a loop and the vocals from eighties ballads are stripped of their velvet and become mournful, minor, distorted. Inhuman, odd. There’s a sense in which our contemporary experience of reality in the face of apocalypse and pathological nostalgia is both dark and sweet. Morton’s branch of object-orientated ontology, dark ecology, perfectly captures this experience (in fact, in Dark Ecology (2016) he describes the process of dealing with this ‘grief’ as sharing the structure of a ‘dark ecological chocolate’). Vapourwave is at times incredibly saccharine, mapping itself through the cheerfully smooth loops of Muzak; but it is also jarring, dissonant, deeply unsettling. It takes dirty club techno, the complex tempos of intelligent dance music, and puts them through the cheap production of the GarageBand blender. Vocals echo like a broken tannoy machine. Vapourwave, as both visual and musical aesthetic, fundamentally opens an aural space in which past, present and future become a haunting echo chamber of one another. No longer is this the mere surface play of postmodern collage, but instead it’s the material manifestation of a specific cultural hauntology. As Tanner puts it, hauntology ‘is unlike Jameson’s pastiche in that it complicates the past (specifically, the past’s image of the future) in order to call attention to capitalism’s destructive nature as a subjugating force that only fools others into thinking it came to eradicate “history”’ (2016: 35-36). Capitalism is hollowed out, its signature brands become lost echoes in a vaguely recognisable, a hypnotically attractive yet alarming vision of our near-present future; blended with the figures of mall culture, the colours of early aughts internet webspaces and the abyssal possibilities of a Tumblr scroll.

I’m interested in how vapourwave re-enacts a different form of consciousness and how this might be ecological, even though the movement’s only obvious engagement with Nature as Such is through the proliferation of palms and potted plants that drift incongruously as consumer goods through some of its artwork. To get at its ecological sweetness, it’s like cracking open a crystal to see its lattice parameters (what a beautiful phrase), the places where the material cleaves (its lines of weakness), its cubic structure. The interplay between structure and embedded weakness is what motivates vapourwave; it contains its own failure, the undeveloped samples, the way a tiny snatch of a song is unfolded into a tranquil sequence of soporific, nonsensical sound. This is not music with a coherent logic. You look for lines and trends and vague traces of structure, but a song will become something more fluid and fragmented. Vapourwave’s material metaphors cannot be coherent; it’s at once free-floating, vaporous, seeping, gelatinous, oozing, splitting, cracking, choking, pulsing, dissolving. Hard matter, soft matter, chemical, vapour, waves and glitches and tiny explosions.

Sometimes, the structure is completely frustrating. On Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1, for example, the slowed-down, reverb-heavy sample from Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’ repeats endlessly and never resolves itself into the next line: ‘another year and then we’ll be happy / just one more year and then we’ll be happy’. The twinkle signifies the glimpse of a transition and there’s a blip of the ‘b’ which should resolve into ‘but you’re crying, you’re crying now’ and yet here never does. Instead the song becomes an endless loop of implied futurity, the future conditional, ‘we’ll be happy’ that doesn’t get to complete itself but instead hangs. We’re taken out of time and left in this limbo. Here, the repetition isn’t soothing, it’s unsettling—mesmerising in a disturbing way. We question our longing for the song to resolve and before we have a chance it’s skipped to the next track. So we go back, search out the original version. Is it satisfying? Listening to Raferty’s original now feels weird in a way it didn’t before. It’s like this lost artefact from the past, spliced across the future ether rendered by Person’s eerie and hypnagogic album. While ‘Baker Street’ implies a specific place, now it’s thoroughly displaced, an effect of the internet’s rhizomatic possibilities.

As Morton puts it, ‘in order to have environmental awareness, one must be aware of space as more than just a vacuum. One must start taking note of, taking care of, one’s world’ (2002: 54). Ambient poetics disturb our assumed distinction between inside/outside, self/other; they show how we are entangled in a shared space of coexistence (Morton 2002: 54). Ambient music, in its sensuousness, its borrowing from the world—for example, by using samples of music concrète and field recordings from both nature and urban spaces—embeds us inside an environment in a way that is at once comforting and disturbing. It literally surrounds our senses. Brian Eno famously sets out a manifesto for ambient music by describing ambience as ‘an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence, a tint’, and ‘whereas conventional background music [i.e. Muzak] is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty […] from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. […] Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think’. As Morton puts it, ambient music as figured by Eno deconstructs the ‘opposition between foreground and background, or more precisely, between figure and ground’. In this sense, ‘ambience could be shown to resist the reification of space in capitalism’, ‘at once fill[ing] and overspill[ing] the ideological frame intended for it by the social structure in which it emerged’ (Morton 2001).

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Abandoned mall / / Source.

Think of it this way: could you get away with playing vapourwave in a mall or a supermarket or diner? Sure, it would ‘fill’ the space in one sense, but also exceed it, rendering all our cultural and material associations with this space uncanny and distorted. It would become a sci-fi space, a space displaced into the future. We would be inhabiting a doubled world, a doubled temporality. I tried playing Floral Shoppe in the restaurant where I work once (obviously when there were no customers) and the effect was actually very comforting. I felt like I wasn’t trapped in the familiar twenty-something existential limbo and instead inhabiting a plane of dreamlike contemplation, like the Rainbow Road level on MarioKart: Double Dash. I close my eyes and the scratched wooden floor spills out into a highway of colour; the tables I’m bumping against are bright yellow stars and fragments of unknown matter. I’m back in the supermarket, trolleys wheeling away from me and products falling off the shelf. I open my eyes and there’s the mirror and a reflection of someone that might be me, wearing a uniform, the chairs and tables flashing around me like holograms. I’m not exactly sure where that association sprung from (it’s been a long time since I’ve turned on the old GameCube), but I guess that’s the free associative impact of the music itself.

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Rainbow Road / / Source.

Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1782), vapourwave is about an experience of travel and movement without necessarily describing that movement itself. Crucially, the emphasis is on slowing down, on dwelling in a moment; a moment which is looped, repeated, pondered over, exhausted, reflected on. ‘I undertook to subject my life to a severe examination that would order it for the rest of my days in such a way as I wished to find it at the time of my death’ (Rousseau 2011: 24). Vapourwave subjects the e v e r y t h i n g of capitalist late modernity to such self-reflexive inner scrutiny. This scrutiny enacts a slowing down of perception, a sense of looking around and absorbing one’s place in the environment. Through an uncanny distortion, doubling back and becoming the environment. Vapourwave allows us to adopt both a blasé and a highly perceptive attitude to the ad-saturated world in which we exist; the metropolis of the internet becoming some great labyrinth in which we linger at every turn, mesmerised by the neon palms swaying in time to the untimely music, to cans of diet coke and the universal resonance of that bold tick logo. Everything surrounds and coagulates, connects.

This aesthetic dwelling is crucial for ecology because it forces a recognition of the world which we are and in which we live, a recognition that notices patterns of interconnectedness and coexistence. For Gregory Bateson (2016), aesthetics means ‘responsiveness to the pattern which connects. The pattern which connects is a meta-pattern’; both cities and their parts form part of this pattern, of the patterned aesthetic of vapourwave. The metropolis, the mall, the fountain plaza, the computer screen, the window of a building, the burnished, pixellated sunset. All are the environs of sound and vision, the movement between figure and ground, the deconstruction of synecdoche. The part and the whole are constantly supplementing each other (the song, the sample; the symbolism, the surface aesthetic). It’s a bewildering, shape-shifting experience. It forces us to take notice of our world. There’s something about vapourwave which always suggests to me a sort of endless highway, where the vehicles move as if through some viscous substance that drags the experience of time and space. Our perception becomes blurred and starry, with blips of unconsciousness and moments of epiphanic reverie. Things around us fade or glow. The radio rumbles in the darkest cavity of our chest. Am I even breathing? I don’t feel human. Is this freedom?

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Alongside this dwelling is a certain playfulness of a way unique to vapourwave. James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual (2011) might be the classic here. It blends together the inane and cornily flourishing samples from Muzak with automated audio speech stolen from corporate contexts and sound effects from everyday tech life—the message-send swoop, a mouse click, laptop crashing sounds and start-up tunes. The result is something that might reflect Jean-Francois Lyotard’s famous definition of postmodernism as ‘eclecticism’, the ‘degree zero of contemporary general culture [where] one listens to reggae, watches Westerns, eats MacDonald’s for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothing in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games’ (2004: 76). This eclecticism is made playfully manifest in Ferraro’s lively, atmospheric and at times downright trippy record, where twinkles of commercially-drenched, techy synths give way to stuttering keyboards, ringtone effects and twirls of familiar message noises which become maddeningly synced with finger clicks and conversations between robotic voices. A CONUNDRUM article argues that ‘since vapourwave functions namely as commentary, it loops, pitch-shifts and “screws” the utopia of the virtual plaza, creating a harsh, grating sound in away that brings each muzak sample’s faults to the forefront of the track’. This is certainly true of Ferraro, but I’d also suggest that vapourwave is more than mere commentary; Ferraro especially revels in the silliness of corporate culture (check out ‘Pixarnia and the Future of Norman Rockwell’, with its drink slurping sound effects and jingly, kids tv-worthy melody), at the same time as revealing its peculiar utopian unreality, a world of shimmering sound and holograms. There’s a self-consciously affective and pleasurable aspect to the music. Sometimes it sounds like the demonstration music on an art channel, to the point where I’m expecting some beautiful, sellotaped creation to materialise with every musical flourish.

On the other hand, there’s the total weirdness of ‘Palm Trees, Wi-Fi and Dream Sushi’, which takes us through a scintillatingly bizarre encounter with a ‘touchscreen waiter’ who explains the ordering process at a sushi restaurant—apparently in Times Square, with Gordon Ramsay as chef—to the backdrop of exuberant synths and glitchy effects which sound like a Windows 95 laptop gone haywire, or merely said customer making her selections from the menu software. The result is to render a future where restaurants and coffeehouses are devoid of human interaction, becoming impersonal encounters with creepily enthusiastic machine waiters (creepy not just because they’d put me out of a job). The contrast between this manic happiness, this constant focus on choice, with the maddening music is to create a deep sense of unease, to reveal the artifice of such utopian tech constructions. Do we really have a choice? Is life being boiled down to a series of computer menus? Is the future bound to the unsettling intonations of such robotic encounters? I can’t help but escape into the absurdity of the music and try to forget this hauntological disaster is always-already constantly happening…

The comparatively meditative ‘Bags’ weaves its entrancing ambience from an early Windows startup theme, dipping into sonorous caverns of sparkling synths and lifting for air bubbles and irregular, incongruous finger clicks. I am reminded here of a beautiful essay by Steven Connor on the magic of objects, specifically here bags: ‘because they are in essence such fleshly or bodily things, bags enact as nothing else does our sense of the relation between inside and outside. We are creatures who find it easy and pleasurable to imagine living on the inside of another body’. There’s an amniotic vibe to Ferarro’s ‘Bags’; the swaying, dreamy pace that makes us feel as though we are inside those palms, or encased within a glossy plastic number, bouncing away against some glamorous knee. Just as humans have a sort of supplementary, life-giving association with bags, we also have this relationship with the plazas of capitalism and the affective world they render. Ferarro has said that he conceived of Far Side Virtual as a series of ringtones, a musical form which inherently suggests consumer transience, tackiness, kitsch, the whims of passing fashions (not least because the polyphonic presets change with each phone upgrade). He’s also said that he loves the idea of the album being ‘performed b a Philharmonic Orchestra […] Imagining an orchestra given X-Box controllers instead of mallets, iPhones instead of violins, ring tones instead of Tubular bells, Starbucks cups instead of cymbals. All streamed online, viewable on a megascreen in Times Square’. That’s what’s special about vapourwave: its commitment to the endurance of art and the a e s t h e t i c alongside an ambiguous relationship with the ephemerality of corporate kitsch. The artistic rearrangement of these samples, alongside their visual presentation and marketing as alt music through sites like Bandcamp, completely reterritorialises their original framework of meaning.

There’s a sense in which this music—with its self-conscious materiality, the recognisably tacky mattering of its samples, its embrace of the ambient disruption of foreground and background—is inherently committed to some kind of hauntological ecological project, the kind advocated by Tim Morton’s dark ecological poetics. As Ferarro himself says of his album, it’s a ‘rubbery plastic symphony for global warming, dedicated to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. Vapourwave recycles culture, proliferates both beauty and trash, endlessly parodies itself and its references. It renders explicitly what Marc Augé calls the ‘non-places’ of supermodernity: the anonymous malls, airports, offices and stations where cultures blend and collide and become foreign places of blank existence, of non-place, of disembodied temporality and physical and social experience. Places emptied out of cultural specificity. Places where one might eat Japanese sushi in a New York airport restaurant, concocted by a holographic rendition of a grumpy English chef and served by a robot developed and programmed by a Chinese tech company. Vapourwave is melancholy and strangely displaced. The frequent use of anonymity by many of its prominent artists (Xavier, for example, is responsible for more than just Macintosh Plus), alongside the Eastern characters for song titles, creates again a dehumanised, uncanny and culturally displaced understanding of identity. It weaves an almost Orientalist mystery through its art, so that we can’t quite geographically place the origins and players of this musical movement. It’s all about dissemination, reappropriation, the instancy of recycled production; but it’s also about slowing down to notice the flaws inherent in our everyday, consumer lives. The heavily sampled, rhizomatic nature of vapourwave forces you to become a more active consumer of both music and other forms of material pleasure, from picking your morning coffee to choosing your desktop screensaver. Perhaps it’s this recognition that gives vapourwave the vague trace of disruptive impulse; the way it strips away the uneasy pleasures and pink mist of the late capitalist plaza and replaces it with a mystique that haunts us back from the future. Objects and humans withdraw from our grasp and we are left with the surface detritus of crushed coke cans, defunct MacBooks, coffee cups and robot voices stuck on repeat, cleaning the floor of the mall to a vicious gleam that threatens to bounce back like a screen and remind us that we haven’t left the room at all – we’re still on the internet, chasing our dreams.

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#existentialwave / / Source.

Bibliography

Augé, Marc, 2009. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso).

Bateson, Gregory, 2016. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Available at: http://www.oikos.org/mind&nature.htm. [Accessed 22.1.17].

Derrida, Jacques, 1994. Spectres of Marx. Extracts available at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/derrida2.htm [Accessed 22.1.17].

Eno, Brian, 1978. ’Music for Airports liner notes’. Available at: http://music.hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/MFA-txt.html [Accessed 22.1.17].

Freud, Sigmund, 2003. The Uncanny, trans. by David McLintock, (London: Penguin).

Heidegger, Martin, 2008. Being and Time, trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, (New York: Harper Perennial).

Jameson, Fredric, 1991. Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press).

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, 2004. Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

Morton, Timothy, 2001. ‘“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” as an Ambient Poem; a Study of a Dialectical Image; with Some Remarks on Coleridge and Wordsworth’, https://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/ecology/morton/morton.html

Morton, Timothy, 2002. ‘Why Ambient Poetics? Outline for a Depthless Ecology’, The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 52-56.

Morton, Timothy, 2016. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press).

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 2011. Reveries of the Solitary Walker, trans. by Russell Goulbourne, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics).

Tanner, Grafton, 2016. Babbling Corpse: Vapourwave and the Commodification of Ghosts (Winchester: Zero Books).

Young, Jock, 2007. The Vertigo of Late Modernity (London: SAGE).

Hipster Poseur or Situationist Provocateur? – The Metamodernism of Father John Misty

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Father John Misty/Josh Tillman. Image Source: Bristol 247

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”.

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Lana Del Rey and Father John Misty in the video for ‘Freak’. Image Source: Pitchfork.

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.

NPG x87840; Manic Street Preachers (Richey James Edwards; Nicky Wire (Nick Jones)) by Kevin Cummins
Culture Sluts? Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire of the Manics. Image by Kevin Cummins; source: NME

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.

Turner, Luke, 2015. ‘Metamodernism: A Brief Introduction’, Notes on Metamodernism. Available at: http://www.metamodernism.com/2015/01/12/metamodernism-a-brief-introduction/ [Accessed 15th November 2016].

Rethinking Punishment: Scotland’s Future and the Future of Justice

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Rethinking Punishment: Scotland’s Future and the Future of Justice

(This article was written in February 2015. Note my pre-Brexit, pre-General Election 2015 naivety in places…)

“Imagine you’ve been burgled,” the professor suggests to a room full of sociology students. “He’s taken all your favourite possessions. How many of you would, if you could, have him locked up in five minutes?” Almost all of the students raise their hands without second thought.

“OK, so what about if you knew this man was a relapsed drug addict? What if his family were deep in debt and he hadn’t eaten for three days? Couldn’t get a job? What if he’d been churned in and out of the justice system without decent legal aid more times than he’d had hot dinners? Is prison still the best place for him now?” The lecturer does not deliver these possibilities with the air of derisive triumph, but rather calmly lays them down for all to consider. Everyone in the room looks at each other sheepishly, as if they have missed a punch-line. The joke is that even sociology students (perhaps the most stereotypically liberal sector of society) fall for the seductive narrative of simple, instant punishment.

Criminologists have a phrase for this: populist punitiveness, or penal populism. It’s the idea that criminal justice becomes less of a moral or practical issue and more a party political one; that parties can tap into a general fear of crime or disenchantment felt amongst victims, in order to garner votes. Being seen to be ‘tough on crime’ raises the political climate to the level of populist, Daily Mail hysteria we witness today in relation to the likes of immigration. With penal populism, we have the tabloid recycling of stock, ‘blue-collar’ criminals, but rarely do we have the contextual story necessary to fully flesh out the nature of the crimes we read about.

The problem with this of course is that it leads to extreme, right-wing approaches to criminal justice, seen perhaps most dramatically in the ‘bang-em-up’ North American model of tough sentencing, chain-gangs and super-prisons. This sits uneasily alongside the progressive liberalism, soft conservatism or centre politics that most major parties wield as their ideological banners in the UK. Yet as Jonathan Simon suggests in Governing through Crime (2007), this increasingly punitive approach to justice found in the US but also (albeit to a lesser extent) in the UK, is not just a pragmatic response to problems with crime, but rather a more comprehensive tool of social governance. The United States has quadrupled its prison population in the past three decades, while the UK’s prison population has doubled since 1993. Accompanied by statistics which show a recent broader decline in the rates of violent crime, these figures might seem perplexing or counterintuitive. Why are we locking up more people when less violent crimes are being committed? The fact is that the prison system is becoming less about justice and protecting society, and more about asserting the long arm of the state in a society where its ‘soft’ role of welfarism is slowly crumbling.

And yet this is not just a process that can be attributed to the state; it is also one accelerated through the punitive appetites of the media. In the past few decades, crime has increasingly occupied a prominent pedestal in media reporting. Part of this problem is the sensationalist and individualistic style of reporting, as well as its predominant focus on so-called ‘blue-collar’ crime committed by those who occupy a lower rung on Britain’s persistently rigid social stratum. In fact, if you absorbed everything the mainstream media told you, you’d be forgiven for thinking that crime was something that only happened in urban areas by working-class youths, or else by the odd drug-hazed celebrity entering a spiral of personal decline. Although this outlook on criminality has been changing in recent years – with revelations of MPs’ expenses, phone hacking, police cover-ups in relation to Hillsborough and child sex scandals, as well as the corruptions of bankers – such interest in more corporate or ‘white-collar’ crime continues to generally focus on the ‘bad apple’ individual over the systemic problems which necessarily contextualise the offence in question. The kind of systemic problems that led to the banking crisis and the institutional racism unveiled by the Stephen Lawrence case.

Media reporting of crime often uncritically accepts the view of criminal justice officials as its source, and while criticism of police failures is sharpening in the UK, reporting of individual crimes still relies often on hysteric headlines and moralising quotations.  A quick glance at the ‘Crime’ page of The Telegraph’s website reflects this emphasis on violent crime and celebrity offending over more analytical crime reporting. The media’s power to shape the population’s perception of crime was famously demonstrated in Policing the Crisis, a 1978 study by Stuart Hall and his colleagues which showed how the press effectively invented the term ‘mugging’. By saturating the public with extreme reports of its occurrence, Britain’s media whipped up a ‘moral panic’, so that reporting of violent robberies increased, and as ‘mugging’ was absorbed into official crime statistics, it was the media’s scapegoating of black working-class youths that became synonymous with this apparently ‘new’ crime itself. We have seen this more recently with the politicisation of youth crime and moral panics about ‘hoodies’, ‘Neds’ and ‘Chavs’ – the demonisation of the working-class, as Owen Jones puts it – following Thatcherite attitudes to the ‘feckless’ poor and New Labour’s ASBO legislation and tougher ‘welfare-to-work’ approach to welfare.

What seems to emerge from this interplay between social policy, crime statistics and media reportage is that mainstream media often frame the overall picture of crime through a neoliberal ideology of individual responsibility. While this might help foster the confidence of victims to come forward – for example in cases of rape – it also means that whole sectors of society become demonised as ‘risk’ populations, and with the media’s uncritical reliance on official crime statistics, we often get a distorted picture of the extent of crimes whose definition may have changed along with shifts in sentencing policy. The demand for moralising, punitive justice stirred up by the media is one factor among many that might explain our rising prison population.

When the media does report broader trends in crime, the problem is that even with articles from ‘respectable’ sources like The Guardian, these trends often remain distorted as a picture of UK crime as a whole. This is because such articles frequently rely on the Home Office’s statistics and the British Crime Survey, which focus only on England and Wales, thus giving a potentially misleading impression about crime and sentencing in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland has had its own criminal justice system going back to the 1707 Act of Union. Traditionally, this system has been seen as more socially democratic, reflecting the endurance of more left-wing ‘Scottish values’ against the encroachment of neoliberal punitiveness. The Scottish approach, then, has conventionally been seen as ‘softer’, offering a more holistic method of dealing with low-level offenders in particular. The Children’s Hearing system is exemplary of this, whereby offenders below the age of 18 are referred to a Children’s Panel which considers both young offenders and victims within a welfare context, paying attention to a child’s needs and how this plays out in the local community. Within the court system itself, sentencing is more flexible and is judged on a case-by-case basis; with the exception of murder, judges are not forced to impose any mandatory sentences.

However, somewhat paradoxically, following devolution in 1999 Scotland’s unique approach to justice has apparently become diluted. The Scottish Government, especially in the early days of the Labour-Lib Dem coalition, increasingly absorbed more Anglo-American ‘risk-based’, populist and punitive trends. This so-called ‘detartanisation’ of Scottish criminal justice is seen in the hardening of a two-tier approach to justice, related to changes to legal aid and to the plea-bargaining system that reflect a move towards efficiency-based procedure. For example, there is a shift into an implicit approach of ‘sentence discounting’. This encourages early guilty pleas in exchange for more lenient sentences; but while it might cut the court’s legal fees, it is obviously profoundly unjust to foster a system where the accused are quickly churned through the system to drive efficiency. It risks threatening human rights if innocent people are being encouraged to plead guilty – even if it is to be ‘let off’ quicker. Moreover, it creates, as Dorren McBarnet puts it, a two-tier justice whereby some have access to a jury trial while the justice of everyday court procedure is diluted by this trend towards relinquishing the right to trial. There is a class issue here too, as more affluent defendants can afford the advantage of personal legal aid. If the quality of legal aid available to all is weakening, then so is social democracy.

Scotland’s somewhat disturbing move towards more efficiency, risk-based and the ‘punitive turn’ of Anglo-American justice is also evident in policy changes within the justice system. There are tougher approaches to community sentencing, which include increasingly invasive methods of surveillance, a re-emphasis on punitive elements and a strict adherence to ‘risk assessment’. In recent years Scotland has also seen the reintroduction of ‘Youth Courts’ for 16-17 year olds, representing a turn away from the ‘child-centred’ welfarism of Children’s Panels and resulting in what has been called a ‘Burberry court’ – named after its predominant association with prosecuting working-class offenders. With measures such as these, Scotland risks joining the trend towards a ‘decivilising process’, whereby public discourse on the working-class echoes the Victorian rhetoric of the ‘undeserving’ urban poor. Our newspapers are unfortunately awash with moralistic, personal attacks on benefit claimants, ‘junkies’ and ‘Neds’, and this filters down into the increasing alienation and demonising of whole communities that already face multiple forms of social exclusion and economic deprivation. A New York-style ‘zero tolerance’ clamp down on ‘antisocial’ conduct is born out of the desire to show a ‘clean’ image of Scotland. We should also acknowledge the impact of (and not just upon) business, as space itself becomes increasingly privatised and issues of beggars, public drinking and young people ‘hanging around’ become criminalised in an effort to preserve the ‘modern’ image of an increasingly service-based, leisure and consumer-driven economy like Glasgow’s. There is a whole other issue here about the ethics and targeting practice of private security firms (used, for example, in nightclubs and shopping centres), but that’s a story for another occasion.

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Img Source: Wikipedia // Edinburgh’s Old Tolbooth: established in the 14th century, it was used by the Burgh Council and early parliamentary meetings, as well as being the burgh’s main jail. Incarceration, punishment and physical torture occurred regularly in this prison and after 1785, public executions were conducted. The buildings were demolished in 1817.

With this problem of criminalising the poor, we turn to the matter of prison itself. The thirst for punitiveness which seeps through the layers of British society has of course contributed to a steadily rising prison population not just in England and Wales, but also Scotland. Yet the ‘prison works’ ideology famously championed by Michael Howard in the 1990s clearly oversimplifies things. While prison has a place for violent offenders who pose a danger to the public, in its current state – especially with all-round cuts – it isn’t working as it should, as figures from the Prison Reform Trust prove. Nearly 50% of adult prisoners reoffend within one year of release. This failure to encourage desistance from crime is not just a waste of taxpayers’ money and a risk to the public but also reflects upon the need for a greater emphasis on rehabilitation in prisons. There is a whole concatenation of needs associated with vulnerable inmates. The decaying walls of old Victorian jails tend not to be equipped for elderly or disabled prisoners. Young people have an array of social, educational and psychological requirements which are not always met in prison. Prisoners who require psychological rehabilitation, the likes of violent or sex offenders, would do well not just to be cordoned off altogether but to be integrated with normal behaviour via appropriate treatment programmes. For female prisoners, there may be separation from children or family: since there are fewer women’s prisons, female offenders find themselves disproportionately further from their homes. In England and Wales, nearly 50% of female prisoners are reported as having a history of domestic abuse. In Scotland’s only women’s prison, Cornton Vale, two thirds of its inmates were on suicide watch in 2013.

Related to these mental health issues is one persistent problem that I would like to linger on: the issue of alcohol and drugs within Scottish criminal justice. It is difficult to look at many crimes without recognising the role that legal and illegal substances play. Indeed, a recent study conducted by the Howard League Scotland showed that two-thirds of young offenders reported being drunk and 39% on drugs at the time of their offence. Alcoholism and drug addiction seem to pervade prison statistics at all levels, and these problems, stemming from a complex array of social issues, must be treated properly if we are to readdress our approach to criminal justice in Scotland. As it stands, drug users are sucked into the broader decivilising process whereby working-class individuals are excluded from mainstream society, often via criminalisation. People do not take drugs in a vacuum. For example, the association between heroin addiction and poor housing estates is not because of some moral failure but stems from issues of related social deprivation such as unemployment, poverty and localised problems with crime. Areas of deprivation are also more likely to be policed, which means it is possible that working-class users are often targeted by the justice system more than their comparatively affluent counterparts.

Drug charities and various studies have persistently reiterated the links between ‘problematic’ hard drug use and deprivation. One key issue here is that drug users are often ‘recycled’ through the justice system without receiving adequate treatment, and thus fall back into committing drug-related offences upon release. Perhaps, as the Scottish Centre for Criminal Justice Research has argued, we need to acknowledge that ‘reoffending’ itself is a flawed concept which focuses only on legal rather than behavioural criminality, and unlike the notion of ‘reintegration’, cannot do much good for recognising indicators of successful desistance from crime.

Some steps are already in place to tackle this issue by directing offenders towards the correct treatment. The 1998 Crime and Disorder Act saw the introduction of ‘Drug Treatment and Testing Orders’ (DTTOs) in Scotland, which demonstrate a specific aim to, as the Scottish Government website puts it, ‘reduce or eliminate an offender’s dependency or propensity to misuse drugs’, and to more broadly address the scale of drug-related offences in Scotland. There has also been the introduction of special ‘Drug Courts’ which tailor sentences to assist with the work of DTTOs and break habitual cycles of reoffending linked to drug dependency. Findings have suggested that these measures are proving somewhat successful, by improving the offender’s accountability and making drug testing and treatment mandatory, as well as helping to avoid a custodial sentence which might merely intensify the problem.

We shouldn’t, however, overestimate the achievements made possible by these measures. Although the Global Commission on Drug Policy has argued for a ‘public health’ approach to drug crime – the kind being adopted by the likes of DTTOs – these should be situated in conjunction with a holistic and therapeutic approach that looks at the opportunities possible for the individual out-with the cycle of drugs and offending. To call someone a ‘junkie’ is to other them; to recognise their illness but also to categorically distinguish them as different from oneself, as morally inferior. While the issue of decriminalisation is beyond the scope of this essay, the question of how we represent offenders and drug-dependency is certainly relevant to a broader imperative to rethink crime and justice outside of the punitive narratives supplied for us by political and mainstream media discourse. A socially just future Scotland would be reflexively critical and aware of the structural conditions that lead to concentrated drug crime (including de-industrialisation and housing) and would take steps to recognise them in its treatment of offenders.

Such a socially just future is not completely beyond the current horizon. We can start sowing the seeds of optimism in relation to the issue of women and imprisonment, with the Scottish Government’s recent decision to cancel plans to build a 500-capacity women’s prison at Inverclyde. Following talks and activist pressure from a number of sources including Woman for Independence, the Howard League for Prison Reform and a campaign by the Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, the decision reflects the potential for a more reflexive, discursive and collaborative politics which Scotland can offer towards its justice system. Too many women are held on remand in prison, far away from their families, which raises an unnecessary risk of psychological and social harm. Rather than throwing short-term, low-risk women offenders into a new ‘super-prison’, the government can proceed with plans to divert them from incarceration altogether into alternative sentencing, or into more appropriate community-based units. Ideally, we can build on this small success and move towards an approach which does not make justice a party political issue but one based on a pragmatic appraisal of what works, as well as a foundational interest in social justice, extending not only to the individual offender and victim but also the societal conditions that cannot be detached from the crime itself.

Could this, then, be evidence of ‘re-tartanisation’ following the SNP’s occupation of government? Certainly, since 2007 we have seen various measures taken to reduce the rate of short-term sentences in favour of more constructive community sentencing. There have also been serious initiatives rolled out to tackle organised crime and efforts made towards corporate and cybercrime, which suggests an increasing recognition of the fact that organisations and companies cause far more societal damage (whether economic, environmental, social, political or personal) than the average ‘street’ crime.

Moreover, accompanying these policy shifts has been the more general impact of the Internet on mainstream media narratives. Indeed, the ease of access to a plethora of publications from non-profit organisations gives us the power to be critical and reflexive about the stories told to us by television and print media. It is easier to hold governments, journalists and the justice system to account when we have instant access to the latest statistics, and the possibility of corroborating and comparing these statistics with those gleaned by different studies, or with different nations. To some extent, it is up to us, as readers and consumers of media, to rethink our attitudes towards justice – and what that means exactly.  Rather than passively absorbing, we should be actively critiquing.

Where can Scotland go from here then? It seems the biggest challenges are to resist the continual Anglo-American ‘punitive turn’, whilst remaining ultimately part of the UK; to reconcile local, national and international demands in an increasingly globalised world where crime crosses borders; to move forward with a pragmatic rather than party-political approach to deciding justice policy. Scotland is often compared with Scandinavian nations such as Norway, and perhaps these models provide what might tenuously be an optimistic blueprint for the future. Treating prisoners like people instead of demonised ‘others’ (consider that under UK law prisoners do not have the right to vote, and the Con-Dem coalition’s recent attempts to ban books from prisoners which were thankfully ruled unlawful by the High Court) is the way forward. In Norway, where prison staff are encouraged to foster positive relationships with inmates, and where the emphasis is on education, training and psychological treatments, the reoffending rate is the lowest in Europe. Your punishment is the loss of liberty; everything else should work towards re-habituating the offender into a fulfilling role in the community. Giving a person a chance to reconcile themselves with opportunities they might not have had before conviction is surely the best way we have (short of whole-scale societal change) to not only reintegrate someone, but to protect the public from future reoffending. The media is a big part of the problem, as I have suggested, but it can also have a positive role in making us rethink justice. We need to stop looking at examples such as Norway’s as ‘luxurious’ and a ‘waste of taxpayers’ money’ and think practically about how we can learn from them, and in the process not only save our own government a lot of the money lost through crime and reoffending, but also work towards a more just society.

 

Things to check out:

  • The ‘Discovering Desistance’ blog http://blogs.iriss.org.uk/discoveringdesistance/ – explores why people desist from offending. There’s lots of interesting research on there and a documentary, ‘The Road from Crime’, in which an ex-offender turned probation office looks at what we can discover from those who have ‘desisted’ from criminal behaviour.
  • Lesley McAra’s important 2008 article in the European Journal of Criminology, ‘Crime, criminology and criminal justice in Scotland’ in which she puts forward the concept of ‘detartanisation’ to explore how devolution has paradoxically resulted in a ‘less Scottish’ model of justice. To what extent, we might ask, is this still happening, or has there been a turnaround since the SNP’s occupation of government?
  • Factsheet from the Prison Reform Trust with statistics detailing who makes up the current UK prison populations and the problems many of them face. Useful for grasping the extent to which those from more working-class or deprived backgrounds are imprisoned, but also issues of gender, age, race and ethnicity in prison: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Prisonthefacts.pdf
  • Photos from a Norwegian prison: http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1989083,00.html
  • More information on women in prison: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/womeninthecriminaljusticesystemscotland.pdf
  • Document on the relationship between alcohol and crime. Useful for grasping the extent to which many offences were fuelled by alcohol, but also for considering what policies might help to reduce this problem in the future. http://www.ias.org.uk/uploads/pdf/Factsheets/Crime%20FS%20HM%20May%202013.pdf
  • Really useful publication from the London School of Economics analysing the global ‘war on drugs’ and the problems of mass incarceration related to this approach. Considers how different policy approaches to drugs might work as well as detailing the failures of current systems. Situates the problem of drug related crime and social harm by placing the local and national problem of drugs and their policing in a global/transnational context. http://www.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/publications/reports/pdf/LSE-IDEAS-DRUGS-REPORT-FINAL-WEB.pdf

 

 

On Diary Writing

On Diary Writing

“I guess it’s like, for the past seven months, I’ve felt like I don’t exist.”

A friend and I are standing down by the River Kelvin, watching the dark sloshy water unravel itself below us, the purplish October twilight settling around in the shadows and leaves. Part of our friendship has always been this: trying to fill in meaning and substance amongst the ghost-worlds of our lives. The drifting, disappearing act of routine. We agree that we are lone wolves; we pick apart the significance of things, every social occasion an attempt at just living. It isn’t easy. We write letters to each other with little drawings and pictures, sometimes forgetting to dot our i’s and cross the t’s. It doesn’t matter. The point is to communicate things, to write about the weather and the changing colour of the leaves and the way we are feeling. Relationships crumbling, people leaving. What stays the same is the insistence on memory. Remember this time. The walk we took out to Glasgow Green, sitting for hours in the glasshouse with the ripe spring sun so clear and gold on our skin, our talk of the future striving towards something tangibly positive. That night when the boy was sick and when the music was so loud it crashed in our ears for days afterwards; that night you dropped a pill and waited for the high to come, waited so long that you were outside of time, you were in a bubble with the world around you nebulous, distant, the high never coming and only that sense of being washed ashore, exhausted, after a long journey. I always sensed an ending and left the party early.

We write letters and they pile up in a shoebox in my bedroom, tacked together with coloured rubber-bands, as if candy-wrapped, waiting to be opened again after their first moment of preservation. Each one contains the microcosm of a whole moment, month, a jewellery case of feelings that glimmer in the arrangement of words, jotted down so simply but now rich with possibility. I can read this in your handwriting. I wonder if you do it too, if you like to trace the curls of my y’s and m’s. I am obsessed with materiality, as if it was the writing itself that keeps us being—making a record is insurance of existence, the future reassurance that I am alive, I did these things, I existed like this—once. I doubt anyone in the world cares so much about the little things as I do. It’s strange; I suppose it works against my exaggerations.

When you are sad, I say: keep a diary. It’s something I’ve done for years. Part of me truly believes there is no use in telling people certain things. I wonder, is this because I treasure secrets? Yes, I love to hoard. I keep jotters stuffed full of primary school scribblings, drawings of stick-figures falling from buildings. I keep clothes that no longer fit me, broken pencils, lipsticks long since soured but still heady with the smell of wintry, glittery evenings in bars I cannot visit again. There’s a box full of Game Boys, ancient crystals on the windowsill, fantasy novels whose worlds I feel cast out of forever, too old, too cynical.

Keep a diary. Is this my catchall advice for the lost and lonely? What is a diary? Why keep a diary…? Such questions are cast in the meaningless swirl of words; they float to one’s consciousness every time one sits down to write another entry. What is the point in this useless recording of words? Words, words, words. How hypnotic they are, how pointless! In keeping a diary, we make secrets. The secret lies behind every word. It is all decipherable possibilities that lead us back to the realm of the undecipherable. Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, in their playful, lyrical essay, ‘A Silkworm of One’s Own’, draw attention to the slippage between secret and secretion. There is something decidably intimate, eremitic, perhaps insect-like, about the human will to autobiography. As a silkworm or a spider spins its gossamer web, as the Lady of Shalott sits in her tower weaving her tapestry of the world, the diarist retreats to her solitary lair and writes of the day—that which has happened, that which is yet to come.

Unlike the fictional novel, the diary is more or less necessarily bound by the clock and calendar, as opposed to narrative time which might follow the personal experience of time, a more Bergsonian sense of duration. For Henri Bergson, our sense of time is not a mishmash of broken moments, memories to be recalled at will as if accessed from some inner harddrive, but rather that of duration: the accumulation of the past in the present, a ceaseless flow of unbroken moments. ‘The truth is we change without ceasing,’ and duration itself is ‘the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances’ (Bergson 2013: 69-70). There is a sense of our personal time as being in flux, more fluid than the linear progression of calendar time would suggest. The diary form negotiates between this structuring of days and months and the impressionistic rendering of moments, which flow between past, present and future. We experience the present through the memories which populate our past and colour our senses. I walk through these streets, which are palimpsests of years gone by, a split screen of seasons, the autumn leaves and Christmas frost, the corner where we stopped…the desk by the window on level four of the library where I first cracked the notion of différance, the place by the pond where the bluebells grow, the shop which used to sell ribbons and now lies empty, gathering lumps of broken plaster and dust. This place has a bittersweetness, a depth of shadows, which it did not have the first time. A diary grows fatter by the year; as time goes by and I read back old entries, the words have acquired a weight they lacked when first written in all instancy and innocence.

The Britannica Encyclopaedia Online defines the diary as a

form of autobiographical writing, a regularly kept record of the diarist’s activities and reflections. Written primarily for the writer’s use alone, the diary has a frankness that is unlike writing done for publication. Its ancient lineage is indicated by the existence of the term in Latin, diarium, itself derived from dies (“day”).

This foregrounds the essential relation between the diary and dailyness. We write to contain the day, to compare our days, to express the day, to make sense of the day, to merely record the day. Not everyone writes on a daily basis; nor are all diaries structured in a daily sense. Sometimes, vague and impressionistic renderings of a summer, a month or week, might be jotted down as an amalgamation of sensations and feelings. The summer a loved one died, when it rained for weeks on end, when the news was full of insufferable political travesties. A patch of time defined less by rigid temporal boundaries and more by a general mood, which like watercolour paint bleeds into its edges.

Writers use various metaphoric images to make sense of time. In a diary entry from 22nd July 1926, Virginia Woolf writes, ‘[t]he summer hourglass is running out rapidly and rather sandily’, an image which coalesces the objective measure of time with the abstraction of a summer and its accompanying texture—sandily—giving some experiential hint as to the abrasive ‘feel’ of that particular passage of time, ‘[h]ere nothing but odds and ends’ (Woolf 2008: 216).  In a single entry we might note a month of great personal achievement, rapturous words on the fulfilment of a new job or relationship or project. For me, this style of diary-writing falls more into the remit of a journal. A diary, for me, probably has to be associated somehow with the daily. This is what makes it interesting, since in recording the day, the writer has little chance to reflect with all the hindsight of distance upon the events of the day. They are more raw, honest; they contain the energies of the present moment as it is borne upon by the immediate, pressing past.

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Maurice Blanchot usefully if not obtusely describes the everyday as that which escapes: it is ‘the residual life with which our trash cans and cemeteries are filled: scrap and refuse’; however, ‘this banality is also what is most important, if it brings us back to existence in its very spontaneity and as it is lived – in the moment when, lived, it escapes every speculative formulation, perhaps all coherence, all regularity’ (Blanchot 1987: 13). There is then a sense that it might be impossible to represent the everyday as the everyday. In our experience of dailyness, we are so blinded by habit, routine, ritual, that we cannot step back to discern what actually happens. There is a strangeness to the everyday, its mediation of spontaneity and routine, which seems to elude attempts at representing the exact experience of encountering it. All reports of the everyday, whether fictional or in the form of a diary or ethnographic report, seem to fall prey to retrospective narrative organisation of some form or another. The truth is that in our daily lives we experience a particular texture to the passing of time, the passing through space and place. It depends on our job, our friends and family, our use of leisure time, our responsibilities. Time is experiential as well as ‘objective’. The diary, to some extent, captures this, with its vague sense of immediacy (something Samuel Richardson cashes in especially in his novel Pamela (1740), where Pamela is literally writing ‘to the moment’, as he puts it). The gush of sitting down to write before bed: here, I must capture it all before it fades into memory. The diary is a willingness to preserve the past, a form of archive fever, a possibility of dumping or offloading memories to be dealt with later. It is often prescribed to those undergoing psychological difficulty for that very cathartic reason: the possibility of sorting out the chaos of one’s thoughts and experiences by simply writing them down, thinking them through.

Diaries abound in literature. I will never have time to talk of them all.

There is a queer slippage between presence and absence in the diary. Think of Tom Riddle’s diary in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which Harry finds himself writing onto, into, watching ink dissolve and then materialise on the page after his own scrawled print, as if he were having some primitive MSN conversation with the realm of the dead. Riddle speaks through the diary, but it is a specific fragment of his character, the Riddle of the days when the diary was written. The diary is a puzzle to be solved; it is full of secrets (as the name Riddle suggests). We read a diary and we are confronted with a problem: it is chockfull of names, places, references that are never explained, since the person writing is writing not for an understanding readership but for herself alone. As readers we have to decipher the shorthand, the elliptical allusions to things that have happened, people who appear briefly but are then never mentioned again, though their unexplained presence haunts the diary like a ghost. You don’t have to justify your inclusion of certain characters when you’re accounting for a day. It’s just what happened. She did this, he had a go at me, the man that sits beside me at work, my favourite cafe, Mr. S and Mrs. C etc etc. We redact, unconsciously, as we write our lives (for reasons of repression perhaps but also brevity). The reader has to scour through page after page, trying to decode all the references. For what purpose, however? It’s not like in a novel, where you might be searching towards some argument, some overall notion of what the text is about. Doesn’t the diary elude this, in its very fragmentary nature, its resistance to the definition of closed art, its status as a kind of found object documenting a life (maybe even still living and thus not even closed off by death!), never intended to be published, let alone poured over by a curious reader or critic?

Perhaps, then, the diary is the perfect method through which to represent the unknowability of the everyday.

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Img source: twi-ny.com // John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape (photo by Richard Termine)

Think of the tape ‘diaries’ of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). Every year, on his birthday, Krapp indulges in the ritual of making a tape recording in which he accounts for the events of the year, his general impressions of life, hopes for the future and so on. Every year, on his birthday, Krapp also listens back to previous tapes. Some of the tapes thus constitute a dialogue between tapes, as the Krapp of the present or past tries to make sense of the Krapp of a more distant past. Much of this dialogue, this ‘reading’ of the tapes and their various temporal selves, is an encounter with moments of aporia, with references that don’t make sense anymore. Krapp scours his personal memory, but often the cognitive dissonance persists. The uncanniness of the diary is that it reminds us that we are always strangers to ourselves; there are things in our memory, buried subconsciously, that we cannot access or understand, and yet they are part of us. They are the other within us. As such, writing, as one form of what Derrida calls ‘originary technicity’, is a key technological mode which humans have used for thousands of years to generate and make sense of their being (there can be no outside text). Early humans recorded their memories and made sense of the world through cave paintings; later came language as such, the gramophone, the typewriter, the tape recorder (so far, so Friedrich Kittler). Memory and being, therefore, have always already been technical. The prevalence of the diary as discursive form throughout history attests to this.

The diary can be intimate and confessional, but also performative. Not performative in the sense of a memoir, which has the luxury of retrospective maturity to aid its arrangement and sculpturing of events (a diary has the rawness and disarray of immediate record), but performative in the sense that in language all attempts to express the self are inevitably cast into the play of difference and deferral. Let us make no mistake about the representative problems of writing. In writing, the self dissolves. This is the basic Lacanian assumption that when I identify myself in language, I also split myself as Other (‘I’ am no longer the ‘I’ of writing), just as when in the Mirror Stage, the child recognises their mirror image for the first time and sees herself as a coherent object—the initiation of the decentering of the human. It is perfectly possible to refer to ourselves in the third or second person, creating an even greater distancing effect (think back to our most emo of teenage diary entries: you’re so selfish, fat, useless, you might as well give up now and so on). So in writing, the self splits. It is referring back to itself from the position of another self. Blanchot attests writing as a kind of space of death:

The truth of the journal lies not in the interesting, literary remarks to be found there, but in the insignificant details which attach it to daily reality. The journal represents the series of reference points which a writer establishes in order to keep track of himself when he begins to suspect the dangerous metamorphosis to which he is exposed

 (Blanchot 1982).

All year I’ve felt like I don’t exist. There is a sense in which writing a diary is a desperate attempt to pin down the self, to attest to your existence—here, look, see all the things I’ve done so far!—but in doing so, the self stays fluid, under the signifying movement of language. You can’t pin it down and then mount it like a butterfly. The writer’s self undergoes this ‘dangerous metamorphosis’ in the play of words, a transformation and dissolution that she indeed ‘suspect[s]’ even as she writes. A diary indeed, is partly a performance, even if you never intend another soul to read it. You can’t quite get the right words to come out. You’re striving towards an ideal expression of an experience or feeling or even just the sense of your own personality. Perhaps that’s why diaries are full of repetition. Dates, names, phrases. I’m always talking about how sound a person is, how lovely the leaves are at this time of year, how nice to sit in bed like this at three in the afternoon, listening to Arthur Russell albums. Sometimes the music changes, but the habit doesn’t, the phrases might modulate but they’re mostly the same.

Flicking back, painfully, through some diary entries from 2012-2014, I’m struck by how much I just write about the weather. Lyrical descriptions of rain, the promise of summer, the ephemeral beauty of daffodils. Maybe there’s a way in which diary writing is also a kind of phatic speech act, in Roman Jakobsen’s sense of a deliberate establishment of communication for communication’s sake. Communication to whom? The self of the future? Some entries seem to me reluctant; angry somehow, pissed that I’m even having to write this stupid thing at all. The phrase ‘But I will keep writing for the sake of writing’ comes up a lot…Why then do I keep writing? It’s like I’m trying to work through things. I spend sentence after sentence rambling on about the books I’m reading, formulating half-baked ideas which in retrospect often seem deliciously twee and naive. I exert grand claims for my continued writing: ‘I need to find purpose and order in things again, instead of being content with chaos’; claims that are ironically followed with the rambling chaos of self-deprecation and a rather banal outlining of my day, as if I had never made such grandiose assertions of existential realisation a few lines before. I think the diary attests to existence itself and memory more than it does to subjectivity and self-awareness. This is partly why reading one’s diary is always going to incur cognitive dissonance. Yes it’s good to write things down, to work them out, but often the world gets even more confusing in the process of writing.

It’s not a problem of empathy, it’s a problem related to the nature of subjectivity itself. Read back through old entries and yes the memory is stirred, you get a vague impressionistic matrix of sensations that to some extent recall the moment. But can you really remember what it was like to live it at that moment, with that particular naive frame of mind, untainted by everything that has happened since? I don’t think you can really. You get this sharp sense of empathy with the version of you in the diary, but in a way it isn’t really you. It’s quite sad actually. It forces us to deal with our own mortality, the irrevocable passage of time, that melancholy sense of the person we once were, the innocence we have lost. The diary is a record of traces of existence. They’re not necessarily mine. Maybe they’re filtered through dreams or literary narratives or imagined versions of what really happened. They’re attempts to make sense of the everyday, doomed always to fall back on the concrete detail which is its own story of surfaces over depth. As Jacques Lacan put it, the signified always slides under the signifier. The event always shifts under its representation in language. To make sense of one thing, you refer to another and so on, ad infinitum. There is an impossibility to the diary: is it bound to the self’s mortality? And yet it lives on, haunted with its revenants. The diary is always also a writing towards the future, a writing against death, a resistance to the ephemeral that extinguishes at the very level of the ephemeral. For in capturing a moment, perhaps you erase its elusive presentness…

In literature, the diary form is frequently used to make sense of the duality of personal time and clock time (which is itself historically, culturally and technologically relative). The metafictional chaos of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759) is a constant spillage of clock time, leaps between temporalities, anachronisms, the time of writing, the spanning of a lifetime, of a narrative. Its self-referentiality gives its time-space a maddening, recursive quality. One of the most famous encounters with the literary journal, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), is partly a rendering of the need to record time and daily rituals in order to maintain order and stability in a world outside of society. On his desert island, Crusoe marks the days in notches on a makeshift cross of wood but also notes with Puritan precision the days and dates and changing seasons. A significant chunk of the narrative is constituted by Crusoe’s journal, as he relates:

And now it was that I began to keep a journal of every day’s employment; for, indeed, at first I was in too much hurry, and not only hurry as to labour, but in too much discomposure of mind; and my journal would have been full of many dull things; for example, I must have said thus: “30th.—After I had got to shore, and escaped drowning, instead of being thankful to God for my deliverance, having first vomited, with the great quantity of salt water which had got into my stomach, and recovering myself a little, I ran about the shore wringing my hands and beating my head and face, exclaiming at my misery, and crying out, ‘I was undone, undone!’ till, tired and faint, I was forced to lie down on the ground to repose, but durst not sleep for fear of being devoured.”

Some days after this, and after I had been on board the ship, and got all that I could out of her, yet I could not forbear getting up to the top of a little mountain and looking out to sea, in hopes of seeing a ship; then fancy at a vast distance I spied a sail, please myself with the hopes of it, and then after looking steadily, till I was almost blind, lose it quite, and sit down and weep like a child, and thus increase my misery by my folly.

But having gotten over these things in some measure, and having settled my household staff and habitation, made me a table and a chair, and all as handsome about me as I could, I began to keep my journal; of which I shall here give you the copy (though in it will be told all these particulars over again) as long as it lasted; for having no more ink, I was forced to leave it off.

(Defoe 2015)

I love this passage. You get the actual tangibility and physical limitations of the journal (he runs out of ink – another indication of writing’s material and temporal basis). Defoe provocatively renders Crusoe’s sense of real terror—‘fear of being devoured’—alongside his grand exaltations and little self-congratulations. There is a touch of pathos in his solitary situation, but also a self-aware sense of humour. Crusoe sometimes interrupts his journal to give over the ‘present’ narrative to philosophical and religious musings which connect the reflective mode of his present self with the self of the journal, encountering trials and tribulations of solitary island life firsthand. This interplay is what gives us a sense of Robinson Crusoe’s Protestant work ethic, a work ethic which Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) defines as that of being thrifty, ordered, productive, rational, self-controlled. Crusoe is not only deeply religious and ascetic but also a rather zealous capitalist, a merchant tradesman who dabbles with various colonial trades, and the novel negotiates the ideological balancing of these two positions through its shift between journal and narrative reflection. As Thomas Kemple argues, ‘in spite of the boundlessness of nature, Crusoe budgets his time, rations his resources, and keeps a strict account of the tools he has been able to save from the shipwreck in a way that does not exemplify but only prefigures the logic of investment and savings which will later drive the expansion of capitalism’ (1995: 249). Part of this budgeting and rationing is conducted through the journal.

There is a sense in which keeping a diary or journal is a means of keeping the self in check. Disciplining the self in the Foucauldian manner of applying internalised beliefs and discourses of control to the self, which becomes an external product to be in a sense ‘worked upon’. Listing one’s eating habits, exercise, love interests and so on is a way of tying them to the day, making them concrete. There can be some things that are embarrassing to write about, and the diary forces us to moralise ourselves, to justify our actions in writing. This isn’t always pleasant and there is a sense in which keeping a diary reinforces our panopticon-like internalisation of morality, our self-surveillance on a daily basis. It is true that the wilder our lives get, the less we write in our diaries, and perhaps this isn’t just a practical issue of lacking the time, but a more evasive, psychoanalytic phenomenon. Crusoe is deeply reflective about his ‘journal self’ and by putting our own lives in writing, we are subjecting ourselves to a similar internal discipline. Think of how much Jane Eyre loves Pilgrim’s Progress, for example. Think of Pamela, in Richardson’s eponymous eighteenth-century novel, where the young servant protagonist writes both letters and a diary as an assertion of her virtue, a way of sorting out her emotions and assuring herself that she is not in the least tempted by the licentious advances of her master. Yet she must hide her papers delicately in her underwear, always on her person, raising the question as to whether we carry our secrets, our personal burdens, with us always. Even if our diaries are hidden under a mattress, at the back of a drawer or in some old box, they still speak of their very existence. Perhaps that’s why so many people burn them.

The diary then, has a deep connection to inner morality, to self-justification, to the secret. One diary that is seductively rich with secrets is The Diary of Laura Palmer (1990), written by Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David Lynch, co-creator of the early 1990s tv series Twin Peaks, from which Laura Palmer is drawn. Without delving into too many Twin Peaks spoilers, we can say that The Diary of Laura Palmer is compelling partly because it gives voice to a character whose absence defines much of the television show, far more than her presence. Laura’s death in the first episode overshadows the action of the Twin Peaks’ narrative; she is an object of memory and memorial far more than a subject in her own right: she’s the Homecoming Queen portrait; the beautifully still and glittering corpse, iconically wrapped in plastic; the name on everyone’s lips (I always think of that Bat for Lashes song, ‘Laura’, and the implications of the trace in the metonymic lyrics which attempt to grasp her presence as absence: ‘You’re the train that crashed my heart / You’re the glitter in the dark, oh, Laura / You’re more than a superstar / You’ll be famous for longer than them / Your name is tattooed on every boy’s skin’). In Lynch’s diary, we get access to Laura’s voice, which is a strange experience after knowing her only through the stories told by other characters. She gives detail and flesh to the entity known as ‘BOB’ and the psychological breakdown associated with her encounters with this torturing spirit. If you weren’t familiar with the tv series, you could probably read the diary as a standalone account of someone who suffered possibly schizophrenic tendencies, but with the weight of the show behind your reading, BOB is loaded with more sinister metaphysical and narrative implications and is certainly not just a psychological projection of Laura’s mind. Laura gets involved in all sort of sordid activities: lurid jaunts in the wood with a number of men, involvement with the local porno business (the creatively named Fleshworld magazine) and taking cocaine like it was cotton candy. What is haunting about Laura’s diary is that it troubles our easy narrative of corruption from small town innocence to debasement; the diary reveals that desire and its darkness were in Laura even as a child, as we see in her first entry:

Dear Diary, July 22, 1984

My name is Laura Palmer, and as of just three short minutes ago, I officially turned twelve years old! It is July 22, 1984, and I have had such a good day! You were the last gift I opened and I could hardly wait to come upstairs and start to tell you all about myself and my family. You shall be the one I confide in the most. I promise to tell you everything that happens, everything I feel, everything I desire. And, every single thing I think. There are some things I can’t tell anyone. I promise to tell these things to you.

(Lynch 2012: 1)

 

Lynch lets us into the taboo world of preteen sexuality which grows even more visceral as the diary progresses. Stylistically, we have the enthusiasm of someone very young, the peppered exclamation marks, the excitement, the promise. Towards the end of the diary, an entry from four years later, Laura remarks: ‘The girl who received this diary on her twelfth birthday has been dead for years, and I who took her place have done nothing but make a mockery of the dreams she once had’ (Lynch 2012: 167). This self-conscious sense of a fundamental splitting of self is not merely a moralising narrative about the loss of innocence, but is characteristic of our human condition as decentred subjects. With the archive fever of the diary (distinct from other forms of archivisation such as the blog or the social media profile by its privacy, its overt association with the intimate, ‘authentic’ self), we are forced to realise more vividly what we have gained and lost in the years, the sense of alienation that occurs when confronting the thoughts of our younger selves.

The secret is always a communication, even as it is concealed as such. You cannot have a secret without a hint of communication, otherwise it hardly exists. The promise of Laura’s diary entry is its seduction: ‘I promise to tell these things to you’. We are led to believe we are reading something intimate, never designed for public consumption. Yet as the diary progresses, we find that Laura is increasingly insistent on her narrative as narrative; she wants to write the diary to tell her story. When she realises she is in grave danger, she gives the diary to her friend Harold ‘for safekeeping’ (Lynch 2012: 184). She wants people to know how she ended up in such a twisted, seedy situation. Although Laura sometimes goes into detail about her trips into the woods with various shady characters, her dalliances in the Double R diner and hangouts with best pal Donna, the diary is often elliptical—especially elliptical in relation to Laura’s erotic fantasies: ‘ I went into a deep, drugged, happy, thoughtful, nasty, and still-innocent fantasy. I’ll have to tell more later…I feel so dreamy right now…’ (Lynch 2012: 120). The chain of adjectives is as bewildering as it is suggestive, the oxymoronic play between nasty/still-innocent disturbing our easy sense of the binary between good-girl and bad-girl. There is a sense of playful performance not unlike the deliberately seductive tone of someone selling phone sex, the elliptical gaps indicating that breathy space of erotic silence. Laura’s refusal, or inability, to disclose the details of her strange and alluring fantasy, seduce us with the promise of a secret. At some points in the diary, she lapses into poetry and what resembles a kind of displaced dramatic script, furthering the sense of the deferral of meaning, the weight of the secret and the struggle to articulate it which is the masochistic scene of both pain and play.

Indeed, some of the pages of the diary are noted by the editor as torn out, and often Laura alludes to something but never explains it fully. In a sense, this enables to maintain power over her secrets. As Jean Baudrillard says of the secret:

Everything that can be revealed lies outside the secret. For the latter is not a hidden signified, nor the key to something, but circulates through and transverses everything that can be said, just as seduction flows beneath the obscenity of speech. It is the opposite of communication, and yet it can be shared. The secret maintains its power only at the price of remaining unspoken, just as seduction operates only because never spoken nor intended.

(Baudrillard 1990: 79)

How unseductive it is to be explicitly seduced! Some cretinous man in a nightclub approaching you with his sloppily explicit sonnet of adoration. It is in the price of a glimpse, a smile or a chance, enigmatic word, that we are seduced. Seduction unravels in the realm of the clipped, the elusive and cryptic. Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel, Lolita (1955), is written as a diary and its beautiful language is not the only thing that seduces the reader: its disturbing seduction is the uncertainty as to how much of the narrative is truth, how much the projection of Humbert Humbert’s zealous, harlequin imagination. Think also of Amy Dunne’s diary in Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl (2012), which provides a reflective counter narrative to her husband Nick’s present control of the story. Later, we learn that her diary entries were fabricated in order to incriminate Nick in her disappearance. The diary here becomes a tool of seduction, the private sphere designed to cause events in the public. Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a comic novel disguised as a diary, satirising the cultural representation of the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype by having her blonde protagonist, Lorelei Lee, cannily trick men into various racketing schemes (including buying her diamonds), at the same time as negotiating a trickstery language which shamelessly embraces its spelling errors and grammatical faults, and as such pokes fun at both the Patriarchal Laws of Discourse and the whimsical gendering and power performance of Lorelei Lee herself.

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Img source: http://entertainmentguidefilmtv.blogspot.com // Laura Palmer & her diary

The diary, as I have already said, is actually a form of communication, whether we like it or not. As a text, there is the implicit potentiality of its exposure to the world; a frisson between public and private that worms its way into the diary and infects the way we read and write, encouraging us to hold back or expose more, constantly engaged in the game of the secret, its slippage between presence and absence, silence and revelation. Perhaps no clearer is this visible in Laura Palmer’s diary than in her final entry, which is noted (presumably by the ‘editor’) as one of the torn pages:

Dear Diary, Undated

I know who he is. I know exactly who and what BOB is, and I have to tell everyone. I have to tell someone and make them believe.

Someone has torn the pages out of my diary, pages that help me realise maybe…pages with my poems, pages of writing, private pages. 

I’m so afraid of death.

I’m so afraid that no one will believe me until after I have taken the seat that I fear has been saved for me in the darkness. Please don’t hate me. I never meant to see the small hills and the fire. I never meant to see him or let him in.

Please, Diary, help me explain to everyone that I did not want what I have become. I did not want to have certain memories and realisations of him. I only did what any of us can do, in any situation…

My very best.  

Love, Laura

(Lynch 2012: 184).

The fact that Laura does not reveal the true identity of BOB is compelling, because why should she? If this is a diary merely for herself, then there would be no need to recount the agony of his name in writing. She does not disclose the truth, but rather marks the pain of a burial. ‘I have to tell everyone. I have to tell someone and make them believe’: and yet we know she will never get to tell the secret, since, as the editor tells us, after this final entry Laura is found dead days later. This drive for knowledge which seduces us as readers, sends us scattering back over the text, searching for clues and codes as to the true nature of the entity that has tormented Laura for most of the entries. It is probably for this reason that the creators of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost and David Lynch, were so reluctant to reveal the identity of Laura’s killer halfway through season two, as their network pressured them to. What keeps us watching and reading is partly the seductive possibility of the secret; we don’t really even want to know, we just want the pleasure of trying to find out…

Still, while Laura’s diary was evidently written as an exploration into trauma and the problematic pleasure of voyeurism and secrecy, a similar teenage drug diary from the early 1970s raises questions about the ethics and polemic uses of the diary as a writerly form. Published by ‘Anonymous’ as Go Ask Alice (1971), but later discovered to be written by Beatrice Sparks; while initially marketed as nonfiction, it is now widely sold as fiction. There is some controversy over whether Sparks based the diary on the real diary of one of her patients, and the persistence of this controversy attests to our obsession with the slippery division between fiction and reality, a line that the diary form negotiates with only the most tender of distinctions. Like Laura Palmer, Alice is a young teenager who soon finds herself embroiled in a darkly muddled world of drugs (coke for Laura, LSD and heroin for Alice) and prostitution, made darker still by the hints of physical and sexual abuse incurred by both characters/diarists. There are striking similarities between the two diaries, but the crucial difference, to me, is that while Lynch wrote Laura’s diary to extend the thematic explorations of Twin Peaks, to give Laura a voice and deepen our knowledge of her character, Sparks wrote her diary novel with the didactic purpose of teaching an anti-drugs message to its avid teenage readers.

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Img source: obviously Tumblr [screencap from Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s 2001 film adapation of Prozac Nation]

When I first devoured Go Ask Alice, a whole six years ago now, I found myself sucked into the sinister allure of Alice’s adventures, which were at once so far away and yet perilously close to my life in a rural Ayrshire community where many of us were bumming out on toxic legal highs purloined from the local sex shop. I found myself rather terrified of my edition of the book; after reading it I shoved it to the back of the shelf, behind my equally harrowing copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, and tried to forget about it. The cover has a picture of a skinny girl, face turned away from the camera, buried in her hand. It is all shadows; the title has ALICE and ANONYMOUS printed in harrowing block capitals. It reminds me of similar covers from the anorexic and depressive memoirs of Wasted (Marya Hornbacher) and Prozac Nation (Elizabeth Wurtzel). It cut a bit too close to the bone; I was worried that I’d get lost in the text somehow, the way I used to find myself lost in things that horrified yet seduced me.

Maybe part of this devouring was like Crusoe’s fear of being devoured: what scares him is the thought of being eaten alive by some unknown beast (think also of the Beast that haunts the boys in Lord of the Flies…). The fact that the corrupted fable of a contemporary Alice was meant to be anonymous probably made it scarier for me, because she was the everygirl, the possibility that anyone might be seduced by a life of self-destruction. Alice is the horror of the other within; the self-hating, monstrous self.

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Img source: AbeBooks

Reading it back now, however, with my vaguely improved and university approved capacities at close reading, I can see the slippages where the text reveals its true author, the moralising American therapist who wanted to push her opinions on sexuality and drug abuse. Maybe as a teenager I was too close to the subject matter to think about the tone and style, the actual form of the diary. Some of it is pretty accurate: the in-depth reflections on diet and weight and self-image which prompt Alice’s first trip down the rabbit hole of self-harm and addiction. However, it’s obvious to me that it couldn’t be the authentic discourse of someone Alice’s age. There are so many points where you have to stop and think, would a teenage girl really say that?  Like when she reflects on her mother’s youth and whether her mother got so hung up on boys as she did: ‘I wonder if boys were as oversexed in those days as they are now?’ (Sparks 1994: 9). ‘Oversexed’ reads like the kind of word that would crop up on Mumsnet if it was around in the 1970s. There’s a general tone to the novel, a kind of failed attempt to script the logic of a teenage mind through an emphasis on ‘cool’, that reminds me of those 1970s and 1980s sex ed documentaries they used to wheel out the telly for in Personal Social Education at school. You’d be so distracted by the bad haircuts and the terribly stunted dialogue that you forgot about what the documentary was supposed to be teaching you, even as the narrative hammered it home so overtly that you’d have to be asleep to miss it. The ‘editors’ of Go Ask Alice claim the book to be ‘based on the actual diary of a fifteen-year-old drug user’; ‘It is not a definitive statement on the middle-class, teenage drug world. It does not offer any solutions’. Nevertheless, the definitive statement that you can extract from Go Ask Alice is clearly: don’t do drugs. Don’t have casual sex. Don’t runaway from home. Alice does all these things and it only ends badly from her and occasionally, Robinson Crusoe-style, she chides herself with an almost religious morality for falling into such vices and immoral behaviours. Sometimes, Alice’s anxiety is rendered with such clunkiness it’s surprising the reading public didn’t pick up on the diary’s inauthenticity sooner:

I hadn’t thought about being pregnant before. Can it happen the first time? Will Bill marry me if I am or will he just think I’m an easy little dum-dum who makes it with everyone? Of course he won’t marry me, he’s only fifteen years old. I guess I’ll just have to have an abortion or something. I certainly couldn’t stand it if I had to leave school like_______did last year. The kids talked about absolutely nothing else for weeks. Oh God, please, please make me not pregnant!

(Sparks 1994: 30-31)

You could take those first few sentences as the cover quotes on leaflets from a vintage NHS ad on pregnancy and birth control advice. It’s so obviously contrived. There are other parts of the text where the slippage between teenage imagination and cringe-worthy adult representation is a bit more ambiguous; for example her description of sex with her drug dealer boyfriend, Richie, as ‘like lighting and rainbows and springtime’ (Sparks 1994: 43), which is naively refreshing at the same time as being a little too absurd for someone who is supposed to premise her existence on being a hyper-cool teenage dropout.

While Laura’s last diary entry is genuinely pretty harrowing, Alice’s is laced with a queasy sense of self-awareness that seems filtered through textbook rhetoric on adolescent mental health, as if the wiser voice of Sparks (therapist and Mormon youth counsellor) were speaking through her:

I used to think I would get another diary after you are filled, or even that I would keep a diary or journal through my whole life. But now I don’t really think I will. Diaries are great when you’re young. In fact, you saved my sanity a hundred, thousand, million times. But I think when a person gets older she should be able to discuss her problems and thoughts with other people, instead of just another part of herself as you have been to me. Don’t you agree? I hope so, for you are my dearest friend and I shall thank you always for sharing my tears and heartaches and my struggles and strifes, and my joys and happinesses. It’s all been good in its own special way, I guess.

See ya.

(Sparks 1994: 151-152)

Would a teenage girl really use the word ‘strifes’? Would she really, in the midst of a drug-addled breakdown, sound as lucid and lofty as to say ‘I think when a person gets older’? There is though some genuine pathos in the simple, casual ‘See ya’ followed by the overtly political and moralising register of the epilogue:

The subject of this book died three weeks after her decision not to keep another diary.

Her parents came home from a movie and found her dead. They called the police and the hospital but there was nothing anyone could do.

Was it an accidental overdose? A premeditated overdose? No one knows, and in some ways that question isn’t important. What must be of concern is that she died, and that she was only one of approximately 50,000 drug deaths in the United States that year.

(Sparks 1994: 153)

This overtly cold and clinical passage is obviously rendered as a contrast to the preceding philosophising from Alice herself, who is here transformed into the impersonal ‘subject’, whose identity is subsumed into a broader narrative about drug problems in the U.S. However, the canny reader should be suspicious of the way that Sparks clearly set up Alice’s ‘epiphany’ as the ironic precursor to her death, which was obviously meant to emphasise the tragedy of her wasted life, the cause of which is explicitly rooted in drug abuse. There’s that famous phrase of second wave feminists, the personal is political: it resonates throughout Go Ask Alice in the sense that Sparks is making a political statement on sexual morality through the denigrating circumstances that Alice finds herself in as a result of reckless, premarital sex—which in the diary’s narrative is almost always tied to drug abuse, to being irresponsibly stoned out your head. The familiar narrative of suburban girl gone bad appears as a microcosm for a wider point about the ‘50,000 drug deaths’ across the rest of the U.S that year. Thus the diary in literary fiction serves to blur the line between fiction and reality, the personal and political.

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Img source: New York Public Library // Virginia Woolf’s diary

This blurring of the personal and political is also evident in the actual diaries of various authors. I take as my example Virginia Woolf, who wrote on the brink of World War II a vision of a perfect pastoral afternoon in the English countryside as a counterpoint to the ominous coming of war:

I stay out here, after bowls, to say – what? On this possibly last night of peace. Will the 9 o’clock bulletin end it all? – our lives, oh yes, and everything for the next fifty years? Everyone’s writing I suppose about this last day. I walked on the downs; lay under a cornstack and looked at the empty land and the pinkish clouds in a perfect blue summer afternoon sky. Not a sound. Workmen discussing war on the road – one for it, one against. For us its [sic] like being on a small island. Neither of us has any physical fear. Why should we? But there’s a vast calm cold gloom. And the strain. Like waiting a doctor’s verdict. And the young – young men smashed up. But the point is one is too numbed to think. Old Clive sitting on the terrace, says “I don’t want to live through it.” Explains that his life recedes. Has had the best. We privately are so content. Bliss day after day. So happy cooking dinner, reading, playing bowls. No feeling of patriotism. How to go on, through war? – that’s the question. Yes, its [sic] a lovely still summer evening; not a sound. A swallow came into the sitting room

(Woolf 2008: 459).

There is something rather uncanny about reading this passage, blessed and cursed as we are with retrospective knowledge of what was to come in the war, its atrocities, its rupturing of this simple, innocent life forever. Woolf is clearly already aware of what is to come; she has learned from the first war: ‘young men smashed up’, a ‘vast calm cold gloom’ – images which seem incongruous against the ‘perfect blue afternoon sky’. Woolf effectively evokes that awful limbo feeling of waiting for something terrible to happen. The diary form is especially suited to capturing such moments, the in-betweenness of present and future, the ‘strain’ of this waiting, writing as if to pass time. Woolf notes the futility of writing at such a time: ‘I stay out here, after bowls, to say – what?’, the dash emphasising that aporetic sense of meaninglessness in the face of the unknowable war to come. It is the granular details of everyday life that remain concrete, that seem to ground her, as they ground the reader against the shadowy abyss of war that hangs over our reading of this piece: ‘cooking dinner, reading, playing bowls’. The strange interruptions that mark a routine day: ‘A swallow came into the sitting room’. That Woolf flits indecisively between describing the beautiful pastoral scene and thinking ahead to the war suggests the struggle to capture the everyday, the struggle to pin down in language that elusive sense of momentary calm which is swept up in the grander historical events. I wonder, if I had kept a diary as far back as 9/11, would I have written much about the event itself? One of the few ‘flashbulb memory’ events from my lifetime that I remember vividly is the London 7/7 bombings. I was on a boat on the way to Tobermory and the youth worker who was looking after us got a text about it. I think she had the same Nokia 3220 phone as me. She mentioned the terrorist attack briefly but I have no recollection of how I felt about the event itself, whether I was stricken with grief or worry for London family members. I seem to remember more the fact that someone was playing 2Pac on a crackling ship radio; we were drinking watery Ovaltine and sharing a bar of Cadbury’s Mint Chocolate. I remember feeling very calm and safe, being rocked to sleep in the dark little cabin with the boat moored at some bay, the feel of the water sloshing up against the walls so comforting. Perhaps it’s only the tangible details we can cling to.

Woolf’s diary entry brings us to the question of the cultural function of the diary. The diary gives us a bottom-up, microcosmic insight into a specific experience in a specific time and place. Woolf: the middle-class writer’s view of the interwar years, told from the position of poetic eloquence and reflective precision. Then there’s perhaps the most famous of all ‘historical’ diaries: Anne Frank’s. Arguably, what draws people back to Frank’s account of living as a Jew in that perilous moment in German history is not the overall backdrop of historical and personal trauma but the focus on everyday detail. We want the tangible reality of how someone like Anne lived, survived and loved at a specific, dramatic moment in time. It’s the classic liberal humanist narrative of empathy. The Diary of Alice James (1934), sister of Henry and William James, is an interesting case as a ‘real life’ diary, not only because it was published after her death (and thus raises interesting ethical questions about whether one’s diary is up for grabs after one’s passing), but also because of its representation of illness. Alice’s struggle with physical illness plays out in the diary as a conflict of mind and body, will and impulse, power and impotence. She describes abandoning her body in order to preserve her mental sanity. It is a candid account of illness that shirks away the need for sympathy and never skirts around the difficult issues of assuming the ‘sickness’ identity. It is also rather funny in parts (as in Frank’s), delivering an array of scathing opinions on figures known to the James circle.

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Img source: Tumblr // Lorelei Gilmore reading Sylvia Plath’s journals

The diary form, then, has a clear lineage within ideas of trauma and authenticity, gender and genre. If the diary is associated with dailyness and immediacy, it seems the ideal form to express the experiential ‘reality’ of everyday life, which is at once the most obvious and most elusive aspect of our existence. Most of the texts I have discussed so far have been written by women, about women (including themselves). Dorothy Wordsworth wrote several beautiful journals rich with everyday description and nature writing, imagery which her brother William plucked scrupulously for his poetry.She talks about illness, frustration, the loveliness of her garden. While William’s poetry is hugely famous and taught in school curriculums, Dorothy’s journals remain a niche interest for Romanticists and academics. While William enters literary stardom, even into the twenty-first century (though Carol Ann Duffy seems to have overtaken him in the Higher English poetry stakes…), Dorothy remains cast aside as a kind of fragile, queer and weak Victorian woman.

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Img source: numerocinqmagazine.com // Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal

I could reel off a list of other texts by women writers which use the diary to thematise and dramatise psychological and/or historical trauma: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892) and Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple (1982) being two strong examples. When we think of writing a diary, do we think of teenage Sylvia Plath wannabes (Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You), wearing all black and scribbling furiously, alone in a bedroom adorned with Cure posters and feminist slogans? Do we think of the innocent young woman, maintaining a diary to make sense of transitions in their life—Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (1949), Marielle Heller’s 2015 film The Diary of a Teenage Girl? Why is the diary form traditionally associated with women? Perhaps it’s for the same reason that women are traditionally associated with the everyday as such. This is because, as Rita Felski (2000) has suggested, women (because of their biological ‘rhythms’ and link to domesticity) are connected with repetition, with tasks that repeat day after day; whereas men are associated with the dramas of the public sphere, the dynamism of war, work, politics and so on.

There is obviously a rich array of texts which fit into this gendering of the diary. When one tries to think of a masculine tradition of diary writing, one realises that diaries by male authors tend to be subsumed into the category of historical artefact, rather than the comparatively ‘feminine’, domesticated diary. Think of Samuel Pepys’ diary for instance, which was certainly focused on details of everyday domestic life as much as it was on the politics and social events of the time, but is largely considered as a loftily important historical document. Think of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938), which is modelled on the 18th-century fictional convention of presenting itself as a diary, but in fact is generally conceived of as a philosophical novel rather than a diary as such. There are far more texts to be discussed here and critical issues at stake, but clearly there is a lot to be said about the gendering of the diary as ‘genre’ (genre in the sense of form but also content, i.e. philosophy, everyday life, adventure, young adult etc).

…Admittedly some people live more than others. The excitement curve of a telephone operator, white-haired, lumpy as a pallid pudding with knots of blue arthritic veins for raisins, would no doubt be shallow = a slow undulation with a monotonous mechanical basis, heightened by a slight bump for a movie or dinner with the “girls.” But the life of a Willa Cather, a Lillian Helman, a Virginia Woolf – – – would it not be a series of rapid ascents and probing descents into shades and meanings – into more people, ideas and conceptions? Would it not be in colour, rather than black-and-white, or more grey? I think it would. And thus, I not being them, could try to be more like them: to listen, observe, and feel, and try to live most fully

(Plath 2011:  44).

As Sylvia Plath muses in her diary entry above, everyone has different ways of living, and in a sense, some people ‘live more than others’. Why do we (as the consumers, the reading public — to use a rather gross term) lust after the details of famous people’s lives, while leaving the case of ‘people like us’ to the ethnographers, to the experimental sociology of the Mass Observation project? Perhaps it is because of the magical realisation that such extraordinary people actually led ordinary lives: Virginia Woolf cooking her dinner, Sylvia Plath enjoying a couple of sherries before bed, Beyoncé perhaps clipping her toenails and settling down to an evening with Big Brother (okay, that last one is clearly fantasy – Beyoncé surely wouldn’t clip her own toenails?!). While Plath makes the point that some people have more colourful lives than others, she also usefully foregrounds the role of the diary as a way of rendering one’s life as more exotic, regardless of how famous or exciting one is. Plath refreshingly admits to ‘try[ing] to be more like them […] and try to live most fully’. Maybe there is a sense in which the impulse to record the daily occurrences of your life encourages you to live more fully, to embrace the moment, to linger over the good things and make their significance more concrete in writing, to start weaving a web of associations that will linger on in memory and perhaps provide the treasure of discovery for a future reader…

And even if nobody ever reads your diary, I still think it’s a useful form of self-expression. I’m pretty sure it’s done wonders for my own mental health, and also it means that nobody has to listen to me bang on about my problems for too long, because I’ve already sorted them out in writing, stashed them away at the back of a drawer. Decanted them, like Krapp, if only temporarily (the written has a habit of breaking out into the real, as anyone who has read Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart will attest). Anyway, sometimes it’s fun to have a casual flick through old diary entries. While it generally feels self-indulgent, there’s a certain pleasure in being reminded of wee embarrassing and maybe endearing details of your old life that you’d have totally forgotten otherwise. Like celebrating sixth year exam results with ‘Pimms in the West Kirk’ (Ayr’s finest…), like writing a poem called ‘The Sirens of Ibiza’, like having a weird addiction to sweet’n’salt popcorn, star jumps and Downtown Abbey, like ‘feeling nostalgic for Comic Sans’. Like the morsels of venom or wit I must’ve mustered in the flush of the moment, describing the ‘wankery South London yuppies who didn’t tip’ ; the silly wee quirky conversations you had with people: ‘I stopped at the bridge to gaze at the near-full moon and told Douglas it made me feel primal somehow so he told me when he was twelve he used to have a Ghostbusters calendar which told him to go outside and howl at the moon. I just adore Douglas’. It’s an opportunity to revisit your first impressions of people (who later become friends or enemies), albums, poems, novels, political events (the 2015 election and 2014 election gaining a particular amount of page coverage–Brexit being too depressing to even write about), travesties and celebrations. Sometimes, my diary makes absolutely no sense to me, often because I neglect the provision of context— ‘At the Burns party upstairs, I talked to people about brewing magic crystal meth, learning Japanese, and postcolonialism, among other things’—but I think I’m comfortable with the mystery. I like that there’s a part of myself that I might never know again; it’s like the relieving of some burden. Maybe that’s the beauty of the diary in general: its sense of controlling one’s life but also its possibility of escapism, paradoxically, through reality. 

A Select Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean, 1990. On Seduction, trans. by Brian Singer, (Montréal: New World Perspectives).

Bergson, Henri, 2013. ‘From Creative Evolution’, Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. by Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), pp. 68-72.

Blanchot, Maurice, 1982. The Space of Literature (University of Nebraska Press).

Blanchot, Maurice, 1987. ‘Everyday Speech, Yale French Studies, Vol. 73, pp. 12-20.

Cixous, Hélène and Jacques Derrida, Veils, trans. by Geoffrey Bennington, (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Defoe, Daniel, 2015. The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Available at: <https://www.gutenberg.org/files/521/521-h/521-h.htm> [Accessed 23.10.16].

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013. ‘Diary’, Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/art/diary-literature> [Accessed 23.10.16].

Felski, Rita, 2000. ‘The Invention of Everyday Life’, New Formations, No. 39, pp. 15-31.

Kemple, Thomas M., 1995. Reading Marx writing: melodrama, the market, and the “Grundrisse.” (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Lynch, Jennifer, 2012. The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (London: Simon & Schuster).

Plath, Sylvia, 2011. The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950-1962, ed. by Karen V. Kukil, (London: Faber & Faber).

Sparks, Beatrice, 1994. Go Ask Alice (London: Mandarin Paperbacks).

Woolf, Virginia, 2008. Selected Diaries, abridged and ed. by Anne Olivier Bell, (London: Vintage).

The Dreamlike Nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero

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There’s something about Bret Easton Ellis. Whether it’s the alluring cool of a literary ‘Brat Pack’, the frisson implied by a 1980s enfant terrible or the fact that he published his first novel while still in college, aged 21 (the canny bastard), I find myself drawn to his presence both as a cultural persona and simply as a man of interesting writerly craft. I have been listening obsessively to his podcast for a few weeks now, engrossed in his attacks on the millennial ‘cult of likability’, on the pop cultural salivation over a tv ‘golden age’ and on the lack of context which accompanies the bandying around of quotes online (and the accompanying Twitterstorm). Part of it, I guess, is the perspective of a millennial (me) feeling they have something to learn from a Gen-Xer. Part of it is simply that Ellis does have his own particular brand of pop cultural and authorial genius. This article hopes to delve into this genius by looking at Ellis’ debut novel, Less than Zero, which I recently reread. 

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‘Fast Lane’ – Photo of Los Angeles by Neil Kremer

Turn up the TV. No one listening will suspect,
even your mother won’t detect it,
no your father won’t know.
They think that I’ve got no respect
but everything means less than zero

(Elvis Costello, ‘Less than Zero’).

See above the chorus from Elvis Costello’s song, ‘Less than Zero’, released in 1977 on the My Aim is True album. Costello has written that the song is about totalitarianism and fascism. What does it mean for Ellis to take this song as the title for his novel? – a novel which doesn’t exactly exude the anarchic spirit of 1970s punk, nor does it make any overt political critique. Nevertheless, Less than Zero is a political text on some level, in so far as it deals with the subject/self under late capitalism. Costello sings about something secret, an inner feeling that you can drown out with the static sound of television. What kind of secret is concealed here? The absolute flatness of existence, the alienating depression that creeps and inhabits your bones? I’ve got no respect. For what – the world? What do your parents matter in this life without boundaries, where morality thins to a flimsy image, where selfhood is nothing but the label on your trainers? This is a world of regression, degeneration, of falling from grace, redefining what the hell grace is. It’s the secret inner disgust for all that surrounds you. The sadness bursting in your brain, the endless lines of cocaine…

So goes the life of Clay, the protagonist from Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Less than Zero. Published in 1985, it’s often lumped together with the likes of Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City as an exemplary work of the 1980s literary Brat Pack: writers who encapsulated the alienated experience of Generation X, often influenced by journalism and the movies as much as that elusive category of literature known as the Great American Novel. Less than Zero follows Clay’s return to his family home in Los Angeles after his first semester at college. Yes, it could be considered a Gen X Catcher in the Rye, where the apathetic perception of cultural phoniness plays out against a backdrop of sex, drugs and snuff films. However, while Salinger’s novel exposes the adult world as darkly sham and shallow, Ellis’ turns its attention to the synthetic lives of Clay and his fellow adolescents. Unlike a traditional bildungsroman, it lacks plot and narrative and that most perjured and celebrated of terms: humanist subjectivity. The question of character development in the novel is mostly a non-issue, as Clay ‘grows’ only in the sense of growing more detached from the world around him, more aware of his own indifference.

In a way, Clay is the perfect model of a disillusioned teenager, and Ellis nails the setting. Where better to lose all sense of self and reality than in LA, the city where dreams and visions are spun on film reel and everyone’s an actor, or at least the spawn of one. Clay and his friends live hollow lives, gorging themselves at the playgrounds of consumerism offered by the city: fancy bars and clubs, endless bottles of Perrier and expensive therapy. The novel more or less follows a repetitive structure, the narrative moving in a series of vignettes as Clay moves around, calls a friend from a payphone, drops by people’s houses, goes to a club, takes drugs, gets laid, hangs out by the pool, smokes a joint. Little else happens. It’s all in the accumulation.

I’m not saying this is an avant-garde novel, working through ‘accumulation and repetition’ in the way that Zadie Smith said of Tom McCarthy’s debut, Remainder (2005) in her famous NY Times essay, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’. Ellis is less interested in ripping apart the contemporary consumerist (and humanist) literary establishment than in using this establishment, its obsession with pulp (check out the noirish drug/snuff/pimp plot) and branding to unravel the vacuous experience of being young and glitteringly rich in the 1980s. Part of the novel’s point is questioning whether Clay ever really had a sense of selfhood or reality in the first place – whether such things exist at all. The wastefulness of contemporary culture trickles out of Ellis’ minimalist prose, which is just as effective as Joan Didion’s was in capturing the strange alienation of the mid-twentieth century. We are left longing for something more in the gaps between his sparse paragraphs, his dull and vacuous dialogue. This is all culture. This is all politics. Only, you wouldn’t know it from the novel itself.

No, the world of Less than Zero couldn’t be more insular. Its only connection to the world outside Los Angeles is through the brand names, the song lyrics and movie references which trail through the narrative as often as Clay’s car trails along the LA freeways. Yet if literature is about subjectivity, than the subjectivity explored in Less than Zero is irrevocably damaged, fractured and, if you’re a fan of Deleuze & Guattari, schizophrenic. It’s dispersed along the various signifiers that constitute culture. All of Clay’s perception is whittled down to tiny details: the catalogue of brand names, the repeated references to physical appearance (always tan, always blonde) and the drinks that people are cradling, the glamorous food pushed uselessly round a plate. It’s a highly cinematic narrative, which sometimes resembles a screenplay. Sections of prose often begin with brief indications of time and space, the opening words in bold to quickly situate the reader in a social setting, neglecting any poetic descriptions to set the scene in favour of blunt ‘headlines’: ‘It’s a Saturday night’; ‘At Kim’s new house’ ; ‘It’s Christmas morning’; My house lies on Mulholland’.

Perhaps, indeed, it’s not all that far (stylistically) from Made in Chelsea; except take away the tv show’s sparkling jouissance (its soaring indie pop and glorious Instagram-worthy visual filtering) and replace it with the endless merging of barren surfaces which make up Ellis’ novel. Replace the easily sweet pleasures of Made in Chelsea’s gin bars and contorted gossip and romance plots with sleazy LA mansions, snuff films, heroin and bodily dismemberment…While the lack of affect in Made in Chelsea contributes to a kind of narcotic addictiveness, in Ellis’ novel it creates a sheen of unsettling detachment.

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People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.’ So goes the opening line of Less than Zero. It was only when I first picked up this book, about three years ago, that I realised the connection to Bloc Party’s ‘Song for Clay (Disappear Here)’. The song, an homage of sorts to Ellis’ novel, repeats several phrases, including ‘complete disdain’, ‘live the dream’ and ‘won’t save you’. It’s a song which builds slow and sparse and then suddenly thunders with a sharp guitar riff and pounding drums. It’s sort of the experience of reading Ellis’ novel: the headache, the endless migraine of details, the food and coke and insomniac joints in the early morning. People are afraid to emerge on freeways. What does it mean? Why does it repeat in the text like some fragment from a litany? I guess you could say it’s about the fear of opening yourself to someone else, of sharing problems, being personal and ‘genuine’. You know, take this interchange between Clay and his on/off girlfriend, Blair:

“Clay?” she whispers loudly.

I stop but don’t turn around. “Yeah?”

“Nothing.”

What the hell is genuine though? Even in the privacy of his narration, Clay struggles to admit any emotional depth. His focus is always on cool detail:

I’m sitting in the main room at Chasen’s with my parents and sisters and it’s late, nine-thirty or ten, on Christmas Eve. Instead of eating anything, I look down at my plate and move the fork across it, back and forth, and become totally fixated on the fork cutting a path between the peas. My father startles me by pouring some more champagne into my glass. My sisters look bored and tan and talk about anorexic friends and some Calvin Klein model and they look older than I remember them looking, even more so when they hold their glasses up by the stem and drink the champagne slowly; they tell me a couple of jokes that I don’t get and tell my father what they want for Christmas.

It’s the immediate present tense. It’s (in)tensely detailed. The sentences drag with repetition, long and slow, heavy and stoned. Clay replaces what would typically occur in such a scene with the mundane reality, pulling out the grotesque from the shiny film of appearance. Sure, to an outsider, Clay and his family would seem like any good looking LA clan out for a fancy meal. Yet it’s immediately clear that Clay feels very distant: not just from the image but from the family themselves. His fixation on cutting a path between his peas is a bit like the cars which won’t merge on the freeway: another symbol of separation, of dividing lines. The self in its shell, stunted. He splits the peas up into meaningless scattered matter. The novel is full of meaningless scattered matter, the endless push and pull of desire, ‘back and forth’. Anorexia is mentioned several times in the novel (Blair’s friend Muriel is hospitalised for it) and the consumption of food and drink is of course central to much of the action (settings; family lunches, dinners, expensive bars). Anorexia, you could argue, is the simultaneous consumption of culture (absorbing absolutely and indeed making literal the beauty of the image, thinness and surface) but also its rejection (literally refusing to consume, to accept the consuming impulse). It provides another symbol of the contradictory imperatives of postmodern culture.

So we have branding, so we have mental illness, disturbed appetites, boredom and beauty and the annual climax of consumerism: Christmas. So far so adolescent bildungsroman. Yet unlike Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), Clay is quite content to sit around in a hullabaloo, watching the world swirl meaninglessly on by around him:  ‘No one talks about anything much and no one seems to mind, at least I don’t’. The fact that he has to qualify ‘no one’ to refer mainly to himself indicates how easily the micro reflects the macro, the self reflects the culture. Clay feels like his experience of boredom and alienation is pretty much endemic, therefore uninteresting. Ellis doesn’t exactly depict a special snowflake, a depressive uniquely at odds with his society. Sure, there are times where Clay feels particularly ill at ease with what goes on around him (he sometimes leaves the room when his friends’ sex games and suchlike get too unsavoury), but never makes an effort to stop what’s going on.

One way of looking at this aspect of Clay’s personality is by comparing him to Patrick Bateman, the serial-killer protagonist who narrates Ellis’ later novel, American Psycho. While Bateman is an active assailant, Clay is relatively passive. Stuff happens to him; he drifts through life. He never has much of an opinion, openly admits to not enjoying anything. Why does this make him interesting? Maybe he resonates the dullness of culture in such a way as to provide incisions that cut apart the surface sheen of everyday LA life…

Yet we cannot easily develop a ‘cool’ relation to Clay’s narration in the way that we can in American Psycho. The sheer volume of violence and repetition of brand names and daily routines that make up American Psycho’s narrative perhaps forces us to become desensitised to Bateman’s narrative, even to the point of distrusting its ‘veracity’. Is this an effect of Ellis’ intoxicating cataloguing or a defence mechanism to deal with the acts of extreme violence the narrator describes? Either way, there is a lacing of satire in American Psycho, a cynicism perhaps, which is far less, if at all present in Less than Zero. Indeed, amidst the bored, sparse descriptions of similar social encounters, there are moments of genuine poignancy which peek through the narrative. We get these mostly in the italicised ‘flashbacks’ where Clay relates stories about his childhood, about his holiday with Blair in Palm Springs; where he recalls these things with a flatness of affect, yet the sadness of these scenes sheds a kind of melancholy over the rest of the novel, which would otherwise mostly lack in emotion. About halfway through, Clay recalls a time when he thought he saw a child burning alive in a car crash, and how afterwards he started obsessively collecting newspaper clippings about violent accidents and crimes:

And I remember that at that time I started collecting all these newspaper clippings one about some twelve-year-old kid who accidentally shot his brother in Chino; another about a guy in Indio who nailed his kid to a wall, or a door, I can’t remember, and then shot him, point-blank in the face, and one about a fire at a home for the elderly that killed twenty and one about a housewife who while driving her children home from school flew off this eighty-foot embankment near San Diego, instantly killing herself and the three kids and one about a man who calmly and purposefully ran over his ex-wife somewhere near Reno, paralysing her below the neck. I collected a lot of clippings during that time because, I guess, there were a lot to be collected.

Clay’s involvement with the violent world of LA youth, then, has a root. It’s cultural, it’s endemic. Violence is rife in the media, spreading through the collective Gen X psyche. They grew up realising that they wouldn’t necessary be better off than their parents; that the economy did not owe them the same opportunities it did previous post-war generations. They grew up into a world of job insecurity, of decentred, fragmented wars. They grew up against the backdrop of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, though perhaps millennials are more affected by the latter. In short, a globalised world of messy, liquid or late modernity (depending on whether you prefer your Bauman or your Giddens).

In the above passage, Ellis’ prose garners an almost incantatory sense of endless, meaningless violence being related through the media. All the place names he describes end in the same vowel sound (‘o’), creating an accumulating effect of repetition that desensitises us to the specificity of crime and instead forges a sense of its ubiquity. There is no emotional reaction which accompanies these stories; Clay merely describes them in a matter-of-fact tone. This emotional sparseness (characteristic of the entire novel) leaves an even more chilling sense of our culture’s paradoxical obsession with and indifference to violence. Ellis sums this up neatly with the tautological final sentence: ‘I collected a lot of clippings during that time because, I guess, there were a lot to be collected.’ No personal, subjective or cultural explanation is given for Clay’s interest in collecting the clippings; the habit becomes one of recursive, self-justifying meaninglessness. The explanation pans out onto Ellis’ novel as a whole, which also constitutes a kind of collection of clippings: vignettes from Clay’s brief stay back in LA, the cataloguing of brands, names, places; scenes of darkness and violence, the lack of a strong narrative thread to connect them.

Yet the kind of cultural and existential emptiness implied by such passages does not preclude the presence of some poignancy to Clay’s narrative. Sure, there’s a lot of violence, a lot of banality; but there are also moments which almost reach the level of personal reflection. We can compare this to American Psycho’s comparatively cold satire and lack of character ‘depth’ by looking at two very parallel scenes in each book. In these scenes, Clay and Bateman go to visit their mothers, who each ask them what they want for Christmas.

American Psycho: 

My mother and I are sitting in her private room at Sandstone, where she is now a permanent resident. Heavily sedated, she has her sunglasses on and keeps touching her hair and I keep looking at my hands, pretty sure that they’re shaking. She tries to smile when she asks what I want for Christmas. I’m not surprised at how much effort it takes to raise my head and look at her.

Less than Zero: 

My mother and I are sitting in a restaurant on Melrose, and she’s drinking white wine and still has her sunglasses on and she keeps touching her hair and I keep looking at my hands, pretty sure that they’re shaking. She tries to smile when she asks me what I want for Christmas. I’m surprised at how much effort it takes to raise my head up and look at her.

Aside from a few situational details (Bateman’s mother is in a residential home, Clay’s meets her son in a fancy LA restaurant), these passages are virtually identical. Except, perhaps, for one crucial line. In American Psycho, Bateman is not surprised by ‘how much effort it takes to raise my head and look at her [his mother]’, whereas in Less than Zero, Clay is ‘surprised’ by the effort. Thus while Bateman fits some kind of definition of psychopathy, utterly indifferent and lacking empathy for his mother, Clay is surprised at his own indifference, his struggle to display some kind of emotion or human connection. To merge on the familial freeway (to use a horrible phrase!). As readers, we can empathise with Clay far more than with Bateman, who locks us out with his construction of a cold and clinical world (see more about this here – an article I wrote a few years ago). Less than Zero is a novel more obviously filled with human pain, perhaps, than Ellis’ later novel, where the pain is certainly there, only more coded, buried inside violence, surface and image in an even more complex way.

Take, for example, the passages towards the end of the novel where Clay revisits his old school:

I used to pass the school often. Every time I drove my sisters to their school, I would always make sure to drive past and I would watch sight of small children getting onto yellow buses with black trim and teachers laughing to each other in the parking lot before classes. I don’t think that anyone else who went to the school drives by or gets out and looks around, since I’ve never seen anyone I remember. one day I saw a boy I had gone to the school with, maybe first grade, standing by the fence, alone, fingers gripping the steel wire and staring off into the distance and I told myself that the guy but live close by or something and that was why he was standing alone, like me.

We can imagine Clay glancing at this other boy, still trying to justify his presence there by means other than a shared moment of sentimentality. The only reason they have visited, Clay tries to say, is purely down to physical proximity. A meaningless walk. LA, then, is made up of intersections, connections and disconnections. Freeways that nobody merges on. You don’t just wander and end up somewhere significant, you drive places. The two could be friends, could’ve been friends, but Clay can only gaze at him from afar, as the boy too gazes on, seemingly at nothing. At distance. The core of the novel: absence. Always caught between meaning, between human connection, lost in the swamp of cultural signifiers that supersede any ‘deep’ emotion.

Clay’s attention to little fragments of visual memory here give us a sense of his warped nostalgia for childhood. His younger sisters are never described as having the innocence that Clay has lost: they steal his cocaine, idly watch porn and greedily snatch cheques from Daddy on Christmas Day. There’s the sweet yellow school bus, the laughing teachers, the familiarity of routine. Those rose-tinted things. You don’t get that kind of sentiment in American Psycho. It’s emotionally painful to read because this passage is sort of an interlude in the midst of the noir plot elements (Clay trying to get his money back from Julian, who is being brutally pimped; the rape of a pre-pubescent girl, foreshadowed by a horrible porno tape). It’s a burst of curious innocence amongst the ugly detritus of Gen X’s consumer lifestyle. Yet the classroom sweetness of yellow has become something altogether too bright, too painful for Clay to deal with. In an early scene in the novel, Clay describes the walls of a diner, Fatburger, as: ‘painted a very bright, almost painful yellow’. The colour of happy childhood has soured. It’s the colour of the Valium pills by his bedside. There’s the ‘grotesquely yellow’ moon that hangs ominously in the sky as Clay looks out over the business district, woozy from too many gin and tonics. As Clay returns to his former school, it soon becomes the yellowing of age, of moral decay:

I go to another bungalow and the door’s open and I walk in. The day’s homework is written on the blackboard and I read it carefully and then walk to the lockers but can’t find mine. I can’t remember which one it was. I go into the boy’s bathroom and squeeze a soap dispenser. I pick up a yellowed magazine in the auditorium and strike a few notes on a piano. I had played the piano, the same piano, at a Christmas recital in second grade and I strike a few more chords from the song I played and they ring out through the empty auditorium and echo. I panic for some reason and leave the room. Two boys are playing handball outside and leave the room. Two boys are playing handball outside. A game I forgot existed. I walk away from the school without looking back and get into my car and drive away.

Clay retraces his childhood steps, literally. He’s like a ghost, haunting the corridors of his youth, idly attempting to recreate the simple universe he once inhabited, squeezing the soap dispenser, reading the day’s homework from the blackboard. However he literally cannot locate/identify his former self, as he fails to find his old locker. Throughout the novel, we are given very little indication of Clay’s interests; he never even talks about what subject he studies out in New Hampshire. Yet here we have a snippet of something he once did: playing piano. There is something slightly uncanny about the older Clay standing at the same piano and striking a few notes, as if he were trying to summon up that younger self, the fragile doppelgänger. He even remembers the same chords. Funny how he remembers the music but not the game of handball. The fact that Clay panics is telling: he is literally allergic to his feelings, unable to deal with the sudden pain that comes from memory, from realising the loss brought on by time. His alienation is complete as he drives away, escaping his feelings as readily as all the times before, where he snorts coke to deal with a problematic or potentially emotional situation. The narrative also trails off, moving to another scene, another jump cut. There is nothing left to say, no coherence, no self-development.

This lack of narrative and self development or ‘growth’ is exemplified in Clay’s personal lack of futurity. Towards the novel’s end, Clay meets Blair for a drink and they skirt around the issue of their relationship. In a way, Blair sums up what we have come to learn of Clay: ‘You’re a beautiful boy, Clay, but that’s about it’. Yet we are left yearning for something more than beautiful surface. Sure, Clay as the narrator has given us many beautiful surfaces, but he has also exposed the rot beneath the surface, the absolute black nothing inside each person. Blair asks him up front: ‘“What do you care about? What makes you happy?”’ and his reply is explicitly telling: ‘“Nothing. Nothing makes me happy. I like nothing. […] I don’t want to care. If I care about things, it’ll just be worse, it’ll just be another thing to worry about. It’s less painful if I don’t care.”’ This is something we don’t really get in American Psycho. Clay actually admits his feelings, or lack of, and the way it’s expressed doesn’t come across as cold or psychopathic, but human and genuinely sad, a classic case of depression. We get this sort of emotional ‘revelation’ towards the end, after Ellis has carefully laid out the social context of Clay’s psychological and emotional numbness. Unable to think about the future, Clay seems to put off its existence, or anything that might change things as ‘another thing to worry about’. He cannot think positively, cannot be active in his likes or interests.

The question of futurity and passivity is also interesting in American Psycho, as an insight into what Bateman values in his killings. There’s a classically disturbing scene where seemingly at random Bateman fatally injures a young child at a zoo. His reflections follow thus:

Though I am satisfied at first by my actions, I’m suddenly jolted with a mournful despair at how useless, how extraordinarily painless, it is to take a child’s life. This thing before me, small and twisted and bloody, has no real history, no worthwhile past, nothing is really lost. It’s so much worse (and more pleasurable) taking the life of someone who has hit his or her prime, who has the beginnings of a full history, a spouse, a network of friends, a career, whose death will upset far more people whose capacity for grief is limitless than a child’s would, perhaps ruin many more lives than just the meaningless, puny death of this boy.

This view is obviously at odds with the overriding sentimentality and regret publicly voiced in the wake of a child’s death. We put great meaning on the futurity of the child, its association with a new life, with possibilities and an open future, a pure blank slate. Lee Edelman, in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, has written on how the child is held up as a glorified symbol of the future, of the onward march of heteronormative culture. We are ideologically forced to take the side of the child and the future because ‘the child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantastic beneficiary of every political intervention.’ Edelman asks what it would mean not to be ‘fighting for the children’, and in a way, Ellis’ novel points towards this. Bateman doesn’t care about what the child stands for as a symbol of pure innocence and possibility to come, of what Edelman calls ‘reproductive futurism’. The queer, Edelman argues, is always pitted against this social conscience of reproductive futurism, as contrastingly selfish, narcissistic, antisocial and backward-looking – in short, the opposite of a collective drive towards development, progress and the future. Bateman, while hardly a queer hero by any means, interrupts the privileged ideology of futurity.

Indeed, he questions the value of the child because he lacks history. Without a record of decisions, mistakes, actions and memories, the child is reduced to pure matter, ‘small and twisted and bloody’ – he is animal, inhuman. This could obviously be taken as a moment of the novel’s token existentialism, the fact that, as Sartre put it, existence precedes essence: there is no inherent self, but only the values and meaning the human has created for herself through actions. It is also, however, a crucial component of the novel’s critique of various ideologies underpinning the yuppie world of consumerism which Bateman inhabits. Suddenly, a life can be described as worthless, ‘puny’. Bateman takes far greater pleasure in ravishing lives whose deaths entail a broader sweep of social impact. It’s as if he takes pleasure in destroying narratives, the networks of associations a person acquires through life. In doing so, he creates meaning: by destroying, Bateman has the pleasure of interrupting the consistency of social worlds, asserting his power. It’s the venture capitalist gone mad, staking his claim in all sorts of places, schemes and, well let’s face it, bodies.

So I guess I’d argue that part of Clay’s central pain is this disconnect with the future, his queer relationship to temporality. The sense that he’s drifting, which is pretty much now a ubiquitous social phenomenon among young adults, both from Gen X and millennials living in a post-recession world. When Clay’s friends ask each other what they’ve been up to, where they’ve been, the answers are always flat and vague: ‘“Not too much”’, ‘“I don’t know”’, ‘“Like hanging around”’, ‘“Shopping”’. Sometimes they simply repeat the question back to the questioner. One of the phrases that repeats a lot throughout the text is ‘Disappear Here’, which Clay reads off a roadside billboard. In a way, the phrase represents the limit point, the blind spot, the aporia into which meaning is deferred, the space of emotion where Clay cannot go. On a sunny Friday after Christmas, Clay hangs around the beach club, waiting for his friends: ‘I sit on a bench and wait for them, staring out at the expanse of sand that meets the water, where the land ends. Disappear here.’ It’s as if the phrase is dragged up in avoidance of interior reflection; its repetition supplements the kind of psychological detail that would appear in a classic realist or bildungsroman novel. The self has dissolved into the sign: the world of surfaces, of signs referring only to signs described by Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulations, but also literally the billboard sign, the symbol of capitalism’s flattening of the self. Not unlike the billboard advertising Eckleberg’s eyes in The Great Gatsby. Disappear here: you pour your own meaning into the sign; sign after sign constitutes self. What is it that the eyes see?

And indeed there’s something uncanny about this. Clay’s repetition of disappear here throughout the novel only adds to its temporal sense of an unending present, with the run-on sentences and disjointed dialogue creating the impression of not only a stunted self, but also a stunted world. The more you repeat something, the more it becomes meaningless. The characters’ lives stop and start: plots about drugs and sex climax brutally then fizzle to nothing. As the narrative draws to an end, it doesn’t move towards closure, but leaves the reader with an empty feeling of being lost in the world of LA. Ellis really amps up the gothic elements which have been woven in and out of the text so far. Take, for example, Clay’s description of the Ellis Costello poster at the beginning:

It’s the promotional poster for an old Elvis Costello record. Elvis looks past me, with this wry, ironic smile on his lips, staring out the window. The word “Trust” hovering over his head, and his sunglasses, one lens red, the other blue, pushed down past the ridge of his nose so that you can see his eyes, which are slightly off centre. The eyes don’t look at me, though. They only look at whoever’s standing by the window[…].

The Costello poster substitutes for the spooky portrait which hangs traditionally in a gothic heroine’s bedroom. Presumably, Clay once had an interest in this poster, bought it for a reason – but now it seems eerie. The homely has become unhomely. Clay refers to the hypothetical subject ‘standing by the window’, the ghost who meets the gaze. Clay admits to being too exhausted to even be that subject, to even be the observed – ‘I’m too tired to get up and stand by the window’ – perhaps this is an early hint at his drive (conscious or otherwise) towards disappearing altogether. The elements of gothic which colour some of Clay’s narration give an expressionist tinge to his descriptions, externalising some of the inner fear and turmoil, the hollow sense of fear and emptiness at returning to a place that is no longer home, even when Clay gets his tan and starts to fit in. At a party in Malibu later on in the novel, Clay observes:

There are mostly young boys in the house and they seem to be in every room and they all look the same: thin, tan bodies, short blond hair, blank look in the blue eyes, same empty toneless voices, and then I start to wonder if I look exactly like them.

Is fitting in the same as disappearing? The boys appear strangely inhuman, little more than mannequins; uncannily voiced with the same dull monotone. It’s Clay’s sudden identification and self-realisation that startles here. Looking at the boys is like looking in the mirror and seeing many horrible doppelgängers surround you. There’s an opportunity for him to freak out about it, but instead he ‘tr[ies] to forget about it and get[s] a drink’. In short, he dissolves even deeper into the thick glaze of surfaces, spreads himself thinner as an image. When Clay first observes his bedroom poster, he’s feverish and ill, like the heroine in a gothic novel. We may not have the moors of Yorkshire, a la Wuthering Heights, but we do have the desert, the Hollywood hills and the accompanying coyotes.

As the novel starts to close, we get some spooky vignettes. Clay relates how his sister’s kitten disappears, leaving behind only ‘pieces of matted fur and dried blood’. He talks about the coyotes which sometimes come down from the hills:

On some nights when the moon’s full and the sky’s clear, I look outside and I can see shapes moving through the streets, through the canyons. I used to mistake them for large, misshaped dogs. It was only later I realised they were coyotes. On some nights, late, I’ve been driving across Mulholland and have had to swerve and stop suddenly and in the glare of the headlights I’ve seen coyotes running slowly through the fog with red rags in their mouths and it’s only when I come home that I realise that the red rag is a cat. It’s something one must live with if you live in the hills.

That final sentence almost seems un-Claylike in its resonating wisdom. It suggests the tone of a social commentator, reflecting on the environmental conditions of LA and lending a metaphorical weight to his words. The brutally devouring coyotes thrive on instinct; the youths of LA pursue physical gratification out of sheer boredom. How easily for the ‘red rag’ to become a slaughtered domestic pet. There is a surrealist vibe to this transformation of objects. In American Psycho, the transformation of the child into something ‘twisted and bloody’ is more classic horror, whereas there is a perhaps darker, eerier atmosphere to Less than Zero. The sense of emptiness, the canyons at night and the fog. Clay’s description has a slow-motion feel to it, drawing the reader into his stoned-out world. These frequent killings, we are reminded, keep happening against the backdrop of Clay’s friends, endlessly circling the freeways, making calls, popping corks, snorting coke.

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Sunset over LA — photo by Neon Tommy

Clay himself, as I have already suggested, is a kind of ghost. He recalls the previous Christmas in Palm Springs, sweating in bed and struggling to sleep. The vaporous heat seems to cloy his mind, cloy the narrative. Think of the many references to the palms in Less than Zero: their shadows, their fragmented remains after storms and car crashes, their wildly shaking branches. It’s creepy and atmospheric in the way the swaying pines and Douglas Firs are in Twin Peaks. There’s the omnipresence of MTV, its serial carnival of flashing images, the humming numbness of Valium. Clay describing the ‘strange sounds and lights next door’, ‘visions of driving through town and feeling the hot winds on [his] shoulder and watching the heat rise up out of the desert’. In all the emphasis on Ellis’ interest in sex, drugs and violence, it’s easy to forget the importance of atmosphere. You can tell that the novel is influenced by film, self-consciously soundtracking itself (Squeeze, INXS, U2, the Psychedelic Furs), laying out scenes, drawing us in with its snippets of visual detail. The heat is stifling and everyone is sleepless, wired or stoned. The novel slowly moves towards Clay’s return to New Hampshire, like a fade to black at the end of a film: the final sections each start with some temporal marker in relation to his actual leaving: ‘The last week’, ‘Before I leave’, ‘Blair calls me the night before I leave’, ‘When I left’. In leaving, Clay seems to dissolve. His narrative closes with reference to a song called ‘Los Angeles’. A kind of montage of memories, of visual images stolen from another cultural source. Clay feeds on these images after leaving. The temporality is important. Has he broken into some other dimension, or is this a reference to how memory burns right through you (even memories that aren’t your own, memories from visual media – images and film)? My impression (and I have not yet read the sequel, Imperial Bedrooms), is that Clay is not moving into a new, open future; necessarily he still defines everything in relation to the past, to the dream world of LA, its perpetual, glittering, trashy present:

There was a song I heard when I was in Los Angeles by a local group. The song was called ‘Los Angeles’ and the words and images were so harsh and bitter that the song would reverberate in my mind for days. The images, I later found out, were personal and no one I knew shared them. The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city. Images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children. Images of people, teenagers my own age, looking up from the asphalt and being blinded by the sun. These images stayed with me even after I left the city. Images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards. After I left.

After I left. After I left. The insistence on the posterior. The sense of grotesque sublimity, the reference point of LA contained in these almost unspeakable images of ‘people being driven mad by living in the city’. They ate their own children. Isn’t this the ultimate violation of linear temporality: literally consuming symbols of the future, one’s own legacy? Hypercapitalism, perhaps, creates its own kind of queerness.

Top 15 Albums of 2015

 

(in alphabetical order…)

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Beach House, Depression Cherry 

It’s moody and melancholy and perfect for Sunday afternoons in winter, where hardly an hour of light graces us with its presence. The singing is woozy and lush, the track titles are typical Beach House (‘Wildflower’, ‘Levitation’, ‘Days of Candy’) and a mellow, dissonant drone seems to drift over most of the songs. There’s a whispery feeling to the vocals and a scratchy-sounding organ keyboard. Also, the album is coated in soft red velvet, so the physical copy is pretty beautiful, and there’s definitely a ‘tactile’ sense to the music itself, with all the sparkling effects and the echoing texture of Legrand’s voice. I like Beach House for the same reason I like Cocteau Twins: the music enfolds you like the atoms (or pixels?) of another world – it doesn’t sound 100% human, there’s something too mystical about it. The band released a website with typed lyric sheets, which adds to the sense that the whole album is a hazy collection of dream poems. It was released in late summer but I have listened to it a lot more in winter; it’s like the sound of  Victoria Legrand’s hazy, drifting vocals is better suited to the cold weather, the whiter light, the sheen of ice.

Favourite tracks: ‘Space Song’,  ‘Levitation’, ‘PPP’.

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Beirut, No, No, No

There were a few weeks where I sort of just played this album on repeat in the restaurant where I work. Generally it was pretty harshly reviewed and there is a sense that single tracks stand out more than the whole. Still, I appreciated that cheerful continental folk vibe to get me through the autumn and winter with its remnants of pastel-hazed summer. Even though the songwriting might not be as *original* or *inventive* as 2011’s The Rip Tide, you can have a lot of fun with some staccato beats and percussion. Plus I love a bit of brass.

Favourite tracks: ‘No, No, No’, ‘Gibraltar’, ‘Perth’.

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Belle and Sebastian, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

Just the sort of lively pop weirdness you need to brighten your January, when the album was released. I love Belle and Sebastian, the way they create simple catchy folk-pop but base it around stories and characters and inventive lyrics about lost girls and ~cutely~ wayward indie kids. There’s a bit more experimentation than usual on this one: from the funky disco atmosphere of ‘The Party Line’  and ‘Perfect Couples’ to the epic near-7-minute dance track ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’, there’s something for everyone. ‘Nobody’s Empire’, which approaches the subject of lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s MS, reveals Murdoch’s general genius for lilting melodies punched through with a weightier-than-usual buildup and bass line. ‘Ever Had a Little Faith’ is maybe the closest song to old-school Belle & Sebastian. Generally this album is full of interesting licks and typically witty lyrics, and its experimentation lends well to repeated listening.

Favourite tracks: ‘Nobody’s Empire’, ‘The Party Line’, ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’.

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Blur, The Magic Whip

Blur’s first album since 2003, The Magic Whip is kind of a mystical, surreal experience. Along with the artwork (a neon ice cream and some Chinese lettering), the album’s whole vibe sort of reminds me of this weird game I used to have for Sega Megadrive where you could do fight scenes on top of an apartment roof in the depths of Tokyo. Everything was blurry and glitchy and full of bright lights against the backdrop of glittering darkness. The Magic Whip is set in Hong Kong rather than Tokyo, but it has that strange sense of futuristic metropolitan darkness. It takes away the grunginess of Blur and sonic spaciness of 13 and enters a more self-aware, perhaps even ‘postmodern’ (ugh, the implications of that term) territory.

Well, for one there’s the obvious cultural borrowing from Hong Kong, where the album came together; there’s also the sense of meta-britpop on songs like ‘Lonesome Street’ and ‘I Broadcast’ which update the whistle-along laddish bounce of 1990s culture for a more accelerated version of the jaded digital and cosmopolitan era (‘Lonesome Street’ is overlaid with the sound of someone reporting – on the news? – sparkling synths and echoing city street noises). The sense of absurdity and collapse, like in ‘I Broadcast’ where the chorus falls into the repeated line: I’m running being played over Graham Coxon’s sharp guitar. It’s a complex and intriguing album with some sweet bass lines and dreamy Damon Albarn vocals. Listening to it really does sort of take you somewhere else. Also, ‘Mirrorball’, the record’s final song, sounds almost like it belongs on a David Lynch soundtrack.

Favourite tracks: ‘Ghost Ship’, ‘Pyongyang’, ‘My Terracotta Heart’.

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Clarence Clarity, No Now 

From the glitchy, 90s Windows computer aesthetic of its videos to the vibrating bass, disco rhythms and shrieking guitars and falsetto vocals, this is one crazy good album. Not many folk are brave enough to put out 20 tracks on their debut album, but the effect of doing so sort of drags you underwater into a world of sound that’s electric as a field of lightning, as shrieking neon as that purple lava you get in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Chemical Plant Zone. Sorry, is that mixed metaphors? Who cares, with music like this, everything is mixed to fuck. 

Some of the songs have a cinematic feel, which is hard to define except for a sort of atmosphere created by all the glitchy sound effects and samples (listen to the start of ‘The Gospel Truth’, for example). It’s a relief when Clarity strips back into ‘purer’ or softer vocals (see ‘With No Fear’), but also a great feeling when the effects pedals step on again, like having water thrown over you. Cold, shocking, refreshing. Kinda like the whole album. You’ve got references to ‘worm holes’ and ‘cancer™ in the water’ and all sorts of surreal cyber imagery and staccato vocals in reverse (‘Tathagatagarbha’ is straight out of Twin Peaks’ Red Room, right?). ‘Those Who Can’t, Cheat’ is the kind of psycho disco death funk they would play at the end of the world. I was lucky enough to see Clarence supporting Jungle in Edinburgh this year and I can say that it all sounds sweet as hell live – the band’s energy really plays out the craziness of the album – which isn’t always always the case when the production is one of the best parts.

Favourite tracks: ‘Those Who Can’t, Cheat’, ‘Bloodbarf’, ‘Will to Believe’.

(Also, I think ‘Hit Factory of Sadness’ is one of my favourite song titles ever).

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Foals, What Went Down 

I guess the critical/commercial success of Foals’ fourth album (in October they were voted ‘Best Act in the World Today’ at the Q Awards) means I don’t need to say much to justify my choice. I’ve been with Foals ever since they were bouncing out math rock on early Skins, and this album was no letdown. For one, it has several tracks which follow in the footsteps of ‘Spanish Sahara’: ‘London Thunder’ is a beautiful, atmospheric track with a lovely build, and even Lana Del Rey has sung her praises for ‘Give It All’, which addresses love as a kind of fragile presence/absence, of digital melancholia – ‘Give me the way it could have been / Give me the ghost that’s on the screen’. ‘Birch Tree’ has that sort of upbeat, syncopated feel reminiscent of ‘My Number’ (from Holy Fire). Other than the softer tracks, it’s a whole lot rockier than previous albums, especially on the frenzied ‘What Went Down’ and jangly guitar rhythms of ‘Mountain at My Gates’. I listened to this all throughout the month it took to move from my old flat, so it will always have that sense of dislocation and haunting futurity for me… (plus the stress of shifting boxes and scrubbing kitchens).

Favourite tracks: ‘Mountain At My Gates’, ‘Birch Tree’, ‘London Thunder’.

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Gaz Coombes, Matador

I have to confess that while Matador was released in April, I didn’t actually listen to this album until about a month ago, when I found out my cousin (the lovely Hannah Lou Clark) was supporting him on his UK tour dates. I saw Supergrass a long time ago when they supported Coldplay at Bellahouston Park, but I don’t remember much of it, especially as I was right at the back! This is such a gorgeous album though, I swear I’ve listened to ‘Matador’ on repeat to and from work for the last fortnight at least. It has great range and depth, another fine example of the maturity that can come out of the Britpop era. Coombes can sound both delicate and powerful, and there’s a certainty, a sureness, to this record. There are songs whose haunting atmosphere is complimented by stunning but simple lyrics (‘Worry fades the soul away / I’ll take the hurricane for you’ – ’20/20’) and climactic choruses. If I close my eyes I imagine this song being played over a dramatic film scene, like someone running through city streets, a breakdown, things exploding, changing. Something like that. I know it’s cheesy but there are definitely songs on this album which you could call sublime in the true sense of the word. Disorientating, awesome, majestic, powerful. Gospel influences, electronic beats, acoustic guitar. I’m still in love with it.

Favourite tracks (this was difficult, and may change): ‘The Girl Who Fell to Earth’, ‘Matador’, ’20/20’.

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Kurt Vile, B’lieve I’m Going Down

Aw man, there’s just this beautiful twang to Kurt Vile’s music that is so addictive. It’s not just his hair. The country twang of guitars, his sweetly droning, idiosyncratic voice. You can see the influence of Nick Drake, maybe a touch of Dylan, but also a very modern sense of disconnectedness, of goofiness even – the sense of being very self-aware but at the same time alienated from who that self is. Some of the songs sound a bit ballad-like, but there’s always a kind of dissonant, bluesy twist. He really nails his lyrics and imagery too: ‘I hang glide into the valley of ashes’, ‘A headache like a ShopVac coughing dust bunnies’. The twinge and stuffed wordiness of ‘Pretty Pimpin’ proves strangely addictive, as does that developing, repeating, turning, twanging guitar riff. ‘That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)’ is a darker, sadder sort of folk ballad. Generally, it’s an album to listen to dreamily, maybe on a car journey, but also one that goes well in the background of bars, because it’s lively enough, and pretty damn cool.

Favourite tracks: ‘Pretty Pimpin’, ‘That’s life tho (almost hate to say)’, ‘I’m an Outlaw’.

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Lana Del Rey, Honeymoon

I could rave about Lana all day. She has the genius of Lady Gaga, Bowie and Madonna in her creation of the ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ persona, but an old-school Hollywood voice that haunts and croons and glides over dark, sweet melodies. Honeymoon is very much a coherent piece of art. It’s a very visual album, much in the tradition of Del Rey’s previous work (the monochrome vibe of Ultraviolence played out in the gloomy, stripped back energy of the Dan Auerbach produced songs). Picture a summer-hazed beach with pastel huts and neon-signed strip clubs, peeling paint. Lana writhing about in her mint green muslin in the video for ‘High By the Beach’. It’s her dark paradise, a retro realm of sweet pop richly infused with jazz, blues, R&B, trap, disco and poetry. The loveliest recital of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ I’ve ever heard, soft and haunting. A Nina Simone cover. Tracks like ‘Salvatore’ and ‘Terrence Loves You’ really demonstrate the crystal clarity of her voice, as well as the strength of her range. The title track can be described in many ways, but I prefer the terms glimmering and cinematic. Really, it was the perfect soundtrack for a melancholy, post-graduation summer — except I swapped the retro cars and ice cream for long walks in Glasgow rain.

Favourite songs (again, so hard): ‘Terrence Loves You’, ‘Honeymoon’, ‘The Blackest Day’.

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Laura Marling, Short Movie 

It’s quite lovely to witness Laura Marling’s music maturity. From the honest folk pop of Alas I Cannot Swim to the stronger, mythological tones of Once I Was an Eagle, she has really developed and expanded her sound, not just in a literal sense but in a metaphysical one too. Does that make sense? I mean the way that her music opens worlds up. Eerie, dark soundscapes and cessations of space, interruptions and pauses and softly twangling guitars. Opening track ‘Warrior’ is spellbinding, allusive and elusive; full of echoes and misty vocals, guitar licks that curl round and round. It feels distinctively American, as opposed to, for example, the Englishness, countryside sweetness of I Speak Because I Can. There’s a sense of being lost, looking for something (‘the warrior I’ve been looking for’), of endlessly journeying.

For most of the record Marling steps away from the acoustic songwriting (delicate, but sometimes forceful) which won her fame in earlier records; her electric guitar simmers through the tracks, building around her increasingly impassioned vocals. On ‘False Hope’, a track about Hurricane Sandy, she steals us away from the vague landscapes of ‘Warrior’ to the metropolis, the Upper West Side, where darkness falls and electricity fails as she tells us of the storm. The weather plays pathetic fallacy to the storminess of the singer’s mind: ‘Is it still okay that I don’t know how to be at all? / There’s a party uptown but I just don’t feel like I belong at all / Do I?’. ‘False Hope’ slides into a more traditional Marling track, ‘I Feel Your Love’, which rolls along like a nice old folk song, a bit Staves-like maybe, but more haunting. Her more ‘spoken’ delivery of vocals, intertwined with some searingly brief high notes, in ‘Strange’ for example, bring to mind Joni Mitchell. At times she addresses different characters: spurned lovers, young girls who mirror herself, the ‘woman downstairs’ who’s lost her mind. The overall effect is less introspective, and more fleeting, transient: the self behind the voice slips in and out of view, through various narratives and images. There’s a restlessness which contributes to the Americana vibe, but one which is perhaps also simply the natural expression of a successful singer songwriter still only 25, trying to find her way in the world…

Favourite tracks: ‘Warrior’, ‘False Hope’, ‘Worship Me’.

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Little Comets, Hope is Just a State of Mind

My favourite band for kitchen sink indie…I like how Little Comets ease you into their changes in sound through various EPs released throughout the year. With the tingly guitars released on ‘Salt’ and the earnest lyrics, a ballad (‘The Assisted’) and emphatic drumming (‘Ex-Cathedra’) of ‘The Sanguine EP’, listeners were prepared for what was to come on Hope is Just a State of Mind, which seems to head towards what might be called a more eccentrically pop direction. One of my favourite things about this band is how they delve into the political and there’s certainly no avoiding it on this album, from the dig at Robin Thicke’s gender politics in ‘The Blur, the Line, and the Thickest of Onions’ to the lethargy of rock and roll in ‘Formula’ and the cultural demonisation of single motherhood in ‘The Daily Grind’: ‘You must feel so proud / Stigmatising every single mother / While your own world’s falling down’. Songs like ‘The Gift of Sound’ and ‘Formula’ have a more straightforward energetic pop vibe, whereas ‘B&B’ begins with an accapella moment and revolves around the repeated line: ‘my own mother cannot take me back’. There’s lots of thudding drumming and a swinging sort of emphatic, repetitive melody. The song, incidentally, is about bedroom tax and Robert Coles has eloquently said of the lyrics:

‘Lyrically the words came quite quickly as I always had the “even my own mother cannot take me back” line in my head from writing the melody. I knew it was going to be about politics: specifically the patronisation of people by the political class in both ideology and delivery, and the way that my own region has been altered by the blue hoards of conservatism.

The title stems from a tweet by Grant Shapps regarding the last budget – “budget 2014 cuts bingo & beer tax helping hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy. RT to spread the word”. Beer and Bingo – because there’s nothing else to do.

I think the first verse is just frustration with the attitude put across by politicians that suggests that they think people are total idiots – policies light on detail, simplistic ideology, framing debates in headlines, constant ill behaviour. Plus from the other end of the scale the total demonisation of the less well off in the swingeing benefit cuts typified by the bedroom tax. I just think it is bizarre and to treat us with this brazen amount of contempt.

It really got me thinking about the north east getting so bashed up in the time of Thatcher – destroying lives and communities because of a need to dominate on an ideological level. I think the second verse tries to convey the depressing notion that beyond this pain, she also eradicated trades and skillsets that had been built for hundreds of years without the prospect of anything new, or transferability. To extinguish a trade, a way of life…. Wow….. That’s a pretty crazy course of action.

It’s almost like she stole those years from us – and it feels a little like it is being echoed now. Taking away what someone relies on is oppression, and this is being felt in communities across our country today – horrified in the knowledge that it will continue until people are so battered that they accept it. The worst part is if you look closely enough, past Grant’s apparent carrot you can see the joy in the eyes behind the ghastly stick, and they look frighteningly familiar” (Source: Little Comets’ Lyric Blog).

I guess I’ve included the quote because I think the politics have become more direct in this album and it’s interesting to flesh out the backstory here. Sure, there have been plenty of ‘northern’ bands before, but rarely have I listened to a pop or indie band who engage with their politics so directly and so articulately (usually this space is reserved for punk or rock – Manic Street Preachers of course, representing a ‘marginalised’ Welsh perspective). Aside from lyrical content, you’ve got the usual pleasures of Little Comets harmonies, shredding guitar licks and bouncy rhythms. ‘My Boy William’ is wonderful live, the way it builds up and everyone following the drum rhythm. ‘Little Italy’ is great fun too, with its cascading melodies (liiiittalll iiiitaaalllyyyyy I reeAAd heeEre) and syncopated rhythm. It’s true, on this album (especially on ‘Salt’), the songs are very up and down, rarely straightforward and often lines are lyrically and melodically convoluted; this isn’t a criticism but more a reflection of what seems to be a desire to push the formulaic boundaries of pop, to infuse guitar chords with lush vocal harmonies and ringing percussion. To represent detailed, difficult subjects in pop is never going to be easy, but Little Comets nail it in their own unique, beautiful way. Look forward to seeing them again live next year!

Favourite tracks: ‘Don’t Fool Yourself’, ‘Little Italy’, ‘The Blur, the Line & the Thickest of Onions’.

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The Maccabees, Marks to Prove It

Well, to be honest I never would’ve thought I’d be including The Maccabees on my 2015 albums of the year. Over the last few years, I haven’t spared much thought for the band other than as another soundtrack to the general indie trend of the last ten years: a band mentioned frequently in NME perhaps, soundtracking lovelorn scenes in movies, but nothing particularly distinct other than in their creation of twee indie pop. However, one night after work I was lying on the floor recovering from a terrible shift with the radio on, listening to X-Posure With John Kennedy on what used to be XFM. The Maccabees were talking through their new album and playing the songs, and I was pleasantly surprised by how intriguing the sound was, as well as how articulate the band were in talking through the writing process and the stories behind the songs. I guess the next day I went out and bought the album. It definitely sounds a long way away from ‘Toothpaste Kisses’, though the added kazoos and varied percussion doesn’t spoil the simple joy of good plain songwriting. The songs have a weight to them, a grander atmosphere, especially the weird dissonance on the likes of ‘River Song’. ‘Silence’, however, is quietly beautiful, drifting along soft piano notes, subdued vocals and a somewhat eerie sample of an answering machine voice.

Where once you would recommend The Maccabees mostly to fans of The Mystery Jets, Pigeon Detectives or Futureheads, this album feels much more grownup, darker somehow, wilder and expansive. The lyrics vary in subject from the gentrification of London’s Elephant & Castle (the band’s hometown) to heartbreak (‘When you’re scared and lost / Don’t let it all build up’) and well, happiness (‘Something Like Happiness’). It’s refreshing to have a song that does just feel like at times like a gentle old ode to joy: ‘If you love them / Go and tell them’. ‘Marks to Prove It’, the opening track, feels confident and bouncy, with a sharp riff and assured vocals. It would fit in with a fast pop set from The Futureheads, but the rallying battle cry that precedes Orlando Weeks’ voice announces something slightly stranger, a record with new edge.

Favourite tracks: ‘Silence’, ‘River Song’, ‘Something Like Happiness’.

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Tame Impala, Currents 

I was introduced to Tame Impala mostly from one of the chefs at work playing it in the kitchen on Sunday mornings, and weirdly enough his psychedelic brand of synth pop seems appropriate preparation for a day serving Sunday roasts to hungover customers. It’s the swelling bass and brilliant synths that really catch you, the smooth falsetto and tingling production. You can tell Kevin Parker is a dream at studio magic, with flawless instrumental arrangement that makes for a sound that could be big or chilled, depending on how you play it. There’s some dark keyboard drama, there’s a lovelorn anthem (‘Eventually’) and what might tenuously be described as weird disco funk. For some reason (maybe all the synths, gossamer vocals and vintage-sounding guitars?) has a ‘bedroom-made’ feeling, but with a much slicker production than the DIY element might suggest. Some songs sound like they belong on a long, atmospheric train journey across a space desert; others sound like they’d fit on the cuts of drama interspersing a video game. There’s a dreaminess to songs like ‘Yes I’m Changing’, but a more radio-friendly funkiness to the likes of ‘The Less I Know the Better’, or even ‘Love/Paranoia’, with its silky beats and finger clicks. As the album progresses, the theme of heartbreak starts to really solidify and I guess that’s the overriding drive of the songs – a heartbreak that slows and stifles, morphs between introspection and the temptation of mild bombast.

Favourite tracks: ‘Yes I’m Changing’, ‘The Less I Know the Better’, ‘Love/Paranoia’.

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Stornoway, Bonxie

This was a lovely album to enjoy in spring, from the hopeful folksiness to the cute origami bird on the cover. I guess it got me through that period of hell in my life that was finals. I would go on walks around Kelvindale where all the cherry blossoms were, listening to the soft acoustic licks and all the soothing bird sound effects. It’s an album to enjoy by the sea perhaps, full of a sort of longing. There’s the noise of distant foghorns, the rolling harp-like guitar and sparkling xylophone over the drifting shimmer of a wave-like cymbal. This is probably my favourite Stornaway album, or at least equal to the debut, Beachcomber’s Windowsill because of its more folksy atmosphere, its immersion in nature — the sense of being lost, deliciously lost by the edge of the ocean. ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ especially boasts a shanty-like chorus which adds to the nautical theme and sort of swells up like you’re caught at sea, singing along irrevocably. Melodies build up to climaxes and fall back down into subdued, slower choruses, as if the speaker tries to articulate something about his surroundings (the beautiful environment) but fails to express them entirely. Sweet, comforting guitar licks glide us through (e.g., the start of ‘Sing With Our Senses’). Vocals are never aggressive, only sometimes shrill and generally soothing – like a bird’s? Apparently over 20 types of bird donated their song to the album, and let’s not forget that singer Brian Briggs is a Dr. of Ornithology! It’s just a lovely escapist sort of album, reminding you of seaside holidays from years ago, that childlike ability to sink into your surroundings and find wonder in a leaf, a taste of salt air, a bird call.

Favourite tracks:  ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’, ‘We Were Giants’, ‘Between the Saltmarsh and the Sea’.

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Swim Deep, Mothers

It seems everyone has been describing this album as Swim Deep’s foray into psych-pop. You only have to take a glance at the warping colour bleed of the cover art to pick up those vibes. The honey sweet guitar pop of Where the Heaven Are We has morphed into something heavier, more saturated. There are so many influences, but I suppose you could start with psychedelic music, house and kraut rock. Lots of bursting, colourful synths. It reminds me of The Horrors’ Primary Colours, not only because it’s a ‘change-around’ album, but also the subdued, atmospheric reworking of prior image and musical style. Songs like ‘Honey’ and ‘The Sea’ from their debut album were chilled and loose with catchy melodies, and while Mothers retains the catchy melodies, its style has tightened up a bit. The instrumental elements are more complex; songs open up a multilayered world rather than the silver stream of a simple pop tune. ‘To My Brother’ has an epic quality, building up to the chorus with some extravagance – weirdly, the sort of mistiness of the vocals and quirky synths remind me of Seal. I’m not sure why, or whether that’s even an accurate comparison, but the link just popped into my head. I love the way critics have compared ‘Namaste’ to discordant game show music, which obviously fits in with the 1990s vibes of the video. All that beige, those glasses, the sense of mania reflected in the music! It’s more mature maybe, but still fun.

Favourite tracks: ‘To My Brother’, ‘Namaste’, ‘Imagination’.

A few others…

  • Beach House, Thank Your Lucky Stars (two albums in one year, ‘nuff said)
  • Florence & the Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful 
  • The Libertines, Anthems for Doomed Youth (listening to it to drag up the old nostalgia of discovering the first albums, for the lovely production and Doherty vocals on ‘You’re My Waterloo’ and Carl Barat’s very English swagger).
  • Prides, The Way Back Up (Stewart Brock has come a fair way since Drive-By Argument (big up a band from Ayr!) but the wide, electronic sound of Prides has its heart in the original synthiness of Drive-By Argument which developed into more distinctly electronic side-project, Midnight Lion. Obvious comparisons are to Chvrches, but maybe also a bit of Daft Punk. Radio-friendly but I’d imagine really big and energetic live, plus whenever I hear them I get sweet teenage nostalgia for Drive-By Argument).
  • Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell 
  • Years & Years, Communion (sparkly EDM pop with plenty of pluck, from a band whose singer starred in Skins and Stuart Murdoch’s indie flick, God Help the Girl).