it’s disembodied head pop friday!

Super Melody – Champagne Glass from Super Melody on Vimeo.

best of pop 2010!

Music: Christian Death: Ashes (1985)

For the past five years I’ve been publishing a list of my favorite “pop” albums before the new year begins. I’ve limited myself to “pop” because it’s my favorite genre, but also because I like just about everything “music” and I need constrain my adoration to make this annual ranking possible to write in a timely fashion.

The trouble with being a music-lover in the digital age is that there is simply too much to pick from; I listen to as much music as I can cram into my day (it’s constantly on), but even then, I know I have missed out on a number of choice artists that I might love even more than those I recommend below. That’s what the comments section is for, friends: every year y’all tell me to check out something that is awesome. I expect you to bring it!

Here are my top fifteen pop picks for 2010, in alphabetical order. I’ve tried to recommend bands or artists that are less familiar to the mainstream (for example, Cee-Lo’s The Ladykiller is unquestionably among the best albums of the year, but I suspect y’all know that already). Here we go!

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs: Alright, I know my rule about not recommending bands that have already “made it” is broken by mentioning this album. But shit: it’s that good. This is a band that is making music from experience, and from sentiments that I find myself implicated in, but in a way that is not courting the top-40 chart. Not one of these songs aspire to radio, but branch out on a narrative that attempts to capture our childhood experiences in the “development” in the middle of nowhere. It just nails it (especially the song about “waiting”; nothing captures suburbia better than the theme of waiting). Jangly guitars, fiddles, minor chords. This is a band that writes pop music that is catchy, but is not marketed. And that’s probably why it’s so marketed (it feels genuinely inspired, not produced for profit). There’s just no denying the honest affect of the album. What I’m so very, very appreciative of is that this is an album. Arcade Fire have made an a record that doesn’t make much sense as a series of “singles.” You need to listen to the whole thing to get the statement. And the whole is dramatic and beautiful; they make the cul-de-sac a philosophical statement. Now that’s something.

The Besnard Lakes: The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night: Although I’m listing my favorites alphabetically, this album is up there as the top or runner up album of the year. A husband and wife indie outfit from Montreal (Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas), the Besnard Lakes create epic-style pop reminiscent of Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky, but with lyrics that evoke film noir plots and spy novels. Lots of power-chords. Lots of swelling guitar wankery. And lots of Beach Boy harmonies. I’ve always had a penchant for long songs, songs that build and build and take their time to develop. This album is full of that sort of sonic construction, easing into melodies that drift and melt only to end in triumphant crescendos of powerful strumming and four-part harmonies. It’s melancholic stadium rock with a story and a kind of cryptic introspection not typical of pop. It’s a big, Phil Spector “wall of sound” kind of sound. With just two of ’em, I do I wonder how they pull this off live—and I hope I’m lucky enough one day to see and hear for myself!

Blonde Redhead: Penny Sparkle: This album has not reviewed terribly well (Pitchfork declared it boring “chillwave”), but I think that’s because headphones were not handy. In this recent effort the twins have ditched the dissonant guitars and picked up a few syths and drum machines. The result is a soulful, meandering, Eno-esque romp through gentle melodies and hushed sentiments. Careful listens reveal layer upon layer of subtle details—synth-lines that buoy, base-lines that undulate, and vocals that float on top like ice. The contrast of warm and cool—created in harmonious tones and subtle beats—overlaid with hushed and high feminine vocals (whether sung by dude or dudette) creates a relaxing vibe. I confess that 23 was among my best of the decade (slut for My Bloody Valentine that I am), and this doesn’t come close to that perfection. But it’s a different direction for Blonde Redhead, it’s their own R.E.M.’s Up. If you hated Up, you’ll hate this—but I like R.E.M.’s ambient experiment very much, and I very much like Penny Sparkle for similar reasons. It’s a soundtrack for lovemaking, not fucking. And that’s just fine—divine—by me.

The Delays: Star Tiger Star Aerial: Australia’s the Delays have a problem, and it’s their 2004 debut album Faded Seaside Glamour. That album remains in my top 100 best pop albums of all time (a fiercely competitive list, I should add); it is about as close to pop perfection as albums get (the song “Closer to Heaven” touches the face of God). The Delays subsequent albums have been progressively bad, teetering into the saccharine and groveling toward commercial recognition. Star Tiger registers the band returning to what it does best: following inspiration, not the AUD or the airwaves. Less electronic than the last two albums, Star Tiger amplifies the “rock”—most pointedly in the drums and electric guitar—but still holds on to that dream-pop sound aided by well-placed synth-riffs. Greg Gilbert’s voice is still the shining instrument, with a range that can only be compared to Frankie Valli: a gravel-y bottom and an angelic falsetto. Their sound is unquestionably singular, but fans of The La’s and the Beach Boys will like this album; it’s upbeat, harmonic, and soaring. It’s the Delays’ second best album to date, and one you shouldn’t miss.

Drive-By Truckers: The Big To-Do: One of my biggest live music disappointments this year was seeing the DBT at Stubb’s amphitheatre. They put on an amazing set—one that really took off in the second half (as they worked toward a Lenard Skynard-style jam-along). It was a great show, except for this: they only played three songs from The Big To-Do. I reckon they reckoned the album was too new to play too much from, but I went to the show thinking this was the album they would highlight (it was, after all, The Big To-Do album that they were promoting!). DBT have yet to make an album that sucked, and their genius of songcraft is unparalleled in the country-rock genre. They craft songs that tell a “story,” but unlike most country songsmiths, the stories their songs tell are all true. The twangy highlight here is “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” which relates the story of Matthew Winkler, a pastor who was killed by his wife after years-long (sexual) abuse. This is southern gothic music, to be sure: dark chords, melancholy lyrics (hell, there’s a mellotron on “You Got Another,” which sung by the bassist Shonna Tucker), and soaring builds of chords. This album rewards with repeated listens—the music is so expertly crafted and tight, and the lyrics are just so damn artful: it’s as if Morrissey plopped into a country band, but didn’t make shit up. I guess what I love about DBT is that the band captures so precisely my experience growing up in the deep south—a sound that makes sense, and lyrical acumen that is both smart and true to southern sensibility. Not all country music is cliché and stupid. DBT is ample proof.

Hurts: Happiness: Most folks this side of the Atlantic will have no idea who these guys are. I feel smug. And feeling smug is part of the enjoyment of the Hurts duo, since their image is that arrogant Duran Duran style: suits, tight hair, and . . . er . . . an opera singer as back-up (that is the one novelty of the act). This duo has flogged the airwaves in Europe (with some success) but yet to hit the US—and I suspect it’s merely a matter of time, since the 80s-come back music has been with us for at least five years. The music is delightfully over-the-top, in the vein of Camouflage, but with a difference, of course. The 80s references are in year face, but the homage is honest, as are the lyrics. The showpiece is lead singer Theo Hutchcrat’s pipes, which have a fairly good range from mid to high. He sings with an exaggerated breathiness and a pregnant restraint; when he lets the high notes fly, it’s . . . well, it’s operatic. This is unabashedly smart synth-pop that will feel very familiar to us 80s kids. But unlike a lot of synth-80s-revival bands of late—all whiteness and jangle—this album has a soulful underbelly with smooth, Sade-style sensibility (e.g., understated sax swoons on a track or two). Despite one schmaltzy “up with people” movie credits song that makes me throw-up in my mouth just a little (“Stay”), it’s a marvelous album, and lays claim to the territory staked-out by La Roux in 2009.

Junip: Fields: Acoustic guitar strumming up against fuzz-drone electronics. This is stoner music, no question. But it’s just done so well and sounds so effortless—like Cat Stevens making love to Steely Dan, but with lots more pot and a kooky mushroom or two. Woozy organ plays a large part in these tunes. Jose Gonzalez’s voice is soft and sweet, reminiscent of Bill Withers after a happy-ending massage. The album has a strong, California feeling with ambling melodies and occasional harmonies; it’s a “doo doo doot” kind of vibe. It’s what you play in the a.m. to chill out and wind down, just before sleep. It’s what you play after your third bong hit. Or, it’s what you play to stay calm in Austin traffic (my tack).

LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening: The minimalist, repetitive Bowie-esque remix of Roxy Music moves me. It’s all derivative, but still unique and a hell of a lot of fun. The difference between James Murphy and his influences, however, is humor: dude absolutely does not take himself seriously, which makes this album such a hoot. In “All I Want,” a blatant rip-off of Bowie’s “Heroes,” he sings “Wait, for the day you come home from the lonely park/Look, for the girl who has put up with all your shit/You’ve never needed anyone for so long.” Pretentious music this is not, which is why, I think, we give Murphy so much slack for wearing his influences on his nose. This is a compellingly good romp—and it’s precisely because the artist is down-to-earth and laughs at himself that we let him get away with this. Oh, and it’s good pop music, that too.

Monarchy: Monarchy: Gimme an electronic handclap for another Australian/British synth-pop duo, Monarchy. I discovered Monarchy last year when Travis posted about them on the his “big stereo” blog; I fell in love with the music video for their second single, “The Phoenix Alive”. The album is consistently good, from the opening track that announces “Black is the Colour of My Heart” (you know, he knows she loves him but still) to brilliant closer “Travelling By Ambulance.” The duo are probably better known for doing remixes (the Lady Gaga remix of “Dance in the Dark” probably got them more notoriety than anything), but I think that’s about to change. Their dance-friendly debut will land in the states in January 2011, and I hope this smart pop gets the notice it justly deserves. The lead singer’s voice is “high” and often flits up to falsetto, and just about all the songs are about love and its loss. Highlights for me include “Floating Cars,” a slower ballad that plods along an electroclash/Gary Numan bassline as it aims for that home key: “Lost our patience we want floating cars/no grace for doves/Lost our patience we want floating cars/no god for us, no god for us.” I don’t know what it means exactly, but the song is real pretty. Finally, Monarchy gets bonus points for the most inventive use of Autotune on a couple of tracks (they use to for vibrato—a weird effect, but it works!). This one is tied with the Besnard Lakes for my top album of 2010. Very, very good.

The National: High Violet: I’m a sucker for falsetto done well, but I’m an even a bigger sucker for a booming baritone. The National get critical floggings for their anthemic pretensions, but these working class heroes actually make the anthem convincing, and not in the Coldplay douchebaggy sort of way. Mixing a bed of drone for more intricate guitar work set against some muddy percussion, the songs on High Violet reek of late night urban desolation. Happy music this is not, conjuring death-bed scenes in overwrought filmic dramas when Matt Berninger hits the high notes in the albums opener “Terrible Love” (“It takes an ocean not to break/It takes an ocean not to break”). Without question, the National make music that is your late-night, lovelorn drinking buddy. The highlight on the album is “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” a rollicking ditty in which Berninger sings he stills owes money to the money he owes, and laments he’ll never marry (Morrissey reference? Probably not, but if Morrissey lived in the states it would be in Ohio). The secret weapon of the National is a rumbling, thudding piano, played as much for percussive effect as melody. This is a powerful album, admittedly not as strong as 2007s Boxer, but still earnest and authentic enough to imagine it as a soundtrack to your contemplative moments driving away from a city in which you hope your problems will remain and not follow. In the rain.

Passion Pit: Manners: The Berklee College of Music spawned this electronic pop fourtet (or at least three of the four), who make intensely happy, screamy ditties about . . . well, I’m not sure. The lyrics are fancy word plays about, I dunno, clouds and stuff. The lead sings in a high-register, reminiscent of the “scream” range of heavy-metal hair band croonage. The band layers strummy, tingly guitars on top of wicked electronic beats and a real drum kit. When it gets real good, they enlist the backing vocals of the famous Public School 22 elementary chorus from Staten Island, New York. The stand out track here is the single “The Reeling,” which begins with some inventive filter sweeps, drum kit, and then electronic vibes to a disco-dance beat. You’re probably heard this song somewhere, if not on a radio than in a grocery store: “Look at me, oh look at me/Is this the way I’ve always been? oh no, oh no,” with the PS22 lending a background vocal assist. If there’s one criticism of this fine debut, it’s that it’s so goddamn happy—who dey kiddn’? Still, this is a mood-lifting bit of boogie-pop, snappy and sharp and heart-rate raising. Work out to it.

O. Children: O. Children: Fronted by a baritone, six-foot-eight bad boy, Tobi O’Kandi, the O. Children’s debut album is intimidating at first listen: Joy Division meets Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds meets Grace Jones. Tobi’s voice is very deep; it’s “Old Man River” quality, I tell ya. This is a more radio friendly post-punk/goth-pop album with lots of rim-shot drumming, although I’m sure they avoided the “goth” label on purpose; this bleeds significantly beyond what folks would consider goth (e.g., the hand-claps on “Pray the Soul Away”). The bass is high up in the mix, often leading off tracks, the guitar is gothy at times and twangy-jangly at others (for And Also the Trees fans, you’ll find kindred souls here). They sing about death and a woman named “Malo” (which should be a tip-off, yes? Don’t date a lady named such unless you have bad teeth or wanna die). This is the sort of music you play only after dark, and preferably while riding a motorcycle. Or at least in a dark, smoky club. It’s influences are obvious, but it’s also very original and, well, brilliant. Johnny Cash and Bauhaus would be pleased.

Salem: King Night: As a teenager my musical nose always found it’s way to the weirdest, most out-there sounds, which I would embrace. I remember walking into the Turtles (an old record store chain, like Sam Goody) in Snellville as a 14 year old and asking the clerk, “what’s the weirdest music you have in the store?” I was handed Skinny Puppy’s ViViSect VI, and initially the music just flat-out baffled me. After a week with it, though, I “got it” and fell in love. Older now, I’m no longer the weird-seeker I once was, but . . . I can only explain the thrill I got when I listened to Salem’s King Night to my 14 year old music habits. This stuff is weird—delightfully weird. Dubbed “witch house,” Salem electronically bend and morph synths in a muddy Robotussen overdose mess: part “chopped and screwed,” part dub-step, part Boards of Canada, King Night offers up a moving, at times beautiful, experiment in genre busting. You can’t mix this with anything. You can’t compare it to anything. It is very interesting, and it does have melodies—ethereal ones, unless the song is more hip-hoppy (there are an equal dose of each). The closest comparison is probably to Crystal Castles, but this bests the latter’s output significantly. Just amazingly weird, and worth your money. Creativity like this deserves reward and praise.

School of Seven Bells: Disconnect From Desire: I fell in love with SVIIB’s debut album, first, for the Curve/Lush-like song “My Cabal” and that delicious ethereal drone and, second, for the beauty of twin vocalists Alejandra and Claudia Deheza. The second album was slow to grow on me, but once I “got it,” I got it. Unlike the debut, which is more dreamy in lyric and timbre, Disconnect is a more aggressive, rocking/dancing album. The electronics are more pronounced, and the beats are more dance-heavy (lots of drum machine here). The songs are built around the close harmonies of the Deheza sisters, which are slow and often build to a crescendo after flirting together in long, drawn-out croons. Despite the more upbeat, dreamy sound of the songs, the lyrics point to the end of a relationship or a nasty break-up. What sounds and appears like a love song, upon closer scrutiny, is anything but. The lovely song “I L U,” which builds on piano and a moaning texture reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine, states: “I didn’t realize/I’d lost so many nights/Just trying to lose the pain/And I was a fool to think/It would be easier to leave/Than to be left behind.” The song sounds like it would be about abstract, ethereal observations about clouds and cupid, but clearly it’s about telling a past lover “I loved you” and have moved on. Bummer for that person. Anyone who makes music this pretty deserves better, I agree.

Scissor Sisters: Night Work: After a rather boring, too-heavy-on-the-Elton-John-70s-catalog sophomore effort, the subtly queer Scissor Sisters are back with an all out, scroticular, electronic, dance-floor assault. In many ways, this is their Thriller—only two ballads (thankfully). My favorite track, “Invisible Light,” features a monologue from Ian McKellen—the out and about counterpart to Jackson’s Vincent Price. And while the album stands up on it’s own merits, I have to say the video for “Invisible Light” is nothing short of genius, especially if you’re a fan of Italian horror movies from the 70s. This is just awesome:

SCISSOR SITERS| Invisible light from MGdM | Marc Gómez del Moral on Vimeo.

Don’t think this is an homage to bad Italian horror film? I defy you to watch The Visitor and tell me otherwise (I can loan it to you).

For the most part, Night Work is a dance-floor extravaganza, besting their first two albums for booty-shaking inspiration. And, unlike the first two albums, this one is gay on a stick. They out-gay any Erasure or Pet Shop Boys album you can name. They out-gay Jimmy Sommerville. The falsetto is toe-curlingly gay. The lyrics, unambiguously gay. They just explode gay more spectacularly than any pop outfit I can think of (even the Village Peeps). I think this album’s gay-popping gayness is a major artistic achievement, but unless you’ve seen the Scissor Sisters live, this is going to be hard to explain. I saw the Sisters on their first tour in 2003 in New Orleans at the House of Blues; during the show, I felt like I was at an Erasure show on steroids: the finale featured a giant, flashing bank of the rainbow flag with Jake pumping his semi-hard, spandexed groin in the air as confetti rained on the crowd. There’s nothing on the first two albums that comes close (pun intended) to hinting of the intense queerness of their live show. This album fixes that, but somehow in a way that does not veer into the sentimental cheesiness of majority of gay pop. This album is dirty and unapologetic. This is going to be the nu-disco album to top. Or bottom.

Yeasayer: Odd Blood: I bought this album by picking it up from an end-cap at Target. Such a move is the epitome of uncool—but hell, it was seven bucks! I learned of the band after the buzz they created here in Austin playing at both SXSW and ACL more than once, and they have been a darling of local radio for some years. It’s electronic pop fronted by yodel-y singing. Yeasayer combine interesting percussive rhythms with slabs of electronic tweaks and doodles; they make music that you wanna clap to. The stand out track is the single “O.N.E.,” which takes whoosh-whoosh percussion, rim-taps, and cowbell to new heights of electronic strangeness. What they do so well is combine fairly traditional lyrical melodies with inventive electronic experimentation and bass-driven rhythms. Reminds me, in a way, of “Fine Time” era New Order, but with superior vocals. The entire album is a gem of pop crispness, and I’m looking forward to hearing the next album of material. Yeasayer is the Cut Copy of 2010.

wither ideology?

Music: Kitchens of Distinction: Love is Hell (1989)

Over on Crackbook I’ve discovered in recent weeks that if I update my status with the word “ideology,” the ensuing discussion tends to court a crowd. I’m not sure what to make of the reaction other than the specter of ideology (critique) can get one—so I’ve moved the status discussion here.

What’s going on? Well, Dana Cloud and I are working on our second collaborative project together. We’ve tackled “agency,” now we’re going back to that ol’ saw horse of “ideology” (Dana teaches a regular seminar on ideology, and yours truly, the sister seminar on subjectivity). The last sustained discussion of ideology in rhetorical studies was over a decade ago in a special issue of the Western Journal of Communication guest edited by Phil Wander. Dana and I are going to survey the work on the “ideological turn” and come up with a provocation of some sort with which both of us can be happy. That a Marxist and Freudian can collaborate together is, frankly, a testament to Slavoj Zizek; his work has given both of us a way to see the world collaboratively, although we might disagree about some of the particulars.

Now, the problem of ideology critique is the tendency of the critic to occupy a privileged status, a problem Wander first addresses by claiming the concept of the totality. Adorno’s solution (negative dialectics) is not elegant, but certainly rigorous. And Zizek’s recent revival of ideology critique as a program figures ideology as the field of fantasy such that there is no access to an “outside,” however much the Real still looms as a gaping of the edges. Where Althusser stops short (“last instance,” y’all) Zizek goes all the way, incorporating desire and drive into the ideological matrix.

It remains to be seen (or, er, written) how Zizek’s version of ideology critique can help us to revision it in rhetorical studies, except to say, perhaps, that it confronts a version of ideology critique that would locate “a cause imminent to its effects” a la mid-period Foucault (Shepardson’s reading of Foucault with Lacan vis-à-vis the Real is pretty damn compelling). I’ve often argued an appeal to “the outside” in whatever guise (as truth, etc.) is politically necessary yet perhaps an ontological mistake. Zizek helps me to rethink the latter. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, the question “wither ideology?” has yet to be answered. At one level, I think the lessons of Wander’s ideological twisting and shouting have been learned and fully assumed. These days, one is hard-pressed to say rhetorical criticism is not a de-facto ideology critique at some level or remove. Even so, the terms “ideology critique” and “ideology criticism” are not mentioned much anymore, and at dinner a couple of years ago with Phil and Dana, we collectively wondered about that.

In general terms, I think “in-name” ideology critique has been eclipsed by what we might simply call the “immanentist turn”—an abandonment of various logics of transcendence in favor of the “down-in-it” school of emergence. Ideological critique, traditionally, has been associated with the movements of demystification and disenchantments (e.g., the Frankfurters). The trend in the theoretical humanities, however, has been toward more immanentist-materialist approaches that return to what Ricouer once termed a “hermeneutics of faith.”

This was, in fact, the topic of my very first graduate seminar in 2003, couched in terms of transcendence and immanence. What seems to be at issue is a certain unfashionability, the dowdy stylings of the suspicious.

r.i.p. (on roller skates)

My primitive, infantile brain is jammed with this song and Teena Marie—whose music was formative for me at the roller rink. news of her passing here, although cause of death is still unknown. Very sad.

red, green, and blue

Music: Japancakes: Sleepy Strange (2008)

In year’s past I’ve written about how the hype-machineries of consumer culture (that is, the mainstream news media, which have supplanted commercials and sentimental Hollywood holiday films as the guiding generation of guilt-trippers) amplify familial fantasy to such impossible perfections and sublime sentimentalities that even the most contented and easy-going of the family-minded must suffer a little Christmas PTS.

All that airport anticipation and excitement is difficult to reconcile with the reality of holiday homecomings: it’s not like the movies or the commercials when you’re “all grown up.” Today was a nice and varied day that started with welcomed coffee and a visit to the nursing home, and ended with cooking and a fight with my mother about how I am “condescending” when I ask her to explain what she means when she says “Obama is a socialist!” I love my mama, I’m a mama’s boy, to be sure, but if you question any claim like this—which is commonly heard in the Gunn homeland—you’re a “brainwashed liberal.”

Political hostilities aside, it’s truly nice to be home, to see my folks, my extended family, to visit with a friend or two. This is the joy of the holiday. But that joy is also mingled with news of ill tidings and with a visit to the nursing home to see my beloved grandmother.

The nursing home is where people go to wait for death. Assisting living is a different story. The home—where everyone is put into wheelchairs whether they can walk or not—is not my kind of place. It smells like putrid flesh; something fetid in that Cloroxed corner this way comes. “Don’t let Miss Mary grab you,” I was warned by my mother as we walked to Grany’s room. “She’s got an iron grip and she won’t let you go.” This old woman with a gentle face, once she has you, apparently says only two things to you while she has you imprisoned: “I gotta pee” or “I caiynnnt.”

Granny today wasn’t “at herself.” She was not there. She stares off into space. Always a bigger boned woman, she’s now a slight 110—really, truly something of a shadow. She didn’t know me this time. She’s always recognized me in years past; not today. Empty eyes.

This is what holidays are often about for the folks celebrating it: hanging on to the living, mourning the dead or dying. And babies (festivus, you see). We sat with Granny in the cafeteria awaiting the coming meal (fish sticks!). The Spelman College Glee Club was on a huge LCD television singing holiday songs. It was nice, but one couldn’t beat-back the thought that Granny really didn’t hear much of anything, that we were wheeling her about in the hope she’s “in there” somewhere registering our love.

When I see Granny—or walk into the home—it’s often difficult not to be moved to cry. I’ve gotten much better over the years, but it’s still hard to deal with—especially at Christmas, when so much work goes into reminding those who are alone that they are not alone.

Well, I’m rambling. Tonight Santa comes, this time as a son who has scored a few nice things for the folks. Another Santa came today, in the form of a mum in a housecoat, and delivered a lovely food processer a day early (so we could make pie crust).

We have fun. But at times we are sad together too. It seems to me a little of that sadness is what the holiday is about; maybe I am wrong and folks experience holiday very differently out there. But sadness comes with the territory for Christmas once one turns, I dunno, 16? It’s a shame in our culture we are caused to pile guilt on top of our sadnesses, guilt because we are not allowed to feel sad on Christmas.

I’m about to cut out the light, right after I post this. I feel sad, but also happy. That’s what holidays usually feel like, a little of column A, and a little of column A. Red, Green, and Blue.

the first rule of black swanis . . .

Music: A Sunny Day in Glasgow: Ashes Grammar (2009)

I returned from screening Black Swan not too long ago, and am working on shaking the icy sting of nihilism. Everyone’s talking about this film here in Aus-Vegas, and more than a few urged me to go see it. I like Aronofky’s work—well, most of it. I have not read a single review of this film, however, I did hear a review on NPR last week that expressed ambivalence. I didn’t like this film, and if you have yet to see it, stop reading now: I’m going to spoil it.

Black Swan is the story of a late teen or early twenties ballet dancer who is cast as the lead in a remixed version of Swan Lake. The story was predictable from the get go (which is why the surprises at the end are really surprises): because the same dancer will play both the white and black swan characters, the ballerina must get in touch with her “dark side.” She’s innocent and, apparently, never had an orgasm, so the “inappropriate” director tells her to go home and masturbate. Of course, the dancer has an overprotective mother who lives vicariously through her daughter’s ascent. Lots of mean girl bitchiness thrown in. Mirrors. And, you know, when there’s a mirror you can bet psychosis drops in to say, “Uh-uh, Mother-m-mother, uh, what is the phrase? She isn’t quite herself today.”

My reaction was boredom for the first hour, if not a little bit of motion sickness from the camera work. I don’t have a problem with slow pacing, but this is pretty boring. When things started to get interesting, the film was punctuated by excruciating shots of Portman pulling out toe- and fingernails—a hackneyed torture porn gimmick at best. The hand-motif got a bit old (the comparison was to quills). I confess that I did not expect the gore, and while it was effective and I was shocked like everyone else, I didn’t like it. It came off cheap by more than a few hairs. I came away from this film dazzled by Portman’s performance, but unhappy with the world, and especially unhappy with Aronofsky’s take on women.

So, what’s my knee-jerk reading? Mother trouble, of course. With relatively little rearrangement, my and Tom’s reading of Fight Club works here. This is the girly version of Fight Club in which we watch a woman, desperate for a paternal figure, descend into psychosis. For readers who are unfamiliar with the argument, it goes something like this: from a Lacanian vantage, the explanation for the psychosis is the lack of a third “term” or figure in childhood. From a semiotic perspective, the mother and child form a binary. The story goes that the child cannot really begin to understand itself unless it knows, somehow, that it is not staring into a mirror (mother). So, another parental figure triangulates relation and the kid goes: “oh, wait a minute. Who is this? This third figure is not me. And I am not mommy. I must be my own self.” It’s more complicated than this, of course, but that’s the gist: the insertion of a “third term” or a “paternal metaphor” opens the dyad up to the social. And once the social is opened up, the child can begin to understand itself (as limited) and develop relations with folks other than mother.

For Lacan, a failure to have a good, strong severing with mom—for him, often the lack of a father figure or a strong father figure—can lead to psychosis. Not flip-out crazy all the time. Some folks can harbor/be animated by psychosis but never exhibit symptoms. Nevertheless, psychosis is a pretty intense form of narcissism because the problem is that “I can’t get out of myself/mother”—like standing in a hall of mirrors. It’s pretty bad for the kid, too, because it means he or she is pretty helpless to the tyranny of mama; with no second parent to intervene, the mother gets the child all to herself.

That Black Swan is staging psychosis is signaled almost in a ham-handed manner: mirrors, mirrors everywhere. Nina’s lover turns out to be herself; faces morph when she looks into mirrors. Her overbearing mum sees herself in her daughter and vice-versa; Nina is under continual surveillance from psycho-mum. When presented with a father figure (played excellently by Vincent Cassel—he is truly odious), she finally has an opportunity to break the psychosis; instead, she splits and “fucks” him, much like the Narrator/Tyler does in Fight Club.

More signs of psychosis: Nina is basically a “cutter,” but Aronofsky has her be a “scratcher”—again, the attempt to inscribe the paternal metaphor herself (it’s the lye-burn scene in Fight Club).

The strange thing about the film is that Thomas (Cassel’s character) sees what’s going on and tries to stave off the psychosis. It becomes pretty clear in the film that she’s going mad, and with the effects Aronofsky creates the sense of “haze”—beginning with the ecstasy scene and remaining until the end. At the premature denouement, Nina is angry that her mother phoned in to say that she was sick (mom wants Nina to end up a failed dancer like she was), and arrives at the theatre to discover someone was going to replace her. When she protests, Tom says: “the only thing standing in your way is yourself.” Well, that let the cat out of the bag. Still 20 minutes to go and the clichéd ending comes, predictably, at the end of 20 minutes. Nina stabs herself with a shard of mirror only to slowly die by the end of the show.


So, as clever as I think this feminine take on psychosis was, my problem is that—well, shit, it’s that there’s no redeeming social possibility here. Fight Club didn’t have one either, really, but it did create a national discussion about the source of male violence and the crisis of paternity. This film, while repeating pretty much the same story, doesn’t even gesture to an alternative. Nina’s character has only one way out of psychosis: Tom. And she rejects him. And why? Well, the dude’s a complete bastard and just wants to sleep with her and . . . gasp . . . repeat the cycle of . . . incest.

Mother trouble? or Father fucker?

That I didn’t like the movie does not mean I do not think it is interesting or not an artistic achievement. Portman and Cassel have solid roles, and Mila Kunis is pretty amazing. This is the role that will help Kunis to escape That 70s Show. It’s just every single character is icky: the mother is smothering; the dance company is comprised of a bunch of back-stabbing mean girls; the Kunis character is about as close as we get to someone humane, but even she drugs poor Nina; Tom is a perv and a sexist and possibly Nina’s biological (as opposed to possible symbolic) father . . . . No one in the film is a pleasant person except for the male dancers, and the only memorable line one of them has is, to scold Nina, “what the fuck was that?”

I suppose the presumed social possibility is the message that women are pressed to be perfect—Ophelia syndrome. But there’s this nagging lingering feeling that perhaps that’s just running cover for misogyny. I could be wrong, and welcome other thoughts to the contrary.

teaching as customer service

Music: The Emeralds: Does It Look Like I’m Here (2010)

In a comment to a recent post about plagiarism, Cris said:

I wonder if students cheat in part because they see themselves as consumers of education. As consumers, their orientation towards education changes. Their aim is not necessarily knowledge and becoming an educated person, but getting a degree that will help them get a better job. If they’re more focused on getting the degree for economic gain, the pursuit of knowledge as a good end in itself becomes less important. Cutting corners by cheating becomes more acceptable. Not all students are like that, but too many are.

I responded that I thought she hit the nail on the head. Mirko Hall, no doubt in response to this conversation, sent me a citation to an article about “student consumerism.” I read it (pdf here). Apparently what all of us are noticing now was sensed back in the late 1990s, and some enterprising sociologists set out to get empirical data. After surveying a rather large number of sociology majors, they concluded with what most of us who teach have known anecdotally for a decade: The consumer model is taking over higher education. Many students believe that because tuition is paid, they deserve an expected grade. This 2002 essay reports that students also expect to be entertained, and that evaluation measures like “the teacher showed an interest in student progress” only serves to cue a consumerist mentality.

Previously on RoseChron we’ve discussed the ever-more-pronounced sense of entitlement among students as having something to do with the dominant child-rearing philosophy in the 1990s: every kid gets a trophy. And that’s certainly part of the issue. But what this 2002 report also underscores (albeit indirectly) is that academic institutions, in responding to the market, are a part of the problem: in their pursuit of goods external to the practice it houses, educational institutions compromise the goods internal to the practice (e.g., learning). Educators are encouraged to “sing and dance” and to grade more loosely. As someone who sings and dances a lot—and as one of the departments worst infaltors—I haven’t really thought of my “teaching style” as a response, however unconsciously, to the encroaching customer service model. I pattern lectures like a television program, with periodic “commercial breaks” (like a goofy YouTube video), to keep my students’ interest. I started doing this after seeing a persuasive presentation by Katherine Hayles on the emergent learning styles of young people (e.g., the straight forward lecture is not going to work). But now I’m starting to worry that “meeting students where they are at” may eventually be the drive-thru window.

Recently, my university administration has been thinking about adding scores of online courses to raise funds. The idea is that the university would like to grow, however, it’s land-locked and we cannot accommodate any more students. The thought, apparently, is to allow students a number of online course options to increase tuition dollars. This is a good example of how the institutions housing the practice of education are part of the problem: the bottom line drives the initiative, not the mission. As a teacher, how am I supposed to combat a customer service mentality—“I deserve an A because I pay your salary!”—when, for example, half of my students are taking their courses online? How do I fight customer service thinking when every evaluation I give at the end of each course reads like a comment card from Wendy’s? That I have a “chain of command for complaints” statement on my syllabus is telling: when a student is angry that I didn’t let her take a quiz late, she doesn’t come to me about it, she doesn’t go to my chair. She goes straight to the dean! “I’m talking to your manager!”

We already know, in general, that online courses are not as effective as meat-space courses. I’m not saying there are not valuable courses taught online; I am saying that, in general, they are inferior to real space courses. One or two or even three online courses in a four-year degree seems to me to be ok, perhaps a valuable experience because of the variety and different ways of thinking online courses encourage. But if my university goes too far down the online road, I fear we’ll have become McAus-Vegas U. Easy courses and good times! Worthless degree!

it is, sadly, rest in peace friday

on the boehner waterworks

Music: Big Star: Third/Sister Lovers (1975)

In a under-read but brilliantly prescient essay titled, “The Celebrity Politician” (a related but less extensive article is here), John Street argues that politics abandoned the “market model” introduced by Joseph Schumpeter decades ago. Traditional wisdom likened political campaigning to marketing, the candidate a “product” to be “sold” to consumers. Politics has always been a spectacle, but Street suggests the supplication of good reasons worked well with the older market model. In postmodernity, politics has shifted to a “celebrity model” in our times; what matters is circulation—getting noticed, being talked about, aligning catchword signifiers with image and affect. As I noted at a gathering earlier this week, Palin understands the model very well; arguably, the Obama campaign did too and exploited McCain’s reliance on the tried-and-no-longer-true market model in the last election.

Further evidence of Street’s prescience is third in line for the presidency, our new house speaker, John Boehner, who was featured this Sunday on 60 Minutes. It was a biograph (not biography, “biograph”—a short feature) designed to simply present an unbiased answer to “who is this guy?” Despite many critiques since the spot aired, I thought the program did a good job of giving the viewing audience a sense of this guy and what he is “all about.” It humanized Boehner, and I very much appreciated that effort (unlike, say, the reality show for Palin; now that is definitely a promotional vehicle). In general, he’s all about celebrity or spectacle politics, about which in a moment. What I didn’t know about was the man’s tendency for sentimentality: this dude can cry at the drop of certain hats. Not any hats. Certain hats. One of them is any mention of his wife’s support. Another is visiting schools. Another is the concept of the “American Dream.” For example, at his recent acceptance speech, when he advances his political vision, the sniffles come (about 7:40):

Leslie Stahl probed him about being an “emotional guy.” When asked if he was trying not to “choke up” during the interview, his response was admirable: “No. What you see is what you get. I know who I am. I am comfortable in my own skin. And, everybody who knows me knows that I get emotional about certain things.” As a person who is “sensitive”—I cry if I watch Finding Nemo or when Susanna and the Magical Orchestra puts out a new album (but I will try not to)—I can appreciate Boehner’s embrace of his “emotionalism.” There’s a lot to say about what I’ve been describing as a new permissiveness for intimacy in politics today—much of it good. I’m kinda impressed that one of our most powerful politicians today cries publically, and is unapologetic about it. That much is cool. Boys do cry, and that’s been a hard-won observation that is increasingly accepted. But—and you knew there was a butt here—like anything, new permissibilities entail new possibilities . . . for harm. Boehner represents, in a some weird way, an emerging biopolitical publicity, and that means with every progressivism comes a certain oppressive danger.

Boehner is a white male. Therein is the thumbnail for danger.

Generally, when speaking of biopolitcs Foucault described the various ways in which life itself was regulated—that the social functioned much like an organism, and to privilege the rational subject or deity as a puppet master was a rather cynical way to think about the totality (overlooking, for example, how the oppressive enables the progressive, how self-surveillance promotes healthy lifestyles, and so on). I’m partial to a Deleuzian reading of the biopolitical, so my tendency is to amplify the role of affect: biopolitics concerns the pastoral not simply in terms of the care of the flock, but the orchestration of affect—cinema of the body politic, so to speak. Biopolitical publicity concerns the orchestration of affect via spectacle for a candidate that means to shepherd, or for a policy that concerns the promotion of life in some way. Biopolitical publicity is not based on misdirection or deception; rather, it’s based on earnest conviction, on feeling, on the gut.

Watching the Boehner interview I got to thinking about how he so neatly illustrated the concept interpellation: there is no question the man is earnest, that his tears are genuine, and that his belief in the “American Dream” is soul deep. There is no question because the body in convulsion is not a lie, even when an actor does it; feeling is feeling, even faked (I realize this too is an argument to be had, but let me take it as axiomatic for the moment). The problem with the right—with all political leanings—is not that folks are conspiratorial or deceitful or “lying to the American people.” Hell, as more and more is written about the Bush administration and Bush, it’s clear that deceit was not the real problem. Rather, the problem was in his gut— that affective conviction underwrites decision; conviction first, rhetoric later. This is the work of ideology, a concept that we wrongly associate with “the idea.” Ideology is about how it feels, an innermost, bodily orientation to “what feels right.” Interpellation gives a meaning to the feeling.

Before Adam Smith was saddled with The Wealth of Nations fame, he was more known for being a proponent of “sentiment ethics”: we are moved to moral action because we respond the visible and verbal (aural) pain or pleasure of others. Recent research on “mirror neurons” and cognition is starting to bear this out: our bodies respond to other bodies; if other bodies are in pain, our bodies respond—we take on the feelings of others. It makes sense, then, that Smith’s vision of the civil society would be advanced so faithfully—the dude generally believed that our “sentiment of sympathy” would be the moral check on commerce. Of course, that didn’t play out because of the complexities that psychoanalysis teaches us about affect: evil can feel good too. Doh! Curses! Nevertheless, my point is that Boehner comes in at precisely this juncture: the dude is emotional and I think he is earnest with those waterworks; the problem is that feelings can be wrong, and we can persuade folks to feel wrongly—or rather, that what they feel is Y instead of X.

We have a tendency as a people to believe that affect is genuine, beyond symbolic structuring. We have a tendency to believe that affect can cut through misguided thinking. Much of the scholarship of affect is guilty of this tendency (Massumi included); we are romanticizing creatures, after all. “If it feels right,” then it must be right. “All you need is love?” Er, that’s problematic too.

Boehner is, in the biopolitical sense, a Beatle. That’s why he’s so endearing to many. And this is where Street’s insight into the “political celebrity” really takes off: if it’s really not about good reasons, but affect and circulating the suck-to signifier, stirring feeling and then saying, “you’re feeling X.” Many of us raised evangelical Baptists or Pentecostals will find the structure familiar: after a rousing sermon that takes us to our “point of pain” and deepest sense of hurt, the preacher tells us that hurt we are feeling is actually a call from Christ to be saved. It’s powerful stuff. Nevertheless, this way of thinking about the political appeal is the opposite to the hegemonic model in political science: rational choice, rent seeking, and so forth—that old market logic. The celebrity model replaces reason with the irrational, or at least, makes reason the province of meaning that is parasitic on the affective or the body-in-feeling. Now, I don’t mean to suggest this is a one way street, that affect always precedes the signifier. Clearly rhetoric stimulates affect as well. I’m simply saying that politics works primarily at the level of feeling or that affect is primary.

Boehner’s tearing up at every mention of the “American Dream” speaks to how deeply he has internalized that particular fantasy. I daresay all of us in the states have internalized it because it is the foundational fantasy of the primary educational system. We teach “the dream” at a very young age as a form of internal motivation. It’s only when students get into college (or AP classes in high school) that we begin to question and critique this fantasy. Of course, at the college age we also have to battle the Evil Oprah Empire that resists the critique with exception proving the rule. Nevertheless, the “American Subject”—our basic identities as U.S. citizens—assume the notions of meritocracy and bootstrapping. Even Boehner acknowledges this, however unwittingly: when Stahl presses him to explain why he can no longer visit schools because he gets to emotional, he said: “making sure these kids have a shot at the American dream, like I did, is important.” The “American Dream” fantasy is soul-deep, indeed.

Here’s why Boehner’s biopolitical publicity is troublesome: as Dyer noted about “the star” decades ago, the idealized public figure embodies the fantasy of “making it,” so that we can live vicariously through her, since we can never achieve it ourselves. Boehner has embodied this fantasy for all the reasons that are familiar (he’s a white guy and has easier access, etc.); he cries at every mention of the “American Dream” because he has achieved it (or so he thinks). And calling for its defense is something of a no brainer, in both senses. This is ideological interpellation on a stick: by appealing to the American Dream, Boehner continues the status quo, impeding social change and, paradoxically, the “equal opportunity for all” he claims to champion.

The rub, of course, is that he believes he has done this by his own effort; the sentimental tears are tiny mirrors. He does not see that he lives in an environment structured such that he is more likely to embody “the dream” over and above others with the same skills and drive, but of different structural/social station—gender, race, sexual orientation, and so on. He suffers from an over-reliance on feelings as truth, as genuine, as the seat of authenticity. It’s obviously narcissism. To assume one’s personal story can be projected onto the Other—“personal responsibility” and all—is to fail to truly reckon with the different circumstances and plights of others. Boehner cries at the potential he sees in a school-child’s “innocent” face, but it’s his own story that he sees. And when one’s own story and “feeling” is the touchstone of truth, well, anyone who is different is in trouble.

Boehner shall soon become one of the most powerful (and hated) politicians in the West. He seems to misattribute personal lack for hope. He seems to mistake white guilt for empathy. God help us.