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Fetish Music

Posted by , January 18th, 2011
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As was the case in the first Lacan Survey, let me again circumvent introducing or defining this series and, instead, offer broad questions in place of answers.

What do we mean when we say, “I like this song”? To see what’s beyond truisms like “the words are great” or “I like the beat” or “it just makes me feel good” means seeing how the song is integrated into our worldview, symbolically. The song has a totemic significance, as it allows the listener to perpetuate the experience of the song—or, more precisely, to perpetuate the experience linked to the song by the listener. The listener’s experience becomes embodied in the song. Is this not the definition of fetish?

I’m not talking about a dude in a latex suit licking a woman’s toes, though there’s room for that in fetish; I’m referring to associations made, the accidentally simultaneous presentation of a song and an experience. Attaching a song to an experience, however unconsciously, often suspends the song in a kind of sentimental abeyance—“this was our song” or “I spent my first year of college totally fucked up listening to this album” or “this song got me through some shit, man”—and allows us to either re-live the experience through an attachment to the song or distantiate ourselves from a reality we can’t wholly, consciously consider.

As an example, I will offer my own fetishistic associations and sentimental attachments between sound and experiences, and it makes sense to start with an extreme example.

 

 

 

I See a Darkness” — Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

A handful of my friends committed suicide in the beginning of the 2000s, the last of which was my friend Charles, and it was his death that unraveled me. In the weeks shortly after Charles died, I was prone to fits of unpredictable, hysterical crying. I don’t subscribe to the notion of “boys don’t cry,” but paradoxically, I don’t often cry myself, so my crying jags were extremely hard to recover from. I was terribly despondent. I began carrying a snapshot of Charles around in my pocket. If while at work I felt the wave of tears coming on, I would sneak out of the miserable office and lock myself in a stall in the bathroom, take the picture of Charles in my hand and silently weep into his mangled face. Seeing a “real” version of him was the only way I could bear the experience. The snapshot was the embodiment of a belief that I couldn’t allow to be true. It was keeping him alive long enough for me to get through his not being alive.

Around this same time my wife introduced me to the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy song, “I See a Darkness.” In many ways this song explains the end of my friendship with Charles.  He was strung out, living again with his parents, I had moved away, and while I still loved him, he and I simply didn’t have as much in common. The last time I spoke with Charles he called me under the auspices of plans to write music together again, but what we spoke mostly of was his addiction, his problems in his relationship and his poor health. A few times during the conversation he said, quite frankly (and comically, though the humor is bittersweet now), “I’m a fucking loser, man” and chuckled. At the time it was a very normal conversation to have with Charles. Afterwards, however, it was this conversation that haunted me, gave me tremendous pangs of guilt, and left me wondering if I’d not done enough. Listening to “I See a Darkness,” the pre-chorus, “this isn’t all I see,” and the post-chorus, “a hope that somehow you you can save me,” were, when reexamining that last phone call, prophetic intimations of what was to come.

Eventually, the crying fits became less severe, I quit carrying the picture of Charles around with me, and the guilt wasn’t as sharp a pain. “I See a Darkness” became totemic to the experience of losing Charles. Not just his suicide, but all the commitments we had made to each other, and how his death affected the rest of us—all of his friends—and what changed in us as a result of him being gone. Through this entire time (3 years?), I would listen to this song quite frequently. Charles continued living in my observance of, and attachment to, the song. The song embodied my refusal to let him die; it was a living disavowal of death. And most importantly, it helped me grieve. Paradoxically, thinking of him through repeated listenings allowed me distance from him. As my need to hear the song diminished, it became easier to accept his death.

 

 

 

Almost Was Good Enough (Once)” — Magnolia Electric Co.

In the years following Charles’ suicide, productive activities had a sense of defiance against all the defeat symbolized in his death. Being in a band or making a record felt, in some ways, like a “fuck you” to the spirit of his giving up. Carrying on with my life, without him, made me feel both guilty and subversive. For those of us that had “gotten out” before the rash of suicides struck our hometown, we looked at one another as survivors, the remnants of what had happened. Those suicides were such an ending, that continuing to do anything afterward felt uncomfortable.

It was in these purgatorial years that “Almost Was Good Enough” came to be more than just a song. Molina sings

Did you really believe
that everyone makes it out?
Almost no one makes it out

with the same sense of finality heard in “I See a Darkness.” It’s analogous to the clichés we all told each other while grieving—“you can’t blame yourself for what happened,” “it will get easier”—that are used to accept something unacceptable. These clichés are tempered with Molina’s reification:

But if no one makes it out
How come you’re talking to one right now
for once almost was good enough

These three lines sum up, quite perfectly, the feeling of defeated accomplishment in being the one who “made it out.” While it’s good to come out the other side, realize you’re alive and be filled with a renewed sense of self, you’re still dragging your dead friend around behind you, and what should be “good” is actually “good enough.” The guilt is real, and it’s too much to ask for more than good enough. While “I See a Darkness” allowed me to keep Charles alive in the years immediately following his death, “Almost Was Good Enough” allowed me to keep myself alive—and more importantly, moving.

The fetishized song can function in two opposite ways, either its role remains unconscious, as in the case of “I See a Darkness” where I was unaware of the song’s assistance in allowing me to live with death, or, the role of the song can be a conscious one, as “Almost Was Good Enough,” where the association with the song is reflected in the sublimation of the grief and guilt in continuing on with the plans made before Chuck’s death.

In both cases the fetishized song helped me to grieve. Unconsciously, I could displace that which I was incapable of dealing with (the actual total loss of Charles from reality) in “I See a Darkness.” Listening to that song allowed me to revel in his life, to relive that final conversation differently, until I was able to see him totally dead. Obviously, I knew he was dead the entire time, but it’s interesting to look back at what I was doing while being unaware of doing it. In contrast, I used “Almost Was Good Enough” as a fetish consciously, invoking it as a mantra of solidarity among my fellow survivors, acknowledging what we’d been left with and how to make enough sense of it to carry on.

 

 

 

 

V.A. Rocks Your Liver” — Verbal Abuse

It’s an understatement to say I was a “troubled child.” I was, literally, a poster child for juvenile delinquency: I appeared in low budget public access awareness campaigns, education panels and after school programs for people trying to understand problem children. Before my service work in helping people understand problem children, I did extensive fieldwork as a problem child. I’ll spare the details, and just skip to my friend Aaron and I running away.

Aaron was from another town (I can’t remember where), had a shitty car, and when we decided to run away that shitty car was our ticket out. The only tape I remember him having was Verbal Abuse. Paradoxically, neither Aaron nor I drank, so in retrospect, it seems strange that this anthem to drunkenness was our anthem, but we were fairly dimwitted. Our time on the outs was a time of true liberation, in direct opposition to our unbearable teenage lives. It was two decades ago, so the details have faded and the injustices seem comical now, but at the time the pain was very real. Our decision to runaway, to leave family, school and friends behind, was a refusal of the status quo. Aaron and I had no idea where we were going or what we were going to do when we got there. It was a salto mortale, a leap of faith from the known into the unknown, and in that act of un-knowing our entire lives, we were briefly, completely free.

Of course, the reality of undoing everything we had known up to that point was far less romantic than the picture painted in reminiscing. Aaron’s car broke down several times — the car we were sleeping in, we had no money, and all we had to eat was a wholesale-size package of hot dogs that rolled around in the backseat. The package had been torn open so dogs would occasionally shake loose onto the floorboards. Disgusting, but there was something heroic and martial in brushing most of the dirt off your cold dog before eating it; crunching of dirt was the sound of our freedom. I still smile at the thought of Aaron and I pushing his car while “V.A. Rocks Your Liver” (our “Star Spangled Banner”) blasted from his tape deck.

As I’ve grown older I’ve re-bought some of the records from my youth, records I had either lost in bouts of homelessness or sold for food, or, in the case of Verbal Abuse, never owned in the first place. Finally hearing “Rocks Your Liver” again after twenty years was certainly a nostalgic reward, but the song itself had lost it’s meaning outside being a placeholder for those memories. With the song sitting silently for so long, going unheard, how could I not be disappointed in hearing it again? Everything in my life had changed around that memory, and if my association with “Rocks Your Liver” (liberation, the frivolity of youth, girls underwear) remained static, hearing it again—outside that freedom—would inevitably be a different experience. I have more memories of remembering the song than the song itself.

“Rocks Your Liver” is a song that, if I heard it today, would leave me indifferent. As emblematic of those days of freedom, though—eating dirty hot dogs, breaking the law, and pushing that fucking car around—the song is overwhelming. I have no idea what became of Aaron, I have no souvenirs of that time, and I live across the country from where we roamed, so “Rocks Your Liver” is the only perceptible artifact of a time far from today with a valley of experienced life between then and now. In acquiring the record I learned I didn’t actually need it for it to be a favorite in my collection.

 

 

 

 

For Want Of” — Rites of Spring

Admittedly, I took this song, and the album it’s on, too seriously. Through most of the early ‘90s I practically pushed this album down the throats of everyone around me. Nearly everyone I knew got a copy as a gift, though more as an explanation of my condition.

One such recipient was Joann, one of the first friends I made outside my close-knit circle of degenerate creeps. Our friendship grew despite not having much in common, and eventually we traded favorite albums. I remember sitting in Joann’s house listening to her explain all the things she loved about Sade’s Promise album and being so excited because I felt exactly the same about the Rites of Spring album, except when I played it for her she looked as though I had just shit on her coffee table. At first Joann thought I was playing a joke on her, trying to humiliate her. “How is this anything like Sade?” What Joann responded to was the sound of the music (screeching, off key voice, brash noise) and I responded to the content (fervency, love, pain). To my senses, Sade and Rites of Spring were equivalent, while Joann perceived them antithetical to one another. It took much explanation, but Joann eventually, and reluctantly, conceded my point with the rejoinder, “this music is terrible.” We learned to celebrate our differences.

Unlike Verbal Abuse, Rites of Spring remained by my side through all of my tempestuous relationships, and I used lines from this album in defense of and as excuse for my recklessness, although, like Verbal Abuse, Rites of Spring doesn’t mean the same thing to me now. Fifteen years ago just hearing “I woke up this morning with a piece of past caught in my throat… and then I choked” could make my insides squall. The experience of my life then — tripping over my heart running from one woman to another — was measured in those words. Today I am different, and the song, certainly full of sentimental attachments, doesn’t operate as the embodiment of feelings, either conscious or not, that I’m experiencing.

Having an album as a sort of “constant companion” through life is interesting in how the symbolism changes (or doesn’t change) through life. Our experience with music is temporal, and is dependent on our view of things — and our view includes whatever blind spots exist in our perspective. How we hear the music will change as our worldview changes, and as the things that dominate our life (consciously or not) change. It’s only in hindsight that certain aspects come out of a former blind spot in our perception and seem legible, new to the current listening experience.

To this end, I enjoy hearing stories about other people’s sentimental songs. Most people explain it similarly (“Oh shit, this was my fucking jam”), though when pushed for more, it gets really interesting. The explanation reveals a great deal about how conscious one is of the symbolic weight of the song. Of course a good song can sometimes just be a good song, but once an examination of why a song is good begins what’s revealed is the amount of courage one has to examine himself. Telling the truth allows suffering to speak, and when we tell the truth we reveal our own parallactic finitudes. What’s real is a matter of how we arrived at truth, and that truth is tied to our inability to fully grasp the nature of truth.

 

 

 

 

Is It Because I’m Black” — Syl Johnson

As Cornel West talked of being introduced to the stank of life, so I found myself there while scouring the Internet looking for rare records. For me, a white dude in his 20s, this song represented a “holy grail” among record collectors, an obscure artifact from the civil rights era that was known in the hip-hop/sample-spotter world, and unknown to everyone else. My first access to a computer came through a desk job I had and any spare time was devoted to searching for records, back when dogpiling (remember life before Google?) “Is It Because I’m Black” would only return porno sites (Ahh, the days of unregulated metadata!). Before I had ever seen a copy of this record I found a soundfile (when .ram was the .mp3) and was so juiced to hear it I played to it through my speakers (no headphones) at my desk (a practice generally frowned upon). There I sat in the privacy of my own cubicle, with the volume as low as it could possibly go, getting so fucking into it when my boss, a black woman at least twenty years my senior (who had lived through the civil rights struggle) heard the song and completely marched into my personal space.

What happened next remains one of the most surreal and uncomfortable musical experiences of my life. My boss reached over my shoulder and turned my computer speakers up, way up, and while standing behind, sorta leaning on me, proceeded to sing along with and ad lib through the entire song. Most of the other cubicles were filled with middle-aged white women, all of whom answered to the same woman I did, that same woman who was singing, “something is holdin’ me back… is it because I’m black?” at each and every one of them. Everyone in the office was already afraid of my boss, as she had been the office manager for decades, since the office was just her and the owner, and she had no problem telling anyone what she thought of anything. This made me love her, but most people (me included) were fucking petrified of her. And there she was, moaning, ooh-ing, ahh-ing and “keep on holdin’ me back”-ing along with Syl, who was blasting out of my computer. All the while my co-workers looked at me with astonished what the fuck looks on their white faces. Jesus Christ! It was the race conversation that you always want, but are always to chickenshit, to have, and it was happening more to me than with me, and it wasn’t a conversation as much as a living disinterment of shame. When the song finished, my boss said, “goddamn, what a song” and casually went back to her desk.

My reality before listening to the song (in short: post-civil rights white man working for a black woman under the assumption, “the world ain’t perfect, but…”) was completely different after listening to the song. Everything was still the same, I was still a white man working for a black woman in an imperfect world, but the façade had cracked. It was a façade that all of us—my boss, me, my co-workers—were aware of and discussed as such (“equal opportunities, huh, right?”). Of course institutional racism worked in place of overt racism, and of course we aren’t all equal and of course things aren’t perfect, but it’s okay, right?

What my boss did by elevating Syl Johnson as a one-sided conversation was to acknowledge what Lacan refers to as the big Other. Our work place was operating under the guise of a paradoxical reflexive order which allowed symbolic order to function. This is similar to Marx’s explaination of how states function; we only imagine that we believe in order and demand that others believe in that same order as we do—no one really believes, but it functions. My boss, causing torsion in the façade, brought the Symbolic into view of the Real and all the rest of us saw the contradictions of multiple truths existing simultaneously.

Much like Cornel West explained, my boss had tremendous courage in allowing truth to speak through suffering, by acknowledging finitude, by showing how my truth was tied to how I came to that truth, by introducing me to the stank of life.

The whole experience was terribly uncomfortable, and I would not change that. Before, I saw the record as an artifact, something rare and obscure, a relic from the near past, but still the past, and afterward I saw my view of the record intersected by other realities, in parallax, discordant and uncomfortably true, coinciding all around me. The record never had a chance to become a fetish as my unconscious blind spots were revealed before I owned it.

 

 

 

 

“I Don’t Wanna Cry” Mariah Carey

(File under: Guilty pleasure!)

My senior year of high school I made friends with a foreign exchange student from Spain who dated my best friend. Of course, as all high school relationships go, my best friend dumped her and things got sad and ugly. I spent many weekday afternoons with my Spanish friend, eating her host family’s food and watching MTV. Mariah Carey was kinda huge then, and her multi-octaved only-dogs-can-hear vocal range was still a novelty. “I Don’t Wanna Cry” became a theme song for my Spanish friend’s bouts of tears and, at some point, she gave me a copy of Mariah’s first album as a kind-of funny acknowledgment of what we’d been through. It wasn’t so much about Mariah Carey as it was the experience, but the album was the perfect token of the experience.

From the outset I had detached myself from Mariah’s music, being a boy who really only responded to testosterone-enraged guitar music. Not to typecast myself, but let’s be real, I was immature and angry, so the Misfits blew my mind and Mariah Carey was a whatever thing that I only acknowledged ironically. My friend moved back to Spain after graduation and I kept the album as a memento. Over the years, other friends, aware of this random softie-pop aberration in an otherwise agitated oeuvre, bought me subsequent Mariah Carey releases. It became a funny thing, me being an un-closeted fan with sentimental attachments to her music. Ten years later I was a “regular” Mariah Carey fan who, of my own volition, bought albums, singles, remixes, etc. It was usually a noteworthy thing for anyone browsing my stacks, “What’s the story with all these Mariah Carey albums?”

There’s nothing really remarkable about my attachment to Mariah Carey. It happens with people and pop music all the time, the, “I know, I know, but I just like it, ya’know?” worldview. In some way pop music exists to fill this place in our lives. Pop music is ubiquitous, and it’s a forgone conclusion that some Top 40 song will be playing when shit happens. It’s unavoidable. Everyone I know has a similar fetish with some artist or song. Like I said, it’s not remarkable. What is remarkable is when I decided to abandon Mariah.

That last year of high school was particularly painful for me. I didn’t really graduate, all of my friends were going to college (or moving to another country), my home life was totally fucked and it seemed like everything was falling apart. Once high school was over, I bounced around from girlfriend to girlfriend, apartment to apartment, roommate to roommate, town to town, trying to just figure it out, ya’know? It wasn’t easy. Through the next fifteen years I maintained this ironic Mariah Carey collection that functioned as a sentimental tether to my Spanish friend on the other side of the world. I was conscious of this and spoke of it as such. In 2000, I moved into a studio apartment, it was the first time I lived alone, and that’s when I decided to part ways with Mariah.

I didn’t think it was significant at the time; I’d had the albums for over a decade, hauled them from apartment to apartment, town to town, and regarded them as mementos the entire time. So why didn’t I get rid of them earlier? Or, why did I get rid* of them then? Looking back, it’s interesting that the Mariah collection started when I was terrified of being left alone, and it was only when I was able to live on my own that I didn’t need the sentimental token any longer.

 

 

….

 

 

Thinking about music in this way, as a fetish that allows us to either re-live experiences through an attachment or distantiate ourselves from a reality we can’t wholly experience, is an interesting process. Revealing unconscious fetishes that have never been fully in our view can stir aggravation or defensiveness. Engrained fetishes are especially perceptible when reading record reviews or listening to people discuss why they hate artists. In addition, looking at “phases” we went through with certain songs or artists will often coincide with experiences that were significant at the times we were getting “into” and “out of” the music. While we may passively listen to music, there is a lot of activity in the process, and I would venture to guess it’s rarely ever, “just a good song, ya’know?”

What song do you fetish. And why?

 

 

….

 

* As a footnote, when I got rid of the Mariah collection, I brought a box of random CDs to a record store to trade for used LPs. While the young, know-it-all clerk looked over the box I browsed. Some 45 minutes later, I’m deep in the middle of the Buck Owens section and a voice comes over the store loudspeaker: “Would the guy who brought in all those Mariah Carey singles please come to the front of the store.” —What a little dick! Trying to shame me even as I’m relinquishing my fetish. No wonder people are so defensive!

Songs About Fucking

Posted by , January 11th, 2011
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In lieu of a proper introduction let me acknowledge that borrowing a restaurant review format and applying it to the examination of music is fairly absurd. What’s more, focusing these sound-as-sustenance reviews through a lens of Lacan psychoanalysis is wholly absurd. To stand on a dictum where Francis Bacon once stood: “Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion.” It’s from this point—absurdity, obviously in error—that these surveys begin.

Examining sound from this skewed vantage point, anamorphically, with absurdity as the jumping-off point, our blind spot in how we perceive music is altered, which allows new experiences; more truths.

 

 

 

Moanin’ and Groanin’” — Bill Withers

Sound: Bedclothes duet
Impulse
: Sensual
Praxis
: Works every time
Price
: Who cares?

The quintessential fuck song, unarguably. All that is embodied in the sex experience distilled to its absolute essence, as if it were a fine salve that you could spread on those parts of you hurting for love. Sung in duet with himself, Mr. Withers makes interesting Lacanian intimations toward an “object gaze,” suffering a blind spot in his perception of a visual reality, presenting an inability to bear witness to his subject “in full,” so to speak. This is further confirmed in the line, Young girl turned out to be two times twice the woman that I thought she was; the subject of desire, once possessed—in full view—becomes anamorphic and the suitor must see her re-doubled in his reality. The gap between the Symbolic and the Real is revealed in the line, if she ain’t the best in the world/ she’s as good as the goodest one. The fundamental fantasy of the experience is confirmed, and almost unconsciously, Withers concludes, “I feel real good,” with an extraordinary emphasis on the “Real.”

Despite the barred reality present in the tune, still, one of the best songs to be playing should you find yourself naked — alone with your fantasies, or otherwise.

 

 

 

Come On Baby” — Natural Four

 

Sound: Falsetto fondling
Impulse
: Epicurean
Praxis
: Sincerity with a touch of sax
Price
: Worth it’s weight in gold

The recurring supplication throughout this song, come on — come on, however loaded with double entendre, begs, on one hand, for consummation, and yet, on the other hand, looks to Lacan for a guarantee of the “experience’s existence”: Baby this love I feel/ I wonder if it’s for real. Here, the suitor wills his conquest in words, and, likely, into a reality. That is, the pleading for the will to be Real. The I’m so lonely for you baby confession has obvious Freudian connotations, and after the first climax” of the song there is a retreat to cliché (confession interposed over a saxophone solo), a few bars reprieve from the Real intent of the song, before the begging begins again — this time with more oomph. If we are, as Freud claims, fixated with maternal love, then the crying pleas, the falsetto (from the Latin “false,” a condition most common in pubescent boys), the unrequitedness, certainly lends credence to that particular worldview.

Don’t let this stop you, however, from using this song to woo someone other than your mother. It’s a lot to deal with, what with the umbilical cord and the nipple and all…

 

 

 

Back Door Man” — Howlin’ Wolf

Sound: Low end
Impulse
: As old as the ages
Praxis
: Backwards (*wink*)
Price
: Initially, tight-fisted, much looser later

This song’s for all you naughty types, as it contains the taboo trifecta: cheating, underage girls, and anal sex [which reminds me of a joke: Q: What do spinach and buttfucking have in common? A: If it’s forced on you as a child you won’t enjoy it as an adult]. The obvious double entendre aside, Howlin’ Wolf really delivers with this Willie Dixon classic. And let’s be clear, fuck you square in the eye if you would rather hear Jim Morrison sing this. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi that Wolf embodies when he confesses, I eats mo’ chicken/ any man seen. No doubt Jim Morrison ate some chicken in his day, but we can be sure The Wolf ate much, much mo’.

Blues woman of note, Sara Martin, said of this song, “every sensible woman got a back-door man,” which implicitly confirms what we privately understand, though we deny it explicitly in public.

The supporting characters in this story are interesting cases: the nurse: professional care provider to the infirm; the wife of the judge: partner to impartiality; and the cop’s wife: consort of the constable — all these women overexert their role in favor of this “gut shot dog,” as he’s viewed by their leading men. Though I lack any clinical case studies to back this, I would venture to guess the world has been supported “from behind” in this way since we were hunched primates. Gives new meaning to “Cave Man,” if you know what I mean?

 

 

 

 

Game is My Middle Name” — Betty Davis

Sound: Dominatrix-informed deep funk
Impulse
: Mess up my mind
Praxis
: Do me in
Price
: If you have to ask…

As a counterbalance to Howlin’ Wolf’s back door creep, Betty Davis comes out “on top,” “full frontal,” completely willing to “take” whatever can be dished out. And one gets the impression that she can take quite a bit, yaddamean? The admission, whatever you want/ that’s what I’ll be, has heavy chimerical signifiers. The kind that suggest she’s not unfamiliar with a request such as, “set me on fire and mash my nuts with your hooves while asphyxiating me with your serpent’s tail.” And Betty handles it: whatever you wanna play/ I said, I’ll play it witcha. I mean, what kind of “stable” woman asks you — no, begs you to, just mess up my mind.

Hearing the song in this light it’s not hard for one to envision a Blyian men’s group huddled around a fire somewhere in the wilds of Minnesota backcountry—having paid a small fortune for their “portable talisman” and “archetypal shaman’s kaftan”—and just as things are getting really myopoetic and the men can almost “touch” Iron John himself, footsteps from the distance grow louder… Out of the worst fairy tale of their New Warrior Training imaginations, the men are greeted by a Betty Davis-like sphinx with patricidal fangs and an unquenchable concupiscence:

 

Go on and open up your bag of tricks
Anything you got to give, I’ll take it

 

Listen to how she’s screaming at the end. I mean, just sit back and absorb how profoundly unhinged she sounds through the shrieking. Granted, she’s talking about “playing,” but I suggest coming up with a “safe word” before players advance to this level of the game. If Miles Davis couldn’t handle it, I ask, what makes you think you can (Yea hooo!, yea hooo! — yea hooo!)? “Come on, now.”

Again, no data to support this claim, but I bet when Betty Davis passes, should an autopsy be performed, they will find remnants of several suitable swains in her stool.

 

 

 

 

You Can Leave Your Hat On” — Etta James

Sound: Role-play R&B
Impulse
: To know what love is
Praxis
: With the lights on
Price
: Come on, just do it

Similar to the sadomasochistic spirit of “Game is My Middle Name,” Etta brings a better nine-to-five balance to the boudoir. While this is customarily a “behind closed doors” practice, this variety will likely see more travelers as it has an everyday flavor— tempting enough to draw in those lubricious-leaning types, but familiar enough to seem just-this-side-of-illegal. This jam is decidedly a lights on affair. What Etta receives from her man standing on a chair, “arms in the air,” shaking, is a little outside my wheelhouse, but if it gives her “reason to live,” who the fuck am I to argue?

When she comes on with the repetitions of “they don’t know what love is,” and the jousissanceinduced cries that complete them, there begins the slow fade. A song structure of Gräfenbergian device, as it “hits” the “spot.” Feel me?

 

 

 

Never Felt Like This Before” — Charlie Smalls

Sound: SSSW (sincere singer-songwriter)
Impulse
: Positive vibes
Praxis
: Serenade where possible
Price
: Ask Cassavetes

Off the soundtrack to the Cassavetes film Faces, a wholehearted song, caught unawares, amidst the véritély focused scenes full of drunkards, cheats and disappointed prostitutes. Faces is weighty with the conflated muse of newfound freedom, as the recently divorced “clumsy fuck” their way through—or, more precisely, out of—their unfulfilled lives. The realism of the film finds a strange bedfellow in Charlie Smalls, with his short, unassuming heartfelt proposal to spend a quiet life together.

Charlie Smalls is remembered without much aid from popular media (outside of this particular song and his work on the Broadway show The Whiz), which seems unfortunate given the gentle candor of “Never Felt Like This Before.” There are those who “commission their own immortality” — a quote attributed to marchesa Casati —and then there are the rest of us. Semiotically speaking, it’s often the case, continuing to use Casati as an example, that the signifier (Casati all dolled up) has a relationship to the signified (dandy splendor) through this commissioned immortality that is not shared in the same way with those of us (“slobs,” let’s call us) who also interpret the signs. For the Casati caste, and to employ a Barthesian Fashion System process, “a little braid gives elegance,” while for us slobs, “a little braid” makes you look like a “stuck-up” “gorgon.”

The resistance, however purposeful or not, to immortalizing oneself by way of a medium that increases public exposure, is a sign many of us slobs use to signify our own brand of elitism. For example: “This song is an obscure track off a rare indie film soundtrack.” While the level of percolation into popular awareness is different, the representation of status is quite the same. In other words, being a snob works with or without an audience.

The idea of a cinéma vérité—watching an actor play a “real” experience—is ripe with semiotic implications. Ask yourself if your participation in such a cinema, as an interpretant, decoding the signs, would be more or less “real” in a Cassavetes film than in, say, a Ridley Scott film? We value the “truth” of a Gena Rowlands-played-prostitute (humble, obscure) differently than the “truth” of an Angelina Jolie-played-prostitute (glamorous, famous). The meaning, the representation of signifier and signified, suffers more divergence in the case of Jolie, thereby diluting the authenticity of her character. She’s less “real” as a prostitute, as it were.

“Never Felt Like This Before” is a song, just like Katy Perry’s “Firework,” or any other song. The place the song occupies in culture—it’s obscurity or prevalence—has a diverging factor on how we interpret the sign, but what we respond to, ultimately, is the belief in the artist’s ability to transcend the static, and reach the ecstatic. How each artist approaches that ecstasy is different, and while some feign and some force, the listener has a keen perception, as interpretant, with a built-in bullshit detector that can seek out the truly transcendental in any performance.

So while some respond to Charlie Smalls, acknowledging his place among the shadows, as an obscure singer who appeared on a lesser-known soundtrack, what’s “Real” about that response is Smalls’ ability to transcend the rigidities of recorded media and bring ecstatic “truth” to life in song.

File under: Musique vérité!

 

 

 

You Can Have Him (I Don’t Want Him)” — Nina Simone

Sound: Piano paramountcy
Impulse
: Romantic devotion
Praxis
: Post-coital nostalgia
Price
: One’s life

Speaking of transcending the terrestrial and harnessing the ecstasy of creative infinity, Nina Simone’s performance here is the pinnacle of such an endeavor, making it the best kind of love song. Simone makes a unique experience of the mundane (“mend his underwear and darn his socks”) through an extraordinary amalgam of deliberation and inventive freedom. Musically, Simone unpremeditatedly spans between arabesques engulfing the entirety of the keyboard and buoyant whispers of notes that only hint at the melody, leaving her nearly acapella at times. The determination and contagious spirit Simone winds herself up in while singing is Stendhalian, transcendently pure, and that effect washes over the listener in a very capital R “Real” sense.

The obvious gestalt of the song—that she does want him—is betrayed in the title’s parenthetic admission (that she doesn’t want him), which, in a Lacanian view, could be construed as a “master signifier.” That is, the one thing that the subject most identifies with, and which, accordingly, has a key role in the way she gives meaning to everything. Of course, the problem with a “master signifier” is that it is also an “empty signifier,” a transferential supposition, or a blind faith in that which doesn’t really exist.  Here, the empty signifier works like the experience of Stendhal Syndrome (an assault of aesthetics). There are “real” physical effects but the sufferer can’t clearly identify a cause. “It’s just so beautiful.” Overwhelmed with her experience.

The paradox of Simone’s performance is multi-layered. First, at once she’s denying what she wants (“I don’t want him”) while confessing a contradictory truth through the signs of the song (she really wants him).  Second, there’s likely no real Object. That is to say, even if there exists a real man, the love described in the song is virtually unattainable. A love of this nature would be so overwhelming it would likely leave Nina in a Standhalian coma. The love is a sign, signifying an idea of what love could be. Finally, Simone’s performance, a live story telling, is a re-redoubling of events: Art (the song) imitates life (the love), which is then re-imitated (the performance). The song is a simulacrum of something that was never hers to begin with (Irving Berlin wrote the song).

In pure essence of Baudrillard’s simulacrum theory, Nina Simone’s performance doesn’t conceal a truth—it’s the truth which conceals that there is no truth. The performance, then, is Real. The “how deep the rabbit-hole goes” paradox of this proposition is the very thing we exalt in our faith in gods that don’t exist. For a mortal to be allowed to straddle such territories she must be damaged and difficult, like Nina Simone. We know, absolutely, that what she’s telling us is not real, but through her simulation, and the signs she conjures, we incant a truth that allows us to love, completely and freely. And that love is real.

It’s a pure faith in this complete and free love that so overwhelms Nina Simone herself in this performance. I wasn’t at Town Hall when this song was recorded, but I like to think that for the nearly six minutes that she was singing, Nina fell far, far down the rabbit-hole into a totally pure, transcendent ecstasy, and it wasn’t until the end, jarred out of her Stendhal Syndrome by the roaring applause, that she screamed back in feverish resuscitation at the audience.

Listen for yourself and hear how surprised she sounds, as if she forgot she was on stage.

 

 

 

Just Me and You” — Jane Birkin

Sound: Lolita lullaby
Impulse
: Retrieval
Praxis
: Temporary
Price
: Not worth it

 

The romantic impulse of retrieving a lost love in this song comes from the same place as Nina Simone’s “You Can Have Him,” though, here, with Jane Birkin, the longevity of this prospect seems slim. While the passion is present, and a genuine desire to revive the love once known is what Jane is asking for, there are some troubling symptoms afloat.

First, Jane starts out on a course of second chances with a focus on the “jealousy and pain” that likely ended the romance the first time. Her insistence for isolation—“it would be just me and you, fuck the rest of the world”—is an unconscious admission of her inability to integrate this ideal relationship into the rest of her worldview. Further, he desire to return to a former version of herself, “if I could be twenty-one again,” when “everything was fragile,” is a defense mechanism, classic Freudian regression.

It’s clear here that Jane’s continued nescience of her desire is not nescience of what she demands, but nescience of whence she desires.

I don’t need to tell you that Jane Birkin is dumb hot; she oozes “fuck me.” Her sex appeal has Stendhalian effects on the world. So whoever she’s addressing here was likely unable to resist. And who can blame him? Carnal satisfaction aside, you know this isn’t going to last, so, enjoy the ride, and… take pictures!

 

 

 

Maybe Liquor, Maybe Blood” — Judith and Holofernes

Sound: Fateful fado
Impulse
: Unholy
Praxis
: Predestined
Price
: Going to hell is free

 

Suppose you’re in a bad place. You’ve been there a while. And you’re not alone. Suppose you’ve fucked up a few times already. Like we learned from Jane Birkin’s misguided impulse in “Just Me and You,” being ignorant of whence you desire can lead to dark places. Those dark places are where we find the couple in this song. A “flood” of “lust,” “ill-will,” “vendetta,” “regret,” a “promise,” a “curse,” and “whiskey” on both party’s “lips.” These conditions are ripe for bad choices. Unable to sustain what little composure is left, the singer acknowledges the instability and forecasts, “I call out at night/ warning of a flood.” Unable to differentiate the symbolic from real, with a largely unconscious, dynamically repressed, Oedipal phantom overcoming him, he unleashes, “in the mood to fight or maybe in the mood to fuck.” At this point the actual act of maternal sex or patricidal rage is irrelevant, the singer is fully eclipsed by his neurosis.

Keep your distance.

 

 

 

S.D.B.J.” — Jesus Lizard

Sound: Projectile vociferating
Impulse
: Prurient
Praxis
: Preferably blacked out
Price
: Too much

 

This tableau vivant cannot fail to bring to mind a certain kind of “theater of cruelty” most have witnessed either in college or in some art house film whose images are not easily erased from the mind’s eye. This song, a life-threatening mixture of alcohol and sex, removes all pleasure from either drinking or fucking. A subject such as this is often viewed with curiosity-driven disgust. Much in the same way we are shocked at children who repeatedly cut themselves or smash their faces into walls yet can’t not watch as we’re baffled by the behavior, we find ourselves watching this song unfold. Perhaps the satisfaction — of both the self-inflicting children and the singer of this song — does not pertain so much to the way the feeling of intense bodily pain brings the subject back to reality but, rather, to the fact that inflicting this pain on oneself is a form of making a mark, thereby shifting the anamorphic blind spot, allowing a clearer view of the self. The “zero” of the subject’s existential confusion, of their blurred virtual existence, is transformed into the “one” of a signifying inscription. By engaging in these baffling activities they’ve made themselves Real.

 

Some doors are better left closed.

Lyin’ around
Like some goddamn walrus
You make me
Sick to my stomach

The smell is here
Hangs like a killer
Hangs like a deadman
And I can’t take another day

 

SICK!
DRUNK!
BLOW!

JOB!

Some kind of bra-wearin’-hairy-fish
Droolin’ into your dish

 

 

 

 

Soul On Fire” — Lavern Baker

 

Sound: Vatic ballad
Impulse
: Ego-Incinerating effigy
Praxis
: A game I’ve always won
Price
: Eternal

 

What better ending than self-immolation?

 

Descartes famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am” — the very act of doubting one’s own existence serves as proof of the reality of one’s own existence. In his seminar on the logic of fantasy, Lacan revised Descartes’ posit thusly, “I am not where I think.” A similar revision happens with Lavern Baker here, when she says, “goodbye to everyone but you, my love.” With this seemingly simple admission of true love, Lavern actually reveals a fully conscious perception of self, or what Kant called Transcendental Apperception.

Lavern resolves herself in parallax, with the ability to see her life through all perceptions simultaneously. Her experiences, her iterations of self, have all been a succession of content combined in her consciousness, though she’s “still had to walk this road all by myself,” the unity of experience is a unity of the self, or, as Lavern says, “I put them all on the shelf.”

In psychoanalysis, the investigation of the gap between the Symbolic the Real is referred to as “Symbolic Castration,” and here we see Lavern resolving her “barred subject,” when she sings, “I found my true love, with you forever, and my life has just begun.”

It’s no coincidence that this song (given it’s weighty implications: Oedipus complex, symbolic castration, burning oneself in effigy to unite the Symbolic and the Real) was used in the film Angel Heart to articulate the symbolism in the sex scene with Harry Angel and Epiphany Proudfoot. Under the auspices of finding Johnny Favorite, a “lost man,” Angel interviews Proudfoot, and learns Favorite had a relationship with Proudfoot’s mother. It’s not until the sex scene that the façade of Johnny Favorite starts to crumble. As “Soul On Fire” plays, and Harry Angel and Epiphany Proudfoot fuck, blood rains from the ceiling and scenes of a barbaric orgy quickly flash on screen. It’s not until the end of the film, when Harry Angel returns to this bedroom and finds Proudfoot dead, that he is slowly awoken by the revelation that he is Johnny Favorite, and Proudfoot was his daughter.

Hegel said, “beyond the veil of phenomena, the consciousness finds only what it itself has put there.” And so Harry Angel fucked his own daughter and burned in hell. The symbolic “dis-barring” of the Transcendental Apperception, eliminating the dual relationship of self (shattering the mirror stage, as it were), self-immolation—setting one’s soul ablaze… all of these phenomena coalesce beautifully in “Soul On Fire.”

Imagine Lavern Baker, in parallactic duality, with the ability to see all the mirror images of herself — all perspectives simultaneously, singing, in child-like abandon:

 

 

For me
You’re the only one
Who makes me shiver
Makes me tingle