cartwheels into your heart

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

[Read earlier tonight at Squeezed]

I’m nine years old and sleeping over at my friend George’s house. We’re playing Scrabble. George hestitates, then spells out B-I-T-C-H. Bitch. “Heh. It’s my only play.” I look at my tiles and smile. I play TITS. “Me too,” I say. “I just can’t play anything else!” This is plainly a lie. There are plenty of other words I could form. But I’m secretly pleased with this opportunity to talk dirty for a moment. Because, of course, I have an excuse: “I’m just trying to win. I’m just playing the game.”

Eight years later, I’m sleeping over at my friend Chris’s house, where we’ve just finished watching a bootleg video of Kids, the Larry Clark film about teenage sex. For the past year and a half, I’ve had a terrible crush on Chris and figure tonight’s finally the night to seduce him. When we’re bored with his rock collection, he agrees to play Truth or Dare. Eager to do his bidding, I choose Dare early on, and am forced to drink a whole glass of milk, which he knows I hate. Not quite what I had in mind. But soon enough, I’m asking him Truth: whether he’d ever considered making out with me. And then it’s 4 AM, and his dirty, sweet-smelling hair is in my face, and my right hand is down the front of his boxers.

There’s a fundamental attraction to games like Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle. They’re borne out of sexual desire, and they even hold the potential to release sexual tension -- but because they’re games, with artificial structures and rules, they also leave an out for their participants. If we can say we’re only playing, then we don’t have to really mean it. We like to believe that these games breed intimacy, but it’s a detached form of intimacy, one in which we’re still in control.

* * *

At some point, Chris puts on Sonic Youth’s album, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Until now, I’ve never realized just how sexy the song "Skink" is. Coming off the swirling squall of "Starfield Road," "Skink" opens with a tense, single-note guitar line, and Kim Gordon breathing simple directions: "Here. There." Part of it’s that the song gives me space: Kim growls a little, slinks around the reverb, but also waits for me to hold his shoulder, brush my lips against his. And yet her sing-song is so teasing, too. As she coos "I love" and shrieks "you," I get lost in the thought of some gauzy, cotton-candy-colored slip she’d step out of. "Kinda hazy," she sings, "kinda messy, too."

It’s a few years later before I discover music similarly girlish and unhurried, in the solo records of Tara Jane O’Neil. In a song like "Just Calling,' Tara’s soft, languorous voice spills over what David Cozen calls "slow rinse-cycle guitars": these sad, circular figures that never fail to mesmerize. Even listening to her alone, I understand few of her words -- they’re either too quiet or too obscure -- but I feel enclosed somehow, spun into a mood of lonely charm and slow heartbreak. David says it’s music for feeling crushed: I take this to mean both depressed and in love.

There are certain songs so stark and pretty that they pull us close to them, cheek to cheek in bed. But how much can we really touch, when they’re not even about us, anyway? Can we still feel connected, when all we do is use them, conveniently, when we’re "in the mood"? Do we still feel attached when she comes off the stage with her girlfriend, all drunk and distracted? And is art then nothing more than wandering around our own hearts?

Friday, September 19, 2003

The new Mogwai record is mostly disappointing, but the single is gorgeous.

Twice in the last week I’ve been confronted with a kind of musical critique for which I have little patience anymore. First, I made a mix for a party last weekend that included “Rock Your Body.” The fact that I could barely contain my enthusiasm while playing it (“The bridge is perfect!”) led my friend Rachel to shake her head and sigh, “I don’t see why it’s so great. Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder did this kind of thing much, much better.” Then, the other day at work, a co-worker remarked that she hoped that Madonna “gets her comeuppance in the end.” When I asked her what was so loathesome about Madonna -- who I’ve never much cared for but certainly don’t wish ill upon! -- she recited the typical complaints about “manufactured” pop: “She doesn’t even write her own songs,” “It’s all about the image.” Ho-hum.

What bothers me is that these outright dismissals are always made without any inquiry into the music’s potential pleasure. My first response is always, “Okay, but does it sound good?” (as anyone who’s argued with me about the Strokes or Interpol will remember). I’m not saying that there’s no place for extra-aesthetic criticism of music. I mean, I’ll happily rail against Clear Channel’s depressing homogenization of radio. But even if the new Beyonce single is part of that commercial radio landscape, there’s no reason for my opinion of the song itself to consider the corporate interests that made it happen. Or at least not initially. When I first hear it, it’s just an aesthetic reaction: "Oooh, horns!"

And maybe that’s what I want out of other people. I want them to cast aside their fetishization of the past (or of “authentic” black artists) and just admit, “You know, that Justin Timberlake song is pretty tight.” I want them to give up their outdated media critique for just a second to say, “Well, but Madonna is fun to dance to.” And if they really don’t like it, even on that basic level, I want them to give a genuine aesthetic reason for it: “There’s no hook,” “His voice is too thin,” “It goes on for too long.” I realize, of course, that aesthetic reactions can never be completely pure, and that an expression such as “too thin” often implies an a priori ideal (like “not as rich as Michael Jackson’s voice”), but at least it seems more honest: “It just doesn’t work for me.”

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Another troubling quote from that O'Rourke interview, re: Slint's Spiderland: "Oh, how can you not cry when you hear that record? It's completely indigenous." O'Rourke seems to imply that Slint's indigenous emotion is what makes him cry -- but from another perspective, his crying came first, with "the music = indigenous" merely a convenient rhetoric he used to make sense of that reaction. Yeah, I'm getting a headache.

What does it mean to say an artwork is contrived? Jim O’Rourke claims to dislike Rachel’s because their music feels bereft of indigenous emotion; the sadness we hear is merely a signifier, a “coded gesture.” But how do you defend a statement like this, when there’s nothing within the work to point toward? (Or is there?) What bothers me is that talk of “contrivance,” even when we’re ostensibly referring only to our immediate reaction (“It feels contrived”), seems to make a presumption about the artist and/or the process of creation. And it’s a slippery slope before accusations of contrivance become part of a cynical predisposition against the work, as in, “Can you believe these indie kids are actually attempting to make serious music?” At a very basic level, Rachel’s simply don’t work for O’Rourke; is there a better way to explain how?

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Singles Reviews (Highly Anticipated Albums Edition)

1. Basement Jaxx ft. JC Chasez, "Plug it In" (from Kish Kash)

Not being much of a dance aficionado, the only other Jaxx track I’ve heard is "Red Alert," which impressed me with its shake-your-ass disco beats and infectious bass. (I’m beginning to think I’m a sucker for disco: the guitar figure in Timberlake’s "Rock Your Body," one of my favorite singles this year, could come straight from Chic.) And while initially this didn’t seem to live up to the sheer fun of that song, I’m finding new, exciting sounds the more I play it: drippy synths tripping over fuzzed-out power chords, a break with suddenly ethereal voices. It’s dense, man. And especially since I like my beats thick these days, I can see this really taking hold.

2. Belle and Sebastian, "Stay Loose" (from Dear Catastrophe Waitress)

Yeah, it’s too long at 6:41, with a verse-chorus tediously repeated three times. And the melody isn’t nearly as strong as most of their catalog. But Belle and Sebastian are taking enough genuine chances here that it’s cured me of my recent boredom with the band and has me very curious about the new record. Momus is right about the influences ("The Police, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Squeeze"): you can hear echoes of the late seventies in Stuart Murdoch’s affected, reverbed voice, and in the reggae-style delay of the tinny guitar. The hands-down catchiest part of the song, though, is the guitar solo (!), especially as it takes shapes at the end; its most obvious B&S antecedent, oddly enough, is the band’s cover of "The Boys Are Back in Town" that they played on tour last year.

3. Outkast, "Hey Ya" (from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below)

Wow. The first time I heard this song, thanks to a guest-DJ spot Radiohead did on Q101, I could barely contain myself. Mixing crude acoustic, watery bass, and music-box twinkles into an exuberant shout-along, it’s the kind of hip-hop track Wayne Coyne would love. Andre 3000 even outdoes Coyne’s famous charisma – from the very top, when he boasts "My baby don’t mess around," to all those "allrightallrightallrights" to the dazzling break: you’ve got to "shake it like a Polaroid picture!" Single of the year? So far, yes.