The Kansas Diaries

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A mural in Minneapolis by Xena Goldman, Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain, Niko Alexander, and Pablo Hernandez.

One day, I came across a singular, thoughtful voice with a heavy Australian accent, narrating everything she saw as she walked down the street, the sound of evening insects and sprinklers behind her. I was struck by the quiet sincerity of the tone in this portrait of a small town, the complete lack of plot. This was The Fitzroy Diaries, a radio series written and performed by Lorin Clarke. Jonathan Mitchell’s The Truth guest-featured two episodes out of Clarke’s eight episodes, which was originally produced by the Australian Broadcast Corporation.

“A woman walks, baby strapped to her chest, through the streets of Fitzroy and Carlton,” the episode description reads. “As she walks, she notices the way the skyline edges upward, nudged by the cranes of developers. And she notices the history of this place, ever-present, despite those cranes.” That’s it, on the surface. Just a woman trying to get her newborn to fall asleep on her nightly strolls, noticing details about her neighbors, strangers sparking curiosity, documenting the comings and goings of people on the streets of her town.

Under the surface of any public observation, power structures flow like a river. The senses that capture the city belong to a body that has a certain place in that city; in my case, a privileged place. The institutions that claim to keep the peace on our streets are actually state-sponsored mechanisms of control, sacrificing the lives of Black, Brown, and poor people for the perceived “safety” of the wealthy and the white. It means something different for a white woman to walk through her American town than it does for a Black or Brown person of any gender. Simply driving (Sandra Bland, Philando Castile), walking (Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin), going for a jog (Ahmaud Arbery), sleeping in your own bed (Breonna Taylor), playing (Tamir Rice), going to the grocery store (George Floyd) is reason enough in be accosted, arrested, and killed by cops in America, or in Arbery’s and Martin’s case, American citizens who fancy themselves cops. Almost all of these killings are state-sponsored murder. Exceptional thinking or individual rationales cannot dam the larger fact that we are paying the salaries of those who shoot and kill our own neighbors. It doesn’t matter if someone’s friend or sister or father is a good person on the local police force. It certainly didn’t matter to Minneapolis officers whether or not George Floyd was a good person when an officer murdered him in broad daylight, in cold blood. He was a friend. He was a father.

Like many cities large and small in America, Lawrence’s residents are asking themselves to whom their city belongs. Progressive pockets of Kansans are asking themselves whether their radical abolitionist and anti-war history does any work for the current needs of their most vulnerable citizens. They need to wonder, often and loudly, who their tax dollars protect, and who their tax dollars kill. These questions will show up in public space. These questions will be asked and answered in protests, press conferences, and on ballots, but they will also ripple among quiet conversations, through small acts of kindness or aggression, flashes of civic pride or disappointment, on a handmade sign in a yard.

With the limited subjectivity of my senses, I have spent the last two months trying to witness this as Lorin Clarke’s narrator does, brushing my hand across the surface of my new city, touching tips of root systems and rot and resilience. I take daily walks. Homemade Black Lives Matter signs dot the sweeping lawns of former hippies and tenured University of Kansas professors. Their children write it in chalk on the sidewalks. Activists camp at 11th Street, blocking traffic. I walk through them wondering who to ask how I can help. I pick up trash. Weeks later, my father drinks wine from a thermos in the park. My mother gives me a jar of her sauerkraut, but warns it’s powerful, that I should only take one spoonful at a time. Sitting six feet apart, we watch a group of unmasked white men playing frisbee. Across the street, I CAN’T BREATHE is graffitied over a shuttered ice cream shop downtown. On Sundays I sit with my parents in their backyard in Topeka and we argue about the effectiveness of voting versus protesting. We talk about disenfranchisement and suppression, and what it actually means to “defund the police.” We water the church community garden. Dad shows me the songs he’s been working on in the basement, where my bedroom used to be. I sing along to “A Day in the Life” under my mask, smelling my own breath. On Saturdays I talk to Kansans on the phone in Osage County about a rare Democratic Senate candidate, helping them make a plan to get to the polls. One man tells me he wants change, and that Washington is corrupt, which is why he supports Donald Trump. Another woman tells me to stay out of her business. I sit with my mother on the steps of the state judicial building and tell her I can’t canvas for the Senate candidate anymore. When she asks why, I tell her the candidate is too moderate. We sweep up the discarded ends of the green beans we’ve been eating. I check out the candidate’s new opponent, a recent graduate, a leftist. On his website, he pledges not to use Facebook to advertise. On the path along the river, I pass by farms. Sometimes I just stand and watch the horses. I send a message to my online therapist, canceling her services. When the prompt asks me why, I click ‘financial’ and type: health insurance gone. I consider canceling my dues for the union in Mississippi, too, but I don’t. I won’t. In Kansas City, the air is smokey on the Fourth of July. I stand on the bridge over the highway on 56th street, drinking sparkling water out of a can. Gold explosions pop all the way out to the suburbs. Just a few blocks away, the baby of my childhood friend is falling asleep in the house she and her husband bought last year. I didn’t tell her I was here.

Shelter in Playlist: “Great Day”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the final post about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Great Day,” Paul McCartney

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Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.

You’ve probably picked up by now that I’m interested in the playlist as a rhetorical exercise. Playlist as balm, playlist as advocate, playlist as stimulant. A sunset with Willie Nelson’s “Buddy” in the background is a different sunset than one soundtracked by Bjork’s “Lionsong.” Some combinations of songs fit a moment, others sour it. (Not that Bjork would sour a sunset.) I guess I’m making it a hobby to write about why. But why why? Why am I so compelled to pick apart my own inventions? Have I over-sentimentalized a process that Spotify has perfected?

The other day I was listening to a design podcast called 99% Invisible, which specializes in short inquiries about the origins of design. Architecture, toothbrush handles, parks: all are intentional constructs we can trace back to the decisions meant to ease or influence the human animal. One episode that particularly caught my ear was about an app called RjDj that uses the sensory tools of your phone (camera, mic, GPS, etc) to read your environment and cater music specifically for your surroundings. Because of the nature of “reactive music” projects this developer has worked on, the music you would hear in the app was more likely an ambient reaction to a space rather than a thematic one, i.e. as you stand next to a river, you would hear flowing, watery sounds rather than Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.” This strikes me as an effort to mirror and highlight the very act of listening itself; exaggerating the features of a soundscape, or any mood’s associative noises, in order to foreground what had previously melted into the backdrop. It’s like the sonic equivalent to zooming in on the wood patterns of your cabinets.

The app didn’t work out (at least not in its intended form) but it made me realize all the human complexity present in the act of soundtracking our livesperhaps it’s not merely formulaic or reflective. While RjDj’s immersion in sound alters one’s perception, it (probably intentionally) avoids one of the main reasons why people listen to music as they drive or walk or socialize: to place themselves inside cultural narratives. Now, of course, we’re constantly receiving invitations from streaming behemoths like Spotify to occupy the sonic spaces they have built through data mapping. They offer playlists for moods, for seasons, for situations. Their sophisticated algorithms make judgments based on our listening habits, making recommendations and creating personalized collections. It’s beautiful, what Spotify does. Very sleek and quick.

And yet. I don’t think it can yet do for us what we can do for ourselves. It doesn’t have the reactive power we have (and RjDj tried to have). We have to tell it who we are, where we are, and what we want to hear. We tell the algorithm what kind of impression we want to form, and it can merely reflect that impression back to us. And Spotify doesn’t have a direct interface; the world is harvested first by smell, sight, touch. The art of the playlist reflects the functions of the body: reacting, processing, choosing one thing and not the other. Even now, after most of us have graduated from recording songs off the radio onto cassette tapes, making playlists is still a physical act. Typing search terms, listening for a moment for the perfect sound, clicking through to a different one, moving tracks up and down to find the right order. A playlist is about consumption, but it’s not passive. It’s collage, but it’s about reshaping reality rather than fragmenting it. It’s art using other’s art, recontextualizing, projecting, making connections across time and category, creating conversations between artists who never thought to speak to each other. I’m obsessed. I’m grateful to artificial intelligence for the help, but I could never give up this task wholly.

The idea to make a shelter-in-place playlist was spurred by this song, “Great Day.” Sometimes, when I am overwhelmed by emotionspositive or negativeI think about my freshman year of high school, when I was so saturated by feeling I could barely eat. I was starting a new school, I had just started to browse beyond the young adult section in the library, and I was deeply infatuated with a sixteen-year-old who kept lending me CDs. People often describe children as sponges, but they rarely recall what it’s like when you are aware of your spongeness. My skull was cracked open to the wind, my skin felt porous. Sometimesand I’m ashamed to say itI would literally start trembling when this kid would talk to me. It wasn’t just him in relation to me, it was also him as a doorway, all these new portals he was opening for me to music and books and film. And when we “broke up” (reader, we went to Dairy Queen three times over the span of six weeks), I knew I couldn’t go back into my own smaller world. I had to keep going, to keep exploring, or else he would know how hurt I was.

I didn’t know why then, but among all of those new discoveries (David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen), I was very into Flaming Pie, a 1993 album by Paul McCartney that received middling reviews. Looking back, I suspect this more contemporary album represented a small step forward from my Beatles and Oldies 95 ouvre, but still allowed me to find solace in the familiarity of Paul McCartney’s voice. The song is so simple, too, with just one repeating verse, and a chorus of one line. It turns out McCartney wrote it from the comfort of his home, describing it now as “an acoustic number that he and [his late wife] Linda used to perform ‘sitting around the kitchen or when the children were dancing’,” and they even have memories of singing it together by candlelight as a hurricane raged off the coast of Long Island. Beyond the warm image of Paul strumming to keep out the wild night, there’s something very cute yet profound about the limitations of its lyrics.

“While you’re standing there,” McCartney requests, “get up and grab a chair.” Logistically, this is nonsense. If the person to whom he is singing is standing, there’s no need for them to “get up.” But the message is clear cut: have a seat. Nothing makes sense, so sit on down. It might be a while. “It won’t be long,” the chorus repeats, never evolving into any more certainty than that. There’s no answer to what will come after this period of waiting or not waiting.

I remember putting Flaming Pie into my little off-brand player with tinny speakers. I remember zipping up my Catholic uniform and looking at myself in the mirror, trying to see myself as everyone else saw me, and always failing. I remember the nostril-cut of the acidic perfume I put on to make myself seem older. As everything outside my window was shifting like a storm with my perceptionnew knowledge revealing cracks in its facade, new landscapes, dark corners and sensationsI was stuffing my backpack, humming along to the sweet, protective lie of “Great Day.” Now I’m in my thirties, moving across the country by myself during a pandemic.

Somehow its message wasn’t lost as I carried on at fourteen, scared and sad, punch-drunk on the strangeness of growing up, and I hope that’s still the case. Songs stay with you, especially the hummed ones, even as you step outside to find the world changed.

Shelter in Playlist: “Spring”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the penultimate post about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Spring,” Angel Olsen

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Image courtesy of angelolsen.com.

Last night Ian and I were talking about how little he cares for lyrics. It’s not that he doesn’t like songs with words, he told mehe’s just completely indifferent to them. You could sing the words shit, shit, shit, he said, and if they’re sung with a certain level of emotion and depth and skill, I will cry. He’s always known this about himself, but he was reminded while being moved to tears as Tituss Burgess sings about Patti LaBelle’s pies on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. This might sound ridiculous, but you should judge for yourself. Burgess is a powerhouse singer. Maybe you, too, will tear up over pies.

Though I usually require a bit more from songs than shit shit shit, lyrics-wise, I think, like my friend Ian, I would have been moved by “Spring” no matter what Angel Olsen was singing. Following her foremothers Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, and Fiona Apple, there’s just something about Olsen’s vocal styling that scoops out the tender, wanting heart on a plate. The calling card of one of my favorite songs of hers, “Unf***theworld” off of 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, is that Olsen somehow manages to sound like she’s on the verge of tears without the performance being overly-wrought or sentimental, a series of guttural pronouncements over lost love not unlike Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan. But they’re not quite comparable; the stakes seem lower for singers like Dylan, even in heartbreak. His persona is a rambler, not a piner. Perhaps that’s why he was never going to be the bluesman he wishes he was, despite good efforts, because he seems to lead with words (and blues chords) and hopes feelings will follow. As a fellow mercurial beast, trust me when I say a words-first approach never works. A truly chest-cracking ballad means the heart leads, or at least heart and words walk alongside one another. Even off of a more bluesy album like Love and Theft, songs like “Lonesome Day Blues” and “Cry a While” leave the listener with the sense, ironically, that Bobby D is having a blast. It’s the blues musician’s catch-22: perhaps if you love playing blues enough to make you happy, you start to lose the reason you wanted to play blues in the first place.  

I digress. Sort of. What I’m setting up here is that this catch-22 could be the downfall of any artist (like Olsen) who seems to mine her pain for creativity. Unlike feelings, words are always there. What happens when the pain fades? The art has to shift somehow, to change shape or find another source of inspiration, and you can’t blame wordsmiths like Dylan for choosing the more mobile, versatile medium for expression. If I’m honest, after listening to Burn Your Fire for No Witness, I wondered if Olsen would never be able to top it. Even if she troubled her wounds, she had trucked in so much anger, so much loneliness, so much grief, I thought there was no way she would be able to replicate what Lindsay Zoladz at Pitchfork called a “strange, anarchic electricity, always flickering on the edge of blowing out.”

And yet she did. Rather than loss and rage, she stepped into the raw, swirling confusion of new love for 2016’s “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” and now, for 2019’s “Spring,” she paints the bittersweet melancholy of solitude, of adulthood, the second coming-of-age that happens when you finally understand how little you know: “How time has revealed how / Little we know us,” Olsen sings. “I’ve been too busy / I should’ve noticed.” Throughout the entire All Mirrors album, the vocal fullness of Olsen’s crackling-fuse soundalong with Ringo-like fillers, the precarious climbing chords, the Roman candle sound of a distorted snarereminds me of John Lennon in the midst of his primal scream phase, laid bare on Plastic Ono Band. I could never have predicted how “Spring” would be born of “Unf***theworld,” just as I could have never known the same Lennon who made “Yer Blues” would make “Hold On.” But maybe that’s because when I first heard them, I still thought every feeling I had lasted forever.

Both Lennon and Olsen were my high-volume drinking companions on some of the most miserable winter nights I can remember, those of 2015, 2016. Like “Hold On,” “Spring” feels like an opportunity to go back and put a comforting hand on the shoulder of 25-year-old Lara, head down on her desk, sobbing and confused. You’ll never not be confused, I want to tell her, but you won’t have to grip it so hard. To her own past self, Olsen sings, “Don’t take it for granted / Love when you have it / You might be looking over / A lonelier shoulder.” Though there’s an implication here that now is the lonelier time, Olsen doesn’t linger. She goes on to speak to a friend: “Remember when we said / We’d never have children / I’m holdin’ your baby / Now that we’re older.” This is a familiar conversation to any of Olsen’s fellow thirty-somethings. What used to be boring is now welcome rest. What used to be cheesy is now ritualized and heartfelt. For the families growing around me, “children” and “baby” mean literal children, yes, but for those of us who are childless, these words also symbolize anything that could grow. Anything that had previously seemed impossible but is now within our reach. Maybe that’s not partnership yet, for me, but certainly freedom from alcohol. A passion for teaching. Making art that feels wholly mine.

And if there’s a present self to sing back to the past, perhaps there’s a future self that sings back to us now. Inside Olsen’s croon, I listen for a voice that tells me to hold on, that the love I want is waiting, that I’m not stuck inside forever. “Spring” sends visions of family, of fearless outings, of the happy din of being in public, of putting your arms around someone without worry. It’s hard not to listen and let your heart break with hope.

Shelter in Playlist: “Walk On By”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the seventh entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Walk On By,” The Beach Boys

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Image courtesy of Sound on Sound.

Usually a song about heartbreak towards the end of a playlist means something wistful and sad; today it doesn’t. I’m just tickled by this arrangement. And from the rollicking doom of “Sunny Afternoon” to the Lennon-esque bask of our next song, the Beach Boys cover of this little Burt Bacharach numbermade famous, of course, by Dionne Warwick and later Isaac Hayes—acts as a musical bridge. Against its more chart-topping counterpart, this originally unreleased Beach Boys version is significantly slower and less crisp, missing not only a majority of the lyrics of the original song but a lot of the pride, too. While Ms. Dionne seems to dismiss her pain with a veil of commanding elegance, Brian Wilson’s falsetto reads more like an erasure poem about despair.

This morning, I kept listening to the two versions back to back, trying to figure out what exactly is so off. It’s not just the harmonies on the beautiful, bleeding edge of dissonant, as usual with Wilson’s ear. It’s not just the syrupy tempo, either. Then I found a possible answer: the piano is out of tune. Or at least not tuned according to the traditional A-above-middle-C. After doing some digging, I found some very interesting speculation: according to a couple different message boards, Wilson had his piano tuned strangely on purpose around the time the Beach Boys were recording 1967’s Smiley Smile. No one could confirm this, but the general story, which allegedly comes from Brian’s ex-wife Marilyn, is that Brian asked a piano tuner to come over and adjust the piano according to his own hummed pitches. Many are skeptical that this is even musically possible, but there is no doubt that the scales are a bit sideways in “Walk on By,” as well as on Wild Honey‘s “Let the Wind Blow” and “Country Air,” also recorded in 1967. 

This reverbed, off-tune sound pierces me to the bone. Growing up we had an old upright in our house that all the kids were too impatient to practice and thus never formally learned. On summer days, though, I liked to play with it purely as a noise machine. I didn’t care that it was out of tune. I probably had no idea. I liked to loosen the reverb all the way and press my ear to the walnut, feeling the vibrations of each key. Then I would tap the mute pedal, delighting for a bit in the muffled clinks, only to dive back into the deep sea echo of notes bleeding together. As I got older, I taught myself songs by ear, practicing raw, fragile imitations of “Let It Be” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” until my brothers got annoyed. I bet there is a version of this off-key, experimental instrument in many households. I imagine it’s not just me for whom Wilson’s choice signifies the sweet, messy plunk of a home piano, playing for the sake of noise and nothing else. Read the message boardsjust like me, people are mysteriously drawn to the sound.

My favorite measure is under the wash of that chorus of “cry.” The arpeggio is so gentle and simple relative to the blast of harmonics, like a kid coming into the dining room during a dinner party to see why all the adults are being so loud. With this sweet, slightly confused tone helping us along, we’ll soon hit the apex of this playlist with Angel Olsen’s “Spring.”

Join me in running your finger along the thread between past and present, between Wilson’s 1967 front room and Olsen’s 2019 masterpiece of a ballad, featuring a piano sound which Steffanee Wang at The Fader calls “gently warped.” Do you hear how, despite its imperfection, it carries the song?

Shelter in Playlist: “Sunny Afternoon”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the sixth entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Sunny Afternoon,” The Kinks

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Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite its upbeat rhythm and title, the opening bass-heavy notes of “Sunny Afternoon” spell doom. “It starts off descending and just floats on down for another 3.5 minutes,” Paul Williams once said in a Crawdaddy review in 1967. The protagonist’s lyrics are confessional about his woes, like a blues song—Kinks frontman and composer Ray Davies mentioned he was listening to Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home as he was composing, which features “Outlaw Blues,” for example, and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Dying)”and yet the complaints are delivered with a tipsy, Sinatra-inspired Old Hollywood croon, backed by the clean, angelic oohs and ahhs of a Lawrence Welk chorus. You can picture the dude Davies put at the center, a ruddy aristocrat on the sweeping, lonely veranda of his estate, drinking a Double Diamond and complaining to the one loyal butler who remains about not being able to take out his yacht.

The first time I really paid attention to The Kinks was in high school, and it was this song got to me. It somehow inhabits the state of its speaker so fully that when I hear it, I feel sunlight on my closed eyelids no matter where I am, damp cotton on my back, a wet heat that’s not too suffocating, slowing the thoughts so that all you have the energy to do is nod politely at your existential dread. In “Sunny Afternoon,” there are problems, sure, but nothing to be done. This is the final battle cry of the human animal, resigned to having a beer as the forces beyond his control rage around him.

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Meme courtesy of Know Your Meme, adapted from the work illustrator K.C. Greene.

There’s also another version of this song’s main character who I’ve watched from my window during social distancing: the regulation-bucking Oxfordians who own and rent houses in my neighborhood. While scientists predict a more brutal wave of the virus ahead, my neighbors have maskless keggers, instructing their delivery drivers’ Civics and Nissans to pull up next to their Benzes and Lexuses, tipping in dirty cash. Just as the American now moans about federal safety measures that protect the very workers who bring food to their porches, Davies referenced the woes of titled, landowning feudal-lord families as progressive postwar taxes swept Britain—the backbone, it should be noted, of the current relative strength of the NHS. Across history and nation, the song critiques those who mourn privileges that were never really theirs to begin with, the absurdity of those who think that their personal longing for their yachts (or in our case, dining-in at restaurants and partying) somehow outweighs the labor (and now risk) it takes to maintain them.

And yet, “Sunny Afternoon” might also highlight the luxuries that can’t be taken away so easily: the sun on your face, a cold beverage, a bit of quiet time. The loneliness of the speaker, abandoned by his girlfriend, mirrors those of us isolated from our loved ones; replace “sail my yacht” with something like “see my mom,” and the song equalizes somewhat, taking on heartbreaking relevancy. When the only thing to do in the face of a contagious killer is to stay home, most of us are lazing on a sunny afternoon, whether we like it or not.

Ray Davies was both sick and a new father when he composed the song, two conditions that keep one confined, sleepless and bored. He began to play around on his upright piano and invited his brother Dave to help him work out the instrumentation. “You listen to ‘Sunny Afternoon’ and you can see the light coming through the curtains…” Dave once told Kinks Fan Club Magazine. “It’s got that kind of magic to it because that’s what it was like. It was like Ray’s front room.”

I can attest there is magic to be made in a room. I’m always wary about having favorite quotes—it feels like rummaging through someone’s drawer of consciousness—but there’s one about the creative process that I live by like gospel, always attributed to Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life so you may be violent and original in your art.” Patti Smith has a variation of this, too: “In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”

Balance, stealth, regularity, order. In a room, or in your corner of a room, there are small doses of what we crave from the world: a sense of belonging, a place for everything, protection. In routine, there is something we can’t get from the larger passage of time: a small assurance about what will come next. When you know how and when your leisure ends, you can enjoy it, rather than fearing it will be taken away. When you know the distance from one spot to the next, you’re more likely to leap. In safety, there is play. In play, there is [   ]. Whatever you can dream up, fill in the blank. Your version of a sip from a cold bottle.

I would put spontaneity, or curiosity, or beauty, but it changes from day to day. Afternoon to afternoon. Anything I can think of, really, that I know will survive the fire.

Shelter in Playlist: “Cosmic Dancer”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the fifth entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

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Image courtesy of Sound Opinions.

Are you seeing a pattern yet? Lonesome, surrounded by a menagerie of glittering links to the past, to other worlds. Inconsolable except by the stars. Though I will focus on the lyrics, my favorite part of “Cosmic Dancer” is the sound of Marc Bolan’s guitar. Based on what I hear, I believe (I can’t confirm with a cursory Google search) that these riffs are actually being played backward. The conventional electric guitar is a piercing, jagged sound; people love it because they can practically see or feel the notes penetrating the air. But backward, the riffs of “Cosmic Dancer” sound like they’re being sucked back into the void whence they came. The edges are rounded. Eroding, retreating. Leaping like a gull call back to the beginning of each note.

“Cosmic Dancer” is off of T. Rex’s Electric Warrior, an album that contained the one and only hit to cross the pond with American listeners, but funnily enough, the hit wasn’t today’s featured song. Beyond the DJ-favorite “Bang a Gong (Get it On),” the popularity of “Cosmic Dancer” has climbed only in recent years, or at least its use in soundtracks has increased. I first heard the song backing Todd Haynes’ 1998 box office flop Velvet Goldmine, a beautiful, strange, borderline melodramatic retelling of the birth and evolution of glam rock, an aesthetic musical movement of which Marc Bolan was a part. With a plot that’s two parts Citizen Kane, one part Almost Famous, we follow a journalist and a rockstar (a David Bowie-inspired character; so close, in fact, that Haynes had to rewrite the script for fear of a lawsuit) in intersecting vignettes, watching the blooming spirit of British queerness and camp travel in currents from Brian Slade (a la David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Jobriath), to Curt Wild (a la Iggy Pop, Lou Reed). Just as the aesthetics of glam-rock transcend sexuality, the movie is about more than the illicit affairs of its characters. Velvet Goldmine‘s “Rosebud” is a piece of jewelry owned by Oscar Wilde, given from the Iggy Pop character to the rock journalist as a kind of talisman. With this moment as its climax, the movie also seems to be about homage, carrying a legacy of those who live and create outside of convention. Specifically, British and American convention, and more specifically, Haynes’ focus is on the creators who are white men, with the exception of a nod to the late Little Richard. (Speaking of those influenced by Little Richard, I would love to see a version of this homage story with Prince at its center.)

Back to T. Rex: this song strikes me as the melancholy heart of glam rock, the melancholy heart of camp.* If camp is about any style that thumbs its nose at societal notions of “good” or “tasteful,” then “Cosmic Dancer” is about the loneliness of the uncommon. To perform camp, one must be both joyfully accessible and intentionally repulsive. One must beckon eyes and ears with spectacle, but remain impertinent, impenetrable. “I danced myself right out the womb,” Bolan’s speaker narrates in nasally, tremulous tones. A truly camp-y image: the tiny Marc Dolan, soft-shoeing between his mother’s legs, a universal experience that is somehow met with almost universal disgust for its viscera. And there’s loneliness here, too. He danced himself right out. No help implied. A similar solitude hangs over the other mentions of dancing, “when I was out,” and “when I was eight.” I see an eight-year-old boy, alone in his room, swayingplease tell me you see it, too. Just as I see myself when I am a kid, imagining an enraptured audience as I leap about with my chubby body, transporting myself into fantasy scenarios with trips and turns.

*This paragraph is working with a more general definition of “camp” as laid out Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp.” However, Sontag was wrong: the origins of “camp” cannot and should not be extracted from queer culture, especially from the communities and code invented by queer and trans people of color. Read Moe Meyer’s response to Sontag in The Politics and Poetics of Camp, this 2018 essay by Chi Luu, or check out this excellent overview of the history of camp by Erika W. Smith.

 

Like Velvet Goldmine, and matching the tone of “Cosmic Dancer”i.e. “What’s it like to be a loon? I’d like it to a balloon”the whole Electric Warrior album questions the origins of one’s perceived strangeness. Brian James writes in Pitchfork, “With the incomparable aid of producer Tony Visconti, Bolan sketches a vast, empty room, where, after the party’s over, he resides alone, wide-eyed and desperate.” I can imagine it, this dark room James conjures, abandoned by the tastemakers, the dotted disco lights rotating around the speaker like the swirling, indifferent cosmos. But I can also see him get up, start to sway as he did when he was a child. While questioning the strange, “Cosmic Dancer” also embraces it, especially considering the speaker dances through life all the way to the end. The mention of “tomb” is paired with heavenly strings, and a senseas I said about the backward-seeming playback of the guitarof the sound rewinding. “But then again,” the speaker says right before the final chorus, “Once more.” Once more through life, indefinitely.

Six years after Electric Warrior was released, Marc Bolan died in a car crash. While his human body expired, the lovely, strange worlds created by T. Rex live on. Or maybe, like the wishes of his glam-rock counterpart David Bowie, it isn’t just music that is still with us. “I always had sort of a repulsive need to be more than human,” Bowie once said. Perhaps Bolan is still here in the form of some astronomical material, some benevolent particle that floats through our houses, that gets kicked up with the dust as we dance.

Shelter in Playlist: “Coin-Operated Boy”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the fourth entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Coin-Operated Boy,” The Dresden Dolls

dresdendolls
Image courtesy of MySpace.

I positioned Panda Bear’s “Take Pills” next to “Coin-Operated Boy” motivated by both sound and theme. We ended the last song on a train; we open this song with a similar staccato rhythm. After the staticky revelry of a 303 sampler, the dreamy travel of Monster Rally, and the grand hiss of the locomotor carrying us god-knows-where, we are plunked back indoors for a live performance, featuring the unmistakable tink-tink of toy piano. Yes, in this playlist as in life, we are always compelled back inside. Almost nothing is subtle or mysterious about the four walls of our own homes; almost nothing is subtle or mysterious about the instrumentation of this Dresden Dolls song. As the song builds, the percussion can barely keep up to the speed of the singer, crashing down onto the circus melody like a stack of Tupperware from the highest cupboard. Its chord structure plays out dizzy and circular, up and down the stairs like a sea shanty.

Like “Take Pills,” “Coin-Operated Boy” is about using artificial means to find joy. “Sitting on the shelf, he is just a toy,” vocalist and composer Amanda Palmer sings in a wistful, conversational tone, “But I turn him on and he comes to life / Automatic joy / That is why I want a coin-operated boy.” Pardon me while I get NSFW for a second: many listeners wonder if this “automatic joy” is referring to certain machinations of self-pleasure. While I can follow the logic of this reading, the Dresden Dolls themselves refute this in an old, archived FAQ, and I choose to believe them. For the purposes of this playlist, in any case, the coin-operated “automatic joy” is prescient of a much broader force in our current lives, a monetized, ever-ready dopamine-dispenser, the prevalence of which 2007 Amanda Palmer could have never predicted. I am talking, of course, about our devices.

“Made of plastic and elastic, he is rugged and long-lasting…” Though not long-lasting enough not to strategically break so we have to pay to update our models every year, the time we spend with our phones and tablets is likely more continuous than the time we now spend with flesh-and-blood people. Before the pandemic, this was somewhat by choice. Now it’s the forced norm of leisure time, especially for those of us who live alone. Sure, I take walks, have socially distanced picnics, read books, throw things in a pan. But the majority of my connection with others is mediated by screens, the mechanics of which are designed to keep my eyes locked on something or someone while a tax-evading company collects data for targeted ads. When you realize the “coin” of this “coin-operated boy” is paid unwillingly via sleight-of-hand, the dark carnivalesque trilling of the Dresden Doll’s piano becomes all the more appropriate.

The “boy” of the “coin-operated boy” is the promise of love and care behind the tricks. Though I resent my reliance on technology, I still use it to reach people. I feel genuine warmth when I see my friends’ and family’s faces on screen, when I hear their voices on the phone. This kind of technologically-induced joy is real, body and soul, and will endure even after in-person visits are not a risk. New relationships, on the other hand, are a different beast. I admit, on nights when the sitcom on the big screen isn’t enough to keep my attention, I go to the other, smaller screen and root around in the ol’ dating app. The situation for single people during quarantine is a sad kind of funny, or funny kind of sad. For my part, the irony is the worst. Just as I was ready to enjoy my new, post-grad school free time and maybe even find love, it becomes borderline illegal to go on dates.

And yet, there’s a part of me who shares the resignation of the speaker of “Coin-Operated Boy.” Perhaps it’s simpler this way, to keep humans at arm’s length while I enjoy the simple give-and-take of Netflix and The New York Times Tiles game (seriously, Tiles is so fun and relaxing, I highly recommend it). Entertainment on my schedule, according to my whims, adhering to my limits, for mere dollars a month. Nobody else’s dirty dishes in the sink, nobody’s farts to smell, no one’s taste to contend with, no giving up my shows for some organized crime drama, no boring talky podcast blaring from someone’s phone while I’m trying to read. This is lonely, but it’s also “love without complications galore.”

As Amanda Palmer begins listing the benefits of romance with a robotic boy“Many shapes and weights to choose from / I will never leave my bedroom / I will never cry at night again / Wrap my arms around him and pretend”her declarations begin to reveal the desperation of the speaker’s circumstances; “I will never cry at night again” seems more like a wish than a certainty. Just as the health and wealth and desires of a real boy might change, so, too, do the joy-giving capabilities of technology. Mirroring a stuck record, the song begins to repeat, “…and I’ll never be alone.” I agree with Genius contributor Matthew Durant: “Palmer’s broken record repetition of this line suggests something breaking down, like stuck clockwork. Despite all the benefits of a mechanical boyfriend, he’s still only a machine, easily broken – and she knows it.” Perhaps our pleasure-giving devices are subject to failures both mechanical and existential because, after all, they were invented by humans with their own existential and mechanical failures. 

Though the song’s predictions laid out how seamlessly we can begin to eschew messy, everyday meatspace and instead occupy ourselves with coin-operated systems, the emotional breakdown and general self-convincing tone of Palmer’s lyrics also suggest there will never be a satisfying substitute for loving a real, live person. What Palmer couldn’t account for, however, is the seduction of control in the midst of chaos. Pressing play and swiping left ensure that automation and algorithms stand in for the risk of failure, the vulnerability of choice and consequence. Sure, randomness can sneak in, but when it does, there’s always a back button. Always a back button on the micro level, that is.

Globally, we’d probably all like to press rewind on the last three months. Then we’d know how to prepare. Protect loved ones. Isolate cases. Gather supplies. Pressure our politicians to shut the country down earlier. But we can’t do that. So, I press play and let the four walls of my house disappear into the four sides of a screen. I watch people laugh and hug and fight and kiss. I let my attention drift from one screen to the other, where someone is on the other end, reaching out in the best way they know how. I type something in reply, bracing as I send, knowing I can cut him off at the first sign of anything disagreeable, anything that might interfere with my reality.

Meanwhile, on the other screen, romantic miscommunications are being cleared up. Rivalries turn into allyships. Wounds heal. If I’m worried my attention is too split, there’s no need. When I miss something important, I can always go back.

Shelter in Playlist: “Take Pills”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the third entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Take Pills,” Panda Bear

personpitch
Image courtesy of Pitchfork.

We’re all hermits now, to a certain degree. I grew up a musical hermit. While the village of my peers went about their errands singing along to Mariah Carey and N’Sync and Ludacris, I lived in a hobbit hole on the edge of town, listening to oldies. (Maybe you can remember the bumper from your local oldies station. Mine is Good times and great oldies: Oldies 95! To-PEE-ka!) Notes and riffs from contemporary tunes drifted past my cave door, and some like OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” and Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time” drew me out to dance, but for the most part I was busy in the dark, dusting off relics from Motown and psychedelic rock and the British invasion.

Whether my hermitude was a product of actual preference, or simply an effort to be in harmony with my chauffeur, who refused to listen to anything past 1973 without a skeptical grimace (hi, Dad), I don’t know. With this listening partnership came an ear for bricolage. Riding in the front seat along the capillaries of Midwestern interstates, I was taught to appreciate the components of songs just as much as the sum of their parts; the vocal techniques, the chord progressions, the out-of-the-ordinary instruments. At fifteen, the last year before I got my learner’s permit, we had a morning drop-off ritual: two cereal bars to-go, windows down (weather permitting), and George Harrison’s “Apple Scruffs,” one of my favorite songs off tour-de-force solo effort All Things Must Pass, as well as a lesser-known Beatle single called “The Inner Light,” also written by George. My dad always says that among the post-1970 solo efforts of the Fab Four, Harrison took most advantage of what made the Beatles special (the genius sound engineering of Sir George Martin, for one*), and that All Things Must Pass feels like a logical continuation of The Beatles (the White Album) and Abbey Road, with its sweeping orchestral ebbs and flows and an emphasis on instrumentation and quality, like a chef who prioritizes his ingredients over his personality. (It should be noted that The Beatles’ first whiffs of instrumental experimentation on Rubber Soul were partially inspired by the sitar artistry of Ravi Shankar, The Kinks [who we’ll cover later], and Donovan, who, according to my mother, also belongs on this playlist. You’re not wrong, Mom!)

The deconstructed ingredients of Beatles songs, the drop-off rituals and highway music lessons, the hermit’s cave echoing with the rotation from Oldies 95: all led me to a deep love I didn’t know I had of repetition, of song structure and production. Following the breadcrumbs of the familiar, I began to creep out of the 1960s cave. It started with The Grey Album, the hip hop masterpiece by Danger Mouse, combining samples from Jay-Z’s Black Album (itself a sample-heavy work) with the White Album. Then there were the beats of De La Soul, Danger Doom and Madvillain, Gorillaz, and even Girl Talk, an understandably divisive mash-up artist who combined contemporary hip hop and dance tracks with classic rock. This would soon expand into a general enthusiasm for sampling and electronica, indie psychedelia, and atmospheric albums, anything with some sense of patchwork patterns, anything where the sound is recognizable but slightly estranged. Like the acoustic guitar, beat looping, and clandestine recordings of The Books, or the distorted synth, Beach-Boy-harmonies, handclaps, and off-kilter rhythms of Animal Collective. These artists poked windows in the hobbit hole, letting the air of the moment in, swirling the dust motes of past and present, blurring memories and genre.

Now, in a different kind of hermitude, I try to remember to open my doors and windows every once in a while to avoid stale air and malaise. Those of us with depressive or anxious brains might find the refrain of “Take Pills” familiar. “Surely there’s no substitute for company,” Animal Collective member Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) sings, and advises himself, “Take one day at a time / Everything else you can leave behind / Only one thing at a time / Anything more really hurts your mind.” Inspired by his difficult relationship with the dull blade of anti-depressants, Lennox used a 303 sampler to make Person Pitch, “inspired by hip-hop producer Madlib’s work under the Quasimoto moniker… which eventually birthed the swirling, chromatic hues.

The sampled percussion is also a vivid, echo-y slice of the mundanity of being inside. The song opens with what sounds like a fuzzy recording of some sort of machinery, a whispering hiss and click that resembles the quiet chorus of appliances in a still house, the hums of fridges and gurgling of coffee makers. Eventually the hushed clicks build and break, morphing into an upbeat, layered menagerie of cowboy backbeats, staggered choruses, muted explosions.

As “Take Pills” fades, we hear a train leave the station. Like anyone struggling with their mental health, and all of us uncertain of the future, we might try to “take one day at a time,” to not let the weeks slide so quickly past our windows. From some distant corner of my musical cave, George begins to sing with the sarodshehnai and pakhavaj: “Without going out of my door, I can know all things of earth. The farther one travels, the less one knows.” And Panda Bear’s train plods on into the next song, its sounds muddying the difference between inside and out. We’re invited to wonder where we’re going, and if we’ll ever find the familiar again.

*A reader (…okay, it was my dad) pointed out that this makes it sound like George Martin produced All Things Must Pass, and he’s not wrong. I meant to say that George Harrison kept up the multi-layered, cross-category feel of Martin’s production style though, yes, it was Phil Spector who produced All Things Must Pass. 

 

 

Shelter in Playlist: “Cherry Blossom”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the second entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Cherry Blossom,” Monster Rally

monsterrally
Image courtesy of Monster Rally’s Bandcamp page.

From the beaches of California, we travel to the non-place of exotica. Adjacent to Mike Love’s longing for escape through suggestive nostalgia, the nostalgia of Monster Rally is quite literal, constructed through producer Ted Feighen’s sampling of his “collection of [old] records, combining his interests in Hip-hop, Exotica, Tropicalia, and Soul.” From this combination, exotica has always stood out to me. Birthed from a 1957 album by Martin Denny, virtual record store Hip Wax calls exotica “a narrow slice of popular music or mood jazz, means very specifically tropical ersatz: the non-native, inauthentic experience of Oceania (Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Southeast Asia).” Inauthentic is a key word here. Musicologist Phil Ford says exotica “sounds like movie music without the movie,” and without the the movie, there are no images to anchor the imagination, no real setting or people through which to trace the sounds. Now, we can look up the sites of appropriation, finding the roots of exotica’s “variety of instruments: congabongosvibes, Indonesian and Burmese gongs, boo bams (bamboo sticks), Tahitian log, Chinese bell tree and Japanese kotos.” When first produced, however, Ford poses exotica as an invitation into the colonial white imagination, a place that can “conspire to make a kind of ethnographic pulp fiction” if not checked. It is the poison of vagueness when speaking of cultures with real people with real histories. It is the power of self-soothing delusion in music form. All brightly colored and warm as a bottle of spray-tan.

How to handle the pleasure I get when listening to Monster Rally, or even one of the original exotica offenders like Les Baxter, I do not know. How to curb the need to escape into fantasy when it feels as if the world is getting smaller. The saccharine siren song of this particular exotica is cut with actual tropicalia and hip hop beats, so at least it’s pulled from its original othering context, distorted, dressed up new. At least its collage is visible, I tell myself, and it doesn’t pretend to be a singular truth about the non-Western world. Those who needed no erzatz for tropical places made exotica music, too. Take the work of Yma Sumac, born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo, a Peruvian colorotura soprano.

I was once in love with a man who was obsessed with the music of Les Baxter. Seems fitting the love was unrequited. Now whenever I play “Cherry Blossoms” or anything other exotica-inspired tunes, I try to stay put, let the track weave through where I am. Let us repurpose and make the world out of the ceiling. This is the soundtrack for drifting and touching things absently, not being afraid to turn a carpeted floor into a dance floor. My friend told me that lately she realized she hasn’t stared off into space so much since she was a child. Me either, I told her. Newness can be achieved through stillness. I never knew how many things in my very own house have a texture. A smell. A sound.

Shelter in Playlist: “Do It Again”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the first entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” Hope you enjoy.

“Do It Again – A Cappella,” The Beach Boys

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The Beach Boys performing in Central Park, 1971. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

We open with a track from I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions, a collection of demos and backing tracks from 1968, re-released in 2018. When I found it I knew immediately it would set the tone for this playlist. Regardless of how much a listener knows about the Beach Boys, “Do It Again” would strike anyone as inspired by nostalgia. The speaker mentions “old friends” in the first line, and is immediately overpowered by memories of “girls we knew,” when “the beach was the place to go.” It’s “automatic,” he says, this longing for the past, triggered by conversation.

On the Beach Boys’ real timeline, these were the words of Wilson cousin and bassist Mike Love, harkening back to innocent, sunkissed hits like “Surfin’ USA” and the charmed life from which these songs were inspired. Like their Brit-rock counterparts, 1968 rolled off the wake of a period of experimentation and failure for the Beach Boys, their most creative members weathering difficult public transformations, romances, and substance abuse issues. For our country, 1968 meant a spike of US-led aggression in Vietnam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the violent battle between police and protesters in Chicago. The optimism of post-war America was fading and twisting, dissolving the utility of “peace and love” as a viable safety net against racism, corruption, war-mongering, and greed. Like other 1968 hits like “People Got to Be Free” and “Those Were the Days,” the plea of “Do It Again” is tragic because it is futile. You can’t go back, Brian and Mike. No matter how much the song resembles the hits and of the early 60s, the band would leave the studio and walk into a chaotic 1968 world. The desperation for the past as utopia is palpable. It wasn’t even the end of the decade and already the culture was looking back, longing. Reminds me of the evolution of 2000s hipster culture, with their centerpieces of vinyl and vintage; a nostalgia that felt to many to be unearned, too quick.

Now, our nostalgia is compressed into a matter of months. In “Do It Again,” I couldn’t help but recognize my own futile plea for the not-so-distant past of public life before quarantine. The song references the hazy, youthful freedom of simple pleasures of the California outdoorssurfing, warm weather, moonlight, bodies (and here the gentle misogyny of the Beach Boys ethos, placing female bodies as part of the landscape, springing from the sand fully formed with “long hair” and sun-bronzed skin rather than human beings in and of themselves)not unlike the longing I feel for my own simple joys. The smell of a coffee shop. Chatter and laughter. Hugging a friend. The harmonies of this acapella version are both haunting and delicious in their simplicity, like the sharp, sweet whiff of honeysuckle on a summer breeze, but a bit lonely without back-up instruments. And yet this arrangment of voices, especially in this stripped down version, also conjures what we long for, past and present: companionship, a sense of people being in the room together, making something beautiful.