Shelter in Playlist: “Dang!”

This summer and fall, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. This is the fourth entry in a series called “Chaos.” If you’d like to read from the beginning of the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy. Note: If you are easily offended by sexually explicit lyrics, use discretion when listening to “Dang!.” Said explicit lyrics will not be discussed in this entry.

Mac_Miller_-_The_Divine_Feminine

“Dang! (Feat. Anderson .Paak)” by Mac Miller

The back beat of “Dang!” is, as the kids say, cold. Produced by Vancouver-based Pomo, the bouncing drums, gentle synth, and swinging horns are life-giving, head-nodding, shoulder-swaying. This a song that bumps without jostling. I dare you to listen and not move your body. According to the song’s collaborators, the late Mac Miller and Californian soul genius Anderson .Paak, the hook came first: “I can’t keep on losing you,” .Paak sang for Miller. “Gone too soon. Wait! We was just hangin’…” Though .Paak composed his vocals about grieving the loss of a friend (supposedly the late David Bowie), Miller saw the ups and downs of a romantic relationship, and asked permission of .Paak to write his verses accordingly. It makes sense, when you think about it. Both love and death are about loss, desire, addressing unfinished business. Thus “Dang!” was born. Little did .Paak know that in two years, lyrics like “gone too soon” would take on new significance. Malcolm James McCormick, aka Mac Miller, died of an opiate overdose on September 7, 2018. 

At first listen, this song might sound like a continuation of our narrator’s voice from “Marie,” a man who uses empty affection as a tool to mitigate and mask his failures as a partner. Mac Miller’s verses on “Dang!” speak for the contemporary or more “evolved” version of this lover, the one who, in the face of a problem, goes beyond that oft-praised first step. Like “Marie,” the lover prostrates himself. “How many mistakes do it take ’til you leave?” he asks. “When I’m left with my hand and my face all red… I know I ain’t a saint, if it ain’t too late, well. ” Like the drunken plea of “Marie,” Miller also nods to intoxication as an accelerant to expressing his feelings: “Heartache drunk and hang up. What a mess I made us. Sense, I make none.” 

However, Miller’s speaker goes beyond confession, laying out the likelihood of his partner’s disdain. “Yeah, it’s complicated, got you frustrated. Get home late and you don’t trust me, baby.” Unlike merely listing his failures, he also attempts to step into her shoes, wondering about her reactions to him, her loss of trust, the limits of her tolerance. There’s also the use of “we,” a concept that never comes up in the one-way outpouring of “love” and compliments in “Marie.” Lines like, “You say you don’t care, is what you saying. We both know that’s some bullsh**. Okay, we be fighting, we be reuniting…” paint their partnership as an equal exchange of feeling, of knowledge, of shared conclusions. In the attempt to relay his partner’s feelings (“You say you don’t care”), Miller’s narrator lands much closer to a depiction of love than the resigned chosen ignorance in that of “Marie” (“I don’t listen to a word you say”). Unlike the narrator of Marie, who only mentions the past, Miller’s speaker sees communication and his stability as key to their future: “Tryna get through to you,” he tells her. “You safe with me, girl.”

When I refer to songs as ecosystems, I mean to measure how growth and death are represented, how the featured players interact with each other, in competition or in symbiosis. Life moves in cycles. History, too. “Dang!” marks the beginning of hope in this playlist. You wouldn’t think it in a song about holding on to life and love so desperately, but sometimes there is beauty in contradiction. Sometimes complexity does not equal evil; sometimes simplicity does not equal good. It is possible to love someone and let them down. It is possible to be in love and just as deeply disappointed. I was talking to a friend about the point I made in the previous post, how “Marie” uses the word “love” but it’s not really a love song. By that measure, my friend replied, no love songs are really love songs. He has a point. To what bar am I holding these songs, I have to wonder. When I think about these little ecosystems of love and care, to what utopia am I comparing them? To what utopia am I comparing America? Then I have to think: What is the use of criticizing without offering an alternative? Why am I using my precious life to stare at a computer and craft overly-complicated diatribes, both explicitly and implicitly about my country? “If this is love,” Miller’s speaker asks his partner, “why the f**k you complain?” What right do I, someone who has shelter and a job, have to complain? If I hate America so much, why the f**k don’t I leave? (Other than the COVID-related travel restrictions.)

I am starting to find the answers to some of those questions. I don’t hate America. I think I complain about it because I love it. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t want to make it better. If I didn’t believe in the American experiment, I wouldn’t care whether or not the people in charge are keeping the promises of its founders. I wouldn’t care about expanding the definition of those promises to fit all Americans, not just land-owning white males. If I didn’t love my country, I wouldn’t think about it so constantly, how its power structures are present in the work of its storytellers, how our country’s values get passed and absorbed through its singers and entertainers and bards. How, through TV shows and news shows and articles and songs, the principles that shape our sense of justice embed themselves in our perceptions, playing out everywhere from the highest courts to the dimmest living rooms. Perhaps I scribble about lyrics here because I’m trying to protect myself from America at its chaotic worst, a place where lies and pledges and insults are cast without consequence, left to rot until they suffocate us. What I am doing here, I think, is refusing to live in chaos. I refuse to live a world where words don’t matter.  

Shelter in Playlist: “Marie”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. This is the third entry in a series called “Chaos.” If you’d like to read from the beginning of the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

Randy_Newman_-_Good_Old_Boys
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

“Marie,” Randy Newman

When you hear the name Randy Newman, you probably think of a toy cowboy with the name ANDY scrawled on his boot in crayon, and the lazy, molasses-sweet baritone of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” Or at least those were my associations. It was only recently I found out how prolific a composer he is, penning music for everything from The Natural (1984) to Seabiscuit (2003) to Marriage Story (2019). Newman has been nominated for 15 Academy Awards for his scores, winning two for original songs off the soundtracks of Monsters, Inc. (2001) and Toy Story 3 (2010). His career as a solo singer-songwriter is less commercially successful, though no less artistically interesting. Interesting, that’s the word. Interesting in the same way that you walk past some profane graffiti that seems unintelligible at first, and you pay it no mind. Then you stop half a block away and realize what you just saw. That’s Randy Newman’s solo career.

The chords and arrangements don’t fall too far from the beaten path, mostly sweeping and cinematic, at times bluesy or rocky or dabbling in big band swing. As a lyricist, Newman is an exaggerator, an impressionist, a satirist, a bleeding heart, a clown. In the tradition of country or folk, his narrators range from bigots to historical figures, from barflies to politicians, all of them speaking to the systems that created them. Each song from Good Old Boys (1974)arguably the best of his albumsserves as a mouthpiece for a range of voices from the Deep South, stepping gingerly between offensive hyperbole and near-broken sincerity, unearthing racism and patriarchy as verbs, as spoken and semantic things, tumbling through families and conversations and stories like hereditary traits. Though his characters speak from the South, Newman also implicates the rest of a country that claims its betterness, the hypocrisy of regionalism and its heartbreaking effects. Each image and plea holds a whole nation’s worth of complexity. Just when you think the songs from Good Old Boys are something you can lose yourself in, some rhythm or voice you recognize, the lines turn and reveal themselves, much like a “good old boy” dog-whistling his true beliefs under honeyed politeness. In “Marie,” the narrator claims to be a lover. But of course, if you listen closely, he might be something else entirely.

“You looked like a princess the night we met,” Newman’s speaker sings. He begins by praising the object of his affection by conjuring royalty, luxury, spectacle, a title all little girls are taught to desire. While there’s power in being a princess, there’s also distance implied. Princesses are often in towers, in dungeons, under spells, deprived of freedom and love until the very end of their stories. Combined with the past tense in “looked,” and the minor key, there’s already a sense of loss. Then, we learn the speaker is not only drunk, but he’s “got to be,” adding another layer between him and the love to whom he speaks. Without intoxication, he tells Marie, he would never tell her what she means to him. “I loved you the first night I saw you,” the chorus declares, its slowed-down waltz cloying, almost excessive next to the half-spoken vocals. “And I always will love you, Marie.” It could tear your heart out.

At first listen, I thought the off-kilter tonethe words of affection next to the tragic, descending chords, or the polished strings next to Newman’s defeatmight mean that this song is actually an entreaty, an apology, some supplication for being a bad partner. “Sometimes I’m crazy but I guess you know,” Newman’s speaker says in a laundry list of self-criticism. “I’m weak and I’m lazy and I hurt you so. And I don’t listen to a word you say, and when you’re in trouble I turn away.” The logical next step would be the apology itself. A request for forgiveness. A pledge to be better. Instead, the song simply opens back up to the chorus. “I loved you the first time I saw you,” the singer repeats. “And I will always love you, Marie.”

He wants nothing, perhaps. No atonement or a new way forward, but merely to express himself, the longevity of his love. But is it love, what Newman’s narrator is giving? I guess it depends on your definition. The origins of this particular description are already dubious. Though “love at first sight” is a common concept, the phenomenon that occurs is probably more accurately labeled as attraction, or fascination, or delight. But love shifts for the people that live it, so, sure, let’s say Newman’s narrator “loved” Marie the first time he saw her.

He then admits, “I don’t listen to a word you say,” and, “I hurt you.” This doesn’t sound like very caring behavior, but then again, lots of couples hurt each other. In fact, loving someone means that you are more often hurt by their actions. And of course, listening is a problem for so many people in love. But it’s a problem that’s fixable. While you can’t always control how or when you hurt someone, you can change your habits, even after all this time. The narrator of this song may not listen now, but surely if Marie asks him to listen to her better, he will.

This is where, for me, the love train hits a wall: “When you’re in trouble, I turn away.” Not only does the narrator not listen to Marie, not only does he hurt her, but he doesn’t help her when she needs help. Is this love? When you take away communication, care, and loyalty, what’s left? Affection, perhaps. Certainly for this narrator. Like lovers of auld, he compares her to the beauty of nature: “You’re a flower,” he sings. “You’re a river, you’re a rainbow.”

Newman’s critique slips in the cracks between rainbows and hurt, between what love promises in songs and what it’s truly capable of. We don’t how Marie receives his admissions, but the pity the song inspires could be one step away from disgust. This is Newman’s brilliance, his distinctly red, white, and blue sleight-of-hand: “Marie” is a song that uses the word “love” more than any other word, but it’s not really a love song.

What good is this kind of love? What good is it to receive words of flattery without a listening ear on the other end? What good is being called a princess without the speaker’s loyalty, his care, his support when she needs him most? Maybe Marie knows, and we don’t. Maybe we don’t know him like her. Maybe he’s a brash, bold speaker. Maybe he tells it like it is, and she likes that. Maybe he tells her that she deserves more than she has, that she’s better than the rest, that he’ll build her a wall to keep out the bad people. Maybe he ignores her pain because it’s not his fault, it’s never his fault. Maybe he tells her everyone else is wrong. Maybe he tells her that if she stopped pointing out problems, there would be less of them. Maybe when he calls other women dogs, she knows he’s not talking about her. Maybe she lets him do it because he’s a celebrity. Maybe when he says he loves her, he’s lying through his teeth. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is love. Maybe it is what it is.

 

Shelter in Playlist: “Going to A Town”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. This is the second entry in a series called “Chaos.” If you’d like to read from the beginning of the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Going to A Town,” Rufus Wainwright

Going-To-A-Town-rufus-wainwright
Still from “Going to A Town” video, directed by Sophie Muller.

At seventeen, I convinced my parents to let me take my 1995 Chevy Blazer to City Market in Kansas City, where Rufus Wainwright was opening for Ben Folds. It was mid-August the night of the concert, and when Rufus took his seat at the grand piano, I was sweating through my favorite yellow shirt. You know that feeling you get when a musician sings to a crowd but it feels as if they’re only singing to you? A friend in my program once called it “babyness.” At home, I could only listen to Poses whenever the rest of my family was out (we didn’t have speakers that could accommodate headphones, so whatever music any individual chose, the rest of us were subject), and no one seemed to like Rufus’s operatic piano rock as much as I did. My brother called him “the moaner.” I didn’t care. At City Market, I closed my eyes and swayed on the asphalt as the artist played and sang so hard he had to stand at the keys.

Later in my senior year, when I learned Rufus Wainwright was gay, I was hurt in that girlish way, before you learn the difference between wanting to marry someone and loving the way their work makes you feel. Even if I was the kind of person Rufus Wainwright wanted to marry in 2005in his case, a full-grown manthe United States would not have allowed him. When the chorus of “Going to A Town” asks, “Tell me, do you really think you go to hell for being loved?”, he was asking people like me. I lived in Topeka, site of the Westboro Baptist Church, a conservative Christian community responsible for one of the grossest continual expressions of public homophobia in American history. But as I soaked in Rufus Wainwright’s voice, I wasn’t thinking of the neon signs, or the fact that later that weekend, I would be walking past them on the way to the church my parents and I attended, the pastor of which denounced the Phelps’ methods but not their views. Every morning I was driving to school blasting “Greek Song,” all the while laughing off the brazenness of this ragtag group in their funny clothes invoking Sodom and hellfire next to the Sonic Drive-In, looking at their daily dehumanization of not only my favorite singer but my friends, and rolling my eyes.

This kind of cognitive dissonance is normal for citizens of a country that touts freedom as its core value, all the while preventing its citizens from fully participating in that freedom. I don’t rest the responsibility of decades’ worth of human rights violations on my seventeen-year-old shoulders, but while the song is making clear Rufus Wainwright’s resentment for the United States’ policies“They never really seem to want to tell the truth / I’m so tired of you, America”—I think he is also dragging the banal, everydayness of our two-faced culture.

The everydayness of violence and beauty juxtaposed. The idyllic, small town-ness of it all. The scenic drives to a school that prioritizes students based on their performance on standardized tests rigged against non-white kids. The walks to church under leafy trees through neighborhoods that reflect decades of segregation, redlining, and housing inequality. A beloved Christian pastor finger-pointing gay people for ruining marriage in a congregation that has a higher divorce rate than other non-Christian faiths. After-church brunch, bacon and eggs and biscuits at a restaurant that is allowed to pay a single mother a $2.13 an hour server’s wage in some states. “I’m going to read it all in the Sunday Times” refers to London Sunday Times editor Andrew Neill denying the existence of AIDS, but you can easily picture headlines featuring Reagan spouting the same harmful BS; the American patriarch in his sunny kitchen, reading and nodding along, morning after morning, while thousands of people die. This kind of self-soothing leaks beyond our borders, too“You took advantage of a world who loved you well,” Rufus sings: cardigan on your shoulders constructed by child labor. Gas in the tank bought from the company that makes us fight their wars, pollutes our oceans. White picket fence painted by the friendly handymen, immigrants who the president calls rapists and criminals. This is our town. These are the internal contradictions Americans wake up and swallow every day with their morning coffee—in some cases, we have to. I can’t afford most things made by ethical factories in my own country. In order to see my loved ones, I fill my car up with oil that comes from exploitative and environmentally disastrous companies. I will soon join the teachers and administrators working to correct the inequality of public schools, but we can only do so much limited by low salaries, over-crowding, and an administration who wants to privatize and eliminate what level-playing field still exists. Imagine living in a society that punishes ethical choices, if not blatantly by the justice system, then by isolation, by lack of resources, by lack of meaningful and well-paying jobs. The United States is a sick animal that smiles through its pain instead of going to the doctor, because the doctor costs too much.

Sometimes when I’m thinking about all this informationthe harmful truths under every street, every choice, every product I ownI feel as sick as my country. I don’t want to get out of bed. Sometimes I wish I could go back to being seventeen and ignorant and happy, casting my unrequited cloud of desire over Rufus Wainwright as I let the music wash over me on that August night. I see people on the news, gathering with their red hats, holding up signs, shouting obscenities, pointing guns at people who disrupt their little cloud of stories. They are willing their lives to go back to ignorance, back to whiteness being an invisible norm that reaps the benefits of every system, back to no one making a stink. Back to the town that tells itself bedtime stories about its goodness, its democratic ideals, its God-given hierarchies. What they don’t seem to acknowledge is that their town, as Rufus sings, has “already been burnt down.” The fantasy world they are trying to preserve never existed. The harder they grip on to their delusion, the more painful it will be when the world changes. When I say “change,” I don’t just mean the election, the policies, or even the attitudes of Americans. I mean the bittersweet mechanisms of nature, of limited resources, of technologythe things we’ve put into motion that are now out of our control, no matter who we vote for.

We are small in relation to the giant, wild, chaos. Sometimes I can be grateful. I have life, I think, and whatever that is, it’s so much better than the opposite. But most of time, the swoop of my stomach is too much to bear. Pain and poison are everywhere. I get dizzy, figuratively and physically. To fight this dizziness, I’ve quieted my life. I consume fewer stories, so I have time to feel what I need to feel, so I can do something to help. I look harder at what I put in my body and the places I allow my mind to go. Rather than trying to hold the world at large, I look at my own little world, my own little ecosystem of texts and glances and disagreements and love languages. The study of one’s hurt and one’s habits, like vocabulary on flashcards. When you have words for people’s actions, including your own, you start to see the words in the world, too. As a very imperfect person in a very imperfect world, this can be satisfying or horrifying or a combination of both. But knowing what to call things means you’re one step closer to knowing what to do to make them better, whether it’s something big or nothing at all.

Transitioning from the literal criticism of “Going to A Town,” I would like to examine what’s going on in few different little ecosystems among the songs that follow, to try and name the resemblance these individual relationships have to larger systems. I don’t want to paste the word “allegory” to the parallels quite yet, but perhaps we can let it camp with us as we explore. We’ve got to stroll around the meanings of these songs carefully; they might scuttle away back into the subconscious, where they bury and take root all over again.

 

Shelter in Playlist: “Never Learn Not to Love”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. The first playlist was called, “Lovestuck.” This one’s called “Chaos.” If you’d like to read from the beginning of the playlist series, start here. Hope you enjoy.

beachboys“Never Learn Not to Love,” The Beach Boys

“Lovestuck” was an exploration of the interior: the inside of our homes as we sheltered-in-place, the swirling power of memories, influence, and emotions, and the inner battle between hope and despair. (We’re no longer asked to be inside, though perhaps we should.) As the summer wanes, we look outward, toward the world and the stories we tell about it, those fabricated to make this chaos more bearable and knowable, those told in an effort to keep it from crumbling. We begin, as we did with the last playlist, with the end of the 60s, but this time I would like to talk about Charles Manson.

The Manson murders, or as journalist and author Tom O’Neill refers to them, the Tate-LaBianca murders, signaled to many the end of an era. Like O’Neill, I’ll quote Didion: “…The Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community.” In the wake of this brutal, drug-fueled massacre, it seemed that dropping in and tuning out was no longer an option. But the abruptness of this ending is not quite accurate, O’Neill points out, and I agree. There’s also Meredith Hunter’s murder in Altamont later in 1969, or the repeated targeted harassment, manipulation, and murder of members and allies of the Black Panthers by law enforcement throughout the late 60s, or we can definitely factor in the 1968 murder of Ann Jimenez in Haight Ashbury, epicenter of the hippie movement. From the shore, it’s easier to point out the crest of a wave than the forces underneath it, and the Tate-LaBianca murders were certainly one of those crests. O’Neill’s book CHAOS swims out, dives under the white water, and stays there.

I’ll let you seek out the finer points this sprawling, meticulously-reported epic yourself, but suffice it to say O’Neill’s major task is proving that the widely accepted narrative about the Tate-LaBianca murdersbased mainly on Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s bestselling “true crime” account, Helter Skeltercontains wide holes, baffling inconsistencies, and a generally impossible sequence of events. What began as O’Neill’s basic human-interest piece about the crime’s 30th anniversary became a decades-long search for answers to some incredibly obvious questions; questions posed not only by O’Neill, but by the victims’ families, local law enforcement, and Bugliosi himself. Frustrated as I was by O’Neill’s churchmouse unwillingness to make conclusions based on his mind-blowing research, the author’s obsessive adherence to documents, corroboration, and facts is a model for detangling and contextualizing any singular story we tell about American history.

No doubt that Manson, a dangerous and cruel man, is at the center of the crimes; O’Neill is not interested (nor am I) in discounting his nefarious role in these deaths. But there is enough evidence to suggest that Manson’s actions before and after the murders, as well as the subsequent crazed, counter-culture cult stereotype that has seeped into our collective consciousness as a result of his infamy, did not spring out of a vacuum. For one, the spaces Manson inhabited during the crucial period in which he gathered followersspaces that range from the office of his experimental criminologist parole officer, to a clinic in the Haight Ashbury occupied by Dr. “Jolly” Westwere monitored and funded by the same shell organizations that funded Project MKUltra, the CIA’s now well-documented, highly unethical program testing the ability to weaponize psychological manipulation and mind control. On the fringe of the Manson case, O’Neill has also found evidence among shadowy figures that slip in and out of court documents and memories to suggest ties to another covert operation, COINTELPRO, an FBI-led effort to infiltrate, agitate, and dismantle leftist and Black power groups from the inside. 

Like a fraudulent tax-evading, racist reality star running one of the most powerful and diverse nations in the free world, O’Neill’s findings seem stranger than fiction. America is not alone in allowing its government to commit secretive and heinous acts in the service of its national security and economic interests, but O’Neill’s work is a reminder of our county’s uniquely powerful collective ability to prioritize entertaining stories over facts. 

Our leader, a constant and flagrant liar, just recently told us to fight a pandemic by eating medicine endorsed by a woman who believes in demons and aliens. Those of us who acknowledge science are shaking our heads, but secretly, we all love this sh**. When you think about it, our love of sensational stories is in the DNA of our colonial roots. (See: The Witches by Stacy Schiff, the painstakingly thorough and endlessly fascinating curation of accounts from the Salem Witch Trials.) DJT is not the first racist conman we’ve rewarded, both for their lies and the fascinating stories their lies create. (See: Bunk by Kevin Young, the rich and confounding history of America’s racially-motivated love affair with snake oil salesmen, hoaxes, and fakes.) We’re all fed fiery nonsense, and we’re all complicit in its effects. Media companies owned by the same five or six men told us parallel and opposite stories about our country, and as they made money off of advertisements, we chose which lie we liked best. (See: this excerpt from Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized, specifically the survey about Democrats’ and Republicans’ perception of the opposing party.) We love stories so much, we are now in the process of using technology to offer up the marketable story of our very selves, at the cost of our time, mental health, and personal relationships. (See Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, a masterfully incisive collection of essays about selfhood and delusion in the Information Age.)

This latest playlist, named for the state of our country as well as the book (and yet another CIA surveillance operation), opens with The Beach Boys’ “Never Learn Not to Love,” released in 1968 as a B-Side to “Bluebirds Over the Mountain.” The American euphemistic way of talking about this weak sauce is that musically, “this is not one of the Beach Boys’ more remarkable songs.” Sure, there’s a weird reverse recording of a cymbal at the beginning that sounds like the gong at some ancient execution ritual. And sure, Dennis barely hits the final notes, perhaps to strike an intentionally desperate tone, or perhaps because of his cig-shot vocal cords. But with the Beach Boys’ trademark angelic harmonies and tambourine-driven percussion, it’s dressed up and pretty enough for the party, right? Then, you listen to the lyrics. “Cease to resist,” Wilson sings, and later, “Submission is a gift.”

It turns out the released version of this song is allegedly scrubbed to protect the image of the Beach Boys. The lyrics “cease to resist” used to be “cease to exist”, which also share the song’s original title, “Cease to Exist,” written by none other than Charles Manson. The story is that one day in 1968, Dennis Wilson picked up two hitchhikers, young women he took back to his home Pacific Palisades who told him all about their friend and mentor, Charlie. Charlie was a musician, philosopher, ex-con, anybody who Wilson wanted him to be, really. God and the devil. Shaman and pimp. Family. Eventually, Manson even came into the studio with the band, but he wasn’t as talented as his hubris made him seem. “Give up your world, come on and be with me,” Wilson sings as Manson’s proxy. The lyrics take on a new, chilling significance when you imagine them out of Manson’s mouth. “I’m your kind, I’m your kind, and I see,” he wrote. He seems to sing not only to everyone who ever believed his lies, but to all of his fellow liarsall the powerful men who pretended he wasn’t a threat to get access to the young women who followed him, the California parole boards and jails who mysteriously released him over and over, the government that stood back and watched him just to see what he would do. And now me, who proliferates his myth.

What happened between Manson and the Beach Boys may be based in fact, but I can’t pretend I was drawn to this story, this song, or even to CHAOS merely by the truth. Nor was I ever one of those people obsessed by the Helter Skelter story. I wanted to see the gap between facts and fiction grow wide and dark. I wanted to see the liars dressed down and brought to their knees. I assure myself I would never buy the snake oil, but I’d be present when they put the shackles on the salesman. In the Salem Witch Trials, I would have been one of the gossips in the town pubs. Like crime, virtue, too, can be made into a spectacle. And I wonder if consuming either means I have to keep myself at a certain distance, or if to see what I want to see, I am somehow taking part.

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

piano
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

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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.