Have a Good Time

February 12, 2011

In a changing world, however, a change of hairstyle was indicated

The climax of Tangled: Gothel, Rapunzel, and Flynn Rider are together in the tower where the wrong queer mother has kept the daughter who now knows she is no daughter all her life.  Flynn has come to rescue the princess, and Gothel, hidden in the shadows and wearing the same black shawl she’s worn throughout, has stabbed him in the back with an ornate knife; he’s collapsed and dying in a corner, close to the window he entered through, and Rapunzel, bending over him, is on the verge of promising Gothel that she’ll stay with her forever, keeping her young, if she’s allowed to use her hair’s same powers to heal Flynn’s wound.  Flynn can’t let this happen.  With the last gasp of a soon-to-be-renewed life, in a slow-motion gesture that the whole movie has built up to, he uses a shard from a broken mirror to cut off almost all of Rapunzel’s hair, leaving her with a ragged bob that immediately turns black and loses its power.  The yards and yards of abject hair start to go the same way—Rapunzel picks it up at one end and a tracking shot follows the thick darkening rope across the floor to Gothel, who gathers the useless stuff up in desperation and holds it against herself, even as, its magic gone, she starts to age dramatically.  Her own black hair becoming almost the same gray-white as her wrinkling skin, she staggers across the room to the broken mirror and stares into a grotesque kaleidoscope of multiplied eyes, hair, skin, teeth; she screams and pulls the shawl over her hair and eyes, shrinking into it, covering up more and more of herself as she jerks backward toward the light.  Pascal the chameleon gives one of the strands of hair a strategic tug, tripping her up and hastening her flight out the window and a long fall from the tower to the ground, by the end of which her body has completely disintegrated, so that at the moment of impact her shawl opens itself up to reveal nothing but heavy dust.

I want to reiterate something I mentioned in my first post on Tangled but didn’t get into very deeply: which is that, on some level, I don’t have much doubt about the connotative force of these images of Mother Gothel backing away from the mirror.  This is a fifteen-second span of concentrated visual development in which the hierarchies of light over dark, good over evil, the (Disney) beautiful over the (Disney) ugly—hierarchies which, arguably, Tangled has until now been complicating in some interesting ways—reemerge with the fury of the repressed; in these moments, after Gothel’s stabbing of Flynn, the movie has resolved to make her as monstrous to its audience as possible; and the final step, the culmination of that turn, is to hijabize her.  (And to do it so completely that by the end of her fall she’s literally nothing-but-veil: behind this barrier to our gaze, a malignant emptiness.)  Suddenly it’s revealed that any sympathy we might have felt for Gothel earlier must have been misplaced, because, in her last moments of life, her hair and face are hidden from us and she’s keyed into a shorthand which, in some part of the contemporary Western visual imagination, signifies terror.  The fake-mother/daughter dynamic seems newly illuminated—Gothel has always hated Rapunzel (but needed her) because she envies the power of her beautiful, bountiful blond hair, in something like the way they have always hated us (but needed us) because they envy our freedom.

In short, I would see this sequence partly as one that becomes violently symptomatic of a Western fear of the veiled woman, even specifically of the woman who has hair that we can’t see, that she (unlike Rapunzel) won’t let down: the kind of anxiety explored in more interesting terms by someone like Princess Hijab.  (Who, maybe significantly, isn’t Princess Niqab—it’s not always about covering the face—and the Parisian advertising images that she targets with a black marker are often images dominated by luxurious hair.)  But what actually got me thinking more about this was a video Sociological Images posted last year, which I was reminded of by China Miéville’s note on military rules for postcards during the First World War (“All surplus is marshalled by the state to the task at hand”).  This video is from World War II, and it documents a moment that might look like a kind of mirror image of contemporary misogynist Islamophobia.  The suspicious woman here isn’t the one whose hair is covered, but the one whose hair is too long, the sign of excess itself, and, as such, permanently at risk of tangling itself in the war machine.  So the state must step in and tell Veronica Lake (the American actress who is the clearest precursor to Tangled‘s Rapunzel) to change her look.

This footage is so captivating to me that I hardly know where to start … that unbeatable 1940s authoritative Anglo/male voice, for one thing, coolly conceding that Lake’s “witchlock” (without which, by the way, her career was about to decline fast—I want someone to write a play about this) was “not bad on a dance floor, perhaps,” but adding that in austere times of military production a change was “indicated”: dictated, that is to say, but dictated as if by the laws of nature itself, because it was already obvious to all right-thinking people that feminine glamor such as this had to go.  (The camera is made to catch Lake gazing into a mirror and experimenting for a few seconds, and then laughing an unheard laugh (her voice is never part of the film) as if in recognition that her narcissism is ridiculously unpatriotic; and then, behold, there are the hands with the comb!)  Or the sheer oddness—to me, at least—of the reminder that the U.S. government once released messages urging Americans to “put glamor in its proper wartime place”: this distance from the wartime of the present.  Or, best of all, my new favorite sentence, as we watch white female factory workers take moments away from their machines to adjust their ’40s bangs: “Valuable time is lost on a futile gesture.”

That’s where the title of the blog comes in, I suppose, and where it becomes helpful to me to turn, again, to Lauren Berlant’s combover work, or Willow’s “Whip My Hair,” or Lady Gaga, captured so perfectly in the temporal bubble of a fan GIF that @kat_skat sent me—because what hair-whipping Willow and hair-flipping Gaga recognize and clarify, in their different ways, is that “time lost on a futile gesture” is one obvious definition of the space of the aesthetic as such.  Or even, maybe, one way to get at a useful account of subjectivity.  It seems really important to me that in “Whip My Hair” it “don’t matter if it’s long / short,” and that the video shows us what might be a surprising number of girls and boys, in the classroom and the hallway, who whip back and forth heads that are covered by hats, hoods, or hairstyles that stay in place or whip differently from Willow’s (I think it could just as easily be whipping your hijab back and forth): while on one level (which I don’t want to abstract anything from) this is clearly a huge celebration of the beauty of black hair, I think another reason so many people love the song is that it’s about the cogitative and affective excess that builds up around a person, a bit like hair that falls into awkward shapes or gets into her eyes, and how she will always have to take time away to shake it off, shake it off.  That’s one sense in which the insistent repetition of Willow’s refrain works so well (at least for listeners who aren’t haters); this deal can only keep going, but it can be a pleasure.  Or, an alternative endlessness: the form of the GIF, as it so often does (and I’m wondering what’s been written about this, actually), says just what needs to be said.

Less happily, biopolitics will always find its own ways of dealing with perceived excesses or lacks or threats, whether by disciplining hair itself, or banning veils that cover it, in all cases for the ostensible good of the subject.  (Get rid of that Veronica Lake look—don’t you want to be safe?  Take off that veil—don’t you want to be free?)  Staying with Gaga for a minute, which I know I’ve done a lot recently, I’ll close by saying that Gothel and Lake helped me get a better sense of one aspect of last year’s “Telephone” video, or the implications of another appropriation of the image of the hijab.  It’s not just that when Beyoncé sings “tonight I’m not taking no calls / ’cause I’ll be dancing,” her dancing takes the form of whipping her hair back and forth; and it’s not just that Gaga’s hair in the ’40s-style diner takes the form of a phone receiver covering up one of her eyes, at once echoing Lake’s witchlock and indexing the way the “war way of life” of an earlier time has been transformed into the contemporary climate of global communicative capitalism, where, instead of being tangled up in the machinery of mid-century military production, subjectivity gets tangled up in corporate information networks and we forget we’re even at war.  Meghan Vicks rightly points out that after the video’s cathartic act of anti-patriarchal violence Gaga’s hair is “let free.”  I would read the moments after that, though, when she and Beyoncé stand in front of the Pussy Wagon in black and lilac cowboy-veils and tell us we’re not going to reach their telephone, as an attempt (however limited or problematic) to access an even more subversive figure of refusal—in some kind of recognition that, at this cultural moment, fear and suspicion and violence are directed not only toward those whose hair is seen to stand for a frightening feminine excess, but also toward those who insist on their right not to show their hair to the world.  (Tangled understands the first half of this dynamic, but seems to enact the second.)

 

August 17, 2010

Bubble / dreams / forever

BUBBLE DREAMS FOREVER refers partly back to lyrics from Lady Gaga’s song “Speechless,” which, when I first listened to the song, I heard as follows: You popped my heart seams / All my bubble dreams / Bubble dreams.  I thought there was an effective, creepy symmetry here, in the presentation of two precisely opposed images of popping: the song’s (male) addressee has caused an interior transformation in the (female) speaker, the swelling of her heart beyond its limits, ultimately undoing the seams that held the organ together—an affective pop from the inside; and, like some figure in a Saul Steinberg drawing or a Chuck Jones cartoon, or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, he’s also taken hold of something sharp and burst the balloons emanating from the speaker’s head that manifested her interiority, which technically he wasn’t supposed to be able to see, her bubble dreams or maybe more precisely her dream bubbles: a pop from the outside, which is also a (conventional) challenge to certain conventions of representation.  Except I later confirmed that the lyrics officially go: You popped my heart seams / On my bubble dreams / Bubble dreams … which suggests that the bubble dreams or the dream bubbles in question are altogether weirder, harder, more resilient than I had realized.  As is suggested, too, by the apparently self-contradictory message from the tweet above: bubble dreams forever.  (Consider one clear intertext here: I’m forever blowing bubbles / Pretty bubbles in the air / They fly so high, / Nearly reach the sky, / Then like my dreams, / They fade and die … )

In the context of this tweet, the words express a reaction to U.S. District Chief Vaughn R. Walker’s decision to overturn Proposition 8, the amendment to California’s state constitution that had established “only marriage between a man and a woman” as “valid or recognized” in the state of California.  So they’re words that here generally celebrate the prospect of the acceptance of marriage between women and other women, or between men and other men, as the initial step in a process that will culminate in “full equality” for women who love women and men who love men in California, and by extension the U.S.  I happened to read these words on the evening of August 4th about five minutes before going to see Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian drama The Kids Are All Right, a movie that Jack Halberstam, in a convincing left-queer analysis, describes as “a scathing critique of gay marriage,” of the rhetoric of equality, that doesn’t quite seem to recognize itself as such: a movie that asks its viewers to keep the faith in a social institution (the heteronormative long-term monogamous state-sanctioned institution of marriage) that it depicts relentlessly as a long, hard, oppressive and largely unrewarding slog.  “[L]ike many a heterosexual drama that turns the family inside out only to return to it at the film’s end,” Halberstam writes, The Kids Are All Right suggests “that marriage is sexless, families turn rotten with familiarity, lesbians over-parent and then it asks us to invest hope into this very arrangement.”  The scene that most directly conveys the specific sexlessness of Nic and Jules’s marriage might be the one in which Nic (Annette Bening) tries to apologize for the way she’s been acting toward Jules (Julianne Moore) by pampering her for the evening, preparing a luxurious bubble bath, only to get distracted by a work-related phone call downstairs, leaving Jules (in one of the film’s most poignant and depressing images) alone in the bathtub as the water gets colder and colder and the bubbles eventually disappear.

In this sense, the tweet celebrating the anticipated acceptance of gay marriage across the U.S. acts both as a summary of utopian impulses in Gagaism, and as a reminder that some kinds of radical political action or commitment shouldn’t be expected from, and were never promised by, Lady Gaga—comparable to the tweets from five days earlier, justifying her decision to go on with the Monsterball performance in Phoenix, Arizona, in spite of a widespread call from fans in the Arizona queer migrant community and their allies to honor the anti-racist state boycott: “The Monsterball is by nature a protest: A youth church experience to speak out and celebrate against all forms of discrimination + prejudice.”  Having signed the boycott petition, I was disappointed by this, but also surprised by how little I was surprised.  Lady Gaga is a political actor whose political actions (learning of the repeal of Prop 8 and beginning to compose music; generating revenue for the city of Phoenix by playing a show there and speaking out against SB1070 from inside the Monsterball) are generally not going to leave a certain pop realm (pop from the inside), that weird queer house inhabited by Lady Gaga, Mother Monster, and her fans, the little monsters.

So it becomes tempting to make any number of critical arguments about “the bubble that (only) Lady Gaga inhabits,” or “the bubble she creates (only) for her fans,” whether the bubble in question is felt to be ideological, affective, temporal, or some amalgamation—as illustrated by Gaga herself, in the New York interview from March 28 with Vanessa Grigoriadis: “A year from now, I could go away, and people might say, ‘Gosh, what ever happened to that girl who never wore pants?’ But how wonderfully memorable 30 years from now, when they say, ‘Do you remember Gaga and her bubbles?’ Because, for a minute, everybody in that room will forget every sad, painful thing in their lives, and they’ll just live in my bubble world.”  The accent here should arguably fall on my, because a central focus of Gaga’s art and career from the beginning has been the ubiquity, dreamy plasticity, and deceptive impermeability of temporal, affective, and ideological bubbles in late capitalism.

BUBBLE DREAMS FOREVER, read at a certain angle, sounds eerily synonymous with “capitalist realism”: neoliberal capitalism’s self-professed permanence in superiority to all other political systems; or the apparent impossibility, at this historical juncture, of effectively imagining an alternative to neoliberal capitalism, as diagnosed and described by Mark Fisher, who writes: “With its ceaseless boom and bust cycles, capitalism itself is fundamentally and irreducibly bi-polar, periodically lurching between hyped-up mania (the irrational exuberance of ‘bubble thinking’) and depressive comedown” (35).  Voyou Désoeuvré extends Fisher’s identification of Lady Gaga as, “on the face of it, […] the sound of” capitalist realism into an analysis of Gaga as, precisely, capitalist realism’s glamorous, critical, reflexive face (an analysis that overlaps somewhat with Kathryn Leedom’s discussion of Gaga’s “figurative mirroring or projection of consumer culture”).  “Bad Romance” is arguably still the most important text in this connection.  The video, with its constant product placement and famously explicit depiction of a many-faced Gaga as the commodity appraised and finally bid for and bought by men, is in some sense only bouncing off ways in which the original lyrics had already configured “romance” as a kind of late-capitalist microcosm: a violent lurching between irrational exuberance and depressive comedown (“I want your love and I want your revenge“) which depends on desire-as-speculation, with full knowledge that the assets might be toxic (“I want your ugly, I want your disease / I want your everything, as long as it’s free”).  The song puts romantic love and Gaga’s own megastardom together in and as an unsettling speculative bubble: the “romance” of the title is simultaneously something that someone’s got that Lady Gaga wants, and something that the two of them must produce, or, more precisely, “write” together.  Does that weird line, “You and me could write a bad romance,” actually suggest anything more strongly than bad credit, or the act of writing a bad check?

(Gaga in the bubble dress, telling the crowd, “Some say that Lady Gaga is a lie; and they are right, I am a lie; and every day I kill to make it true”; or singing, “A little gambling is fun when you’re with me…” then interrupting herself to say: “What do you even need me for, you know all the fucking words!  I’m just a blond bitch in a bunch of bubbles!  And I’m OK with that.  Where was I?”)

If there’s one facet of the “Bad Romance” video that most literally shows Lady Gaga caught in a bad romance, it’s the series of shots of her body suspended in a hanging cluster of diamonds, carefully observed by the soon-to-be-bidders, as the camera Matrix-like circles the room.  And if this tableau looks like a revision, or a frozen explosion, of the bubble dress that had become famous earlier in 2009, the dress itself can be read as a kind of freeze-frame device: a denaturalization through costume of one of the forms of “becoming-woman” mandated by contemporary capitalism, the disciplining of the female body which (as Anywn Crawford argues) Katy Perry happily renaturalizes with the “toned, tan, fit ‘n’ ready” female forms, cultured for male consumption, of the “California Gurls” video.  The bubble dress lingers playfully but seriously, spectacularly, speculatively, on the labor that’s meant to be at least half-invisible here.  And it’s a specifically feminized labor: when Andy Samberg unwittingly wears the same costume on Saturday Night Live, we’re all meant to laugh, because it’s so ridiculous, right?  (On the work of performing femininity and its results: see also Beyoncé’s “Why Don’t You Love Me” video, as analyzed in a brilliant post by Silvana Naguib.)  While Gaga’s bubble dress doesn’t necessarily feel dystopian, or draw attention to the pain involved—just the opposite, in fact—by the time we get to “Bad Romance,” to paraphrase one evangelist of the important distinctions between male and female body-disciplines, the bubbles are now diamonds! A bubble of diamonds, so sharp and hard you could pop heart seams on it, even.  (Or, to take another example from advertising: compare Gaga’s dress with the bubbles that stick around, in an incredibly upsetting, rightly withdrawn ad for Method cleaning products last year, where the chemical “Shiny Suds” of rival cleaning-product companies are depicted as horrible frat-boy monsters who linger toxically in the bathtub long after a woman has cleaned it and sexually harass her while she showers.)

So I take it that one of the most valuable moves made by Lady Gaga so far has been a kind of extended performative refutation of Thomas Friedman’s claim, seven years ago, that “[w]e are all now in a post-bubble world.”  That sentence comes from “The Third Bubble,” a truly amazing op-ed piece published in the New York Times on April 30, 2003, and summarized by Friedman a month later on Charlie Rose.  Yeah, this is the video that culminates with Friedman’s horrifying “Suck on this!”—an ejaculation preceded and enabled by a two-minute discourse, Gagaesque in its grotesque surrealism, on all the different kinds of bubbles that have been expanding for decades, most importantly a “terrorist bubble” that the United States needed to burst with “a very big stick” by invading, arbitrarily, the nation of Iraq, so that the world could remain safely post-ideology, free from terror, enlightened.  The American invasion of Iraq justified retrospectively (seven years ago) as the War to End All Bubbles.

BUBBLE DREAMS FOREVER

July 27, 2010

“Brother Michael is shining”: Race, capital, metonyms, sheens

And thirty dozen moons with borrow’d sheen
About the world have times twelve thirties been…
—The Player King, Shakespeare, Hamlet III.ii

James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sam and Dave, the O’Jays—they all used to really work an audience.  I might have learned more from watching Jackie Wilson than from anyone or anything else.  All of this was a very important part of my education.  We would stand offstage, behind the curtains, and watch everyone come off after performing and they’d be all sweaty.  I’d just stand aside in awe and watch them walk by.  And they would all wear these beautiful patent-leather shoes.  My whole dream seemed to center on having a pair of patent-leather shoes.  I remember being so heartbroken because they didn’t make them in little boys’ sizes.  I’d go from store to store looking for patent-leather shoes and they’d say, “We don’t make them that small.”  I was so sad because I wanted to have shoes that looked the way those shoes looked, polished and shining, turning red and orange when the lights hit them.  Oh, how I wanted some patent-leather shoes like the ones Jackie Wilson wore.
—Michael Jackson, Moonwalk

The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, edited by Mark Fisher, is often a fantastic book, with essays whose sophistication and complex interengagement are nicely captured—if I can stick to the surface, which is what I’m going to try doing throughout this post—by Laura Oldfield Ford’s cover image: not, as it may initially seem, a familiar splitting juxtaposition of the beautiful face of a very young Michael Jackson with the face of the older man, but rather an assemblage of surfaces (hints of the Invincible cover, the Thriller cover, the famous 2003 mugshot) which seem neither at ease with themselves nor capable of fitting together into any whole that exceeds the sum: anxious slicing dimensionality.  The tenth piece in the book, Chris Roberts’ witty fantasy “True enough: Michael in fifty shards,” and the final (very different) piece, Ian Penman’s “Notes toward a ritual exorcism of the dead king,” both similarly exemplify in miniature the kind of collage aesthetic that gives the book its concentrated energy: here are 24 perspectives on, e.g., Michael and Elvis and late pop/rock sovereignty, Michael and Beyoncé and the metonymies of commodification, Michael and Stalin and Soviet nostalgia, Michael and utopia and Greil Marcus’s racism, Michael and Janet and digitization.

One complaint about perspective, though: the book could have benefited from more of them, coming from more writers who were not white and male; I have to say that toward the end I was getting the uncomfortable feeling of a boys’ club sitting in judgment on Michael-Jackson-as-(feminized-)boy, and an association of mostly white folks discussing the perceived deviation from normative blackness that Michael Jackson performed.   I don’t mean these reactions of mine were always directly precipitated by the content of the essays themselves—but sometimes they were.  Consider one example from Penman’s frequently amazing, hallucinatory final essay (a text capable of, for example, condensing most of what I was trying to say about the last 15 years in my post on “Jam” into a single line: “The seductive jouissance of total anxiety” [296]).  This is how Penman deals with rumors that the late Michael Jackson had converted to Islam, and that in Saudi Arabia near the end of his life he wore a burqa and used women’s public lavatories:

If these burka-in-a-rest-room rumors were true … what was that?  A last way of testing out if he was still beyond human law?  ‘I’m Michael: I can do what I want’?  Or childish drugged-up prank?  Or evidence of a man toppled over into serious pathology?

It’s true that the thought or the image of Michael Jackson wearing a burqa, inside or outside a public lavatory, presents an overwhelming amount to unpack—which Penman doesn’t really try to do, and which I can’t hope to do here.  But suffice it to say that, first, this passage is not entirely free of the kind of misogynist Islamophobia that leads Christopher Hitchens to become furious at the sight of a veiled woman, features hidden from his gaze, and to rail astonishingly about his “right to see your face”; and, second, that there are simply some interpretive options that Penman doesn’t list, aren’t there?  “Evidence of a man toppled over into serious pathology”?  What about evidence of a person who was, in spite of what the world thought and what the world continually said, in spite of the male pronouns we all continue to use for want of an obviously proffered alternative, not “a man”?  I don’t say this out of any positive desire to situate Michael Jackson as someone who needs to be “claimed for the transgender community,” which would itself be an extremely problematic move.  (For a lovely discussion locating trans possibilities in the specific register of (Michael’s) voice, though, see this essay by Francesca Royster.)  I would just say that one conceivable response to Penman’s sensationalizing “what was that?” would be: well, that was the case of a person who had, indeed, converted to Islam, and who wanted privacy in Saudi Arabia, and whose gender identity was, indeed, such that it made sense to wear a burqa and to use “women’s public lavatories,” OK?  Moments like these—when I didn’t think it was only a fan’s defensiveness that had me convinced a more sensitive attention to questions of privilege and subject position would have helped—were scattered throughout my experience of the book.

But this isn’t really meant to be a review of Fisher’s collection, which I might have more thoughts on later.  What I’m hoping to do briefly is rather to use the insights from a couple of the essays in The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson as a way of glossing one feature of the book’s textual surface.  Skim along that surface and you’ll find the same word interestingly recurring at similar moments: when the writers here want to describe some quality that dramatically sets Michael Jackson’s music apart, makes it recognizable as Michael, they talk about sheens.  Here are four passages—from, respectively, Fisher himself, Paul Lester, Steven Shaviro, and David Stubbs—quoted both to offer a glimpse of the consistent quality of the writing on display here, and to provide some contextual sense:

“Billie Jean” is not only one of the best singles ever recorded, it is one of the greatest art works of the twentieth century, a multi-leveled sound sculpture whose slinky, synthetic panther sheen still yields up previously unnoticed details and nuance nearly thirty years on (14).

Musically, the symphonic disco of Off The Wall was his peak.  We’d never heard anything so lavish, it was like Philly soul magnified and multiplied and given an unholy perfect sheen (18).

The modulations of Michael’s voice, the sinuous movements of his dancing, the way that his musical arrangements took disco and R&B and gave them both a smoothness and a slightly alien sheen, so subtly that one could say with equal justice that the sharp edges of mournful or joyous black expression had been “mainstreamed,” or that the very “mainstream” itself had been alluringly or insidiously carried away, exposed to a strange new metamorphosis, allowed to blossom into a new aestheticized state in which pop crassness had itself become a rare, almost Wildean, delicacy (56).

Bathed in the humid, artificial twilight of the urban west coast, [“Human Nature”] is a thing of unnatural beauty, with Jackson’s vocal shiver arousing an electric frisson across the skin of the song, and the sheen of the ’80s production triggering the sort of ecstatic, self-perpetuating, hall of mirrors effect later brought to a high shine on Scritti Politti’s Cupid and Psyche ’85 (74).

As maybe the third excerpt from Shaviro best demonstrates, “sheen” is inherently uncanny and implicitly calls self-presence into question: when a thing is given a sheen, just what’s happening?  Is it only being given attention, worked on, allowed to shine in its thingness?  Or is something “slightly alien” always being added, even “insidiously”?   (This is all complicated further when what’s in question is the disembodied body of a sound recoding.)  “Sheen” has a common etymology with “shine” (linked to the German scheinen, “to seem”) and is first seen as a noun, rather than an adjective, in those lines spoken by the Player King—that eerie artificer of affect, narrating the poisonous demise of his own feigned sovereignty—from Hamlet.  To describe the radiance that the moon borrows from the sun, Shakespeare’s text borrows the word for that borrowing and reifies it.  And in these four passages on Michael Jackson “sheen” acts transitively, pointing at the same time to a certain sonic effect associated with pop styles of the late 70s and the early 80s—or, more precisely, with the shift from “the 70s” to “the 80s,” something Michael Jackson and his team seem to apply to, or bring more to the surface of, a preexisting musical object or sound-commodity —and to something else, reflected or refracted outward from the songs, some larger quality or set of qualities (synthetic? Wildean? ecstatic? unholy? unnatural?) that Michael Jackson represents.  We’re moving toward the language of Michael Jackson as one who shines; and in some sense that’s the clearest, most uncomplicated metaphor in the world, given that Michael Jackson is a king, a sun, a star, probably the biggest star in history.  “Our bright and shining star,” Maya Angelou calls him in her elegy.  Or, in the brilliant video-encomium “Michael Jackson is Shining,” Unity Lewis raps: “They wanna tear down a true black legend shining; but no matter what you say my brother Michael is shining.  You talk a lot of lies about, him but we see that you’re lying.  Brother Michael is shining.  Brother Michael is shining.”

But that there is (of course) much more to say about Michael Jackson and shining surfaces is suggested by the way Unity’s video begins, after its Al Sharpton-narrated prologue: with the first notes of music and Unity’s assurance that this is “real real serious,” and with the image of Michael Jackson’s iconic, supernaturally radiant white socks and black shoes, spotlit and isolated in the frame, dancing their way across a stage.  The literalization of metaphor here has a real real serious, richly overdetermined, effectively prophetic precedent in the video for “Billie Jean.”  Which was, of course, both the most important video in the early history of MTV, and the first video by an African-American artist to be played regularly on that station; thus, an announcement that America’s new global superstar was black; thus a grand repudiation of everything represented by an infamous remark, attributed to the previous King who had died five years before: “the only thing blacks can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”  Stolen music, borrowed sheen.  I was actually unaware until I started thinking about this post that the word “shine” has its own, especially horrible history as a reified noun—a racist insult, defined by the OED (in one of those entries that, you know, need to be updated) as “[a]n abusive term for a Black.”  So watch Michael, one minute into this video, walking alone down a city street and lighting up the sidewalk with his feet, suddenly shifting his weight and propping his foot up on a trashcan and lightning-quick producing a tiger-striped rag (to become, at the end, a real tiger, just as Michael in “Black or White” will walk down almost the same street and become a black panther) and polishing the shoe that is his, this source of illumination, this metonym for himself and his energies, which he is using to dance Elvis off the fucking planet.  Six years later, in the chapter of his book titled “Just Kids with a Dream,” he will explicate a version of this metonymy himself: “My whole dream seemed to center on having a pair of patent-leather shoes.”  He will describe a doomed search for a sufficiently small pair of shiny shoes, which will begin to sound like the doomed search for a way back to childhood (there’s no place like home) that his life, read through one lens, will become.

(A footnote or shoe-note on Elvis Presley’s racism and Michael Jackson’s pedophilia: they are rather precisely analogous, right?  In that each of them has by now condensed itself into an agonizingly familiar did-he-or-didn’t-he question, a little metonym (just as the slur “shine” is itself a racist-classist metonym), resisting definitive answers and also, on some level of popular consciousness, becoming almost irrelevant.  Whether or not Elvis Presley ever spoke those words about the people buying his records and shining his shoes, the position he occupied in the twentieth-century United States was a position of violently maintained white privilege, and, with respect to African-American musical forms, it was an appropriative position.  The shoe fits.  Whether or not Michael Jackson committed acts of pederasty, had sexual relations with children, he was, of course, in the etymological sense, a pedophile: he loved children, he openly and continually professed this love.  He was an adult who wanted intimacy with children who were not “his own,” in a culture that finds complicated ways of (not-)permitting such intimacy.)

So this five-second cut-up gesture from “Billie Jean” is both looking backward at lived experience and at a history of labor that is being in some way reclaimed, and looking forward at a complex future that is in so many ways dispiriting.  Partly because in functioning as a metonym for Michael Jackson himself, the shining shoe is also already a symbol of the commodification of that self.  The image that currently stands in for Michael Jackson on his official Facebook page is, of course, not one of a face, but a photograph of those white socks and black shoes, dazzling, poised in an unforgettable slightly slanting verticality, given the perfect, eroticized, always-disappointing sheen of the commodity, accompanied by text stating that “No will ever fill” them—and maybe the question to ask is could anyone, did anyone, ever?  Two evocatively titled essays in The Resistible Demise are especially helpful for thinking about what’s involved here, in the dispersement and the becoming-product of Michael Jackson—Sam Davies’ “Glove, socks, zombies, puppets: The unheimlich maneuvers and undead metonyms of Michael Jackson,” and Mark Sinker’s “‘What about death, again’: The dolorous passion of the son of pop.”  Davies views Michael’s body as a kind of Gothic assemblage, animating and dismembering itself through dance and costume in ways that prefigure performances by Beyoncé as the similarly single-gloved Sasha Fierce: Michael and Beyoncé, Davies argues, “in their sublime dancing and uncanny masks and metonyms, disclose the sheer strangeness of their own transmogrification into product” (231).  (This transmogrification through detachment, again, is made fantastically literal in the “Billie Jean” video, at those other moments when Michael’s feet, lips, eyes, hands are not only filmed in closeup but actually cut out of the picture and left to stand alone against a black screen, blason-like.  And for some further updates Beyoncé’s subversive engagement with processes of commodification and objectification and sublime phoniness, see Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o on her performance in the “Telephone” video, as well as Robin James on the robotic poetics of “Single Ladies”).  In Sinker’s fabulous analysis of Michael’s debts to American soul music, by contrast, the essential figure for comparison is James Brown (famously a poor child who supported himself by shining shoes, latterly one of the stars who “worked an audience” and whose “polished and shining” shoes transfixed a young Michael Jackson), recognized here as a kind of artistic-cultural prophet who “combined a commodification of himself, the salesmanship of the idea of everything he was, physically and spiritually, with an establishment of his own self-ownership”—who, indeed, “learnt a lot about the limits and dignities of self-ownership that Jackson never got to find out” (176-177).

One way to end the story—I’m starting to see it more and more as a suspiciously easy ending—is to say that this never-getting-to-find out was progressively written across Michael Jackson’s face: that, rigidly schooled from the beginning in self-commodification, he worked for decades on polishing and selling the commodity, gradually attempting to standardize the product, to make it, in Steven Shaviro’s words, “generically normative: which is to say, in a white supremacist society he wanted to become white” (61).  The final observation to make about the brilliantly polished shoes of the “Billie Jean” video, in this analysis, would be that their light gives Michael’s face, for a fraction of a second, an unearthly glow, a hint of the eventually permanent “hyper white” sheen described by Ian Penman: “see Michael in photos and on film and he is whiter than the white people around him.  He SHINES, a malignant singularity, polarity, negative” (282).

Or it would be possible to move in two directions at once, and quote Kobena Mercer on the way shining black skin is made to function as a (white) fetish in the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and elsewhere, and to look again at the proximity of those shining shoes to sweating black bodies (“We would […] watch everyone come off after performing and they’d be all sweaty”) in the paragraph from Moonwalk, and frame the whitening of Michael Jackson’s skin over the course of decades (taken as at least partly deliberate) as a kind of hopeless resistance to commodification—which is the move gestured toward at a later moment in Penman’s essay: “Not that skin of sweat and toil and punishment and supposed reward.  Rewind > rewind > rewind.  Skin like daylight, like daylight and Christmas” (284).  I have to acknowledge my own discomfort with where this kind of analysis leads—and, again, with the confidence displayed by some of the white writers in The Resistible Demise as they perform variations on what, after all, is by now the standard reading of Michael Jackson and his tragic “desire to become white.”  The diagnosis of vitiligo is not a fact that features very prominently in this book, and it was a real diagnosis, not, I think, something obviously to be dismissed.  (See the comment thread here.)  But surely it says something about Jackson himself—his ubiquity, his singularity, his star power, whatever—that all these contradictory interpretations and hypotheses are so tempting.  Certainly one thing The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson demonstrates is that the fascination of Michael relates to the way he seems to have of looking like a metonym for everything. His demise, and the question of its resistibility or irresistibility, only pose further questions about the distance between serving as an example and being made an example of; in this sense Michael Jackson is the shining example of shining exemplarity itself.

May 12, 2010

Don’t stop / pop plots

Near the end of that Ke$ha video from last month, Paul Muldoon and the Princeton Tiger kid say that they haven’t even mentioned the title “TiK ToK” yet, and that it’s deeply poetic and stands for time, ticking away.  So, OK, can we actually talk about that tick?  For a second?  Instead of laughing it up over the idea of talking about it?

Because there must be things to say about the moment that just passed, when two of the songs that were everywhere were “TiK ToK” and “Telephone,” a complementary pair of digital odes to, or even eulogies for, analog technology.  Jack Halberstam observed that most of the phones in the “Telephone” video were landlines: immobile, outdated, restrictive, even analogous to patriarchy insofar as they were to-be-escaped-from.  I might go further, and try to direct the observation differently—do we even talk on “telephones” anymore?  Is the distance of tele– (always a phantom distance) even there, in the way it was just a few years ago?  And if the song and the video had been called “Cell Phone,” would the play on imprisonment have been too obvious?  From one point of view, the key metaphorical idea that allows the feminist/liberationist politics of “Telephone” to function at all is one that’s looking ever more old-fashioned itself.  It’s the idea of unreachability, of an imperfect phone which can’t always be accessed or access you—which, even if it’s mobile, might actually get no service in the club, making it that much easier for you to ignore the male voice that’s trying to get to your ear.  How much longer will that kind of unreachability last, when, to take one example from Tony Scott, the technocapitalism that holds us hostage can now get wireless access in the bowels of the New York City subway?

(“Sometimes I feel like I live in Grand Central Station,” right?)

There are, I would say relatedly, an awful lot of phone lines in the video for “TiK ToK,” almost everywhere and again a part of the world to be fled from, as Ke$ha and “Barry” steer clear of the police who want to shut them down and drive to the club where the party’s about to start.  It’ll start when Ke$ha walks in, and, there, it’s a matter of being arrested in the right way: as she says to the DJ, “With my hands up / You got me now.” (I guess I should try to make it clear that I don’t mean to be treating Ke$ha as a kind of not-good-enough Lady Gaga imitator here, which strikes me as a pretty lazy and wrong move for so many people to have made. I would prefer to call her a Gaga analogue…)

If it’s debatable whether or not we still talk on the telephone that these poles stand for, I think another question isn’t: clocks don’t say “tick tock” anymore.  Frank Kermode famously pointed out some time ago that they almost never did: the difference between “tick” and “tock” is (in most cases) a fiction, even one identified by Kermode as a model for all plots, in its imposition of meaningful duration onto an inhuman, “purely successive” tick-tick-tick-tick.  “Tick is a humble genesis,” Kermode says, “tock a feeble apocalypse.”  One thing he doesn’t say (I think) is that “tick tock,” as opposed to “tick tick,” is, in addition, a useful way to distinguish what a clock does from what a bomb does, or the duration before an apocalypse that isn’t so feeble.

I think Ke$ha and Lady Gaga are both interested in these kinds of fictions, even as they’re also both attuned to certain ways in which, this being 2010, the bomb has already gone off.  (Gaga says the Apocalypse has happened; Ke$ha says it’s the end of time.  And there’s a miniaturized, concentrated, half-defused bomb that’s going off permanently in both “TiK ToK” and “Telephone”: the cell phone that’s being “blown up” by the guys calling them.)  Where to go from there?  How to think about getting a real party started?  Doesn’t an always-already-fictive or “unreal” analog tick-tock feel more escapable than the soundless, eventless digital alwaysnow of late capitalism, described so well in this terrifying video?

It’s always 9 to 5.  It’s a question of reachability—spatial, temporal.  So how great is it that the recent episode of The Simpsons that began with “TiK ToK” went on to feature not only a subplot about Lisa’s fight against the dumb-blonde stereotype—the stereotype that wrote Mark Dery’s vile column on Lady Gaga for him, and that seems to constitute about ninety percent of what many people have to say about Ke$ha—but also a main plot centering on a bomb threat that led to video surveillance of (almost) all of Springfield?

More on this later, maybe.

March 13, 2010

“In the beginning was the telephone”

Filed under: music,telephony — by JR @ 1:01 am
Tags: , ,

“Love, for Derrida, is till death do us part, or rather it is on condition that we are in some sense always already parted both from one another and from ourselves: ‘I mourn therefore I am’ would be Derrida’s rewriting of the Cartesian ‘I think therefore I am.’  The ‘I am’ is only possible on the basis of memory, language, and others.  My relation to myself is, from before the word go (or the word ‘gaga’ or ‘mamma’ or ‘me’), ‘plunged into mourning.'”
Nicholas Royle

“So, a telephonic interiority.”
Jacques Derrida

“Sometimes I feel like I live in Grand Central Station / Tonight I’m not takin’ no calls”
Beyoncé

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