Have a Good Time

July 9, 2010

Four videos

[Six Israeli soldiers walk toward the camera down a street in Hebron, as the Muslim call to prayer is heard; suddenly Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK” begins to play and the soldiers stop and try to dance to the song]

[13-year-old Kesha Rose Sebert performs Radiohead’s “Karma Police” at a school talent show with piano and acoustic-guitar accompaniment]

[Jonathan Glazer’s music video for “Karma Police”: description here]

[William Kentridge’s 1996 short animated film History of the Main Complaint: description here]

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  Jack Halberstam observed that most of the phones in the “Telephone” video were landlines: immobile, outdated, restrictive, even analogous to patriarchy insofar as they were to-be-escaped-from.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.

April 23, 2010

This idea of O

So there recently appeared on the Internet two interestingly similar, and otherwise mostly uninteresting, attacks on female pop stars: a drawn-out sneer at Lady Gaga and her face, performed by Mark Dery, and a video featuring Paul Muldoon and a student from The Princeton Tiger pretending to critique Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK”:

Of this video, one YouTube commenter writes: “Poets need to do things like this more often. I think it would really help to tear down that whole barrier of exclusivity a lot of people feel about poetry.”  If only, Lethkar2000!  If only.  I can’t see this conversation as anything but a desperate effort to keep that barrier standing, partly by setting in place a neat opposition between the effortlessly, consummately “trashy” singer of “TiK ToK” and a Pulitzer-winning male poet, barricaded by shelves densely packed with serious books, who can only “tr[y] to be trashy,” never knowing whether he’s really succeeded.  And there are a few reasons why I can’t respond to this video with unqualified love for Ke$ha, but that’s just the thing: to suggest that her work, and by implication most pop music, is manifestly unworthy of analysis, which is what this video does, is one way of shutting off conversations that need to happen about genuinely troubling aspects of that music and its performance.

As for Mark Dery, there’s a great post on it’s her factory that basically says what needs to be said about the tired misogyny of his Gaga critique.  I’m interested in one little additional thing, a bizarre commonality between Dery’s essay and the Ke$ha video: both of them feature a kind of stunningly misguided dismissal of one particular vocalization.  And in both cases it’s Shakespeare on one side, and “O” on the other.  Here’s Dery, comparing the erudition of Queen’s Freddie Mercury with the “vacuity” supposedly represented by Lady Gaga, an emptiness that his essay relentlessly codes as feminine:

In the radio-mandated two and a half minutes, Freddie gave his listeners a whiff of Shakespeare, an introduction to what would now be called Outsider art, and some brain-stretchingly arcane vocabulary words. (Queen Builds Word Power!) Gaga gives us “rah-rah-ah-ah-ah! Rom-mah-rom-mum-mah! GaGa-oo-la-la!” (“Bad Romance”) and “Oh, oh, oh, oh, ohhhh, oh-oh-e-oh-oh-oh/ I’ll get him hot, show him what I’ve got/ Oh, oh, oh, oh, ohhhh, oh-oh-e-oh-oh-oh…

And here’s the Tiger with Muldoon on “TiK ToK”:

STUDENT: One of the most prevalent motifs in the piece seems to be this idea of “O.”  For example, in one of the lines, the speaker says, “O, o, o, o … o, o, o, o”—what do you think that could be?  Is that a yearning desire for some sort of deeper level of trashiness?

MULDOON: I think that’s probably a reference, well, to a couple of things.  It’s a reference to King Lear—you know, there’s a line where you hear—

STUDENT: Ke$ha’s referencing King Lear?

MULDOON: —”No, no, no, no, no, no.”  Which she has kind of transmogrified into “O, o, o, o, o, o” … or something along those lines.

This idea of “O”—they think that’s a joke?  Muldoon is right to say that this is a Shakespeare reference, he’s just thinking of the wrong line in King Lear:

LEAR: […] Pray you undo this button.  Thank you, sir.
O, o, o, o.

Or maybe just of the wrong play:

HAMLET: […] The rest is silence.
O, o, o, o.

Of course a whole lot has been written about those O-groans, especially Hamlet’s, but I think there must be some reasonably clear sense in which it isn’t a contradiction to have them follow the words “The rest is silence.”  The groans really might have more in common with silence than with those words.  In these lines, “O” is the sound of dying; elsewhere in Shakespeare, and in pop songs, it might be the sound of feeling so happy I could die.  Or it might be the sound of something else.  Regardless, there’s obviously nothing wrong with not liking Lady Gaga or Ke$ha, or with criticizing what they do as lyricists—but it seems to me that you really don’t want to go about this by saying that “O” is a bad lyric.  (Let alone insinuating that its badness or “meaninglessness” as a lyric results from its having been composed by a “trashy” or “dumbfounded” songstress who just isn’t smart enough to write like Shakespeare.)  Because “O” isn’t (quite) a lyric; in its full emptiness, “O” is more like the lyric itself—which, I would say, has always been closer to “a yearning desire for some sort of deeper level of trashiness” than The Princeton Tiger might like us to think…

Oh, forget it.  If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to stop thinking about these guys and go listen to “Telephone” again.

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