In October of 2011, more than a dozen of my Facebook friends posted a video called “Split Screen Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Beyonce Knowles”, a video highlighting the similarities between Beyonce’s video for “Countdown” and many of de Keersmaeker’s films. I typically fall into the internet outrage trap easily, and this was an extreme example. I’d studied this film in university – de Keersmaeker is a well-known dance choreographer – and while I initially hesitated about how much Beyonce could have stolen, I realized pretty immediately that the answer was “pretty much everything.”
Rosas Danst Rosas was first choreographed for stage in 1983, when de Keersmaeker was only 23 years old. It was one of de Keersmaeker’s earliest choreographies, one that is still performed by the company. The piece was created in close collaboration with the musicians Thierry de Mey and Peter Vermeersch, and, like much of her earlier work, deals explicitly with female sexuality and experience without necessarily being about feminism. The film version, directed and shot in 1996 (also by Theirry de Mey) expands on the original piece’s choreography and concept. I spent about five minutes while watching it just trying to figure out how the dancers were counting one section of choreography (I finally figured it out as four, five, four, three, five: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zS_kWttptS4).
That same meticulousness exists in the editing: the repeated cutting between shots manages not to be overwhelming or muddy, as the specific movements are matched up frame by frame – each shot follows the one before it, until right after the film’s courtyard scene. The precision that had existed before, in all elements of the work, breaks down here to make space for a surprisingly stark ending.
The work presents a take on women that was striking and risky at the time of its creation. Viewed now, and perhaps even in 1996 when the film was shot, many of its feminist stances could seem kitschy or demoralizing, but the repeated gesture of taking off the shirt, exposing the shoulders, and putting it back on again describes what is to me an important problem in dance around women and women’s bodies. In a field vastly dominated by women, men still hold the majority of leadership positions and are more likely to receive funding: in 2005, the Dancer Transition Resource Centre reported that 71% of professional dancers in Canada were female, yet 10 out of the group’s 15 associated companies were under male artistic directorship. Dance Theatre Workshop in the States notes that “in 2000, of the 18 modern dance choreographers who received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, 13 were men”. The men received a total of $200 000 with a typical grant of ten grand, and the women received a total of $45 000 with a typical grant of five thousand dollars.
The life and work of a dancer is taxing and difficult, and the problems around the female body in dance are numerous and notorious. With so many men running the show, I have to wonder how much longer we can ignore these issues. Skimpy costumes on women and rampant eating disorders, coupled with lower rates of pay for the same work, paint a depressing picture of women’s complicated place in the dance community, and yet in 1983 de Keersmaeker was presenting work, as a young female choreographer, where women exposed themselves, “exploited” themselves. Suddenly this gesture of exposing the shoulder seems to me pretty radical. This work predates Madonna and riot grrrl, and though it comes after two “waves” of feminism and a number of strong women asserting themselves and their sexuality – Wendy O. Williams and Sylvia Robinson come to mind – not many of the women who took a more aggressive stance reached the point of critical acclaim that Rosas did.
The film version’s resemblance to a music video stands out for me now – I have tried to learn some of the choreography and remembered sections of it in a vocabulary that almost seems more commercial, more hip-hop than anything else. It’s a rare instance in dance when I feel like an all-female cast is a specific choice to say something meaningful about female sexuality or the place of women in the professional dance community, as opposed to just a reflection of available collaborators. Grabbing their own breast, taking off the shoulder of their shirts, and writhing slightly all fit into the larger vocabulary of pedestrian movement, released arms, and a mind-bogglingly precise relaxation. Complicated floorwork and athletic throws are juxtaposed with flirtatious looks from the women.
Despite the commentary the work makes, it isn’t just about gender and sexuality for me. My first reaction to the piece was actually that it must be about anxiety or obsession, based on the preoccupation that seems to have a hold on the dancers throughout. Finding out that this film version was shot and edited by a man, I have to admit, changed things a bit for me, however much I’m keeping myself satisfied by believing that de May, as a longtime collaborator of de Keersmaeker’s, worked with and understands her vision for the work. There’s also, I think, a difference between this male gaze, and the one that follows contemporary female pop singers.
Contemporary pop stars like Beyonce. In 2011, her music video for “Countdown” was released to an immediate fury of online sharing. It didn’t take long for dance nerds everywhere to notice the obvious lifting of choreography, costumes, set, and timing (so pretty much everything) from de Keersmaeker’s work. Beyonce is not new to plagiarism charges – earlier in the same year she was accused of stealing some moves from Lorella Cuccarrini at the Billboard Music Awards. The director of the video for “Countdown,” Adria Petty, claims to have brought different “inspirational sources” to Beyonce to use in the video, and, in her words, “believe it or not, many of them were German modern dance references”.
The distinction between Germany and Belgium notwithstanding, there’s a thin line between inspiration and plagiarism that anybody on the Internet is familiar with. Any 14-year-old with a Mac and Photobooth is capable of creating Warhols. Webcomic creators everywhere are plagued with random Internet users taking frames from strips and using them as Facebook profile pictures, showing how much they identify with the sentiment of “clean all the things”. A million memes of Sgt. Pike pepper-spraying some kids are now floating around the aether, with no sense of who the original creator might be. Does anybody know who created LOLcats?
In this sense, it’s hard to accuse Beyonce of plagiarism – after all, this wonderful modern world makes it easy to “plagiarize” anything. In December 2011 I screened de Keersmaeker’s film with no permission to do so. If you want a copy of the DVD you can download it, just like I did. There’s even evidence to suggest that “borrowing” in dance work is just the reality of what we do – the neurological activity of watching and performing movement is identical, which, coupled with the fact that learned movements patterns are stored in the long-term memory, suggests the possibility of kinesthetic memory triggering at any given moment.
This problem of originality is a sort of obsession for me. I’ve had the call for “original movement vocabulary” shoved down my throat so much in my training as a choreographer that when I actually started reading neurocognitive studies on movement creation and found that “muscle memory” is a real thing, I was thrilled to be free from the burden of making unique stuff. But this doesn’t mean, in my mind, that we can now run around stealing other people’s choreography because our somatic mindbody memory made us do it. Rather, I think of this as more of a call to dance artists everywhere for academic honesty – let’s just acknowledge our training, our prior collaborators, and choreographers we’ve worked for as being the source for all our own movement. Beyonce’s video may be a poor example of this. Somatic mindbody memory doesn’t force you to copy someone’s costumes and sets.
It’s not just the one film that Beyonce ripped here, either. The entire movement vocabulary in “Countdown” is a lift from something else. When asked about the clip, Beyonce is quoted as saying: “Clearly, the ballet Rosas danst Rosas was one of many references for my video ‘Countdown.’ It was one of the inspirations used to bring the feel and look of the song to life…I was also paying tribute to the film Funny Face with the legendary Audrey Hepburn .” She later added: “My biggest inspirations were the ’60s, the ’70s, Brigitte Bardot, Andy Warhol, Twiggy and Diana Ross…I’ve always been fascinated by the way contemporary art uses different elements and references to produce something unique.”
My own perspective on the matter of lifting and inspiration is muddy. I don’t particularly care about originality, and I’m not bothered when I see dance work whose movement vocabulary shows clear influence from another choreographer. I actually think that rules. I draw the line around this when a work of art that’s seminal in its field but little-known outside of it is lifted without any credit or sourcing, in a product that will make someone who is already incredibly successful that much more wealthy. It would’ve been pretty exciting to me if this video had gently referenced de Keersmaeker, or given the occasional subtle nod to Rosas Danst Rosas. I have personally done the exact same thing, with the exact same piece of choreography – I find it hard not to, given its importance. I also know that sampling is integral to the realm of music Beyonce is working in, and often practiced without any reference, citation, or recognition. To be honest, I don’t know how to reconcile that: after all, this video is just another sample.
Last week, I interviewed Toronto local hero Sandro Perri about his incredible, unclassifiable new album Impossible Spaces. You can read my thoughts about the LP itself over there, but the Toronto Standard was only able to run half of our long Q&A (even websites have word counts), so here’s all the other smart, insightful things Sandro said.
CR: I’m curious about your musical background – what kind of formal training do you have, if any?
Sandro Perri: The first thing was, I bought a snare drum when I was about…maybe 11, and I just played on that for a few months. Then I got an acoustic guitar and messed around on my own for two or three months, and then got a private teacher, and studied with him on and off for three years. So I guess that was between 12 and 15, maybe 16. During that time it was rock and classical guitar that I was studying. And then I took a break from that and sort of studied on my own for two years or so, and that was the most intense period, six hours a day, that kind of thing. Then I got a teacher for about six months just before applying to jazz school, who got me primed to learn more advanced scales and theory and harmony. I got accepted into school, and I was there for about a year and a half—
Which jazz school?
Humber College. I did one full year and one half-year, even though on the first day I wanted to leave [laughs]. It was very conservative as far as I could tell.
So they didn’t know who Ornette Coleman was?
The teachers would have, I guess. But few of the students were into that kind of thing. I managed to find the 4 or 5 who were, and we developed friendships and played together. But I got something out of it, I learned quite a bit, and equally important is that I learned what I didn’t want out of school, what I didn’t want to be involved in, which was studying to be a session musician or a straight jazz musician. I knew that I wasn’t really gonna cut it. So I think that was the extent of my actual schooling – the rest, I would just read books at home and practice rhythm exercises. I practiced a lot from this polyrhythm book for a few years. And then just listening. Listening was the main schooling, actually.
I didn’t realize until doing the research for this interview that you had made out-and-out dance music before, as Dot Wiggin and Continuous Dick. Impossible Spaces seems to return to that somewhat, or at least emphasize grooves more than Tiny Mirrors did – there are definitely moments that remind me of Arthur Russell. That wasn’t a question so much as a statement, I guess [both laugh].
I could treat it like a question.
Well, okay. Dot Wiggin was actually a collaboration with a friend of mine, Todd Fox, who’s since passed. I guess he didn’t get me into making dance music, but I think that I became – I don’t know what to say about that. It was very special, that’s for sure. It was definitely an intense six months of music-making. And I learned something about simplicity from him, about space. I was probably trying to be too brainy about it before that. Trying to validate it as “music”. I still suffer from that a little. I don’t think I’ve fully found that thing you need to make great dance music.
The physicality and the simplicity. Structurally strong. That’s a key thing that I still am learning about, and I think all the dance music that I’ve made has just managed to not achieve that but offer enough of an interesting take that people have at least been curious about it. Whereas somebody like Arthur Russell definitely knew how to do those things, and he was a very sophisticated musician, in a more traditional sense. There’s nothing lacking in any of his dance music at all. In part, the desire to make dance music came as a reaction to being in jazz school, and yet, another part of me was still holding on to those things, which essentially prevented me from jumping right in. Just those mental traps you set up for yourself.
The other part was, making electronic music was a way of getting out of using my hands, having some sort of dexterity issue to grapple with. I spent years practicing and I had reached a bit of a stalemate. Making ‘beats’, on the other hand, was creative in an entirely different way. My brain needed a different kind of stimulation. It was much more about rhythm and overall construction than about knowledge of harmony. So it was a good way to relieve myself of some pressures that I felt, learning an instrument, becoming good at it. And I realized very quickly that making music is not about playing an instrument, it’s about overall composition, pacing and space and learning how to access some sort of feeling or idea and translating it into sound. Dance music is – I come and go, I’m into making it for a while and then I have a reaction to that, which is too much button pushing and not enough physical engagement. Not enough singing, not enough playing. There’s always a swing back and forth. So maybe I’ve come the closest to combining the two in this record.
That’s interesting, because in the beginning jazz music was dance music.
And then they sort of bifurcated. I don’t want to create an academic/hedonistic dichotomy, but I think jazz now is much more in the realm of Anthony Braxton and Peter Brotzmann. More cerebral – I mean, it’s also very physical in a way, but – and dance music went in the direction of Larry Levan or Carl Craig.
Well, I think there are different ways of experiencing the physicality in music. You could still feel it, as you say, even if it’s Anthony Braxton or Peter Brotzmann. The best stuff, to me, is often very physical, and in a way, kind of simple. When it’s structurally strong and it offers you something to hang on to. But then, a lot of music that sounds like it’s barely holding on, like it’s just hanging there, can give me shivers as well. That’s physical too. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that jazz stopped being dance music, I think a problem is that too often there is a perceived difference between brain and body, and then you get people going to supposed extremes on either end. There’s terrible dance music, just all about the body without take anything else into consideration.
Or really terrible IDM.
Yeah, exactly. On either end of the spectrum, it’s just too much of one thing. It’s too separated from the rest of our experiences. So ideally the line between this stuff is blurred.
You’ve produced all of your solo albums yourself – the new LP was recorded at 6 Nassau in Kensington Market, if I remember correctly – but you also do production work for other musicians. Do the two roles differ at all?
Probably the big difference is that I’ll spend forever on my own records, just trying things out, experimenting with things, throwing things away after I’ve done them, redoing them. I can’t really do that with other people, because it’s their own time, their own budgets, their own threshold of pain [laughs]. That process of making a record can be quite draining and difficult. So that’s the big thing, I have to be more focused and get a sense of what the person I’m working with is comfortable with and what they want out of the situation and how far they’re willing to go with something. That’s actually a very good thing to learn. I like process a lot, I like working with other people a lot. Helping to understand what somebody’s else thing is, what they’re trying to say or what their vision is. To encourage them in ways that I think are useful and to discourage them in other ways, from all the things that come up when you’re involved in any sort of creative adventure: all the self-doubt, all of the wondering what other people will think about this, wondering what are we going to call this, what genre is this? When you hit upon moments that are uniquely themselves, there’s a moment of excitement and then there’s this backlash that often happens, where an artist can get nervous and have certain anxieties.
And do you feel that you have a strong Albini-like production style?
When you say “Albini-like,” do you mean similar to how he does things, or—
Not his specific style, but more that he’s known for an idiosyncratic one.
I don’t know that I’m experienced enough to know if I do that with people. I might not be the best person to ask. I think if you asked the last five people I’ve worked with—
You’d have to ask Owen Pallett or something.
Well, Owen and I have barely worked together. I recorded Owen for two afternoons just playing violin, and I was very hands-off. But I probably, maybe, might impose myself a little more than the average person in that capacity? But I try to make that work first and foremost with what the person is trying to do.
Did you improvise any arrangements with the other players again?
Not in the same way as Tiny Mirrors. Tiny Mirrors was very much about getting in a room and just playing the tunes and letting things happen. I definitely made suggestions and edited a ton on that record, but this one was more worked-out, and most of the improvising came after the fact when I did the overdubs, with the synth stuff – that was all trial and error.
I was also wondering how the lineup of guest musicians coalesced this time. There are people who return from Tiny Mirrors – Ryan Driver, for example – but newcomers as well, like Mike Smith on bass or Jeremy Strachan’s great sax cameo.
Just from knowing those guys. I’ve known them for years, even before [Tiny Mirrors]. Maybe the juiciest answer to that would be that I wanted something different from the way the playing came together on the last record. I wanted to move away from that kind of beautiful laziness that a lot of the players on Tiny Mirrors brought. Some of the playing on that last record, there’s – not a lack of commitment but a quality to it that always prefers not to say things, to imply things. There’s a lot of space where the listener can come to their own conclusions about what’s happening.
It’s kind of understated or suggestive.
Yeah. And I think there’s still a lot of that on this record, but there’s a little more of a push, and that was definitely a conscious decision. That often requires playing with different people.
That breathy panting in “Love & Light” is apparently the singer Zaki Ibrahim. Did you sample it from an existing song?
No, what happened was, there was this CBC-commissioned thing in 2007, where this show “Fuse” would get different artists to collaborate together.
Oh, is that the thing that Owen [Pallett] and Cadence Weapon covered “Paris 1919” for?
Oh, yeah, that might’ve been it. I haven’t actually heard that one. But yeah, they would get artists who’d never played together before to collaborate on something and do a live concert. What happened there was, they got seven people together to do this round-robin broken-telephone game, where everybody would write 27 words about the New Year, and the words would get passed around the circle to the next person, who would then start writing a song. Either inspired by those words or using those words. Then everybody’s song would get passed to the next person in the circle, who would work on the song or jump off of the song, write a new song based on their song. There were three or four steps. So “Love & Light” was my finished song – the last step in the stage. And Zaki was the person whose song was passed on to me. Basically, I sampled some breath sounds from her song, and the percussion bit, and I used her words as a jumping-off point to write the words for “Love & Light.” So we didn’t actually work on it together, but I ended up using elements of her thing. It was important to credit her in that song because I ended up using her words and some of her sounds as a base.
It’s intriguing because she’s not like your usual collaborators.
No, no, not at all. But that’s kind of an illusion too. The style is different but ultimately it means very little. She’s a great improvisor from what I could tell.
The sounds could come from a modern R&B song or something.
Yeah, which I like.
You recently travelled to Bruce Peninsula with John K. Samson [of the Weakerthans] and Christine Fellows for the National Parks Project. What was that like, composing in the wilderness with them?
It was great. It was very interesting because it became apparent almost immediately that being out there removed the need to create. I don’t know if that’s technically irony, but the whole point of going there to create in the wilderness was erased, for me anyway, as soon as we got there. It made it very evident that a big part of the impetus to create is living in the city… or maybe being away from nature, creates this need for your own natural space. So being in an actual natural space is…
I’m not outdoorsy, per se, but something definitely changes in my nervous system when I go out into the woods. It does for anybody, I think. So that was amazing, and I felt no pressure to create at all, and I ended up writing a song the fastest I’ve ever written one, in like ten minutes, just because I really wanted to go swimming [laughs]. And it was really good to hang out with John and Christine, because I didn’t know them, and they were really nice people. We had a great time. I learned a lot about creativity there. I cracked open the reasons why I want to create things. I find I’m always reminded of basic needs when you go out and you’re surrounded by nature and you don’t have any buildings around, you don’t have any concrete around—
Not to get all R. Murray Schafer or anything, but the change in acoustics alone must have affected—
Oh yeah. There was this one really exciting moment where we were in the water, trying to record the sound of this—you know when you’re doing your dishes, and some water gets into a metal bowl, and you hit it and it goes doink? It’s an amazing sound. And so we were trying to do this in the water, we were trying to record this sound in this bowl. I happened to have my nylon-string guitar with me, and I was holding it in a certain way, and the wind grazed the strings and excited the strings and these upper harmonics just all of a sudden came out of the guitar. It was this crazy, whistling-wind-chime sound that I’d never ever heard in my life. I didn’t know that wind on guitar strings could do that.
We all just kind of went “Oh my God” and recorded the sound of this guitar. It was really delicate, because I couldn’t move. If I moved a millimetre the sound would have stopped. I had to stay there holding this guitar. I think that ended up on the vinyl version of the album that they released. But that was a great moment, because we weren’t really doing anything.
The idea of just discovering this unheard sound is so… Yeah, especially when you have nothing to do with it, because then it’s really a mystery.
Interpolation recurs throughout your music in general, Plays Polmo Polpo being the most obvious example. But the final track on Tiny Mirrors reinterprets the first one, and while “Changes” is hardly a cover of its famous namesake, you are winking at Bowie with those stuttered vocals, right? Yeah, probably. Possibly. I think that it’s hard to pretend as if other music doesn’t play a part in the music that you make, films or books or whatever. I like the idea of talking about what you’re talking about, maybe, acknowledging the fact that you could be referencing things. To me “meta” is not a dirty word. There is value in understanding the context of listening, and referencing other things that you’ve heard in the past is an important element in understanding what you’re hearing now and how you’re taking it in.
“Wolfman” uses this symbol of semi-human monstrosity as a way to explore awkwardness and hesitation. How did those things become associated in your mind? It doesn’t seem like a horrific or violent situation, just one of…misunderstanding. Yeah, I think you’re hitting on some of the things that are there, for sure. Anything that could be considered monstrous is really born out of very human experience. I mean, the whole idea, the whole myth of the wolfman is essentially a human who has not been able to fully embrace what it means to be a human being, in terms of vulnerabilities that one has to deal with.
I guess if you think about it in a scientific sense, the myth may have been fed by—I can’t remember its name, but you know that rare medical disorder where you’re covered in hair? I’ve seen that talked about as a hypothesis for what inspired werewolves. And that persists today—they’re not seen as monsters, but they definitely are gawked at and stigmatized. I guess the whole thing with the idea of monsters is that there’s the unknown, which is of course terrifying, and then there’s the fact that you recognize something of yourself in the monster. That’s terrifying as well. There are a few other things in that tune. There’s an attempt at some levity, and there’s also a nod to the whole wolf thing that happened a bunch of years ago, [when] everybody had “wolf” in their band name but nobody ever explicitly talked about what that meant, what conditions that arose from. There’s a quote from that Will Oldham song [“Wolf Among Wolves”]—that song actually has a lot of quotes from other music, it probably has the most of what you were talking about with “Changes.” It’s loaded with quotations and licks from other songs, almost entirely.
Maybe more like Frankenstein than the Wolfman. Yeah, exactly [laughs]. Another monster.
It reminds me of the Mountain Goats—John Darnielle’s band? Oh, I’ve never actually heard that band. I know that you and Carl [Wilson] are big fans.
A lot of his songs touch on monstrous subjects, but in a nuanced or counterintuitive way. With “Wolfman” I was specifically thinking of a song called “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature,” which is about arriving at the apartment of somebody you probably shouldn’t be sleeping with. Yeah, I don’t know them, but I should probably check it out. Lyrics are a hard thing for me. They’re very difficult to write, I find. I wish that was my forte, but—that was actually the first song where I made an attempt at a story format. That’s probably where some of the awkwardness comes from.
By the conclusion of Tiny Mirrors, with “Mirror Tree,” you left the floor to your collaborators—you don’t appear on it at all. There’s a sense of absence at the end of Impossible Spaces as well; you’re there, but Jordan Somers [a friend of Perri’s who died of complications from leukemia in 2008], who co-wrote the title track’s lyrics, is not. It’s very moving, if you know the backstory. Well, thanks. That was the first time I had ever collaborated on lyrics with another person. It was definitely the level of trust between us that allowed it, because he hadn’t done that either. It was all in one session, an hour or so, and mostly we were just laughing, actually. We were coming up with really stupid things, funny things, and then some of what remained managed to flesh out the song nicely. We were quite close for a while. It was unavoidable that there would be a lot of elements in this record about dealing with Jordan’s death. A lot of it is the stuff that is just impossible to grasp. When somebody’s gone, so much is beyond your reach.
Was he already ill when you wrote the lyrics?
No, the lyrics actually – I started writing the lyrics a long time ago, probably 2005. They just kind of sat there for a couple of years, I didn’t do anything. Like anybody who writes or makes music, there’s a whole load of stuff that’s constantly being worked on or just sitting there waiting to be used. This song was one of them: we got together in 2007 and I brought that one out. He offered up a few things that he had in his notebook, that he had already written, and then we sort of meshed them together. He wasn’t sick then, but he got sick very shortly after we did that.
“How Will I?” was written for him, right?
In a way, yes. And the end of that song, the whole second section, is connected in some way to the act of facing death, mortality, what have you. Doing anything creative is really a way to prolong that, to stave off the awareness of mortality.
There’s that feeling of solidarity in the chorus: “Hand in my hand, shoulder to shoulder / Today it looks like love is bolder.”
That quite literally came about from standing over his grave with my partner and realizing that you can lose somebody very close to you, but it’s really important, in that moment especially, to remember who you do have in your life as well, to contextualize loss.
There’s been plenty of praise already for this posthumous volume of work by not only The New Yorker’s first pop writer but one of the first rock critics (as opposed to reviewers) – who went missing from the history because she had dropped out of the game by the time it was first being historicized, and no doubt because she wasn’t a guy. I was a fan of Ellen Willis’s socio-political, feminist writing (many fine examples of which are archived on this Tumblr) long before learning she’d been a music critic. Later I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known.
I’m still struck by the uncanny frisson rereading her work imparts. It feels at once anachronistic and full of unfinished business. Early rock critics generally read more like our contemporaries than other cultural critics of the 1960s and 1970s, save perhaps Pauline Kael. But in part that was because they (Marcus, Christgau et al) were having arguments they then went on to finish, or that other people clearly took up (Lester Bangs). They were able to moderate their various romanticisms, rockisms, exclusions and snobberies.
With Willis, you get reflections on anything from Elvis’s comeback to the social meaning of white electric blues to whether David Bowie was a phony, all as offhand, first-draft-of-history musings, necessarily innocent of the big debates to come, often half-wrong but revitalized by freshness as first thoughts. You also get blind spots – it’s misleading that the first piece in chapter 1 is about “Two Soul Albums,” because contemporary black music just isn’t going to come up in this book very often. It’s not an omission anyone writing retrospectively about the 1960s and 1970s would make. But it was one plenty of people did at the time, and Willis isn’t exempt, nor does she get to go back and revise.
More importantly there are the hints and beginnings of big themes she’d never go on to explore in depth – and neither would many others. Part of what was lost in Willis’s voice going missing was the way she treated music not so much analytically, and certainly not categorically, but dynamically. She had a way of talking about artist-audience relationships, specifically fan relationships, that anticipated what would come in cultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s.
But while there was sociology in Willis’s take, it was also self-reflexive and personal – her sense of what she was asking of Janis Joplin and what Janis Joplin reciprocally needed from her, or how she could appropriate the virile aggression of Mick Jagger as a fan, and take on that erotic energy as subject rather than object. (So the Stones’ Under My Thumb is potentially more accommodating to a female point-of-view than Cat Stevens’ Wild World, because a hetero woman couldn’t easily picture herself passive-aggressively controlling an ex-lover by telling him he was too naive and delicate for the big bad world. Molly Templeton has astutely proposed that gender-flip question as Willis’s musical equivalent of the Bechdel Test.)
Here, then, are 5 propositions and maxims that reading Out of the Vinyl Deeps made me think should guide more criticism today.
Music is an embodied experience.
As a feminist, a 1960s counterculture-liberationist and, most of all, as someone who came into a relatively empty field and pursued her passions rather than having a lot of other discourse to answer to, Willis was seldom distracted from the fact that music was something to feel physically – an engine for dancing, a drug for feeling, a massage for pain, an erotic locus and something that pulls you into crowds.
Unlike some members of the boys’ club, she didn’t take that as an excuse for slobbery prose that tried to emulate the music’s (and the drugs’) pulses and waves. She wrote more diagnostically, describing the symptoms caused by these viruses of sound and trying to say what they were good or bad for, and what overall syndromes they might indicate. She knew there were contradictions between rationalism and expressionism, between the body and the mind, but to her that was exactly the meaning and purpose of rock’n’roll.
It’s natural to have an agenda.
Willis felt no compunction about the fact that Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, The Who and the Velvet Underground (who, amazingly, she’s still written about better than anyone else) were closer and more personal to her than a lot of other figures. She enjoyed keeping in dialogue with them, with each new album or development.
She wasn’t uncomfortable with that commitment and contaminated by ideas of objectivity leaking inappropriately in from other branches of journalism. But she also knew that her fan relationship to them was fraught. She cared about whether they were fulfilling their promises without petulantly implying they owed something to her – as if they were the leaders of a republic in which she was just one highly engaged citizen. Pop is about both identification and objectification of the stars, she knew. But just as with the people around us, the projections, identifications and oppositions we bring in are mainly our own problem.
Pleasure is both a moral imperative and a moral dilemma.
None of the liberating power Willis felt in pop music could function without pleasure. In this way, she was ahead of the back-and-forth that would come between the neo-Adorno undergroundist critics who were suspicious of pop pleasure and the (now dominant) faction of poptimists who insist that’s where it all begins.
But she was always asking herself what pleasure meant: I like that beat, but what do I like it for? It’s not just whether and how it works, but what it works, what it’s propelling. She was alert to the possibilities of masochism, of submitting to the force or insinuation of music without questioning what becomes of the self in the process. She also delighted in finding pleasure that was hard to find – that punk, for example, had a positive life-force to offer within what had seemed nihilistic, anti-pleasure to her at first. But when music had no pleasure in it, she was impatient with any other argument it might have to offer.
Music always suggest a philosophy, a life-world.
For Willis, ultimately, the question was whether music was evoking a world she wanted to live in, or at least wanted to work her way through. Her landmark Velvet Underground essay for the Stranded “desert-island disc” anthology was testing exactly that problem: She saw in the VU, and in Lou Reed’s songwriting especially, a search for salvation in a fallen world. The VU was radical in pop music for its depiction of how deeply, violently fallen the world is – how unlike a mental ideal the embodied life is.
But she was convinced the music was about the struggle against that nihilism. She would have had little time for music that embraced the nihilism, a genuinely gnostic music. (Which may be what she thought she heard in the 1980s, and why she quit writing about it.)
Her writing likewise depicted a fight against cynicism and despair, which partly marks its post-60s era – she’s not that far off from Joan Didion in that way, though Willis could never be mistaken as anything but a New York writer. But the details of the philosophical positions involved aren’t so much the crux as is the constant listening for what’s being proposed and the writer’s honest effort to imagine what that has to do with her.
To live outside the law you must be honest – and hurt the ones you love.
All that said, Willis was never willing to straight-out join up. Perhaps her days of countercultural immersion and unthinking loyalty are behind her by the time she starts writing in public. Perhaps they were just never in her character. She makes her alliances tentatively, the way a feminist who loves Dylan and the Stones and the Who has to if she’s not switching her brain off.
She’s no easier on her female compatriots: She made a huge effort to find nascent feminist musicians who would speak to her. She didn’t find many. She witnesses the beginning of the women’s-music-festival movement, and finds it encouraging, but she’s impatient to find the women’s music that really rocks, or at least doesn’t traffic in feminist platitudes.
She keeps searching, but she doesn’t give away too many points for effort, and she’s not afraid she’ll be kicked out of the movement for voicing her misgivings, in part because she does it so clearly with regret. Just as she listens to the music, it seems as if she listens to her own words, asking how her pleasure in writing serves to create more pleasure, to liberate a larger purpose.
She indulges that ego right up to that line but never across it. At the ends of a lot of her pieces, no matter how big or small her claims beforehand have been, she often threw in a little offhand disclaimer: “He’s right, but I still miss it.” “Well, call it a draw.” “You can’t win ’em all.” “But I guess that I just don’t know.” She brings it back down to that human scale, in which the author is merely, again, one citizen of this republic of song, even when she’s saying what the rest of that imaginary nation hadn’t yet thought to think.