Tag Archives: pleasure

“Dedication to My Ex (Miss That),” by Lloyd (2011)

by Chris Randle

The cad/gentleman duality is a familiar R&B persona, but I can’t remember the last album that embodied it as fully as King of Hearts does. The second song on Lloyd’s new LP, “Cupid,” exemplifies the latter archetype; over an atypically hard beat, he marvels that, what do you know, the little cherub has done it again! But it’s coming on the heels of this:

“Dedication to My Ex” could be the punk-rock version of Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You,” sanitized radio version and all. (The bowdlerized chorus substitutes “lovin,” though I wish Lloyd had used his most absurd idea, “Lucy.”) It reduces the earlier song’s bereft tantrum to three metaphorical chords of profane neo-soul. Andre 3000’s acidic guest verse has the bilious aftertaste of a John Lydon rant: “Bet your buddy don’t even know you don’t like red / Or was it fuschia? Fuck it, our future is dead.” For a singer so clearly indebted to the sex-terrified Michael Jackson, intoning “pussy” every five seconds is similarly jarring.

Like “Fuck You,” however, the song belies its lyric sheet (perhaps inadvertently). Lloyd doesn’t sound distraught here. He almost seems to be getting off on reminiscence, describing the really good sex he and his lady used to have with a bruised thrill. When he sings “I guess she’s feeling kind of freaky lately,” his tone carries a note of wistfulness. In this light, Lloyd’s weird sexist fantasy that the other man has literally fucked her vagina out of shape is less a sneer than a whimper. His words say pussy in heels, but his voice cries Venus in Furs. Cuckolded self-pity curdles into self-mockery. A jovial “I’m about to kill this bitch” is the one unfunny moment, especially when Chris Brown appears two tracks later, but masochistic and misogynistic have never been mutually exclusive, even among punks.

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Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (2011)

by Carl Wilson

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.


Filed under books, carl wilson, music

Busby Madoff Dreams: “Fuck You” and the Gold Diggers of 2010

by Carl Wilson

When I was in grade school, my parents were involved in a variety show at some grownup social club, group-singing the 1940s cocktail-party number “Shaving Cream”, which had recently been given a popular revival via the Dr. Demento novelty-song radio show. It must have taken a week’s worth of overhearing rehearsals before it came to me with a scandalized jolt what swear-word the song was hiding. Chuck Berry’s late-career novelty “My Ding-a-Ling” soon mounted another tuneful assault on my naivete.

The side-stepping of the content is the whole pleasure of these songs: With a childish lilt, they pretend to talk about “being nice and clean” or a kid’s toy, with a wink as loud as a rimshot to a Sammie Davis joke on stage at that grownup playground, the Sands. The late-arriving Single of the Summer, Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You,” is exactly the opposite: naughty on the surface but all kid-joy at heart.

There’s still a sidestep going on — not because it’s got a hidden meaning to convey, but because to an unusually transparent extent, there’s nothing literal in it, each element just a cog in a pleasure machine. The song is mainly about how much fun this song is. That’s what makes it so reminiscent of “Hey Ya.” It’s why it works so well to make a video that’s just the lyrics of the song dancing around.

Everything else is self-canceling: Ostensibly a middle finger to the guy who stole his girl, and a kiss-off to the girl, it’s also amicable advice to that guy (“just thought you should know”) and a shiny proclamation of love to that girl. Cee-Lo seems lucky to be caught in a love triangle because that’s a kind of community, or at least an enabling structure for desire. (Desire for the girl, for the guy, for his Ferrari and his X-Box, for OOO OOO OOO.)

The aggression of “fuck you” is completely undermined by the temper tantrum in the bridge, the hilarious bawling “whyyyy?” (wait, I thought it was because she was a shallow, gold-digging bitch? oh, so you were just making that up). By the last chorus (you know, the blue part), even “I saw you driving ’round town with the girl I love” makes me think more about the fun of cruising cars than the pain of rejection.

You could extend this switcheroo model to the “clean” radio edit’s title, “Forget You,” which seems like hypnotic autosuggestion: “Forget what you’re hearing on the radio and remember what you heard on YouTube. In fact, shout the real title over the fake title every time it comes on.”

At first the paradoxes of “Fuck You” seem to come down from its Motown ancestry, where songs of heartache were often cached in snappy, catchy arrangements. But “Heard It Through the Grapevine” (to use a close cousin) gets sadder the closer you listen to it; “Fuck You” just gets funnier.

So what does it all amount to? First and foremost, the way “Shaving Cream” nudged you with “we’re all adults, you know what the word is,” I think it’s an argument that the words “fuck you” are simply no big deal any more. It’s not a punk-rock “fuck,” a countercultural sex-revolution Fugs or Jim Morrison “fuck,” or a “Fuck the Police.” Yeah, the song says, can’t play this on the radio, I guess (so fuck the radio), but is anybody really shocked? Nah. We’ve got the web. We watch cable.

Mumbling, “like, fuck you,” at the departing back wheels of your girlfriend’s new beau’s car is no serious threat. It is not saying, as another hip-hop song might, that you are going to get a gun, blow the wheels off that car and assault the couple in it. As a hip-hop artist, Cee-Lo is using this supposedly forbidden word to say how much of a rebel he isn’t, and what a relief. It’s a regular-guy, proletarian “fuck you.” A humble “fuck you,” a “fuck you” we all use every day, a “fuck you” that can bring people together.

The drawback, of course, is the “gold digger” stereotype the song directs at the woman who’s left him. But even there it’s being used as a standup-comedy trope – the borrowing of Kanye’s “digga/nigga” rhyme is the acknowledgment of conventionality. And for Cee-Lo, the voice of superstars Gnarls Barkley, playing a poor shlub feels like a neat, antic rejection of hip-hop glitter.

One of the reasons “he’s an X-Box, and I’m more Atari” is such a great line is the silliness of using “X-Box” as an example of a luxury item, contrasted wth a format that’s so out-of-date it’s collectible. Cee-Lo’s playing a super-nerd — which matches the format of retro-soul, and the act of singing superbly (rather than barely at all, which Drake, Kanye and others have made the cool standard).

The gold-digger narrative is too easy a stand-in for misunderstanding and misvaluation between the genders, but it’s an obvious stand-in (even Cee-Lo’s mama doesn’t want to clear it up for him). I persistently hear “I guess the change in my pocket just wasn’t enough” as referring not to money but to personal change – that what he couldn’t provide the girl was a relationship worth living in, not a fancy ride.

Even more deviantly I’ve started hearing “change” as that word from Barack Obama’s campaign. Then the song starts to get crazy allegorical – “gold digger” as fickle American public (cheering for Obama’s historical win one minute and then sneaking around and Tea Partying all over his agenda), the wealthy girl-stealer as corporate Republicanism, and “fuck you” is a pox on all their houses. (Gives a whole new ring to that wild “Why????”)

That’s going too far, but the last time the phrase “gold digger” got so much pop-cultural traction was the last time the American economy was this fucked: In the series of hit Busby Berkeley Broadway fantasies, Gold Diggers of 1933, Gold Diggers of 1935, etc., escapes that gave us songs like “We’re In the Money” and “Lullaby of Broadway,” not to mention gilded-surrealist montages of shapely kicking legs as mystic mandalas. The interesting bit is that in those films, the “gold digger” was actually the heroine – she was a lowly chorus girl wrapped up in some caper meant to separate a fool and his money. And who wouldn’t? It’s the Depression.

“Fuck You” doesn’t allow for that degree of sympathy for the gold digger – its chorus still says “fuck you” after all – but beneath its knee-jerk sexism is its broke-ass bonhomie. When Cee-Lo says “I really hate you right now” in his chick-flick-pouty tone, it doesn’t mean he hates her forever. He just hopes she’ll come around.

If the song had been written four years ago, it might have been from the shallow jerk’s point of view – he would have had the money, but disliked his girl’s interest in it. Witness 50 Cent (desperate to get in on any action that isn’t, as B2TW’s Chris has documented, in a video game) with his playback version, with a weaker but amusing prelude in the voice of the girl-stealing dude:

It’s clever of 50 Cent (a man nominally made of money, while Cee is low on green) to give himself the first word here, to pre-empt everything the song’s about to say. But it’s really the ghost of hip-hop past, stepping in to protest too much: In 2010, the argument that if you’re not rich you’re not trying doesn’t fly. And he misses Cee-Lo’s whole thrust anyway – this guy likes being an Atari, and he can “take you there” without a Ferrari. It’s just “some shit” if he needs to be richer to be with ya. All he really wants is the girl to get where he’s coming from.

And if you can’t feel that, you must be playing with your own ding-a-ling.


Filed under carl wilson, movies, music