(Do not) Kiss the Cowboy

Some notes on kissing in Mitski’s latest album.

Do you remember when you had your first kiss? Actually, instead: do you remember how significant the kiss was to you, before you had your first kiss? Did you ever agonise over when you’d get it, and create endless fantasies about how it would feel? In Mitski’s Be the Cowboy, the significance of the kiss reverts to the bubbling, manic significance it has for children, who only know of it as this mythical moment, and then throw all their pubertal desires into anticipating it. However, the difference is that, in Be the Cowboy, the kiss regains this significance through knowing too much of what comes afterand so, out of fear, or resignation, the kiss remains as the only legitimate form of tenderness.

In wider culture, there are many famous examples of the kiss. There’s Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece, “The Kiss”, of a couple dripping in gold, the man’s lips pressed to the cheek of a woman who is turned away with her eyes closed, but her desire evident in the way her hand clasps his at her face. Then there’s Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, two novels in which the kiss is a pivotal moment around which the character’s lives are changed forever. When they first kiss their beloved Odette and Daisy, Swann and Gatsby irrevocably give these women their lives, causing both men to spiral into confused fantasy. Then, there’s also Richard Hugo’s poem, Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg, with the famous lines, ‘You might come here Sunday on a whim. / Say your life broke down. The last good kiss / you had was years ago.’ Here, the kiss is the only form of tenderness remembered amidst desolation. 

The Kiss, Gustav Klimt (detail)

The kiss is the first step towards consummation, but sex has the potential to become messy and traitorous. The kiss then becomes the only form of consummation. It ends where it begins.


Kiss me and leave me / The kiss as self-deprivation 

In Be the Cowboy, the kiss symbolises, at one and the same time, a desire that’s both too big and too small. Mitski’s voice in her album wants only a kiss, but she wants only that because it means too much to her already. The fame and pervasiveness that history has afforded Klimt’s painting perhaps speaks to a deeper, more fundamental and universally-shared truth: there is something sacred about the kiss. The kiss can be unbearable. 

Mitski uses the kiss as a form of self-deprivation; she wants nothing more except ‘one good movie kiss’. One argument is that the self-inflicted deprivation results from fear; as we see in “Lonesome Love” and “Washing Machine Heart”, the consequences of loving without being loved back to the same extent can create an agonising, depressive state. Please, hurry, leave me. On the other hand, perhaps the deprivation isn’t an act of self-defence but rather of acceptance—acceptance of the eventual diminution of love’s passion and romance, acceptance that love in its full form resides only in the humblest, every day acts, such as in “Me and My Husband” and “Two Slow Dancers”. As in Hugo’s poem, only the kiss is worth remembering. 


In an interview, Mitski was asked to name “one good movie kiss” as an example, and she answers, ‘the only thing that’s popping up in my head is The Notebook.’ Across time and space, across marriage, war, and illness, Allie and Noah’s eventual reunion against the odds spurs the legendary kiss in the rain, allowing Allie to throw off her engagement and reaffirm her suppressed passion. 

The thing that distinguishes the women of The Notebook, The Great Gatsby, and Swann’s Way is that they are all utterly, financially dependent on the men in their lives. We are made to believe that the tragedy befalls the man whose love is scorned, but the real tragedy is the woman who cannot ever sincerely choose for love. Mitski wants only the kiss, without the subsequent dependency upon a man. 

In the interview, Mitski continues, ‘[The kiss is] Something that’s just utterly romantic, and in the imagination, but not in real life.’ 


Everything is sex, except sex, which is power / The kiss as a forfeit of sexual power / Throwing down one’s gun 

In “Lonesome Love”, Mitski’s character intends to take revenge against a halfhearted lover, but it’s only a superficial revenge through looking good (‘spent an hour on my make-up to prove something’) that of course fails for the very reason that it was intended to succeed. It succeeds because the lover desires her, but in the morning, Mitski is returning home in a taxi cab, ‘so very paying for…’ As a sharp contrast, “Washing Machine Heart” is all upbeat and delirious, as she sings sycophantically, ‘Baby, won’t you kiss me already? / and toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart / Baby, bang it up inside.’ The two extremes—one that manipulates the man’s desire, one that fully indulges it—are both tactics that sacrifice self-respect for still positioning the man as the main subject; both tactics are losing ones. 

There’s something a little bit deranged about desire. Something a little bit crazy, something that throws everything a little bit off-balance. Suddenly, without conscious choice, your whole happiness rides on another person; even in love’s happiest state, total union with the other necessitates the disintegration of the self. The danger for a heterosexual woman is that every opportunity for love is an equal opportunity to be fucked over. 

In Mitski’s discography, she knows that men often do not, will not, and cannot care for you. In “First Love / Late Spring” off her third album, Bury Me At Makeout Creek, she sings, ‘Please hurry, leave me, I can’t breathe / Please don’t say you love me,’ and one of her most famous song, “Your Best American Girl” off Puberty 2 is a fight against her own desire to be desirable. There would be nothing to fight against if we weren’t so sure of disappointment, and the doom of being a scorned woman, left alone, tending to our own ruin. Heterosexuality is a cage, and women trapped in it all rub themselves raw against its bars, trying to become desirable, or at the very least regrettable in the superficial way that “Lonesome Love”’s character tries to be regrettable, or in the way a post-breakup Instagram hoeing-out post tries to be regrettable. 

The kiss becomes the final consummation—the only consummation that matters, before she needs to draw back and regain control. The kiss on its own can retain the promise of love, without going far enough to confirm love’s absence. 


Love and death are so close. For Gatsby and Swann, the kiss sealed their doom. The heart aches in love as it does in loss, because the heightened state of love always means that much greater a fall. In “Pink in the Night”, Mitski’s character is crumbling over love, ‘blossoming alone over you,’ replaying the kiss that sealed her fate over and over again. 

‘I know I’ve kissed you before, but I didn’t do it right, can I try again and again and again? And again and again and again?’

The kiss signals the beginning of disintegration. 


Resignation and the forfeit of romance / The kiss as the last good memory 

As Richard Hugo wrote in the aforementioned poem, ‘Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss / Still burning out your eyes?’ Hugo’s Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg paints a desolate landscape of a city, in which ‘the principal supporting business now / is rage.’ Mitski’s album, the cowboy’s home ground, is a bit like that desolate city. Her characters have suffered through love’s diminution, heterosexual disillusionment, have known what comes (or, rather, doesn’t come) after the first kiss, and all they’re left with are the facts of the matter. The choice is theirs as to how they want to move forward, but sometimes even that can be limited for a woman.

In “Me and My Husband”, Mitski takes on the persona of the suburban American housewife, who stands in the corner, resigned to watching her life go by, but still consciously affirming it. ‘At least in this lifetime, we’re sticking together,’ she sings of her relationship with her husband, counting the small, minute, domestic checks and balances that contribute to love in a relationship at the end of the day. Many songs in her album explore the contradictions between love and death, passion and control, delirium and choice, and this song offers a breather in which both extremes can sit side by side. Just as she made a conscious choice, with her songwriting on this album, to step away from the more infatuated and adolescent themes of her previous work to focus more on striking a balance, this song forsakes high emotion for the sake of affirming the banal every day with all its contradictions and hardships.

The album closes with “Two Slow Dancers,” a ballad celebrating this hard-earned mediocrity. The ancient kiss still burns out your eyes, and ‘it would be a hundred times easier if we were young again’, but the present moment still remains as it is, and it would be more sinister to regret, or to seek to regain time past, as Swann and Gatsby do. 

The Hugo poem ends, ‘Say no to yourself. […] The car that brought you here still runs. / The money you buy lunch with, / no matter where it’s mined, is silver / and the girl who serves your food / is slender and her red hair lights the wall.’ 

The kiss is crystallised as the last good memory of tenderness and sincerity.


Let them into one another sink 

So as to endure each other outright. 

—from “The Lovers” by Rainer Maria Rilke 

“I know no one will save me, I just need someone to kiss.” 

For Mitski’s character in “Remember My Name,” her desire extends over all logical semantic boundaries. When she says she wants someone to remember her name, she doesn’t just mean it simply—of course people will remember Mitski’s name—instead, it takes on a larger significance, something ‘bigger than the sky’.

It hurts to want so much. It hurts to know how much you want, and how poorly the other person is capable of giving; the poverty of men in turn intensifies the desire of women. Be the Cowboy is Mitski’s most patient, structured, thought-out album, and yet it’s still bleeding with desire. The kiss is the symbol of simultaneously wanting too much and too little; the kiss is the conscious restriction of one’s desire. In “Nobody”, 

I’ve been big & small & big & small & big & small again / And still nobody wants me / Still nobody wants me / And I know no one will save me, / I’m just asking for a kiss / Give me one good movie kiss, and I’ll be alright.

Desire becomes disgusting. Or I mean: a lover’s desire becomes disgusting when the other stops wanting to take responsibility for it. The hollow echo: nobody, nobody, nobody. Nobody can ever give you what you want, because you want too much, your desire bleeds over all logical boundaries. A fragment from Richard Siken: ‘Love, for you, / is larger than the usual romantic love. It’s / terrifying. No one / will ever want to sleep with you.’ 

The kiss is the attempt to reach a compromise with desire. 


Be the cowboy

Mitski titled her album “Be the Cowboy” as a joke, referencing something she tells herself, to ‘be the cowboy you want to see in the world.’ Subverting the role of women in typical Westerns, in which the woman only supplements the cowboy by adding the excitement of sex and romance to his story, the album’s title instead urges women to be the cowboy himself. Be the cowboy, with the swaggering way he rides into town and leaves destruction in his wake; be the cowboy, with his life of self-restraint and instability; be the cowboy, with his worldly knowledge and his reliance on himself alone; be the cowboy, for whom love doesn’t exist; who rides horseback through the desolation of America’s roads, searching only for one good kiss, and nothing more. 


*For the sake of coherence, this essay takes for granted the lyrical content of Mitski’s past and present work and assumes that she is heterosexual. This is an asterisk to acknowledge that she is her own living person, with her own private life, that I would never claim to know anything about. 

Cover image: Screenshot from the music video for “Washing Machine Heart”.

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My 2018 in Songs

Happy new year. As usual, I’ve procrastinated yet again—it’s already a whole week into the new year, and the deadline for this post was so far back as to not even be all that relevant anymore. Everyone’s already come out with their end-of-year lists, and are eagerly focusing now on analyzing the year to come. But time isn’t so easily discarded, and sometimes the things we think we’ve left behind, contained within an arbitrarily-dated year, only show their effects on us a lot later. Sometimes, like wine, some things need to mature with you.

I think the celebration of New Years, and thus the celebration of the idea that there can be “breaks” between one year and the next, that time can be so easily compartmentalised, can be a helpful thing because it gives people the energy to move on from painful experiences, but it is also deeply untrue. I don’t think 2018 (or any of the years that have preceded it) is the past, nor would I want it to be. I want, as Antonio Gramsci has said in his diatribe against New Years, to reckon with myself every day. I want to try, always, to seek out the continual chain of meaning that links every present action and circumstance to its history, thus also allowing us a sturdier ground from which to predict the future.

I had drafted a typical “favourite albums of 2018” listicle like everyone else, but I’ve chosen instead just to focus on specific songs, because I think that’s generally how music works for everyone. Whole albums can impact people, but more often than not we get fixated on specific songs, or even just specific lines of songs, because they speak to all of us differently. Focusing on songs allows me to be a bit more personal, I think. Sometimes you can think an album is just OK, but be really obsessed with a song from it. Sometimes a single line from a single song can inform the way you think for a long time after hearing it.

Anyway. Happy new year. Here is my list of songs (I only chose the ones that were released in 2018, otherwise this post would be much, much longer) that formed the way I thought, and soundtracked moments in my life in 2018. In order of their release throughout the year.

“Famous Prophets (Stars)”

(off Car Seat Headrest’s Twin Fantasy: Face to Face

To write about Twin Fantasy now, after almost a year since its re-release, makes me a little bit sick. It makes me sick, because to remember the album is to remember the person I was when I first heard it, and the places I’ve been while listening to it. Memories are really difficult to live with: in the tedious, fast-paced life that most of us are used to under capitalism, we don’t become attached to memories anymore and instead allow life to pass us by. Sometimes remembering is unbearable, and obstructs you from moving on.

But this album meant a lot to me because it meant a lot to Will Toledo. Through his return to an album he made when he was younger, and when the feelings were much rawer, he showed that self-confrontation can also be a creative process rather than just pain and sadness. The confrontation with one’s past can produce something beautiful and touch the lives of others. This kind of commitment to vulnerability and personal growth, in a music industry in which artists mostly seem to grow more disassociated from their selves over time, means a lot to me. 

“If You Know You Know”

(off Pusha T’s Daytona)

For the forward of the 2006 edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers compared Wallace’s book to Sufjan Stevens’ project of writing an album for every state in the United States of America. I’m going to take that one step further and compare Stevens’ project to Kanye West’s exaggerated announcement that he was going to release an album for every week of 2018. So far, Stevens has only got as far as Illinois and Michigan, but West managed to get as far as five weeks out of 52.

The first track of the first album of West’s endeavour came out blaring with loud sirens and a weird voice that just seems to be going, “BA BA BA BA BEE BA BA BA” over and over again. At the time, I had just quit my first job to go travelling for a month, then still full of doubt as to whether that had been the right thing to do, or if I was just being stupid and impulsive as fuck. I was also very anxious during my travels, because it was the first time that I travelled so extensively on my own. Back then, I was someone fresh out of a job, someone who’d quit her job just to travel. I was alone, a lot, but I was also often with people who I knew then I would never see again. I often thought about my privilege to be able to travel, but also of the uncertainty that would be facing me when I came back, and it created this weird thing where I felt like I wasn’t being adventurous enough considering my privilege to be able to travel in the first place, but also guilt at living so recklessly sometimes, because I knew that I would have to return eventually, and confront myself eventually.

The regularity of West’s collaborative releases, which coincided with this same, odd, uneven time of my life, helped to ground me. I spent many long train rides listening to Push’s Daytona, West’s ye, and the Kids See Ghosts album. Anticipating the release that I knew would come at the end of each week also helped me keep time. Five (well, more accurately for me, four) strange weeks out of 52.

Ghost Town” (off Kanye West’s ye)

and “Reborn” (off Kids See Ghost’s Kids See Ghosts

The soft nighttime beat of “Reborn” reminds me of a wind-up lullaby toy I used to have when I was younger. And like a lullaby, this song and “Ghost Town” have been the songs I’ve turned to during times of intense disillusionment this year. 

This year, I’m more than a year graduated from university, after a whole lifetime of following formal schooling straight without any breaks or deviations. This year, I’ve taken risks and made choices that I’m still not sure about. Things seem to be going good, dream-like, but I’m suspicious that my choices have yet to exhaust themselves of their consequences. They may still raise themselves to bite me in the back further down the line. 

In the last verse of “Reborn”, Kid Cudi has a moment of confusion as he asks, “which way do I go?” while in the background his own voice echoes the refrain, keep moving forward, I’m moving forward. The combination of Cudi’s soft, muttering voice with the descending piano key undermines his claims of progress. It sounds more like a song of a lost boy trying to reassure himself that he’s OK, rather than a song from someone who’s really OK. Similarly, I’ve been trying to convince myself that I’ve been reborn through my choices–that I am no longer that lost girl of my late teens, that the years of my early 20s, fresh out of university, are bright and productive, but I can’t quite keep the doubt out of the song either. 

In “Ghost Town”, West similarly slurs the proclamation that, “some day we gon’ set it off,” but follows with the warning, “baby don’t you bet it all, on a pack of Fentanyl.” Fentanyl being the opiod that killed both Prince and Lil Peep. All of his promises of greatness and mental well-being are asterisked with that “some day”. Like with “Reborn”, the whole song sounds more like a song about doubt rather than the successful flaunting of the Kanye we’re used to. Cudi adds his vocals to the song in the plaintive refrain, “I’ve been trying to make you love me, but everything I try just takes you further from me.” 

After his final refrain in the song, it immediately breaks away into 070 Shake’s, “Whoa. Once again I am a child.” That jarring realisation that never fails to sneak one over you, again and again, no matter how old you are and how well you think you’ve “figured it out.” Turns out that doubt is a state you have to live with for the rest of your life. Turns out that your choices do matter, and regret only gets harder the older you get. Turns out that this is true for everyone, even Kanye West, and that I’m not alone in this. Turns out that knowing this only makes things better marginally. 

SICKO MODE

(off Travis Scott’s Astroworld)

Trap music offers a kind of retribution that no other genre of music offers so forcefully or so menacingly. Trap music offers this retribution alongside an attitude of total blaséness that sounds as if it’s not even a big deal, but rather the only logical outcome. 

The start of this year was marked by beef between Pusha T and Drake, and, I guess, Kanye West, who probably just likes to sit back and stoke some fires when he’s bored. So as a response to both Push and Kanye, Drake jumped onto Travis Scott’s song to produce one of the most well-loved and well-banged-out songs of the year, “SICKO MODE”. Many have speculated that Drake’s second verse in the song details his steps through his neighbourhood into the Kardashian-West residence to take his revenge on Kanye by having an affair with Kim.  While an amusing rumour, I don’t really care to speculate on the song’s real-life allusions; I’m more concerned with the very act of detailing one’s revenge in a hit song. Drake literally listed out all his moves down the block, complete with left- and right-turns. 

For all my doubts, this year was also a year of a lot of outwards anger and resentment. Doubt producing the anger at the external world for being so precarious. For making me feel used and screwed over but not allowing me to express that directly at the people who make me feel that way—because I want to keep my job, because of social niceties, or maybe even because they’re just people who are trying to make it just like me and that kind of mutual screwing over is inevitable. “SICKO MODE” is the dream of a revenge that is clean, direct, and, what’s more, something you can dance to after it’s done.

The entirety of Mitski’s Be The Cowboy

and “thank u, next” (Ariana Grande) 

I guess it’s unfair to pick out an entire album by Mitski in a list that’s supposed to be anti-album for the sake of specificity and personalization, but this will be the only exception because her entire album matters. Also… it’s my blog!

Mitski’s album came as a severe warning at a time when that’s the exact and only thing I needed. I feel like she’s staring me directly in the eye and piercing me to the core when I hear her say, “I know no one can save me.” 

This year has been the year that gave us the “big dick energy” meme. People have joked wondering whether their mcm or other male faves have “big dick energy”, but for me, big dick energy is the same energy as Mitski titling her album, “be the cowboy”. A lot of the songs chart a [heterosexual?] woman’s loneliness, but in so doing they also insist that a woman’s loneliness can be her source of strength instead of a sickness. Rather than identifying with the abandoned lover in typical Westerns, left to look longingly at her cowboy’s silhouette disappearing into the burning sunset, the album instead insists on us to identify with the cowboy. The cowboy is a lone ranger, not lonely. 

I haven’t been in love for a long, long time. And it’s not because I haven’t “found the right person”, it’s because I don’t want to. As the fight against the patriarchy and heteronormativity continues, sometimes the most powerful way that a straight woman can cultivate big dick energy is to choose not to fall in love. This goes beyond smilingly telling inquisitive friends and relatives that “I just haven’t found the right guy yet”, but enters the terrain of saying, with a dead serious face, that I’m not interested in anyone except myself. It’s not me, it’s most definitely you. For so long I played the game thinking that happiness and safety could be found in the arms of a man, until Mitski rode into town and told me to be the cowboy I want to see in the world.

Or be the 6’3” guy with the 10” dick you think you’re going to marry. The “big dick energy” meme arose from a joke Ariana Grande made about her ex, but then she pulled out “thank u, next,” proving perhaps that her own big dick energy goes beyond what can be measured by a ruler. This song isn’t exactly on the same wavelength as Mitski’s album, but it still offered to me a more liberating way of speaking about heterosexual relationships than what we’re used to from pop songs. It’s a break-up song with the twist that there’s no bitterness, or false bravado in the face of hurt; instead, “thank u, next” acknowledges that Grande’s past relationships have meant a lot to her, and even bettered her in many ways, but ultimately still insists that she’s choosing herself above everyone else. It manages to be catchy and upbeat but also sagely reasonable. “I love you. I love you, but I’m turning to my verses and my heart is closing like a fist.” (Frank O’Hara.)

“Mo Bamba”

(off Sheck Wes’ Mudboy

Prior to “Mo Bamba”, I hadn’t ever heard of Sheck Wes. It seems these days that trap has one of the fastest cycles of stardom and prominency. Like, has anyone heard from Desiigner lately? But just like Desiigner’s “Panda”, “Mo Bamba” was easily one of the biggest, littiest songs of the year. Just hearing that 20-year-old breakout rapper who already has deals with both Travis Scott and Kanye West, shouting, “Fuck! Shit! Bitch!” makes me feel more confident. Trap seems like one of those machine-produced industries, in the sense that trap artists don’t need to expend much effort to make a hit song and rake in royalties. They can have the stupidest, emptiest lyrics (FUCK! SHIT! BITCH!) with the same style of beats, and end up being played at clubs for a whole year straight. 

There’s something to be said about pushing generic boundaries and experimenting with one’s craft, but there’s also something to be said for following an established tradition but being able to pull it off to a T. In this list, I’ve featured songs that I feel opened up my ears to new creative possibilities, but there’s also nothing quite like a good fucking trap banger. All our endeavours are in the pursuit of giving less fucks, and trap music takes the fastest route there. 

“Nowhere2go” (off Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs)

and “E.Coli” (ft. Earl Sweatshirt, off The Alchemist’s Bread)

Earlier this year, I bought tickets to the annual Field Day festival in London, solely because I thought it would be the only chance I’d get for a long time to watch my favourite rapper, Earl Sweatshirt, perform live. And then he cancelled on the morning of the day itself. I found out while I was peeing in a McDonald’s, yet I wasn’t even surprised, calmly returning to my seat and telling Jesse (who I was attending the festival with), “He cancelled.” 

I was disappointed, but I’d also expected it from a rapper who had teased releases without ever committing to any full-length drop, multiple times, over the past three years since his 2015 album I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside. Earl Sweatshirt has always been kind of elusive, even back in his Odd Future days, but that’s maybe the most appropriate way to be when you reach an intense level of fame when you’re still a kid. 

Earl Sweatshirt came back with “Nowhere2go”, which was finally followed with his third full-length album, Some Rap Songs. He sounds incredibly different, but you probably could have already predicted the path of maturity that he would follow. In the past couple years with the sporadic drops he’s granted us, he’s shown his propensity for collaborations with more unknown, but willingly experimental, producers, such as The Alchemist on “E. coli”. He’s also slowed down his rap flow, preferring to substantialise his words rather than falling back on his reputation as a child prodigy with a quick flow. 

As someone whose rap literacy literally matured alongside Earl Sweatshirt—besides Kanye West, he was probably the rapper who got me into the genre and all its accompanying sub-genres—it makes me happy to be allowed to follow the progress not only of his music, but also of his person. The Earl on “Nowhere2go” is a lot more chilled out and reflective. The impression is of a guy sitting back in his chair and rolling out sage lines without thinking too much about anything, perhaps belying the amount of emotional turmoil, self-reflection, and self-imposed isolation that he must have gone through in the preceding years to finally arrive at this zen-like state. I’m happy for him.

✨🍆 In convo w/visual artist LITH NG on her show @ Urbanscapes 2018 🍆✨

[Disclosure of potential bias: Lith is my friend.]

When I sit down to talk to Lith Ng, we’re in a small, dimly-lit back room and she’s intently stabbing a dick with a hand drill. The dick is made of resin and was moulded into its shape by pouring the resin into a condom (which she bought in bulk off Lazada) and leaving it to harden. Inside the dick is a strip of paper containing an anonymous confession that she got by crowdsourcing on the Internet. On her worktable are numerous other dicks, all in various stages of being completed and in the middle of hardening.

On the day we’re meeting, it’s still a week left until the first day of her show as part of Urbanscapes’ #ReImagineUs exhibition currently being held at Ruang on 2 Hang Kasturi. She’s drilling with a look of intense concentration, alternately stopping abruptly to answer my questions thoughtfully and then just as suddenly returning to drilling the holes again. The holes are for her to screw hooks into, for the dicks to be hung up on the ceiling of Ruang.

The dicks come in various sizes; some are hung up while others rest flaccidly on pedestals. As a project, it lends itself to humour and double entendres in their interpretation. Even as I watch Lith drill the dicks it’s hard not to laugh about it. Speaking about the hook, she says angrily, “it won’t fit!” The “flaccid” dicks on the pedestals are literally rendered useless, failing to perform, as they are made from resin. The dicks are castrated and contain their sins (in the form of the confessions), never to be relieved. The dicks are on exhibition like a street flasher, but now the power dynamics are changed as a young female artist is the one in control. It’s objectification without a victim. It’s dicks on the ceiling, hanging low enough to brush your face when you walk through. It’s funny or disgusting, depending on your temperament, and it’s both light-hearted and serious at the same time.

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 1.25.38 AM
image via artist’s Instagram

Lith’s goal in making these dicks is to encourage young women to talk about their sexuality. Having been raised in a tight Chinese community, she tells me about the various forms of bullying and sexual shame that young girls were subject to, and about the boys who were allowed to freely joke and talk about sex, while any girl who did was ostracized for it. Girls even had sexual rumours started about them as a form of bullying. (She tells me about a rumour started about a classmate of hers who went to a bathroom with a pen.)

Thinking about it now, Lith understands the psychology of children, in that when one bullies another about something, it would usually be a subject that the bully was insecure about and felt shame for. Her goal in making the dicks then, is to offer a platform for women to speak about their sexual experiences (good or bad), with the anonymity allowing them to say anything they want without fear of stigmatization or shame. It’s a medium for young women to say everything they want to say deep down but can’t, and for any (straight) male viewers to reflect on and possibly use as a catalyst for change in the way they think about sex and female pleasure.

“I’m afraid of high school friends following me, but I also kind of want them to follow me [on Instagram, where she posts her work]. I hope that when they see my stuff, it’ll be an eye-opener for them,” Lith says, making it clear that the toxic environment she grew up in continues to inform her adult creative life. It’s a testament to how long-lasting of an impression childhood can leave on a person, especially a childhood of shame, guilt and repression. She laughs. “There’s only like three people from high school following me. I don’t know what they think, maybe they think it’s fucking gross. But who knows, who cares.”

Maybe it’s because of the closeness of our friendship, but she talks in a warmly offhand manner, clearly as someone who’s confident and fully comfortable in her self. Her experiences growing up may inform her work, but the shame and self-consciousness no longer imprisons her. She doesn’t care about offending people with her art. The only thing she seems self-conscious about now is being original.

“I just don’t want to make cliche shit la. […] I’m just really stuck in the whole ‘I don’t want to make cliche art, but I don’t have any inspiration of my own’ loop.”

From here, I ask her about her inspiration and influences. This whole time, as she alternately starts and stops drilling at the dicks, she’s also been alternately sitting and squatting on her chair, in her own Thinker’s pose. She pulls her legs up now so that her whole body is on the chair’s seat, and with her knees reaching her chin, she scrolls her phone looking for the names of her influences. Louise Bourgeois is a big one, along with Annicka Yi, Tracey Emin and “Sarah… Sarah what-the-fuck-is-her-last-name… Oh, Sarah Lucas.” In describing each artist’s work, she keeps coming back to a central point: rawness. Rawness either in their messages (Bourgeois, Lucas), or in the materials they choose to use (Yi), and/or both (Emin).  She admires unboundedness, unself-consciousness, not giving a fuck.

To wrap up our interview, I ask her what, if given a limitless budget, she would want to do and experiment with. She answers immediately, “I want to make a fucking huge-ass large-scale installation, man.” But her ideas haven’t gone further beyond that, because she believes she’d never really have the funding to carry out anything on such a large scale. It may involve ice. She has a fascination with unpredictable materials, such as ice and resin, and earlier in the interview she’d shown me a few dicks that didn’t turn out as she’d liked them to—air bubbles caught in the resin, condoms that couldn’t be pulled off properly and reacted badly with the resin, etc. When asked to think limitlessly, she’s only certain about two things: it has to be massive and it has to be unpredictable. She doesn’t believe it will ever happen, but I hope it will.

In Defence of Pleasure is on view at Ruang, 2 Hang Kasturi as part of Urbanscapes’ #ReImagineUs exhibition from 3 to 18 November 2018. The dicks are for sale at prices between RM150-170, Lith can be contacted at yeeleng.n@gmail.com.

Art notes: Attempting object empathy @ Balai Seni’s “Minta Perhatian”

or: What does “installation” even mean anymore? 

I first heard the term “object empathy” through a video on theartassignment, when viewers were given the art assignment to empathise with a broken object and then to “fix” it in their own original way. Among the various works were broken objects that viewers had found around their house and then patched back together with the use of staples and especially band-aids, conferring a humanity to the broken object. When I visited the installation portion of Balai Seni’s “Minta Perhatian”, I started thinking again about object empathy.

Consider the title as a starting point—“Minta Perhatian”, which I’ll translate as “Your attention, please”, with the “please” being vital. The title is a call of attention to the new and exciting mediums being used in the contemporary art scene. This is how the “Minta Perhatian” show has been set up: it’s a three-part show, split into “arca” (sculpture), “instalasi” (installation) and “media baru” (new media), spanning a nine-month period alternating between featuring different forms of new media dominating the contemporary art scene. When I visited, the medium being focused on was installation.

But say we chose to interpret the title differently—not as a call from a gallery to the public, but rather as a description of the call from the medium to the artist: please pay attention to this block of metal. Please pay attention to this block of wood. Please pay attention to this cloth, this serving spoon, this broken chair. Object empathy. It occurred to me, walking through the exhibition, that the work of sculpture and installation is a task (conscious or not) of empathy with inanimate objects. Artists see a living potential in them to be transformed into something meaningful, beyond their mundane usage; or otherwise, artists empathise with and wish to celebrate the object’s mundanity. Of course, this is generally true of all art—that art is the task of empathy and conferring beauty, regardless of subject/object matter—but possibly sculpture and installation art are the forms that most allow objects to exist as they are. As in, a painting of a fork could be beautiful for the way it confers beauty upon the mundane fork, but the viewer also admires the painter’s ability to paint, whereas a sculpture or installation using forks uses forks.

At the “Minta Perhatian: Instalasi” exhibition, one of the things I found interesting was how many of the works attempted to depict people. I saw at least two artworks that overtly tried to depict people using inanimate objects, making me think they might have been more suited to being categorized as sculptures rather than installations. One of the earlier ones was an exhibit of a “family” which used household items arranged into anthropomorphic forms (the head of a rake standing in for hair, cullenders for breasts, etc). It seemed to me like a more advanced form of making 3D stick men using marshmallows and toothpicks. 

Conversely, Sharmiza Abu Hassan’s Mother and Child felt like a more successful “family” sculpture. (Again, I think this piece belongs more in the category of “sculpture” rather than “installation”, so just have this in the back of your mind for every forthcoming piece of artwork I mention anyway.) This was a piece that I feel worked with the material for more than a perfunctory purpose: it saw the potential in the material to contribute to the overall understanding of the art. Using black wire mesh, Sharmiza Abu Hassan created two forms resembling jellyfish, one larger (presumably mother) than the other. The way Hassan chose to curve the wire mesh allows it to look like the tentacles of a jellyfish, or the folds of a veil, droop of a tablecloth or shadow of a ghost… all the while being deceptively hard, like the simultaneous softness and grit of mothers. Mothers being figures that always seem close to death, even in their prime of life and most abundant of love: suffocating mother as black wire mesh net, mother behind the black veil, mother and child as two dark clouds closely resembling each other, separated. Another thing that made it interesting was how, if you stood far enough away from it, you couldn’t tell the actual mesh from the webbed shadows it cast on its pedestal.

The exhibition featured two works that used chairs, which is maybe an attempt to place Malaysian conceptual art alongside Joseph Kosuth’s genre-defining “One and Three Chairs“, or maybe they were just chairs. It was at the second one, Mohd Farizal Puadi’s Don’t Touch, where I started thinking about object empathy w/r/t the artassignment video, because it seemed to answer the video’s assignment in a more elaborate way. It’s like the artist dissembled the entire chair neatly, just to put each individual piece into glass, and then attempt to assemble the glass-encased parts back together again—for no apparent reason other than to see if he could. The chair is close to being perfect, but when viewed closely, you can see the places where the pieces don’t fit quite right—maybe through a small oversight, but maybe because they are irreparably so. Not just because they’re now encased in glass, but because the individual pieces, once separated, simply resist being artificially joined back together again, no matter how neatly they were disassembled. Object empathy is exercised in the attempt to fix it again, but also in accepting its limitations, and sanctifying those limitations in glass.

I keep going back to the naming/categorization of this exhibition, and how unsuitable the categorization of “installation” is for most of the works shown. It really seemed to be largely sculptures, and the only work I could probably describe as installation is one of the first works you see when you enter the gallery, which is Yee I-Lann’s Kedai Commemorate. The fact that this work takes the first room suggests the curators’ own awareness of the exhibition’s categorical shortcomings—placing Kedai in the starting room is a kind of pre-emptive apology, I guess. Yee I-Lann’s work isn’t a sculpture of people like the rake-and-cullender family, rather it’s a suggestion of people. Rows of school pinafores line the left walls, while lines of commemorative paper party plates line the right and strung up on the ceiling are clotheslines drying good morning towels. They all combine to suggest a life that’s relatable to a huge number of Malaysians, except the people are missing, and the only tangible sign of a “life” are the words printed across all the objects proclaiming, “MALAYSIA IS DEAD! LONG LIVE MALAYA!” Rather than the sculpting of an artwork for exhibition in a space, installation considers the space to be fundamental to the art.

I left the exhibition thinking about people, and our relation to the inanimate objects that make up our lives. From the inanimate “people” to the chairs to Kedai, what struck me was the artists’ tendency to depict [human] life, even when using mediums that resist artistic utilization (i.e. vs. painting/drawing/photography in which you can literally depict human life), as if our way of empathizing with these objects, or as if the unrealized dream of these objects, which we aim to fulfil, is to metamorphosize them into being a person.

some notes on kindness after a failed birthday surprise and a successful birthday dinner

sometimes life becomes too fast to keep up with, but you must endeavour to remember your own agency and the effect your actions have on others, always.

  1. be conscious of your phone usage. minimise it when you are with your loved ones — savour the moment while resisting the compulsion to document it. if posting, keep your phone away immediately after.
  2. always always always try until your very limits and then some to be KIND. the greatest battle in life is the one against meanness and betrayal of one’s friends. it doesn’t matter if they betray you: understand this first. try your very hardest not to betray them. not to give up so quickly. the guilty voice inside you should serve as an indicator of how to act in future circumstances. to give in to meanness = to deny the same complexity & humanity in others that you hope they would afford you.
  3. allow anxious thoughts to come and go more freely without latching on to any of them. no reason to do so.

it may seem hard when other people do not align with how you’d like them to be–may seem hard when you have to try to understand and like a person rather than to get along with them immediately, but the battle is worth it. if not for their sake, then for your own. i can’t afford to give in to meanness anymore because of the guilt i feel after. even with —. i do feel guilty for not talking to her, not being able to look her in the eye. and i don’t want this guilt: i want to know that i have tried my best and take comfort in that.

funnily, even though i had such a lovely evening, i have come home racked with anxieties. the people i love, my friends, rack me with anxieties because i always feel that i’m not doing the very best by them as i could be. the people i love make me want to be kinder, better and more respectful with their trust, their hearts and their personhood. remember love always always always. it seems sometimes like you need to cultivate other aspects in order to fulfil your potential as a human being–cultivate ambition, cultivate a strong personality, cultivate hardworkingness–but LOVE is the most important.

love is the best thing in my life right now: love is what i am unconsciously striving for, all the time, after everything else. love is necessary, absolutely fundamentally life-threateningly necessary. for a while i’ve been thinking that all the other things i mentioned were necessary, but at the very end love is the most necessary of all. the steadfastness to remain loyal to your friends and not easily betray them, the patience to respect another person’s journey and insecurities, the endurance to tolerate and endeavour to find meaning & complexity in the instances when they fail to be what you’d “prefer” them to be. life is long… and there are 7 billion & counting people in the world. this is the only thing that matters.

Art notes: “Lopung is Dead!” @ A+ Works of Art, Sentul

The foundational ethos of punk rock is speaking truth to power. If you look at the work of Sabahan art collective Pangrok Sulap (“pangrok” being a localization of “punk rock”, “sulap” being a Dusun word for a kampung hut), you can see their punk rock heart shining through and true. Several days ago, on the 4th of October, they launched the opening night for their first ever solo exhibition in A+ Works of Art, located at d6 Sentul. The exhibition is titled “Lopung is Dead!”, with “lopung” being another Dusun word for pythons, and which in Sabahan slang is also used to refer to lazy and irresponsible workers.

As their choice of names hints, the work that the art collective does is highly localized. Their work is influenced by current events and everyday life in Malaysia; their prints criticize political corruption, environmental disregard and governmental propagandizing, while also celebrating the strength, beauty and unity of the people, especially the orang kampung.  

When I entered the space, there was a huge semicircle of people crowded around two massive floor-to-ceiling canvasses, both of which make up the work “Sabah Tanah Airku”. This is perhaps their most famous artwork, since it was hit with censorship last year when the organizers of the Escape from the SEA exhibition at APW were forced to pull it down due to pressure from anonymous public complaints.

“Sabah Tanah Airku” presents two “Versions” of Sabah: on the left side, there is the postcard-perfect Sabah–a harmonious Sabah, a picture that rings somewhat true, a picture still worth making, but also a superficial one. In Version #2 on the right, we see the facade discarded. Farmers who are toiling happily in the former are depicted with angry, weary faces in the latter. The “prosperity” and modernization of the former shows its consequences with the privatization and environmental destruction portrayed in the latter. While the former is composed in a bottom-top arrangement, with the people depicted in the foreground receding into the back, the latter has a top-down arrangement that portrays the people aggressively dominating the picture and the land.

The two works that make up “Sabah Tanah Airku”

Over in the next section is a collection of prints grouped under the title “Ma=Fil=Indo”, depicting an internationalist vision of a Malaysian, Filipino and Indonesian union as proposed by Filipino hero Dr José Rizal many, many years ago. The Malaysia of today seems wholly dedicated to be something it’s not, by incessantly importing foreign goods and corporations from those who used to colonize our region (America, the United Kingdom, Japan…), and so the Ma=Fil=Indo series showing solidarity with our neighbours is refreshing to see.

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One of the works in the “Ma=Fil=Indo” series

Pangrok Sulap works with woodcut printing, a medium that’s perfect for the collective’s political message–a message that is clear, frank and literally stated in black and white. Their art has the ability of being both elaborate and simple at the same time. “Sabah Tanah Airku” are massive prints of elegant complexity that are completely filled to all four corners with various allusions and symbols, yet the message is unmistakable. The snake-and-ladder “Ular Lari Lurus” prints are a literal game of symbols, but it’s an easy game, one that any Malaysian will understand and relate to. Like the punk rock music that inspires their name, Pangrok Sulap’s works show that sometimes the most effective way of fighting injustice is to say things as they are. In black and white, on a large canvas and in public.

Towards the end of the night, a few stools were brought out for five of the collective’s members to give a closing performance. One of them pulled out a guitar with a bright yellow sticker on it that proclaimed “WE CONSUME WE DESTROY.” They performed a couple songs, ending with one called “Orang Kampung”. Though the audience didn’t know the lyrics before they began, the song had such an easy, infectious chorus that people were soon singing along.

Speaking the truth, challenging corruption, showing solidarity and politicizing your guitar. Works about farmers and the land, exhibited in an art gallery in a commercial building in the capital city. Pangrok Sulap’s exhibition is a reminder that fighting injustice really can be as easy as the chorus to their song, if only we have the courage to say things as they are and the mindfulness to remember, always, the shared land and history that we are all indebted to.

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Field notes #3: Family Mart (multiple locations)

Or, “I only have time to go to the convenience store.”

In our collective imaginations, the convenience store is an in-between place. It’s almost never a destination in itself, and visiting the convenience store is never an event. Even our homes, which we take for granted more than most other places, offer us feelings of relief or joy upon our return. But going to the convenience store doesn’t stir up any emotion, because it’s often a place we visit out of necessity, a place that’s accessible and decently-stocked and open 24/7.

The convenience store is the closest thing we treat to a home besides our own and our loved ones’ homes. In the convenience store, anything is allowed at any time of day, and no one bats an eyelash if you turn up with unbrushed teeth and hair. It’s a place where people bump into each other in between the tiny aisles and the cashier almost never even looks at you, let alone smiles; rudeness in the convenience store is accepted more readily than it would be anywhere else. You’re in a rush, you just woke up, you’re trying to find that one specific thing and can’t figure out where in all the haphazard organisation it’s been buried. The aisles have no names and the people aren’t really people. The convenience store is a place that doesn’t really exist; like a dream you forget the moment you wake up, the convenience store exists only when we need something, and then disappears again at the chime of the bell over our heads on our way out.

As such, with the convenience store being so much a place we take for granted, it offers a small slice of home, ease and relief at every corner. We need the convenience store like we need a home, because it provides for us, but also because we need these places where we’re allowed to just be, and this provision by the convenience store is perhaps one of its most overlooked services.

FamilyMart, however, changes the way we interact with convenience stores. Maybe the Japanese are used to FamilyMart, but Malaysians were not. The franchise first opened in Malaysia in 2016 and it took Malaysia by storm—everyone became enamoured with FamilyMart. It was treated as a true novelty when it entered Malaysian markets, because of how much it provides in the name of convenience. FamilyMart is a place where you can pay your bills, get cheap coffee hot or iced, buy a hot meal and enjoy it in-store, and the franchise is always innovating further for the future of convenience.

Above all, FamilyMart actually makes you think, unlike the mynews or 7-11 or gas stations that we’re used to, because it is so wholly foreign and untested to us. It offers the sense of escapism that any predominantly foreign brand store would offer. Next to the gardenia breads you can find a “green tea melon pan”, and next to the Lipton iced lemon tea you can find “clear” milk tea. Next to the normal cashier counter, there’s a special “oden counter” where you queue up if you want to buy fish cakes and udon noodles in hot soup. FamilyMart offers variety in an establishment that we frequent because of its lack of variety. FamilyMart becomes a destination in itself because it offers an alternative that we’re not used to. Why should I walk down the street to the FamilyMart when there’s a mynews next door? Because I want something specifically Japanese that only FamilyMart can provide.

The convenience store is predictable, because we know what we can get there and more importantly what we can’t get there. We can’t often get fresh food, and we can’t get an experience, and while it fulfils our most pressing need at the moment, it perhaps doesn’t do it in a way that’s healthy or most desirable for us. But FamilyMart offers all the same things that we expect from a convenience store while packaging it in the dream that, more than just fulfilling our needs, it can also fulfil our desires.

***

Recently, I watched Wong Kar-Wai’s 1994 movie Chungking Express for the first time. Something that struck me was his use of the convenience store, even though this location didn’t play a big role in the film as a whole. I was interested by the way the convenience store served to facilitate Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung’s desires, building a bridge between the personal & mystical with the banal everyday. In the convenience store, Takeshi can find his canned pineapples that will expire on a specific date, and Tony can dry a wet letter from Faye Wong on the grill, as if the convenience store was there to accommodate exactly these very specific needs.

Though Chungking Express was filmed in Hong Kong, not Japan, and though it was released years before the emergence of FamilyMart on the global scene, the way Takeshi and Tony use the convenience store in this movie made me think of the way we use FamilyMart these days—or rather, what FamilyMart provides for us in services that we didn’t even know we needed.

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Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character looking for his canned pineapples in a screencap from Chungking Express

The use of the convenience store in Chungking Express to facilitate desire made me think about FamilyMart as a place that provides for everything, and about what kind of significance convenience stores may hold for our future. The transformation of the convenience store into more than an in-between, but into a destination in itself: starting with a café (many FamilyMarts already have a small sitting area where people can enjoy their hot meals), and then what—a restaurant, supermarket, mall? Many other supermarkets, such as Giant and AEON, have already expanded into becoming full-fledged neighbourhood malls, while the upscale Ben’s grocery store has even commanded a whole street of Ben’s-owned restaurants and stores out on Jalan Batai*.

In-between places can’t really exist in a capitalist economy, because many businesses endeavour to expand outward, provide more services and thus become more profitable. FamilyMart isn’t an in-between place, because we’re allowed and given reasons to spend more time there than is expected for a convenience store. Convenience stores lay the foundations for our lives, because we need convenience more than we need variety: we need an all-in-one place where we can rest, nourish ourselves, pay our bills, withdraw money and settle everything that is extraneous to our working lives. (Unfortunately, the reality of capitalism is that food, drink and rest become as incidental to our lives as topping up our phone.) And as FamilyMart grows to fulfil extraneous practical needs, I wonder how much it will grow to fulfil other needs as well.

Needs such as Takeshi’s need to find canned pineapples that expire on a certain date so that he can move on from his ex, needs such as Tony’s need of a grill where he can dry a rain-sodden letter from Faye Wong. I’m wondering about how much the convenience store can really provide for us. I’m wondering if there will come a time when all of our lives can be settled at a FamilyMart.

***

Because of how much the convenience store provides for us, I’ve personally always thought of it also as a site of desperation. Yes, you go to the convenience store when you’re in a rush or need a quick fix, but you also go there when you’re down on cash, or because something else is preventing you from doing something that’s good for you. I’ve visited the convenience store when I felt too useless to go to the grocery store, and I’ve visited the convenience store when I’ve been too anxious to go out to a normal place and eat a normal, cooked meal.

As I’ve said, the convenience store offers a safe haven where you can indulge in the same anonymity, ease and ugliness as you would in your own home. At the convenience store, you forget to leave all the emotional baggage at the door because you’re allowed to bring it in, a “service” you may not easily find anywhere else.

Underneath all of its plans for future services to expand into, perhaps what FamilyMart is truly striving to provide is the veneer of a home outside the home. On every corner, a convenience store that provides for the entire hierarchy of Maslow’s needs, including self-actualisation. And then, just as Japan’s innovations in improving standards of living are all ultimately in the service of increasing productivity, back to work and “the real world”.

***

(I’m thinking, also, about that one evening we’d fought, and decided to make our separate ways back, and I’d stumbled upon you again smoking a cigarette and checking your phone outside a FamilyMart. Is this one of the services it offers as well? Everyone, at some point, will need to go to a convenience store, and they will need the convenience store more often than anywhere else. Maybe if one waits long enough at a FamilyMart, the loved one will eventually return, if just to buy a pack of cigarettes. In Chungking Express, Tony Leung re-discovers his stewardess ex-girlfriend again in the convenience store, pulling a drink out of the chilled section.)

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Tony Leung’s character waiting for his letter to dry in a screencap from Chungking Express.


*It is telling that an “upscale” grocery like Ben’s expanded into Jalan Batai. A mark of luxury is variety, because there is nothing more luxurious than having the time, energy and money to go out of your way to get what you want. However, even the relatively luxurious families seem to prefer convenience over variety, and so Jalan Batai…

♫: “Ghost Town”, Kanye West, 070 Shake, Kid Cudi, PARTYNEXTDOOR

Thinking about the betrayal of beauty through the penultimate song off ye

There are some songs that evoke so much within you that you believe that their author was writing from the very same experiences as you’ve had. I’ve felt the full force of Ghost Town most acutely when I was walking around on my own in Tokyo and feeling lonely and abandoned by something I hadn’t even known I’d possessed. (Any city becomes a ghost town if you’re the one who ghosts through it.) I felt it at sunsets, marking the sad passing of time and another day drawn to a close with everything much the same. I’ve felt it while in KLCC park on the eve of independence day this year, sitting alone and eating some bread and watching the crowd thronging around the colourful lights of the fountain. Feeling like there’s something monumental about to happen—or currently happening, all around me—but that I was not part of it, and could not possibly ever be. But some day, some day. The wide, rounded vocals by 070 Shake and Kid Cudi make something bloom in my chest. The latter’s “I’ve been trying to make you love me / but everything I try just takes you further from me,” remind me of that viral video of Barcelona’s “Please Don’t Go” set to a view of a crowd passing a gigantic tank in Japan’s Okinawa Chiraumi Aquarium. The anonymous strangers are bathed in blue light, in awe of the mysterious and fantastic beasts in front of them. Love and its attainment also being another mysterious and fantastic beast that we gape at as we pass through life. We’ll understand some day, some day, maybe some day.

For me, “Ghost Town” is the best song off Kanye’s 2018 album ye, and the only song that induces me to revisit the album at all. Yet it feels corny to say that a Kanye West song made me emotional, and this self-consciousness is probably a result of the total dissonance between the song and the leading man behind it. As 070 Shake herself said in an interview, her refrain (so crucial to the song, for me) was only added in at the very last minute on the day of ye’s release; the song “almost didn’t make it”. It’s for reasons like this that I don’t like behind-the-scenes information about music or musicians, because I don’t like to think that a song that has come to mean so much to me could have just been thrown together on the day of its release. This knowledge suggests a kind of artificiality or shallowness in its production that is totally discordant with the emotional connection I’ve formed to the song.

More than its production, it feels corny to say that a Kanye West song made me emotional, because it’s a song by Kanye West, the man who famously doesn’t give a fuck about how his music or personality makes other people feel. However, for me (and because I’m talking about the controversial figure of Kanye West, I feel like I need to emphasize the truly personal nature of this whole thing, so expect a lot more “for me”s), “Ghost Town” isn’t typically the kind of thing that Kanye has been producing in recent times. “Ghost Town” is different from his discography of recent years, because of how full it is of hope and, consequently, of hope’s cause, i.e. suffering. It is so full of hope for life, for beauty, for understanding, that it’s difficult for me to reconcile it with the Kanye of The Life of Pablo, full as it was of debauchery, racism and sexism. Even in TLOP’s more plaintive moments like “Wolves”, he undercuts the sentiment with a line so ridiculous that it makes you question the seriousness of the entire song. “You tried to play nice, everybody just took advantage / You left your fridge open, somebody just took a sandwich,” he says, plainly and apparently unironically. (Or ironically, but in either case it still undermines the sentiment of the song.)

Songs like “Wolves” and “Ghost Town” force the question of beauty. They lead you into a beautiful, mournful song, and Kanye himself undercuts his own sentiment by forcing something ugly and absurd into it. “Ghost Town” doesn’t have any “absurd” or “ironic” lines like the one in “Wolves”, but the beauty of the song is still undercut by the sole factor of Kanye West being Kanye West. ye was released amidst controversy with Drake and also with fans on Twitter over his support for Trump; the encompassing controversy affects how we respond to his releases. And yet, it’s the very fact of Kanye West being the sexist, racist, Trump-supporting person he is that gives “Ghost Town” its full force as a hopeful and vulnerable song; perhaps there’s no one else other than Kanye West who could deliver the line, “you may think they wrote you off, they gon’ have to rope me off”, and have it be considered so simplistically beautiful by the listener. Like “Bound 2”, the closing track to his 2013 album Yeezus, both songs successfully pull off this image of Kanye West as some naively foolish, thoughtless, Homer-Simpson-esque everyman who runs his mouth sometimes but loves his wife all the same, who has hopes and dreams and a conception of beauty all the same. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

“Ghost Town” shows Kanye as he isn’t, i.e. vulnerable, suffering a lack, striving towards something beautiful & lovely & transcendent. The final few lines by 070 Shake sound like a stadium song with the accompanying steady drumming: “And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free.” I love her refrain, but I also feel acutely the dissonance between these lines and the monumental figure of Kanye West. How hard it is to get your head around him being a man who could possibly be hurt, or possibly feel as if he were not free to do or say anything he wants.

I take Kanye West seriously as a musician and I appreciate his discography. Previously, I’d been able to do this because I ignored his politics, because I can’t bear to take them seriously. In a world where we get so inundated with new media, we sacrifice deep contemplation about personal ethics for the sake of enjoying a new piece of art. By now, a lot of people generally agree that there’s no point getting involved with an artist’s personal and political life when the music industry is powered by money. No matter how much we try to “hold someone accountable”, this sentiment in and of itself pales in comparison to how much the artist’s music brings the industry in profits. My approach to most forms of new American media has been one of mild indifference—enjoy the art, ignore the artist, don’t speak about idolatry or prophecy, and… whatever. Give up the art/artist if you can’t bring yourself to ignore the crime, but as Jenny Holzer said, “abuse of power comes as no surprise.” There’s no such thing as a fully perfect, ethical celebrity because the entire status of celebrity is corrupt.

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With “Ghost Town”, what I really wanted to know wasn’t how could Kanye West get away with saying the things he does? but rather, how could someone so horrible produce something so beautiful? I’m not thinking about how he could espouse the politics he does, or why he’s always insulting Kim in his songs, or why he starts unnecessary drama when he’s a full-grown man; rather, I’m more confused as to how someone so given over to the coarseness and superficiality of the entertainment industry could still produce something so touching and emotionally potent. (At least, for me. You can stop reading if you think I’m talking garbage.) How does that make any sense at all? When I think of beauty, I inevitably think of goodness, because the logic for me is that if someone is able to appreciate beautiful things, then it means that they should also know what is good. Beauty, for me, is inextricably bound up with the good, in that the things I personally consider “beautiful” often carry a kind of moral weight. For me, beauty is arrived at through sensitivity and empathy. Some of the most successful poetry and art are the ones that empathize with a shared feeling, and express this feeling with the trust that others will understand.

Knowledge is both an aid and a curse. Trusting one’s instinctual, emotional response to a work of art seems like a form of naivety, but it also seems wrong to deny the initial emotional response for the sake of privileging the technical production. 070 Shake returns to this naivety in “Ghost Town” when she sings, “We’re still the kids we used to be / I put my hand on a stove / to see if I still bleed,” childishly confusing the consequences of one act with another. Art is experienced through the senses—i.e. visually, auditorily, or kinesthetically—so it seems wrong to say that true art can only be arrived at/appreciated only once one has full knowledge of information external to the art.

There’s a certain repulsiveness in knowing the thought process behind a work of art, or even knowing the artist as a person, because with that knowledge can only come either a confirmation or a denial of your own emotional response to the artwork (emotion also formed by one’s own personal ethics, etc.). Ideally you’d want art to remain as it is when you first saw/heard/read it—as something purely yours, confirming your own ability to find beauty, and your own vision. A piece of art is often more a testament to our own capacity to empathise than it is the artist’s, which I guess is my main trouble with beauty. It is like admitting that you have loved someone more than they have loved you. The uneven empathy, the distance between two people, and the dissonance between what you give and what you receive—this heartbreak and betrayal is, for me, the same one at the heart of “Ghost Town”. I’ve been trying to make you love me, but everything I try just takes you further from me.

There doesn’t seem to be any rational response to this betrayal of art by its artist. Knowledge aids the appreciation, but it also allows cracks to appear in your initial response. Our emotional attachment to a work of art makes it difficult to give up an artist, and ultimately we will never fully know any of the artists we love, because of the distance between our lives and theirs. Music and art come naturally to us, in that we often have no say in what we listen to and how it affects us, because of the aforementioned saturation of media in our modern times; besides, the desire for beauty and art is wholly human and as natural for us to seek out as a fish for water. To Kanye West, “Ghost Town” is likely just a song he’s cobbled together and put out just like any other, and very likely that, on that last day before ye’s release, he wasn’t feeling the same intensity of feeling and I do towards that song. So it’s no good to live on beauty and emotions alone, but it’s no good either to deny them, or the fact of beauty’s necessity to us… How does that work? 

♫: “Sober-to-Death”/”Powderfinger”, Car Seat Headrest

I’m listening to Car Seat Headrest’s “Sober-to-Death”/”Powderfinger” mash-up and–I–just–love them so much. I can’t get over what a beautiful mixture of sounds the whole thing is–the injection of folk americana Civil War mythos into “Sober-to-Death”, one of the most self-indulgent and depressing songs off Twin Fantasy, turning the whole thing into something universal, legendary, American. As American as Edward Hopper paintings, or lonely gas stations, or 24-hour diners. Or prairies, or young men with guns, or colonial plantation houses. In How to Leave Town, Toledo claimed that he’d “never been” to America, but that alienation from one’s own country also similarly strikes me as quintessentially American. The transformation of the individual story into national mythos–a universal feeling–it’s these kinds of things that make me feel American, or feel nostalgic for a dream America. The same way I felt while reading about the Trace Italian in John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, the same way I sometimes feel while listening to the McElroy brothers’ podcast “My Brother, My Brother and Me”. The feeling that there’s some long lost part of me that grew up in America, and still remembers all the state names. Lost America, dream America, America as collective memory, America as a universal collective dream a la Freud…

A nervous young man in the backseat of his parents’ car, parking it in various public parking lots (as the etiological legend of Car Seat Headrest goes), and recording his vocals there into his laptop, because he can’t bring himself to record at home where he’s young enough to still be living with his parents, and singing about a disintegrating relationship. This young man alone in his parents’ car singing to himself, “we were wrecks before we crashed into each other.” A young man alone in his parents’ house in the town he dedicates several albums to expressing his desire to leave, singing the resolution to his own depression–singing himself better in the close, “Don’t worry, you and me won’t be alone no more.” Over and over.

Leesburg, Virginia, Americana. This room that he spends so long looking up at the ceiling of in “The Ballad of Costa Concordia” off a later album. As Hua Hsu has written in a profile of Will Toledo, “a pop song can take you higher but it can’t take you out of Leesburg fast enough.” Virginia, plantation houses and the confederate flag, Virginia. Virginia in the Civil War and the boy with his father’s gun in Powderfinger.

Toledo transforms his depression into something legendary, which is sometimes to say American. The Sober-to-Powderfinger-Death transformation is like when Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers pt. 1” transforms from the narrator remembering his father’s suicidal tendencies into the desperate, prostrating chorus of “I LOVE YOU JESUS CHRIST–JESUS CHRIST, I LOVE YOU, YES I DO,” of “King of Carrot Flowers pt. 2“.

Dream America, with its skinny nervous young men desperate to leave their parents’ homes in the town they grew up in and the hatred of which they’ve been nurturing their whole lives, mumbling to themselves about a gun, or a white boat, or Jesus Christ. Car Seat Headrest transforms the depressive mania of “Sober-to-Death” into a national creation myth of the same monumental proportions as the Civil War.

And me, I sleep outside of America, but I dream along all the same. If in a previous post I wrote that Death Grips are the simultaneous arch-nemeses and champions of American values, the dark ambiguous character watching from the wings, then Car Seat Headrest is my broken golden American hero, if only because they don’t hide behind the same cape of irony and because they dare to assume the universality of their longing. I’m trying to find the words, too, to make This grander than it is without romanticising it, to also find a place where all This can rest next to the lives of others. There is some comfort in your nightmare belonging.

♫: “I Want You To Know That I’m Awake/I Hope You’re Asleep”

In the past few weeks, there has only been two moods for me, musically: Death Grips on repeat, for my previous piece, and Car Seat Headrests’ How to Leave Town on repeat. “I Want You To Know I’m Awake/I Hope You’re Asleep” is off the latter.

We have a lot of great songs about one-sided relationships, usually sung from the perspective of the one who loves more, because it’s heartbreaking to love someone more than they love you. However, this song is, for me, from the perspective of the one that doesn’t love enough. The betrayer.

One of the telltale signs that your relationship is doomed is when you start comparing yourselves to other relationships: towards the end of this song, Toledo compares his relationship to other famous, dysfunctional relationships, such as Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the split of The Beatles and the Beach Boys. He speaks of them like friends, singing, “Frankie and Ava broke up today,” followed by the refrain, “but we’re not like them, no, we’re nothing like them” after each line.

The refrain is ironic, or maybe just sad, because he’s listing all these couples only for the purpose of reassuring himself that at least we’re not like them. In the naïveté of first/young love, you’re convinced that your love will outlast everyone else’s despite what everyone else says. That high school relationships don’t last, that long-distance doesn’t work, that the average person goes through several relationships in their lifetime, that your heart will mend and you will learn to love others if a relationship doesn’t work out. You don’t want to believe that those things are true, because it suggests a betrayal. When you’re young, and especially if it’s also your first, you want to believe that you, specifically, will be the one who will go over and beyond with your love–through sheer willpower you will just love better than anyone else ever has.

And then the crushing disappointment of your own failure, especially coupled with the knowledge that it’s not even your partner’s fault, but indeed your own. It’s almost as if the fact that you couldn’t love enough hurts more than the idea of losing your loved one; the fact of your own ability to betray a love hurts more than losing the one you’re betraying. Elsewhere on the album, Toledo has another refrain where he sings, “Love isn’t love enough…”

Toledo abstracts, moving beyond famous couples and wonders about The Beatles, a band that made monumental music, but all the same still a band that couldn’t quite cut it despite all the beauty they were able to produce together. John & Yoko separated for a year–eventually the legendary Beatles broke up too–and Paul started doubting everything he did. But we’re not like them, can’t be anything like them. Richard Siken, from his poem, “Scheherazade”: Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us. / These, our bodies, possessed by light. / Tell me we’ll never get used to it.

(Which is a way to say: sometimes I still dream about you.)