(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.

♫: “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.)

Death Grips for Cutie

“should the opportunity arise, vomit me, flies.”

Death Grips is one of those bands that have become a subject of ridicule on the Internet, as wont is to happen to most modern bands that have a largely white, male fan basis. In fact, the white, male fans even make fun of themselves–the whole enjoyment of Death Grips seems to be necessarily ironic and self-deprecating, earning them their own page on KnowYourMeme. The band was shot to an Internet popularity by 4chan’s /mu/ board, and also by “Internet’s busiest music nerd”, Anthony Fantano, a.k.a. theneedledrop, who is famously hard to please. Fantano seems to have a sort of reverse-Midas touch, in that everything he touches and enjoys instantly becomes fodder for memes about pretentiousness, especially the pretentiousness of white, male hipsters. The Internet and meme culture have turned us into people who can only enjoy things ironically and that makes me genuinely, unironically sad.

To be fair to their fans, the band cultivates this irony themselves. They indulge in their status as an Internet phenomenon: for example, the opening track of their latest album is titled “Death Grips is Online”, after their most viral tweet, and they also collaborated with the director of Shrek on the music video for “Dilemma”, another song off the album. They are a band that dedicates themselves wholly to absurdity and nihilism, especially the kind of absurdity spawned by the chaos of living in the 21st century digital world where everyone is literally online. Their music offers ideas about the void, meaninglessness, insanity, violence and paranoia, but often dulls the edges of these heavy topics (or takes them to their logical extreme?) by packaging them in absurd lyrics, lurid cover art and confusing PR stunts, all of which I’ll give further examples of throughout this essay. My purpose here is to attempt to take Death Grips a little seriously, just for the fuck of it. I want to attempt to recuperate Death Grips’ reputation from the ironic Internet sensation it’s become (even though no one’s asking me to), and I want to posit that the void, paranoia and violence are all the domains of women. In this essay I will posit that only a woman could truly appreciate Death Grips unironically.

I'll mostly be referring to songs. Death Grips has been a prolific band since their inception, but due to me knowing certain albums more so than others, this post will be a bit lopsided despite my attempt to give a shout out to songs across their discography. Here's an abbreviation guide to the albums I'll mention and their respective years: 

NLDW = No Love Deep Web, 2012 

 TMS = The Money Store, 2012 


TPTB = The Powers That B, 2015  BP = Bottomless Pit, 2016 


YOTS = Year of the Snitch, 2018

The first Death Grips song that truly grabbed me was the eponymous “No Love” off 2012’s No Love Deep Web. It’s the most dreadful and chaotic song I’ve ever heard, in the best way possible. It starts off with a terrible booming like an evil siren coming from somewhere deep under, while MC Ride screams, “YOU WHIMPER WHILE I CHECK MY PHONE.” For me, through all their different sounds and albums, the most powerful has always been this feeling of dread that the band is able to inflict on its listener. In a Pitchfork interview from the days right after NLDW was released, Zach Hill explained his vision for the sound of Death Grips and his hopes that people listening to it could weaponize it, echoing the ethos of punk music: “Say you were being bullied in school: if you have our music in your headphones, no one is really bullying you anymore. It’s like taking a pill that makes you super-human.” The sound of dread in Death Grips pours out into your ear holes, but the fear also emboldens you to feel like you really can do whatever the fuck you want. The fear has turned you into a beast who will push the limits of what it takes to get out. In NLDW’s opening track, “Come Up and Get Me”, MC Ride is at the top of an abandoned building, pushed to such a desperate situation that he no longer cares about what happens to him, singing, “So I’m surrounded / Geiger count it not goin’ out shits ‘bout to get kamikaze / AHHHHH / FUCK A NAZI.” However, at the end of the day Death Grips’ music seems to fall into the same trap that has ensnared other Western punk bands (and I do believe DG’s music is a form of punk), namely that their music only serves to empower those that are already empowered. In this day and age (an age that seems to have lasted eternally, incidentally), do white men need to feel more super-human than they already do? For the cover of No Love Deep Web, the band chose a picture of Zach Hill’s penis with the title scrawled on in black marker. I didn’t ask for this dick pic though.

The fear that MC Ride sings of is a fear that exists in this world. It’s not just a catchphrase to “stay noided”: it’s a constant state of life for a lot of women.[1] Have you ever watched David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 film It Follows? To summarize it quite simply, it’s a horror movie about a young woman who feels herself followed by an entity that’s constantly changing shape, and while she can outrun and outdrive it (as it’s always just stuck in a walk), she can never truly get away from it. It is always walking in a straight line towards her. It’s the scariest movie I’ve ever watched, and for weeks after I couldn’t go outside on my own at night. Even in the day time, I kept looking over my back. It’s this same paranoia I hear from Death Grips’ songs, like “No Love” and “Come Up & Get Me”, the feeling of being trapped in a terrible place with something evil always coming towards you no matter where you go. That terrible, menacing boom. The raw relentless screaming.

Some of the dread that the band feels is a result of not knowing what direction our digital age is headed towards, and being anxious about the vastness of the Internet, the anonymous companies extracting our information through obscure methods, and overwhelmed by the saturation of information & images. And if the Internet is a scary place for the members of Death Grips, it’s an even scarier place for women, who are constantly bombarded with idealized images for how a woman should be, and who are constantly cutting themselves up into fragments for social media. It’s no use trying to find excuses for it now: social media is destroying the self-esteem of women and girls at an increasingly younger age all over the world. The increasing violence and prevalence of pornography is also destroying their self-esteem at a younger age all over the world. The woman online is the woman who’s constantly watching herself (“watching me watch them watch me”) as if she were not part of her own life. Like the closing track to NLDW, it’s an “artificial death in the west”, where the subject online suffers an artificial death through being disconnected from their own selves. No Love Deep Web starts this theme of Internet anxiety which carries over into the rest of the discography, from Bottomless Pit‘s apathetically named “Eh” and “Trash”, to The Powers That B’s “Inanimate Sensations” (which gave us the line “I like my iPod more than fuckin'”) and Year of the Snitch‘s cacophonous “Shitshow”. 

Funnily enough (ironically enough), one of Death Grips’ most accessible songs is also the very song about paranoia that popularized the term “noided”. In “I’ve Seen Footage” (TMS, 2012) MC Ride sings about feeling followed and watched after footage he’s seen on the Internet (suggested to be footage of police brutality) over a beat and heavy breathing that are both reminiscent of Salt-N-Peppa’s “Push It”. The absurdity that Death Grips is known for is in response to the dread, in an attempt to contain it. In an attempt to become super-human, as Hill has said. So they have MC Ride sing about the fear of police brutality over an aerobic anthem.

Death Grips adopts a nihilistic stance, where they put themselves beyond good and evil because the modern world that they’re living in no longer makes any sense to them according to traditional ethics. Just as they experiment with their music, so too are they experimenting with morality and rationality. In one moment, MC Ride could be expressing his dread at an apocalyptic “destitute wasteland” he sees in “Artificial Death” (NLDW, 2012) but in the next making outlandish statements like, “shoot pussy through your chest you die.” A lot of Death Grips’ lyrics are often incomprehensible yet evocative in the same way that poetry is, and they’re punctuated by ridiculous and crude statements, which makes the combination “absurd”. They may make sense according to ever-shifting Internet linguistics, but they are absurd still in the conventional grammatical & syntactical sense. They also experiment with aesthetics, often borrowing from the Internet experience or using imagery as provocative as their lyrics. They feed their Internet image with bizarre music videos, such as the one of a glitched-out hologram-like MC Ride dancing awkwardly in a car to “Guillotine”, or the one of an anonymous white kid staring unblinkingly into a strobe light for “Streaky”. That’s also not to mention their various album covers, from No Love Deep Web’s dick pic, to Bottomless Pit’s insinuated ass-eating, to Year of the Snitch’s holes of teeth (possibly a bastardization of the Rolling Stones’ infamous tongue symbol). You can understand why they’d attract irony when so much of their music and marketing is based on the absurd, the unthinkable.

Yet the whole thing about irony is that it’s based on a presumed rationality, a superior mental state. I enjoy Death Grips, but only “ironically” because I know that they’re mostly joking around themselves. I share unspeakable cursed images “ironically” because I can see that they’re disgusting, not because I enjoy them. However, while the dread may produce the absurdity, the absurdity also in turn feeds the dread: in response to all the terrible things happening in the world and our alienation from political government, young people tend to turn to the internet to express themselves, with the internet becoming more insular, absurd and auto-cannibalistic to the point where it’s scary to think of how far the irony and disillusionment will go.

Maybe it’s OK for white men to descend into layers of irony, just for the fuck of it, because it’s funny. But for women, we are faced with the absurdity of life all the time, on- and off-line. Living in the modern world is truly intolerable, because of what the fear makes us do. The fear pushes us into corners and makes us do things we don’t want to do–or it scrambles our desires, so we no longer know what we truly “want”–in order to please men who are all not as intelligent, funny, beautiful or as kind as us anyway. We wake up every morning and look at ourselves in the mirror and think about ways to fix the unbroken face we were born with. If anyone understands what it means to live for nothing, and to die for nothing, it’s women. If anyone knows the true poverty of beauty, language and morality in our modern society, it’s women. If we had to set our hearts to music, maybe it would sound like Zach Hill’s impressively violent drumming, or MC Ride’s heavily distorted screaming.

Everything rigged at this place, it's not me / Don't break my concentration with those thoughts baby / I don't care about real life, I don't care about real life / I break mirrors with my face in the United States.

I’ve heard about how intensely MC Ride can get “into the zone” while doing live performances; he’s notorious for performing shirtless most of the time. I wish I could watch them live and experience that total abandon, the intense ferocity of losing yourself, along with them. Girls never get that. The kind of “losing yourself” that women aspire to is the state of total dissociation when you can’t even feel the direct harm of the bad things being done to you or the bad things that you do to yourself, every single day. It’s the kind that means we focus very hard on trying to look pretty and then maybe we’ll be a bit happier or maybe they’ll treat us better. “Losing yourself” as in being able to momentarily overlook the fact that he’s about to consume you and spit your bones out; so smile. When MC Ride scream, “I FEEL SO SICK TODAY / (I’m afraid to be here with you) / YOU’RE GOING TO KILL SOMEBODY / (I’m afraid to be here with you)” in “The Fear” (YOTS, 2018), it reminds me of the way certain men will look at and speak to you, and how you have to pretend to smile or laugh if you don’t want worse happening. In the song, his screams are followed up with something that sounds like gulps being made very rapidly.

The dangerous thing about artistic movements that attempt to portray the philosophical ideals of nihilism, existentialism, absurdism, is that they often take it to the extreme that there is nothing to live for, nothing worth dying for. That life is all a joke; that, solipsistically, life and language only mean as much as you think they mean. Movements like Futurism, Dadaism and Postmodernism all prefigure the language of the Internet. Though I’m not saying that the Internet style is directly influenced by them, I mean that we have faced these movements before, have read them, have heard men talk of similar ideals in a similar language, and have seen their poverty in effecting real change to the point that the world we live in now seems a kind of absurdist nightmare. There are groups of men in government playing out their own terrible daydreams with the lives of others, and groups of men online similarly trapped in their own heads, speaking their own incomprehensible languages, allowing themselves to love nothing. These works, like Death Grips, have their own inherent artistic merit despite their ethical grey area–art doesn’t have to be and often isn’t defined by what it contributes to the world politically–but while their fanbase’s response to it seems to be to revel in it, to desecrate the band as they desecrate themselves and the whole institution of art, I think more can be gained if we learned to appreciate them seriously.

Admittedly I’m not sure what that would look like, besides having the courage to say, “I enjoy this band,” and mean it, wholeheartedly. I wonder why there are so many young people, especially young white men, who participate in meme-making, shitposting and other heavily ironic & incomprehensible groups online, and what this says about our capacity to respond to evil. I wonder why, in the wake of the man-made destruction of World Wars I and II, the intellectual men behind Futurism, Dadaism and the Beats decided that the only available response is to go insane. In one of their most iconic songs, “On GP” (TPTB, 2015), Death Grips makes one of their only references to a “you” that isn’t confrontational or threatening, singing, “all the nights I don’t die for you / wouldn’t believe how many nights I ain’t die for you / on GP.” Irony and absurdity are easy, but they’re a staircase winding to hell

If anybody should have the right to irony, it should be women, who are constantly spreading their emotional capacity thin for no real tangible gain other than that it is inherently human to care. If there is any group of people who deserve the right to be distrustful, it is women. When used in excess, irony can become crippling, which explains why so many people on the Internet these days can be stingingly funny but also severely depressed (“it’s all suicide to me“). However, when used  purposefully, irony can also be a form of power, a way to “LAUGH HARD AT THE ABSURDLY EVIL,” to quote a Jenny Holzer truism. I’ve mentioned that I believe Death Grips is a splinter of punk music, and at the heart of punk music lies the values of speaking truth to oppressors, expressing rage against violent systems. It’s a weaponized music, “super-human”. If the only thing that boys on the Internet can do is make fun of the things they love, then let women be the ones to show the proper meaning of a beatdown.

These chicks are crazy, god.

Footnotes

[1] Without going into too much speculation, it may be a state for MC Ride as well, as a black man, and it’s always amazed me that Death Grips has the reputation it does for being a “white guy band” when its frontman is literally a black man. Shouldn’t it be classed as part of the afropunk movement?

Twin Fantasy

On heartbreak, loneliness, fantasies & how much things can change in a year, through the lens of one of my all-time favourite albums.

In a little over two weeks I’m headed out to watch Car Seat Headrest live. By the time I watch them, in late May, it will have been about a year since Effie first told me to listen to them. When she first told me about them, I had only listened to them in the background as I was packing up my room to move out. At this time, only the 2011 version of Twin Fantasy was released–neither of us had known that it would be reworked, re-recorded and re-released earlier this year. It was summer 2017 and this album had been released about six years ago, at which time “Car Seat Headrest” still consisted solely of Will Toledo doing all the vocals, instruments and editing. The sound was lo-fi, his voice has never been the clearest, I was distracted, and I only heard snatches of lyrics in the album. At one point, I heard him screaming, “I DON’T WANT TO GO INSANE! I DON’T WANT TO HAVE…. SCHIZOPHRENIA” and I was surprised when I checked my phone to see what song it was that it had already been going on for over four minutes and was due to go on for at least another eight. It was “Beach Life-in-Death”, at that time the longest song in the album, clocking in at about 12 minutes. Eventually the album ran out, I still hadn’t finished packing, and I just shot off a text to Effie saying something non-committal like, I like when they sing about going crazy.

I forgot it for a while. I don’t know when it was that I actually properly listened to it—I don’t remember ever listening to it again at the time, so I think it must have been when I came home for good. Looking through my search history on YouTube, apparently I searched for “High to Death” five months ago—around November or October, so maybe that was when. I think that must also have been after the time when the band had taken the entirety of Twin Fantasy (2011) off Spotify, because I wouldn’t have resorted to YouTube otherwise. I remember being in the McDonald’s and having a piece of lyric stuck in my head from, not that song, but “Sober to Death”, and trying to figure out where it came from. It was the lyric, you know that good lives make bad stories. I don’t know why I had remembered that particular line, or what it had meant to me then, and maybe I’m happy that I don’t remember. And from then, I must have searched for “High to Death”. I think those two, along with “Famous Prophets (Minds)” (now “Famous Prophets (Stars)”), must have been my favourite CSH songs at the time, I think I must have listened exclusively to those three when I wanted to listen to CSH, because they’re the only ones that come up in my YouTube search history. In the 2018 version of Twin Fantasy, “Famous Prophets” triumphed over “Beach Life-in-Death” for longest song in the album, coming up to almost 17 minutes.

There aren’t a lot of bands or artists I keep up with from single to single anymore. Even with the ones I love, I usually wait until the full announced album comes out. But I know the value in listening to singles before the album: when you only have the single, your attention is directed only at that one song. Unlike listening to an album, you’re not trying to figure out multiple songs at once. You appreciate the one song, you can just listen to that song, over & over & over again. And when your only recourse to listening to a song is YouTube, you appreciate it twice as much, if only for the main reason that you can’t click over to other apps while listening to YouTube on your phone.1 Listening to Twin Fantasy on YouTube felt like the 2011 album feels now, once you’ve listened to the 2018 version: just… a thing of the past, I guess. When the band took it off Spotify, it was like they were saying, If you want to listen to an album from the past you’re going to have to do it like how you used to back in 2011, back when you were 15 & before you knew what Spotify was: you just have to listen to it on Youtube.

Then CSH re-released “Beach Life-in-Death” as a single in December 2017. Then there came the “Nervous Young Inhumans” music video in the new year. Their record label, Matador, announced a re-release of Twin Fantasy. Then there was “Cute Thing” and, finally, “My Boy (Twin Fantasy)”, before the album was finally released in February 2018. The original Twin Fantasy was recorded on a laptop when Toledo was 19, and uploaded onto Bandcamp for his friends to listen to. He is alone. In the 2018 re-release, he has a band with him. The differences are obvious when you listen to both albums: compare, for example, the 2011 version of the album’s most energetic song “Bodys”, with its 2018 version. It sounds like music coming from a shitty speaker in another room. It sounds like those announcements in malls when they need someone to move their car. And I guess this is what Twin Fantasy (2011) becomes in the light of Twin Fantasy (2018): music from another room: contained within its dimensions: the door closed.

So what the fuck is Twin Fantasy and why the fuck haven’t I shut up since December 2017 then? Twin Fantasy, at least the 2011 version, is just someone bleeding all over the place, which is what I am into. At the time when I was in a McDonald’s searching for “Sober to Death” I was trying to get over a boy. By the time February came around, I was still trying to get over a boy. There were other changes in my life that I was trying to accept as well, such as the fact that I was at my first full-time job and I didn’t really have any friends around anymore. Twin Fantasy didn’t help me get over anything, but it took my breath away with the artistic possibilities it displayed for turning whatever you’ve been going around bleeding into something productive, something poetic, something more than this.

Twin Fantasy is about love, obsession, heartbreak, melancholia and fantasy, which are all maybe just different words for the same thing. I’m not a musical person (in case it wasn’t obvious by this point): I don’t know anything about instruments or music theory or literally anything, and so it’s difficult for me to evaluate music as an art form; and so, as a literature student, it always ends up that lyrics are the strongest pull of a song to me.

Will Toledo’s lyrics remind me of John Darnielle and Frank Ocean in their poeticism, Darnielle and Ocean being two other songwriters renowned for their lyrical skills. But mostly they remind me of Richard Siken in their themes and sense of impending doom. Toledo has never heard of Siken, but the tonal and thematic similarities would be, I think, striking to anyone who’s heard of both2. For the sake of remaining focused on the creativity of Will Toledo and evaluating Twin Fantasy on its own merit, and also for the sake of anyone else reading this who’s never heard of Siken, or even listened to Car Seat Headrest, or both, I’ll try to keep this segment on the Siken/TF similarities short.3Anyone can write about heartbreak and melancholia and not remind me of Twin Fantasy, but it’s the particularly tragic way that Siken writes about (a) doomed relationship(s) that made me think about him while listening to Twin Fantasy. Both Siken and Toledo are writing from a position after the end of love: the worst thing that could happen has happened, and then it turns out that its aftermath is the real Worst Thing. They are both lovers without a loved one, incapable of moving on and replaying the same now-limited set of memories in their minds, over and over again.

A man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river / but then he’s still left / with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away / but then he’s still left with his hands. 

(Richard Siken, “Boot Theory”)

It’s about the particular way that both struggle at what to do with the bleeding heart they’ve been left with, with their “solutions” at times taking a violent turn.

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“Beach Life-in-Death” and “Famous Prophets” even read like epic poems.4 Both songs are the working through of complex feelings, and they both fight against what they put forward. Consider the following lines from “Beach Life-in-Death”, and “Famous Prophets”:

Get more groceries / get eaten / get more groceries / get eaten / by the one you love … Last night I dreamed he was trying to kill you / I woke up and I was trying to kill you (Beach Life-in-Death)

Apologies to future me’s and you’s / But I can’t help feeling like we’re through / The ripping of the tape hurts my ears / In my years, I’ve never seen anyone quit quite like you do / Twin bruises on my shin / from where I kicked the back of the seat in / They meant / what I went through for you / But now they’re fading / Now they’re gone (Famous Prophets)

Then consider the following lines from Richard Siken:

Inside your head the sound of glass, / a car crash sound as the trucks roll over and explode in slow motion. / Hello darling, sorry about that. / Sorry about the bony elbows, sorry we lived here, sorry about the scene at the bottom of the stairwell / and how I ruined everything by saying it out loud. (Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out)

I stare at you like I’m looking through a window, / counting birds. / You wanted happiness, I can’t blame you for that, / and maybe a mouth sounds idiotic when it blathers on about joy / but tell me / you love this, tell me you’re not miserable. / You do the math, you expect the trouble. / The seaside town. The electric fence. (Seaside Improvisation)

The tragedy is that all of these things are being said to us, us the listener and the reader, because we both know that there’s no going back to deliver these words to the ones they were really meant for. That’s how heartbreak feels, I guess. It feels like your heart in between the teeth of someone who’s looking away. When you’ve lost your loved object, what happens to all the things you have to say to them? When they’re turned away, what happens to all the things that you couldn’t, but desperately need(ed) to, say to their face? He dissociates himself from his own romance until it becomes a fantasy. You have your bleeding heart, you have a finite set of memories — when nothing new enters and you’re unwilling to let go, then you have a fantasy. The loved object enters into you and transforms. Replay the same scenes over & over again until they’re no longer what they were in their reality. To remember is an active practice, not a passive one: your current feelings inevitably affect the way you remember past events (and, indeed, which events you remember at all), and our past is always burdened with new meanings that perhaps did not exist in the moment at the time. This is, I think, what gives both works their violent streaks, why Siken (or his protagonist) needs to “throw” his sadness into the river, why Toledo woke up trying to kill you.5 It’s unbearable. For so long you thought they had your heart between their teeth but look at what you’ve done to them. If the one you loved lives inside you, and there’s a train hurtling towards the both of you and you have control of the lever, then which one do you kill: them, or yourself?6Both Toledo and Siken offer apologies in their own way for the attempted murder. (Hello darling, sorry about that.) In “Beach Life-in-Death”, Toledo immediately changes the subject to a brief, happier memory: Your ears perked up – I perked up when your ears perked up. In the original “Famous Prophets”, there’s a grave, and there’s Will standing at the top of the mountain where God isn’t, screaming, Why did you tell me to come in the first place? Why did you? Why did you? Why why why?

The 2018 version of “Famous Prophets” offers a more matured resolution. There’s still the accusation over the dead beloved, as Will asks, What happened to you? It’s a single, sharp, searching question; then, silence; and then, a stranger’s voice reading out 1 Corinthians 13: 8–13.7 The change in “Famous Prophets”’ lyrics (and length!) are only one of the many ways that Twin Fantasy has matured over the years, as Toledo (or whoever, the narrator) takes a step back from the situation, clears his head, and becomes able to look at it and understand it on its own terms, rather than his. When Twin Fantasy (2018) was released, it was given the subtitle Face to Face, while the original 2011 Twin Fantasy became Twin Fantasy: Mirror to Mirror. Imagine two mirrors facing each other, imagine the dizzying number of selves that stretch back to infinity when a subject is placed in between. In Face to Face, Toledo breaks the mirrors, breaks the prison of infinite selves, and tries to look at the face behind the fantasy.

He is finally able, in a way, to “see” his boy again. Vision, especially clear vision, is crucial to the breaking of the fantasy. Twin Fantasy opens up with “My Boy (Twin Fantasy)”, which, lyrically, is just a repeated refrain of My boy, we don’t see each other much, but somewhere down the line we won’t be alone

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The album closes with “Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)”, which in turn consists mostly of the repeated refrain, I haven’t looked at the sun for so long, I’d forgotten how much it hurt to. In between, there is the rambling “Beach Life-in-Death”, then a return to simple repetition with “Stop Smoking”, then (the song that started it all, for me) “Sober to Death”, “Nervous Young Inhumans”, “Bodys”, “Cute Thing”, “High to Death” and the last song before the last song, the parting of the clouds before you step out into the sun, “Famous Prophets”.

When the album hits its middle and launches into “Bodys”, so reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”, god, I just start to miss everyone. In an interview with Peyton Thomas, Toledo described “Bodys” as “manic … the point where the fantasy gets too real.” To me, “Bodys” feels like a break from that fantasy, a breath of fresh air where everyone manages, finally, to say what they mean. (Siken: We were in the gold room where everyone finally gets what they want.) “Beach” is not a happy song: there is a murder, or at least an attempt at one. “Beach” is trying to shake off something that has its teeth in you. “Stop Smoking” is just… well, if you’re smoking so much that someone’s telling you to stop smoking, they love you, then what does that mean? And “Sober to Death” is just depressing. “Sober to Death” is the full indulgence of the fantasy. I want to hear you going psycho, if you’re going psycho then I wanna hear. It makes me happy that I don’t remember why I had remembered the line you know that good lives make bad stories all those months ago. So when “Bodys” comes around, is its fantasy of liberation just another fantasy? I think it’s a microcosm of what the greater project of Twin Fantasy means, to me, as an offer of liberation through art. The heartbreak is the heartbreak is the heartbreak. It is what it is. But at least to be able to create something with it, at least to be able to turn it into something productive. Maybe there can be some good fantasies, and maybe “Bodys”’s fantasy of finally being able to say what you mean, of being in a room full of bodies and feeling nothing except love, is what allows the album’s denouement into a resolution.

So what? So what? … Don’t you realize our bodies could fall apart at any second?

“Cute Thing” opens up with an apology: I got so fucking romantic, I apologise. Let me light your cigarette. “Cute Thing” is “Bodys”’s comedown, when you’re trying to find him again in the smoking area and trying to remind yourself that you have to be a normal person that says normal, socially acceptable things now. The reapplication of the mask. It’s full of embarrassment and the things that can’t be said again. It’s lurid in the things it imagines (Come visit Kansas for a week of debauchery / Songs and high fives and weird sex) and desperate in its inability to make the first move. Oh God give me Frank Ocean’s voice / give me one little chance. It’s a song tripping over itself. I accidentally spoke his first name aloud. But the song finally gets to what it all means, what he’s been trying to say, but can’t, or does say, but not in a way you’d understand, this entire time: I am love / I want to sleep naked, next to you, naked / I am love (2018 vers).

It’s towards the end of the 2018 version of “High to Death” that we get a suggestion of what the entire project of Twin Fantasys means and why it matters for Toledo to revisit it six years later. “High to Death” closes with a sound bite from Hojin Jung, an artist who designed the covers for the 2018 “Beach” and “Nervous Young Inhumans” singles. She expresses her conflict over a series of paintings she made “last summer” for her high school portfolio, how the woman portrayed in them was someone she knew before, but someone whom she doesn’t quite recognise anymore. She says, euphemistically, that she “wasn’t well” when she made the paintings, and it hurts to look back at them now. The key point, for me, is that she still loves the Lady, that she “believed” in her. And I think that’s where the 2018 revision of Twin Fantasy comes from, from a recognition that Toledo was in a bad place when he wrote the original album, and perhaps said things that he didn’t mean or otherwise now regrets saying, but he still loves the person who lived through and created it. Earlier in this post, I said that Twin Fantasy didn’t help me get over anything but rather suggested to me another possibility for living. But perhaps… this is the same thing. The way to move on from something is to go back to the thing, but not with hatred or regret or nostalgia: just with love. Quite simply, as any fucking therapist or advice column or random person on the street would say, to talk about it. To sublimate. Finally, at the end of “Twin Fantasy (Those Boys)”, there’s another little monologue from Toledo, who says, “The contract is up, the names have been changed. So pour one out, whoever you are. These are only lyrics now.”

***

When you love something so much, when you revisit something as often as I do Twin Fantasy, everything about it eventually acquires a significance. Lyrics that previously hadn’t mattered to me now do. Some lines I sing to myself if only for the familiarity of the rhythm. So I drove to Harper’s Ferry and I thought about you there were signs on the road that warned me of stop signs the speed limit kept decreasing by ten as we headed to town about halfway there. I have no idea what these lyrics mean, no idea where Harper’s Ferry is, but the rhythm of “Beach” is so embedded in me because of how much I’ve listened to it. A year ago I checked my phone because my ears perked up at him screaming about going insane, then when he re-released the single I listened to it because I loved the way he described his mania, then I listened to it just because I loved it, now I listen to it because I know it. When I was younger, one of my favourite authors was a man named John Green, and if you’re familiar with his work then maybe you’ll understand why one of my earliest favourite poems was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, which had a first line that I would sometimes recite in my head when I felt like I needed to distract myself to calm down. Let us go then you and I when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. It’s normal for you to memorize the things that you love, but there are few things that I’ve loved so much that the rhythm of their existence enters mine.

img_5789On a deeper level, beyond just the rhythm & familiarity of the songs, Twin Fantasy has been an entry for me to expressing my own feelings of heartbreak and loneliness. (I accidentally spoke his first name aloud, to try and make it fit in with the lyrics of Twin Fantasy.) You know, I, like, relate. And I’m not stupid: I know about the dangers of getting too invested in a single thing, especially one dealing with such self-indulgent feelings like melancholia and heartbreak. It’s OK to relate to something as long as you don’t define yourself by it etc., etc. This is what makes Twin Fantasy so unique to me, in how it expresses emotions with a complexity and poetry that I’m hard pressed to find in a lot of other stuff I’ve listened to. I hadn’t mentioned it before, but at the time when I first started listening to Twin Fantasy properly, I was consuming a lot of rap and, particularly, trap music. Like, a lot of it. Like, I had a playlist of trap music that I literally just shuffled and listened to every day. In a previous post from when I first came back, I wrote that ‘I can’t stand to listen to anything except the trashiest music these days, where every other word is a swear or a slur, and every line is either about fucking bitches, making money, some high couture brand, or all the above. I can’t listen to “good” rap either.’ (15 aug 17) You know, this is the kind of musical life I had. I couldn’t stand listening to anything that I had to pay attention to and attempt to decipher. Everything just felt so dead to me, dead of meaning, dead of pleasure; even with “good” music I felt that it was all just secretly garbage, and so I preferred to just listen to the stuff that was already explicitly garbage. It seems so hilariously, pathetically banal, to say that trap music was just a distraction for me from the life I was leading & from all the fresh uncertainties that I didn’t know yet how to make sense of.

Then something happened that made me as repulsed with trap music as I had previously been repulsed with anything that wasn’t trap music. I don’t want to say, it was just something that really drove home to me that the people who sing about all this bad stuff really are, (surprise), bad people.8 Good stories are bad lives. Ha ha ha ha ha. It makes me so happy to remember rediscovering Twin Fantasy and immersing myself in it: I literally… quite literally, could not stop talking about it. It makes me so happy to remember something meaning so much to me, and not in the dependent way that trap music meant to me, but in the way that a guide means for the progress of any story. It’s just something that came into my life, and now my life was changed because of it, not because I shaped my life according to the album, but because the album showed me a different way of relating to works of art. I remember literally talking about it all the time on twitter and Instagram, and then explaining to friends about the format of it, so often that I had a pre-written message already saved on my phone so I wouldn’t have to go through the whole process of explaining it all over again to someone else. And I remember people responding saying, “cool I’ll check it out!” And just finding it … so … funny, because my intention in talking about it all the time had never been to promote it. If other people were influenced to listen to it because of me, then I was happy also, but I only talked about it so much to everyone because I literally thought about it, all the time. And I’m still thinking about it now, maybe not as much as I used to, but I still remembered my personal almost-anniversary with it. If I’d wanted to get other people to listen to it, I’d have just written a strict review. But now, this whole thing, what I’m mainly writing about is me. (Most of the time when I use the word ‘you’, well you know that I’m mostly singing about you.) And of course still a messy, disparate person, of course still so many memories that I don’t know what to do with, of course still so fucking romantic, of course still lonely, almost all the time. But it’s been almost a year now. I just wanted to raise a fucking glass to that.


You can listen to (and buy) Twin Fantasy: Mirror to Mirror (2011) on CSH’s Bandcamp. Or YouTube, like me.

You can listen to Twin Fantasy: Face to Face (2018) on Spotify, Apple Music, or YouTube. You can buy it off Bandcamp or Matador Records.


Footnotes

1. Hahaha. Growing up with the Internet shot my attention span, and my appreciation of something — to purely love a piece of culture — is always conditioned by the limitations of something as stupid as this. Yes yup. It makes me a little sick to have to admit something so banal when talking about songs, lyrics, albums – a piece of art – that I love so much.

2. For the sake of – I don’t know, academic integrity? I should insert here that the only proof I have of this, that their tonal and thematic similarities are striking blah blah, comes to a net total of two. I have only the Peyton Thomas interview and a brief conversation (if a 3-tweet response thread on Twitter can be considered a conversation) with Effie who also saw this. Maybe the similarities wouldn’t be striking – maybe they’re not similar at all – maybe they would be offended to be compared to each other. I don’t know. These are just the words that build up my life.

3. It feels so hypocritical to say all that and still launch into the segment anyway. Like, yes I know I should be just assessing TF on its own merit and yes I know that people’s attentions spans are short especially when reading something they’ve no idea about but I’m going to do it anyway. And then this self-referential footnote like I’m acknowledging my hypocrisy and maybe by acknowledging it you’ll accept the apology I didn’t even give. But indulge me. This is my blog. And the footnotes? Well, how can you talk about Twin Fantasy without at least a little mumbling? If you listen to it you’ll understand what I mean.

4. Did you hear what I said earlier? 12 and 10 minutes respectively! In the 2018 version they’re fleshed out to become, respectively, respectfully, 13 and 16 minutes long.

5. It should be noted here, however, that I think this is a major way in which Crush and Twin Fantasy differentiate: the poems in Crush, I believe, often portray a physically violent and abusive relationship. I don’t know Toledo personally, and I don’t care about speculations of his real life relationships, but I don’t think the lyrics of Twin Fantasy are trying portray anything literally violent that happened. But I obviously don’t know. I just mean that I don’t want to minimize the violence of Crush by putting them on the same metaphorical level as the violence in Twin Fantasy. Twin Fantasy is, at least on surface level (again — I don’t think it’s productive to speculate about Toledo’s personal life), about heartbreak; Crush is about abuse (among other things. You know. I was trying to keep this short).

6. And if the leve(r) breaks, you’ll find out what it is that’s replacing you.

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8. As morbid and cryptic as I’m making this sound, it wasn’t anything terrible that happened to me or anyone I know personally.