This morning I read two essays about Grimes, but not really about Grimes. Since I’ve listened to Grimes, but not really listened to her, I thought it would make sense to talk a little about these essays and what they seem to be getting at, since that’s maybe more interesting — that is, definitely more interesting to me, possibly boring or even infuriating for you.
Here are a few preliminary facts about me. Before I read Mark Richardson’s piece, I actually did not, in so many words, know what the Bechdel Test was. Even though I’m involved with a feminist writer! Do not tell her I said this! Another thing: growing up, in high school, at least, I mostly listened to Tori Amos (and Dave Matthews Band). They both sang about love and stuff — and really, for an emotionally under-developed negative like myself, then, the what they sang about didn’t seem that different. Yet another thing is that I’m known to write about the way women are written about in music writing. But I also think Hipster Runoff’s onerous phrase “alt baguette” is really, deeply funny. So, that’s some context.
First, Mark writes in his "Resonant Frequency" column:
Early on, I described my attraction to it using a metaphor I trot out once in a while, that of admiring a Fabergé egg. Such an object doesn’t “mean” anything, it’s just incredibly intricate and detailed and the craft and mix of colors and design conveys ideas without narrative or direct appeals to emotion.
He gets into how high praise for Grimes’s album, Visions, may fall along gender lines — at least as far as identification goes. He offers a portrait of deep identification: his, with Bill Callahan. (Full disclosure: “Dress Sexy At My Funeral” is perhaps the only notable Callahan song for me, but boy howdy how so!) As a means of transitioning back to Grimes’s music’s perhaps difficulty for some people to identify with, Mark quotes Leonard Cohen, in an interview, talking about a Buddhist teacher’s teaching him about the difficulty (I think) of maintaining one’s own personhood, that is, the fiction of the self (as unified, perhaps); it’s far easier, perhaps inevitable, to let the hero die. At which point “you just live your life as if it’s real — as if you have to make decisions even though you have absolutely no guarantee of any of the consequences of your decisions.”
This passage did not at first make much sense to me, but when I put it in a different framework — the Nietzschean one, I guess — of ‘life’ (as it were) being a text with no author (even though everyone’s running around all crazy insisting there is one!) it sort of totally made sense to me. It’s sort of like, people expend all this effort on creating and maintaining a consolidated, homogenous, sense-making self. But the self is not self-continuous or sense-making. It is characterized by breaks, ruptures, illogical chirrups spurring us on. And then, once you’ve given up the idea that there is an author authoring you (us, life, etc.) then you know, have this great responsibility. Precisely because you’re granted the freedom of having “no guarantee of any of the consequences of your decisions”, you have to take, I think, special care. And because parts of your self may start leaking or accreting and doing odd things. Watch out.
The point Mark ultimately made was, I believe, a little different, though. It was that it’s a difficult process to open up that Fabergé egg. But the opening, it seems for him, is linked to one’s personhood, which seems to be a little at odds with my reading of the Cohen quote, I guess. Or my (terrible mis)reading of Nietzsche, more likely.
The idea of a fragmented self is front and center in the other piece I read this morning, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd’s second “Deconstructed” column on Stereogum:
We understand that our fractured existences are increasingly moving from the corporeal to the computer-ether, but as we’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to step back and see how we’ll be impacted. That Boucher seems perfectly manufactured from this cyber ether is certainly exciting on paper, but just like the constant feed that filters through on your dashboard, tomorrow there will be another song to reblog.
Julianne looks at Grimes’s music from a different perspective, but it is a really curiously related perspective! It’s pretty great, how these two pieces work together, I think. Julianne seems pretty aware of the unity of her own self; it’s never called into question. Rather, she looks at the sort of all-over-ness to Grimes’s self. Its allusiveness, like she’s a cultural repo man. Which is not, in itself a notable or bad thing. What’s bad, she says, is that the not-there-ness of Grimes in her music, the music itself, tends to minimize Grimes’s own role in the praise of Grimes.
She writes, “People have praised her for her ‘naive’ and ‘elf-like’ qualities, as though by filtering her voice into wispiness to the point that she’s almost a specter (as she does), she becomes more admirable, a negation of herself.”
It is an interesting meta-critique! Certainly, women seem to get praised for doing womanly things, and what’s more womanly than receding into the background. (While still having a totes bangable alt baguette bod.) But it’s not just Grimes’s critics, but some of her own ideas about music that lead to a minimization of Grimes. How the singer seems to equate computers and robots with purity, and human presence as imperfection. Grimes’s computer music, then, represents her own aesthetic — and perhaps ethical — ideal.
This discussion reminds me of my aforementioned feminist writer partner’s recent post about “The ‘Sorry’”:
The sorry is existential remorse: You are here, you think things, you want things, you feel things, and YOU ARE SORRY FOR DOING THAT. You are sorry that you have subjectivity, and that it doesn’t match someone else’s. You are sorry that you are a person, and that your existence and personality have not been crowd-sourced and therefore you might not actually be everyone’s favorite person. You are sorry for other people’s reactions. You are sorry for other people’s actions. You are sorry for other people’s emotions. You are sorry for your emotions, because they’re not someone else’s. You are sorry for other people’s opinions. You are sorry for your opinions, because their existence means you’re not giving priority to everyone else’s opinion. You’re sorry you talk, you’re sorry you think, you’re sorry you exist.
Part of me wants to say he found Grimes’s music boring, and therefore didn’t really follow-up with listening to it more. That part of me, I think, would try to take Julianne’s reading and run with it. Another part of me wants to take Mark’s reading, that he just isn’t (yet) the right type of person to be able to understand it well enough, to appreciate it. I think it could well be that there’s something like the male response to [whatever], and that in order to understand [whatever] better, we have to rehabilitate our thinking.
But then that first part of me wants to say, “But Julianne is a woman, and she doesn’t seem to be too keen on Grimes, either!” Well, that part of me should be quiet. That’s not what’s important — that you find one person of the correct gender to hang your entire worldview on.
I think, perhaps, the whole issue-ness of Grimes (and St. Vincent, and Tune-Yards, and, and, and, and all the way back to Sappho, maybe?) should be the issue. This isn’t to say that Mark’s or Julianne’s essays were unnecessary. Far from it! But it is to say, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, that it’s probably time for woman-ness to stop calling itself into question. That’s all it does. Woman-ness is constantly calling itself into question, having to justify itself, having to apologize for itself. It’s an (obviously — more maybe not so… and that should be the point?) it’s a hard thing, seemingly, but I think it might be time to just let musicians, and artists, and people just be people.
This is a naive thing to think. I mean, duh. When the federal, state, and local governments, for Chrissake, have a vendetta against your gender, then you can hardly afford to not let it be an issue. But still, maybe when it comes to being indie music writers, it would serve as a precept to maybe not make a big deal about it.
I mean, all this above stuff is why I thought this International Women’s Day Spotify playlist was kind of ridiculous. Yes, it’s certainly well-meant. But, like, who cares if here is ten hours of music by women. That doesn’t exactly celebrate or empower women. It just puts them into a section or something. Here’s your day, here’s your music, have fun. I know it was definitely and certainly not meant to be anything other than a tribute. But it’s this sort of thinking that leads someone (usually a guy) to be all a-gog at the difference-ness between men’s and women’s music.
So, my point, basically, is that there are always interesting cultural criticism conflagrations around things: Odd Future, Jeremy Lin, Grimes. And those are symptoms that we’re not sure how these things fit into ‘the culture’. And that is very interesting. But also, this calling oneself into question thing is really tiring and unproductive, philosophically.
When you’re constantly calling yourself into question, nothing ever gets done. To borrow an image from Wittgenstein, it’s like two people sitting in chairs talking about whether a tree in front of them exists or not. Calling into question the basic ontological or epistemological precepts undergirding your everyday good functioning will not make for a cheery afternoon. And, in fact, it might be bad — worse than unproductive — but a cause for self-censoring or harm.
Of course, and this is maybe the biggest take away, if you’re calling your own being into question — and you happen to be a pretty well-established sort of being, like a dude, for instance — maybe it’s not such a bad thing. Maybe it’s a good thing. I feel as if I’m constantly, like Mark in his piece, probing and wondering if I’m receptive enough about some things, wondering if I’m maybe not too hard or too soft on certain things. So maybe we need more of that.