Love Note – Lana Del Rey New-Album-Day

No one:

Me: It’s Friday night. This week has been insane. Let’s get self-indulgent.

In honour of the release of Chemtrails Over the Country Club, the new LP from Lana Del Rey, I’ve created something of an homage to one of my all-time favourite songwriters. There is no doubt that Del Rey is a controversial and, at times, problematic figure (see my previous essays on this here and here). Her relationships with power, race and patriarchy have been generally and radically underdeveloped at times, which is being incredibly generous. Additionally, as her recent interview with Annie Mac attests, for someone who captures emotion and feeling with such succinct eloquence and beauty in song, she is terrible at articulating a verbal and coherent viewpoint to herself and others.  

However, I critique because I love her and always expect better (as we all should with the cultural figures we look up to). Her songs are pure poetry and there is simply no one writing and crafting lyrics and music the way she does and has done since she first released Born To Die in 2012. Call it what you like: sadcore, baroque pop, dream pop. Without Del Rey and, I would argue, Frank Ocean and James Blake, we would not have the contemporary musical landscape we have now: vulnerable, melancholy, introspective and, in many ways, increasingly wise. Furthermore, I think we have been lucky to witness her transform from self-objectifying Lolita figure to a woman who runs with the wolves, bedding into the deepest facets of the Wild Woman archetype, and an advocate for healthy masculinity.

No matter how many people criticise her for having glamorised submission and abuse, there is a reason why her stories and her lyrics resonate with so many, in particular young women. Young women who are barely given the hint of a helpful roadmap to navigate the West’s patriarchal, white supremacist power structures with their spirits and souls still intact. She has given voice to the dark, shadowy feelings, experiences and dynamics that women have luxuriated in, surfed, cursed in themselves, acted upon without knowing way, forsaken or indulged over months, years and lifetimes. No wonder she has made people feel both extremely uncomfortable and seen. Those criticising her penchant for playing with façade and persona may not understand how imagery, persona and glamour are means of survival in a world that simply does not accept you the way that you are, in all of a woman’s emotional ebbs, flows, chaos and glory. With Chemtrails Over The Country Club, it seems we have Del Rey at her most retrospective. Without putting too fine a point on it, there does seem to be an eerie quality of finality to it.  

With all this in mind, I give you a comprehensive run down of my favourite things regarding Lana Del Rey’s music, starting with my personal top ten Lana Del Rey songs (in no particular order):

I’ve taken the liberty of listing my favourite Lana Del Rey lyrics and verses, all of which I typed out myself and, indeed, what joy it gave me to re-type and recall such rich and gorgeous words:

‘The poetry inside of me

Is warm like a gun’

‘Bartender’, Norman Fucking Rockwell

‘It doesn’t matter if I’m not enough

For the future or the things to come

‘Cause I’m young and in love’

– ‘Love’, Lust for Life

‘Give me Hallmark

One dream, one life, one lover,

Paint me happy and blue.

Norman Rockwell

No hype under our covers

It’s just me and you’

– ‘Venice Bitch’, Norman Fucking Rockwell

‘Summertime is nice and hot

And my life is sweet like vanilla is’

– ‘Without You’, Born To Die

‘I had a dream that I was fine,

I wasn’t crazy, I was divine’

– ‘I Can Fly’, Big Eyes Soundtrack

‘I don’t care what they say

Drag racing my little red sports car,

I’m not unhinged or unhappy

I’m just wild’

– ‘Chemtrails Over The Country Club’, Chemtrails Over The Country Club

‘Will you still love me when I shine

From words but not from beauty?’

– ‘Old Money’, Ultraviolence

‘Nothing gold can stay

Like love or lemonade

Or song or summer’s day

It’s all a game to me, anyway’

– ‘Music To Watch Boys To’, Honeymoon

‘Catch a wave and take in the sweetness

Think about it

The darkness, the deepness

All the things that make me who I am

[…]

Are you ready for it?’

– ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’, Norman Fucking Rockwell

‘Calling out my name

In the summer rain

Ciao amore

Salvatore can wait

Now it’s time to eat

Soft ice cream’

– ‘Salvatore’, Honeymoon

‘It’s fucking hot, hot

Winter in the city

Something ‘bout this weather

Made these kids go crazy.

It’s hot,

Even for February,

Something ‘bout this sun

Made these kids get scary’

– ‘Heroin’, Lust for Life

‘And who I am

Is a big-time believer

That people can change

But you don’t have to leave her.

When everyone’s talking

You can make a stand’

– ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’, Norman Fucking Rockwell

‘Maybe my contribution

Could be as small as hoping

That words would turn to birds

And birds would send my thoughts

Your way’

– ‘Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind’, Lust for Life

‘Think I’ll miss you forever

Like the stars miss the sun in the morning sky

Waiting’s better than never

And even if you’re gone

I’m going to drive’

– ‘Summertime Sadness’, Born To Die

‘You hate the heat, you got the blues

Changing like the weather

Oh, that’s so like you.

The Santa Ana moves you’

– ‘California’, Norman Fucking Rockwell

‘Sometimes it feels like I’ve got

A war in my mind.

I want to get off

But I keep riding that ride.

I never really noticed that I had to decide

To play someone’s game

Or live my own life.

And now I do.

I want to move

Out of the black

And into the blue’

– ‘Get Free’, Lust for Life

‘I can feel it coming in the air tonight

See you walking on that blue Pacific

I can see you bathing in the summer light

Turning tan and you look terrific

You got game boy’

– ‘Guns and Roses’, Ultraviolence

‘I only mention it

Because it was such a scene

And I felt seen’

– ‘White Dress, Chemtrails Over The Country Club

‘I’d be lying if I said

I wasn’t sick of it’

– ‘Heroin’, Lust for Life

If you are still here, I have compiled a list of the best Lana Del Rey bops. I understand that not everyone wants to spend their evening wallowing in the inky waves of melancholy, so, here are some of her most up-beat songs. No less poetic, but a little more frivolous and fun to keep you from feeling too blue:

  • ‘Fuck It I Love You’, Norman Fucking Rockwell
  • ‘Florida Kilos’, Ultraviolence
  • ‘National Anthem’, Born To Die
  • ‘Burning Desire’, Paradise
  • ‘Doin’ Time’, Norman Fucking Rockwell
  • ‘In My Feelings’, Lust for Life
  • ‘High By The Beach’, Honeymoon
  • ‘Fucked My Way Up to the Top’, Ultraviolence
  • ‘Summer Bummer’, Lust for Life
  • ‘Diet Mountain Dew’, Born To Die

Here are my picks for her most underrated songs:

  • ‘West Coast’, Ultraviolence
  • ‘Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind’, Lust for Life
  • ‘Terrance Loves You’, Honeymoon
  • ‘Brooklyn Baby’, Ultraviolence
  • ‘Change’, Lust for Life

And her, perhaps, most overrated songs:

  • ‘Cherry’, Lust for Life
  • ‘Lust for Life’, Lust for Life
  • ‘High By The Beach’, Honeymoon
  • ‘Gods and Monsters’, Paradise
  • ‘Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems’, Lust for Life

And the biggest question of all: which is the best Lana Del Rey album, so far?

I am very hopeful after my first listen of Chemtrails Over The Country Club. So far, I am loving ‘White Dress’, ‘Tulsa Jesus Freak’ and ‘Not All Who Wander Are Lost’ (any song with a ‘Lord of The Rings’ reference gets a massive thumbs up from me). Ultimately, however, and even in light of the divine Norman Fucking Rockwell, I still think my heart lies with Ultraviolence. I will never get over Del Rey working with Dan Auerbach, and I definitely think it’s her most cohesive and complete work.

I’m curious to know if there are any here with which you agree, disagree or that are missing altogether!  Please feel free to comment or message.

And, because she went there (and in case anyone particularly cares): my moon’s in Taurus, my Cancer is Sun (with Cancer Rising). If you know, you know.

‘Élite’: The ‘Gossip Girl’ alternative

This article is dedicated to Charlotte Bender, Francesca Bender and Hanan Isse: my fellow obsessees

Video essayist Broey Deschanel recently posed the question: ‘Have We Grown Out of Gossip Girl?’ By looking at the class, gender and racial politics of the show, and the wider politics and issues with re-makes, her answer is an unequivocal and undeniable: yes. Whilst aesthetic nostalgia for Gossip Girl is high (because who wouldn’t want to eat lunch on the steps of the Met or venture an embellished headband?) it is a show that does not need resurrecting or an attempt at correction. Her analysis that Gossip Girl sided with elites, demonising working class characters, catching principled characters into a tangled web of deceit and selfishness whilst glorifying toxic chauvinism (Chuck sells Blair for a hotel), demonstrates that Gossip Girl is a show too riddled with the white supremacist hyper-wealth orthodoxy of its time to be worth redeeming.

The show is almost a historical artefact of capitalism’s anaemic attempt at self-criticism, eventually reinforcing itself and seducing everyone in its wake, characters and viewers alike, when arguments for capitalism were becoming increasingly tenuous in the context of recession, economic suffering and burgeoning inequality. This would go on to lay the groundwork for a subsequent decade, and counting, of austerity in the West. No amounts of references to F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, Serena Van Der Woodsen’s favourite novel, could distract us from class-bashing snobbery, rampant aspirationalism and full-bodied immersion and defence of white privilege and supremacy.

Ironically, we are living in a time of studios hyperactively re-making, sequelling and prequelling everything: capitalism is so desperate to reinforce itself to itself and ensure a buck, that it cannot stomach the risk of making something new. I wrote about this in 2014 and there are signs that things are beginning to change. With the emergences of more experimental forms of television storytelling such as Master of None, Fleabag, I May Destroy You, Pose, The Politician and The Good Place against the backdrop of a larger appetite for non-white heteronormative stories centring around race, sexualities, genders and philosophies that have been previously untold in a popular way, we are seeing progressive shifts that render the prospect of shows like Gossip Girl more and more redundant. It has been particularly promising this year to see the number of films and TV shows exploring stories of race and class being feted and nominated for awards, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Malcolm and Marie forming two of my favourite films so far, even if the jangling of white supremacy still echoes and reverberates throughout the creative industries (no Golden Globe nomination for I May Destroy You?)     

So, where can we go for an aesthetically-fuelled glossy teen melodrama? Is there place for such a thing in the twenty first century?

My answer: yes. Do I want to see well-dressed people getting into romantic dilemmas, going on coming-of-age adventures, disappointing people around them, ripping up expectations, finding their voices, breaking up and making up and all set to a fabulous soundtrack? Yes. Whole-heartedly. But it goes deeper than that. This need for stories about teenagehood reminds me of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, a late nineteenth century German play that sought to express and plug the gap in stories for and about teenagers to navigate the upheaval of adolescence. The play, scandalous at its first performance, covers sexual repression and expression, abuse, suicidal depression, homosexuality and the relentless pressure of morality and achievement in arbitrary school exams: issues that still feel relevant and familiar to teenagers now, with a quintessentially new iteration of perfectionism that entails a life lived through the filters of social media. This rite of passage has been maligned throughout much of Western history, with teenagers demonised and ridiculed for the seismic shifts they experience in their bodies and identities, without any kind of holistic guideposts to nurture and respect them through it. Our experiences as teenagers lay the groundwork for our future relationships with ourselves (and our therapists) and, as explored so well in the documentary Beyond Clueless, secondary school is a charged space to explore a heady mixture of emergent and predominant ideas, with the teenage body a soil, in its perpetual state of flux, expansion and contraction, to do this. I don’t spend my time watching back-to-back teen shows or teen films because the chaos of melodrama and angst no longer feels like an outward projection of my own internal tumult. But I continue to hold the genre in high regard, in much the same vein as Mark Kermode in his advocacy for the Twilight franchise. If we are to live in a society where teenagers are not honoured, then why should we damn genres that appeal and speak to this dramatic, archetypal experience that they are going through? Whether we have anonymous whistleblowers and gossip mongers, vampires or quixotic righteous dudes, teen films and shows are crucibles and allegories for bigger shifts, both personally and societally that are, whether they mean to be or not, both vitally hyperbolic and fascinating. In the case of Gossip Girl, it turns out, we should have been paying more attention.     

As such, we don’t need a new Gossip Girl or, god-forbid, the re-make of Clueless that we keep getting threatened with (the original should remain an untouched gem and deserves respect and adulation not an irrelevant, fatigued re-make). We already have a show that is compelling, compulsive, aesthetically pleasing and playing whack-a-mole with big teenage issues in a critical and entertaining way. Crucially, it also grapples with many of the issues that a new Gossip Girl may want to rectify and reconcile with to itself, which Broey Deschanel predicts will be watered down and disastrous. Issues like race, religion, sexualities and deconstructions of class power structures. My friends, I give you, Netflix original series, Élite.

Élite’s premise seems standard fare: told in flashback, three working class students are given scholarships to shiny, international, private school, Las Encinas, located in an ambiguous area of Spain, but most likely near Madrid. The scholarships are a form of compensation from the rich owner of a building company, who built a structurally inadequate state school that collapsed. The son of the owner of the building company also goes to Las Encinas with his extremely wealthy and aristocratic friends: immediately, as a result, there is discord, resentment and rivalry between the two groups. The backdrop of all of this is a murder investigation, as one of the students is found dead next to the swimming pool at Las Encinas. A heady mixture of Big Little Lies, Skins, Cruel Intentions and, yes, Gossip Girl, it is immediately aesthetically pleasing and riveting. At the very least, along with the rollercoaster ride of dramas and chaos, viewers have the additional pleasure of having learned a variety of Spanish swearwords. And the background reggaetón is always on point.

Without spoiling anything, the show deals with a plethora of teen issues: the standard first sexual experiences, family fall outs, teen pregnancy, ambition and inter-class/clique warfare. Additionally, there are higher stakes of HIV diagnoses, cancer diagnoses, threesomes, throuples, incest, blackmail, revenge porn and drugs thrown into the mix. In short: a whole lot of loco. Across the seasons, however, Élite goes on to explore the intersections of many of these issues in greater depth, most powerfully, the immigrant-working class experience and, in particular, the cultural tensions of growing up Muslim in the West. This includes relationships between faiths, homosexual relationships (the cutest gay couple ever has to be Ander and Omar), the politics of feminism and the hijab, and both subtle and overt forms of anti-Muslim hatred. We have rarely seen a character like Nadia presented on television and it is joyful to watch her unfolding across the seasons.

Even the intersections and illusions of wealth are explored: the differences between no money, new money and old money, with most of the judgment and consternation reserved for the aristocrats. Unlike Gossip Girl, the most despicable characters in Élite are the privileged who lie, cheat and betray others to maintain their social position, closing ranks and perverting justice through their family names and wealth. Self-preservation is constantly at work in Élite: this manifests as working class characters attempting to reject and resist the trappings of wealth and privilege to preserve their sense of dignity and self-respect; whereas, the wealthy pull up their drawbridges and manipulate the power structures to get their own way. They become unredeemable in the process. Yet there are some who do change, and there are some divine redemption arcs at work, the best I’ve seen since Steve Harrington in Stranger Things.

As such, where Broey Deschanel’s criticism of Gossip Girl focuses on the fact that everything, including the viewers, is subsumed by the inordinate toxic influence of power and privilege, in Élite, a form of equilibrium and, dare I say, comradeship between the classes eventually emerges. Of course, we are still based in a powerful, private school only accessible to the privileged few; but it feels like the upper classes are the ones who have had to adapt and give up something, in the form of their power and privilege, in order to survive and not the other way round. The only question that remains, as Season 4 approaches, is whether this will be maintained. My main criticism is that even with the introductions of Yeray and Malik in Season 3, there is plenty more space for black characters in the show, and I think the show has great potential in posing more questions on race. Needless to say: we don’t need a re-make of Gossip Girl. Élite is the show Gossip Girl should have been ten years ago, and I for one think we all need more of it.

Full disclaimer: I watched all three seasons of Élite during Lockdown 1.0 and it definitely became an emotional crutch when many of us, myself included, seemed to regress into a state of teenagehood, confined as we were to our rooms for months on end (explored so well in this article). If there is anything I need to add or qualify, let me know.

Love song for house parties

I glide between

the revellers

who laugh and

sing:

ringing and aglow

in the warm-washed

gold

of pure, clear

fun.

I feel the

chords between

them all,

the symphony

of descants,

basses and

dissonance

that mould

and melt us

all together.

There’s the

delicate push-

pull of

exchange

as they float,

they don’t see,

that they crest a shining

sea,

ceaselessly;

and their vessels,

beaming,

hauling and rolling

are the sturdiest

and safest fleet.

The stars blink,

sighing, at

rest and at

ease.

Essential

but, in this moment,

at least,

not desperately prayed for

when a cosmic

radiance

dances and surfs

from lips, eyes and

guts,

unseen,

but palpable,

pulsing.

Darkness visible

The sadness
is sweet and sharp:
a cacophany,
a Universe
of ocean
that rages and
rocks
of which I
can only
provide glimpses
through
the glints of
salt stars.
The cavernous
pit, and expanse
of echoing promised-pain
makes all the darkness
terrifying
even the luxurious
shadows of safety
that beckon
softly.
A refuge, a
sanctuary of
stillness and repose.
This doubleness
conflicting
commingling
is mad
madness
maddening.
But it is
ancient,
as old as Moon
herself.
Bedded in me,
my soft peachy flesh
of limbs and heart,
there is space
and containment. And
I hold and keep the
embers
that makes this
darkness visible.

I squirm and thrill

I squirm

and thrill

with sherbet

in my mouth

as I dip into

the inky pools of

irony.

Black,

hilarious,

that

I long to sit

cross-legged

at the feet;

feel

inequipped

besieged

at the front.

What a

mockery

a show

that I

should sow

seeds

when the

soil

feels more

like my soul,

in limbo.

Not

ever-so-

-young,

but feeling

more and more

like a novice

each day.

This life,

experience,

so vast

at once

mountainous

fluid and

fragile:

made from nothing

signifying it all.

Love Note Year in Review: 2020

Arundhati Roy, in her signature wisdom, wrote in April that ‘the pandemic is a portal’: this year, it is impossible to deny, Covid-19 drew us across a collective threshold, and there is no going back. In a year that the veils were lifted, where our stories and systems, both personal and cultural, were laid bare under a bright, unforgiving light, we were given the gift of 20:20 vision: society cannot function without people who are normally paid the least and are given the least amount of respect; underfunding public services, including healthcare, is a short-sighted, political decision that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands; we continue to fester in the sickness of white supremacy and racism that brutally terrorises and kills; we are approaching a number of one-way doors that will result in climate catastrophe. This pandemic was an apocalypse: a word that comes from the Ancient Greek, meaning ‘an uncovering’, a revelation. In spite of the death, chaos and suffering it has unleashed, I am convinced that we needed it. Death, chaos and suffering were mightily at work beforehand, we just didn’t realise it.

Almost as soon as the pandemic put a stop to our hectic, exhausted lives, it became clear, like all moments of change, great and small, that we have a choice: to bury our heads in the sand and avoid the pandemic; to desperately cling to the familiar shores of neoliberalism, white supremacy and exploitation; or to take the plunge into these unknown waters and to live more consciously, meaningfully and compassionately. Joseph Campbell wrote that ‘the neurotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight’ and whilst at times I caved to cynicism and despair, particularly later on in the year, I have tried to choose acceptance, curiosity and joy over and over again. As Roy attests, this pandemic is an opportunity to shift, reset and revive, and we would be fools to not pay attention to that.

As such, here are some of the things that have expanded my world this year: that gave me hope, helped me to re-frame my biases and reflect upon my own experiences and contributions to the world, and that gave me joy.

‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ with the assistance of Alex Haley

This was by far the most powerful book I read all year, and came courtesy of the amazing ‘Let’s Talk Racism’ book chain on Instagram. X was nothing short of a lightning bolt of a man. His autobiography is incredibly immersive, giving a huge insight into his many turbulent and shifting lives and iterations. There is no doubt that X was one of the most quick-witted, sharpest and, often, humorous critics of white supremacy, re-framing and wiping the floor with his accusers at every turn. He was unfiltered, incendiary and uncompromising, an unrelenting champion of and for Black people. I found the chapter of X describing his days in prison re-teaching himself to read and write particularly moving, as were his trip to perform Hajj in Mecca and subsequent travels across the Middle East and Africa. He was ever-evolving, ever-driven for justice and whilst scathing of many of his contemporaries, he showed capacity for compassion and his own personal evolution. A truly extraordinary man.

Through ‘Let’s Talk Racism’, I also borrowed copies of ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ by Emma Dabiri and ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ by Rhodes Must Fall Oxford, both of which massively expanded my awareness of the insidious workings of white supremacy around women, beauty, the university and pedagogy. I am so grateful for the chain: it has been a key part of the work I have pursued this year to reckon with my own white privilege and racism, whilst introducing me for the first time to Pan-African productions and modes of knowledge, expression, spirituality and culture. In spite of the hard work, I have encountered so much that is truly joyful.

My subscription to British Vogue

The fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters and has been notoriously crap at dealing with the problem. The industry has been so caught up in producing, over-producing, tens of collections every year and conducting the flying circus of fashion weeks around the world, that it has become caught up on its own proverbial hamster wheel. There is, naturally, a human cost to this overproduction and consumption: people in Bangladesh, India and other countries continue to work in horrendous conditions for next to nothing, whilst their rivers and forests are polluted and destroyed (if you haven’t seen documentary ‘The True Cost’, I cannot recommend it enough). Furthermore, designers and creatives have experienced sustained burnout under the unrelenting pressure of an industry and culture that demands more, instantly, and all the time, as memorably recorded by Suzy Menkes in 2015. However, things are beginning to change: Edward Enninful, the Editor-in-Chief at British Vogue has written so beautifully and powerfully this year about the need for reset and change in the industry:

‘But a truth has been exposed by the tumultuous events of 2020: there is no normal to return to. Like many of you who I’ve spoken to or corresponded with over these past months, I share a sense that, actually, ‘normal’ is what got us here in the first place. If we are going to evolve, to a place of greater fairness and safety for our planet and its people, our future cannot look exactly like our past. We are going to need a genuine rethink about our lives. Our attitudes, our priorities, our compassion. What and how we consume. What we stand for and how we voice it […] let’s be honest: normal wasn’t working’. (British Vogue, August 2020).

Along with his excellent advocacy for decolonising fashion and art, Enninful demonstrates keen awareness of the change being demanded of fashion environmentally. Indeed, all of these issues and contexts constantly intersect. It is so incredibly refreshing to hear a fashion editor speak honestly and in no uncertain terms about the hard work and change that is required to live in a more just and less exploitative way. Of course, we want the pandemic to end as quickly as possible, but we cannot return to life before the pandemic. Enninful is aware that this moment is our opportunity to make big decisions about the direction we want to go in, what kind of people want to be, how we want to leave the world for future generations. For an industry that constantly chases the ephemeral newness of capitalist modernity, this is nothing short of revolutionary. It is so incredibly exciting, and comforting, to have such a man in in such a position of influence and authority. With his recent promotion within Condé Nast, he is set to have increasing influence over the role of fashion in the world. Accompanied with his invigorated focus on sustainability, this is extremely hopeful and promising. I have loved getting to know him and his vision of fashion over the year and, given fashion’s huge economic and cultural reach and influence, I am looking forward to him exacting some truly impactful change.

Hay Festival Digital

This was a completely divine couple of weeks of talks, readings and lectures all brought to us online. I am still quite stunned by how smooth-running the festival was considering they had next to no time to get online; equally, I am stunned that I haven’t been to the festival before now. Books? Wales? How had I managed to miss it? Regardless, the Hay Festival brought me so much happiness. I curled up in bed listening to Stephen Fry tell stories of Troy; attended talks on the Welsh language (which I began learning during Lockdown); had my questions answered by Simon Schama and James Shapiro; attended the Schools Programme featuring Onjali Q Rauf and Laura Bates; and immensely enjoyed Rutger Bergman and Michael Wood’s respective talks. One of the best moments of the festival was virtually attending Gloria Steinem’s talk with friends and family, all texting one another in excitement as this feminist queen imparted wisdom about activism and the fuel of being pissed off. I really hope that they continue running the festival online in some capacity going forward: there was such a magic to enjoying talks about books whilst knowing that people were logging in from all over the world. A true gift and moment of solidarity this year.

Online theatre

As a child, going to the theatre was pretty much the highlight of my year. I still think going to see ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ in Stratford-upon-Avon when I was seven years old was one of the best days of my entire life. However, since becoming a worker bee, I have found opportunities for going to the theatre, and requisite non-subsidised ticket prices, become quite a barrier to going. In 2020, I more than made up for years of missed theatre. At one point, myself and a couple of dear friends were virtually going to the theatre together every week, courtesy of the National Theatre. We watched ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Small Island’, ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, sometimes dressing up to suit the occasion, building in our own ice cream breaks and having post-show chats. It was such a rich experience: I still can’t quite believe the access we were all given. I donated to the fund as and when I could and it was a genuine pleasure to do so.

Similarly, I watched more ballet than I ever could afford to see in one year: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ featuring Matthew Ball as, perhaps, the best incarnation of Romeo ever (sorry Leo); ‘The Winter’s Tale’ featuring Edward Watson as a truly devastating King Leontes and Lauren Cuthbertson who makes me weep; ‘The Cellist’ featuring the divine Marcelino Sambé; ‘Anastasia’ with Natalia Osipova, someone who embodies negative capability; ‘Sleeping Beauty’ featuring Fumi Kaneko who has the most graceful arms ever and, my personal favourite, ‘Woolf Works’, a ballet triptych inspired by the life and works of Virginia Woolf. The ‘Orlando’ section in particular was truly astonishing, especially the partnership of the aforementioned Edward Watson and Francesca Hayward. The music, choreography, costuming and staging here created a piece of art that was electric. I quite forgot that they were performing in a grandiose old building, so futuristic and transporting was this section. It was everything that is truly brilliant and exciting about contemporary ballet. I remember watching ‘Danse à Grande Vitesse’ years ago and being enthralled by the limits of ballet and dance that were being pushed here: the same can equally be said for ‘Woolf Works’. Yes, tutus and Tchaikovsky are fun, but these new frontiers of dance and expression are so important and so invigorating. I cannot wait for more.     

Dusk is for fireflies

Dusk is for

fireflies and

lime liminality:

night cushions

and enraptures,

no mock stars.

I gasp

then fold in

and in.

The plunge

is breathful and

receptive.

I lay there,

my back finally

unwrinkled,

and I didn’t

wince or yearn

from myself.

Bathed in breath

I listened:

I heard

a whale song,

a lament.

Mournful, sighing

for children

who have lost their way;

who supped on milk,

and forgot how

to dance in starlight

and kiss the Earth

with grubby, curious hands.

Dreamers, with indigo souls

as deep as the

murmurs of night,

distracted by

false light

absorbed and obsessed

with their own

shadows.

The owls are coming,

their eyes bright,

with wings

ready to

shift and glide

over the currents

of torment.

Clear-seeing,

rich is silence

cutting through

the chaos, illusion

and deceit,

to gentler

enigmatic shores.

Love Note – Marvel Films

Spoilers – please tread carefully!

For many years I shunned the superhero genre. I was, and still am, a huge fan of the Christopher Nolan Batman films but, after the astonishing disappointment that was Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel in 2013, I ignored the glut of superhero films that followed. I still haven’t really forgiven DC for wasting so appallingly the talent and excellence of Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Dry, vacuous, thin writing. Atrocious. Superhero films subsequently defined blockbuster filmmaking in these early decades of the 21st century, and I wanted nothing to do with them.

Enter: Lockdown 2020.

Amongst the numerous personal epiphanies, rediscoveries, explorations and denunciations that this period elicited, one of the most joyful things we did was watch every Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film in order, from Iron Man to Spiderman: Far From Home (disclaimer: The Hulk films aren’t on Disney Plus; we will watch them at some point but I have a hunch that we haven’t missed anything too drastic).

In many ways, I conflated Marvel’s films with the shoddiness of the DC output, and, pre-emptively diagnosed Marvel’s films alongside Nerdwriter’s analysis of the ‘Epidemic of Passable Movies’. Big-budget films that rely so heavily on tropes and cliché that they are tonally unconvincing and annoyingly poor. This isn’t to say that some of Marvel’s films aren’t ‘passable’: Iron Man 2 is crap, Avengers: Age of Ultron is weak and Dr Strange is bland and famously appropriated Eastern traditions and spiritualities for yet another egotistical white man to ‘find himself’. Marvel is also hugely reliant on mythologies of nationhood and capitalism, which underscore every single film. However, there is much to love in this epic serial of films that provided relief from pandemic anxiety. With a plot template that is consistent and hardly deviates from a standard exposition – conflict – climax – resolution structure, these twenty two films and their stories were comforting, relatively thrilling, slightly mindless, and everything that were needed to survive months of quarantine. Like a 21st century reincarnation of Borachio’s Decameron, which, coincidentally, I attempted in Lockdown. I got to the end of the Second Day then promptly gave up: there was only so much wife-stealing, ambiguity around sexual consent and general frustrating buffoonery I could take for one pandemic. I think I’ll just stick to the Pasolini film.

I digress.

Below are some of my thoughts, opinions, loves and obsessions about the twenty-two films we watched:

  1. My favourite Avenger is Black Panther and I am devastated about the loss of Chadwick Boseman

It goes without saying that the tragedy of Boseman’s untimely death far eclipses the sadness we might feel as fans of Black Panther who will not see him in the role again. However, we can also acknowledge that Boseman’s performance is nigh-on legendary as T’Challa, and is a gift to cinema. As a character, Black Panther is one of the most powerful, endearing and incandescent Avengers to watch. Thanks to his vibranium suit and his ability to metaphysically connect with his ancestors and forebears, he is formidable and riveting, whilst also demonstrating deep dedication to his family, ancestral traditions in his advocacy and loyalty for Wakanda. Of course, as Emma Dabiri argues in Don’t Touch My Hair, the Marvel vision of African affluence and abundance is problematically neoliberal; however, the significance of seeing an African country and its peoples thriving technologically and financially is a rebuttal to white supremacist stereotypes and depictions of that continent. Boseman helped to forge a path in the representation and celebration of black life, the importance of which cannot be downplayed. The huge emotional and spiritual void his death leaves in this franchise undoubtedly echoes as a modicum of the one he has left in the lives of his loved ones.

2. My other favourite Avenger is Captain America

I was once unceremoniously dubbed ‘vanilla’ for holding this opinion. I truly don’t care. Whilst Thor and Tony Stark embarked on their redemption arcs, Steve Rodgers was earnest, honest and dignified from Day One. I love to see this in my lead male protagonists once in a while (see my Love Note on Alyosha Karamazov for more). The scene in the lift in Winter Soldier is dramatically excellent and I don’t think any moment in a film has made me so disproportionately excited than when he was able to pick up Thor’s hammer in Endgame. Be in no doubt that I was shrieking ‘I knew it!’ along with Thor. What I love about Captain America is that he is always the first one into a fight and the last to give up on a fight: standing alone, battered and bruised, in front of Thanos in Endgame as the last line of defence for life itself, unwilling to give up, is the perfect encapsulation of who this man is. He never moves from a place of rage, anger or lack: there is no hubris here. Instead, he’s slightly melancholic all the way through, thanks to the loss of love-of-his-life Peggy and his existence as a living anachronism. As a result, he has Frank Ocean sad boy vibes in bucketloads, which I love. Of course, he is by no means perfect: the character’s relationship with American nationalism and militarism is, at times, nauseating. But he is a character who, in spite of this, is endlessly optimistic, never gives in and always tries to do the right thing for as many people as possible. There’s a lot to like there.  

3. One of my future dogs will be called Groot

My favourite tree-esque character since Treebeard (not a tree of course, but an Ent) Groot is everything. I wept bittersweet tears at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, when he protectively encased his friends in his branches to protect them, whilst suffering fatal damage to himself. Thankfully, his Jesus moment encompasses full resurrection, and we see Groot re-born as a precious and hilarious sapling and an uncannily familiar angsty teen. Always helpful, loving, resolute, and with a particular penchant for aggression when necessary, Groot is a shining star of the supporting cast and I love him, and will name a future puppy dog in his honour. The self-sacrifice ‘We are Groot’ scene at the end of the first Guardians film crystallised for me that this group of characters in this corner of the MCU are in one of my favourite films of the franchise. From the opening strains of Redbone’s ‘Come And Get Your Love’, to when the future Guardians are described as ‘bunch of assholes’, it was obvious that this superhero film was the scrappy, fun, genre-dying franchise sibling that would pave the way for the more experimental likes of Thor: Ragnorok and Tom Holland’s Spiderman.

4. I am conflicted by the up-coming release of Black Widow

It’s taken Marvel far too long to commission films based around the women of the MCU. Captain Marvel is excellent and was a real breath of fresh air after so much machismo and seemingly endless male soul searching throughout these films. There is the indefinitely postponed Black Widow film to watch in some post-pandemic future, but I feel more begrudged by it than completely psyched. Throughout the franchise, Black Widow seems to serve more as a distraction to movie fanboys than to exist as a fully realised character. This isn’t to discredit Black Widow as an idea or Scarlett Johansson’s representation of her: I think she is a poorly written throughout and has not been taken care of properly by the makers of the films. I am frustrated that we will only now get an origins story when we’ve had to witness her endlessly supporting others, her lukewarm love affair with Bruce Banner and the mediocre handling of her death.

5. We need more Nebula and Gamora

Oh, the joy of seeing sisters on screen. These two characters present the highs and lows of sisterhood unlike few I have seen before. Fighting one another to the death when necessary? Relatable. Becoming the ultimate force to be reckoned with when united for the same cause? Absolutely. These two convey the ridiculous, hilarious and fierce love that can exist between sisters, and we need more of it in film. I hope that the producers and financiers at Marvel will give us more of Nebula and Gamora, who are, in my opinion, two of the most important and essential characters of the whole franchise.

    

Paris Hilton and us

My tolerance and, indeed, indulgence of, what I deem to be, divine trash has its roots in the halcyon days of 2009. Drunk on a popular culture concoction of Gossip Girl and Look Magazine, and living with the unshakable desire to replicate Sienna Miller’s boho aesthetic (it never went well), I was taken in by perhaps the worst possible trash television. In January of that year, I promptly started watching and became hooked onto a show called Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend.

The premise was simple and utterly laughable: contestants lived in a fancy house and all competed to become socialite and heiress Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend. The show was a hot mess. The contestants all wore necklaces bearing Paris’s name, one contestant’s eligibility came into question because he was too young to get wasted in Las Vegas, and challenges included buying Paris presents, designing her a dress and enduring a twenty four hour clubbing crawl through Chelsea.

Paris Hilton was everywhere at the time. As one of the original reality TV stars, thanks to her show ‘The Simple Life’ which first aired in 2003, she was constantly photographed and gossiped about, and effectively paved the way for a new generation of people who became famous for being famous. I had five channels until about 2008, and so was unable to watch any American shows that were prevalent at the time. I read about all of Paris’s antics in trashy magazines and, even though I didn’t particularly care about her or her life, I felt like for some reason it was imperative that I had an opinion about it. I remember having in-depth knowledge, as did many people at the time, of extraordinarily specific details about her life: from her catchphrases, the names of her dogs and what her house looked like, to how much she weighed. I also remember absorbing hideously toxic stories of her relationships, break-ups, the sex tape her ex-boyfriend released without her consent and her friendship issues. Looking back, it is mad to think how much of her life was served up on a platter for public consumption, partially as part of her own doing, but also because the tabloid press were obsessed with her. Some of the specifics may have been fabricated or completely blown out of proportion; regardless, I had huge opinions about who she was and what she was like, even though I had never seen her in a television show until 2009.

In spite of all the candy-soaked ridiculousness and extravagance of the silly TV show Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend, something started to stand out to me about Paris herself. When on her own or with a small number of other people, her voice completely changed. Instead of the high-pitched baby voice for which she was famous, used to deliver her litany of catchphrases and vacant platitudes, her voice would become low, becoming a quintessentially deep Californian drawl. I recognised, even back then when I was still trying to navigate my own personae of public and private selves, that Paris Hilton had created an enormous Barbie façade. She knew the effect she had on people, she knew how to play a character and that underneath it all, possibly, was something else.

Since 2009 until today, I hadn’t given much thought or attention to Paris Hilton. Whilst still working successfully as a businesswoman and building her brand, her light was somewhat dimmed during the ascension of the Kardashians who went on to embrace the reality television medium and almost completely redefined it in their own image. Instagram came into my life in 2013 and, like many others, I began to walk in the footsteps of Paris et al. as I built and shared my own public narrative of my life. With the release of Sofia Coppola’s film The Bling Ring in 2013, I reflected on the role of figures like Paris Hilton, the obsession they inspire and, ultimately, suffer from. The film is such a captivating sojourn through the pitfalls and pandemonium of celebrity culture, at once capturing the perverse sublimity of materialism whilst also observing, with withering distance, the ugliness of ruthless greed. Hilton famously appeared in the film and allowed Coppola to film in her house, which had been burgled by the real ‘Bling Ring’ gang between 2008 and 2009.    

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the YouTube documentary ‘This Is Paris’. Fatigued by my job, by Covid-19, by 2020 in general, I geared myself up to watch some divine trash. It turned out to be anything but. Everything I had recognised about Hilton in 2009 came rushing back: the voice, the façade, the platitudes. What was interesting about the documentary, however, was that it became the means through which Paris reckoned with this construction of herself. She has evidently been aware of this character her entire life, but this seemed to be the first time she was confronting this part, this projection of herself, that we have all become so familiar with.

Significantly, the modulations of her tone of voice became increasingly stark. We see her squealing and cooing her way through the first half an hour of the documentary, posing for cameras, taking selfies and slinking around her house. This changes during a business trip to South Korea, where she divulges her long-term suffering with acute insomnia and nightmares. Immediately, this brings around her deeper, richer vocality that lasts for most of the rest of the film. Her mother, Kathy Hilton, pinpoints the adoption of ‘the voice’ forty five minutes in, as she describes her daughter as a ‘Disney child’, constantly decked out in rhinestones, faux-fur, glitter and pink and adopting a high-pitched voice to match. Kathy’s implication here is that Paris is dawdling through her adult life, very rich and successful of course, but clinging to childish totems and self-presentation whilst nearing forty years old. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but an observable and critical fact.

What unfolds next is a deeply existential and moving piece of self-inquiry. This is a woman who appears to be trapped within a prolonged state of adolescence, who is afraid of taking steps into womanhood. Paris admits herself at around an hour in that ‘when you get married, you have to grow up’, before reflecting on her relationships and how they have never culminated in a marriage or children. Of course, the key to a happy, healthy life is not necessarily getting married or having children: this seems like an antique and regressive expectation for women, and it is perfectly fine if she doesn’t want those things. Indeed, an interesting part of the film comes when she discusses family and relationships with sister Nicky Hilton-Rothschild, who dissects whether or not Paris is living under a societal expectation or under her own volition when she ventures that she would like a family. This had echoes of Tinsley Mortimer, another famous blonde, curiously childish socialite, who had the exact same inner tussle whilst starring in the Real Housewives of New York City. Both Hilton and Mortimer have had their eggs frozen, and both are unsure as to whether their dreams of getting married and having children are ones that they inherently feel or are compulsions of patriarchy. Mortimer summed it up well when she drunkenly quipped, ‘maybe I’m just happy with chihuahuas?’ Confusion abounds for them both, especially as both have built brands and images that revolve around their own archetypal adolescence.

This adolescence is expressed, and in none more clearly than in Paris Hilton, through the voice. Jungian analytic psychologist Marion Woodman writes that the voice is deeply connected to the depths of womanhood, conveying a radical acceptance of the Feminine, the yin, that exists in all humans and not related to societal constructions of gender. The voice of the adolescent is girlish and high-pitched, whereas the woman’s voice is deep, slow and resonant. The voice of archetypal womanhood reflects an earthly connection to the body, that physical bridge between the material and the divine, honouring and loving its rhythms, needs and functions. The voice is the harbinger of someone who is present, receptive, in love with life, who embraces process over product and glories in connection, be it with friends, family, the glory of the dawn, poetry or  just really, really good food. The body, in particular the female body, has been repeatedly controlled, judged, denied and shamed throughout history, and is the main battleground of patriarchy; has been viewed and gazed upon through the eyes of denigration, sin and doom, when it should be hailed and revered in awe.

In the adoption of a high-pitched voice, therefore, Paris shows that she clings to the familiar simplicity and rootlessness of the adolescent. She travels constantly, never allows herself to take a break and longs for the day when she has finally made a billion dollars. And yet, something tells her she cannot go on like this. She is perennially exhausted, cannot sleep and feels increasingly dissociated and detached from her life and her sense of self. She admits that, yes, the high-pitched happy vision of ‘perfection’ is a character, that she knows few people who aren’t disingenuous, has huge trust issues and repeatedly finds herself in relationships were her boyfriends attempt to control her. The adolescent has run its course: it’s clear in this documentary that the part of her that wants to transition into womanhood and an authentic, connected life, leaving behind the dregs and frivolities of the adolescent, is trying to come to life.

However, transformation is rarely free from pain. Crucially, Woodman suggests, the body holds and records trauma, and needs to be consciously met with compassion and healing. We see this unfold in the last part of the documentary, where Paris reveals that as a teenager, she attended Provo Canyon School, a pseudo-correctional facility for wayward children masking as a school in Utah. She was forcibly taken there, mentally and physically abused, kept in solitary confinement and repeatedly threatened and shamed. Her insomnia and nightmares are rooted in her experience at the school, and her whole career is built upon her desire to escape from and not process her trauma. As a result, her trauma has lived on in her symptoms which now, through this documentary, have been brought out into the daylight. The teenager who suffered so much erected walls, hid behind a façade, pursued material wealth and notoriety and became the Paris Hilton character that we know today. It’s almost as though the hurt and pained teenager is still trapped in the body, revealing itself through a makeshift high-pitched voice, unable to transition to adulthood. Until, perhaps, now.

After speaking with a group of fellow survivors from the school, Paris is captured in her enormous walk-in wardrobe, surrounded by lines and legions of handbags, shoes and jewellery. She looks uncomfortable and openly questions why she has so much stuff that she never wears and never uses. It is a classic moment of a crystal castle shattering around the heroine, the one she built to protect herself from her pain and her trauma. It is eerie how these markers of success, affluence and perfection almost visibly turn into empty voids around her. It’s a tale as old as time: capitalism sells us a story that accumulating wealth and lots of expensive things is the key to our salvation and the happiness we yearn for in our lives, when in fact our endless ‘stuff’ serves to barricade us within ourselves, preventing us from any semblance of connection.

Paris Hilton was one of a number of architects that used capitalism, materialism and white privilege as a bedrock to elevate themselves financially and socially and literally influence the way in which Western society conceives of itself and presents itself. Even if we don’t care about Paris Hilton, we have to acknowledge that the way in which entertainment and social media work has everything to do with the impact she has had. It’s like when people say they don’t care about fashion and I almost instinctively now rattle off Miranda Priestly’s monologue about the blue belts in The Devil Wears Prada, a scene that remarkably and deftly captures the entwining of capitalism, fashion and supposed ‘free choice’. It is because of this that I think Hilton’s documentary is important: yes, she represents and models a dysfunctional relationship with work, materialism and privacy; however, she is also a blueprint for how as a society we all live with traumas, and that our traumas manifest in how we present ourselves, what we buy and how we live our lives. No one is free from their own personal reckoning, that day where we wake up, or are forced to wake up, and realise that we cannot carry on the way we have been living. Of course, the extent to which Paris Hilton barricaded herself from her own trauma is truly epic, but we all have our symptoms, we all have our addictions that make us crave more and more, preventing us from meeting ourselves exactly where we are meant to be (more often than not with our pain). If a more embodied, grounded and authentic version of Paris Hilton is left in its wake, which I am sure she will be, then this documentary and its subject, are wonderful teachers.

Moon baby

The channels run silver,

Moon baby.

New moon

I bloom

in the black,

ready to receive;

listening

to the whispers

of the stars,

now that

our glowing orb,

pale,

is in darkness

transfixed.

We kiss.

Enveloped in

softness

I turn

my hopeful face

to the vault

as I dance

on the threshold

of the twenty eight.

My dreams

run like trains;

planes hit by

waves;

caught in a

building

burning

and fashions

march by.

Saint Campbell,

Mother’s son,

what initiation

is this?

Of the body,

my body,

that rings

when we kiss?