Lana Del Rey: music, fans and commercial mayhem

Anyone who knows me knows that Lana Del Rey is one of my all-time favourite women. Her music found its way into my life in 2012 at a very interesting time and over the years, I have enjoyed her intricate and very moving play with enigma and persona, and her excellent storytelling. Her second LP Ultraviolence has particular significance for me: her collaboration with Dan Auerbach, of one of my favourite bands of all time The Black Keys, was what my dark, gritty dreams were made off. Moody and intertextual, casually referencing A Clockwork Orange, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, The Crystals, Virginia Woolf, Nina Simone and Lou Reed, the album, for all that it was pared back compared to its Lolita-infused predecessor Born to Die, was still sumptuous and cinematic. It told the post-Lolita story, revealing the stony and unsettling aftermath of a narrative that was previously fizzing and overflowing with youth, hubris, desire and mournful chaos. Ultraviolence shows us that Born to Die as a concept was only ever going to be fleeting, that it’s flipside was dark, serious and dangerous. It was initially jarring for many fans and critics, with the Guardian famously indirectly berating her during the initial promotion for her extra-marital involvements and for dwelling on death.[1]

I felt, however, that Ultraviolence was the perfect continuation, the only continuation of the story; and she famously culminated the whole trilogy with Honeymoon, a similarly intertextual record that oozed with malaise, deliberation and a bittersweet sense of an ending. Indeed, in the videos for Freak and Music To Watch Boys To, Del Rey was flocked by a gaggle of young Born To Die-esque beauties and there was an uncanny sense that whilst Del Rey sipped her Kool-Aid, she was passing the waifish, young, naughty, nymphet baton to the next generation. This trilogy of Born to Die (including its Paradise EP), Ultraviolence and Honeymoon are modern classics and we have been so lucky to have a woman tell such a captivating story of self-awareness, femininity, sexuality, danger and maturity so publically and with so much success. She is a master storyteller and her mountains of lyrics and intricately produced tracks are a testament to this.

On Ultraviolence, Del Rey wrote a satirical song called ‘Money Power Glory’ that documented a young down-and-out, bitter about being poor and yearning for dope, diamonds and an affluent, aspirational land far away. The song works well as a critique of the neoliberal culture we live in that revolves around these three eponymous entities, yet sardonically laughs at the fact that in spite of knowing that these things don’t make us happy, we still ardently and avidly crave them.  Over the past few days, however, Del Rey threw her fans into a capitalist chaos that I don’t think reflects the satire of her previous viewpoint and that has slightly jolted the way we should approach her new era.

On Wednesday 18th June, posts went up on Del Rey’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts announcing that she was doing a surprise show at London’s O2 Academy in Brixton for the following Monday 24th July. Considering Del Rey has only performed once in the UK in the past 4 years, at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Hull in May 2017, there was a huge appetite for this gig and it immediately attracted a lot of attention. I was unable to go because I am out of the country next week, but wanted to help my younger sister, an equally avid Lana Del Rey fan but at the time delayed at an airport in France, to get to Brixton. In the end, it proved impossible for me to buy her tickets for her because O2 Brixton do not accept tickets without the ID of the initial lead buyer. As I would be out of the country, neither of us could go. I must admit I was temporarily embittered but, you know, I’m going to Greece next week. It’s cool. I was still, however, witness to everything that unfolded and it left a sour taste in my mouth.

Fans who wanted access to the pre-sale had until 5 o’clock on Wednesday 18th July to register. This involved pre-ordering a copy of the new album Lust for Life, due for release on Friday 21st June, for around £9.99 in exchange for a pre-sale code.  At 9:00 the next morning, Wednesday 19th July, pre-sale tickets went live and sold out in a matter of seconds. General sale tickets went live at 12:00 and, again, sold out in a matter of seconds. Social media was completely abuzz with hundreds of fans disappointed and frustrated that within moments of the clock hitting 12:00, ticket vendors were refreshing and declaring that there were no tickets left. Barely minutes afterwards, tickets were appearing on Viagogo selling for £600 a go. This puts fans in another bind because, as previously mentioned, O2 Brixton do not accept tickets without the ID of the initial lead buyer. Touts are, inevitably, selling on tickets at extraordinary prices to fans who won’t be able to enter the building with them anyway. This is something that Ed Sheeran has actively addressed in relation to his up-coming string of gigs by cancelling around 10,000 tickets.[2] It has not been announced whether Del Rey and her management are addressing this.

From the beginning, Del Rey and her management were capitalising, literally, on the enthusiasm of fans desperate to see such a rare show. By asking people, mostly young and whom she appeals to with a clear direct ‘you’ in new songs like ‘Love’, to put up money at little notice in exchange for privileged access to tickets seems mean and underhand.[3] These are people who have spent and probably will continue to spend money on Lana Del Rey and her merchandise in the future and it wasn’t exactly a generous gesture. It became increasingly unfair as the number of people registering for pre-sale swelled massively making it increasingly unlikely that many of these fans were even going to get tickets. After pre-sale and general sale, it appeared on social media that fans were being charged £52 a ticket which, again, on 24 hour notice for a gig next week in one of the most expensive cities in the world, seems ridiculously unfair. It suggests that the fans who could pay the most, by pre-ordering Lust for Life and then stumping up £52 for a ticket, were the ones who got to attend. This is isn’t exactly au fait with the pseudo-hippie aesthetic of freedom, love and lusty carefree youth that Del Rey’s new era is embracing. Instead, she created a virtual stampede, reminiscent of the kind of materialistic commercial madness seen on Black Friday, that was desperate and undignified for those involved.

I understand that many people frequently feel disappointed about missing out on gig tickets and that Twitter will fill up with moaning, weeping and various other melodramatic emotional responses as a result. But when young fans are played with and cast aside for commercial gain, where the artist and management are profiting so heavily from (a) creating multiple financial barriers to gigs and (b) subsequently pitting fans against one another, I find it hard to completely justify and get on board with it, no matter how much I admire the artist. It’s not the sort of marketing tactic I would expect from someone who claims so often that she deeply cares about her fans. Sure, this is all part of Del Rey’s mysterious and unpredictable persona that I’ve so enjoyed up until now, and I’m sure the online furore that has been triggered is happily feeding the myth, but it ultimately shows disdain and an emerging disrespect for fans. Del Rey knows she will be flocked wherever she goes, and her management have taken decisions to rinse as much money out of fans as possible using the mystique and desirability of the artist as fuel. If they were really serious about making as much money as possible, as shown in the strategy to release tickets, then Del Rey should just do a pre-planned tour, giving more people the opportunity to see Del Rey and with ample notice to get tickets. Instead, fans were served with a last minute rare appearance, charged over the odds and ultimately leaving many completely in the cold.

This comes within a week that a song called ‘Groupie Love’ has been released, focusing on the obsessive nature of music fans who see themselves as special and at one with their icon but are just part of a crowd of other likeminded groupies. Del Rey presents herself as being a groupie in the song but after the closure of her Born To Die, Ultraviolence and Honeymoon trilogy, this seems outdated. She has claimed that Lust for Life is for and about her fans: she has previously hinted that she’s ‘cooking something up for the kids’ and in an interview with Billboard said, ‘I felt like it was more wanting to, like, talk to the younger side of the audience I have’.[4] We can, therefore, argue that ‘Groupie Love’ is a nod to and an acknowledgment of the behaviours and naiveté of her fans which she can happily temporarily adopt and play along with. It seems slightly cynical, however, that one moment Del Rey is lauding and romanticising her fans for their groupie mentality but then plays on that very love and obsessiveness to ramp up pre-order sales and to sow financial divisions amongst them. I was then also reminded of an Instagram video Del Rey uploaded on the 22nd September 2016 where one bearded friend jokes that ‘Lolita14 is following [me]’ and another bearded friend  claims, ‘I need one of those’, before joking that he should ask fans who direct message him asking to meet Del Rey to send nudes as payment. In the video, Del Rey laughingly calls them ‘gross’. I think talking about fans in this way is distasteful verging on predatory, but also flippant and exploitative of a fan base who have been whipped into obsessiveness generated by the Lana Del Rey myth-machine in the first place; the level of attention she gets shouldn’t be surprising and something to scoff at. Del Rey has said that she no longer sings the lyrics ‘he hit me and it felt like a kiss’, because she no longer sees it as appropriate or acceptable, but then will happily upload a video encouraging fans to send nudes, even if only in jest.[5] It is undeniably hypocritical.

On the other hand, I can appreciate that some of Del Rey’s fans can be bratty nightmares. By saying this, I refer to the leaking of songs and material that have continuously plagued her career, including the leak of Lust for Life just two days before its official release. Del Rey famously called the fans sharing the link ‘U little fuckers’ and it is understandable that she was angry at such a violation of her privacy and of her agency to share her art when and where she wanted to. I can appreciate that when fans border on the obsessive to such an extent, it must be infuriating. Ironically, however, it served as the perfect counter-balance to the commercial, money-driven hysteria of the O2 gig tickets sales simultaneously unfolding, and many fans took the opportunity to download the album from a spectral link on Twitter. It is important to say that many also did not, choosing to respect the release date and openly condemning the leak out of loyalty to Del Rey.

I am so excited to listen to Lust for Life on its release today and I want to see where the story is going next. I embrace Del Rey’s collaboration with uber cool cats A$AP Rocky, Stevie Nicks and Sean Ono Lennon, and currently love her meditative outputs ‘Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind’ and ‘Summer Bummer’. But there is something that isn’t sitting quite right with the way the campaign for Lust For Life has been run. There has been an arrogance to the treatment of fans that has focused on profit and controversy instead of kindness, understanding and respect. It’s creating a toxic relationship whereby fans are whipped up into a frenzy by last minute rare appearances, clambering over one another figuratively and financially to get tickets; whilst at the same time, Del Rey’s music is leaked without her permission and much to her visible indignation. I’m not getting off the Lana Del Rey train just yet and I don’t suppose I ever will. But for an artist who quotes and reveres Nina Simone’s mantra of reflecting the times, I hope that Del Rey forsakes the capitalistic, commercial trappings of the pop industry and instead, holds a mirror to these very things. She can continue to be elusive and enigmatic whilst still being generous to the people who keep her in the position she is in.

[1] ‘I wish I was dead already’, Tim Jonze, The Guardian, 12th June 2014 [accessed 07:02, 20th July 2017] https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/jun/12/lana-del-rey-ultraviolence-album

[2] ‘Ed Sheeran cancels 10, 000 tour tickets being sold on re-sale sites’, Huffington Post, 17th July 2017 [accessed 21:16, 19th July 2017] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/ed-sheeran-tour-tickets-touts-resale-sites_uk_596ca344e4b03389bb18b6b9

[3] ‘Look you kids with your vintage music […] Look you kids, you know you’re the coolest […] it don’t matter because it’s enough to be young and in love’, ‘Love’, Lana De Rey 2017.

[4] ‘Everything we know about Lust For Life (so far)’, Billboard, 29th March 2017 [accessed 22:40, 19th July 2017) http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop/7743538/lana-del-rey-lust-for-life-album-everything-we-know

[5] ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: a conversation with Lana Del Rey’, Pitchfork, 20th July 2017 [accessed 07:10, 21st July 2017] http://pitchfork.com/features/interview/life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-of-happiness-a-conversation-with-lana-del-rey/

Open Letter to Nancy Rothwell

Dear Nancy Rothwell,

As an alumnus of the University of Manchester, I would like to congratulate you on the appointment of George Gideon Osborne as the new Honorary Professor of Economics at the university. I did my undergraduate and Masters’ degrees in English Literature at the university and have many friends currently undertaking doctoral research and teaching in a variety of subjects and fields there. I believe this is a watershed moment for many of your students, both past and present, because what we have seen develop over the past 7 years has finally become general public knowledge: this university cares more about private interests, profit and image than it does about students and an excellent standard of academia.

A university that once boasted some of the most brilliant minds amongst its staff, that was a world-leading centre for ground breaking research, sharp critical thinking and progressive, socially responsible teaching has opted for a shallow neoliberal poster boy for austerity as an educator, with a poor economic record in government and generally despised by those who have suffered and borne witness to the suffering that his policies have brought about in this city and beyond. That is before we even mention the fact that this man is responsible for the rise in tuition fees that have made higher education a luxury both in Manchester and around the country, instead of a public right and service. Whilst many other decisions made by you and your management regarding the funding and structure of the university have been crassly cynical, including the many cost-cutting mergers of schools and faculties across campus, this is the most overtly cynical and offensive yet. Finally, the University of Manchester is showing its true colours and its true contempt for so many of the people currently working and studying there. You and your management care only for the superficial. This mockery of the university is completely unacceptable but it is finally coming to national attention.

The first and most obvious issue to be taken with this appointment is the terrible correlation of the hiring of our new Honorary Professor and the proposed cutting of 171 academic jobs within the university, leaving up to a 1000 members of staff uncertain of their future.[1] These cuts are supposedly being implemented to benefit early years’ academics, giving them sought-for opportunities and teaching experience; yet, the actuality is that this is an overt cost-cutting exercise whereby young academics will be systematically ripped off and overworked with unfair contracts.

This is already an on-going battle at the university, where, for example, many Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) in the School of Arts Languages and Cultures, have had to fight hard for their right to be paid not only for the contact teaching they do, but also for the hours of preparation and assessing they do for their students. Unfair temporary contracts for young academics provide no stability and security, bogging them down with arbitrary administration. This prevents many from having the valuable time to research and publish the work required to secure a fixed-term position. It is shocking that within this context of unfair contracts and low pay, which has already been simmering under the surface at the university for a long time and which is going to have a catastrophic effect on the university soon when the job losses and inevitable staff shortages come into force, that George Osborne is being offered an Honorary Professorship. This man has overseen the greatest attack on public services in modern times, and his outdated, ineffectual but utterly devastating economic ideology is something progressive institutions should be resisting, not applauding. By offering him an ‘Honorary’ position, the university is condoning his government’s and party’s express desire to privatise and profit from public institutions, bringing services to their knees through a constant undermining of staff, their pay and their working conditions. The University of Manchester is condoning, adopting and perpetuating this very ideology with its own staff and it is outrageous. Ultimately, the unjustified cutting of jobs at the university will see satisfaction deteriorate whilst the quality and the quantity of world-leading research that is produced by those left behind will be seriously impacted.

Across the country, the arts and humanities have been suffering for a very long time in higher education, thanks in part to the cuts inflicted upon universities by our Honorary Professor’s government. The University of Manchester is no stranger to this: the Archaeology department is fighting for its very existence; I easily recall students competing for tiny amounts of money within the School of Arts Languages and Cultures to attend conferences; and Visual Anthropology students were struggling to showcase their final projects due to the lack of a couple of hundred pounds to do so. This is whilst our science, business and engineering peers were showered with seemingly endless funding and equipment, travelling as far away as Hawaii for all expenses paid conferences and receiving free iPads and e-readers along the way. Indeed, science and engineering are the main beneficiaries of the new so-called ‘Campus Masterplan’, with ‘iconic’ new buildings creating a ‘Northern engineering powerhouse’, a direct reference to the lacklustre and patronising pet project of our new Honorary Professor whilst he was still in government. The Arts buildings, on the other hand, have settled for some re-arranging and re-modelling. The arts and humanities are not taken as seriously at this university as the allegedly ‘useful’ scientific disciplines because they are not guaranteed money-makers propped up by industry. I think this is hardly surprising: in the humanities, we are taught to identify, critique and analyse social systems, structures and ideologies, challenging the powerful and rigorously giving attention to the disenfranchised. It’s little wonder that funding is stripped from these areas of research, so uncomfortable for those in power, when they are so very threatening to the hegemonic orthodoxies perpetuated by those like the university management and our new Honorary Professor of Economics.

Having spent time with doctoral students within the schools of Chemistry and Biology, I have found that there too the treatment of students is as disturbing as the institutional negligence of the arts and humanities. Whilst I am still angry that science students are given preferential treatment over those studying the arts and humanities, I find the interference of industry and private business in the funding of science research and equipment sinister and, ultimately, a threat to the integrity of the research conducted and produced by the university. This is seen explicitly in one of the areas of science that you and George are so proud of: your beloved National Graphene Institute. Whilst it features in all the press releases and marketing information about the university, the National Graphene Institute remains an enigma to many students. There are few opportunities for students to work in and use the facilities that the National Graphene Institute houses because it is so heavily funded and owned by private companies and industry. Whilst students from the School of Chemistry, for example, can easily collaborate and make use of the facilities owned by the School of Biological Sciences, to use the National Graphene Institute requires patronage from industry, successive meetings with supervisors and limited accessibility. Companies like Dyson, Seimens, Samsung, Rolls Royce and Tetrapak are gearing research towards their own profitable ends and, in the process, are alienating doctoral students and academics who should have access to the facilities available. It is not a collegial or collaborative enterprise except for the private businesses who are hoping to make money from graphene, and it is not fair for all the money being spent on graphene to not be seen or used by the vast majority of students.

This brings me back to the inherent artifice and superficiality that the University of Manchester is constantly constructing for itself. On the outside, graphene has been a big financial success story for the university yet students are not seeing the benefits of this investment and instead watch their lecturers and teachers become at risk of losing their jobs. Similarly, the university has invested in a new 326 room hotel on campus in conjunction with the Alliance Business School.[2] It seems that the university management has forgotten that the university is a place of public learning and progressive research, not a leisure park for Honorary Professors and business people in suits to jet in for a masterclass or two. I do not see how a hotel and a shiny graphene institute, bankrolled and annexed by private businesses, are supposed to contribute to the vacuous ‘student experience’ that the university is so keen to market. George Osborne’s appointment as Honorary Professor of Economics is part of this same desperate grab for superficial international attention from a university that privileges profit over the people working and studying there: it has overseen a huge rise in tuition fees for home and international students; senior management have received significant pay rises whilst blue collar workers have been shafted on zero hours contracts; and it continues to slap Alan Turing’s name and face all over campus as a marketing ploy when it remained silent  in the 1950s when he was forced to chemically castrate himself for being gay.

The University of Manchester is not a corporate business, and yet it is being run in such a manner. Flashy appointments and flashy new hotels and research centres on campus make a stark contrast to cuts to staff and an authoritarian contempt for students. The appointment of George Osborne has brought this fact into daylight. His position on campus will, I hope, be met with resistance from students and alumni alike for the length of its duration. I am sure you are both currently basking in the attention that this announcement has received but I believe it is ill-advised, tone deaf and damages the brilliant reputation that the University of Manchester once had, ‘furthering the frontiers of knowledge through research and teaching, but also contributing to the well-being of its region and society more widely’.[3]  In its quest to hungrily make money and to become arbitrarily aspirational, for example ranking as a ‘world-leading university’ by 2020, the University of Manchester is diving into the depths of ideological infamy and history will not look kindly on this new frontier. [4]

[1] ‘Over 900 jobs at risk at University of Manchester as university announces major cuts’, https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/8775/Over-900-jobs-at-risk-at-University-of-Manchester-as-university-announces-major-cuts

[2] ‘University strikes hotel deal as part of £1 billion campus master plan’, http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/article/?id=12495.

[3] University of Manchester: Vision https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/vision/.

[4] ‘KPI 1: To be recognised as one of the 25 leading universities in the world, with 20% of subject areas in the top 20, as measured by our position in international league tables’, http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=25548.

Skull Money

Skull MoneyI remember standing in a queue at a cafe

Or getting ready to get onto a bus

Faffing with coins

And I told Annie

‘I don’t want to use this one:

It’s new and shiny’.

What. Why.

‘It’s pretty. I like it! I’m keeping it’.

She promptly told me off

For fetishizing money.

It’s true:

It’s all a fabulous golden fiction.

Who cares if it’s old or new, pretty or worn.

It’s all alloy and rotten

And irrational.

By accident I was given two skull coins

By two faceless strangers

And that felt more appropriate

To fetishize.

True, they are trying to

Commemorate William THE BARD Shakespeare

and some kind of pre-historic pre-coinage

Neanderthal person who lived in British Gibraltar;

But it feels quite alright

To keep two shining nothings of death and capital

Together and bright

Jingling about in my pocket or purse

Waiting, like my life, to be spent.

 

Photo: @E_S_Harper Instagram

 

Remembering Alexander McQueen: Allegory

This article was first written in September 2015

The multi-faceted and heterogeneous nature of Alexander McQueen’s collections, as discussed in my essay on McQueen and the ‘abyss’, leaves it next to impossible to not say more about the Savage Beauty retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. McQueen’s clothes in both their physical and metaphysical composition, I argued, see them occupy an abyssal limit. As a result, what we are able to say about McQueen’s collections cannot simply end there. There are so many more things that can be argued and posited about his clothes, intertwined with what they present, represent and how they exist in a world created for them and by them. For the purpose of this essay, I want to suggest that McQueen’s work is greatly involved with death, history and, ultimately, allegory.

One aspect of McQueen’s work that I find particularly intriguing is the visceral historicity of his clothes. He used images of Hieronymus Bosch’s 14th century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights to form the background of dresses in his last collection; he used silhouettes and tailoring from the Victorian period; and, perhaps most famously, used fiery red tartan in Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden, his 1995 and 2006 shows inspired by the eradication and cultural smudging of Gaelic and Celtic life in Scotland. These latter two collections were very personal elegies to a culture that has almost entirely diminished as a result of English colonialism, and incorporated fragments of tweed, tulle and antique lace with the tartan to help convey this semblance of trampled upon Scottish identity. Seeing these clothes on show at the V&A, clothes which project and embody history almost as a physical presence, helps to throw a fascinating light on the idea of the retrospective itself. We remember Alexander McQueen by looking at his clothes, which in turn are fragments and objects that remember and bear witness to the past.  As previously mentioned, Scottish history was a key concern in his collections, but so was McQueen’s multiple collection tributes to Isabella Blow. Blow was a renowned fashion editor who was Phillip Treacey’s muse and is credited with having ‘discovered’ Alexander McQueen, who took her own life just three years before McQueen’s own suicide.  Many of his most famous collections, including Dante and The Widows of Culloden were personally dedicated to her and remembered her very personal influence on his life and art. As a result, we can see that the retrospective creates a chain of history and layers of remembrance which the clothes are an active part of, if not absolutely integral to.

Widows-of-Culloden

This undoes the idea that clothes are merely passive symbols that reflect culture like a mirror, or simply transcend the drudgery of everyday life in a fluffy artistic cloud. Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel argue that fashion has ‘a silent language communicated through the use of visual or nonverbal symbols’.[1] Whilst their case is very convincing, that clothes and fashion form an arbitrary system of signs and signifiers, I would argue that clothes have a much more complex social relationship with people than by simply manifesting as symbols. Clothes certainly do help to ‘fashion’ the world we live in through their colours, silhouettes and materials, and because the only way in which we discuss clothing is through language. They are, however, also borne from language, history and experience which the concept of ‘symbolism’ simplifies and renders impotent.

Walter Benjamin sees the sentimental application of and the Romantic idea behind symbolism as tyrannical and ‘illegitimate […] destructive extravagance’ partly because it ‘fails to do justice to content in formal analysis and to form in the aesthetics of content’.[2] He argues that whilst insisting upon the unity of form and content, symbolism does not allow for a dialectical analytic approach and, therefore, neither form nor content are rigorously interrogated. Imposing the idea of ‘clothes-as-symbols’ onto fashion collections, and for my own purposes, upon Alexander McQueen’s collections, embodies the tyranny that Benjamin rejects. This is because by privileging the idea that the clothes we read and interpret are purely symbolic, we overlook the power structures in place that facilitated the clothes’ production and the way in which we receive them. Instead, I would approach McQueen’s collections as allegory because, as Benjamin argues:

[…] in allegory, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face- or rather a death’s head […] it significantly gives rise not only to the question of human existence, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.[3]

He suggests that symbolism idealises destruction, which can be seen in the way in which history is silenced and becomes a void when the idea of symbolism is arbitrarily imposed on language and literature, essentially saying that one thing is actually another and not conveying its own story or history. There is no potential for digression or for the multiplicity of ideas when such a dead weight is imposed on literature and, for my purpose, clothing. Allegory, on the other hand, gives us an insight into history’s fragmented state wrought with failure and sadness, and the individual’s existence within it and in relation to it, ultimately bringing us into contact with our own sense of mortality.

Through McQueen’s collections Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden with the ruined, hybrid compositions of tartan, lace and tulle, we are confronted with the death and destruction that were met by the historical peoples of Scotland. [4] More specifically, McQueen focuses on the experience of women, with his explicit reference to sexual violence and with the term ‘widows’ used to convey the heavy burden associated with womanhood, battle-loss and mourning. Importantly, this confrontation with violence and destruction presented in the clothing perhaps speaks for the continued death and destruction we experience in our own times. We are given a much more comprehensive and disturbing study in historical failure through fragmented form which expresses a fractured, mournful past instead of privileging an empty aesthetic idea. To emphasise this, McQueen, in Widows of Culloden, had his models wearing antlers, feathers and other animalistic paraphernalia in their hair and on their heads in addition to lace, tulle and tartan. These simultaneously detract from the historical argument being presented but also open up history to other perspectives, corporealities and existences. Allegory, although heavily involved with death and destruction ironically helps to expand our understanding of historical experience that cannot just be limited to human suffering, but giving light to the suffering of animals and the natural world.

History cannot be pinned down. It is fluid, interchangeable and slippery, which is what makes remembrance such a difficult and perhaps even a futile task. Thinking of art as allegory, however, opens up our awareness of history and means we never fall into the trap that we live in a world that is fixed, stable and where we can impose absolute meaning on anything, from literature and art to fashion. Allegory helps to dispel fallacy whilst creating fallacy, and McQueen’s clothing is all the more interesting, important and extraordinary as a result of the allegorical fragments and components that structured what we saw when they were first unveiled to us and to what we see now.

 

[1] Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel, The Second Skin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), p.150.

[2] Walter Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 2009), p.160.

[3] Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p.166.

[4] 1,500-2000 member of Charles Stuart’s Jacobite army were killed at the Battle of Culloden (near Inverness) in 1745. They were attempting to overthrow the Hanoverian army who had secured the English throne and who lost only 54 men in comparison. After the battle, the government weakened the power of the Scottish clans and attempted to stamp out Gaelic culture to remove the threat of a future uprising. They succeeded: this was the last pitched battle on English soil and there was no subsequent rebellion.

Remembering Alexander McQueen: Abyss

This essay was first written in September 2015

British fashion designer and couturier Alexander McQueen took his own life in 2010 and five years later, his most famous collections were brought together in a triumphant and critically-lauded retrospective entitled Savage Beauty.  The exhibition, situated in the Victoria and Albert Museum having been initially shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was an overwhelming, grotesque and utterly fascinating spectacle. Seeing all of McQueen’s most famous pieces in one space was almost physically arresting and undeniable emotional: from the spray painted dress, the tartan, the ‘bumsters’ and all the tailoring, to the VTs of his catwalk shows playing all at once, his metal, woodwork and sea shell accessories, the Armadillo shoes, the millinery by Phillip Treacey, the feathers, the spectre of Kate Moss rising to the violin of John Williams’ Schindler’s List, the melancholy background music, and the fragments of his political and aesthetic musings stamped on the walls. Seeing everything all at once in one place confirmed that this exhibition and this designer worked beyond fashion, bleeding into the realms of theatre and performance art.

There was one aspect of the exhibition, however, that I would argue did not do the memory of McQueen justice. At the start of each new exhibit was a piece of introductory text imposed on the wall that described McQueen’s various inspirations in producing a specific collection or an idea that ran through his entire oeuvre. The descriptions relied heavily on two things: firstly, McQueen’s supposed use of binary oppositions in his aesthetic ideas which translated into his clothing, for example, light and dark, life and death, beauty and the grotesque etc. Secondly, they relied upon a seemingly endless string of ‘isms’ to help us garner some meaning from his work, for example romanticism, historicism, animalism and eroticism. This became particularly problematic when some of McQueen’s garments inspired by African tribeswomen were described as examples of primitivism in his work. Primitivism was an artistic movement that became fairly prominent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, under the influence of artists like Henri Rousseau with his jungle scenes, Gaugin’s Tahitian masks and Pablo Picasso’s African Period which formed a precursor to ‘Cubism’. One of the biggest sticking points with this artistic idea is that it involves the appropriation of the symbols and artefacts belonging to different cultures and using their ‘otherness’ to form art for a Western consumption. As Edward Said writes in Orientalism, ‘the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience’.  He argues that the concept of ‘the other’ is established to help create an exclusionary set of norms and conventions which the West can use to distinguish itself from the exotic East. In the most basic terms, therefore, primitivism, an artistic idea that walks hand in hand with appropriation and othering, is racist.

To pigeonhole McQueen under this label of ‘primitivism’ and thereby within this tradition is not fair and not very accurate. He rallied against the fashion industry’s racism, saying that ‘fashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes’. Of course, just because he said this, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t racist in his designs, and his own reference to ‘tribalism’ in his work is relatively suspect. Authorial intent is all well and good but what is actually produced can undoubtedly undercut or undo whatever the author, or in this case, designer wanted to make. Regardless of this, I would argue that his designs deconstructed barriers, and ‘isms’, even his own, only seem to provide vague linguistic parameters that box in McQueen and his designs.

In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida describes the difference between humans and animals as an abyssal limit:

One attempts to think what a limit becomes once it is abyssal, once the frontier no longer forms a single indivisible line but more than one internally divided line, once, as a result, it can no longer be traced, objectified, or counted as single and indivisible.[1]

He argues that the difference between humans and animals is not homogeneous and continuous, an almost tangible line distinguishing the two and placing them in nigh-on separate spheres of existence. Instead, Derrida suggests that the limit between humans and animals is comprised of a multitude of different differences, which serve to simultaneously thicken and fragment both the connection and division between the two.  Humans and animals are, therefore, inextricably linked; but this is only achieved through differences. I argue that the same logic can be applied to McQueen when we remember his work, except instead of an exploration of the relationship between humans and animals on show, his work occupies an abyssal limit between various other ideas, forms and entities. As a result, what McQueen produced renders the possibility of binary oppositions of light and dark, death and life, joy and sadness, so perpetuated by his curators, to be null and void. Although his work was also described as ‘blurring lines’ between oppositions, I would argue that McQueen’s work did not blur the lines between empty oppositions but actively made us acutely aware of all the different things that all at once constructed and were constructed by his clothing. McQueen had more to do with the thickening of limits, creating connection and division through difference; thus rendering his clothes multifarious and gargantuan in the Rabelaisian sense, rather than muddied or blurred.

Both McQueen’s collections and his shows thickened the limit between fashion and a host of other forms and media; for example, performance art in VOSS, theatre and performativity in Horn of Plenty and mechanical production with the infamous spray painting robots creating fashion/art/consumer fodder live. He was entirely of the fashion world having worked as an apprentice tailor on Savile Row and earning himself a Master’s degree from London’s hot-bed of design talent Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design, whose other notable alumni includes John Galliano, Stella McCartney, Sarah Burton and Riccardo Tisci. However to think of McQueen as synonymous with fashion is to remember him too simplistically, because whilst irrevocably attached to fashion with its consumer focus and its elite group of orchestrators, McQueen’s work was not separate from experimental art and spectacle. His work was neither fashion, nor was it in anyway separate from fashion. His models were stripped of their identities and became actors, pawns, victims and saboteurs. Furthermore, the people who attended his shows were not simply editors, fans or enthusiasts; they were audiences, witnesses, congregations and perpetrators of the violence that frequently unfolded on his runway. Perhaps his work was so disturbing, awe-inspiring and, ultimately, original because it forced us to re-examine our own distance from what we saw taking place: we were forced, compelled, tricked or willingly a part and component of the mechanics at work in his shows. Our relationship with his work and presentation was another abyssal limit: fragmented and heterogeneous with no clearly defined or tangible boundaries.

The hair coat, Eshu, Alexander McQueen

Eshu, Alexander McQueen

This was illustrated, I would argue, in one thick black coat from McQueen’s Autumn/Winter 2000-2001 collection Eshu, almost the lynch-pin of the entire retrospective. The coat is made from black synthetic hair, twisted and gnarled, forming layer upon layer of ruffles and knots. Derrida’s conception of the multifarious and fragmented limit is encapsulated in this garment, a coat that folds, enveloping itself and the model within it whilst also expanding outwards, bloated with its own heterogeneity. Whilst not one of McQueen’s most famous pieces, the coat represents an abyssal limit occupied by all of his collections, its undulations suggesting his work belongs to different spheres like art and theatre beyond fashion, but could only be articulated from within the linguistic and capitalistic confines of the fashion world.

Although language by its very nature is artificial, the language of the fashion world takes this artificiality to a whole other level of vapidity. McQueen’s work was a slippery beast that embodied everything it negated, fashion and capital, but also undercut the conditions and the context within which it was created through the thickening of various formal limits. The retrospective could only perpetuate this pigeonholing, and consigned the memory of McQueen to the umbrella phrase Savage Beauty. I don’t think language can ever do justice to the memory of anything, including McQueen: nothing we can say or write can fully articulate or pin down all the different things that McQueen created. This may go some way in explaining why and how we, perhaps inevitably, entrap the memory of people we admire and care about within the binding and empty confines of cliché.

 

[1] Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, Critical Inquiry, 28:2 (Winter, 2002), pp.369-418 (p.399).