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.

Lana Del Rey and whiteness

Beginning on the 21st May 2020, my phone blew up for a few consecutive days with incredulity, anger and disbelief at Lana Del Rey’s numerous statements directed at ‘the culture’. I still don’t really know what she is trying to define by that term. After the first statement, in which she namechecks numerous black female artists who have allegedly been allowed to sing about ‘being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating etc.’ when she has not, I declared to one group chat that I would get our thoughts and analyses, which were extensive, down here. I held off writing straight away and I’m glad I did: what followed were even more spurious statements and rebuttals from Del Rey about how people criticising her had begun a ‘race war’, and that people who ‘misunderstood’ her should ‘fuck off’.  We saw her Instagram fill with images of white Hollywood movie stars, including that classic chauvinist James Bond no less, a GIF of her pole dancing in the ‘Gods and Monsters’ music video, and declarations that ‘no one gets to tell your story’. Del Rey claims that she embodies a ‘delicate’ form of femininity that is currently rejected by feminism, bizarrely claiming that it will be the forefront of a ‘new/3rd wave of feminism that is rapidly approaching’. We are, of course, already in the fourth wave and have been since the early 2010s. I aim to discuss Del Rey in relation to feminism at greater length in another essay.

With regards to race, Del Rey has, unfortunately, proven herself painfully unaware of how much privilege her whiteness affords her, and thereby has been unable to show how race and her question of feminism intersect. I can see why Del Rey believes that she is, in the words of  Ibram X. Kendi, ‘anti-racist’: she cast A$AP Rocky as her JFK in the ‘National Anthem’ video and wrote songs with him for ‘Lust For Life’; she has collaborated numerous times with The Weeknd; some of her best friends are black women who have featured prominently in her music videos and on tour from ‘Lust For Life’ through to ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’; and she is giving all of the profits from her poetry collections as reparations to the indigenous Navajo community.  She has proven, however, that she is not necessarily anti-racist, with each new comment she released digging her heels into her first problematic statement even further until a defence of her is rendered almost impossible.

Lana’s original namecheck of predominantly black and Hispanic women, Doja Cat, Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, Cardi B, Kehlani, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, was used to highlight how these women have been celebrated and rewarded by ‘the culture’ for being sexual, provocative and complex whilst she has been maligned. In doing this, she demonstrated a lack of awareness about the more significant barriers that Women of Colour (WOC) face in getting to a prominent position in the music industry in the first place, as well as equating these women, who are already exposed to latent racist exoticisation stereotypes, purely with sexuality and sexual mores. This is deeply ironic coming from someone who has both Nina Simone and Billie Holiday’s names tattooed onto her clavicle and has regularly referenced Holiday in her music, for example in the music video for ‘Summer Wine’ and on the song ‘The Blackest Day’ from the album ‘Honeymoon’.

Blackest Day Higher QUality

Simone and Holiday both famously used their art to fight racism and empower black youth throughout their careers, for example in the songs ‘Young Gifted and Black’ and ‘Strange Fruit’ and in numerous other contexts. This video of Simone talking about the artist’s duty to reflect the times, particularly with regards to fighting racism, is one that Del Rey has shared herself on her Instagram:

Nina Simone

It is bizarre, then, that Del Rey, who so idolises these black women who spent their careers and lives fighting racism, is unable to acknowledge and concede that bringing WOC into a conversation about how she has been hard done by the music industry is problematic. It does not matter how may times you tell people that you are not racist: if you are making racially coded comments and comparisons, even and especially unconsciously, then refusing to accept the fact that your white ignorance and privilege have been exposed by those very comments, you are being racist. For white people, our racism is often unconscious and unthought of: our work is to bring our assumptions and everything we take for granted as white people into consciousness, to learn, listen and ultimately become allies in the fight against racism, racial inequality and injustice. Not to dig our heels in, take offence and accuse others of starting ‘a race war’.

This need for clarity and consciousness has become even more sickeningly potent in the days after Del Rey’s flurry of racially coded and unapologetic statements. The video went viral on 25th May 2020 of Amy Cooper threatening Christian Cooper (no relation), a black man, that she would call the police and tell them that he was threatening her life when he had asked her to put her dog on a lead in Central Park’s protected nature reserve ‘The Ramble’. Amy Cooper chillingly showed how America’s law enforcement system, well known for its extensive brutality of black people, was geared in her white favour, and that she was more than willing to use it to get her own way at whatever genuinely life-threatening cost to Christian Cooper. Within days, we saw what the outcome could have been: George Floyd, an unarmed black man, suffocated to death by police officers in Minneapolis. In recent weeks, we have already seen how the American justice system values the life of Ahmed Aubrey, who was lynched by a white father and son in Georgia. It seemed serendipitous that we had this public genealogy of white supremacy and racism unfold so compactly this week:  from Lana Del Rey accusing people of starting a ‘race war’ when what she had articulated was racially coded and, yes, racist; to a white woman using her whiteness as a weapon to threaten a black man who left the altercation, thankfully, safe; and yet another terrible and all too familiar example of police officers murdering an unarmed black man. Even though what happened with Del Rey can be interpreted as a celebrity scandal, it does not exist in a vacuum. Every single part of the events of this week are connected, and are expressions of what is normalised and still accepted in a white supremacist society.

This is not, of course, a problem that only exists in the USA. As writer and journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge argues in her amazing book ‘Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race’, by focusing on race as something that happens on the other side of the Atlantic, Black British history is ‘starved of oxygen’ and not given the attention it needs. Racism and white supremacy are alive and well in the UK, and we cannot fall into complacency, believing that it is only in the USA that racism exists. I have spent the past few weeks writing an inquiry project for my teacher training qualification (PGCE) about race and curriculum in the UK and there is no doubt in my mind that the National Curriculum devised by Michael Gove, particularly in Key Stage Four English, serves to perpetuate white cultural hegemony, erasing, denying and ignoring the communities and cultural identities of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) pupils and anyone else who identifies as non-white British. White people are profoundly ignorant of the way in which we accept whiteness in all parts of our lives as standard and normal, as though our entire country’s history was not built off the back of slave labour and colonial oppression of BAME people. Now more than ever, white people need to be doing the work to make our unconscious privileges and ignorance, conscious. This is a battle, in part, because ideological vehicles like The National Curriculum hit us when we are young; but as responsible, conscious adults, we must actively educate ourselves. Too many people continue to suffer and we must do our part to fight and stop that.

This essay has been fuelled by anger, to be sure. But I also offer it in the spirit of generosity. I have been critical of Lana Del Rey because I think it is important for white people to call each other out and educate one another about the way our unconscious privilege and ignorance is a form of racial violence. As such, I want to provide a list of materials that have helped and continue to help me, as a white person, to recognise and check my own privilege and ignorance, which, I hope, help me to be an ally to all BAME people and actively fight racism. I recommend the following to all white people:

‘Why I am No Longer Talking to White People about Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge

‘About Race’ podcast by Reni Eddo-Lodge

‘Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’ by Akala

‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas

‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Dr. Maya Angelou

‘A Raisin in the Sun’ by Lorraine Hansberry

‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith

‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama

‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ by Arundhati Roy

‘The Wretched of the Earth’ by Frantz Fanon

‘Orientalism’ by Edward W. Said

‘OJ: Made in America’ by Ezra Edelman

‘Black Panther’ by Ryan Coogler

‘Straight Outta Compton’ by F. Gary Gray

‘Get Out’ by Jordan Peele

‘Mississippi Burning’ by Alan Parker

‘Lemonade’ by Beyoncé

‘Homecoming’ by Beyoncé

‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ by Kendrick Lamar

‘Kiwanuka’ by Michael Kiwanuka

Gal-dem

The Runnymede Trust resources

‘Let Them Drown: the violence of othering in a warming world’ chapter in ‘On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal’ by Naomi Klein

‘Episode 102: Empire State of Mind: overhauling the history we teach’ by ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’ podcast

‘Episode 59: Black Revolution and Whiteness Psychosis with Kehinde Andrews’ by ‘Under the Skin’ podcast

The International Slavery Museum, Liverpool

 

Here are some works that I am yet to start:

‘How to be Antiracist’ by Ibram X. Kendi

‘Brit(ish)’ by Afua Hirsch

‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe

‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ by Dee Brown

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernadine Evaristo

‘Women, Race and Class’ by Angela Davis

‘Sister Outsider’ by Audre Lorde

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by James Baldwin

‘Ain’t I a Woman: Black women and feminism’ by bell hooks

‘Bad Feminist’ by Roxane Gay

‘Hamilton’ by Lin Manuel Miranda

 

I am absolutely in need of more recommendations, particularly films, so please do send me anything that you are aware of that will help me in my learning.

Love Note Year in Review: 2019

Like 2016, 2019 has, in many ways, been a stellar year for me, but has been societally shambolic and difficult to digest. Here, I have written about some of the films, music, TV shows and podcasts that have been my companions along the way. These have all inspired me, taught me new things, expanded my thoughts and given me a richer understanding of the world and the people in it. Enjoy and do let me know what you think.

Book: Crudo by Olivia Laing

Crudo 2

I have read a few books this year that have completely blown me away, including Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  and Circe by Madeline Miller. Here, however, I want to discuss dearest Crudo. I bought this book from Shakespeare and Company whilst in Paris on the recommendation of a great friend with great taste. Crudo is a very short book but it is an absolute gut punch of hilarity, darkness and tenderness. Indeed, it’s hard to really pin down exactly what happens in it because it is such a heady mixture of consciousness, recollection, projection and commentary. For me, this spells perfection: I have always loved character studies and don’t think an exacting plot is always necessary all the time. What I can get to with Crudo is that it centres on Kathy, who is getting married but has all sorts of qualms and skeletons to negotiate with first. Almost every page I declared ‘I LOVE THIS BOOK’ as it twisted and turned unpredictably through the mental chaos of anxiety, exhaustion, eating, friendship, loss, Twitter and drunken chaos in beautiful Italian locations. It is a love letter to anyone who is in despair at recent political turns of events, sardonically laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation whilst also grieving and mourning the rise of hatred, fear and intolerance in the West. I think this book will benefit from many readings, and I cannot wait to sink my teeth into it again.

Film: Apocalypse Now

11365761493_ec95cd78d6_o-1500x755

I was horrendously late in joining this film’s bandwagon, but was so glad when I did earlier this year. From that first shot of palm trees and the withering notes of The End by The Doors floating in like a breeze before the chaos, I was completely enthralled. This film is one of the greatest examples of a disorientating, arthouse viewing experience blended with the hallmarks of an epic: dramatic helicopter sequences and iconic lines offset with simmering delusion and madness all the way throughout. One such line, ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’, is a case in point: the line is delivered so much more softly than I thought it would be. I imagined that line to be a yelled declaration in the heat of conflict, but it is almost a tender revelation: an insight into how war and nationalism has warped and disfigured these men’s emotional engagement with the world around them. Amongst a host of spectacular performances, and there really isn’t a bad one in the whole film, Dennis Hopper stood out for me. With cameras draped around his neck like beads, Hopper plays a sycophantic, voyeuristic photojournalist, an unnamed self-declared ‘little man’ who has been brainwashed by Colonel Kurtz and is always ready to get a picture. An embodiment of a culture and a media that will transmit horror without reflection, Hopper’s photojournalist is the keenest harbinger of the shit state that is our current retinue of communication and media affairs.

Music: Beware of the Dogs, Stella Donnelly

StellaDonnelly_BewareOfTheDogs

Music-wise, this year has been a stunner. With the returns of Lana Del Rey (who I wrote about here), Michael Kiwanuka, fka Twigs and Nick Cave amongst many others, and Billie Eilish’s brilliant debut, this year has felt particularly golden. I want to give my attention here to singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly, whose album Beware of the Dogs is undoubtedly one of my favourites from the brace of brilliance that was 2019. If there were to be any soundtrack to the #MeToo movement, it would be this album. From a sassy , beachy opener that holds a ‘grabbing’ middle-aged man to account, in what I would argue is a direct middle finger up to the likes of Donald Trump, to the searing and devastating ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, Donnelly keenly and devastatingly  confronts rampant toxic masculinity and a patriarchal culture that is riddled with sexual assault and violence. And yet, even with these serious concerns, the album is undeniably fun. With a contents list that features the maddening performativity of relationships, the deconstruction of awkward family dynamics and cake allergies in a register that nods to Noughties Lily Allen and Kate Nash (but with plinky plonky music exchanged for a wilting easy-breezy Australian nonchalance), this album feels assured, mature and endlessly witty. I can’t recommend it enough.

TV: The Politician, Netflix

The Politician

As the Golden Age of Television enters its late period of peak saturation, this year has once again been brilliant, if not slightly exhausting. Shows I loved included Stranger Things, Big Little Lies, The Real Housewives of New York City which, quite frankly, deserves an Emmy (that trip to Miami, in particular the first night, was the trip to end all Bravo trips), The Last Czars, which expertly wove dramatic reconstruction with historical analysis, and His Dark Materials. The Politician, made by the producers behind Glee (which I never much cared for) is an absolutely hilarious, obscene, outrageous drama which follows a group of Californian uber-rich teenagers taking part in a high school election campaign. Whilst this may ring with all the hallmarks of another glossy, predictable teen drama, The Politician is hilarious, piercingly dark and shocking, with some of the biggest knots of twists and turns I have seen on a TV show. We had to take a break after watching the first couple of episodes because it was so intense. Yet, the show’s astute political and social commentary feels absolutely essential in a ravaged post-truth Western world, in particular the stand alone episode ‘The Voter’, which serves as a microcosm of the lives of undecided and politically disaffected members of the electorate. With a soundtrack reminiscent of Western revenge tragedies and dramas, and a wardrobe department to rival seminal teen show Gossip Girl, The Politician is a sensory riot, and one of the most groundless viewing experiences I have had: I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next or which bizarre direction the drama was going to take. This all serves to make it utterly compelling and brilliant television.

Podcasts

I have found it impossible to pick one podcast that has stood out as my favourite this year. Different podcasts serve very different moods and purposes, and there is no singular podcast to be drawn from my list of regulars and favourites.

Reasons

Reasons to Be Cheerful – Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd’s podcast forms the audio backdrop to my Monday mornings. This podcast has introduced me to many exciting concepts and policy ideas that I hope will become a part of the fabric of our politics in the future. Favourite episodes included topics like social care for the elderly, tax on frequent fliers, music and history education, the power of protest, community organisation, architecture and town planning and sustainable fashion. I am also exceedingly proud that my email on green fashion alternatives and tips was read out by Ed himself. #goals

Dressed.jpg

Dressed: The History of Fashion – This podcast fills the gap that glossy magazines have left in my life (I still buy the September issue of Vogue and the December issue of Harper’s Bazaar but that’s just about it). Instead, I have a podcast full of incredible interviews and explorations into the personal and cultural stories of my favourite designers and some of the clothes I wear on a day-to-day basis. I have enjoyed listening to episodes on The Met Gala, fashion and physique (mapping the female body), the history of the penny loafer, the biography of Cristóbal Balenciaga, the history of the French haute couture industry (Worth, Vionnet and Louis Vuitton being some of the most interesting stories) and a compelling conversation with Dr Monica Germanà about Bond girl style, looking at sexual, racial and colonial implications of women’s bodies and women’s dress in the franchise. I have shunned James Bond for many years but this conversation, with its focus on masculine and imperial anxiety, has shifted my perspective entirely.

DIDs

The Desert Island Discs Archive – This year, I discovered the delights of conversations and the musical favourites of some of Western culture’s greats. Tucked away in the archive, I found Powell and Pressburger, Leonide Massine, Tennessee Williams and Lauren Bacall amongst others. Gregory Peck was as dreamy as I hoped he would be and had a great story about the filming of Moby Dick, which coincidentally was shot down the road from where my grandparents lived in Wales; Jessica Mitford was hilarious and sassy; Roald Dahl was a bit of a snob; and P L Travers wasn’t as scary as I thought she’d be and picked a list formed exclusively of recordings of poetry being read aloud. One such recording was of Alec Guinness’s reading ‘Little Gidding’ from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, which was a balm I never knew I needed. Utterly transporting listening.

One last thing…

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Netflix

Joseph Campbell

Originally broadcast in 1988, and which I watched on Netflix this year but has now been removed, this series of six conversations in six episodes between comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers is one of the most fascinating TV shows I have ever seen. Combining conversation, story-telling, animation, archive footage and film clips, this series takes a deep look into the psyche and collective unconscious of human beings. Campbell takes us on a bewildering but utterly brilliant journey through indigenous ritual, Jungian archetypes, the world religions, Western capitalism, the sacred feminine, the interplay of symbols and allegory, the sublime, the liminal passage and many other areas to present a multi-faceted, deep and intriguing portrait of human behaviour, interconnectedness and culture. Every single episode had something profound to learn from it, but the episode that stood out to me the most centred on animal-human relations, including the role of sacrifice, the transcendence of Death and the horror of a world where human beings are divorced from where they get their food, their clothing, almost everything. Additionally, I loved Campbell’s ideas that stemmed from the Buddhist teachings: that the present is all there is, and in the present, when you sit wholly aware, unblinkered and unfettered from trappings of ego (fear, envy, jealousy, anger, boredom etc.) we are witness to and subjects of, what could be called, the divine. I have never thought of myself as a religious person, and I still don’t think I am, but I found immense power in what Campbell had to share. There are iterations of ancient behaviours and beliefs all around us, and Campbell’s myth work is a great source of inspiration and an anchor when the ocean of chaos, anxiety and societal disruption feels too overwhelming. His work prioritises the power of metaphor beyond what is material, and it has enriched my life immensely.

 

Masculinity in crisis: ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’

Trigger warning: this essay has mentions of suicide, self-harm, sexual harassment and sexual abuse.

From the cultural grapevine, I came to be aware of The Catcher in the Rye as both a young man’s coming-of-age-story and, through fraught and bitchy Twitter threads, that liking this novel, in particular men liking this novel, was a hallmark of being a ‘nice guy’ or possessing generally bad literary taste. I don’t take my cues from what my fellow literature graduates lounging about on Twitter say is good or worth reading, but I can honestly say that I did avoid The Catcher in the Rye until recently. I am a big fan of American Literature and writers: Maya Angelou, Kate Chopin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, Maggie Nelson, Nathaniel Hawthorne are big favourites,  and the length of Salinger’s novel is hardly anything to get stressed about. Yet, the novel does carry somewhat of a baggy reputation for centring on a privileged young man getting into scrapes in New York and being generally ‘rebellious’. Like Jessie Thompson, in an essay for Penguin, it didn’t necessarily feel like a priority for me to read it.[1] That was, until, my boyfriend told me it was one of his favourite books. In fact, the first time I had a conversation about The Catcher in the Rye was with a friend at university; he said that it was the sort of writing that made him want to write. How could it be that two men I knew well, trusted their opinions, could like a novel that was elsewhere reviled and pointed to poor cultural taste?

At the beginning of the summer, I read the novel for the first time. What I found was sardonically funny, obviously full of angst, but also a profoundly moving piece of writing. I read the story of a young man who feels at odds with the world around him, who sees education as pointless in a world of privilege and bullshit; who suffers from intense self-hatred, and finds his only solace in the company of his sister and some nuns. Although Salinger has Holden Caulfield compare himself, through negation, to David Copperfield, the nineteenth century figure he reads most as an iteration of, I would argue, is Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Of course, the plots of these novels are very different, but the same disillusionment seeps through both. Where, however, Raskolnikov fashions his antipathy, anger and resentment into murder, Caulfield directs his inward; as much as he hates the world and the people in it, famously using the moniker ‘phonies’ to describe people throughout the novel, he struggles with himself the most. So much so, he tends towards self-harm: having obsessive thoughts about being shot (‘what I’d do, I’d walk down a few floors- holding onto my guts, blood leaking all over the place’), purposefully winding people up so that they’ll hurt him (the fight with Stradlater on p.39 sees Caulfield provoke a violent response for two pages), and wandering around Central Park in the freezing cold having wet his head, thinking about his dead brother Allie, ‘pneumonia and dying’.[2]

Not only did this novel move me, but it became obvious that reading it was vital. I have long joked about ‘masculinity in crisis’ when I see or experience sexist behaviour, and I think it is as important to laugh at the likes of Donald Trump as much as to resist and protest him, his disgusting ideologies and all that he represents, with anger and derision. However, it is important that we do have serious, constructive conversations about masculinity and what it means to be an emotionally healthy man. In The Catcher in the Rye Caulfield is explicit about his depression, stating that ‘what I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window’. It could not be clearer that Caulfield does not see his life as worth living. Furthermore, towards the end of the novel, after hastily leaving his old teacher Mr Antolini’s apartment after an incident verging on sexual harassment, Caulfield reveals that ‘when something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it’.[3] It is heavily suggested here that he has suffered sexual abuse and harassment as a child which, along with the trauma of losing his brother and seeing a fellow student kill himself, serves as an understandable and very deep root for his depression and disaffection. This novel is not the ramblings and larking about of a ‘rebellious’ teenager, even though it is at points dry and funny; it is about a young man struggling to cope with a plethora of horrifying events. It surprises me that the novel has been, by certain factions, culturally maligned; almost in tandem with the way in which men’s mental health has been diverted from and underplayed since time immemorial.

And yet, what is so beautiful about The Catcher in the Rye is that in spite of Caulfield’s trauma and his anger with his peers and the adults in his life, he evidently cares a great deal about his sister, Phoebe, and children in general. Phoebe is integral to Caulfield’s happiness, and he finds support and comfort in her: ‘Old Phoebe didn’t say anything, but she was listening. She always listens when you tell her something’.[4] Phoebe is presented as an old soul in spite of her youth, who will give him the space and time to talk and be heard. He refers to her repeatedly throughout the novel, even buying a record for her pre-emptively, before accidentally breaking it. He tells her that the only thing he ‘wants to be’ in life, is stood at the edge of a cliff:

‘What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day’.[5]

Caulfield effectively tells Phoebe that he wants to act as some kind of protector or safety net, preventing children from falling to their deaths whilst they are running around and having fun. In spite of all of the pain he carries around with him, Caulfield is ultimately someone who wants to help, who wants to be of service to others, in particular those who are young, innocent and temporarily free from the trappings and traumas of adulthood. It is a really noble aspiration. This cements the idea, for me, that this is a novel about a young man having serious difficulties orientating himself in a world that has made him suffer, full of people who do not acknowledge his and, most likely, their own pain.

*

When I first planned to write about The Catcher in the Rye, I thought a worthwhile comparison could be made with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a novel with a challenging and dark insight into depression, trauma and recovery in a young woman. This novel shook me, scared me and deeply connected with me when I first read it in 2014. I think it is important that if we take the representation of mental illness seriously in The Bell Jar, the same gravity should be extended to The Catcher in the Rye; it should not be undermined because it focuses on the suffering a young, white man. When we are living in the middle of an epidemic of young men taking their lives, understanding the root cause of such terrible pain is essential.[6] As such, I am reluctant to draw the two into such a completely direct conversation here, because I do not think it is wise to compare and contrast the experiences of mental illness between men and women in the space of a blog post. The roots of both, I believe, lie, to an extent, in the way in which patriarchy and capitalism prioritise a rampant toxic hyper-masculinity that leaves no place for the more traditionally feminine realm of feelings and emotions. Compounded with trauma, loss and the myriads of emotional pain that a human being is able to experience, depression and anxiety abound. Of course, men and women experience all of this in different ways, and it is important to remember and honour that distinction. Luckily, something else came along only this week that offers a much keener opportunity for comparison of masculinity, whilst also, clearly acknowledging Plath and the experience of women.

NFR

On 30th August 2019, Lana Del Rey released her sixth studio album Norman Fucking Rockwell! It is brilliant in so many ways and whilst I’ve loved all of her work, her interplay of satire and authenticity in this album is at its most sophisticated. Upon listening to it, I noticed that the people and relationships she discussed were separated and mingling between several positions. We had Del Rey’s typical ‘golden bad boy’ and ‘a sad girl in a mess in a party dress’ dynamic; we also have a withering partner who half-lovingly mocks her ‘man-child’ partner who indulges and wallows in his own misery, blaming his bad poetry ‘on the news’.  But we also saw something more obviously serious. We have repeated references to a man struggling with his wellbeing and sense of self in ‘California’, a man who pretends to be stronger than he is, who wishes he was ‘doing better’. In the same breath Del Rey presents a woman who is a fixed point of strength and comfort, telling him ‘And honey, you don’t ever have to act cooler than you think you should / You’re brighter than the brightest stars’. She acknowledges the pressure that this man is under to appear and conduct himself in a certain way in the world, in particular as a strong, cool man who has no insecurities or worries. She is there to tell him, from a position of acceptance, that he is OK, just as he is.

Del Rey expands on this further, and gloriously, in ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’. She tells her partner ‘You lose your way, just take my hand / You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again / Don’t look too far, just where you are, that’s where I am / I’m your man’. This is such an important, playful line because she holds the position of a healthy, anchored woman in this relationship, and yet refers to herself as ‘your man’. It harks to the Leonard Cohen song ‘I’m Your Man’, where Cohen unpicks what it means to be a man in a romantic relationship, by effectively declaring to his partner that he’ll be anything she wants him to be: ‘If you want a driver, climb inside / Or if you want to take me for a ride / You know you can / I’m your man’. Of course, in a healthy relationship, such a degree of self-effacement is problematic, but Cohen’s play with what it means to be a man is nevertheless important. What both singers suggest is that what it means to be a healthy man is a lot more fluid, and maybe, perhaps, feminine, than a dominant patriarchal culture suggests. By feminine, I don’t mean necessarily a defined gender category, but something more archetypal: that which is nurturing, loving and spacious; as opposed to the masculine that is determined by boundaries, order and discipline. All of which, I might add, are absolutely fine and necessary. However, when what is masculine is privileged and prioritised culturally and societally, these morph into authoritarianism, perfectionism and aggression and their offsets: disdain for emotion of any kind, depression, isolation and alienation. In Norman Fucking Rockwell! Del Rey suggests that the conception of hyper-masculinity that her lovers struggle with can be deconstructed; similarly, she presents herself, in these songs at least, as an embodiment of both masculine and feminine, yin and yang; a grounded, integrated woman in a position to offer support, understanding, protection, love and hope. Again, I want to emphasise that this is not a limiting conception of what it means to be a woman or a man, but are archetypal facets that exist in and embody all human beings, no matter which gender you identify with.

As such, we can see that it is, perhaps, not an accident that Holden Caulfield turns to the comfort of his sister and some nuns during his deepening existential break down. As esteemed Jungian psychotherapist Marion Woodman suggests, over centuries we have culturally disavowed, repressed and persecuted the feminine; and yet, the feminine is what we need and yearn for to bring balance to the patriarchal shit show that continues to cause such violence and misery. It was so in the 1940s of The Catcher in the Rye as it is today, as explored in Norman Fucking Rockwell!. After meeting the nuns and giving them money, Caulfield says:

‘I couldn’t stop thinking about those two nuns. I kept thinking about that beat-up old straw basket they went around with when they weren’t teaching at school […] that’s what I liked about those nuns. You could tell, for one thing, that they never went anywhere swanky for lunch. It made me so damn sad when I thought about it, their never going anywhere swanky for lunch or anything. I knew it wasn’t too important, but it made me sad anyway’.[7]

He compares the nuns with other women he knows, his mother and his friend’s mother, who would not get involved with any charity work akin to the nuns’ collecting, if it meant standing out in the cold, being bored or not getting any recognition for giving up their time (or, as Caulfield describes it, ‘the only way she could go around with a basket collecting dough would be if everybody kissed her ass’). I would argue that Caulfield feels sad because the nuns, their charity, their kindness to him and their interest in literature (all displayed in the previous chapter) are marginalised and excluded from ‘swankiness’; the trappings of patriarchal capitalist society, with its expensive restaurants, and its hierarchies predicated on wealth and social class. Furthermore, on a deeper level here, I think he mourns the superficial incarnation of femininity in women that props up the hyper-masculine status quo that being ‘swanky’ represents. He feels sad that the simplicity, honesty and good faith of the nuns is not rewarded or as valuable as status.

Of course, Del Rey’s conversation about masculinity and femininity does not end with ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex’: she pertinently turns her attention to the specific suffering and demons that women carry with them. In the album’s last searing and deceptively simple waltz ‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it’, she references The Bell Jar writer by name, as she has been ‘ tearing around in my fucking night gown /  24/7 Sylvia Plath’. Like The Bell Jar, which is full of the vague promises offered by fashion magazines, internships, graduate school and ski trips (the ‘swanky’ mentioned in The Catch in the Rye), in this song Del Rey references the vacuous but toxic draw of superficial perfection: the world of debutantes, pink dresses, bright smiles, yachts and all. She does not find belonging in that world, instead finding home on the stage. And yet, she softly sings that she is ‘A modern day woman with a weak constitution, ’cause I’ve got / Monsters still under my bed that I could never fight off /A gatekeeper carelessly dropping the keys on my nights off’. This suggests that in spite of the work she has done to represent everything that a modern woman should- success, renown, independence, sexual freedom and financial stability- she is still plagued late at night or when she feels emotionally and spiritually weak by the monsters under her bed. The insecurities, fears, shadows and darknesses of psyche that, to an extent, we can never fully get rid of. The song is a defiant ode to the womanhood that is so rejected in patriarchal culture, but also a tentative and terrified look into the malevolent eyes of the difficulties, restrictions and fears women live with and have learnt to internalise.

I believe that The Catcher in the Rye and Norman Fucking Rockwell! speak to each other well on this important issue of masculinity and male pain. I consider the two to be allies in this regard. I think it is important that both texts highlight the potential of the feminine to relieve suffering: if men and women are going to be free from both subtle and overtly blatant violence and injustices of patriarchy, a re-examination of what it is to be a man is essential, which involves re-integration of the much maligned feminine (think about every single time a boy has been told not do x ‘like a girl’). I think a cultural re-reading of The Catcher in the Rye would be extremely useful, so that we can collectively learn not to minimise men’s pain, reducing it to ‘rebelliousness’ or simply angst. Furthermore, I think it is important that Del Rey has made the effort to distinguish clearly between the different types of male and female pain, whilst presenting so many positions and perspectives on her album. She has been careful to not pit men and women against one another, weighing one type of pain or suffering as more important, which I think is a very mature and brilliantly-handled.

 

[1] https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2019/jun/i-thought-catcher-in-the-rye-was-just-for-obnoxious-teenage-boys.html

[2]The Catcher in the Rye, J.D Salinger, (London: Penguin, (1958) p.93; p.140

[3] Ibid., p.174.

[4] Ibid., p.151.

[5] Ibid., p.156.

[6] ‘Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. In 2015, 75% of all UK suicides were male’ https://www.thecalmzone.net/help/get-help/suicide/ [accessed 4th September 2019].

[7] Ibid, p.103.

Love Note series – Disney Women (part one, Esmeralda)

Before I went on holiday last week I had a burst of writing energy and, before I knew it, had four posts ready to be published. They are quintessential Harping On taking-silliness-seriously, and I am very excited to provide a little bit of light relief for myself and anyone reading this. I didn’t post last week because I was busy reading, swimming and sunning myself (more thoughts on that coming soon), so I hope that this Love Note series will more than make up for it.

As some of you will know, Disney holds a particularly big place in my heart. Fantasia is one of my top five favourite films of all time; Disney films in general are veritable nostalgia-fests when you need them; they provide the ultimate songbook for shower sing-a-longs; and can be hot topics for debate whenever the situation arises. Deconstructing Disney has long been one of my favourite past times (see here for an example), and I think it is a worthwhile endeavour. Like the fashion industry, such is the Walt Disney company’s power and reach that whatever its commercial and creative decisions, both good and bad, it affects us all even if we don’t care about them. I’d rather keep my eyes and ears open to Disney and what they are doing than to keep myself ignorant.

In light of this, and on a lighter note, I have written my series of blog posts on four of my favourite Disney leading women. They are each inspiring, interesting and courageous in their own ways and have taught me a lot about what it looks like to be a woman with conviction, especially in the face of patriarchal bullshit. I hope you enjoy them!

First up…

Esmeralda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996

Esmeralda featured image

Harping On legend has it that when I met Esmeralda at Disney World on my 5th birthday, I ‘lost my shit’. Esmeralda was very, very important to me. I had two Esmeralda dresses, a Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame pencil case, an Esmeralda doll and a tambourine. She was my absolute hero. She stood up to a repressed, privileged prick, Claude Frollo, who spent his entire life and career persecuting Roma gypsies like her, and actively abused and encouraged abuse of Quasimodo, whose mother he kills at the beginning of the film, who then hides behind his rampant sexual desire for her by calling her a witch. Like I said, a prick. She derides Frollo for his cruel treatment of those who are vulnerable and refuses to back down when told to do so. Esmeralda is uncommonly brave, standing up for what is right even though it comes at a great risk to her own personal freedom and safety.

Esmeralda

One of the most moving parts of the whole film comes during her song ‘God Help the Outcasts’, with music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Whilst every around her prays for glory, wealth and fame, Esmeralda declares:

‘I ask for nothing, I can get by

I know so many, less lucky than I

Please help my people, the poor and down-trod

I thought we all were children of God’.

Here, she clearly declares that she doesn’t want to ask for anything for herself because she knows of people who are much more desperate and worse off than she is. Esmeralda is selfless in spite of her own hardship, putting the needs, trials and suffering of her community before her own.

What is interesting is that whilst she addresses ‘God’ throughout most of the song, Esmeralda actually begins the song by speaking directly to a statue of Jesus. She demonstrates that in spite of the way she stands up for others and for what she believes in, she has internalised some of the xenophobic elements of medieval Paris, providing the caveat:

‘Yes I know I’m just an outcast

I shouldn’t speak to you

Still, I see your face and wonder

Were you once an outcast too?’

It is a moment of complete vulnerability as she enters a conversation with Jesus and subsequently God, a divine power that is bigger than her and whose help and comfort she needs. By adopting the language of her persecutors, with the label ‘outcast’, it suggests that she holds an internal belief that she is not worthy or good enough for finding refuge in prayer or communicating with God so candidly. However, she then goes on to draw a line of comparison between the two of them, demonstrating a sophisticated knowledge of Christian doctrine by suggesting that because Jesus was also considered an ‘outcast’ in his time, and especially in the run-up to his death, then it must be appropriate for her to speak to him. He was vulnerable, tried to help the needy and stood up to and threatened power structures, just she like she does. It is a beautiful, heartfelt moment, giving us a window into her internalisation of her ‘outcast’ status as a gypsy but also her ability to appeal to that which is vulnerable and considered by society as ‘unworthy’ in others, thus rendering everyone truly equal.

Esmeralda’s kindness and humility, coupled with her fiery resistance, her don’t-give-me-shit attitude towards future honey Phoebus, and her divine friendships with Quasimodo and goat Djali, make her one of Disney’s all-time greats. She is one of the most important and indispensable characters in the story and a true inspiration. She taught me that resisting injustice and standing up for others who are more in need of help than I am requires an immense amount of courage and bravery; never easy to do, but important beyond measure.

Esmeralda and DJali

Love Note – Beach Music

In a couple of weeks I am swapping rainy old England with the warmer environs of Mallorca and I can’t bloody wait. After a very busy year, I am completely ready to park myself on a beach with my stack of contemporary literature (I’m trying to remove myself from the nineteenth century and read more current things), a couple of cold beers and my favourite beachy playlist. I know I am ridiculously lucky to be able to get away from it all for a bit and I am relishing the opportunity to switch off and zone out.

Of course, however, because we are all constantly flirting with burnout, phone-addiction and have the attention-span of goldfish, myself included, it can take a little while to completely unwind from the rat race that is life in twenty first century Britain. Even though I want to just switch off, it feels difficult to do so. Additionally, travel has become slightly more anxiety-inducing for me personally because it removes me from routine, the security I feel from being in my beloved home and because the onset of new sights, sounds, smells and sensibilities can be very over-stimulating. Feeling anxious about going on holiday doesn’t hold me back from travelling, but I definitely have to consciously take stock and ease myself into the groundlessness that new experiences and exciting adventures bring me.

Meditation helps, my gratitude practice helps and of course, music helps to alleviate the kind of liminality that I sometimes experience when I’m on holiday. There is nothing better than a summery playlist to accompany a lazy sojourn on the beach. Here are my favourites from past and present beach trips that help me fully immerse myself in my beautiful surroundings and relieve any anxious quibbles or digital withdrawals I might experience whilst being on holiday.

Lana Florida Kilos

‘Florida Kilos’, Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence – Old faithful. I actually quite disliked this song when I first heard it. But after a week spent listening to it with a lemon lolly and warm sunshine, I realised that a beach setting for listening to it was all that was missing.

Kendrick Lamar Blow My High

‘Blow My High’, Kendrick Lamar, Section 80 – Super-duper chilled and fun, with tributes to Aaliyah and Lisa Left-Eye Lopes, this is one of Kendrick’s more light-hearted outputs. It bubbles and pops with youthfulness.

Kendrick Lamar The Recipe

‘The Recipe’, Kendrick Lamar, ft. Dr Dre, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City – Kendrick again because he is a babe. A more badass beach song than ‘Blow My High’, but then what would you expect with Dr Dre on board. This is a song for serious sunbathing done seriously and truly allows you to indulge in your good fortune at being on holiday.

Michael Kiwanuka

‘Cold Little Heart’, Michael Kiwanuka, Love and Hate – This song evokes images of the rugged Californian coast thanks to its use as the title music for fantastic HBO show Big Little Lies. The full ten minute version of this song is an epic, bluesy opener to a truly stunning album and is a whole story in itself. Gorgeous song, gorgeous voice, gorgeous situation.

Groove Armada

‘At the River’, Groove Armada, Northern Star – This is a quintessential chillout song that has been a permanent fixture on Harping On holidays since 1998. It is perfect for setting the mood when you arrive at your destination and provides a musical portal to escape from the chaos of modern life.

Mylo

‘Sunworshipper’, Mylo, Destroy Rock and Roll – I can’t convey how wonderful this song is. It is a pure chillout classic, with an optimistic, bohemian otherworldliness to it. Features the classic repeated line: ‘And so I took off on my bicycle’.

All Saints 2

‘Pure Shores’, All Saints, Saints and Sinners – Take me to my bloody beach. This song is so atmospheric and an instant relaxant whenever there is sand, sea and sangria nearby. In fact, it’s an instant relaxant wherever you are.

Rye Rye

‘Sunshine’ ft. M.I.A, Rye Rye, Go! Pop! Bang! – This song was on the soundtrack of Sofia Coppola’s classic film The Bling Ring and is a fun, catchy hymn to summer time. Sings from the same beachy sheet as ‘Blow My High’.

bob-dylan-mr-tambourine-man-cbs-2

‘Mr Tambourine Man’, Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home – The first time I heard this song I was driving home from a festival with two friends and we all cried. It is slightly melancholy, perfect story-telling about free spiritedness and having nothing to do and nowhere to go. Makes me think about that point in your holiday where you start calling your hotel/AirBnB/apartment/flat/other fleeting holiday accommodation, ‘home’.

Tame Impala

‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’, Tame Impala, Lonerism – Seductive synth, mind-bending lyrics and a twinkling voice over the top, this song is an effective daydream, perfect for staring out at the sea and warming your feet in the sand.

One for good luck:

Lana West Coast

Lana Del Rey – Paradise, Ultraviolence, Honeymoon, Lust for Life LPs are all generally perfect for the hot beach holiday (windswept beach walking holidays in Spring/Autumn times are a different kettle of fish). I love Born to Die but it’s why more of a cityscape/ small town-trip record scenario.

Old, old favourites from beach holidays gone by:

Christina Aguilera – ‘Primer Amor’ and ‘Infatuation’, both from Stripped

Mis-Teeq – ‘Strawberrez’, Eye Candy

Michael Jackson – ‘Remember the Time’, History

Rihanna – ‘Say It’, Good Girl Gone Bad

Madonna – ‘Beautiful Stranger’, Ray of Light

Justin Timberlake – ‘Senorita’ (in fact, all of Justified)

 

220px-Christina_Aguilera_-StrippedMisteeqRihannaRay_of_Light_Madonna

Love Note – Eurovision

This Saturday sees the return of the Eurovision Song Contest and I could not be more excited. This year, I have excellent friend and historical Eurovision-watching comrade Annie coming to visit from Manchester, I am drawing up a Eurovision bingo game, making cultural food plans (pierogi, baguettes and olives amongst other foodstuffs), organising an office sweepstake at work, and have my Spotify playlist of past-Eurovision favourites on repeat. I am raring to go for the Grand Final in a couple of days’ time.

I have always loved Eurovision. It is funny whilst both trying to be and trying not to be; it is colourful and vibrant; appeals to the ridiculousness in us all; and offers the perfect excuse to have a bit of a party. It curiously manages to hold a number of different positions: it suspends reality, through its gaudy spectacle and earnest hilarity that feels so far removed from the grim and turbulent political times that we are currently living through (and have always lived through, to an extent). However, it also embodies the inclusivity and positivity absolutely required to make the world a more joyful and tolerant place. Seeing Europe come together on the same night to mutually revel in Europop music, dry ice, random pyrotechnics, Graham Norton’s sarcastic critiques and, in some cases, yodelling, warms the cockles of this soppy Remainer heart. I have often thought that it takes a certain amount of self-awareness or self-deprecation to watch and enjoy Eurovision: it’s a bit like laughing at yourself. Someone so stuck-in-the-mud and obsessed with control, power and image and all that, like Putin for example, probably doesn’t watch Eurovision. But you can imagine the world would probably be a better place if he did.

There are certain things about the show that are quintessentially Eurovision, but that some people find hard to understand and accept. Here, I want to help break these things down and offer a shift in perspective, introducing naysayers and cynics to Eurovision Logic. Here are some examples:

Normal logic: The show and, in particular, the round-the-houses voting system are time-consuming and extremely long. The show does run from 20:00 – 23:40 (a running time of 3 hours and 40 minutes) and it takes up all the prime-time coverage on BBC One. It’s a bit overkill.

Eurovision Logic: With the round-the-houses system, we get an insight into the humour, style and sensibilities of our European neighbours. When there is a time-lag, things get deliciously awkward, especially when the announcers in each country end up manically grinning or saying something wonderfully clichéd or just plain weird. I would also recommend watching all the performances, if you are able to, and working out which is your favourite, or getting involved with an office sweepstake. Actually being invested in at least one country makes the voting much more exciting and interesting. Multiple drinks will also help.

giphy

 

Normal logic: Australia is not in Europe. Why is it in Eurovision? It doesn’t make sense and is stupid.

Eurovision Logic: Newsflash: Israel and Azerbaijan are not in Europe and have competed in Eurovision for very many years (and have both won). Even Morocco competed in Eurovision in 1980. Australia joined in 2015, to celebrate the competition’s 60th anniversary and had such a good time that they’ve decided to come back every year. What is there not to love about that? Lighten up. I think it is also a good idea to let people dwell in paradox for a while: life is all about ambiguity and uncertainty, things are never clear-cut, and Australia in Eurovision is a perfect metaphor for that. On a very deep level, somewhere, it makes absolute sense that Australia participates in Eurovision. I would love them to win and see the absolute existential flap people will, inevitably, get into. Guys, it’s going to be OK.

australia-is-competing-in-eurovision-again-and-ev-2-4295-1463274396-13_dblbig

Normal logic: Eurovision songs are cheesy pap and are the dregs of music

Eurovision logic: Yes, there are certain levels of cheesiness and corniness to the Eurovision song repertoire. My first impulse is to just embrace it and laugh along with it. All those songs about being ‘heroes’ and ‘grabbing the moment’ (both things Bowie sang about) are absolutely harmless and catchy as heck. My second impulse is to point out that there have been some amazingly mature songs in the competition, especially in recent years. There was The Common Linnets’ song ‘Calm After The Storm’ that came second for The Netherlands in 2014, missing out to Conchita Wurst’s absolute belter ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’; Belgium’s Loïc Nottet’s ‘Rhythm Inside’ in 2015 sounded like Lorde had written it; and the gorgeous, inimitable ‘Amar Pelos Dois’ sung by Portugal’s Salvador Sobral  won in 2017 and still gives me warm fuzzies. All truly, excellent songs. My third impulse tends towards the sassy: in the enduring and poetic words of last year’s winner, Netta, I’d rather dance with my dolls to the mother-bucka beat, than get all sour about it.

SalvadorSob_1494562609 (1)

So here’s to Eurovision 2019! It is a bit bizarre, but when has the bizarre also not been life-affirming and a little bit good for us? When not drinking all the drinks, eating all the European food and jigging around to all the songs, I’ll see you all on Twitter for the hilarious commentaries. I’ve heard that the singers from Iceland are some kind of BDSM group… let the wonderful chaos unfold.

[1] I would like to add as a small footnote that I am aware that Israel holding the competition is obviously very contentious, and look forward to seeing if the competition is used to make any protests or points, particularly in light of military action in Gaza in the past few weeks.

Love Note – Fantasia

Last week there was a Saturday matinee viewing of Disney’s Fantasia at Broadway cinema in Nottingham and I missed it. This was slightly devastating because Fantasia is a film that I have loved for a very long time and the prospect of seeing it on a big screen was very, very exciting. It is a stunning love letter to both the art of animation and classical music, which I’m sure were both sweeping in their scale on the big screen. And I bloody missed it.

It was through Fantasia, and the ingenuity of the art and story-telling teams that helped to create it, that my interest in classical music was sparked. As a child, and even now as a (more or less) adult, classical music has sometimes felt kind of ‘beyond’ me. When I was younger, it reeked of ‘posh’, of older people driving around in Volvo estates or wearing suits and nodding along knowingly to some movement of this piece by that dead guy. The classical music I enjoyed when I was little was music that explicitly told a story, for example Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (even though, interestingly, the grandfather and wolf parts both scared me shitless) or that I could dance to. Fantasia captured my imagination and, subsequently, each of the pieces of music brought to animated life now has a special place in my heart.

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The combination of high musical art with the low brow familiarity of cartoon animation, rooted as it is in child-friendly bright colours, humour and anthropomorphic animals, is highly effective. Bringing both forms into conversation with one another undoubtedly broadens the way in which we think about both. The mass production and appeal of cartoon animation offers a friendlier introduction to the obscure and privileged world of classical music. Similarly the drama of classical music, and the requirement of animation to creatively and accurately interpret inflections, time signatures and important ideas within the pieces’ structures, elevates the artistry and production of animation.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor EDIT 1

It’s hard to narrow down which segment of the Fantasia programme I like the most: I have a very soft spot for The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (I really wanted to make friends with a pink unicorn or a flying horse, and my sister and I used to shelter all our cuddly toys under blankets during the storm).[1] As I’ve grown older, I have a renewed appreciation for Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in B Minor, which I initially thought was slightly boring but now find completely captivating.  However, I think it is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring that has been the most enduringly important piece of music that Fantasia introduced to me.

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I remember listening to Deems Taylor’s introduction of the piece and referring to the music as originally written for a ballet, displaying ‘a simple series of tribal dances’. Listening and watching the unfolding animation had me begging desperately: How on earth could you do ballet to THIS?! My conception of ballet as a world of tutus, pointe shoes and graceful arabesques, incidentally seen elsewhere in Fantasia, was completely at odds with this frightening, stompy music. Music that helped to depict violent volcanic eruptions, a T-Rex fighting and killing a slow and considerably weaker stegosaurus, the eventual death march and extinction of all the dinosaurs, and an eerie eclipse hovering over this pockmarked, burnt out planet. The pained and wailing face of a diplodocus trapped in mud and burning in the heat is seared into my memory. No, this, whatever this was, was not conducive to ballet at all.

At the time, I had no idea that this type of music required an entirely different type of dancing, which I later explored at length in my Master’s dissertation. Indeed, I wouldn’t have written that dissertation at all if my interest hadn’t been piqued at such a young age. Fantasia rearranges the music of the original ballet quite significantly, but it is still an exceptional introduction to a truly staggering piece of music. I will no doubt bring The Rite of Spring to my blog at a later date, because it is such an important piece of music to me that has followed me around for many years. But for now, I want to appreciate just how wonderful Fantasia is and how grateful I am that, in spite of its limited commercial success in 1940, it has endured.

And I bloody missed it last week.

 

[1] I want to acknowledge here the problematic nature of Disney’s visualisation of The Pastoral Symphony in particular. This segment featured heavily racist stereotypes in the first production, which have since been edited out, and a beauty contest where the ‘pretty’ (read: not black) centaur women strut about and are picked one at a time by handsome centaur men to be their lovers. The racism and sexism is obviously unacceptable and makes for uncomfortable viewing.  

Love Note – ‘Please Mr Kennedy’

The first Coen Brothers film I watched was Fargo when I was 18 and I really didn’t get it. The parody of a ‘true’ crime drama, with its humour and comic book violence, was all lost on me. As I’ve grown older, my awareness and appreciation of the Coen oeuvre has increased and expanded. My main Coen Brothers eureka moment came with A Serious Man, by way of True Grit and No Country for Old Men (I still need to watch The Big Lebowski and others). With Larry’s exasperated declaration that ‘I don’t want Santana Abraxis! I’ve just been in a terrible auto accident!’ I finally understood the full hilarious extent of the artful and subtle writing. Which brings me to Inside Llewyn Davis, which I find hilarious and joyful in its anger and misery, and it has become one of my favourites.

Llewyn is my favourite kind of grumpy arse who believes he should be an uber-successful musician but is blinded by pride, egotism and poor decision-making capabilities.[1] He has opportunities to help himself throughout the film, but prefers rather to wallow in his own self-importance and curse everyone around him for his short-sightedness, bad luck and inability to compromise. I love Llewyn because he is propelled by both intense delusions of grandeur but also a kind of endearing vulnerability that prevents him from being able to do anything else but be creative. The film was criticised by Suzanne Vega for turning the folk scene in 1960s New York into ‘a slow brown sad movie’, but I think this is to misunderstand what the Coens are getting at: there probably was a Llewyn in 1960s New York, just as there was probably a Llewyn at every point in artistic history. Wherever art and creativity are mixed up with commercial success, fame and recognition, there is going to be a Llewyn. Where there’s a Bob Dylan, there is a Llewyn. There has always been a Llewyn and there will always be a Llewyn.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is where Llewyn records a childish, novelty song with Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver). ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ gives me life and I frequently sing it around the house, getting it stuck in the heads of loved ones around me (you’re welcome). Click the photo below to have a watch:

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I love everything about this 2 minutes and 59 seconds. I love the hideousness of Justin Timberlake’s beige jumper; Oscar Isaac’s cooler-than-thou cigarette hanging from his mouth; the nauseating earnestness of Timberlake’s insistence of two ‘P Ps’ before ‘please’; I love that Llewyn thinks he’s too good for the song (Llewyn: Who wrote this? Jim: I did); I love Timberlake singing and staring God-wards as though he’s delivering the most profound song in the world, when it’s probably the most ridiculous; the series of surreal blurtings and ejaculations in the scene-stealing performance of Adam Driver (‘One second please!’ and ‘Uh Oh!’ being my favourite accompaniments); the cheesiness of Timberlake’s ‘Oh pleeeeeeease’ and Llewyn’s sterling attempts to meet him with his eyes closed; and I love the stupid lyrics and the stupid music. The whole thing is just hilarious.[2]

As well as being a bonafide ear worm, I love ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ because I realised that it loosely presents a bit of an allegory for life. It reminds me of a famous painting that depicts the three standard bearers of Eastern philosophy and spirituality: the vinegar tasters.

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'The_Three_Vinegar_Tasters'_by_Kano_Isen'in,_c._1802-1816,_Honolulu_Museum_of_Art,_6156.1

The picture depicts Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu and represent the basic tenets of their belief systems: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. We have Confucius, who perceives life as full of corruption and people needing saving from degeneration: he tastes vinegar as sour, as ‘polluted wine’. Llewyn, the archetypal mardy bum hates ‘Please Mr Kennedy’, thinks it’s crap and wants to blast his way through it to get to the folk music career he wants.

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Jim represents (in a very loose way, please indulge me), Buddha. Buddha sees that tasting vinegar exposes him to bitterness, life’s bitterness. We are offered the opportunity to practice not avoiding the difficulties and trials of life, but also to practice not being overwhelmed by them either. Jim understands that he cannot take responsibility for himself and his family by pursuing a career as a purist folk singer. Whilst he performs folk classics at The Gaslight Café, he also makes space for a crap novelty song, no less earnest and with no less integrity in his performance of it as he is of ‘500 Miles’. Either which way, he is performing, practising, trying to find a middle way.

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Al represents Lao Tsu and the Tao. Lao Tsu tastes the vinegar and rejoices in the vinegar-ness of the vinegar. It is sweet to Lao Tsu because it is manifesting according to its nature, exactly as it should: when life is appreciated as it should, it becomes sweet. In a similar way, Al Cody is committed to ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ for what it is, no qualms, no quarrels but with plenty of gusto and dedication. His singing part requires no less: a half-hearted ‘Outer Space!’ just wouldn’t work. As such, as I mentioned earlier, he pretty much steals the scene.

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‘Please Mr Kennedy’ is a shmuck song, artistically questionable, a real toe-tapper and perhaps the most important song in the entire film. To appreciate it speaks volumes and to not appreciate it speaks volumes. I think we have all three characters inside of us at any one point and they all have something to teach us. I’ve had many a Llewyn day, which is fine: Llewyn is great, I wouldn’t not be a bit Llewyn. But I would encourage myself, as much as possible, to be Al: to appreciate and revel in the nature of things just as they are. This sublimely ridiculous life, encapsulated in this sublimely silly song, requires just as much humour and healthy ridiculousness to meet it.

[1] Llewyn is Welsh for ‘lion’ or ‘leader’, which just feeds the wonderful irony about this miserable, supercilious protagonist.

[2] What makes this all even better, now that time and pop culture have elapsed since 2013, is that Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver now play adversaries Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars films. What a joy it is to see these two men, stars of the biggest sci-fi franchise of all time, strumming away singing the best stupid song about space ever written. Sarah Brightman’s ‘I Lost My Heart to a Star Ship Trooper’ must be the worst stupid song about space ever written.

 

 

Love Note – The joys of rediscovering an old iPod

I have always had a soft spot for the humble iPod.[1] Whilst the iPod Touch is still available to buy, the Mini, Nano, Classic and Shuffle iPods, with their click wheels and metallic casings, have achieved almost vintage status, surpassed as they have been by iPhones and Internet streaming services. With its terrible battery life and matchbox data capacity, my well-loved and well-used purple iPod Nano, the best of companions on so many bus journeys, car sing-a-longs and bedroom dance parties, has been lying dormant in the bottom of my bedside table for months, if not years. I dug it out for a Christmas cooking session with my Dad and what a treat it was.

The delightful thing about this little iPod Nano, that I now rarely use, is that it has become something of a time capsule for my teens and early twenties. My tastes have never been the most refined, but the funny eclectic mixture that came up on my shuffle transported me back to all sorts of places in the past. Althea and Donna’s ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ took me to the dark and comforting noisy chaos of a bar called Big Hands, where a friend’s Shazam brought the answer to my demand ‘WHAT IS THIS SONG?!?!?’ (this happens a lot when I’m out and about and hear a song I like); when ‘Don’t Get Lost in Heaven’ from Gorillaz’s Demon Days came on, I found myself back on my childhood bedroom floor, crying and shaking in a panic before my A Level English Literature exam; ‘Remember the Time’ by Michael Jackson took me to both sunny family holidays in Mallorca and the packed 143 bus down Oxford Road in Manchester, where I created ‘MJ Mondays’ to perk myself up; ‘Am I High?’ by N.E.R.D came on, one of my favourite songs from one of the most underrated groups ever; I was taken back to 2007 and the best gig of my life with one of the greatest dance tracks of all time, ‘Insomnia’ by Faithless; ‘Out of Frequency’ by The Asteroids Galaxy Tour and ‘Lonely Boy’ by The Black Keys got me through my first breakup; Beach Season became part of the soundtrack to what has become the greatest relationship of my life; and, of course, the men and women who carried me through all the rest of it: Christina Aguilera, Bjork, Gwen Stefani, Lykke Li, Madonna’s Ray of Light and Confessions on a Dancefloor eras, Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad and Anti eras, Destiny’s Child, Duffy, Lana Del Rey, Agnes Obel, Mis-Teeq, Kate Nash, Florence and the Machine, Azealia Banks, Jimi Hendrix, Justin Timberlake, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Jeff Buckley, Kasabian, James Vincent McMorrow, Jake Bugg, Nirvana, Father John Misty and, of course, Geri Halliwell’s solo oeuvre.

It is well-known that music has an extraordinary ability to take us back in time to some of the most profound moments of our lives: the continued success of long-running shows like Desert Island Discs are a testament to that. In many ways, listening to my old iPod felt sublimely nostalgic, but touching down into those emotions of contentment, loss, fear and love still felt undeniably raw. Not only did I get to prance about to some absolute classics over the course of an evening (with my poor Dad dodging my every move), I’ve been able to see where I have come from and just how far I have come over the past few years. Being in your twenties is undeniably chaotic, but music is a fantastic way of grounding your experience and cementing those emotions in time that might else be lost or forgotten. As such, my busted up iPod, with its little treasure trove of musical gems, is just as valuable as the new stack of music I have waiting for me, ready to be explored (Idles, Michael Kiwanuka and Jade Bird anyone?).

 

[1] Before I elaborate on my excellent Christmas musical experiences, I need to provide a small caveat. I’m not a fan of big technological multinationals in general, but Apple is a particularly large bogeyman for a number of reasons. Some of these include their cynical policy of planned obsolescence (purposefully making their products and systems redundant thereby forcing users to upgrade or buy more products) that keeps people in a permanent bind of consumption and creates huge amounts of technological waste; their historic routing of profits through countries like Ireland and the British Virgin Islands means that despite the billions made from selling products, Apple pay some of the lowest rates of corporation tax (3% in the UK); Apple continue to award manufacturing contracts to factories in China where workers are forced to labour in horrendous conditions; and, I severely dislike Apple’s digital download policy that when you buy a song from iTunes, you have bought a license to play the song but you don’t actually own it.[1] I am aware that Apple aren’t alone in following such practices, but I think it is important to acknowledge these things when necessary. I have always been sceptical of any company that openly gestures towards innovation and creativity but uses shortcuts and questionable methods to achieve these ‘enlightened’ goals.