The following is a record review in dialogue form conducted between this columnist and Michael Snediker (with whom I corresponded about Antony and the Johnsons a couple months back), the poet and literary critic. We were shooting for ten thousand words about the Size Queens, until Michael fell deeply in love and, simultaneously, started preparing for his fall classes back in Ontario. Apologies, therefore, for brevity. We each deal with a brace of songs from last year’s very effective and inspiring release from San Francisco’s own Size Queens, entitled Magic Dollar Shoppe, an album I urge you to seek out. More follows immediately.
“Magic Dollar Shoppe”
Michael, I’ve been up most of the night worrying about the baby, and her bad hips, and I am sort of at the end of my rope, which seems like a good time to start writing about the Size Queens. Per our agreement, I’m going to write about the above song, from the album of the same name, and then you can wade into whatever song from the album you want to tackle thereafter, and we’ll just go along like that until we feel like we have dealt with the record to the best of our ability. I guess the first thing to say is that Adam Klein, the singer and lyricist for the Size Queens is a good friend of Hannah Marcus’s, Hannah Marcus with whom I play music (in the Wingdale Community Singers), and as far as I can tell, they emerged from the same scene, which is to say the San Francisco “sadcore” scene, which also gave us, most notably, American Music Club, and Red House Painters. This music, if one were going to attempt a thumbnail sketch, is often ballad-oriented, often features slow tempos, often is noteworthy for great singing and dramatic lyric writing, and is, as you would suspect, well, sad. There’s a lot of overlap here, in that Tim Mooney, who used to drum in American Music Club, played in Hannah’s “band,” such as it was, on her albums Black Hole Heaven and Faith Burns, also produces the Size Queens. I assume he’s partly responsible for the incredible glittering surface of the Size Queens, just as he was partly responsible for the same on Hannah’s albums (she has since, without him, reverted to something more sloppy and menacing). I met Adam through Hannah, and I guess we had a fair amount in common, because he has published a novel also (which to my shame I haven’t read yet) and teaches writing (he’s about to begin a stint teaching in Beirut!). My capacity to misjudge was much in play initially. I thought of Adam sort of as a very astute fan of Hannah’s and a very well read person, with a lot of opinions on things of interest to me (Thomas Bernhard, Chris Kraus, etc.), but I didn’t take the music part of his output seriously. Hannah played me a few songs, and I sort of thought, well, this is a fine hobby.
And then someone sent me Magic Dollar Shoppe. I suppose Adam sent it to me, or Hannah gave it to me and said, “Adam wants you to hear this.” I put it on the stack of things that I’m supposed to listen to, and, in fact, months went by. Months. And then I started to feel guilty, and I took the disc along in the car. This was maybe three months ago. And with no expectations except that the result would have some great lyrics, I found myself just absolutely stunned by the album. Just stunned. It’s absolutely one of my favorite albums of the last year and that includes all the stuff by famous people that I have enjoyed recently, like Van Morrison’s live rendition of Astral Weeks that just came out. And the new live Leonard Cohen album. I don’t know. In a way, I like Magic Dollar Shoppe far better than these records! Because it’s so unsuspected. And has so many strengths.
But I’m supposed to talk about the first song, and so I shall. “I’ve been huffing nail polish/As I make my way down the aisle/I wear an unusual smile/Paint it up with lipstick/Any color is fine/They’re all ninety-nine cents/At the Magic Dollar Shoppe.” That’s the opening salvo on Magic Dollar Shoppe, the first verse of the song of the same name, but you sort of have to hear the presentation to get the severity of this gesture. The song starts with these ominous waves of analogue (I think) synthesizer, wafting across this piano part (played by Adam’s collaborator, the remarkably versatile and unshowoffy keyboardist Michael Mullen) which is half Kurt Weill and half Steve Nieve (the pianist in Elvis Costello and the Attractions), or maybe, half Abba. Maybe more than half Abba. The band, which is ridiculously good, specializes in little decorations like celeste and zylophone and harmonica, attentive twists in the arrangements that you couldn’t possibly predict. Adam’s voice, which used to sort of hover in a kind of fuzzy high tenor range, like some artier version of Neil Young has settled in somewhere in the neighborhood of John Lennon and James Osterberg as he goes on with the list of objects in the dollar store (“And in all these bins/are a millions sins/I can indulge in”), culminating in the tragicomic climax of the whole thing: “And there behind the frosted glass, you can even buy your mother’s ass, at the Magic Dollar Shoppe”).
I’m leaving out the verse about how most of the stuff in the dollar store is made by cheap labor from Asia, and that’s a woeful example of critical shorthand, because I think the album as a whole proceeds from the thematic material introduced here. Which is not to say that it’s a concept album, but it’s almost a concept album, in that it really is a tour through the degradations of contemporary capitalism, and yes I do like an album about how oppressive capitalism is, and you just don’t find this sort of thing anymore, and it would be almost quaint, this subject, because it’s been effaced by the poisonous bilge of American cultural rhetoric—Britney! Red Bull! The Biggest Loser—but anti-capitalism (at least as subliminal approach) isn’t quaint here, mainly because Adam is brutally funny. He’s funny in a way that is bittersweet and slow-acting. After all, the first line is “I’ve been huffing nail polish.” A funny line about dollar store wares, that is, as Iggy Pop once sad about rock and roll, “hell on the practitioners.” Adam, the narrator of these songs, is a willing consumer in the smorgasbord of goods and services, especially those items that are noteworthy for their ability to slay the narrator, to obliterate his subjectivity, “I can stay for days and days and find myself a thousand ways to be entertained.”
It’s a merciless kind of humor, one that has some Weimar Republic about it, but also a little bit of seventies rock, and it serves as a fine menu of delights for what follows.
“Can a Woman ”
For starters, the song (like the album more generally) seems at play with and haunted by its own musical and cultural antecedents, for which you helpfully account in your earlier email. I admit that one of my first impulses, as I began listening to this music, was to do homework—familiarize myself with its archive, succinctly, whence these songs and why. It’s not often that I confess my wills toward mountebanking, but the confession feels safe if only because my second thought in relation to this music arose as an interest in what seemed immanent but (for me) in many ways unavailable. Playing with and being haunted by seem inseparable here, and kinky. The way a dust meniscus on dollar-shop objects seems kinky, alongside the implicitly pederast effluvium that I associate with certain species of dollar shops, or with what can’t be cleaned from dollar shop carpets. Something happened here, can’t you sense it? The kinkiness of nostalgia returns in “Can a Woman,” whose title suggests first-wave feminism (anything you can do I can do better), first-wave sexual politics (can a woman have an orgasm, can a woman masturbate), and the idea of canning a woman—another version of dollar shop objects. Women as spam, sardines, packed in the dusty oiliness of a song that is both homage and running joke. Canned laughter, the claustrophobic colliding of immanent and prior, a claustrophobia that extends, in the canning, to the song’s actual refrain, which isn’t “Can a Woman,” but “Can a Woman Have a Nervous Breakdown,” which, following several repetitions of itself settles into “Can a Woman Have a Nervous Breakdown…anymore.” Cue a nostalgia that is delightfully, unnervingly creepy, unwilling at least on the level of lyrics to concede what is ironic or non-ironic.
Is the question real? Depends. Is it answerable? Depends. The song is motivated by a question it repeats, again and again. As though “Can a Woman Have a Nervous Breakdown,” lyrically, might—like enough hyperventilation-motivated breathing into a paperbag—induce itself. The song’s form of investigation is catalogic. We are given several examples of women of yore (e.g. the seventies and eighties) who had breakdowns. More specifically, and weirdly, we are given laconic (nearly imdb-style) accounts of actresses who played women who had nervous breakdowns. “Gena Rowlands, at that birthday party for her kid…married to Peter Falk.” The woman Rowlands plays in Cassavette’s film, “A Woman Under the Influence,” like the women played by Carrie Snodgrass, Catherine Deneuve, Jill Clayburgh, is invoked as loosely identical to Rowlands. Not to state the obvious, which becomes all the more so as the song progresses, but the voice that asks this question, again and again, enacts its own sort of breakdown in the compulsion to repeat variations of the same misprision. The normative, uninteresting response would suggest that Gena and company did not have nervous breakdowns, but then again—if a breakdown involves the collapse of a self, and if the characters these women play suffer ontological implosion, then Gena et al. might on some level exist as the residuum by which the character is known. Less confusion of actress and role, then stubborn and stubbornly shallow insistence that the actress or some version of the actress is the broken-down woman. As though the fall into a character were the precondition and consequence of a breakdown removed from the diegetic, per se. But this recapitulation of the song’s plot—or lack of plot, to the extent that the song’s pulsion toward breakdown in invoking preceding filmic breakdowns arises as the song’s stubborn and luridly dessicating breakdown of lyrical narrative; in lieu of the latter we are given examples—only scratches the song’s surface. By which I don’t mean we might go deeper—we can’t, even as breakdown categorically might (again, with its own element of kinky nostalgia) aspire toward a form of psychical richness or density, proof of which being the breakdown itself, against which the superficiality of the movie screen invariably argues.
This is where the song gets weird, and kind of awesome. The derangement of the song’s persona depends on accruals of this same misprizing of surface and depth, breakdown as proof of depth and impossibility of it, a refusal to distinguish what seems real (if one falls into the suspension of disbelief which most films require) from what exceeds it (the director, the actors). The rueful insoluble question of nostalgia for women breaking down (“can” as both a matter of being capable of, and being allowed to) is met with the song’s counter-refrain: “Cat Power, Kristen Hersh, and Kiki DuRane/ are the only women I know who can go publicly insane, Cat Power, Kristen Hersh, and Kiki DuRane/ are the only women I know who can go publicly insane….” This counter-refrain evidences its own erroneousness, in part because going publicly insane differs in a lot of ways from having a nervous breakdown (for instance, that of “Catherine Deneuve,” who, in the song’s lyrics, goes “quietly insane.”) The only persons exemplary of past nervous breakdowns are actresses playing a host of campily and non-campily beloved crazies. The only persons who approximate this original posse, in the present, is a trifecta of crazy singers. Like the problematic of aforementioned actresses, Cat Power and Kiki are stage names, so in this sense Kristen Hersh, front-girl of Throwing Muses, would be odd woman (forgive the pun) out. But oh wait, there’s Kiki, in whom we believe like the God on queer currency, the Athena-born lovechild of Justin Bond. Kiki is and is not a woman in ways only sort of different from the ways in which Gena Rowlands is and is not “the” woman in question. And unlike Cat Power and Kristen Hersh, Kiki’s breakdowns don’t lead to cancellations of concerts or tours. Kiki’s breakdowns—flamboyant, and gasoline-soaked in the very campy ruthlessness that seems to distinguish earlier breakdowns from current ones—are the show. Just as this song about dubious ability to fall apart is the song. At some points the counter-refrain is joined by a Seeger-like harmonica, as though we as listeners were being implicated in some zany grass-roots political movement (YES WE CAN!).
This is still scratching the surface, but that’s exactly what the song does, and what this song’s aesthetic makes as dermally aroused and irritated as it does arousing and irritating. Besides the harmonica, the song is laced with a xylophone’s scales. We are in the infant swaddle of valium, and perhaps are being hypnotized into it. The song is a triumph of failure and fracture, held together only by the nasal and quasi-removed repetition of question (Can a Woman…) and assymetrical response (Cat Power and Kristen Hersh and Kiki DuRane). The song is a very long six minutes of mourning a certain psychically suspicious version of breakdown (to wit, this voice is that of a delightful nut) even as the song, to its credit, imagines and enacts nervous breakdowns of different orders altogether. Gena Rowlands, Carrie Snodgrass, Catherine Deneuve, and Jill Clayburgh, are less heuristic models of how we might ourselves fall apart, but are the pills we pop, again and again. Kiki would be pleased.
I fear the above is dry, less response than precis. This, in part, is because I’m still not sure of my response, per se. On the level of tactility, I think DUSTY-OILY. Also, I find myself chanting along with Adam Klein as though the list of Cat, Kristen, and Kiki WERE an anthem. Like “Magic Dollar Shoppe,” I enjoy how creepy this song is, and how creepy it makes me feel. The enjoyment of creepiness may be one of the great undervalued virtues. The song doesn’t move me, per se (beyond my crazy adoration of its velocity toward nowhere in particular), even as it’s about being moved in the most assiduous way, and about not being moved, not moving, or wishing to be moved on some different register. The Size Queens, here, generate affect without affect. Or produce camp that is too dry—bracketing Adam’s adorable rock-style snarl on “who can go publicly insane” (Neil Young meets Bob Dylan meets Bruce Springsteen, tied and tired and speedy on the influence of Kiki)—to feel lubricious, per se. I feel like this song is kind of meta-Kiki; the lyrics would hardly disagree. Lord knows Kiki needs anatomists and hagiographers, and the mode of the latter disciplines require a love of their subject without necessarily reproduction of that subject’s own m.o.. Breaking down in public, versus quiet. Breaking down, versus insanity. I’m ready for more Size Queens. You’re helping me work through this new valence of musical admiration, which seems to ask if not for less, on the part of its audience, than to ask differently. You bring up “Astral Weeks” in your previous email. Van Morrison, as troubadour, woos his listeners. Adam Klein is up to something different. He voyeurizes and stages his own voyeurizing. Falling in love with the Size Queens seems to require a different emotional and/or erotic relation to listening. But more on this, anon.
“Je M’appelle Au Bon Pain”
Michael, I’m leaving out two songs from the album, skipping ahead, though in a way it’s a mistake to do so, because “Adult Culture,” e.g., is so Ice Storm that it’s almost impossible for me not to sink my teeth into. And, moreover, I have myself asked, occasionally, “What did happen to adult culture?,” which I suppose is the next question that this album proposes after “Can a woman still have a nervous breakdown?” I have asked the question, when trying to face up to, for example Jon and Kate Plus Eight, or Transformers II, or more of the deadening effluvium offered to me by the culture of the moment in an attempt to distract me from the troubles at home and abroad. The question is given a particular seventies twist in Adam’s lyrics—Oh Calcutta!, Marlon Brando and his stick of butter, and so on. “What ever happened to adult culture, when we could send the kids down to the basement to get fingered on the ping pong table?” This is a brutal, unrepentant, cruel take on the seventies, one that I know well, one that I have written about, and given that he too is writing about thirty-five years ago, there’s a natural desire to ask if Adam is operating in a confessional modality (even though the parents, in “Adult Culture” are the protagonists), or if, contrawise, he’s simply alluding to the inevitability, in the seventies, or some boy or girl getting fingered on that ping pong table (though in our house the ping pong table was flimsy, couldn’t have withstood a body). The same perfume-insert reek hangs over “Oui,” which is more conventionally first person, wherein the narrator is given his first copy of that long gone porn mag by his father. There’s a lot to say about this song, too, and especially about the fact that, musically, it’s a cut-and-dried bit of pilfering from the work of John Lennon (at first I thought it was “Oh Yoko,” but I now know it to be “Instant Karma”), but maybe for this reason it’s not my favorite track here. “Oui” seems melodically obvious to me. And the chorus is a little dull. If you want to open a discussion of these songs, you should though, and I can throw in my two cents’ worth. I do think, it bears mentioning, that the ubiquity of quotation and musical intertextuality connects Adam (and Michael) not only to Stephin Merritt, who is the great contemporary thief, but also to the postpunk and New Wave period, which prided itself on borrowing liberally—and you can see how many of the Size Queens’s songs have some kind of relationship to the seventies.
Oh, and another thing to say about the album, which completely ratifies my desire to skip over two songs, is that Adam apparently improvises the vocals. That, at any rate is his claim. In fact, he further observes that there are very few overdubs on many of these recordings. This is almost impossible for me to countenance. On what basis could these songs be improvised? It doesn’t mean, I don’t think, that the drummer counts in and they all start playing with no rehearsal at all, and Adam just makes up the words on the spot. That is simply not possible. If it is true, it makes Adam even more brilliant than he appears to be. I think what improvised means is that Michael has a chord progression, and Adam has some lyrical notes written out (unmetered, unrhyming, as the songs themselves are), and he just starts singing over the chord progression. That’s a pretty amazing feat, too, and his performances are startling for their musicality, despite being improvised. If Adam is improvising, or acting spontaneously within a slightly delimited environment, I aver, we should feel free to do the same.
Which brings me to “Je M’appelle Au Bon Pain,” a song that gets its entire raison d’etre from a bad Franglish pun, namely pain (bread) and pain (rhymes with rain), Au Bon Pain being the name of a rather bad sandwich shop (to which I used to go almost every day when I worked in book publishing and was very poor). Amy, my wife, used to refer to this restaurant as “Oh Bone Pain!,” and Adam’s pun is related. Why such antipathy to a French-named sandwich restaurant? It’s just another one of capitalism’s disgraces, and it’s slightly better than Subway, which I always think of as the kingdom of allowable parts, or Blimpie, which started in Hoboken, and which I used to love for that reason (because I put Blimpie in Garden State, I got a letter from the C.E.O. thanking me, and reminding me, at its close, to Keep Thinking Blimpie!), though loving and eating from are two different things. “I want a life like a sandwich,/don’t hold anything,” Adam sings. Then comes forth a great litany of French cultural allusion items, a catalogue very like “a storm trooper” marching through the Arc de Triomphe. “I want the taste of May ’68,” and so on. It’s a reckless and provocative and deeply silly lyric, which, as you say of “Can a Woman,” does not develop beyond its initial premise, but as befits an improvised lyric it connects with grim satisfaction here and there. I assume that when Adam says “Give the croissandwich to the American bitch,” he is referring to himself, the narrator, and that the pain of the falsetto’d chorus (“au bon paaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiin”) is a reflection of genuine pain, and of the inability of French anything to do the job of repairing the unrepaired insides of this narrator, man cannot exist on bread alone, etc., and since I know that Adam knows his theory (we will have to discuss the as yet unreleased “Reading Rosalind Krauss” at some point before we are done, which is available for those who want to follow along, on the Size Queens’s MySpace page) I assume that this is not a convenient formulation, the French-culture formulation, but one that has real meaning for him. In a way, it’s a parody of freedom fries reading of French culture: I am an American and all I know of France is this popular culture version thereof, and I resent this version, and I resent that all my culture allows of France is this dehydrated, duty-free version.
But what I really love on this song is the music. It’s a dead ringer for a couple of songs that I really, really love, namely “Virginia Plain” from the first Roxy Music album, and “White Punks on Dope,” by the Tubes. What connects these three songs is a completely deranged synthesizer part—in the former case (“Virginia Plain”) it’s played by the eminent Brian Eno, in the latter case by Michael Cotton, both of whom were noteworthy for being non-musicians who made their lack of interest in theory part of their anarchic value. In “Je M’appelle” the synthesizer chirps along like a cardinal at the break of day, getting into the middle of everything, fucking it up, giving the lie to all the canned, programmed electronic music of recent musical history. Likewise, the heavy echo on Adam’s voice (“in my storm trooper boots . . . ”) gives him some real hortatory ability, and this is what reminds me of “White Punks on Dope,” where Fee Waybill sings the chorus with a similarly distorted effect, over and over for about six minutes. And since that classic of self-destruction was written and recorded in San Francisco in the seventies, we can assume that Adam knows it well, and that its broken, distraught narrator (“Hang myself when I get enough rope”) is the predecessor of this “American bitch,” who can find her/his jouissance nowhere in the multi-national French sandwich. Both the Tubes and Roxy Music (at least in the first lineup, the Eno lineup, the one that made the sublime Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure) took the theatrical approach, the glam approach, the campy, androgynous approach, with great aplomb, and I think Adam wants to summon that performative history, but also, in “Je M’appelle” to argue that there is no longer easy access to the transcendence of glam. It’s a thing that is historically bound, and the desperations of the twenty-first century no longer make room for it in the same way.
when one googles
one finds that
this “shopping magazine
is your home
for the best online catalog
shopping! Browse from home
living, décor, audio, ipod, electronics
i’m interested in the generic
differences between the magazine
& the catalog, as though the SkyMall
could offer both— two ostensibly
different modalities of losing oneself,
one in stories, one in objects.
hence, perhaps, the lyric’s
insistence on getting “an extra copy”
for the sake of reading them
“simultaneously.” As though
one could elide these generic
the alterior world
of stories, persons;
and that of objects–
the project of discerning
and not discerning
where an object cedes to story
that cedes to fantasy,
and the problematic and melancholy
resignation that the ceding
exists in the untranslatable
and quasi-pornographic hocus-pocus
of the airplane
in the most recent issue of which
one can find, for $49.99,
a “passive night splint.”
As LoneStarLady writes,
from Whitesboro, TX,
in customer reviews:
“I wouldn’t be caught in bed
without it as I know it’s my guarantee
of a pain-free morning.”
I wouldn’t be caught in bed without it,
suggesting the slippage between
comfort and erotics,
of encomium attached
to the wrong object,
the “passive night splint”
as perfect antidote
for bottoms (women or men),
the closest, perhaps,
find in the SkyMall magazine [sic] to a prophylactic against morning pain.
or for $14.98,
one can get a 10-pack of “detox foot patches.”
The SkyMall magazine [sic]
is an unavoidable absurdity,
as unavoidably absurd
as an airplane’s BARF BAG.
and there it is,
and when one
(in the spirit of Berryman)
has hit the ledge
of one’s inner resources,
it’s either That or the stultifyingly chromatic
maps of imminent airports.
such is the clamminess if not the pulse
of the song.
All the more so
when the song recapitulates
the possible reparations of a body
“that hasn’t been touched
in years.” As tho the discovery
of somatic therapeutics
were necessarily inseparable
from finding one’s self
“above the clouds with my shoes
off and my neck pillow,”
latter of which may well
be an airport if not SkyMall purchase.
The song restages Death in Venice
in the claustrophobia of an airplane aisle,
which, in the song’s haunting blur
of homage/aubade, recalls the contours
of the deathchamber
in Poe’s House of Usher,
even as it only nearly
gestures toward a pallid, impotent
version of Foucault’s Care of the Self.
The self cannot be cared for;
the self that hasn’t “been touched in years”
searches for what
might augment, nigh-prosthetically,
what it has lost,
even as the proscenium of these discoveries
approaches or already inhabits
the posthumous hinterland of Dickinson–
the voice, echoed and refracted,
against itself, may or may not be
taking “a short trip.” This may be
a plane for the dead,
“above the clouds,”
a revision of “because i could not stop
elision of “terminal to terminal to terminal”
to “I am terminal.”
again, as in “Magic Dollar Shoppe,”
SIZE QUEENS intervenes
in an otherwise taken-for-granted
capitalism (economic exchange
in the friendly skies),
to the very little
with which one is left.
How to care about
the catalog’s services, technologies,
when one already has died:
cf “I was once a beauty,”
as tho Dorian Gray were travelling
to some other puddle-jumped
locale, portrait checked,
and searching for remedies
too late after the fact.
we are both on the way
to a capitalist funeral,
and experiencing the tenacious
residuum of market forces
on a body.
As you’ve intimated earlier,
the album elegizes
and excoriates an economic
that likewise resonates
with your account of Adam’s
lyrics as “improvisatory”–
as though the songs themselves
more orthodox modes of the productive.
here, we have a persona
opiated in Eliotic ether,
dead or near-dead,
how the SkyMall’s sundry objects
might repair a body
that has expired beyond its own
That would be good for my feet,
that would be good
for my arches….
Persona, here, isn’t
rehabilitated by other persons
(the passenger next to our voice
is sleeping, you can leave that second
catalog on his tray–)
but by the objects advertised
in clouds– materialist hell on earth
replaced by materialist hell in heaven,
more simply, and admittedly,
reductively, that there is both no escape
and no desire–even verging posthumousness–
the song, like many songs
on this album, collates one version of nostalgia
nostalgia for a body one may or may not
have had, met with the nostalgia for
a plane less allergic to the lawsuits
brought by the allergic–
“can you bring me some peanuts,”
miserable reminder that once
we got nuts,
as opposed to pretzels,
and realization, on some level,
that we are in the world of
peanuts, spirit of Barnum & Bailey,
claustrophobic surgical theater
of the incapacitated and nonetheless
desiring, alongside the desire
not to land.
Duty free, duty free,
duty free, reverberates
in this aubade to the actual
alongside the dolorously
diffident inevitability of “every movie
is Meg Ryan.”
(return of the improvisatory
in the facile rhyme of “Ryan”
and “flyin’,” itself echo of the facile tedium
of the Romantic Comedy, when Romantic
as Aschenbach on a plane,
miles and miles
above any Tadzio.
To be held
from the material disappointments
of a world that only consigns one’s self
(terminal after terminal) to pornographic
approximations of the very objects one might
for the sake of returning to the mundane,
even as the mundane, as such,
was foreclosed from outset.
my ruminations on this song
to such things as the “aqua coffee table,”
for $529.95, which captures
“the tranquility of the undersea world.”
but this, to clarify,
is one of the virtues
of this album. in the aggressive shallowness
of lyrics, derivativeness of instrumentation,
the songs demand rumination beyond themselves,
and this is a generosity that
exceeds whatever post-indie claims
for superfice might inspire. the songs
are locked into themselves but offer transits
from which the songs themselves are blocked.
an ethics of the cosmetic
barely does the music justice. but at very least
such a formulation recalibrates one’s relationship
to a set of songs that are aggressive, simultaneously
asking, in all their brilliant limpness,
how much. And
to what end?
Nothing says capitalism like prostitution. In fact, maybe what Marx meant in Capital, Vol. I, was not simply that it is the tendency of the rate of return on investment to decline without some new virgin terrain to plunder, some new latitude to scorch, but that free markets inevitably create the perfect conditions for prostitution. A vibrant economy generates an abundance of prostitutes and a lackluster economy generates an enormity of prostitutes. In short, all of capitalism is prostitution. When I see the Golden Arches, I think prostitution, and when I think of A.I.G., I think of prostitution, and when I think of the arguably compassionate brands, like, I dunno, Ben and Jerry, I think of prostitution. As soon as you have a sales guy out there on commission, in his clip-on tie, you have a prostitute, bent on concealing her/his needle tracks, bent on photographing her or himself in such a way as to conceal the open sores and the fifty extra lbs. Everyone who doesn’t think of himself as a little bit of a whore in a capitalist economy is lying to himself. It happens right now that a good friend of mind (not me) is falling into sex addiction as we speak, and has chosen me as the confessor. Apparently there’s a certain popular online resource where people can easily find this sort of business arrangement—as easily, if not easier, than one might find a temp worker. My friend has been trolling on there three or four hours a day, contracting with various professional women to come by his place. Yesterday, he had two hookers in one day and not at the same time. I’m worried about the guy, but maybe I should be worried about all of us, and about the way in which prostitution is part of our daily fare, part of shopping list. It’s only illegal because capitalism likes to conceal the scurrility of its motives, likes to conceal its narcissism of minor differences.
One place prostitution displays itself utterly without concealment is the American popular song. What is American Idol, but the battle of the truck-stop hookers? Where the melisma is not decidedly different from the technical expertise Linda Lovelace, et al. It’s good that the American popular song does not conceal is prostitutions. It’s good that we know that Britney took pole-dancing lessons. And “Baby Prostitute,” by the Size Queens raises the stakes on this particular debate. The occurrence of the word “baby” in the American popular song, seems to me, is one of two things, or maybe it’s both, either an example of the de facto child molestation at the heart of the American popular song tradition (as in “the women don’t know, but the little girls understand”), or an example of how the narcissism of the American Century, admixed with its unilateralism, its own pathological narcissism, encourages our infantilism. Yes, everyone is our baby, we are babies, and we love babies. We conceive of our love not with the dread of agape, nor with the selflessness of caritas, but more like the kind of love that eleven-year-olds feel for one another. “Be My Baby” might be among the most evident examples of this infantilization trope, especially in the biographical narrative of Ronnie Spector, who sang the song, written by her husband Phil, and then, of course, married him and was made hostage by him, said she divorced him because if she didn’t leave his house she’d die in it, like that poor actress may or may not have done, and so on. The lyrics of the song, “Be My Baby,” are shockingly shallow, they verge on idiocy, as much of Spector’s output did, but that did not stop it from being hugely influential (see the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry, Baby,” e.g.).
“Baby Prostitute” mixes these strains of capitalism/prostitution into one inflammatory slurry. The music is an unvarying one-four chord progression delivered with a midtempo casualness that is in part borrowed from soul music (where the “baby” trope is very popular), and the instrumentation frankly recalls the sensitive balladeers of the seventies. It actually owes a lot to Bruce Springsteen, the way it plays organ off against piano. But there’s also the lead guitar that reminds me a lot of Coney Island Baby, an album in which “baby” almost always refers to Lou Reeds transsexual girlfriend of the time, Rachel. The lyrics of the song by the Size Queens start thus: “She’s crawling up the street/ain’t got no shoes on her feet/Those eyes looking blue,/Gonna burn a hole through you.” Because I’m in the unique position of writing about this song with, very nearly, a baby on my lap, I can tell you that the blue eyes refer to the fact that the eyes of infants from the European gene pool are almost always blue, a sort of space alien blue, from which they change, at some point in the first year, to whatever else they are going to be. Furthermore, the protagonist is crawling in the first stanza, so if you think, perhaps, that Adam Klein is speaking allegorically, that is, calling an adult a baby (as in “Don’t Worry, Baby”), there is little evidence for that. If we pursue the notion that the song is attempting to excel at the Lou Reed shock lyric the way that Klein does this is to fashion a representation of infancy that is exact, and, it seems to me, suffused with some participant observation. In verse two, he alludes to some of the fruit flavors of much of supermarket baby food products. (“From her bottom lip is the syrup you can sip/From all that sweetened fruit, that baby prostitute”) In verse three, “She’s addicted to baby food, she likes everything pre-chewed/Her pants are held up with pins/But she’s absolved us all of sin,” the degradation of the baby, the prostitute reductio ad absurdum, thus serves a intercessory function, relieving us of our burdens. “If in fact our burdens can be relieved. After the third verse, a sort of soul singer backing vocalist accompanies Adam, doing call and response, (“She’s fallen on her ass/but she just needs a change”), and before the song arrives at its most hideous and epiphanic injunction: “Pick her up and love her! Pick her up and love her!” Adam reaches for the some grain in the timbre of the voice as he shouts this bit, as though he were serious! As though he weren’t describing the kind of degradation that we associate with Bangkok or other impoverished sex tourism destinations. Since Adam has spent time in India, he may have come by the lyric having witnessed such things, but in this case he seems to be taking apart what’s obvious in the American popular song, its crushing immaturity, naivete, and its tendency toward prostitution, and, I’d argue that the indictment extends to the economy that conceals its prostitutions, etc.
That doesn’t mean that it’s not a hard song to listen to! Is it funny? I don’t really think it’s so funny! And what would it mean for it to be funny? That I am letting myself, as listener, off the hook? I don’t blame the lyricist for rubbing our noses in the material a little bit. But is he complicit? That’s worth evaluating. He implicates himself in “Oui,” for example, and in “Sweater,” but in “Baby Prostitute” it’s all in third person. Who is she? She’s the protagonist of all those songs, all those rock and roll songs, “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Little Sister,” “Thank Heaven For Little Girls.” Does an off-handed protest against a strain of pedophilia on the popular song need to traffic in the same strategy in order to do its job? Should it necessarily be the case that a song like this be treated as though it is sad, whether it sounds sad or not? And how many times can we go around and around on that one-four chord progression before it’s one time too many?
Michael, you are heavily burdened with distractions, and so I thought maybe I would just go ahead and write another note (a note following an unanswered note, which is always an especially poignant note, the note that follows the unanswered note, the unanswered note being a sort of missive about which I know a lot, about which I remember a lot, the note composed by the slightly forgotten, which then reenacts its forgottenness with a certain purple hue, a hue that invariably accompanies being slightly forgotten, sort of an eighteenth century feeling, a feeling of knowing and unknowing, of being and nothingness, which can be (either) sort of purple, sort of sentimental and florid, or sort of libertine, sort of natural in an unnatural way, and I say all this though you have plenty of good reason to forget, because you have a lot going on) about “Sweater,” the song on Magic Dollar Shoppe that made me want to write about this album, this band, this singer, in the first place. It’s sort of strange to write about “Sweater” in the most dogged of August dog days, because almost no one should be wearing a sweater right now (except in the excessively air-conditioned subway), and in fact this morning my wife remarked on how our local dry cleaner almost goes out of business every August for the simple reason that no one wears sweaters in August, and thus no one needs to dry clean their sweaters. And so: “Sweater” is ill-fitting, but then it is about ill-fitting. It’s a song that is at first resistant to close analysis, since it is basically just a groove, it is a song that finds a certain sound and then just digs in its heels and does the same thing over and over, only louder. The groove (as a point of reference) is somewhere between “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground, and “Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers, and like both these songs, both these classics, it goes for feeling over subtlety of effect, and in this regard Adam’s Ozzie-esque cackle at the beginning kind of tips you off. Thereafter it’s all electric guitar, a fuzzy droning thing that feeds back more and more as the groove relaxes into itself. The vocal delivery has Iggy Pop written all over it, the Iggy of the Stooges period, I suppose. And as with Iggy’s lyrics (I’m thinking of “Dirt” from Funhouse), it’s pretty easy to imagine that the words here were not subjected to undue levels of revision or reconsideration, because there are really only the few lines, and mostly they are repeated with increasing vehemence. “Sweater/Makeshift pants/Shit out the neck and wear the sleeves for legs.” That’s the chorus, such as it is. “I’m so glad I found it/Gonna build my whole world around it,” the verse goes, “I like your blouse/You like my shirt/I think we can make it/I like your eyes/They look like dirt/I think we can make it.” And elsewhere: “I like your eyes/And you like my sweater/But I’m not giving it up/Never, never.” And then a lot of repetition of the words “Makeshift pants.” Look, Michael, it’s a horrible lyric, an inflammatory lyric, an in-your-face lyric, designed to bother people.
On an album of often inflammatory lyrics, “Sweater” is among the most inflammatory. What are we meant to think about it? In this Magic Dollar Shoppe that is a catalogue of capitalism’s enticements and fetishes? Is “Sweater” not about the ultimate in contemporary degradation? Worse even than “Baby Prostitute?” Is this not the prostitute of the prior song a dozen years later, living in an alley, having given up everything that can be given up, in a city (San Francisco, let’s say) noteworthy for its voluminous indigent population, all of them ambling from corner to corner (in the Tenderloin, let’s say) in search of the handout and the fix? And is this not a poignant set of images? And are we willing to be taken in by the image, or somehow made co-conspirator by virtue of enjoying the big rock and roll groove? And what is it that is promised by the big rock and roll groove, the deluxe rock and roll rave-up thing, I wonder, if not some transcendence over the material? I’m listening right now, for comparison, to “Dirt,” by the Stooges, to which “Sweater” alludes lyriclly. It is also a really wonderful song and a really awful song at the same time, “I’ve been dirt, and I don’t care, I’ve been dirt, and I don’t care/Cuz I’m burning inside/I’m yearning inside/And there’s a fire.” What is it the Stooges thought they were doing, as Iggy was carving himself up on stage with glass and peanut butter, so fucked up he could barely sing, constantly being revived before the show and then carted away to the hospital afterward, patched up and pushed out onstage, to be the spectacle of self-destruction in an era of feel-good affirmations? In his case, it was a heterosexual image, or a mostly heterosexual image, or maybe it wasn’t a heterosexual image at all (I was recently reading this old case history about schizophrenia, Three Christs of Ypsilanti, and it ventures the supposition that all schizophrenia is caused by confusion about sexual identity, a theory that has almost no adherents now, although my therapist did tell me that just about every schizophrenic she ever worked with had a really hideous mother), but perhaps just a masochistic image, which could go either way, which does bring us back to those early pieces by Antony, right, which we have already covered? The Stooges, I think, imagined they were telling the truth, whatever the truth means, they were purveyors of the truth, and they imagined that their brand, their incarnation of that truth was more incarnate than other available renderings, and I imagine that such a belief undergirds Adam’s vision here, this level of privation depicted here, this level of exile, this latitude outside of the enticements of capitalism, this hopeless and ingenuity that would take a sweater and turn it around into a pair of pants, and which would then glorify, even magnify this transformation, this too is in the category of bleak truths of urban life, of Western urban life, of American life now, and it’s perhaps especially useful, in this interpretation that the wearer of these pants is going to shit out the neck, that the neck is available for shitting, that the head is removed for this particular hard luck individual, and the spot where the head once was is now the place where the waste material is produced, meaning that regular cognitive function is no longer necessary, meaning that the drama here is the drama of survival, and whereas “Dirt” by the Stooges still has that memorable passage wherein Iggy sings “Do you feel it when you touch me?” there is no such moment of romantic distraction here (and this is the thing that is causing the forgetting in you, I think, romantic distraction, both in the good and bad senses, while, meanwhile, I am having a whole lot to do with the waste imagery part of the song, by virtue of parenting a six-month-old), in “Sweater,” merely the asexual drama of survival, and the kind of impairment, I suspect, that goes (in most cases) with this asexual, non-cathected drama of survival, and I suppose that the privileging in the lyric of legs over arms (if the arms of the sweater are now fit only for legs, for what purpose are the arms?), there is nothing for the impaired, deprived person to do but move on, as such people are often meant to do, at the behest of the constabulary agents; they move on, that is what people this lost do, these people of liberty! They are the true Americans, in this formulation, Michael, because they are the truly free Americans, because they operate outside of the limited opportunities built into the system, which is to say the system of commodity fetishism and indentured servitude, and this is especially obvious to me, in this moment of “town hall debates” about health care reform, and how the most affluent, the shareholders and upper level employees of large limited-liability entities would rather fuck the little guy, the regular poverty-level nearly bankrupt American, especially the ones who have no health insurance, than they would like to rectify the fact that in every American city today, there’s some family that’s going under watching a parent die of pancreatic cancer or diabetes or A.L.S. or (to use your subject) some other disability or chronic pain condition that involves massive medical expenditure, or what have you, and yet somewhere today there’s some motherfucker in a suit heading home to his family at the shore, with a beautiful view of (I imagine) the Pacific Ocean, and that motherfucker is thinking that shareholders are more important than that family that’s about to be foreclosed upon because of the medical bills (many of them with health insurance, as the president noted today), and the teenager from this family, it seems to me right now, is the protagonist of “Sweater,” leaving home for days at a time. holing up in a squat, and in the process, the process that this motherfucker by the Pacific Ocean would find quaintly ironic, the kid, the meth-afflicted kid, is becoming the true American, the truly free American, because that’s the constructive mythology of this ideology, as we learned it in elementary school (and I am now coming to the last minute and a half of the song where Adam starts doing his Prince or Rod Stewart yelps over the guitar noise, “makeshift pants, makeshift pants,” until you really start wondering about that word “makeshift”), this is a place that is totally free, and Milton fucking Friedman, the war criminal, thought we were totally free, because we could choose TIDE instead of CHEER, but manifestly the only freedom we actually have is either to live lives of servitude within the system as constructed or to allow ourselves to fall out of civilization, and to become part of the army that watches from the sidelines, this army being especially large in California and Oregon and Arizona, because the climates reward transience, unlike here in New York City where you can freeze to death, and, let me say in passing, there was this Mongolian guy, or maybe a Native American guy, who used to live in the Grand Army Plaza subway station for a long time, and we used to talk to him some, or Amy, my wife, talked to him some, because she is good that way, and doesn’t really bother herself about preconceptions, she just talks to people, and so Amy and this guy had some kind of rapport, and many years went by, and Mongolian guy ordered the very orderly possessions in his shopping cart, and then Amy became pregnant, and suddenly the guy disappeared, and the question is where did he disappear to, and did he know that we thought about him as much as we did and talked about him, and Amy felt some sadness that we never got to introduce him to Hazel, my daughter, as he would have had an agreeable smile with respect to that subject, because that was his way, and he was the truly free American, which is, perhaps, the dead American, truly free to catch whatever germs there are out there in the world beyond health care, in the world of social Darwinism, which is the world that the motherfucking health insurance CEO wants us to have because that is the world that his shareholders will expect him to deliver (we are already the most regulated industry in America!), the world of reliable return on investment, the America in which we, the rest of us, are free to be wiped out, and this, I aver, Michael, is the world of “Sweater” by the Size Queens, a world in which there are only the haves and the have nots, and the haves are nowhere to be seen, because they have circled the wagons and stockpiled semi-automatic weapons and some patriots to willing to stand in front of their estates talking about how the tree of liberty needs some bloodied tyrants to nourish it, and that leaves the have nots and the language of the have nots, the language in which they discuss their demise, their destiny of true liberty, in which they perish in front of the middle class. No matter how you think about it, in this narrow corridor of opportunities, it comes around to privation, and then to death. The narrator of the genuine American liberty narrative always dies. And the groove gets louder as it paradoxically celebrates this freedom.
Okay, now if you want to write about Rosalind Krauss that would be nice. Or perhaps we can be done with the Size Queens for a while.