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Showing posts by Tony Herrington from 2011|04

Erotic Neurotic: (not so) slight return

Tony Herrington

After that last post I got into an extensive email correspondence with Amanda Brown during which she made some clarifications regarding her 'sex and sexiness' comment and which it seems to me are worth noting here, if only to fill in the picture a little more.

In one mail Amanda states: "I guess when I told Simon I wanted to be sexy and invest in sexiness, I said it because I feel like women are so afraid of that now in the underground. It's like, don't look at me like I'm sexy, look at me like I'm a man. Which we aren't, obviously..." In another mail she writes: "I think it is time for women who don't dress sexy or don't sing about sex or project themselves as sexy to reclaim sexiness, as soulfulness and sensualness."

The message here seems pretty clear: attitudes towards female sexuality that prevail in the underground are as oppressive and distorted (which is a point I made in my previous post) as those that dominate in corporate pop (which I didn't mention at all, as the fact of its industrialised and fascistic porno-projections of what constitutes a desirable female sexual identity should be obvious to anyone who has ever seen a Pussycat Dolls vid), and both need replacing by less uptight, more inclusive attitudes and representations, and that this is the real nature of Amanda's 'investment'. So for her it is political, a consistent polemic that runs underneath all the donning and discarding of stylistic masks and poses that define the shifts in the NNF/100% Silk aesthetic, and I'm talking visually here as much as sonically, from Noise to drones to psych to dub to synth pop to disco to House and so on.

Maybe confusion, or ambiguity, regarding the political dimension of Amanda's artistic project stems partly from the fact she is also heavily invested in this type of conceptual or stylistic mutability, that has fast become the norm in the lo-fi underground of course, and which makes all these musical forms equivalent, invests them all with the same weight, so effectively reducing them to the level of camp or kitsch, ironicizing the fact that once they were not only mutually exclusive but mutually antagonistic, freighted with opposing political, social and cultural meanings and associations (that have now all been screened out). Perhaps it is hard to reconcile a consistent political agenda with an aesthetic that seems so relativistic and post-historical. Or perhaps both myself and Simon (who raises similar caveats in his article) are suffering from a form of generational myopia, two fortysomething critics applying the values of earlier, more ideologically-determined pop epochs, yearning for the old boundaries and binaries around which we used to rally, and which appear to have been so thoroughly dismantled, collapsed by pop culture's own acquiescence to the illusion of neo-liberal 'end of history' propaganda.

In his article Simon invokes the tense conditions that prevailed in American pop culture in the mid-80s, when the Hardcore underground existed in direct and violent opposition to corporate pop, and compares them to the laissez-faire attitudes in effect today, typified by Amanda's comment that she has no issue with the existence of Justin Bieber. (In their interview, and to her great credit, Amanda meets all of Simon's caveats head on, responds to them with extreme good grace, but this comment still feels a bit like Siouxsie Sioux saying she has nothing against Rick Astley. Or Lydia Lunch announcing she is very relaxed about Luke Goss! There's an irony in invoking Lydia here, as she had links to the art world project, and that is definitely the right way to describe it, that I would argue was the moment that US Hardcore went from being a form of active and antagonistic combat rock to being a branch of inert and laissez faire conceptual pop art, ie the release of Ciccone/Sonic Youth's The White(y) Album. It is no coincidence that in Kim Gordon SY included at least one member who had previously worked as both an art world critic and conceptual artist. And as Simon points out, Amanda is typical of the post-SY generation of underground musicians in that she seems to think and act like an ultra-smart but hyper-detached theorist-cum-'audio artist'.)

Here's another, even earlier historical parallel. When the UK's post-punk agitators made the move from DIY messthetix to chart pop aesthetics (a trajectory traced in outline by NNF/100% Silk's recent releases), it was proposed and discussed as a political as much as a stylistic shift, and depending on which side of the divide you were on, was seen as either a retreat from the frontline of the culture wars, or a subversive attempt to plant an entryist cell behind enemy lines. Either way, the argument goes, it had implications beyond the simple question of making aesthetic choices. Now, when a musician like Amanda makes the shift from Noise to dub to disco it feels, as she admits, more like a random stylistic shuffle, a conceptual flick of the wrist, more a consequence of waking up in the morning and thinking, who do l feel like today, Ari Up or Sade? Do I feel like making some animal Noise, or do I want to make some slinky grooves? On one level you could say this is a more liberated, less dogmatic process, a more 'natural' and instinctive way for an artist to go about things. But at the same time you could argue, as Simon does, that it is one that is devoid of any real or wider consequence because it strips music of any meaning or context beyond itself, as it no longer involves the negotiation of any underlying social or cultural tensions, no longer requires any political alignment or engagement, which is maybe why it is easy to miss the political dimension Amanda claims for her project, why that "How Would U Know" vid still feels more like a carelessly provocative 'whatever' moment than a subversive feminist statement.

In another email Amanda refers to the response (or lack of it) to the image of her on the cover of the Psychic Reality/LA Vampires split LP: "When I was topless on the record with Psychic Reality no one said a word - it was the most silence I've experienced - but that shower scene in the video (in which I'm OBVIOUSLY not topless or naked at all) has got a lot of comments, mainly because I'm joking or mocking. On the record cover I'm serious and I think people hate that, or at least don't want to talk about it because it's odd or frightening."

But unlike the shower scene in the "How Would U Know" vid, which flirts, in a very conceptual pop art kind of a way, with a typical and titillating contemporary soft porn scenario, that cover feels more like an atavistic throwback, an anthropological relic, that is undoubtedly powerful and self-determining (rather than odd or frightening - unless those qualities amount to the same thing when it comes to women taking ownership of their own images) but only limns female sexuality on its way to implying another kind of archaic experience (which is something it shares in common with the cover of The Slits' Cut, which is one obvious precedent). As Iggy Pop put it in The Wire 189, talking about what he learned from studying anthropology at the University of Michigan in the 1960s: "In Stone Age or primitive societies when people get out there or get musical they also get naked." Which is the other reason I didn't mention it, because it already feels more like an archived historical artefact than a part of Amanda's present reality, ie a visualisation of the raw, primal, red in tooth and claw vibe of Pocahaunted and the early LA Vampires sides, and so not an image that would sit too well with the music on a record like So Unreal, which as Simon suggests feels lush and groovy, more mid-80s Compass Point than late 70s Cold Storage, and whose cover, appropriately enough, features Amanda dressed up like Madonna circa Desperately Seeking Susan.

Maybe if she had switched those two covers, so Amanda-as-Madonna was wrapping the feral distorto Goth-dub of her side of that split LP, and Amanda-as-Ari Up was wrapping the seductive 'n' sensual metropolitan synth pop of So Unreal, then that would have set up more of a dialectical dynamic, ruptured the conceptual consistency to allow us old timers to glimpse, if only for a moment, the political agenda beneath the vertigo-inducing aesthetic shifts.

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Erotic neurotic

Tony Herrington

"I don't know how it comes across when I say this, but I am deeply invested in sex and sexiness," Amanda Brown tells Simon Reynolds in the May issue of The Wire. Even though it is expressed in that peculiarly American way that makes Amanda sound like she regards the very fact of her being in the world as a business venture to be injected with regular shots of cultural capital, what she is actually talking about is her vision for the kind of artists and music now being issued by Not Not Fun, the label she runs with husband Britt out of their home in Eagle Rock, LA, and in particular its hot little sister imprint, 100% Silk.

As Simon points out, both Amanda's and Not Not Fun's roots lie deep in America's post-Riot Grrrl Noise/lo-fi DIY underground. This is a realm where sex exists purely as metaphor, something to be invoked or mobilised only in order to expose the brutality of power relations, or to subvert the oppression of normative social relations by flaunting its most taboo, transgressive manifestations. In contrast, almost all the music now being issued by NNF and 100% Silk reflects Amanda's lust for 70s and 90s dance music experiences, her desire to luxuriate in the sensual inclusiveness (or inclusive sensuality) of dub, disco and downtempo beatz, and the way these bass-centred musics work to eroticise the entire body (in contrast to the way Noise targets it as a conflict zone in a Total War, or the way Goth/Emo is convulsed by its base functions and desires, or the way alt.rock puts all the emphasis back on the same old erogenous zones as trad.rawk).

You can track NNFs aesthetic shift from pavement to Penthouse by comparing the messthetix that define the handmade packaging of the label's early cassette editions with the image on the generic sleeves of the 12"s released by 100% Silk, which looks like it has been lifted from a mid-80s Athena poster, all soft fleshy curves, hard angles and cool surfaces, a pre-Photoshop phantasy of aspirational erotica and glam aesthetix.

When it comes to her own LA Vampres project, Amanda's investment in sex and sexiness actually feels more cute than carnal, manifesting as a license to indulge in some slyly provocatve fun and games.

The 'two girls in the shower' sequence in the vid for the LA Vampires/Matrix Metals collaboration "How Would You Know?" might sound like a cynical media grabbing manoeuvre straight out of a Lady Gaga vid, but it feels more like an instance of adolescent juvenilia, a 'whatever' Chatroulette provocation, two twentysomething women getting back in touch with their insouciant teenage selves, deadpanning to the lens as they fake their way through a routine of getting ready for a big night out (and if you want to come over all Lacanian about it, flirting with the gaze they know is there, just out of sight, on the other side of the screen).

LA Vampires feat. Matrix Metals - How Would U Know from Not Not Fun on Vimeo.

In the vid for "Make Me Over" Amanda regresses even further, into a pre-pubescent state of innocence eliding into self-consciousness (or self-awareness), rummaging in the dressing up box, pulling out a sequence of exotic costumes, posing, pouting and dancing in front of the camera, which in this case is a substitute for her pre-teen bedroom mirror, the first witness to vouchsafe an emerging sense of her own sexuality.

LA Vampires feat. Matrix Metals - Make Me Over from Not Not Fun on Vimeo.

But judging from an interview recently posted on the 100% Silk blog, the NNF/100% Silk artist who Amanda seems to have most invested in when it comes to making flesh her new aesthetic is Maria Minerva, aka Estonian 'dream pop songstress'/'disco-not-disco diva' (and, it should be noted here, former intern at, and current contributor to, The Wire) Maria Juur.

During the interview Maria demurely deflects Amanda's line of questioning, insisting she feels more awkward and uptight than the potentially hot 'n' sexy "Eastern European supermodel goddess" (to quote an earlier 100% Silk blog post) that Amanda seems to want her to be. But a quick sweep through some of the evidence now archived out there on the www would seem to suggest that Maria's artistic project is about as deeply invested in playing around with notions of sex and sexiness as her label boss could wish for.

Originally taped at the back end of 2010, the vid for "Strange Things Happening In My Room", a track on Maria's recent NNF tape Tallinn At Dawn, feels like an ironic take on the Talk Talk idents that topped and tailed the ad breaks in the last series of The X Factor (which was still being broadcast at the time this vid was posted). Made to feel like the genuine article (groups of PJ-clad BFFs on a sleepover, having fun with the webcam, miming along to their current fave pop tunes), the idents were moments of pure media artifice, and Maria's vid feels like an ultra hip and knowing restaging, so a fabricated mass media event masquerading as a moment of tweenie jouissance becomes the site for an occluded adult drama, a solipsistic domestic episode veiled in mystery but heavily suggestive of auto-erotic experience.

The 'censored by YouTube' vid for the "So High" track by contrast makes everything explicit, appropriating scenes from what looks like a particularly sleazy slice of hi-brow Euro porn. Before YouTube censored it, this vid went most of the way.

Intriguingly, in the Info section of this post Maria quotes a couplet from Gang Of Four's "Natural's Not In It", "The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure?", sourced not from its original context, the 1979 Entertainment! LP, but from its inspired use on the soundtrack to Sophia Coppola's sumptuous 2006 soft porn period drama Marie Antionette.

"So High" is taken from Maria's forthcoming NNF LP Cabaret Cixous, whose title references the French feminist theorist/writer Hélène Cixous, the distaff Derrida, whose 1975 essay The Laugh Of The Medusa upped the ante on existing theories of non-normative sexuality such as polymorphous perversity and jouissance to instruct women thus: "Censor the body and you censor breath and speech... Your body must be heard." Which sounds like a permissive pre-echo of Maria writing (for France's Hartzine) about the effect on her teenage body of Roy Davis Jr's sublime 1997 Deep House track "Gabriel": "This track got me into House when I was 14. Made me go through changes in my body and I am not talking about puberty! "Gabriel" gave me an idea what a groove could do to you, and oh it felt good."

Appropriately enough, the 'teaser' vid for "Disko Bliss", which was posted in advance of the release of Maria's 100% Silk 12", feels like it arrives as a consequence of the effect of both Cixous's theories and Davis Jr's practice, foregrounding the kind of sensual total body experience brought on by dancing to disco and Deep House. Although Maria can't resist inserting a little ironic touch to undercut the erotic effect: keep watching and the beads of sweat glistening suggestively on the torsos of the male and female dancers are revealed to be fake.

MARIA MINERVA - DISKO BLISS teaser from 100% Silk on Vimeo.

As with most of the images of her circulating on the blogosphere, in the photo on the cover of Tallinn At Dawn Maria returns your fascinated gaze with deadpan inscrutability (is she projecting satisfaction or disdain or just indifference?).

The image's grainy soft focus monochrome makes it feel like a relic from the mid-70s. But is it a promo shot of a Laurel Canyon songstress, or a still from yet another slice of 'sophisticated' Euro porn? Or both? Maria as a double exposure of Laura Nyro and Sylvia Kristel?

In his piece in the May issue, Simon refers to Maria's 100% Silk 12" as "delightfully quirky electro-bop", which feels about right for what is essentially a collection of LCD dance moves (one of Maria's own tags for these tracks is 'slutwave'). But his description of Tallinn At Dawn as "marvelously woozy", while texturally correct, feels too reductive for what is an unusually captivating body of work, one that feels like the product of a genuinely original sensibility.

Some of the arrangements here have a real sense of mystery about them: the way all the parts are shadowed and multiplied by their echo chamber doppelgangers, and the way the individual synth lines, samples and rudimentary drum machine patterns interlock or overlap in unexpected ways gives the songs a complex and seductive polyrhythmic vibe. Rather than the vacuous synth pop of Nite Jewel (the comparison drawn by most Altered Zones type bloggers out there), what it makes me think of most is Nico's The Marble Index (a judgement which I admit may well be clouded by the fact that I know that one of the first songs Maria learned to karaoke along to as a Tallinn tweenie was Nico's "Janitor Of Lunacy": maybe that's what happens when you grow up with a dad who is the one of your country's leading music critics, something like the Eesti equivalent of Paul Morley). Anyway, I make the comparison not because of any 'ice queen' parallels, or because the songs describe a devastating/devastated emotional and psychological landscape (the lyrics are mostly indecipherable, Maria's state of mind and being veiled behind diaphanous layers of echo, although the overall mood feels rather lost and lonely, and therefore suffused with desire and a certain melancholy ache), but due to the sense of disconnect between the sighing vocal lines and what is happening elsewhere in the tracks. Legend has it that John Cale recorded his parts on Index blind ie without hearing Nico's vocal and harmonium parts first. Then the two were slammed together and somehow made to cohere in the mix. This had the effect of suspending Nico in a state of temporal-spatial displacement, and there's something of that same feeling in some of these tracks too (Maria is currently based in London so maybe it's all a metaphor for the migrant experience of longing and not quite belonging).

In a famous essay on The Marble Index Lester Bangs quoted an ex-girlfriend (Lester invoked his exes like muses) who told him it sounded like Cale had built a cathedral in sound for a woman in hell. On Tallinn At Dawn it sounds like Maria has built herself a boudoir in sound, but the emotional and psychological state of the singer remains elusive; is she in ecstasy or in limbo, enraptured or indifferent?

The difference between this music and the tracks on that 100% Silk 12" feels the same as the difference between erotica and porn. The seductive power of the songs on Tallinn At Dawn is in direct proportion to how little of herself and the process Maria reveals. By comparison, the sluttishly explicit dance tracks on that 100% Silk 12" leave little to the imagination and so fascination is quickly spent, turns morbid, shifts its gaze elsewhere.

A memo to Amanda Brown: in order to maximise the return on this particular investment, keep it under wraps.

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