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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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