Free Kesha (But Who Is That?)

by Zak Breckenridge

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image via youtube.com

After seeing the December 2015 video of Kesha* performing at the Sweetwater Lounge in Nashville, it would be easy to say she’s lost it. She appears in an oversized t-shirt, carrying a few more pounds than in her last music video circa 2013. Her hair is wild, her makeup smeared. It might feel like a prophecy fulfilled, the arc of celebrity completed. We first met her in 2010, climbing out of a bathtub, covered in glitter, brushing her teeth with Jack Daniel’s. After two successful full-length albums (Animal and Warrior) and a handful of EPs, she went to rehab for an eating disorder and, upon her release, became mired in a bottomless pit of litigation. Like so many others before her, she seems headed for madness and obscurity. Are we seeing the real Kesha, at last  the trainwreck she was always going to be? Or are we seeing something new, something once hidden behind the torn tops and glitter tornados?

 

When I was a eighteen-year-old junior in college, I wrote a paper called “Just Show Me Where Your Dick’s At: Labyrinths of Gender and Spectatorship in Contemporary Pop Music.” The argument was that Kesha inverts gender roles in her lyrics, drawing on a patriarchal idiom to demean and dismiss men, in a coming off basically as a feminist. However, the essay stipulated, she also claimed the authority to objectify these men through her own sexual desirability. So her feminist reclamation of exploitative language was still entangled with the male desiring gaze. Returning to this essay now, it reads as the work of an anxious, relentlessly critical kid trying to root out any traces of patriarchal domination in himself. Though, beneath that, there is a layer at which this young author was deeply, erotically moved by her willingness to dismiss and demean men. My essay took its title from her song “Blah Blah Blah,” in which she chants, “Don’t be a little bitch with your chit-chat / Just show me where your dick’s at.” This was the Kesha that captured my imagination, a woman in possessed of and articulate about her desire. To me, she had an aura of control, of self-sufficient power, could bend the iron bars of the patriarchy like Magneto.

 

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Focal Point: “Ghengis Khan” by Miike Snow

by Evan W. Stoner

After consuming countless Batman narratives in movies and comics, I’ve often wondered when Batman and Joker will give it up and kiss already. Their homoerotic tension, and that between many heroes and villains, is often thick enough to stand a spoon in. Still, hero-and-villain stories never cross this line. The video for Miike Snow’s “Genghis Khan” dances across this boundary in a gleeful Goldfinger parody. Like the song, the video is a love story, albeit one between a supervillain with a gold nose and a James Bond lookalike. The video isn’t subversive purely for shock value, but instead flaunts convention to tell a story we’ve been craving since hereos first faced off against arch nemeses, and it ultimately presents a novel, compelling relationship.

The subversion is immediately apparent when the camera begins following the villain. He sings along to the lyrics as he dances across his lab to taunt the would-be hero. With his prosthetic gold nose and bald head, he’s not a typical protagonist for a spy film. Meanwhile, Fake Bond is strapped to a metal table with an enormous, phallic laser aimed at his balls. We’re never given the opportunity to hope for his escape, nor shown how he got here.

The song itself is a slinky dance-pop tune that’s easy to dance to alone in my apartment. As the title indicates, the lyrics relate a conquest. Rather than a sexual conquest of a Casanova variety, the singer wants to possess his partner: “I get a little Genghis Khan / Don’t want you to get it on with nobody else but me.” The video presents another subversion of pop conventions by focusing on a gay relationship, while in the song a man croons to an unnamed “girl.”

Goldnose’s attempt to laser Fake Bond is foiled when the clock strikes five and he’s forced to clock out. This marks the beginning of his emasculation, since a proper supervillain can laser off penises any time they want, and gives the impression Goldnose is only pretending to be a supervillain. Perhaps most unusual considering his profession, the next scene finds Goldnose in a typical nuclear family with a beautiful wife and children. Showing a supervillain’s home life is perverse to begin with, but here it’s used to further undermine Goldnose’s manhood; he was unable to kill his nemesis (a failure he obsesses over), perhaps suggesting he’s an inadequate provider. There’s also an intimation that he can’t sexually satisfy his wife as he fumes in bed beside her.

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Outside This Century

by JG

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illustration by Johanna Koons

Jenny Tatone: “What do you feel gives music its power?”

Justin Trosper, guitarist/singer of Unwound: “Besides playing the actual instruments, it’s really intangible. The actual thing that happens, you can’t touch or see. Sound keeps going until it hits something.”

Unless of course we’re talking temporally, in which case the sound is frozen and buried and inert until something hits it.

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End of freshman spring semester 2010, blooming things out classroom windows: elms bright, pines winter-weary, cherry blossoms by the Asian Studies buildings across the street. Last lecture of Intro to Archeology and the professor, a portly white-haired fifty-something whose very formal kindness was matched only by his knowledge of Native American/ First Nation history, asks to have a word. He offers an archeology fieldhand gig for the summer. Where, I ask, and he says Alaska, the Arctic circle. There’s a new digsite in need of geographical survey. Two weeks paid. My friends warned of frostbite but I assured them it was just the lip of the Arctic, an average of 70 degrees F in the summer and in a state of constant daylight. We were to camp in this.

Music-hunting had become my primary hobby that year, and after a crash course in Failure, My Bloody Valentine, and Drive Like Jehu, I’d been working through the discography of another 90’s band, Unwound, whose dour guitar tunings, massive power chords and intensely political songs were unlike anything I’d yet heard.

As I worked through their albums chronologically, the band was turning weirder: after recording strictly as a power trio for three albums, they added eerie synthesizers to their fourth, then slowed down and began digitally sampling themselves, forming a few strange jam session-electronic nightmare hybrids on their fifth. They seemed to be stretching, searching for something more in their craft, though what lay beyond was anyone’s guess.

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via unwoundarchive.com

2000. Unwound are a Washington state staple. Their Fugazi-esque penchant for playing all-ages venues and keeping ticket prices as low as possible forms the spine of a local mythology, a proto-brand for this weird, misanthropic, very loud three-piece. This behavior doesn’t turn a profit. To make up the difference Unwound tours ceaselessly, masochistically, after recording 1998’s Challenge for a Civilized Society, dozens of shows, after which they fracture, all three members moving to different cities, the meager profits of being a rock band having weighed on them.

Unwound decide on one last album, their sixth. They make it, exhaustively, in a studio they build themselves. It’s a double album called Leaves Turn Inside You, with a cover showing medieval block-print script spelling ‘unwnd’ on a gray canvas. They tour, but bassist Vern Rumsey’s alcoholism and the anxiety of post-9/11 travel get in the way. They play a few more shows and agree to break up. Their last is on April Fools’ Day, 2002, in a sold-out theater in Olympia, WA, where the band began. Fans speculate for years that they’ll reunite because of the date. It had to be a joke, they reason. It isn’t, or if it is the punchline is brutal. The drummer becomes a librarian, the bassist goes home to his wife and new child, the guitarist quits music entirely and picks up odd jobs. Unwound is done.

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Live Wire: Nicer Than You’d Expect

by Zak Breckenridge

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illustration by Johnna Koons

I took the Blue Line from Avondale into Wicker Park and one of the other volunteers was also headed that way. She was a librarian and worked at the University of Chicago’s brutalist research library, so I was a little surprised that she knew about the Diet Cig show I was going to. A bit of prejudice on my part, no doubt, but I think of librarians as quiet people with quiet taste in music. She had wanted to go, but was recovering from a cold. We split outside the train stop.

I’m bashful to admit it, but I really like going to Subterranean. Inside it looks and feels the way I want a punk club to feel. Having grown up in a town where the nearest concert hall was a ferry ride away, I’m hungry for the feeling of authenticity in a venue. It’s three narrow, low-lit floors of thick black and off-white paint. Everything is close and fashionably dingey.  Of course Wicker Park, Chicago’s premier hipster cum yuppie neighborhood, is all about appearances. Every bar, coffee shop, and venue (some of them all three at once) has it’s own specific and specifically cool aesthetic, and Subterranean gives me the look I crave.

When I got there there were about six other people in the venue, including the bartender and two people I recognized as the members of Diet Cig. Not too surprising; it was a Wednesday and I was half an hour early. Turned out the coat check wasn’t open so I left my jacket and bag with the bartender. She was very nice about it, I thought. Nicer than you expect people to be in the city.

I’ll admit out front that Diet Cig isn’t one of my absolute favorite bands. I had planned to go to this show in large part to do something with two new friends I had made at a Torres show the month before. They had bailed last minute, but I had (thank god!) roped in another friend. She had never heard of the band, but I think she was happy to get out. Point being: while our expectations weren’t exactly low, they were not terribly high either.

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Barnett and Bully

by Zak Breckenridge

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illustration by Johanna Koons

In the months leading up to Kurt Cobain’s suicide, David Foster Wallace published an essay claiming that a poisonous breed of ironic detachment had taken hold of American culture. As he saw it, detachment and cynicism had been become such a secure place to create art from that culture, particularly fiction, was choking on it. Irony had ceased to serve the subversive role it had served in the 60s and 70s and had become a complacent aesthetic mode. Cobain may not have relied as heavily on ironic detachment as some of the authors and advertisers that Wallace discusses, but he provides a portrait of someone who struggled, as a person and a pop icon, to be genuine. Cobain’s deadlock was that he wanted to maintain the transgression and social critique of punk but also worked tirelessly to succeed as a musician. The commercialism and celebrity worship of the culture industry co-opted him and he never saw a way out. Trapped, he resorted to sarcasm and irony, detachment and disaffection as a kind of defense against the power of the industry over his life and his art. But this was a losing battle from the start, because, as Wallace points out, irony is a brittle weapon in the face of the culture industry.

In that essay, Wallace hypothesized that the next generation of artistic ‘rebels’ might be people bold enough to be sincere, people with “the childish gall to endorse single-entendre values,” artists brave enough to “risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile…Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.” He wondered if the new cutting edge will take a step back from the irony he sees permeating the American culture of the 90s and be honest about itself, about culture, and about its values. Since the turn of the millennium, all kinds of artists have been making good on Wallace’s prediction. Music is one of the areas that is most clearly making strides in the direction of honesty. In hip-hop we have Donald Glover, Chance the Rapper, and Vic Mensa. Rock has benefitted from the bleeding-heart honesty of Amanda Palmer and Brian Fallon. Even in pop music, Kesha and Taylor Swift have put honesty at the center of their message to their fans. The list could go on, but the point is that music is one of the cultural arenas that is proving Wallace’s hypothesis right.

2015 is already a year in which we are looking back at Cobain and Nirvana, with the recent release of the documentary film Montage of Heck. The film, which relies heavily on home videos and audio recordings from Cobain’s family, tries to peel away the veneer of celebrity to access Cobain as a full human being. The film is absolutely a success, but rock music itself has also received two incredible installments in the tradition that Nirvana kicked off three decades ago. In March Courtney Barnett released Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, which is a wry, versatile, and consistently brilliant album, and on June 19th Bully released the pounding and acerbic Feels Like. Both albums are in their own ways responses to grunge as a genre and Cobain as an artist, but they have a few other similarities. To start, both are the artists’ debut full-lengths (both released EPs last year), but also both are rock records headed up by women. But, beyond that, both albums give us distinct, honest glimpses into the lives of these women. Alicia Bognanno, Bully’s frontwoman, and Barnett take different lyrical and musical approaches to it, but unrelenting honesty is the thread that holds each album together.

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Floodplain Mix: Chillpocalypse

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illustration by Johanna Koons

We live in confusing times. Here in Chicago the temperature dropped about 40 degrees in the course of 24 hours. We are beset with the psychosis of election season. 2016 already seems to be a foreboding year.

With that in mind one of our resident DJs, Smarty McFly, has put together this quick mix of chill vibes and dancey beats, to capture some of our present ambiguity. The twist is that you get to be in charge of how you listen to it. It’s perfect for dancing in your bedroom, lying in your bed, or starting off a casual social gathering. Take charge of your life, and permit yourself a little joy in these frigid times.

Live Wire: Musicality Around the Corner

by Zak Breckenridge

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illustration by Johanna Koons

The girl on stage–it’s just her and two keyboards and a laptop–tells us the lyrics to the first song she’s going to play, which strikes me as odd. “If you let it out, let me in.” She says that if she’s singing it and we’re thinking it, we’ll have a connection. A consensual spiritual connection. I’m throwing side eyes in every direction. She has also said that she is very excited to be here, and that she’s loved touring with Perfect Pussy. I am uncomfortable. I want her to start playing. She’s wearing a white lace shirt over a pink tank top and a high faux-leather skirt that makes me think of shrink wrap. Her lips are very red and her blonde hair is shaped in a kind of retro triangular burst. She asks for a little more reverb and delay on her mic.

The first track is just a range of harmonies that she sings with, belting and bending. It’s gripping and confusing. As the set goes on, the drums and the pads join her layered vocals, and sub-base lines shake the floors which reverberate in my chest. She is often bent slightly forward, eyes closed, her body tense with singing, one finger on the organ synth to her right, a tableau of musical absorption.

We, the girl on the stage and I, and, at this point maybe thirty other people, are in Beat Kitchen’s venue, which sits in Chicago on a stretch of Belmont Ave that is neither glamorous nor run-down. I am there to see Perfect Pussy, and the girl on stage, whose stage name is Fielded, is their only opening act. Her sound is huge, assured, and dramatic. I am riveted.

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