Monday, January 19, 2009

Comparing Notes

Intriguing stuff from Aloof From Inspiration. With regards to the question "how does pop music shape our own erotic understandings, the kind of desires that we find desirable?", the answer would be that it's difficult for me to say I've ever had anything else. Pop music was, and perhaps still is, the extent of sexuality for me. Which is, undoubtedly, a disappointing state of affairs, but at least means I'm never been required to put up with the messy business of having actual relationships, and the fallout that results from the whole debacle of desire.

I can, in fact, more or less trace my entire (short and thin-to-the-point-of-non-existence) history in this field through pop music. The British pop industry, perhaps more than any other except America, pushes sexuality to the forefront in its marketing strategies; thus, many teenagers discover their first objects of desire through MTV. So it was with myself. Being horrifically emotionally immature (ah, nothing ever changes), and hence entirely apart from my peers who were discovering this particular part of life with the help of the inhabitants of the girl's secondary school down the road, there was no transference of these impulses onto real-life people. The entire business remained a carefully-cultivated illusion projected onto the figures of the mediascape that would have made Ballard proud. The objectifying eye of the music-video camera, tracing the curve of a body, the interlocking of limbs, the whisper of full lips, the drop of sweat, became my own. The music stayed, strangely, secondary, almost negligible, to the visuals.

Then, there was the 'difficult phase'. My holy triumvirate would be something like a_'s, except replacing The Cure with Manic Street Preachers circa The Holy Bible, and the addition of Nirvana circa In Utero. My rejection of my past self was violent. Sex, after that, meant brutality, the corrupting influence of the spectacle, death (this years before I ever heard the phrase petit mort - I was prescient.) My hatred of the entire world went doubly for sex, with its squishy materiality and need for vulnerability; my hatred of bodies bordered on the misogynistic. There's an MSP interview Simon Reynolds did around the time of Generation Terrorists where he muses about the Manics being unable to break out of their own well-developed sense of ego (an ego, like mine, built from books, punk music, and obsessive, defensive self-reliance) and merging with the Other in the act of love. Reading it a couple of years after this 'phase' helped me realise what exactly had been - and still is - wrong with me. In a certain sense, I've probably never recovered, and never will recover, from this period, despite every positive step since. I still think, much of the time, of the physical act without enthusiasm, if not with a shudder.

The thaw: alongside the (very) late discovery of myself as a social being (something I'm still working on) came, um, others. These were, appropriately, accompanied by a change in my music tastes, which opened out to a bizarre degree. A couple of weeks after I bought my first copy of Plan B, with CSS, Slayer and a feature on outsider music on the cover, I kissed for the first time. We met at a Halloween party; we were both Smiths fans. I sang a verse or two from 'I Know It's Over' in her ear before she (rightly) told me to shut the fuck up. Sexuality was, after that, a kind of disembodied promised redemption, a force which would "make everything OK", finally. The concept was, of course, vastly out of proportion to sensation, and quickly became disconnected from it. My response to that first contact was though, I suppose, trained by Morrissey's despair, the perverse distortion that hopeless isolation had imposed on his feelings (remember from 'Nowhere Fast': "And if the day came when I felt a natural emotion/I'd get such a shock I'd probably jump in the ocean"). The very physical fact of contact, the sense of a connection with something living, was the important point for me. Looking back, the architecture in The Smiths (the Victorian cast-iron gates and bridges, the claustrophobic brick terraces, the empty concrete shopping precincts) was so much about preventing contact (there's a line in Larkin about people being separated "by acres of housing"), and so mirrored the environment I spent my adolescence in, that it's no wonder I had such a reaction. In the months-long depression that followed (don't ask), the thought of my physical death was always associated with the dying away of the sense of touch, the feeling of animal warmth I'd found in those scant minutes. It remains the case to this day that touch, no matter how fleeting, is the central fact of, ahem, intimacy to me (it should be noted I mean this in an interpersonal sense; I've never been particularly given to, ahem, autoerotic activity).

This is the point at which I contradict myself. The music I've felt most engaged with over the last couple of years, during the slow process of recovery and growing-up, has had its own strange impact, in both very abstract and very concrete ways. It could boil down to 3 things: externality, electronics and gender. Not merely listening to music oriented away from mere interiority, but coming to participate in what might be called a community embroiled in this music, has made of me a vehement externalist. If this would appear to have nothing to do with sex, keep in mind that coming to accept and appreciate the outside world also involves coming to terms with the human body, and all that pertains to it. The latter two require some explaining. The latter pertains partly to feminism: my concern with the way in which patriarchy operates in everyday life came about first through knowledge of the feminist punk and post-punk bands (The Slits, Delta 5, The Au-Pairs, X-Ray Spex, The Adverts) chronicled in England's Dreaming and Rip It Up And Start Again, and the activist pages of Plan B. Listening to Riot Grrrl and so on, the question of what a sexuality which did not involve male oppression, without settling into pre-adolescent preciosity, would be like, became a guiding idea. It is also partially a matter of queerdom. It becomes impossible, listening to glam (Bowie, Roxy), disco, house or electro - not to mention the likes of Xiu Xiu or Antony Hegarty - not to consider the actions of liberation created by such music. In enacting a space in which cultural barriers (black/white, male/female, gay/straight) become suddenly permeable, they construct a radically different model of sexuality, one no longer merely tied to bodies (cf. Irigaray), or culturally imposed divisions between ideas of gender and sexuality. And it becomes, thus, impossible not to consider what questions this poses for oneself. I know that my support for queer politics is not merely sympathy for the culturally oppressed; I seem to have some vested interest, but even I'm not sure what it might be. All I suppose I can say is that I find it impossible to positively identify myself as heterosexual. Things aren't that simple. No doubt the majority of people I know think me rather twee and dickless because of these considerations, but better that than the alternative. It is thus, perhaps, because of music that sexuality, to me, remains something only ever potential, something permanently in-becoming. Owen has written very eloquently of the difficulty of imagining a socialist sexuality which isn't unbearably arid; the critique is necessary, but what actually-existing-sexuality does it leave us with? Very little. And yet, love (in a certain sense), it seems, is necessary too. I've only come up with a minor compromise: Marxists, feminists and synth-arrays also get me rather hot under the collar.

UPDATE: Owen puts it better than I could - "listening to Jay-Z was an experiment with not being tied to an identity as a pale, thin socially inept indie boy (although the music made it's own case, I never had to force myself to like it). Which is of course an identity-formation all of its own, and as an irksomely argumentative student I would end up making a moral case for Ginuwine over the Gentle Waves (i.e, if you listen to the latter you are a luddite/nostalgic/racist etc)." Except for Ginuwine insert New Order/Mr. Fingers/Donna Summer/Roxy Music/Xiu Xiu/Public Enemy. In every case, they seem tied to a different way of organising identity based around the liberatory possibilities of the electronic, a future to set against the past I had to haul around with me. They were a way of leaving The Smiths and all associated with them behind (though I doubt I'll ever leave them completely.)


Blogger owen hatherley said...

Two icy-cold hands conducting the way
It's the Eskimo blood in my veins
Amid concrete and clay
And general decay
Nature must still find a way
So ignore all the codes of the day
Let your juvenile impulses sway
This way and that way
This way, that way
God, how sex implores you
To let yourself lose yourself...

As an aside, I'd like to separate out my comments on Jay-Z and Ginuwine from those on sexuality - the picture of what sex is in those records is something that has absolutely nothing in common with my experience and is either a) decidedly ewww or b) ferociously misogynist. I meant more in formal, and to a certain extent political (bling and gangsta as truth of capitalism) terms - but I certainly never started walking with the gangsta lean through listening to Ludacris all day.

But I will concur with a teenhood libidinally mediated through music - which is again why Pulp are important on this issue, for positing a kind of theatricalised sexuality which the likes of me could in some way embody without it being utterly ridiculous. which is why I'll have to finally write about them...eventually...

January 26, 2009 at 6:12 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Aye, I didn't mean to imply that: to a certain extent I meant more the sonics of hip-hop (thinking of how libidinous Timbaland's production is on those Missy Elliot records; or, for that matter, The Neptunes on the last Clipse album.) It was also a useful corrective, for me at least, to my, uh, puritan impulses - I don't take the talk of scrapers and ass seriously, and evidently you don't either.

I look forward to the Pulp piece (and I don't think I'm the only one...)

January 26, 2009 at 8:22 AM  
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