a jot about neon icon and because the internet

The Adventures of Twisp and Catsby - Penny Arcade

Penny Arcade put a classic artistic issue well.1 There is a question about how to determine the meaning of a work of art, often of who gets to determine it. “Death of the Author, Birth of the Reader” is basically a platitude among college sophomores, such that citing any intentions at all from the originating artist gets you side-eyed. The trouble with an authority on meaning doesn’t just happen in museums, of course: “That’s not what I meant!” “Well, that’s what you said.” Exchanges like this persist even among the philosophically innocent. What you mean is not just up to you.

Enter Riff Raff’s Neon Icon, which begins with an imitation:

“Bro, bro, the Neon Icon album is so serious — it finally came out today — it’s so — brah — crank the windows down brah, I’m about to — shades down, bro. Bro I don’t even like rappers, it’s just this damn Riff Raff, he’s just fucking off the chain, I mean he knows damn near everything in the book, what are you going to do about it? Bro, did you see Jennifer last night? She was like smoking hot, bro. She had a total nip-slip. Yeah. It’s like she doesn’t even grow hair on her body, she’s just this tan beauty-queen that came from the Eastern Peninsula.”

– from “Introducing the Icon,” Riff Raff

This is an album aimed towards critics, but with what ammunition? A friend and I wondered if we would love the album as much if it didn’t begin with that ironic self-advertisement of Riff Raff as the best rapper of all time with a a serious album — the superlative briefly recognized before moving on to beautiful hairless women. This introduction and other lines (often a reference to his whiteness, “white Gucci Mane with a spray-tan,” “white Wesley Snipes,” “white Chris Rock”) seem to pointedly recognize the easiest ways to undercut Neon Icon as an album to take seriously. One way to confront criticism would be to counter it as wholly unfounded, to present himself as utterly serious, whatever that might mean. Phrased differently, one way way to confront criticism is to demonstrate invulnerability to it. But the two best tracks on the album seem fraught with the kind of human honesty that could serve as further ammunition to dismiss Riff Raff: ‘VIP Pass to My Heart’ is an autotune refrain and an earnest invitation, “You get the VIP pass to my heart, you get the key with lock on it, it’d be a shame if you don’t open it”;’Time’ describes the kind of culpable loneliness those of us who are not perfectly loving have, “In this life I live, my dad is my best friend, but it seems like I never call him, unless I need some money.” Both songs fold around arguably the strongest and most usual song on the album, ‘How to be the Man.’ Initially, I thought it was rather clever of Riff Raff: he never says that he’s the man, but can teach you the performance. I was wrong, but the actual citation is still telling.

“Mark my words, I don’t need acceptance.
I’m catching interceptions on you innocent pedestrians. (Touchdown!)
Suckers keep on flexin, I’m bringing out the rice,
Jody shaking dice watching Miami Vice,
syrup in my slice (that’s a given).
Now I’m the man but I’m crawling like a kitten, teach him.”

– ‘How to be the Man,’ Riff Raff

Before catching that, I thought ‘How to be the Man’ was the challenge of the album. That is, Riff Raff can talk the talk that marks serious rap — beautiful women, drug dealing, substance abuse, sports analogies — and it would be up to the audience whether or not being able to make these claims was enough.2 Is this enough to be worth consideration as an artist? (“It’d be a shame if you don’t open it.”) Now that I’ve caught it, I think I’m still convinced that’s the right read. If there’s something that marks him for unseriousious, it’s his inability to omit ‘crawling like a kitten’ from a claim that he doesn’t need your acceptance anyways.

Childish Gambino’s feature on ‘Lava Glaciers’ could be about either rapper.

“By heart, my art, I don’t wanna explain it.
I knew it, he bullshit, he up his own anus.
Instagrams with his fans, man, he wish he was famous.
Stop talkin’ about your heart, we give a fuck, entertain us.”

– ‘Lava Glaciers,’ Riff Raff featuring Childish Gambino

It’s a fantastic combination of artists, both stuck with the stigma of unseriousness,3 both producing work frequently about emotional vulnerability, and both creating albums that seem for the critics. Yet Gambino’s Because the Internet seemed to respond differently. Riff Raff’s critical ammunition seemed to be stringing the usual serious markers with his admissions of, well, humanity. In contrast, Because the Internet seems to be mostly about taking on the public image of Donald Glover as a “rich-kid asshole, paint me as the villain”4 and still making a fucking great album. (It is that.) The difference in countering critics is interesting. Neon Icon is about full disclosure, with a sense that the decision is up in the air. Because the Internet seems to be an exercise in making do. Rather than correcting perceptions, Gambino’s work is to work within them and demonstrate sufficient skill anyway, despite the additional challenge.

Though the latter is dense and nuanced, I inevitably prefer Neon Icon as the more interesting album, because it offers a more cohesive response to critics. While both albums have diverse subjects and pacing, I think only the Icon delivers a challenge that cannot be ignored, and I think it does so in part by the directness with which it acknowledges that there is something not simply up to Riff Raff, yet also an attempt at honesty. I think that’s ultimately what makes Because the Internet more common fare. The use of that kind of artifice is not as interesting to me. This might be one way of making sense of the difference:

Later on in Ways of Seeing, Berger considers classical paintings of women in varying states of undress and makes a critical distinction between the female subjects who are naked and those who are nude. “Nakedness reveals itself,” he writes, “Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise. To be on display is to have the surface of one’s skin turned into a disguise . . . Nudity is a form of dress.” With the nude, the woman addresses herself to the viewer. She watches herself being watched. She “offers up her femininity as the surveyed.”

– “Against the Nude,” Jordan Kisner

Neon Icon is naked. Because the Internet is nude. Of course, even that distinction is less than easy. Riff Raff’s album is not a leaked set of basement tapes, it is something he prepared at great personal cost for public consumption, and it is something that he did with a specific bent towards criticism. Yet he does seem a little more naked. Mary Cassatt’s paintings often seem like the best blend of the two. To be painted, her subjects had to be posed, and that might mean artifice, and therefore nudity. But there is an intimacy in those portraits that seems not to be a result of the careful choice of bodily position. They were arranged, but the feeling of the pose, between the subjects and the kind of eye required to see that position as a specific pose, “reveals itself.” To make an obvious connection, nakedness, or authenticity, or whatever you want to call it in art, is not just up to the arrangements required to make it.

The nude are bold, the nude are sly
To hold each treasonable eye.
While draping by a showman’s trick
Their dishabille in rhetoric,
They grin a mock-religious grin
Of scorn at those of naked skin.

The naked, therefore, who compete
Against the nude may know defeat;
Yet when they both together tread
The briary pastures of the dead,
By Gorgons with long whips pursued,
How naked go the sometime nude!

– excerpt from “The Naked and the Nude,” Robert Graves

Because the Internet might really be naked, in the end. I feel the emotionality of it. Sometimes as a direct result of the loneliness he often describes, but more often because the album seems so very aimed towards critics; what an immense feeling Gambino must have had as a result of criticism, to have crafted this work as a response. That’s the nakedness. Maybe that makes Neon Icon the nude-er. Criticism is referenced, toyed with, admitted. He begins the album with his expected audience of stoner bros. That was an admission of the truth. But so was the painful brevity of the conversation about him, before moving on to Jennifer’s nip-slip. Ultimately, it’s that feeling of admission which makes the work seem ultimately naked to me.

Naked and nude might be stupid terms. Apt for portraits of odalisques, but increasingly metaphorical and so increasingly unclear with other works. But rap is a genre often openly obsessed with the pursuit of authenticity, where that authenticity determines meaningfulness. Nudity describes a state of affairs in artistic works where one can see, perhaps fall in love with, a particular story that someone is trying to present about themselves. Nakedness describes a state of affairs that is not strictly up to the presenter. Something like whether or not the story rings true. Whether the story works. Whether it is interesting. You can aim for interpretation, but you can’t muscle your way into one. And it’s that sense of muscling, absent from Neon Icon but riddled through Because the Internet, which makes it more interesting. Admission, as I said. The feeling that he’s put something forth for your consideration. It’d be a shame if you don’t open it.

Transistor, Elvis Costello, Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Game?

And there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated—as good rock and roll did—challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics.

– from The Essential Ellen Willis, by Ellen Willis

One of the most instructive parts of watching Mad Men is noticing how the men and women change their minds, particularly on socio-political matters. There is a fashion to opinion, even those on race and sex. Suddenly hemlines are higher; suddenly racism is something Pete Campbell is against. There are few instances where characters confront their beliefs and revise them, even though those beliefs seem to change. Sometimes I wonder similar things about the vogue that environmentalism and food politics currently enjoy. Right now, I wonder that about feminism. Is it a very good time, or a very bad time, to be a feminist? Those who are vocal about social justice no longer seem to be underdogs, even if those meant to be served by social justice still are. Joss Whedon, playing Joss Whedon and someone interviewing Joss Whedon,1 asked himself, So, why do you write these strong female characters?, and responded, Because you’re still asking me that question. It’s a significant response to a significant question, and it is also significant that this question is only imagined. And yet: Gamergate. And yet there are so many moments when playing a game, or reading books, or walking by bars in the dark, when I find myself unable to do anything except think of myself as a woman and unable to be comfortable with that fact.2 And yet I found myself unable to listen to Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True.

Before I heard a word of it, I was blown away by the album, and I spent a solid week waking up to “Waiting for the End of the World,” loosely grasping a connection between the percussion and the title and my own sense of a doomed summer. But loving it led to listening to it, and listening to it led to growing discomfort. The album is named for the repeated chorus of ‘Alison’, quoted below:

Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking
when I hear the silly things that you say.
I think somebody better put out the big light,
cause I can’t stand to see you this way.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.
My aim is true.

– “Alison,” Elvis Costello

It’s an ambiguous double entendre: He’s got good intentions; his gunshot won’t miss. A perfect mixture of menace and sympathy.3 But it is ambiguous, so perhaps it’s unfair to put murder on Costello’s mind here — but note that his contempt for Alison is unambiguous, unambiguously combined with her sex appeal. Hearing this contempt, I looked for it elsewhere, and found it: the album begins with “now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired,” then narrator laughingly hopes that the working week, perhaps as a prostitute, perhaps as a sad career after some kind of stardom, doesn’t kill the admired woman; in “Miracle Man” he declines any disapproval about his abilities because he doubts the judgment of the woman in question; the loss of the narrator’s anger in “I’m Not Angry” occurs when he ceases to expect anything but disloyalty from this woman (perhaps all women), and in fact admits to snapping pictures of her liaisons behind her back; in “Sneaky Feelings” he confesses that, against his better judgment, he finds himself caring for this partner, willing to have sex where “You can force me to use a little tenderness / White lies, alibis, anything but say that it’s true. / Now we could sit like lovers, staring in each other’s eyes / but the magic of the moment might become too much for you”. The album is strung from vignettes of loneliness and unskilled sex, and closes with “Watching the Detectives,” which details a femme fatale’s callous observation of legal proceedings, “she’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.”

If there are helpless processes of identification, such that we search out those that are the most like us in a story and understand how they are treated as ways we would be treated in similar circumstances, then the people most like me in My Aim Is True were women who were pitied, dismissed, or morally repugnant, often some combination of these.

Ellen Willis, a fantastic rock critic in working largely in the sixties and seventies, was conflicted by whether or not her feminism contradicted her love for the Rolling Stones. Her resolution was that the ostensibly more ‘feminist’ offerings suffered from the very timidity that feminism ought to counter, and so she found herself feeling more feminist, powerful and unhesitant about the validity of her thoughts and feelings, when she rocked out to Exile on Main Street instead of the more womanly folk-singer strummy types.4 This could save My Aim Is True. It might be that the honesty in rock-n-roll prompts your own, regardless of whether or not the honesty in question is about you, in particular whether the honesty in question is about you as a pitiable, bad, dismissible but perhaps fuckable. Sometimes I listen to the album. There’s toe-tapping, but there is also always a point where I can’t do anything but listen. Which, if the lyrics are anything to go by, is roughly what the women described are doing throughout the album: listening to Costello tell them how it is, and if they object, they do so in the silliest ways. Excepting of course the murderess at the album’s close, but then Elvis notes that “Though it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay / it only took my little fingers to blow you away.” A gun metaphor again. This is not honesty as an invitation.

Enter Transistor.

It’s the kind of game which seems to aim for a particular comment. You are Red, a young woman and popular singer in the city of Cloudbank, rendered mute by a bizarre attack by a cult of tastemakers. The game begins directly after this attack, the body of Red’s boyfriend laying lifeless, a glowing sword stuck in his chest. Turns out that the boyfriend’s personality has been stored in the sword, the titular ‘Transistor,’ and his voice guides you throughout the game, narrating the circumstance, naming the various computerized monsters that you encounter (things like “Creep” and “Young Lady”), but unable to do anything beyond that narration and naming. As you dash around Cloudbank, the city is being remade into a blank slate by a digital force called the Process, and as details about this become clearer, the nature of Cloudbank as a virtual place becomes clearer. Red’s goal is to save her boyfriend and the city. She cuts her dress, puts on her boyfriend’s bomb-ass jacket, and gets on a motorcycle against the initial protests of her sword, who begs her to escape with the rest of the citizens of Cloudbank.

These are various ingredients of gender and video game tropes. In A World…, a film about that ubiquitous beginning to movie trailers, ended with dialogue about the power of narration and gender, about how it matters who is telling the story, perhaps more than the content of the story. Here, perhaps as usual, a male voice narrates the circumstances, the female lead being unable to speak. Perhaps as usual, the story is a combination of save-the-world and save-my-romantic-interest, though less-than-usually, it’s a girl trying to save a boy. There are various clues about the sexual orientations of the few characters you encounter, though these things are not stated outright and do not feature prominently in their characterization. These clues suggest a happy marriage between two male cult-members, and an attraction to Red by a female cult-member, who planned to attack her that night knowing that her boyfriend would attempt to get in the way. All in all, there is a feeling of play to the ingredients of the game, the spare plot and the lonely, rapidly disappearing world, the girl who never speaks and the man’s voice which serves as the only real guidance through the world. When I said that they seemed to aim for a particular comment, it’s due to that sense of play, where a particular bedrock template has been adjusted just so.

Do me a favor; don’t let go

Of course, the mere presence of these ingredients does not guarantee that this work is feminist or aesthetic success. Bissell puts the aim of video games brilliantly in Extra Lives:

So what have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories. Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that points not toward but at something. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.
– from Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell

For a video game to be an aesthetic success, then, playing that game indicates something deeply about the player. Transistor‘s various ingredients seem to be poised for that sort of indication, and I find myself wondering if it’s poised for feminist aesthetic success. That ‘play’ I mentioned? It might be those elements of the narrative can be distilled into feminist success or failure, but that sort of interpretive work, and the squabbles surrounding them, sometimes is sometimes discouraging to everyone, participants and non-participants alike. By squabbles, I mean the various pieces, on Tumblr and in textbooks, arguing back and forth about whether or not Ariel’s choice The Little Mermaid film was a feminist one, or not, the sort of articles that spring up around blockbusters, sometimes about skin-tight suits, sometimes about Bechdel tests. “If there’s not some fact of the matter,” a critic of such squabbles might ask, “why not always interpret something feminist-ically? Why problematize?” There are lots of things to say about what might motivate feminists, and others, to problematize works. These thinkers might suspect that a lot of quite real issues begin as unquestioned statements about certain kinds of stories, certain kinds of importance, certain kinds of character given to various kinds of people. By making room for alternative interpretations, a thinker can weaken the claim that a work must be taken this way, that a certain interpretation is The One with the capital T. And sometimes simply the act of speaking up is powerful enough.

This essay began about identification. In video games, when one plays as a character, that playing-as seems like an invitation to identify. Here’s what it would be like, if you were, say, a young woman with a sword that spoke with her boyfriend’s voice, wandering around an empty Art Deco city, trying to confront an apocalypse. This partly explains the vast preference to play as ‘Good’ in games that offer good-or-evil choices, because we want to be Good. There are fewer female characters one can play as in games, and feminists sometimes point to this as a failure of identification. Young women who play these games can only see themselves as men, usually white, saving the world and, often, a girl along with it. If they identify themselves with characters based on gender, and not just who they play as, these young women are likely to find themselves in damsels in distress, in love interests, in various kinds of leather-and-sex villains.

Red fails to save her boyfriend or the world. At the end, in an empty city, with a weapon that can make that city any way she wants, she flicks her sword up and kills herself.5

Transistor Ending / End

What is interesting about Transistor’s Red is that the game presents a moment where identification is impossible. I pressed every button I could, watching the transistor rise, hearing the voice inside it go no no no no — in short, I was abundantly aware that Red’s suicide was not my choice. It was hers. Regardless of whether that choice was foolish, wise, virtuous, feminist, or misguided, the game presents in its last moments a woman as a chooser.

That’s your first hint that something’s alive. It says no.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, Catherynne M. Valente

In some sense, this lives up to Bissel’s claims that games point a finger at the person playing them. I think this game points a finger at the person playing Red in those final moments, namely, that she is a character whose choices are ultimately independent of my preferences. In one guise or another, combating one source or another, feminism’s primary motivation seems to be eroding the temptation to not see women as choosers. If there is a such thing as a feminist aesthetic, it would be an aesthetic that promotes that, and I think you can find it here.

I think some of this lies even in the game mechanics. You gain abilities throughout the game that can be combined in different ways, allowing for different abilities; as you fight, however, some abilities are ‘overloaded,’ requiring you to attempt new combinations constantly.

My first introduction to video games and the internet was through Final Fantasy games (and the character shrines they inspired online, websites chock full of essays advocating for that character’s specialness). Looking back on those games, in fact looking back on my gaming history, I wonder how much those games affected me. They are games primarily beaten through leveling. When you come across a boss you can’t beat, you grind for a few more hours and come back and voilà, you can beat him now. To win, you change the character you’re playing. You level up. But more and more I find myself playing games where characters don’t level up at all. You’re given a set number of abilities, which you, the player, have to combine to appropriate effect. I think that young women can get tempted by the level-up mentality. They acquire something that lets them be adequate to their challenges. I suspect this is half of why I went to graduate school, to level up, so that I would then be able to think through the problems that kept hitting me at three AM. In contrast, the do-it-now mentality presents a confidence about personal ability, without a new level, without becoming something else. Here’s a version of the same issue, put Simone de Beauvoir style:

… every human being by definition struggles with what she calls ‘ambiguity’: she is both a subject (a selef-conscious being capable of moving beyond what nature and the world give to her, including her desires as they stand) and an object (an embodied being with characteristics, a style, appetites, and a history, all of which invite the judgment of others. It is fashionable these days to reject the dualistic, Cartesian metaphysic of the human being. But both Beauvoir and Sartre — convincingly, in my opinion — understand the subject/object split not as a mere fact of ontology, as Descartes is at least ordinarily taken to have argued, but more as a phenomenological dilemma. In other words they are interested not so much in claiming that the dualistic picture is true as they are in drawing our attention to the fact that our experience is one of dualism, or more precisely, of a tension between our drive to transcend ourselves and our drive to cement our identities in ways that we and others will find ceaselessly praiseworthy.

…Beauvoir claims that from time immemorial human beings have on the whole found a certain satisfaction in exploiting inherently non-normative biological facts to split the difference when it comes to the painful existential fact of human ambiguity: men, according to this way of thinking, will be the subjects and women will strive to be objects. I put the idea in this odd way to bring out what Beauvoir identifies as the incoherence of this plan: to “be” something, once and for all, is precisely not to be a subject; and to strive to be an object is precisely to demonstrate that you aren’t one.

– Nancy Bauer, “Beauvoir on the Allure of Self-Objectification,” in Feminist Metaphysics, ed. Charlotte Witt (New York: Springer, 2011), 125, 126.

Perhaps antecedently to playing video games or perhaps partially because of what I found of myself in them, I’ve had the level-up mentality. It strikes me as just what Bauer is attributing to Beauvoir here, as tapping into the way in which a person is fixed. When I play do-it-now style, however, I find myself exercising more of that part of myself which is a chooser. That is, I see myself capable of choice, at present, without addition or permission or adornment. No doubt there are counter-examples, but thinking of what I can do in a game as largely stat-based, rather than player-skill based, evokes that same old phenomenological fixation.

Transistor is has lovely mechanics, different from the old level-up kind.6 The way you win encounters is through constant adaptation. No stats, although combining your powers in interesting ways reveals the majority of the information you get about the world, but not information necessary for the game’s completion. If mechanics can advocate a certain mentality, then I think this game can present something quite friendly to Beauvoir’s claims.7

I finished the game and sobbed while the credits rolled, then googled like a madwoman to see how I had gotten the ‘bad’ ending. I’ve realized that I only ever cry out of a wish not to be some person. The martyr on the screen, or, in moments of self-pity, myself, now or in the future. There is a pinch in feminism about whether, when you make claims about what all women’s lives are like, you are silencing them in the process. One of the great things about philosophy is that it always involves making claims about something you have a stake in, such that you cannot remain neutral. You buy the argument or you don’t, and you ought to say something either way. This is trickier in feminism, a subset of philosophy, where a traditional issue has been the difficulty women themselves can have in seeing themselves as capable of that kind of assertion. This would be a trick in a feminist game, too. If it involves presenting a woman as a specific character, how do you present that woman in such a way that women who have differing races, classes, dental histories, sexual orientations will see themselves in her specific choices? Oddly, I think it is powerful to present a woman who defies identification. I cried because I didn’t want to be her, but I couldn’t be her. If the problem with identification is that you extrapolate the specifics of a character you identify with in harmful ways, then I think the ultimate characteristic Red offers, as said, is that she is someone, and to be someone is to have a specific life all your own. It is an invitation in a way that My Aim Is True is not. This is an excellent point for everyone to learn and relearn about women. Women included.

a jot about how I met your mother and too many cooks

I polished off How I Met Your Mother in the wee hours today, a time-slot the show seems designed for not necessarily because of a lack of skill in the product.

There’s an interesting effect in literature when you’re prepared for the outcome. In highschool, I found myself reading Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker with increasing dread after the promise on the cover:

This is their story… and they’re going to lose.

– Description of Banewreaker, Jacqueline Carey

The show proceeds as the story of how the narrator met his children’s mother, so like Carey’s promised doom, the plot has a definitive endgame that the audience knows, and we’re warned straightaway that the woman Ted meets and confesses his love to in the first episode is not the titular mother. The Office specialized in a kind of unflinching painfulness1, mixed with poignancy, but it isn’t the same sadism and hopefulness that makes you keep watching Ted. The comedy of How I Met Your Mother is a warming mixture of laughing-at and laughing-with — the usual mixture of good friendships. In fact, the modeling of friendship, and known stories, is what makes How I Met Your Mother so good, and so very good at two in the morning.

You hear all the time that part of the succor that television offers is through the repetition of familiar faces, so that one can watch a show and feel that one is coming home, even if it’s Gossip Girl. I wouldn’t know how to cite that, but it seems true, and seems like an excellent explanation of the repetitiveness of plot found in so many television programs. “Too Many Cooks,” an animated short on Adult Swim’s 4:00 AM slot, pressed on that repetitiveness of plot and genre with a nauseously long, unsettling title sequence to a fake family sitcom. Of course it goes from the perfect mirroring of a genre to increasingly unstable premises, the original family now blending (and sucking face with) another family, and then another, and the sexy neighbor is now continually topless, and Lars von Trier is cast as a pie, until now a scraggly-haired killer emerges again and again among the other formulaic characters, fading last from the screen.

But it’s not just the woman who is being slain here, even as the red emergency button is pushed and the terror of the slasher plot is jettisoned. “Too Many Cooks” wants to destroy our collective nostalgia for this form altogether. It holds up the 1980s sitcom as something worth celebrating but finds it as hollow as the products that those infomercials are peddling. They’re unnecessary and empty, they’re relics of a time that we long for but shouldn’t return to. In fact, we shouldn’t try. The collection of assembled cast members at the end, all smiling happily for the camera, isn’t the actual ending; it’s a fiction predicated on our own psychological need to see our best selves reflected on screen, to see the sitcom triumph over the harshness and horror of the killer. But he’s there at the very end, worming his way into the extended family portrait, his head remaining on screen even after everything else vanishes into the darkness. Fade to black.

The split-second show that follows uses the all-too-familiar refrain of a man entering the front door and bellowing, “Honey, I’m home,” an ur-sitcom staple, before the laugh track rings out and the end credits roll. It reduces the sitcom to its barest element, the setup, the gag, the most tired joke line of all joke lines. There are reasons why television moved past this format and these archetypes, why our comedies today — or at least the more intelligent ones — strive for more than just pratfalls and laugh tracks. And, consequently, there are reasons why the form idealized and then ultimately cast off by “Too Many Cooks” reminds us of something distant and dusty from our childhoods or adolescence. In exploiting those forms, Kelly and “Too Many Cooks” point toward the danger of nostalgia, which might have the power to tug on your heartstrings, but also to rip them right out of your chest.

– “What’s Behind Our Obsession with ‘Too Many Cooks’“, Jace Lacob

This particular kind of humor is Adult Swim’s specialty these days: the killer chases down a teenage girl, identifying her through the slats in a closet by the glow of the credit sequence following her around, and gutting her; the last scene is a photo of the very large cast, the father (as he has four times now) getting in the photo at the last moment, but the freeze-frame shows the killer in his stead, his face glowing as the remainder of the screen fades off. The joke is that there is no joke, or something equally brilliant and stupid. The joke is that you’re thinking about what it means, and it doesn’t mean anything. The joke is that what made you smile as the title sequence got longer and longer — that this was obviously a riff on a form, that you could laugh at this bloating sit-com without laughing at anybody — is the part of you now extremely uncomfortable with that lingering face, though as Lacob pointed out that killer is still just another flat feature of another flat repetitive genre, but now it’s here, cutting up something which it turned out you cared about, no matter how repetitive and obvious.

Like “Too Many Cooks,” How I Met Your Mother is self-consciously a story, and a very particular story, one you’ve heard before, one you know the ending to, one with a laughtrack. At different points the narrator corrects himself, admits a detail was incorrect, that the sequence of events didn’t happen like this, that secretly all of the characters had been smokers though it had never been shown on screen. This is part of what makes the show fascinating, but it’s not simply that the narrator is occasionally unreliable. Rather, one recognizes in some of the tropes and tools of this sit-com the very same tropes and tools you find when you tell stories about your life. Friends have gimmicks, which are always repeated when you discuss them or when you tell a story about them, or a trait that never comes up except once when it’s necessary to narrative and then never emphasized again. People somehow manage to be larger than can be conveyed clearly, and easily reduced into catch-phrases. That similarity is flattering, but not all the similarities of this show and this genre are. All of the characters compromise their dreams.2 All of the characters repeat their faults well into the salt-and-pepper age. There are changes, but for the most part, what we see on screen are cycles of attempting to be someone better and yet falling right back into form.

I can’t imagine seeing “Too Many Cooks” in its intended time slot. There is something large and empty inside of a person watching television past 2:00 AM, and the uncomfortable nudge of that ten minute joke could only widen it, and of course, that’s part of the point. It was meant to be a sucker punch. But I think, for those also awake and alone, How I Met Your Mother shares some of that same self-referential space, but kindly. The tenderness it shows for repetition isn’t aimed towards the repeated jokes, or the fact that they are repeated, but rather a tenderness towards people who never make the changes that they promise. Part of what you do with an inside joke is reference the fact of the friendship, the fact that you were together when the joke occurred and you’re still together now. In some sense we use those repetitive ribbings to remind one another of one another, and to remind ourselves of ourselves. The very great success of this show is how it manages to show that audiences have this feature due to genre and humanity both. It’s very beautiful and stupid.

quelle surprise!

One of the major insights I gathered from Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was that the attractiveness of new theories importantly involves research possibilities.

When I made a list of things I’d hoped to write on this blog, I was surprised that so many of them were feminist-y. As I’ve been writing, I’ve been surprised to find so many seeds of existentialism and ordinary language thought. (I quoted Nietzsche.) Feminism, ordinary language philosophy, and existentialism were all taught in classes that I forced myself to take as a kind of intellectual honesty, and though I talked about them a lot in graduate school, it wasn’t because I had found the subjects so stimulating, but because I found that they were often dismissed as genuinely insightful areas of philosophy.

This isn’t an apology, just, a record of averred intentions.

a jot about chekhov & mitski

We used to think of you as almost superhuman, but now the scales have fallen from my eyes and I see you as you are! You write on art without knowing anything about it. Those books of yours which I used to admire are not worth one copper kopeck. You are a hoax!

– Ivan (Vanya) Voitski, in Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life, by Anton Chekhov

In Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the titular character spends his life working to support his intellectual brother. Eventually Vanya becomes disillusioned about his brother’s intellectual prowess, then anguished. He wasted his life on someone else. In contrast, consider Mitski’s Bury Me at Make-Out Creek, soft and raw and strung with lines like the following atop reverberating guitar:

In the city, you make it there
and you make it
anywhere, anywhere,1
but I’ve been anywhere
and it’s not what I want.
I wanna be still with you.

– “Texas Reznikoff,” Mitski

I found the album on a bad day and cried during my commute, twice, once looking up to a sign saying: ‘Family Foot Care.’

The tone of the album is obvious. ‘Raw’ is often used in description, and I just used that as a description, but so much in music gets that label, it ceases to be a helpful adjective. A different attempt, less ‘raw,’ more mythological: it sounds like a mermaid discovered Joni Mitchell and Nirvana in a shipwreck and decided to play electric guitar and sing, wavering, about the boy she hopes will drown with her. A mermaid, yes. Because her voice is watery, because those are the womanly figures associated with destructive relationships (all those blue-lipped sailors), because even if she doesn’t drag him under it’s difficult to imagine how successful2 that relationship will be, because of the different things they are.

It’s chock full of references, but not in the style of Ezra Koenig, where the point of the reference seems to be simply the fun of it, the endearing frivolousness of a song about grammar.3 The title of the album is either a reference to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee4 or a reference to how the originating context of national travesty has dropped away, and either way, there is something about the choice of title that suggests much of its content. It is an album about knowing better than to love someone to the point of self-destruction, yet the narrator does. ‘Bury My Heart’ tells you this will be tragic; ‘Make-Out Creek’ tells you that she knows that the stakes are just one man, and kisses, and a tale as old as time. If it is frivolous, it isn’t because it is not deeply felt. And the references seem, to me, to be ways of qualifying this choice as not one made without ‘knowing better.’ Mitski’s narrator has read the big names, too. She’s heard all their advice. The emotional lows of the album occur despite advice about other ways to live. I found one reference particularly striking:

Wild women don’t get the blues,
but I find that
lately I’ve been crying like a
tall child.

– “First Love / Late Spring,” Mitski.

I got a sweet disposition, gonna wear my very own,
I ain’t never gonna spend not one lonely night
at home all alone.
I can go out, drink all the courvoisier I can find,
walk the streets all night alone,
and I can tell any man to go to Hell
if that man don’t know how to act right.
Wild women, we don’t never worry,
wild women never, never get the blues.

– “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” Ida Cox

Cox’s song is often taken as a feminist stand. You could read as a suggestion that doing everything you thought you ought to do gives women the blues, but acting exactly as you’d like, not how you ought, eliminates the source of sadness in a woman’s life. The source might be the endless list of oughts. The source might be the absence of choices about what to do — the oughts have it down. The source might be the expectation of perfect, angelic loyalty to one man, and the bind that puts a woman in when she stops caring for him.

I wrote a bit about what I consider good lyrics, and I described them as anthems for emotion — not mantras, because some of the best lyrics describe feelings I’d like to lose. Listening to Bury Me at Make Out Creek put a voice to a kind of martyrdom I’d been hiding lately, not thinking it was all the wise or relevant, which allowed me to feel that perhaps-unwise-perhaps-not-relevant lowpoint, and it makes me think about various conversations about the oughts in art. Videogames often feature combat, and the violence inherent in that combat is sometimes finger-wagged as sowing a seed of violence in the people that play videogames. Sometimes the response is that such games provide an outlet, either because we’ve all got a violent streak, or because some of us might have one, and a good game can let off that streak without really hurting anyone. But then there’s something to the suggestion that taking a piece of art seriously involves taking it as a suggestion about how the world is, or how you might behave in it. Defending the continuing existence of a piece of art on grounds of impotence is a failure to defend it as a piece of art.

So though this album scissored open a deep feeling in me, I wonder if the narrator and I would be better off without the sources of our deep feeling.5

Yet, the point that art can provide insight into life seems to be behind Mitski’s reference to Ida Cox. She heard the song, but even so, her life doesn’t quite look as described. Same goes for that “Texas Reznikoff” lyric, where the narrator denies Sinatra’s invigoration over success in a tough environment – she’s done that, and now she wants to curl into the afghan with you. In asking whether one ought to listen to this album, in a lovely double sense of the word, it’s important to consider that Mitski’s narrator is responding to a failure involved with learning something from those other songs. The tragedy of the album’s narrative is feeling something which ought to have been precluded by what you know. So if there is question about the value of this piece of art as imbued with, and allowing a listener to keenly feel, a kind of honest self-destruction, it seems key to consider how the narrator of the album became self-destructive after not being persuaded by powerful pieces of music. Someone who believes in the potency of art to persuade a person about how to live their life ought to be uneasy about Mitski’s work here.

I feel a similar sense of unease when I listen to Weezer’s ‘No One Else,’ off the Blue Album. The song is largely about the desire for a person who is defined by their adoration of you, so much so that they don’t even laugh at someone’s else joke. My dog loves anyone within ten feet, and sometimes I’ve looked longingly at the guard dog breeds that bond with one person, maybe. I get the sentiment. But it still seems like an unworthy desire, and you wonder at the kind of validation that desires get when they’re made the subjects of songs. Being artistically portrayed makes the feeling ‘real’ — I’m not alone6 –and because of that ‘reality,’ something no worth acting on.

…here comes this petulant, aggressive rocker acting like he ain’t some sensitive little guy. He starts telling you how whack his super hot girl is, but whatever, he’s on his way out, looking for someone better, more loyal.

These sensibilities were so contrary to the sweet, romantic existentialism on the rest of the record that, to my lovelorn teenage heart, it almost felt like a betrayal. That taken with the relentless instrumentation made it feel more like a bro song.

It wasn’t until I discovered that “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here” was a follow-up consequence to being that selfish prick that I started to realize the gravity on “No One Else.” In the music itself, we feel the faux bravado and scary saber rattling that accompanies the lyrics’ insecurities. The gradual escalation of Pat Wilson’s frantic snare fills. Matt Sharp’s goofy acrobatic bass scale in the pre-chorus (that at he would eventual hone into a historical signature on Pinkerton). Even the debut of Brian Bell’s bratty, nasal backing vocals on the climax. They all reveal a tribe of little boys trying to hide their fear of rejection behind big noises.

– from “20 Years of Weezer’s Blue Album,” John Watterberg (of Dead Stars)

In the case of ‘No One Else,’ the track’s suspect quality is undercut by the other presences that Watterberg indicates, and certainly the core idea is different than the running theme of Bury Me At Make Out Creek. ‘No One Else’ features the desire to be someone else‘s ideal, their primary moral motivation; Bury Me At Make Out Creek features the desire to make someone else your ideal, the raison d’être of the young woman singing about that someone else, a commitment to a love that destroys you. In ‘No One Else,’ because the young woman fails to put her make-up on the shelf, because she laughs at other people’s jokes and laughs at them too loudly, she is denied value, and ultimately left in the dust. Poor treatment in Bury Me At Make Out Creek does not decrease any one’s value — instead, it becomes a challenge, to more perfectly accommodate the desires that underlie that very treatment.

Perhaps the master on the matters of no-holds-barred idealism is The Boss, and in particular Born to Run. It’s difficult to appreciate his hits on their own, because it seems unbelievable that someone could be so sincere about motorcycles and tramps, but he is. Born to Run begins with the following lines about music, and loneliness, and a plain woman:

“The screen door slams,
Mary’s dress waves.
Like a vision she dances across the porch
as the radio plays.
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely,
hey that’s me, and I want you only.
Don’t turn me home again.
I just can’t face myself alone again.
Don’t run back inside.
Darling, you know just what I’m here for,
so you’re scared and you’re thinking
that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night.
You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright.
Oh, and that’s alright with me.

– “Thunder Road,” Bruce Springsteen

“Thunder Road” is a subtle mixture of the angst of loneliness, of imperfect lovers, of art as solace but not solution. Ultimately, these are Mitski’s themes, too. She avows loving ‘you,’ yet there’s hardly an adjective to the subject — not even an obvious gender. One wonders, in the face of such powerfully avowed affections but such little apparent attention to object of those affections, if Mitski really valued that person, as anything beyond a placeholder for value. Though Sinatra and Cox had things to say about what she really ought to have valued, those claims came up empty.

That’s the trick, with art, and art appreciation as offering knowledge. If art really does offer insight, but not everyone gets it, well, what then? If someone fails to see the value in ‘making it anywhere,’ in being a ‘wild woman,’ is that failure on them, or is it somehow in the work, as either imperfect communication or as imperfect insight? There’s a way where Mitski’s self-immolation is a kind of self-assertion, because she acknowledges those works, but they failed to offer her the insights into value that would have prevented her from making her end-all be-all the neglectful ‘you’ of the album.

The choice to ‘go down with the ship’7 seems like one of many bad solutions as to what one ought to value as their end, or goal, in life. A wild woman could value her own pleasure, but that choice has to contend with the question of why one’s own pleasure ought to matter so much, particularly when other people rarely make your pleasure their exclusive goal. Same goes with our competitive Sinatra, who might wonder at the constant effort required for New York City success, whether it’s really success, and is he successful, and if so, why does he have to work so hard?8

Helplessness Blues – Fleet Foxes

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,
Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes,
unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
a functioning cog in some great machinery
serving something beyond me.

– “Helplessness Blues,” Fleet Foxes

You might make yourself (perhaps your own pleasure, perhaps your own excellence) your goal in life, or perhaps you’d like to be a small part of something very large. “Helplessness Blues” came out right after I’d graduated college, and it elegantly presents a temptation that I think those with a little luck can feel. They have a choice about what to do; they’d like to do what is best; which thing is best to choose to do? No matter what sort of value one selects, there seems to be difficult questions that will remain, perhaps about why that choice when there are other options, or perhaps why that choice when no one else sees it.

Uncle Vanya is about that sort of question. As said, Vanya spends the majority of his life working hard so that his brother can achieve academic success — but now Vanya considers that a mistake, being more familiar with both his brother and his brother’s work. Note the ‘Uncle’ in Uncle Vanya. His brother’s daughter, Sonia, is sweet-tempered and ugly and hard-working. She has the final words of the play, where she responds to Vanya’s despair:

Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile—and—we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith… We will rest.

– Sonia, in Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life, by Anton Chekhov

Unlike Vanya, whose further acquaintance with his brother ruined his ability to believe in him, Sonia believes in something she cannot have evidence against. She believes in an afterlife that will reward her for perfect effort, where she may rest.

The search for rest, and the right way to value endless effort, are classic existentialist themes — and classic rock-n-roll. When I listen to this album, I think about those themes, and I think about why someone would choose to make an awful lover have ultimate importance in their life. Vanya picked his brother’s scholarship as the most important thing in his life, which he tried to support in any way he could; but in choosing a person, rather than Sonia’s intangible afterlife, as the goal for all of his efforts, and the justification of his suffering for those efforts, he choose poorly. The choice of a tangible item meant that Vanya could consider whether or not his brother in fact was up to snuff, and when Vanya looked closely, he wasn’t. A great deal of Chekhov’s work seems to consider the temptation to make someone, or something, of the utmost importance, and I think Sonia’s speech explains this temptation. As Nietszche said: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” No matter what you choose to do, there’ll be pain involved. You want to believe that all that pain, all that trying, was for something, in the end. Yet the choice of what makes effort meaningful doesn’t stop the anxiety of whether or not that really was the thing you ought to have chosen; one desires a rest from those sorts of questions, to choose well and finally, as well as a rest from effort full-stop.

In ceasing the search for value and choosing ‘you,’ Mitski has given into both senses of rest. There are few lines questioning her choice, and perhaps that’s part of why we learn so little about ‘you,’ about why it is that she is willing to die for it.

And die she does.

You wouldn’t leave till we loved in the morning.
You’d learned from movies how love ought to be,
and you’d say you love me and look in my eyes
but I know through mine you were
looking in yours…

I always wanted to die clean and pretty,
but I’d be too busy on working days.
so I am relieved that the turbulence wasn’t forecasted
I couldn’t have changed anyways.
I am relieved that I’d left my room tidy.
Goodbye.

– “Last Words of a Shooting Star,” Mitski

The end to the open question of value seems to often be connected in art with the end of a life. Part of why the album is so touching is because its central fantasy is terribly familiar, both historically and personally. Star-crossed love ain’t nothing new, and that existentialist squirm to pick something to value haunts all of us. Mitski’s voice is breathy, soft, pitiful at points and then a snarl among a tangle of electric guitar; the emotional variety appropriate to the narrative is mirrored with the right musical variety. When listening to it, I wondered about what an appropriate record review would look like. Do I mention who she’s emulating? Do I make historical claims? When I read reviews, that’s what I see, but I don’t have those details, and I don’t know where to look for them in Mitski’s case. Yet, even lacking insight to the musical history which leads us to Mitski’s, lacking insight into whether or not this is sonically ‘fresh’ despite its familiar theme, I think this is an album worth listening to.

It is also dangerous.

Bury Me at Make Out Creek presents a woman who makes a disputable romantic choice while fully acknowledging that dispute. She makes a judgment about value, knowing that others will question it, but commits to it. If art really does present insight, and the insight here is that this choice is endorsed and endorse-able by you, then this album is dangerous because choosing self-immolation is dangerous. But if I’m right about the existentialist temptations underlying this choice of a doomed romance, then part of that temptation is ceasing investigation into value, and failing to listen to Mitski is a failure to investigate whether or not she’s right about what to value. The narrator’s temptation is the listener’s temptation when faced with powerful pieces of art. To turn it off, and stop seeing a real question in the avowal that she listened, but just didn’t see why she shouldn’t move forward. To stop seeing a real question about what to value, even if one does commmit.

Country music features several women objecting to a certain kind of story. Let me leave you with the most famous, and the most famously mis-interpreted:

Stand by your man,
and show the world you love him.
Keep giving all the love you can,
stand by your man,
after all, he’s just a a man.

– “Stand by Your Man,” Tammy Wynette

If only Vanya had known.