Thursday, February 5, 2009

"I Only Went With Her 'Cause She Looks Like You"

Aloof from Inspiration asks a stumper:
How does pop music shape our own erotic understandings, the kind of desires that we find desirable, particularly during one’s adolescence?
Her own story:
My holy teenage triumvirate between the years of 12-16 was Joy Division, The Cure, and The Smiths. Torture, kissing and celibacy.
Owen Hatherly's, in bits and pieces:
Well, replacing the Cure with the MSP (a spectacularly sexless group, for all the glam: ‘my idea of love comes from a childhood glimpse of pornography’ etc., the physicality of their best record being more about pain, agony and prostitution rather than the other more fun things that do occur), I had the same problem . . .

But there was also Suede (the enjoyable pose of purporting to be bisexual-who-has-never-had-homosexual-experience, faded glamour in estates etc. etc.) and, more than anything else, Pulp—surely the most sex-obsessed ‘indie’ act in history. The joy of artificial fabrics (’Acrylic Afternoons’, ‘Pink glove’), sex-as-class-warfare (’I Spy’, practically all of His & Hers) 1960s architecture as setting for liasons (’Sheffield Sex City), suburban curtain-twitching (’Pencil Skirt’) the list goes on: it’s fair to say I was made permanently dubious at a formative age by their work, something for which I am never quite sure whether to have a grudge against or to thank Jarvis Cocker.
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 [a "pale, thin socially inept indie boy"] could in some way embody without it being utterly ridiculous.
Like Owen, I am willing to take seriously the idea of "a teenhood libidinally mediated through music," and, as one who entertains secret ambitions of Catholic chastity, I am of course most interested in those bands that make modern sex sound like something less than any fun at all.

My own turn-off of choice was the Soft Boys, who, if you don't know them, sound like what you'd get if Withnail had a dog and that dog joined the Smiths. My favorite track of theirs ("Insanely Jealous") does not exist on the Internet, but here's a verse of it:
The paint is cracked and dry, the name is now illegible,
And everything is lost upon the cracked and blistered hull.
Beneath the yellow sky the lovers trip beside the ship
But all I hear when they embrace is just the kiss of skulls.
Everyone else's favorite song of theirs is "Kingdom of Love":
You've been laying eggs under my skin
And now they're hatching out under my chin
Now there's tiny insects showing through
And all the tiny insects look like you.
But Hatherly's recent essays on Pulp (I, II) will become the gold standard of pop music criticism-as-class autobiography if history's judgment coincides with my own (for instance, James on Elliott Smith gets an 8.5 on the Hatherly scale and me on Pulp gets a 4), so let's talk about Jarvis Cocker. I take Morrissey at his word when he claims to be chaste, but he nevertheless seems to inspire an awful lot of people to want to have sex with him and so is disqualified from the Poster Celibate stakes. Cocker is just the opposite: He has an awful lot of girlfriends for someone who makes you never want to have sex with anyone again.

I always imagine the narrator of songs like "Babies" and "Disco 2000" as the sort of man who spent his adolescence aware of sex only as that thing other people were doing, which squares with the fact that Cocker himself didn't lose his virginity until after he had released his first album and turned twenty. That voyeuristic fascination stays with a person for a long time (overheard at CPAC: "I'm a traditionalist because the libertarians never invited me to their sex parties in high school"), as a consequence of which every romantic scene ends like the video for "This is Hardcore"—by pulling back and seeing the cameras. The weakness of my Ladyblog post about Pulp was that I didn't demonstrate how easily love becomes a movie version of itself, but just listen to "Babies" enough times and it will become self-evident. Hatherly points out how Pulp, like Ghost World, is "marked by attempts to romanticise the mundane," but how quickly that slides into judging our indulgences by whether they're good cinema!

None of that was especially clear, perhaps because my take on Pulp is sadly un-British and therefore weak. Maybe the American translation would have something to do with Neutral Milk Hotel, the band that led a generation into thinking that the ideal love affair would be one between a two-headed boy and the ghost of a teenager fifty years dead. In each case, the effect is to make real life seem tawdry compared with our more and more stylized expectations, even as our public fantasies get more and more tawdry (and this is where Elvis Costello's second album comes in). Fairy tales are "erotic novels for children"—hear that, Jeff Mangum? For children.

I was explaining to someone the other day that my favorite moment in pop music is the third verse of "King Horse" (from Get Happy!!): a girl declines sex because she doesn't want the song that's playing on the radio to be ruined for her. The person I was talking to commented that this girl "sounds like someone who takes art seriously!" If you can understand why the girl in that verse is very shallow rather than very sensitive, you can understand the ways in which Pulp is like a Phil Spector girl group.

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