Songs I Like #4: Marshall Crenshaw, “She Can’t Dance”

I like to tell myself that if I was eighteen in 1982, I would have been a hardcore kid licking envelopes in Ian MacKaye’s mom’s house and buzzing my hair with my dad’s beard trimmer. But I think the odds are good I would have actually been a skinny-tie, Buddy Holly-Sam & Dave-Desmond Dekker-Brian Wilson mod sweating in his black coat and working out Rickenbacker guitar tones in my apartment.

If that had been my life, I would have probably killed Marshall Crenshaw out of jealousy. As it is, 30-year-old me now just gets to throw my whole body around with joy at his precise, tuneful 60s-ish guitar pop, and bother all my friends who probably already know “Someday, Someway” from New Wave Flashback radio. Crenshaw is, naturally, a nerd (dig his taste in covers: Arthur Alexander, Chris Knox) who is lucky enough to live out his dream, and “She Can’t Dance” is sheer giddy pleasure, nobody’s idea of formalism, with a middle four-then-six that satisfies me as much as any (see here how he brings out my inner nerd with how happy he makes me) small flourish in a pop song ever has: I think of Paul’s harmony on the verse of the Beatles’ “I’ll Get You” or those monster low horns that enter on the second verse of the Ronettes’ “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall in Love.”

Marshall Crenshaw hit at a weird time in rock radio: disco was dead but MTV hadn’t brought the New Romantics to the US yet, and anything– even punkishly trad ooh-baby rock ‘n’ roll– felt possible. But Duran Duran showed up six months later, and Marshall Crenshaw was buried (just as, ten years after, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend was buried by Nevermind), leaving an alternative path in rock’s evolution largely unexplored. Till then… Livin’ only for the sound! Nerd up.

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Sexism and Racism in Game of Thrones

Disclaimer: This is a post about the HBO show Game of Thrones, not the George R.R. Martin novels on which the show is based. I haven’t read the novels, though I’ve had friends refer me to parts of the novels after talking about plot elements of the show. (I’d love for commenters to do likewise and point me to elements of the books– up to the middle of Storm!– pertinent to this conversation.)

Spoiler alert and plea: This post will ruin countless plot points from the first three seasons of the show. You’ve been warned. But I also beg you: If something heroically antisexist or relevant happens anywhere after the mid-point of Storm of Swords, please don’t give it away! Keep conversation on the show, please.

End of pleas and disclaimers.

tyrionSo: TV is not social-justice work. A show can illuminate, provoke, or mobilize audiences around an issue; it can challenge an audience’s or genre’s stereotypes; but it’s made to be entertaining and to make its owners money. Buy me a hot dog sometime and I will talk for two hours about how grateful I am that I watched The Wire, but having watched it doesn’t make me an organizer.

That being said, a TV show is part of a cultural conversation, and takes place in an environment contested by social forces larger than TV. Two lessons from social justice work come to mind as I try to untangle my feelings about GoT.

First: It’s possible to perpetuate oppressions even as you strive to challenge them. Game of Thrones is a world full of richly-portrayed, interesting, and morally complex women of all ages. Cersei Lannister (who shades from diabolical to trapped and miserable as the series goes along), Catelyn Stark (an older woman, the linchpin of her family) and her daughters Sansa and Arya, Brienne of Tarth (a tall, tough, physically intimidating woman!), and, of course, Daenerys Targaryen don’t spend the show as props for male ego, competing love interests, or caricatures. (Nor do GoT‘s writers condescend to them by sanctifying them as noble sufferers: rather than pity Arya, I’m frankly starting to get scared of what’s going on in her head.) The women of Game of Thrones are reflective agents struggling for independence in a sexist world. In other words, they are people, striving for fuller lives in an oppressive society.

salladhorBut Game of Thrones is also crammed full of tits. That is, the show’s producers go to incredible imaginative lengths to decorate scenes of male power with (often anonymous) naked women. The prostitutes of King’s Landing are shown as victims of male violence, but are also presented, as when Tyrion invites Podric to his first sexual experience, in scenes of pure objectified perfumey mystique. Any chance Daenerys can be shown naked (including scenes where, I’m told, she was just, you know, clothed in Martin’s novels), the producers take. Have her be bathing when a hunky barbarian bursts in to defect to her? Check. Have her then step nude moodily lit and gently dripping from the bath to say thanks? Check. One character, Ros, whom I’m told is a composite of a number of minor characters in the book, got the worst of this. She spent the maybe the majority of her scenes naked, including in a staged “educational” lesbian sex scene that was one of the most obnoxious and gratuitous things I’ve ever seen on TV, until being crucified and shot full of arrows by Prince/King Joffry. There are some intriguing theories explaining the preponderance of naked women in the show. I’ll leave you to evaluate their credibility.

catelyn-starkThe issue is related, I think, to the show’s vaunted realistic approach to its fantasy world: people curse, sweat, switch sides, and struggle for power, honor, lust, and shame in moral circumstances much more complex than in, say, Tolkein’s world or even Gene Wolfe’s. But this also means that GoT recognizes no courtly presumption of women’s honor or distance from the fray. Sexual violence is everywhere in this world; in that sense, there’s a resigned quality even to its imaginative ambition, a subtext of “this is just the way people are” that’s curious in a show so imaginative in other regards. (As my genius cousin the fantasy novelist said once in exasperation, wouldn’t it be a more imaginative feat to create a fantasy whose world centered on an active struggle against sexism or violence or whose conceit flipped our expectations of such on their heads? Then she told me to read Zoo City, which I got for my wife instead.) But the show blurs its own ethical position by actively exploiting the sexism we already have– setting us up to ogle female characters or non-characters— to “realistically” portray the sexism of Westeros. So: Game of Thrones can challenge some aspects of sexism while at the same time working hard to perpetuate others.

Second: If you as a person with power are striving to address an oppression, you should expect more criticism from members of the oppressed community, not less. 

Drogo-and-Daenerys-with-Dothraki-khal-drogo-30463554-1280-720I’m amazed, though I suppose I shouldn’t be, how vituperative the online responses have been to commentators of color who identify GoT‘s appalling racism. In its portrayal of the Dothraki in Season 1 (and, though it gets less screentime, in its thin characterization of the black pirate Salladhor Saan, eager to “fuck a blond queen” in Season 2), Game of Thrones hits every single ugly trope of white SF/fantasy’s conceptions of people of color. I’ll leave it to these two excellent posts linked to above to spell out a more detailed look at the show. Daenerys’s crowdsurf on the backs of the slaves she’s liberated at the end of Season 3 is the white-superhero-daydream cherry on top of a show whose interest in cultural complexity seems to end at the shores of Westeros. All I’d add is: please, please, please listen carefully when someone of color names racism, even if you’re not expecting to hear it, struggle to see it, or feel personally hurt. Listening carefully doesn’t mean wigging out, getting defensive, blaming the victim, or holding up your opinions over others’ actual lived experience of oppression. If your defense is “hey, they’re trying” (and, honestly, I don’t see GoT trying very hard on matters of race) then consider criticism to be candid feedback on how intentions don’t match effects.

Hey readers, any other recommendations for fantasy which addresses these issues in more complex or radical ways?

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Songs I Like #3: Bjork, “Heirloom”

“She’s figured out how to get by just on being cute,” my painfully cool friend Dion informed me that summer 13 years ago when Bjork’s Vespertine came out. “Not quite worth the wait,” sniffed Pitchfork. Like Patti Smith’s Dream of Life (dare I see the beginnings of a sexist double standard for home-and-family records?), Vespertine was called oversweet, overpretty. it marked the first time Bjork was identified with a schtick instead of a sound, as if the album’s distant chirring drums and choral suspensions were any less rich than the raspy cellos and oceaning pound of Homogenic, her previous.

But Vespertine remains the Bjork record I like best. It’s a home record, a sex record, a dream record: gathering ripe black lilies. Climbing a tree’s private branches. Waking up with your lover still inside you. Taking the sun in your mouth. Tilting your head to get an angle on the day. Repeating “I love him” eight times. Vespertine still smells like mildew for me, Nivea, coffee, oven-roasted vegetables and old carpets: the place in the north U District (the basement of a house packed with bitter, high-strung ultimate frisbee players) I shared with my college sweetie where we played Vespertine every day. I remember making love to this record, having pointless fights, hosting our parents in a tiny shouldn’t-have-been-there basement kitchen.

Vespertine‘s movement feels like my memory does: inward-and-down, not forward-and-up. There’s no epiphany like Post‘s “Isobel,” or screaming blowout like Homogenic‘s “Pluto,” only a slow descent toward unity. It sounds like I felt when I was deep in love. It also sounds like I feel now on days of, say, feeding ducks with my toddler, squeezing in a prayer in front of a candle, waking up early enough that I can write my dreams down. This song is my favorite, a dream (speaking of) I grasp without understanding.

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Songs I Like #2: John Fahey, “When the Catfish Is in Bloom”

Some lonely pre-internet scholar stranded at the Evergreen Branch Library on Highway 99 in Everett filled the CD shelves there with shit I took years to love enough. When I was thirteen, I tried, then decided I hated, the Pixies, Husker Du, Kate Bush, the Incredible String Band, Wayne Shorter, and John Fahey. When I was fifteen, I tried all of these artists again, and this anonymous music librarian cracked my heart open. The solo guitar views, prayers, and stories of The Essential John Fahey (actually just two of his Vanguard albums on one CD minus a tape-loop experiment) soundtracked my Seattle busrides and first terrible poems. And his namecheck was my cool-kid ticket to my first volunteer shift at the Zine Archive and Publishing Project in Seattle (did you know, one librarian told me, that he was a Christian? and drank four liters of Coke a day, added another? and was apparently mean, said someone who claimed to have met him?) in its golden-years radical infoshoppy location in Hugo House’s funky basement. I was alphabetizing hardcore zines alone and playing this CD loud when this song– the way its blood starts moving faster and faster, that swift 8th-note figure at 3:25 maybe?– made me suddenly stop what I was doing, sit up, and listen. You know those times where a work of art explores you instead of the other way around? I later spent a month-ish first figuring out the tuning for this song (it’s open C), then learning how to ‘play’ it (in the way a duck might observe a conductor’s arms moving and flap his wings in sympathy). Ask me to show you how it goes!

The title is, I think, a non sequitur Jimmie Rodgers pun; the story is all and only in the stately melody slowly adding tension, speed, and ornament up through that mic-saturating breakdown at 6:02.

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The word “God” exists

Probably the mot important thing going on in my life which I have never written about here is my decision as an adult to convert to Catholicism. There is way more to this than a single blogpost, but I thought I’d start writing more seriously about my journey, for friends who I don’t see that often, as well as for folks whose backgrounds are like mine– lefty, punk rock, a product of Scandanavian Protestant family tradition, raised in a secular/Christian-hegemonic, appetitive, pyramided culture, groping for an authentic spirituality.

The title up there comes from German theologian Karl Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith, one of about five books that made it possible for me to decide to convert. The book is unbelievably dense; the translation is careful and business-like but with the bad habit of (seeming to) render Rahner’s monstrous German periodic sentences exactly into English. The chapter on God, “Man in the Presence of Absolute Mystery,” begins with a reflection on the word itself that I return to when friends ask me why on earth I would join an institution like the Catholic Church. (Please note that any misstatements or horrible dumbings-down of Rahner’s thought here are my responsibility alone.)

The word “God” exists. This, as a fact of our language, is worth thinking about. Unlike other ways of conceptualizing the divine– Lord, the Great Spirit, holy of holys, Adonai, Siva, the womb of love– “God” has no descriptive or metaphoric content: it points to nothing in the world. We might in an act or sign momentarily glimpse the action of another abstraction we believe in, such as truth or love, but the word “God” cannot be pointed to in instances. It simply stands (in distinction to even such abstractions as truth or love) as a sort of question about reality: it is everything beyond what we can identify, point to, strive toward, or name. The word “God” is rather the is-there-such-a-thing in whose presence, or upon whose ground, we do our pointing-to and striving. But as such, the question asked by the word “God” (says Rahner) points toward what is unique about humans.

So what is unique about humans?

Natural science has eaten the lunch of just about any earlier claim to human uniqueness: people are not unique among animals in acting compassionately, in showing grief, in communicating complex thoughts through sound. But what seems to be unique about humans, speculates Rahner, is our ability to reflect on the entirety of our lives and speculate what may lie beyond our limits: the limits imposed  by the conditioning experience and political history, and the limits of our powers of understanding. Our ability to reflect on our lives as a whole– how are my intimate relationships just shadows cast by my conflict with my parents? would I be happier if I exercised more often? would I be a bad person if I stole these leggings? why are some people happier in bare simplicity across the world than I am in my material comfort here? can I share without hope of recompense even though I’ve been taught life is war?— and then make a choice, is, for Rahner, the definition of human freedom. Freedom is the spiritual environment in which we decide and then take responsibility for that decision, not the mere fact of deciding to steal those leggings.

So: humans, in reflecting on the conditioning of their dark, hard, bitter, or irreconcilable histories or circumstances, can step beyond and transcend this conditioning. We can choose, in freedom, to be more or better than our apparent limits would allow us. God can be thought of (in Rahner’s phrase) as the term, or endpoint, of this or any possible transcendence, the absolute unknowable horizon-line past what can be conceived of in our frail and wandering little hearts. This makes “God,” for Rahner, an inextricable part of what is human about humans, definitional even in the psyche of someone who names and then denies the existence of this term of transcendence. To (probably mis)quote from memory: “Without the question represented by ‘God,’ we would cease to be anything but clever animals.”

The first “natural revelation” of God to a human– the first gift of the Spirit— lies in our being able to yearn for transcendence, regret or reflect on our past, formulate a question or longing about our lives as a whole. Rahner is a meticulous, unlyrical writer, temperamentally cautious, but some of his writing on this subject feels like it takes flight, as when he writes that the Spirit is “everything in the world that is constantly new and fresh, free and vital, unexpected and mighty, at once tender and strong… The Spirit can be perceived wherever people refuse by the grace of God to conform to legalistic mediocrity.” (Had this quote drawn back to my attention by Fanny Howe.) This yearning, and the self-renewal it allows, is a condition of our humanity that’s a sheer gratuitous gift. And this gift (for Rahner) is the first indication that God wants to be known– worshipped, contemplated in silence, honored by faith hope or love– by us fortunate apes.

So. This is one way of talking about God. It was the way that started me reading, writing, talking, trying to pray, and talking some more on the path that’s led to me being where I am now, enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at St. Mary’s, learning words like thurible and ambry and memorizing prayers I’d already half-soaked-up in childhood. Bearing in mind how absurdly difficult it is to speak authentically about belief, I would love to talk to you all more about it. Look for more posts soon.

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Songs I Like #1: John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, “You Are Too Beautiful”

The year my first serious relationship ended, I moved into my grandma’s condo on Queen Anne and would rumble home after midnight four nights a week from my line-cook job on the 1 bus. My company was addicts reading paperbacks and hollow-eyed yuppies gazing out the window. In the ride’s half-hour-plus, I could usually get through all of John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman’s 1963 record, my head pressed to the bus’s rattling plexiglass. Hartman, a pick-to-click who never quite clicked (Tony Bennett had endorsed him as his favorite singer to no effect, just as Sinatra had done for Bennett five years earlier, making him a star), has a warm baritone. His voice should go with Trane’s playing like chocolate with frozen chicken, but the pairing is actually wonderful: Coltrane’s voluble, complex style keeps Hartman from getting too sugary, and Hartman’s relaxed, reflective voice gives Coltrane’s quartet a place to stretch out from. Besides, this song killed me, like lost-love songs do when you’ve just lost love. The lyric’s restraint was what I yearned for, its longing what kept me sleepless that whole first sad six months.

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New work online

Thanks to my old friend and gimlet-eyed reader Chris Robinson for soliciting work from me for thethepoetry.com. Dig it here, but don’t stop digging until to get all the way to Michael Rae’s poem comics and Rich Armstrong’s melancholic late-night QVC rages.

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