Review: Polaris at The Chapel

Spoiler alert: Polaris sounds exactly the same live as they do on their recordings. And I mean this in the best way possible.

Friday night, when the band took its Waiting for October tour to The Chapel in San Francisco, was a giant 90s throwback, from their performance of the former Nickelodeon show’s theme song “Hey Sandy” to their cover of REM’s 1992 hit “Man on the Moon,” which included audience Elvis imitations.

The show wasn’t sold out, but everyone who made it through the doors of The Chapel, a former cathedral that is now a concert venue in San Francisco’s Mission WP_20150424_016District, needed to pinch themselves to believe it.

This is largely because Polaris, despite being around since the 90s, never toured until last year. We thought our exposure to Polaris would forever be limited to old CDs — they’re not even on Last.fm (high fives, hipsters) — and Pete and Pete DVDs (though now the show is on Amazon).

The audience favorites were “Hey Sandy” — the crowd lost it when lead singer Mark Mulcahy said “this one will require counting down,” because we all know the song’s epic intro begins with “4-3-2-1” — Little Pete’s favorite song “Summerbaby,” and “Recently,” which someone politely requesting by passing a piece of paper with the title written down along the crowd to Mulcahy.

A few other, lesser-known songs were also worth mentioning. “Waiting for October” has the power to elicit nostalgia for something that never even happened, and “Saturnine” transports you to a summer drive with the windows rolled down.

Mulcahy, Dave McCaffrey (guitar), and Scott Boutier (drums) — known on Pete and Pete as”Muggy,” “Harris Polaris,” and “Jersey,” respectively — seemed genuinely excited to be playing their songs, perhaps because they recently picked them back up after a long latency period.

And man has this period been long for the band’s cult following. “You saved my life on more than one occasion!” one audience member shouted. (I know what you’re thinking and no, said “member” was not me.) “We’re not really in the life-saving business, but whatever we can do,” Mulcahy responded.

Now that I have jumped up and down singing “I wasn’t aroooound, nobody knows, nobody knows” not just in the privacy in my bedroom but also in front of the actual people who created that song, how am I going to make the rest of my life matter? Have I peaked at 24? This concert has brought up some pretty big questions for me.

I’ll try to figure out some way to make the rest of my life measure up, but in the meantime, thanks, Polaris, for giving me and the rest of your fans the opportunity of a lifetime, and one we never thought we’d see in our lifetimes.

10 Queer Women (And Gender Nonconforming People) Who Are Better LGBT Music Icons Than Lady Gaga

Being a music junky who is also a member or ally of the LGBT community can feel like being a vegan in a southern barbecue restaurant. But beggars can be choosers if what you’re begging for is a more nuanced musical critique of heteronormative culture than Lady Gaga’s.

While members of the queer community have embraced Gaga as an icon, others have criticized her for trivializing lesbian relationships, perpetuating the notion that gay rights are predicated on being “born this way,” and rejecting feminism. Gaga identifies as bisexual but considers herself more a supporter than an icon.

Check out my latest Thought Catalog article for some other queer women and gender nonconforming people whose progress in advocating for LGBT rights often goes unsung (no pun intended).

Review: The Blow and Anna Oxygen at The Chapel

The Blow‘s “Unplugged” tour, featuring Melissa Dyne (synthesizer) and Khaela Maricich (vocals, keyboard) on stage with live instruments for the first time,* made a stop at the San Francisco mortuary-turned-concert-venue The Chapel last night.

Anna Oxygen“This is a song from the moon’s perspective,” psychedelic folk artist Anna Oxygen announced as she opened the show with an animated rendering of songs that combined electronic instrumentals, operatic vocals, and mystical lyrics. Her voice’s tenor sounds like Natasha Khan of Bat for Lashes, while her naturalistic, fantastical imagery brings to mind Joanna Newsom’s lyrics.

A full moon shed light over the Mission outside The Chapel as the singer, songwriter and actress gestured and danced the motions of the moon’s monthly routine.

In keeping with the pagan theme set by the opening song, which employs a clever pun by describing the moon as “revolutionary,” she also sang about a witch who gazes upon the earth from behind a wall of fog, appropriate in the San Francisco climate.

Throughout her set, Anna Oxygen kept the audience intrigued by singing over amplified echoes of her previous lines, shaking a beaded instrument above her head, and prefacing her songs with lines like “Imagine one quick thing, which is that I’m wearing psychic armor … and maybe I’m holding a pendulum.” She introduced The Blow as “mystical wizardresses.”

Maricich and Dyne entered the stage quietly and positioned themselves across from each other. Maricich sung with a subdued demeanor, her gaze directed toward her keyboard or Dyne for the majority of the set.

The audience chuckled during “Gravity (Pauline’s Response to Amy),” a song speculating about a former lover’s whereabouts, as Maricich sang “From behind, can you feel those hands? They’re not mine.” The energy picked up as the duo played “True Affection,” a fun, minimalistic, synthesizer-dominated reflection on a failed relationship, keeping listeners on their toes by deviating from the tune of the recorded version every so often and drawing out the bridge in slow motion.

The BlowThe piece I found most intriguing, which is nowhere to be found online, contained mostly spoken word by Maricich with the refrain “She’ll be the woman you want her to be” followed by a high, chant-like “Ooooh-oowoooo.” The woman characterized in the song embodies the feminine ideal of catering to another’s desires without demanding consideration for her own: She knows exactly what her partner wants, doesn’t ask for anything, and is “everything” and “nothing” all at once.

Many of The Blow’s songs deal with issues of gender and sexuality, perhaps related to the members’ lesbian identity. What makes this band most notable in my eyes is the critique of patriarchy and heteronormativity weaved into its music. For example, “Pile of Gold” from the 2006 album Paper Television draws attention to the economic model of sex as a service traded for preferential treatment:

All the girls are sitting on a pile of gold
All the girls—
And the boys you know they want—they want it
It’s economic

Hey Boy” from 2004’s Poor Aim: Love Songs paints a regretful picture of a girl consumed by a love interest who won’t call her back; “Like Girls” from the 2013 self-titled album contains the powerful feminine image of flashing a “powderpink handgun;” and “What Tom said about girls” from 2003’s The Concussive Caress depicts a character too many women are familiar with:

I’ve seen a hole and I aim to fill it
If that hole’s got a heart I’ve got the means to thrill it…
Cause you looked like a beacon of light
Just beaming in the night, I feel safe
So I’m like “Hey Baby!”

Maricich also explores feminist and queer politics on her blog and started the website Woman Producer to document women in music production.

Being a feminist seeking music that suits her political sensibilities can feel like being a vegan at a southern barbecue restaurant. That’s why I’m grateful for artists like The Blow and Anna Oxygen that satiate my craving for tunes I want to dance to combined with lyrics I can get behind.

*In the indie pop duo’s past performances, Maricich performed on-stage while Dyne produced the music from across the room.

Agency at the Margins: ‘Reading Jewish Women’ by Iris Parush

Iris Parush argues in Reading Jewish Women that the inaccessibility of Hebrew texts to nineteenth-century Jewish Eastern European women paradoxically afforded them an education that the men in their culture did not receive. More specifically, the inability to read Hebrew and consequent propensity for books in Yiddish and national languages exposed Jewish women to more modern and worldly ideas than their husbands, fathers, and sons were reading. These women ended up ahead of their male counterparts in understanding the Enlightenment ideals circulating around Europe, and hence were largely responsible for the secularization and modernization of Jewish society. The book’s implications are larger, however: Parush sees this historical situation as but one way that women throughout history have benefited from their marginalized status — a claim she advances both effectively and somewhat problematically.

The argument for women’s significant role in the Jewish Enlightenment contains two main premises that Parush expounds and tries to prove throughout the book. These two pieces of the argument correspond to two types of interactions: that between Haskalah literature and the women who read it, and that between women and the rest of their society. The first and most developed premise — that women gained greater exposure than men to modern ideas —  dominates the first five chapters. It relies both on historians’ analyses of the cultural climate that set the stage for this phenomenon and on primary sources that attest to women’s reading habits and the Enlightenment ideas that they learned from their reading, including excerpts from the books themselves. In the first chapter, Parush provides a historical background on the politics, particularly those of literacy, that led the maskilim to target women in their mission to spread secular ideas and integrate Jewish cultures with the rest of their societies. The maskilim “had to identify cracks in the system of rabbidinal oversight and widen them” (14), and one of tne of these cracks was in the regulation of women’s reading, which authorities did not oversee because they were more concerned with men’s education. Combined with the gendering of languages and consequent gender differences in literacy, this led to a “segregation of the reading public” into female Yiddish readers and male Hebrew readers (37). The second and third chapters discuss how the Jewish family structure, education system, and market gave women the power to get an education and (setting the stage for the second part of the argument) educate others. She supports the above arguments with subsequent firsthand accounts of men’s and women’s reading habits in chapters four and five.

To support the premise that women’s knowledge of secular and modern ideas was influential, the second half of the book demonstrates mainly with primary sources that women used their familial and social influence to transmit the ideas in this literature from the private to public sphere. Parush documents communities of women readers and how the ideas introduced to them, from Dik’s critiques of Jewish class structure and gender roles (149) to romance novels featuring protagonists who choose love over familial and religious duty (191), affected their behavior, focusing on a majority that read only Yiddish in chapter six and a particularly worldly and influential upper class literate in both Yiddish and local languages (known as Laaz) in chapter seven. She shows how women exposed to European literature provided male family members and friends with access to new ideas and influenced “yeshiva students who were losing their faith” to question the values Jewish authorities had taught them and promote new ones (188). These chapters show that class as well as gender affected reading habits and spheres of influence, but  class, like gender, did not prevent women’s influence. Chapters eight and nine give an account of how women struggled to influence intellectual communities of men such as the maskilim directly through the ability to learn Hebrew.

I found the first argument I have delineated more thoroughly supported than the second. Parush makes it clear with copious examples that women were reading about modern and secular ideas while men’s Hebrew reading limited them to old religious ones. But the connection between this reading and the modernization of Jewish society as a whole remains tenuous. This is to say not that women’s ideas are historically insignificant unless they spread to men, nor that the way men influenced women is irrelevant, but rather that Parush has the burden of proof to show that female Yiddish readers contributed more than “mere passive presence” to their societies and that others’ lives also changed because of them (188). Her conclusion asserts that “the influence these women had on the society surrounding them was no less than the influence of the literature upon them” (245), yet there are few instances in the book that tap into a change in mainstream beliefs. Most instances that demonstrate women’s influence on men involve interactions between individuals: women showing books to men (189), men sneaking peaks at women’s books (146), women reading to children (159). Still, Parush gets away with these examples because individuals ultimately make up the mainstream, and these ideas travelled from the bottom of society up rather than the top down. Though Parush could have more fully traced the path of Haskalah ideas from the women who read them to the authorities who ultimately adopted them and from the time they emerged to the time they became the norm, it is difficult to debate the premise that half a population’s ways of thinking influenced the culture as a whole.

Now I will turn to what I believe to be Parush’s stakes in writing this book. A central thesis of the book is that there are “benefits of marginality” (57); that is, being confined to certain spheres of influence can create opportunities that may not have otherwise existed to influence others from within that sphere. She mentions early in the preface that, in more than one instance, “the marginalized space that a society allocates to its disparaged or neglected social groups provides these groups with degrees of freedom and latitude” (xiii). When talking about freedom, Parush is implicitly talking about agency — the ability to make one’s own decisions despite oppression. She is arguing that women’s position of inferiority within European Jewish society and confinement to roles considered passive did not actually make them passive, and because they were active agents, women have contributed more to their culture than historical records would have us believe.

Writing about women in a way that suggests they have agency is a commendable goal. Feminist approaches to history sound suspiciously similar to patriarchal accounts when they lament women’s passivity in the face of an insurmountable male ruling class. This depiction is especially a problem for theories about non-Western women — Gayatri Spivak has identified a common rhetoric of “white women saving Brown women from Brown men” (297) — but also applies to representing the past. It is easy to assume that we are now more enlightened and more empowering of women than in ages past, and that women had to be saved from old ideologies and traditions. Parush is determined not to depict pre-Enlightenment Jewish women who had to be saved from Jewish men. There are several instances, however, in with Parush risks reproducing the reasoning she seeks to contend.

One such risk is that in combating depictions of Jewish women who had to be saved from Jewish men, she depicts Jewish men who had to be saved from the Jewish authorities and traditions that kept them out of touch with the times and the rest of Europe. Parush writes in a celebratory manner about women who “made efforts to spread the Haskalah out of the declared ideological mission of aiding the secularization and modernization of Jewish society” (188-89). This implies that these women felt they needed to enlighten Hebrew scholars by converting them to a more mainstream and ultimately more Western belief system. On the one hand, this is a commendably subversive, gender-reversed way of looking at history. On the other hand, this picture of women saving men emerges from a broader dynamic within the book of modern secular European culture saving traditional Jewish culture from its antiquated values. This dynamic is apparent in certain uses of language that construct Yiddish-reading women as a stand-in for the maskilim and the ideas it advocated. Parush refers to these women as “conduits”for Haskalah ideas (146, 334), inadvertently painting a picture contrary to her argument, in which the agents for the advancement of Enlightenment ideals were not women but rather predominantly male authors and maskilim members who enlisted women. Parush’s disproportionate attention to how these readings influenced women as opposed to how women used the ideas they acquired augments the problem. Parush might have addressed this issue by elucidating how women interpreted and furthered what they read through the lens of their Jewish background. As it stands, the picture of women heroically heralding gentile culture into Jewish societies has problematic implications. From behind the gender opposition Parush constructs emerges an opposition between cultural backgrounds, one in which knowledge of non-Jewish backgrounds provides an “advantage” (xiii, 62) or “benefit” (xiii, 57, 243) over those with knowledge of the Jewish background.

Parush’s presentation of women’s exposure to modern, secular, European ideas, rather than traditional Jewish ones, as a positive development contributes to this savior narrative and is problematic in its own right. Parush does not bring the same critical lens to modernization that she brings to Hebrew literacy, for which she questions what is assumed to be superior. Just as women’s isolation from men’s Hebrew-reading world gave them their own Yiddish-reading culture, the segregation of Jewish society allowed for a culture that could not exist in the same way after the Enlightenment. This is not to say that modernization was a bad thing, but to refrain from making a value judgement at all. To Parush’s credit, women’s literacy in languages other than Hebrew, especially national languages, may have created practical advantages for them that are not value-laden. Still, one must be careful not to make a value judgement on a historical situation. It is easy to look back on modernization now as a triumph of progress over stagnancy and reason over tradition, but this would be to evaluate modernization from a modern and hence limited perspective.

Iris Parush argues in Reading Jewish Women that Rabbidic authorities’ “attitude of disdain and permissiveness toward women” allowed them more intellectual freedom than men, whose studies were taken more seriously and hence were formally regulated (243). This allowed women to slide under the radar as they catapulted Eastern European societies into the Jewish Enlightenment. Parush’s agenda in writing this book is to demonstrate women’s agency in the face of patriarchy and their consequent influence on cultural achievements thought to be men’s. She wants to argue that even in a culture invested in male dominance, women find a way to be dominant in the areas of life available to them. To accomplish this goal, she prioritizes what women did rather than what men did or what men told women to do. Such a project holds high stakes for feminist studies. It is important to show that women are not simply what men have made them or written about them.  However, when the stakes are so high, it is also important to question the value assigned to various historical developments. Parush neglects this task despite questioning the values assigned to gendered historical agents and roles, and by doing so uncritically paints a picture of a society in which modern, secular ideas triumphed over traditional Jewish ones.


Works Cited

Parush, Iris. Reading Jewish Women: Marginality and Modernization in Nineteenth-Century Eastern European Jewish Society. Trans. Saadya Sternberg. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2004.

Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Eds. Carry Nelson and Larry Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 271-313.

‘Black Swan’ Choreographs Rebellion and Rivalry

I’m grateful I read a tabloid describing Black Swan as a “psychosexual thriller” before I saw it. For this film’s audiences, the Freudian lens functions as a pair of 3D goggles, giving the onscreen images depth, veracity and resonance.

The “thriller” classification is accurate, but no monsters or ghosts roam the screen; inner demons plague Darren Aronofsky’s latest creation. The blood that spurts from Nina’s (Natalie Portman) pores is not mere somatic injury, but the cascading escape of a violent and teeming unconscious.

Nina, a ballerina desperate for a lead role in her company’s upcoming production of Swan Lake, has never quite made the pivotal break from her creepily controlling mother (Barbara Hershey). Inability to detach the symbolic umbilical cord is always a problem for parents, but this scenario takes the psychoanalytical paradigm further: She’s a stage mom, attempting to recapture her unfulfilled dancer dreams by vicariously living through Nina.

Such support is tenuous, ambivalent at best, because of the rivalry Nina’s mother has established with her daughter. She fears that Nina will go further than she did and finally leave home in her 20s. In one scene, she asks Nina if the company’s director (Vincent Cassel), whom she’s been working with late nights, has “tried anything” with her. Behind her feigned concern for her daughter’s wellbeing is resentment of her youth and beauty.

In turn, Nina, the oldest member of the company, envies the freshness and spunk of its newest addition, Lily (Mila Kunis). A straightedge, neurotic Nice Girl, Nina dreads that her struggle to dance the part of the seductive, lustful Black Swan, a character Lily assumes with ease, will keep her away from the role.

But the White Swan, the protagonist with the aforementioned dark alter ego, is a piece of cake for Nina. The problem is, the lead dancer has to perform both. The parallel is clear: these are two sides of Nina. Paradoxically, she must tap into her inner Loose Girl in order to achieve a dream driven by her Nice Girl perfectionism.

Initially, Nina’s repressed passion punctures small pores through her rigid exterior, allowing breathing room. Her id seems under control, constricted to the stage.

Then the dam breaks.

Nina’s Black Swan persona spills with a violent vengeance into every area of her life, along with her unstoppable rage toward her mother, the one who gave birth to this repression.

The more immoral Nina’s actions, the more satisfaction one feels for her. This fury lies latent inside all our psyches.

Her former self, an echo of her ostensibly prudish mother’s scoldings, retaliates with piercing guilt (literally, hence, blood). The black and white swans haunt each other. These warring entities are too indoctrinated into the virgin/whore dichotomy to conjoin in one body. Nina cannot imagine a self that is at once wholesome and full of desire.

And once a former Nice Girl has released her sexual appetite and hunger for freedom, there is no returning to the former life she built her sense of self around.

Nina’s deepest jealousies and fears are projected onto her surroundings. She can find no refuge; her inner torture follows wherever she goes. It becomes unclear the violent sights she witnesses throughout the film are actual events mere hauntings of her psyche.

The force of Nina’s formerly unacknowledged yearnings — equally evident in the momentum of her twirls, several erotic encounters with the mentor who coaxed her dark side out, and the more classically gruesome images she ambiguously witnesses or hallucinates — is what makes the film terrifying.

It’s just about that time of year when heartwarming holiday movies have left us all overheated. Black Swan is spine chilling and mindboggling instead.

OK Go / Neon Trees / Fairhaven at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, 12/3/10

Rising pop-rock icon OK Go, cutting-edge eclectic foursome Neon Trees and Rhode Island-based BRU favorite Fairhaven opened the WBRU Dunkin’ Donuts Holiday BRU-haha at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel on Friday.

 

The atmosphere was suspenseful — the merchandise desk was aggressively handing out 3D glasses in preparation for OK Go, whose performances are known to be (sometimes absurdly) experimental — as the opening act took the stage. Fairhaven demonstrated a standard indie rock aesthetic, broken up by a percussion-heavy interlude. At times, the self-described melodic alt rock band sounds slightly like a boy band, but subtly enough to be taken seriously. Lead singer Alan Connell’s voice has hints of Incubus’ Brandon Boyd in some numbers, such as the particularly infectious single “Worth it All.” The members are also gracious, taking time after the show to chat with fans before heading off with OK Go. Fairhaven’s potential has proven high enough catapult them out of their Cumberland, RI hometown.

 

Neon Trees: the name begs the question, naturally mutated or genetically engineered?

 

Genetically engineered. Neon trees is a product of its time. The crowd’s first impression of lead singer Tyler Glenn came from the way he greeted the camera phones elevated above the crowd as he strutted onstage: by taking snapshots of the audience with his own camera. Okay, so he’s into the whole postmodernism thing, blurring the boundaries between spectacle and spectator, breaking the fourth wall, etc. And you know what? It works.

 

Neon Trees’ engaging act riled up the audience with loud electric chords as Glenn owned the stage, shuffling and skidding with abandon. He seduced the crowd with the contagiously hypersexual “Animal,” demanding, “I want to see the animal inside of you.” Fans’ feet thudded on the floor as their hands made claw configurations.

 

It occasionally seemed Glenn was trying to occupy the niche of Lady Gaga. He dedicated a danceable performance of “Sins of My Youth,” for example, to “the weirdos and the misunderstood freaks like me.” The band’s look accentuates this image, between Glenn’s Mohawk and loud red jacket and the rest of the band’s hairstyles and outfits.

 

Neon Trees has been compared to (and has opened for) The Killers, which makes sense in light of the band’s intentionally freakish, edgy image, electric guitar-heavy sound. Glenn also sounds a bit like Brandon Flowers on recordings. But live, his voice is pleasantly screechy, the way a less hardcore version of Coheed and Cambria might sound. Neon Trees also distinguishes itself with blues undertones.

 

The energy Neon Trees brought to the stage and the crowd only heightened the anticipation for the night’s headliner. A screen of paisley patterns appeared in the background, inspiring audience members to fiddle with their 3D glasses to no avail. At long last, after a torturously long introduction by students from BRU, a huge stream of confetti fell from the stage, framing the band’s bright monochromatic suits. “So you were born in an electrical storm,” Ok Go lead singer Damian Kulash ’98 hissed the first line of “Do What You Want” — a perfect opening song, with its purely fun tone and lyrical content. Next came a similarly confetti-filled “Don’t Ask Me,” a rant about an ex-lover sung with delightfully petty indignation, which started a mosh pit and a series of disruptive crowd-surfers.

 

OK Go proceeded to alternate between catchy classics like “Invincible” and “A Million Ways” and hits from its latest album, which incorporates more dance beats and synthesizing, such as “This Too Shall Pass” and “Skyscrapers.”

 

Kulash announced that he learned from an epic mistake during the band’s early days not to play a hit more than once during a concert. But, he said, it’s time to break that rule. Before playing “White Knuckles,” a new release with apparent disco and funk influences, Kulash informed the crowd what the 3D glasses were for. Later on, a 3D version of the video — in which the band dances with canine accompaniments, deeming the video painfully adorable — would be screened. He warned everyone that if they put the glasses on the wrong way, their brains would “freak the f*ck out.”

 

Kulash was paying tribute to his former town of residence, whose inhabitants he described as “dirty.” To wash them of their sins, the whole band graced Lupos with a rendition of the melodic ballad “Return” entirely on bells, “the instrument God himself invented … invented … invented,” Kulash said in an echoed movie trailer voice-over tone.

 

Ok Go comes off as especially loyal to fans — ironically, a strategic move, but nevertheless probably genuine. Kulash waxed sentimental, saying he would love to share his microphone with all the attendees, just as he wishes the world could share a bottle of Coca Cola so everyone would get “a few molecules.” The band’s fan base is such that using the word “molecules” is endearing rather than alienating.

 

How could anyone, male or female, gay or straight — asexual for that matter — not fall in love with Damian Kulash? It must be the charisma, the sultry voice, the nerdy flair, and the fact that he looks good even in a strange bright blue one-piece suit. Case in point: His entrance into the crowd, which he called “hippie time,” provoked frenzied grasps and hormonal screams from pretty much every demographic.

 

Afterwards, the “White Knuckles” video caught everyone’s attention, followed by the number that even non-fans could sing along to, “Here it Goes Again,” known for its Grammy-winning video.

 

Supremely adrenaline-injecting were “Get Over it,” the heaviest head-banger, and “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time,” whose pauses childhood friends Kulash and bassist Tim Nordwind prolonged by exchanging playful glances, eliciting rowdy shouts.

 

OK Go did not let Lupo’s down with its spectacle and lived up to its reputation for using novel devices in live shows and videos. “We have the technology to be f*cking magical!” Kulash exclaimed gleefully like a child in a toy store. During the encore, the band came out in black jackets with one letter of “OK Go” in lights on each back, so that before the lights reappeared, one could only see the floating band name. Then, of course, the guitars came into play, beaming red and green through the crowd, whose fingers fruitlessly tried to snatch the light rays and take them home. But they didn’t need them; the night was too memorable for souvenirs, and besides, there was already confetti dangling from guests’ hair and clothing as they headed back up Washington Street.

 

Ben Kweller / Julia Nunes at Rock Shop, 11/27

Why do sugar-coated statements that merely elicit ennui when enveloped inside fortune cookies sound endearing when coming from Ben Kweller’s mouth and recordings?

 

Not angry enough to be a rock star, disturbed enough to be a musical genius or attractive enough to be a sex symbol, Kweller comes off as a close older cousin whose lyrics are letters to his relatives, the listeners. His image hinges on his lack of image.

 

This is a stark contrast to the rock musician fetishized as a superhuman, even messianic figure, unreachable for his complex and disturbed mind, a martyr at the altar of art. Kweller pretty much annihilated any chance of such status the first time his lyrics alluded to his cat.

 

When the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist’s songs aren’t feline-inspired, they’re still reliably family friendly. At least someone at everyone’s dinner table spouts the aphorisms that prevail in his acclaimed first album Sha Sha, which reads as a coming-of-age story: “It’s up to me if I decide to be what I think is right.” “It’s gonna take a lot of time before I can cross that finish line.” “There’s no reason to cry.”

 

Kweller’s live performances put in plain view why he gets away with being a cliché apologist. He is all human and no hype. Behind the unassuming, teddy bear exterior is an unassuming teddy bear. Take away the catchy self-esteem anthems, and he is a walking self-esteem banner.

 

“No one’s a winner unless everyone’s a winner,” he told the cozy but tightly-packed Brooklyn Rock Shop last Saturday — an atmosphere so intimate that the crowd could see a set list taped to the stage, beginning with “My Apartment.”

 

The acoustic folk rocker explained that he wrote this ode to a safe haven amidst the New York City streets upon arrival in Brooklyn. One can imagine the petite, wrinkly-clothed, scraggly-haired twenty-something tentatively crouched outside his apartment, thanking the contaminated sky and strange cityscape for one friendly location.

 

Kweller’s cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” would fool anyone who didn’t know the song into thinking he originated it, between the suitably meditative lyrics and the natural folk-rock aesthetic. He was a bit depressed before the concert and found the guests at the Rock Shop “moody,” he told them, joking that the song “wasn’t on the set list, but it was in the air.”

 

The multi-talented musician alternately accompanied his vocals on guitar, harmonica and piano. Opening act Julia Nunes, pianist “John Shade” (who, Kweller confessed, is actually named Dave) and former Moldy Peaches front man Adam Green also joined the headliner on stage for bits of the concert.

 

Nunes’ harmony enhanced the chorus of “Sundress,” and Kweller and Green admittedly indulged themselves by performing “Jessica,” Green’s nonsensical college radio hit mocking reality TV star Jessica Simpson.

 

A later cover of the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo,” performed alongside Green, was less fluid but more amusing. In a Freudian slip that eradicated all doubts about the unconscious, Green stumbled over the line, “We’ll perfect our chemistry,” singing instead, “We’ll forget our chemistry.”

 

After Green staggered off the stage, the concert’s energy hit its peak and Kweller got about as risqué as he ever will, strumming his electric guitar with exaggerated arm motions while belting, “Show me all the rules, girl. I just want to get them wrong.” By then, I had grown so accustomed to his voice carrying lines like, “Momma, I always dreamt of being a good listener” that I bought “The Rules” as a statement of rocker rebellion.

 

The evening’s greatest treasures were the head-bobbers and hip-swayers that loyal fans, whose attendance represented an astounding age range, would not have wanted any way other than true to the original.

 

Hearing and seeing Kweller’s vocals, piano, body language and facial expressions during “In Other Words” felt like watching a movie so carefully modeled after a loved novel that it seems to have sprung from the reader’s imagination. Listening to the album version of the slow, haunting ballad about deception evokes the exact image that manifested onstage. The artist’s fingertips fluttered across the keys, punching out airwave emotions, as his souring voice contemplated butterflies.

 

The much-appreciated encore provided another tear jerker. Contrary to what the title suggests, “Falling” is about an experience of new love – love with a significant other, and love of a city – that feels not like falling, but like saying “hello to the ground.” I used to think the hazy inflections in “Falling” ’s line about Times Square were the electronic effects of studio recording, but the performance proved that this sonic quality is in Kweller’s very biology.

 

The concert couldn’t have ended on a better note (pun intended), as he loosened up and took out the electric guitar again for “Wasted and Ready,” which screams with the angst of a younger Kweller who feels “maxed out like a credit card.” By the end, the audience lost all inhibitions and accompanied him on the show’s closing line, “I’m running as fast as I can!”

 

Seeing Kweller live will not add to fans’ knowledge of him, but will confirm what they already knew: Far from the New York neon lights in “Falling,” he is more like “My Apartment,” a beacon of warmth rising above the cold sidewalk cement of rock stardom.

 

He probably rehearses for concerts in front of his cat.

 

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby: 253 Pages in the Mind of a Moper

Novels in the first-person perspective allow non-psychics to surmount their mindreading limitations and enter another’s head. But some minds aren’t worth reading, and books about such characters end up the same.

The novel that set the stage for Nick Hornby’s popularity (About a Boy, Fever Pitch, and High Fidelity adapted to the big screen; screenplay for An Education; songwriting for Ben Folds) is written through the lens of an uninteresting brain. The narrow worldview of record seller, failed DJ and self-described loser (it’s hard to dissent) Rob Fleming leaves little room for High Fidelity’s depressing cascade of events to amount to anything important.

In the midst of a failed relationship and midlife crisis, Rob reflects on his social life and career. He makes same feeble attempts to fix them, meeting a few entertaining characters along the way, but mostly mopes and obsesses over music.

Lyrics, melodies, musicians and genres are his codes for discussing people he doesn’t like and problems he’d rather not face. He lives in his head, writing relationships like songs instead of experiencing them. His accounts of events are imbued with the exhibitionist melodrama of much popular music; he revels in the culture of glamorized depression surrounding love songs.

Except, rather than containing them in an album, he turns his narrations “into life, which is much messier, and more time-consuming, and leaves nothing for anybody to whistle.”

Rob feels like the entire world is trying to shut him up, and he’s largely right. He spends the course of the novel shuffling in and out of his outdated record shop, making small talk with friends who aren’t actually friends, and sulking over his ex-girlfriend Laura — who ultimately gets back together with him because she doesn’t have the energy to deal with singlehood after her father’s death. One gets the feeling Hornby set out to make the point that life can’t unfold as romantically as fairy tales and daydreams. But instead of being realistic, the plot succumbs to a sad view of reality based on desperation and settling.

Some of High Fidelity is astute and humorous, and the narrator’s droning is satirical – he talks about the importance of “self-conscious ironic detachment” in social interactions — though excessive.

The novel is a quick, sometimes entertaining read. The pages don’t beg for turning, but they ask politely enough to persuade a reader with nothing else to do. Its popularity is partially due to music fanatics who relate to Rob’s obsessive-compulsive documenting of favorite artists, albums, etc.

Still, most of the scenarios are hard to care about. The characters are underdeveloped, except the overdeveloped, insecure protagonist. The climax of his life occurs when a journalist from an unknown magazine asks about his top five albums. He revises his response nonstop during the interview and calls three times afterward to redo the list entirely.

High Fidelity also has been praised for its exploration of gender dynamics. But Rob’s musings on such issues are incredibly shallow (which doesn’t come as a surprise: Hornby once wrote for Cosmopolitan). His discussions of gender roles stop just short of critiquing them. Laura’s best friend Liz, who becomes the antagonist —because Rob antagonizes her — is “one of those paranoid feminists,” he complains. But after 300 pages of Rob objectifying the women in his life and whimpering about how they disrespect him, Liz’s paranoid delusional voices start to sound more like the voice of reason.

Rob ultimately realizes he will never find a woman who describes him with the words he hears in ballads. This is a valid point. But he and Laura go to the opposite extreme, sticking with each other because they can’t get anyone better and want distraction from their worries. High Fidelity ends on a note of hope: perhaps Rob will finally get his shit together. But it’s doubtful. The way his mother suggests that her 36-year-old son is finally growing up is cringe-inducing, not heart-warming. At the end, it’s easy to picture Rob’s entire history repeating itself, given the unproductive nature of his thoughts. His surroundings have changed, but he has not, and the reader has not.

Meta-Representations: Reflections on Glee’s Second Season

Glee’s new viewers probably had no trouble understanding the plot of the second season so far, since all episodes are essentially the same. An unlikely couple forms; a couple we all forgot about breaks up. Enter Rachel, trying to monopolize the spotlight while Sue Sylvester poses a threat to glee club’s very existence. Just as circumstances are looking glum, Mr. Shuester overcomes Sue’s (not so) secretly resentful conspiracy by enticing students to perform a brand new routine that makes them cool again. Meanwhile, Quinn struggles with her (now past) pregnancy, as does Mercedes with her race, Kurt with his sexuality, and Arty with his disability. In addition, Finn, after much contemplation and distress over a (not so) nebulous moral dilemma, decides to do the right thing. Voila — if you’ve missed every episode ever, you’re caught up.

But if this is the entire first season, why do viewers keep coming back for more?

Perhaps the show’s appeal resides disproportionately in Brittany’s one-liners, which can be so dumb that they sound deliberate. The screenwriters have picked up on this character’s popularity, which would explain why they granted her the aggressively poptimistic recent episode, “Britney/Brittany,” in which Brittany S. Pierce overcomes an identity crisis resulting from her name’s invited comparison to Britney Spears.

Or maybe Glee’s predictability comforts its fans. Maybe they want to remember — or experience, as the case may be for younger viewers — high school in black and white, or at least in school colors, with a stereotype for every character and every situation. The shallow, tidy bundles of qualities that form each character – the neurotic, theater-obsessed Jewish girl; the wheelchair-bound student who just wants to fit in; the large, confident black girl who can sing; the ball-busting, paranoid feminist; the selfless teacher — make the social dynamics universal. Nobody knows anyone exactly like a Glee character, but everyone is familiar with the stereotypes. These pigeonholes can be easily applied to our own high school experiences because, as much as we hate to admit it, they colored our perception of our peers at the time.

We create and remember the identities of ourselves and those around us based on the language the media provides. A program like Glee is not so much a reflection of reality as a tool to discuss it. The characters are so unspecific that we can project our own psyches onto them, the plots so formulaic that we can pretend social interactions are that simple: everything is remediable with a song, performed in costume coding for high school clique.

In reality, high school isn’t as musical as our collective 2-D-screen memory would have it. And Glee addresses the conflicts that arise among dissonant people and situations. But then it makes them harmonize.

Another explanation for Glee’s guilty pleasure status is that we really don’t care about realism or complexity. We feed our minds all week, and by Tuesday night, we’re craving empty calories. And if that brings us pleasure, why should we feel guilty?

After all, Glee takes responsibility for the sensitive cultural territory it treads on, utilizing simple characters and plot devices to address complex issues of gender, race, and popular culture.

Female viewers of the latest episode can cringe at the attention Rachel receives by dressing like the early Britney Spears – “They’re personifying you!” says Finn, who has finally become her boyfriend; “Objectifying,” she corrects him – and giggle in satisfaction at Sue’s cruel and unusual punishment of the worst offender.

The show also continues to deliver morals and sentimental moments. Once the glee club has finally gotten Britney Spears out of its system, Rachel dedicates the Paramore ballad “Only Exception” to Finn, confessing that she has suffocated him and wants to let him spread his wings. This brings tears to both their eyes, but Brittany is the most moved of all: “Finn can fly?”

Glee’s secret is that it knows its audience’s guilty pleasures, even the well-hidden ones. It even knows they have laughed at the expense of a drugged-out little boy in the YouTube sensation “David after the dentist,” which Rachel references after a trippy dentist visit, wondering aloud, “Is this real life?”

Is it? Not really. In real life, Britney Spears doesn’t spring from an entire high school club’s collective unconscious during dentist appointments. Nor do potential singing rivals confront each other through a spontaneous Lady Gaga routine in a public bathroom.

Do we care? Not really. The postmodern world is distant from abstractions like “real life.” Instead, representations – representations of representations, ad infinitum — construct our daily experience. It is these meta-representations that Glee does justice.