Category Archives: Manifestoes

Sobe Yourself

Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular MusicFaking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Barker
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As a teenager in the post-Nirvana 90s, I was an eye-witness to the strangling authenticity-above-all ethos of “alternative” music. “We dress this way because it’s how we feel,” said whatever amazing-looking, grunge-chic band member or skater kid on TV, “don’t be what other people want you to be, be yourself!” This was the “positive” message constantly rammed down our throats in those days: be yourself, unless “yourself” liked to wear the wrong thing, listen to the wrong music, or, especially, if “yourself” didn’t agree with the “be yourself” message. “Poseur” was a favorite insult during my high-school days–God forbid a teenager might want to try something new. I sometimes feel like I’ve spent my life trying to get out of the impossible labyrinth of this ethos. This book, about the “quest for authenticity” in its most natural habitat, the music scene, opens with the death of Kurt Cobain, a tireless promoter of the very catchphrases that were tearing him up inside.

The subject matter is interesting/infuriating, but the authors’ use of it is confusing and strangely banal. They come up to the point of demolishing the entire idea of “authenticity” altogether, but can’t seem to bring themselves to seal the deal, because they still want to say that Neil Young’s 70s albums are more “real” than Trans. They show how music has always been syncretic, and black and white musicians (before the segregation imposed by record companies) played the same repertoire, but they still imply that Moby and Paul Simon are cultural imperialists. They trace the genesis and eventual ubiquity of the autobiographical song–mostly unknown before the 20th Century–but put this research to use only to mock Tori Amos and other “confessional” songwriters that they dislike. They lay out a case (without quite coming out and saying it) that “world music” notions of authenticity are essentially racist, but still call commercial American releases like Buena Vista Social Club “watered down”. They love to point out that what white, rock-ish audiences consider authentic-sounding are in fact unpopular with the communities that birthed them–a strange “gotcha” that simply substitutes one arbitrary authenticity criterion for another. It’s strange to read these two authors building up all this evidence to undermine the entire edifice of music criticism today–as they point out, authenticity is still something by which music of any kind is judged–but refuse to follow through with it, so they can still criticize the artists they dislike (Europop, Yes, Fatboy Slim) with it.

In any book on popular music, I end up feeling that some band I care about has been neglected–I really feel like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion belongs in here, for example. I suppose I can accept their begging off the topic of hip-hop as being too complicated to fit into this book–it probably does deserve its own volume. But I really do think that the chapter which contrasts the “real” Neil Young to the “fake” Billy Joel would have been much more interesting if they had substituted David Bowie for the latter. The fact that Joel is relatively critically un-acclaimed stacks the deck; Bowie, both beloved and widely considered “fake”, complicates their whole thesis. Surely in a book about authenticity in rock’n’roll, Bowie deserves a place, if only to break down why on earth we call him, but not Joey Ramone, inauthentic.

In the most intriguing moments of the book, by breaking down the concept of authenticity, the authors end up chipping away at the very concept of the continuous self. The imperative to “keep it real” and “be yourself” has always been impossible. How can one be authentic if one is continually changing, moment to moment? All of us, not just the miserably pigeonholed stars they highlight (Cobain, Donna Summer, John Lydon, etc.) are to some degree trapped within our own identities. The insistence on authenticity is essentially an insistence on an illusory stability in a world of flux. To their credit, the authors recognize this. They quote Kafka: “I have nothing in common with myself.” With the early discussion of acoustic blues beloved of white record collectors, I was reminded of Steve Buscemi’s 78-collecting character’s lament in Ghost World: “I hate my interests!” I would have liked this book to go further along this path, but perhaps it ends up too deep into philosophy, and strays too far from the pop-music topic that they started from. But maybe someday we’ll find a way to let ourselves, and each other, change our minds, adopt new mindsets, try different styles, as unhesitatingly and smoothly as we change our moods.

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Month of Letters: Halfway Point

Whenever I want to feel old, I tell the college kids I know about what it was like when I was at Bard.  Nothing gets a bigger reaction than saying nobody had a celphone (the first ones appeared my Senior year and we were all amazed, saying to each other “what would anyone want a celphone for in college?”), but it’s at least as amazing that you still had to plug your computer in to a phone line and dial up for internet.  Facebook was not yet a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye: Friendster came out the year after I graduated.

One thing we did have was e-mail.  In the ugly student center they built in the middle of a previously nice field my sophomore year, there was a little area off to the side of the central atrium with a sort of e-mail bar: two long tables with tall stools and eight or ten computer terminals.  They were monochromatic, displaying only grey and black text, and all they did was access your student e-mail account.  So you could sit down, on your way from the art studio to your dorm room in Tewksbury, for example, and read and write an e-mail or two, undistracted by any other Internet time-wasters.  (There really weren’t any Internet time-wasters yet, that I can remember, except of course for AIM.)  I generally wrote at least two looong e-mails a day this way, to my friends Michele, or Emily, or Tim, or whoever else might have written.  Of course, these days, nobody writes even e-mail anymore.  We have this vague, impersonal, easy non-connection: Facebook, which sucks up all the energy we used to put into e-mail.  Am I “in touch” with Emily now?  Of course, we’re Facebook friends!  But when’s the last time we poured our hearts out to each other, like we did when we were in college and both miserably in love?  Facebook is not the place for expressing real emotions; everyone rolls their eyes at such melodramatic behavior, and it makes sense: it’s the difference between crying on a friend’s shoulder and shouting in a crowded room.  Instead everyone trades one-liners and looks wistfully (or is that just me) at pictures of their absent friends having fun.

So it’s been very interesting to write these letters.  I haven’t gotten anything back yet, so I have no idea how I’m coming across.  It’s very different even from the e-mails I used to write, and of course I’m out of practice even with those.  It’s not a conversation yet; every letter is an opening statement.  At first I was trying to update people on my life and news, but that soon got boring and a bit depressing, so I’ve been writing more about things I’ve been thinking about, reading, and so on.  But of course I’m writing every day, so I still end up writing the same things, sometimes, over and over.  It’s a kind of iterative process, as we used to say in art school; and it’s an interesting way to work through ideas.  I’ve come up with things on the third, fourth time writing about an idea that I wish I could have said the first time around, and I’ve written things the first time that it feels like I can never correctly recapture again.  Really, I haven’t been writing the same things that often, I don’t think, but it feels like it.  It almost feels like writing a blog post, without mass production.  I suppose this is why they wrote circular letters in the past.

My fond hope is that, at least to some degree, these letters start a real conversation or two again, like I used to have with so many people.  It’s actually been astonishing to realize how little I know about my friends’ lives now.  When writing to each person I want to ask questions about them, and I find I know so little, embarassingly little.  I’m only vaguely aware whether people are married or have kids, and beyond these huge life changes, generally, I know nothing.  Maybe that says more about my poor attention span and my relatively sparse use of it, but it seems to me that Facebook is the problem, giving the illusion of connection.  I’m sure for some people it’s an important and valuable connection to the people in their lives.  I know (because they say so on the Internet, in protest against people like me) that many people find that Facebook breathed new life into their relationships; but for me it has rather choked them within an inch of their lives.  I hope these letters can resucitate them.

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Month of Letters: Week 1

Three days in and feeling fine.  Something makes this so much easier than the “30 Days of Creativity” challenge.  I can identify some of it: the privacy, the fact that there is a recipient depending on me.  But there seems to be some other mysterious reasons why to be amorphously “creative” every day was such torture and these letters have been pleasant.  Really, writing them has not gone that well: they feel a bit stilted and uncomfortable, where I’d like them to float and soar.  But the physical process makes up for it: I love decorating and embellishing the letters and the envelopes, and pushing the possibilities of mail.

I’ve been reading some of Virginia Woolf’s letters, so perhaps I have set too high a standard for myself for the writing.  She never seems to have written a clumsy word in her life.  The funny thing about books of letters (I have several) is that the longer, more personal, more composed letters are rarely the ones that interest me the most.  Often the most fascinating are letters asking for money, or making appointments, that sort of thing.  I have a book of Delacroix’s letters, with one or two examples of his letters requesting certain colors from Mrs. Haro’s; though he was one of the few artists who could write compellingly about art, these businesslike paint orders are at least as interesting.

Another thing that’s interesting in books of letters is that, even in those epistolary ages, one of the most frequent themes is “write me back!”  I’m always self-conscious, even in e-mail, of asking for a reply, and of writing again to someone who hasn’t written me back yet.  But people were quite shameless about this in the old days, it seems, heaping comic abuse on their lazy friends for not writing, begging and pleading for mail, writing several times without a word in reply.  So perhaps I shouldn’t be so worried about it?  I don’t know.  In any case, I take comfort in Samuel Johnson’s saying, in a letter apologizing for not writing to Boswell, “Do not fancy that an intermission of writing is a decay of kindness.”

Really, the same sort of worries that make my writing on this wretched blog so bland have been getting in the way of these letters, and I hope I will shed them soon.  The only thing I have discovered about art in my life is that fear kills it: fear of incomprehensibility, fear of sentimentality, fear of bad taste, fear of pretentiousness, fear of anything.  I hope these letters to be something of a training regimen, for throwing away that fear.

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“You should go on Project Runway!”

Along with “I have a great idea about how we can make money together,” my least-favorite thing that people say to me when they hear I make clothes is the title of this post.  Project Runway is about the last thing I would ever want to do.  I’m pretty private and introverted and I hate arguing with people, so I wouldn’t make good TV.  I need a lot of sleep and take a long time with my sewing, so I wouldn’t make good clothes.  And I pretty much hate the *F*A*S*H*I*O*N* kind of thing–the “glamour” and the “cutthroat world” and anytime someone says “the industry” and all that.  I have, at the same time, a higher and a lower opinion of fashion than “the industry” does–I think it’s an art, capable of expressing exactly the same things as music, dance, painting, poetry, which is something designers and editors always seem to resist; but on the other hand I don’t think it’s that big a deal.  I don’t eat, sleep, and breathe fashion, or any of that.  And all these things seem to be a big part of Project Runway, its mystique, its allure, its raison d’etre.

But the biggest reason is just that I think these judged reality shows are bullshit.  No, I don’t mean I think they’re fake or secretly manipulated or whatever.  They might be, what do I know, but even assuming everything is on the up-and-up, they’re bullshit.  My sister and I have talked about it a lot, and in her blog she lays out why:

If Buffi’s design had been perfectly realized and executed she still would have been cut and that makes me angry. Buffi wasn’t brought into the competition to win, she was brought into the competition so Michael Kors could make “clever” quips about her outrageous clothes. . .Kors and company want sophistication — as defined by them. Nina wants everything to look expensive because she can afford it. Heidi wants everything to be sexy because that’s what she wants to wear. Fashion has always been a game for the aristocracy and Project Runway tows the line but good.

Even more egregious than Project Runway is Top Chef.  There have been 9 seasons, and only one female winner.  That woman, in the final episode, was up against another woman and one man, Richard Blaise, who was asked back for Top Chef All-Stars, and we were constantly reminded that he “choked” on the final challenge, so we all would remember that he didn’t lose to a girl, he lost to himself!  Essentially, the judges (to be frank, especially Tom Colicchio) are egregiously sexist, and it comes out in their judging.  Then there was the even-sillier Work of Art, which is Top Chef/Project Runway for “fine art”, in which everyone seemed to be rewarded or punished in proportion to how much their works expressed whatever stereotypes and prejudices the judges immediately formed upon seeing them.  In the finale of the first season, the three finalists were described as conceptualist, feminist and “someone who is maybe taking on issues of race.”  Guess which one’s the white dude!

Now, all this is kind of a lot to talk about when someone gives me the compliment of thinking I sew/design well enough to do well in a competition.  I understand what they’re saying, and it’s a nice thing to say.  But it’s kind of like wishing my worst nightmare upon me.  So, thank you, but I really would rather not try out for Project Runway.  Also, while I’m on the subject, I also would rather not sew the T-shirts that you design the graphics for.  I’m sure it will be as big a moneymaker as you say, but I’ll let someone else get that payday.

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On Wanting Attention

If there’s one thing which I feel comfortable classifying myself as, it is an introvert.  No matter how much I love hanging out with someone, being with people is draining; I need to be alone for at least an hour or two every day or I become irritable, anxious, and depressed.  Furthermore, and this is not quite the same thing, I’m very private.  Part of the reason I never update this blog is because it feels too public and exposed.  Nothing freaks me out more than the idea of other people–any other people–going through my stuff: my drawings and writings and notebooks and computer files.  I don’t think any of it is very scandalous or even interesting, but I hate the thought of anyone looking at it, anyway.

All this said, the longer I live the less I understand the scorn and shame associated with the desire for attention.  You know the drill.  “Oh, she just wants attention,” they say.  Hipsters (or Lady Gaga, or whoever) just wear those weird clothes for attention.  People who do anything different than the blandest norms, in fact, are just looking for attention.  People who attempt suicide, people who self-harm, don’t take them seriously, it’s just a play for attention.  Even people posting a tribute on a dead person’s Facebook wall supposedly suffer from “a pathological need for attention”.

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that all this is true, and not just a giant pile of abjectly obvious projection on the part of the accuser.  What’s wrong with it? Why are we supposed to go through life with the noble ambition to be ignored?  It’s a strange thought that, unlike those horrible hipsters, fashionistas, and other “attention whores”, good honest folk like you and me choose outfits calculated to fade into the background lest we be noticed by anyone.

I think it’s a pretty universal human desire, actually, to want attention from our fellow human beings.  (Especially, as the amazing Tess Lynch says, when we’re grieving.)  Yes, it’s annoying when children interrupt your every quiet moment with attempts to pull your focus from whatever it is you’re doing, but it’s also an absolute necessity for them.  As it is, though the methods become more subtle and polite, for everyone else.  An ignored person is almost certainly a hurting person.  Ask someone who’s been ignored and made to feel invisible.  It’s a terrible, terrifying feeling.

Once I was in a band with two of my friends, and I really enjoyed playing live with them, but they both just naturally have more stage presence and charisma than I do.  At some point there was a program or something, or maybe it was a tracklist for a compilation CD we had a song on, and it listed the two of them as the only band members.  I don’t know, maybe it’s wrong of me, but it felt horrible.  I felt erased, not just from the band, but from existence.  This lead me, when we played subsequent shows, to dress up more and try to put on more of a show.  Doing it because I wanted attention?  Damn right.  And I’d do it again.  I am not ashamed to say that I do hope that people pay attention to me.  When I sew something and post it on Craftster, you had better believe that I bask in the feedback that comes.  Even accountants, I guarantee, feel that kind of thrill when someone says “you did a great job on my taxes!”, which probably doesn’t happen enough.

Working in the theater, I love the fact that I work behind the scenes.  I’ve acted, and I find it rewarding, but I prefer to be backstage in the secret, semi-‘practical’ world back there.  But I always want to see my name on the program.  Does that make me a horrible person?  Or does that just make me a human being?

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Filed under just writing, Manifestoes, Réflexions sur le théâtre

Kurt’s Sweater, Blake’s Sweater

Kurt in his iconic sweater

This year being Nirvana Nostalgia Season, I’ve been thinking about one of the most iconic pieces of clothing of my youth: Kurt Cobain’s enormous, red-and-black Fred Krueger-style striped sweater, as pictured above.  Greasy blonde hair and this sweater say “Kurt” as much as a moptop and a collarless jacket say “Beatle”.  As a nerdy, fashion-fearing teen in the grunge 90s this sweater was everything I wished my clothes could be, a perfect example of Kurt’s effortless cool.  I was way too self-conscious and shy to actually emulate him (plus, like a dope, I took to heart that 90s alterna-bullshit about not being a poseur), but I studied pictures of Kurt, how he dressed, wondering how I could recreate that alchemy in myself.  I thought about this sweater.  It was one of those “aspirational pieces”, as I think they’re called in Vogue, which I thought about every time I went shopping.

So when I saw Gus Van Sant’s Last Days I was, despite myself, a bit disappointed.  Don’t get me wrong: I think Last Days is a really beautiful, amazing film, and to me one of the great costume movies.  Michelle Matland and her team did an amazing job recreating iconic Cobain looks for Michael Pitt in the character of Blake, a sort of poetic alternate-dimension version of Kurt.  Here’s Blake in his version of the Freddy Krueger sweater:

The version of the sweater in Last Days

The difference, and to me it’s a huge difference, is that Blake’s sweater is entirely intact.  Kurt’s, on the other hand, is absolutely disintegrating.  Unforunately I haven’t been able to find many good pictures of the sweater online, but rest assured, I spent enough time looking at it, thinking about it, to know.  Enormous holes had opened up at the elbows and the left shoulder; the end of the left sleeve was in unravelled tatters.  These were like heiroglyphics to me, each bit of damage recording some event–a dive into the drums, a trip through the mosh pit, drunken high jinks of one kind or another.  The damage was why I could never have Kurt’s sweater: even if I found the very same sweater, from the very same company, the very same assembly line, it wouldn’t have all this fascinating history encoded in it.  That sweater was unique, haute couture; the couturier was Kurt’s wild rock-and-roll life.

I’m in the position in life where I’m both obliged and able to usually repair my clothes if they get damaged.  But I always think long and hard before I do it.  How does this hole look?  Does it make this sweater more interesting?  Do I want to forget that this happened because someone grabbed me during my friend Danny’s concert and threw me into a puddle of beer?  I think the value of clothes does not necessarily decrease with cosmetic damage, the way it does with a car.  Sentimental value is, after all, true value.  Pants that wear out at the knees, or get stretched out by your belly, or get spattered with paint, what are they doing but becoming more yours?  Each imperfection is like an in-joke, ratifying the relationship between you and your clothes.  I think it’s beautiful.

Sci-fi fans love to tout the smoothness with which masters of the genre incorporate exposition into their plots.  What could be more subtle than these little signs of life as it was lived before the story begins?  The costumers of Last Days certainly knew the implicit-exposition value of such distressed clothes–I really love the fact that those plastic shades he’s wearing up there have been broken and taped back together–but for whatever reason, they decided to leave the sweater unscathed.  Maybe it just goes to show the irreproducible nature of such a specific, well-beloved piece of clothing.

The broken and repaired plastic sunglasses clearly visible in the poster.


Filed under Inspirations, Manifestoes, Thoughts on clothes

30 Days Update/Reconsideration

Doing a project like this, I always hope to learn something along the way.  But sometimes you learn a different lesson than you anticipated.  I’ve been sick for the past couple of days, and kind of miserable, and I sort of realized tonight that this 30 Days project is teaching me a lesson that I’ve been trying to ignore away.  The fact is that I’m an extremely private person.  That’s something I’ve always known, but I guess what I’ve learned this month is that it goes deeper than I thought, and my creative mind is not as public a part of me as I thought it was.  I’ll try to explain what I mean.

When I did that haiku project with my friend Tim, there was no problem, because Tim and I are as close as friends can be.  He’s really a part of my family.  I could send him anything my mind came up with; it was like sending it to myself.  But even though the hit count of this website is usually in the single digits, it’s on the Internet, and under my own real name even!  It’s as public as anything can be in this day and age.  And I’m not comfortable, I’ve discovered, with sharing the vast majority of the fruits of my creativity in public this way.  Do you want to know a secret?  These doodles were not actually the only ‘creative’ things I did those days.  I actually draw and doodle almost constantly.  But almost every day this month I’ve thought to myself, “I can’t put this stuff on the Internet.  I’d better do something just for this 30 Days thing,”  which meant something contextless, unobjectionable, personality-free.  So I’d do some dutiful bullshit drawing, and even if it was total fucking garbage and something else I’d drawn that day was perfect, what I’d show would be the one I’d made with the Internet in mind, because the other stuff was too personal.  It had some part of me in it that I just don’t want on the Internet, at least not like this.

It’s strange because, for example, I always enjoy sharing my sewing on Craftster (when I actually remember to take pictures).  I never minded showing my stuff for critique in art class, even the most preliminary sketches and notes.  I thought that the art-making part of me was a public part–even an exhibitionist part.  So I’m very surprised to find it isn’t, not entirely.  And what’s really terrible about that is that, in trying to deny that fact, I’ve been sharing this “art” that comes from a place of no inspiration or interest at all, just something to sort of pay the piper, to prove I’m doing my homework, or something.  Which is a poor thing to pass off on people, and makes me look bad to boot.

So.  I’m just not going to show something for every day anymore.  We’ll just assume that what I did those days, I don’t want to share with the world.  But I’ll share whatever I make that I feel that I want to share.  I should have pictures of some things to put up this weekend!  I think they will be good.


Filed under 30 days of creativity, Manifestoes