Friday 3 April 2020
I was interviewed about my book again today. I’d planned to head to this magazine’s offices in Central London to record a podcast but Covid-19 scuppered that almost as soon as we’d organised it. We had a chat over Skype instead and it was really lovely.
Towards the end we were talking about how the stakes of community described in my book have once again changed shape under the current crisis. In Egress, these shifts and changes are documented in real time and, although the book feels like a time capsule now, in my mind, these stakes nonetheless continue to keep shifting and changing every day.
At the end of our conversation, I half-rehearsed an argument in an essay I’ve just finished on D.H. Lawrence and how there’s this sense in his final works — Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Apocalypse — of a kind of individual-collectivity emerging; a kind of new, diagonal relation that escapes both the enforced and restrictive collectivity of the proletariat versus the aristocratic individuality of the bourgeoisie.
It’s what Bataille calls “the community of lovers”. (I’m still so shocked Bataille never wrote on Lawrence — to my knowledge?)
I’m feeling the presence of this Bataillean community quite explicitly under quarantine. With my girlfriend ill, I’ve found myself relating to her in this subtly different way, now that our relationship is devoid of the workaday pressures of wage labour that keep us in a kind of orbit around each other. There’s a new syzygy emerging at the moment instead, of a kind that is typically obstructed.
The distinct pleasure of this relation was thrown into relief when a notification popped up on my phone announcing the death of Bill Withers. I was grateful, in a strange sort of way, that the announcement was not appended by that now-familiar adage: “due to complications caused by Covid-19.”
Bill featured on a lot of the old mixtapes I used to make for my girlfriend when we first met. I ended up listening to all my old favourites when I heard the news.
The drum break that opens Kissing My Love, followed by that wah-wah guitar, is maybe the most perfect Withers number for me — where the instrumentation is as seductive as his voice is.
And then there’s the way he commands the audience at Carnegie Hall on his live album. You can feel him palpably in the air: how the crowd hangs off his every word and how he seems to seduce them with every anecdote. By the time he’s ready to sing another song, they’re in the palm of his hand, and it’s not like he even needs to butter them up. It is electrifying and it is sexy as fuck.
But it’s not sexy in this sort of one-dimensional way. It’s sensual. It has a sort of embodied power. It really gets inside you, but not just in the cliched sense that it “gets in your soul”. Turn that baritone up loud enough and it even makes your organs vibrate.
I was thinking about Withers’ music like this when I put it on because I’ve spent much of the last week copyediting a book that’s coming out soon on Repeater. It’s not my place to say anything about it — it’s called You’re History: keep an eye out for it in the coming months because you should absolutely buy it — but reading it really resonated with this listening session.
It’s a book about women in pop music — some of the biggest and most ubiquitous names in pop, in fact — but it deals with their music in a way that focuses on how it feels rather than merely what it’s saying. The book considers the ways that some of the biggest (and even most derided) pop songs have jarring word plays and seem to linguistically express themselves in a way that looks moronic when seen written down. But that’s the fault of how critical faculties, not the songs themselves. These songs are overlooked because we are obsessed with a style of music journalism that is bizarrely obsessed with lyricism over musicality. Instead, You’re History is a book that explores not what words mean but how sounds feel — particularly the sounds of words or, more abstractly, vocalisations — and how the music itself functions, sensually, beyond the rigid hermeneutics of our present Genius.com era.
It’s the sort of sonic analysis that makes the videos on Genius‘ YouTube channel all too easy to ridicule. Their video on The Backpack Kid’s “Flossin'”, for instance, is comical and absurd because its lyrical content is analysed despite their supposedly abject emptiness but, as becomes clear, what makes the song a hit is its embodied quality — its not a poem set to music but a functional accompaniment to a dance move. In that sense, it’s the dance move that is the hit rather than the song — and this is how the Backpack Kid unabashedly frames the song himself when describing how it came to exist.
So, understood from this position — from the perspective of the song’s intended function — it is Genius that looks utterly one-dimensional and lacking rather than the song itself. It’s blinkers are used to comic effect but it’s still blinkered, reflecting the priorities of an industry at large and the priorities it wrongly impresses upon the listening public.
The book considers plenty of songs that are far, far less contentious than this — the above is more useful for demonstrating Genius‘s own straitjacket than anything else — but they are songs that are nonetheless ubiquitous and supposedly lyrically vapid or absurd. (There’s an in depth analysis of Tom Tom Club’s Wordy Rappinghood, for instance, which is just sublime and had me reaching for my copy of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense — the author indirectly articulates that book’s savouring of irrationality in a way that had me grinning from ear to ear.)
At one point, in order to further bolster why the book is written in this way, the author quotes an essay by Mike Powell for Pitchfork on the value of this kind of music criticism. (Not that the book needs to defend itself but appearing, as it does, some way into the book, the quotation serves to drive home just how invigorating and how largely absent this kind of writing is from the canon of music writing.) Powell writes:
Ultimately the way we talk about music doesn’t come down to prescribed terms, but associations, poetics, and the way language has the potential to open music up rather than shut it down. I remember a friend once telling me that a song sounded like braids to her, as in hair. This wasn’t just an unusual thing to say about music, but an observation that tapped into this particular song’s dense, overlapping rhythmic structure without deferring to words like “syncopation” or “staccato.” A few more riffs on the braid metaphor and you’d have what I’d call an insight: A statement that takes something you thought you already understood and makes you see it in a new way.
So little criticism does this. Not just music criticism but criticism of all kinds. It’s the drudgery of what now passes for “Cultural Studies”. Insightful writing should, instead, be a mode of cultural production in its own right, in the sense that it affects you directly rather than simply ordering and describing a cultural artefact based on standardised opinions and technical understandings.
This is precisely what I meant in my recent interview with Music Journalism Insider, when making a comment that a few people have picked up on on Twitter:
Writing biologies instead of biographies of music was meant to be a sly condensation of an argument made in my Quietus essay — “we can understand the difference between hauntology and hauntography as being similar to the difference between biology and biography — one orders and describes the events of a life after the fact; the other is a study of life as it is lived, and all the mechanisms and relations that make it possible” — and this forthcoming book from Repeater has given me an example to point to now that I only wish I’d had at my disposal a few months ago.
All of these seemingly disparate threads come back together for me, forming a braid of their own, when reading D.H. Lawrence under corona quarantine. The function of his writing and the unbound eroticism therein is precisely an attempt to unearth the radical insights of feeling and sensuality in this way — what he refers to explicitly as “tenderness”.
Lacking the textural properties of music, Lawrence uses sex to pull all our focus into how desire feels, but it is simply a means to an end. His writing just as often asks us to think about how relationships feel — both romantic and familial — or how the structures under which we live feel. Desire is not only projected onto an object of desire but is embodied — desire and its lack constitute a tethering, and it is the tethering that Lawrence holds firmly in his grasp. When thinking about the subject-object relation, it is the hyphen that Lawrence stimulates.
I’m particularly enchanted by Mellors’ sensual frustrations in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for instance. In a scene that almost feels comic — it’s the sort of moment of internal tension usually only sated by an angry-dance montage in the movies — Lawrence attempts to describe Mellors’ politically erotic experience of being overcome by a sort of thwarted sexual energy. He’s not horny, exactly — it’s like he feels claustrophobic in his own skin, but he is only made aware of his own interiority in this way because of his capture of capitalist forces. Lawrence writes:
Driven by desire, and by dead of the malevolent Thing outside, he made his round in the wood, slowly, softly. He loved the darkness and folded himself into it. It fitted the turgidity of his desire which, in spite of all, was like a riches: the stirring restlessness of his penis, the stirring fire of his loins! Oh, if only there were other men to be with, to fight that sparkling-electric Thing outside there, to preserve the tenderness of life, the tenderness of women, and the natural riches of desire. If only there were men to fight side by side with! But the men were all outside there, glorifying in the Thing, triumphing or being trodden down in the rush of mechanised greed or of greedy mechanism.
Mellors doesn’t just want to fuck — he wants to fuck up capitalism!
This is how most of Twitter seems to feel right now. Two kinds of tweet jostle for position — “Bring down capitalism!”; “I just want to fuck!”
For Lawrence, these two sentiments aren’t so distinct from one another. This was the function of his writing — a celebration of fucking in all its guises, from sex and violence to revolution and destruction. No dichotomies, no dialectics — just an ever-complicating web of desires.
That’s what I’m really aware of right now under quarantine. The tether between myself and my girlfriend but also the newly strained nature of the tether between myself and everyone else. It’s not one-dimensionally sexual but a sensual complexity. The overbearing cloud of illness drives this home even more. Every hour or so, I pop my head round the bedroom door and ask my girlfriend, “How are you feeling?” I find myself asking this of other people too. Not just “how are you” but how do you feel under the present circumstances — and what is being felt, in every single instance, is the new tension of this tether; the embodied connection between self and other.
It is a tether strummed by other forces the rest of the time but, with those forces abated for the time being, other sensations are emerging. I feel like a spider on a web in a sheltered alcove, each strand connected to someone else in my midst. The slightest breeze will overwhelmingly disturb my present existence. Without such a breeze, however, other tremors are felt even more intensely — tremors from other possible worlds.